She looked at me as if she wasn’t sure what I was asking. I waited, my pulse continuing to rise. Her hand rose slowly toward the train map, moving through dappled shadow and light of the Madrid morning, then veered to the left, coming to rest on our location.
I closed my eyes, and exhaled while my stomach sank. I was lost, again.
I used to have a pretty strong sense of direction. I moved effortlessly. I could remember streets by their feel, the dimensions of buildings, names of stores. I don’t know where it went. Chalk it up to age, patience, distraction. The loss is strange because I still love looking at maps. They can be of anything – parks, highways, cities I’ve never seen. I even like books with maps on the inside covers.
My navigation is especially poor when I am travelling, although language is partly to blame. I am constantly rehearsing verbs and phrases, not fully focused on routes.
Daydreaming and looking out of the window on a train, while two of my favorite parts of a trip, can be extremely problematic. I get absorbed in the landscape, start writing, and miss a station. Or I’m walking along looking around engrossed and miss a turn.
Earlier in this trip, I had gone to Granada and visited the Alhambra. That required a train-bus combination ticket. After a cold start to the trip, the sun emerged onto the Spanish countryside as the train headed south. The clouds thinned and the sun fell on crops and trotting sheep. Idyllic, stunning.
At a station in the middle of farms, a number of people got off the train. It was a long stop at the station. I remained, until I glanced down at the guidebook and was reminded of the transfer mid-route. I then noticed the two large buses outside the otherwise empty parking lot of the station at Antequera. I grabbed my bags and raced down the aisle and out onto the landing. I was sitting on the train with the guidebook in my hand and still nearly missed the stop.
There is usually a subtle clue, something that nudges my unconscious, letting me know that something is not right. Earlier, it was the length of the stop and the presence of the buses. Today, it was shadows.
I boarded this train downtown and headed for the airport, northeast of the city center. The shadows fell across my left side as the train set out. The train emerged onto a wide industrial expanse. I looked out onto graffitied buildings, beautiful scripts and designs on the sides of the buildings.
Shortly after, I noticed that the light had changed. The sun was now behind the train, my body in shadow. I looked around the car. No one had luggage except for me. Everyone was carrying at most a purse or backpack. These people were locals, not other tourists. The car was mostly empty. This train was not going to the airport. I stood and asked one woman if the train went to the airport. She shook her head.
I exited at the next stop. My heart beat loudly in my throat. I dragged my bag out of the car. The weight of the suitcase strained my shoulder. I didn’t really feel it, my body flooded with adrenaline. I lugged it upstairs and across to the opposite platform, now facing the direction I had come from.
I approached a woman who was standing near the train map. She was around 25 with a pleasant face. I asked her “Donde estamos?” Where are we?
She looked at me, her eyes registering confusion, possibly mild alarm. In her defense, I probably looked a little manic at that point. She lifted her right hand. Her finger moved across the map, past Atocha, where I’d come in from Toledo that morning, past Nuevos Ministerios, the connecting line to the airport, and then to the left, several stops westward, where it stopped.
My heart sank. I needed to change trains. I missed the stop and now needed to backtrack. I thanked her.
I stood in the shade of the platform and waited for the eastbound train. I had been traveling by myself for over a week at this point, but there was something different about it now. I felt chilly, despite the emerging sun. It was not having words to describe the situation, not knowing anyone, knowing where I was and knowing that it was the wrong place, knowing that the clock was ticking and knowing that the plane was leaving. With minutes dwindling in the trip, I felt utterly alone.