PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Morocco, Day 1

What started with a loose screw ended with a magical encounter with a painting that has long been one of my favorite works of art. So goes the serendipity of travel as I embark on another segment of “Travels with Paula—Moroccan (and unexpectedly Madrid) edition.” (Time to silence my posts if you don’t like my travelogues.)

After getting up at 4:30 a.m., leading two worship services and having brunch with Duncan and Karen in Worcester, Mass., I got to Boston Logan International Airport ready to settle in for a long sleep on the flight to Amsterdam.

However, we ended up taking off over an hour late, thanks to a crew worker who spotted a loose screw on a cargo door. I was grateful he it caught but doubtful I’d make my transfer.

When we landed, I didn’t think it was likely I’d make the flight, especially given the need to go through customs and the fact that the flights were at opposite ends of the airport. But ever the intrepid traveler, I put in the old college try and ALMOST made it. I saw the last people board and the door close from a distance. I felt sorry for the gate workers who were yelled at by the folks who were in my group. The amount of abuse service and airport workers take for following rules that exist for a reason is unconscionable. The behavior of these (thankfully not American) tourists made me resolve to be a positive force in the face of a problem I couldn’t control.

I enjoyed a lovely hot cocoa in the KLM lounge and boarded my flight, which if all went well, MIGHT get me to Madrid in time to catch the plane to Tangier. However, when we also took off late (ironically waiting for two passengers) I knew I had to make other plans.

When we landed in Madrid, I confirmed my suspicions and set about booking a flight on Ryanair that departed at 8 p.m. That left me a 6½-hour layover.

I had two choices; hang out at the Madrid Airport and catch some sleep or take advantage of the chance to see Madrid. After Googling “Things to do during a long layover in Madrid,” determining that the airport was close to the city, and checking to see if there were any issues of unrest or labor issues in Madrid, my answer was obvious. I was going to Madrid.

Armed with a 154-day streak of Spanish Duolingo and what I personally believe are superior skills at charades, I boarded a local bus at the airport and headed to the museum district. I must have looked quite the mess because as soon as I got in the bus, this kind woman leapt out of her seat and let me sit down on the crowded bus rather than stand. I almost cried at her kindness. I needed to sit down.

I knew immediately what I would do — go to the Museo Reine Sophia Art Museum, which is known for it’s stellar collection of  Cubism, Surrealism and Dada Art with large collections of Dali, Picasso and Miro. As a huge fan of these and other styles of Modern Art, it was a no-brainer.

But the real draw was “Guernica,” the massive anti-war piece Picasso did in response to the  1937 bombing of Guernica, a town in the Basque Country in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.

Ever since I first studied this painting in an intro to Art History course I took at Wash U my sophomore year, I have been mesmerized by this painting. It internalized for me depiction of the senselessness of the destruction caused by war and the chaos it creates. Standing in front of if just staring at the raw emotional power it conveyed was one of the most incredible artistic encounters in my life. And all because of a loose screw!

I also loved the other works in the amazing space and once I was done, I headed to the museum restaurant for some tapas. (Travel hack — museums usually have exceedingly good dining.) On my walk back to the bus, I grabbed a churro and hot melted chocolate dip, grabbing as much as I could out of Madrid in a short time.

Although it was a short trip to Madrid, two things struck me. First, I was surprised how few people spoke English. Maybe I had a small sample set, but I found myself using my VERY limited vocabulary more than I expected. (I was impressed how much of what I learned in Duolingo was actually useful for travel.) The other thing I noticed was how lovely everyone I encountered was. They truly had an open, receptive and accepting vibe. Probably the friendliest metropolitan city I’ve even been in Europe, it definitely made me want to return.

I successfully navigated my way back and easily made my flight to Tangier, and as I write this I am about to land and head to our Riad, where Gretchen, Johanna and Gretchen’s friend, Martha, await. The plan is to greet them quickly and collapse in bed so I’m ready for our adventures in Morocco.

Today was a perfect example of how you can take what doesn’t work out the way you planned and turn a loose screw into an unforgettable opportunity.

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