Spain in my mind: How I survived when my dream vacation turned into a lockdown destination

Published April 6, 2021, 3:48 PM

by Johanna Abdulkadil

It was one fine Friday afternoon, the 13th of March 2020. While it has earned notoriety for bad luck, it was a day that changed my life forever.

That day was a serene yet confusing one as everybody awaited the Philippine government’s announcement of an impending nationwide lockdown. Incidentally, this was also the day of my flight to Spain. Three years of non-stop work took over my life and when I finally got the chance to be away from the hustle and bustle of Manila, I grabbed the opportunity.

The trip took six months to plan and when my scheduled Schengen tourist-visa application result was delivered to me, I got denied by the Spanish Consulate in Manila since I missed two hotel bookings in the Andalusian city of Cordoba and town of Ronda in the province of Malaga, both located in south of Spain.

I didn’t realize that this was the first sign of a series of unfortunate events that were about to unfold in the next two weeks. The only way for my application to be reconsidered is if I to write a letter of appeal to the Spanish Consulate. I immediately contacted one of my friends who spoke fluent Spanish. My friend helped me craft an appeal letter and stated that I had no intention whatsoever to overstay as my family is here in the Philippines and that I had to go back to my work where I was employed for the past three years.

Luckily, after three days, my appeal got reconsidered and that finally I can push through with the trip. Once I had the letter of appeal approved and had the phrase “reconsidered” written on it, I went ahead to book my airfare tickets via Cathay Pacific through Edreams, a third-party e-commerce engine.

A few days after booking it, came another hurdle – due to the COVID-19 and ongoing Hong Kong protests, Filipinos were not allowed to even transit through Hong Kong. The airline company confirmed this through their Facebook page upon my inquiry so I went ahead to contact Edreams to cancel it. Because I bought the ticket via a third-party agent, I only got refunded half of the total amount I paid for. This snag, however, did not stop me from moving forward so I then started scouting for a new airfare ticket and bought a second one via Qatar Airways.

When everybody else was starting to get ready for the impending lockdown, I was getting ready for this dream vacation. The trip took approximately 18 hours and finally I arrived in Madrid.

The Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport exuded a stoic atmosphere with only few arrivals of international visitors. I proceeded to buy the Tarjeta Transporte Publico or the Public Transport Card, which allows anyone to go around the metro. Jumping into the train, it felt surreal that after all the obstacles I encountered just to be able to fly to Spain, I’m now in my dream destination, but with a caveat – there was a sense of knowing that a nationwide lockdown was also about to happen in this country of 50 million people.

It took me one hour to get to my AirBnb accommodation instead of the usual 10-minute ride because I got lost. I cannot speak Spanish so getting around asking for help was more difficult because there were few people in the metro as most Spaniards were already confined in their homes.

The writer in one of Madrid’s empty streets.
The writer at Sol Metro station.

As I reached Puerta del Sol station dragging my heavy luggage, I felt the cold wind as I started to walk near my place of accommodation. It was already 9 a.m. of March 14 and I noticed that most shops and establishments were closed. I rested a bit after checking-in and decided to go out at around 10 a.m. to find a place to dine in. My AirBnb host suggested I could go see the Museo del Prado since it says in their system that it is still open.

Gloomy day at Puerta del Sol, Madrid center. This is considered the most touristy place in Madrid during peak season.
Catedral de la Almudena
San Jerónimo el Real or the St. Jerome the Royal, a 16th-century Roman Catholic church near Museo del Prado.

I’m not good at navigation so I did not notice that two hours had gone by already just walking around Madrid. I realized that most establishments were already closed as this was the first wave of COVID-19 spread in Spain and Madrid, being the capital, was badly hit with a high number of infections. Lo and behold, after only two days of arriving in Spain, its national government declared a national lockdown.

The writer enjoying empty Plaza Mayor all to herself.
Palacio Real de Madrid or the Royal Palace of Madrid

As I sat on the bed watching the news, I wondered how I will be able to move around as a major part of my vacation will be spent in Andalusia, south of Spain. I relaxed and just waited until the next day to re-strategize my itinerary since I had two more days to spend in Madrid.

The next morning, RENFE, Spain’s national train operator made an announcement that it will refund all train tickets bought prior to the lockdown. I hurriedly phoned in to contact the number they had provided but it was unreachable. I decided I should just go find out in person by going to the Madrid Atocha station. As soon as I stepped in, I was awestruck by a lush botanic garden and I had it all to myself.

Puerta de Atocha or the Madrid Atocha Station. This is the largest train station in Madrid built with steel and glass.

Once I entered the ticketing office, one of the train staff who was able to speak in English explained to me that I could buy again another set of train tickets to Seville, which was my first Andalusia stop. I will, however, be just risking myself to be asked by the Spanish police authorities to go back to Madrid. This was already the final hammer to seal my unfortunate experience traveling more than 7,000 miles in a land so foreign to me – that I will be spending the next 13 days in Spain’s city capital with nothing to do but stay put in my apartment with daily afternoon walks to El Corte Inglés Supermarket to buy lunch.

My next few days were spent restlessly just listening to music with television viewing in between just to see what is happening around Spain. While it was a bit boring to say the least, I found joy in solitude. I realized that while I have a career back in the Philippines, Madrid is a liveable city – a place I would actually relocate to if I ever find an opportunity here in the next few years. Even though I was not able to do anything much, I continued wandering around Madrid in and understood deeply why Madrid is a fusion of history and modern living.

Real Jardin Botanico or the Royal Botanical Garden
Empty street in Puerta del Sol.
Teatro Real, also known as El Real, is a major opera house in Madrid.
Empty Gran Via road

As my time in Madrid neared its end, I appreciated the value of traveling alone and how minute the space I occupy in this world. Dare I say – I did fell completely in love with Madrid! It’s the heart of Spain and it cannot get any more Spanish anywhere than here.

While I knew I could just cancel my next stop, I packed my stuff to prepare for my trip to Barcelona. It was a cold day on the 26th of March and it was with a heavy heart when I carried my heavy luggage down from three flights of cranking stairs of the AirBnb accommodation, which I considered my lockdown hotel.

Upon arrival at the airport, there was a very eerie silence since no one was really travelling except me at that time.

I arrived in Barcelona at 8 p.m. and as I walked along the El Prat airport corridor, it became clear to me that this trip was one that will be followed by mundane days ahead. Arriving in Plaza Catalunya where I will be staying at for the next five days was a lot easier since Madrid had given me a prelude of Spain’s cold weather in March.

Empty street in Barcelona.

Stepping out of my apartment once the sun is out the next day, I noticed why this Catalonia capital is considered unequivocally better by tourists and even expatriates. You can pretty much bump into anyone who is able to speak the English language. I was also fascinated by antique streets and quaint buildings, which I only saw on the internet.

While I can still go around and see all other major tourist spots here, I decided to just stay put and was only able to see the Barcelona Cathedral. There I sat the whole morning just pondering about the what-ifs I had in mind had I not decided to leave Manila to travel to Spain.

The facde of the Catedral de la Santa Creu or Barcelona Cathedral.

Days passed and I spent my time in Barcelona just like the rest of the Spanish people – I remained in my apartment. I have resigned from the fact that I will not be able to visit this cosmopolitan city’s famous sites such as the Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, or the Casa Milà. Most days, I just enjoyed the rainy, damp weather. I knew that I will never experience this kind of climate when I am back in Manila so I relished the remaining days I have. I even managed to befriend a golden retriever named Clara near the place I was staying in.

Sunset in Barcelona.

For most people, what I did maybe considered reckless and some will find it incomprehensible. I was very aware of the health risks involved. But I planned this ahead of time and cancelling was just not an option anymore. I challenged myself that I can do something I thought I could never do. Finding myself, understanding my strengths, and learning how to be self-sufficient made me survive this experience in a foreign land. It is a powerful thing to be more introspective about one’s own actions because it allows us to better grasp our experiences.

As my journey came to an end, there were three major things I learned about life – one: sometimes, it’s not so much the destination that matters, but the experience of the unknown. I traveled solo in a faraway land with very basic knowledge of Spanish yet I somehow managed to find my way around. This trip has proven that I am a strong, independent woman.

Second, that you can choose to remain happy and hopeful for brighter things ahead. I know that it sounds cliché but being introspective about one’s own thoughts has helped me control the sadness of not being able to do so much in this beautiful country.

Last, life is so short and there are so many things to see with only one lifetime to live. I knew I gave it my best to enjoy myself during this unbelievably odd situation I was in. There will always be another chance to visit and see this incredible country and when I come back, I would surely dance with you, Spain. Taking chances are one of the most effective actions we can do in our lives. My decision to pursue my Spain trip changed me in ways I would never be able to express with words and I hope that one way or the other, I get to inspire a few people to do what they have to do whenever they have doubts.

I found a way to live the way I want and in a deeper sense, I will forever remember this trip. After all, how many people can truly say that they traveled in the time of corona? I got beautifully lost in this wonderful country and by now, I can say that I’m unequivocally in love with Spain.

Until then, I share a Spanish quote I came across that I hope we all remember to live by:

Que la vida son momentos y los momentos dan vida” – that life is moments and moments give life.