At first I didn’t think of going. How to pack everything in a large suitcase? Will there be pickpockets? Will Europe accept this freelance writer? And churches after churches! Eventually I warmed up to the idea. This will make a good story. I could finally see Europe. I might get something out of this.
Because I was part of a tour group, applying for the Schengen visa was quite easy. I went to the visa application center with the group, had my picture and fingerprints taken, and signed the application document that was already filled out. Google Translate, a tablet and data roaming plans make traveling in 2017 easier.
Our tour group consisted of seniors and couples coming from Jakarta, Surabaya, and Makassar, and they wanted an impromptu visit to the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. After passing through Madrid’s main roads, we visited the Royal Palace, just in time for the King Felipe VI to be coming in, so we saw the ceremonial guards dressed in 19th century uniforms.
We spent the night at the Chamartin railway station, and so this is what group tour is about. Checking in at hotel late at night, being dead tired, taking out what you need for the night and tomorrow, packing everything else again, and getting ready to get up at dawn. Day after day.
The next day Mom lost her tour-issued cabin luggage, which she believed was stolen at the station when the porter was busy carrying bags into the hotel. Nothing important there, still, it didn’t make for a good memory. The bus trip from Madrid to Lisbon was seven-hour long and I inwardly groaned when I found that it was filled with prayers, though eventually I got used to it. I sat alone across the aisle from my parents watching downloaded YouTube and HOOQ videos, reading e-books and magazines, and playing PlayStation Vita.
Everyone else said Lisbon is a more colorful city than Madrid, but I was dismayed with the abandoned buildings and graffiti – seemed that the recovery from Euro debt crisis is slower here. Perhaps because for others, Lisbon looked more classical, perhaps, with statues of explorers and churches?
On the third day, we went to Fatima at dawn. The town was very crowded by the time we arrived, but I was surprised that there weren’t many Indonesians around (but flags of East Timor were everywhere). It was estimated that more than half a million people came for the day, and I was pessimistic I could find a spot for the Mass to promote Francesco and Jacinta Marto, who claimed to have communicated with Mary, as saints.
But I found a spot under a tree, two steps in front of other Indonesians, and in the middle of a squabbling Portuguese family. I stood there for three hours while Pope Francis led the Mass in Portuguese. Didn’t understand what was said, but that is the perk of being Catholic – the order of the Mass is always the same worldwide, and you are welcomed to respond, sing, and pray in your own language.
I believe in miracle, divinity, and afterlife. You’ve heard the explanations from superhero movies – next steps in evolution, or greater dimension, or physics yet to be understood. But personally, I’m skeptical that Mary appeared in several Catholic villages in the 19th and the 20th centuries, during the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. Nevertheless, I respect my parents’ faith. Also, Pope Francis is a good man, and, well, the world was united at that place, from Chile to South Korea.
The fatigue set in after the Mass and I got crankier during lunch, especially after other group members made slurs against East Timorese people. That’s rich Chinese-Indonesians talking about NKRI behind Chinese-Timorese backs. Mom warned me against picking fights with others, so I committed to only fighting people who directly attacked me.
I returned early to Lisbon and got myself a nice €10 Chef’s Special (ham, rocket salad, and sun-dried tomato bruschetta) at La Pasta Fresca across the hotel. As I made nice small talks with the waiters, I was reminded that I don’t have communication problem.
Another seven hours’ bus ride, back to Spain, and I’ve got a cold. We stopped at Salamanca, a university town 200 km west of Madrid, to see the twin cathedrals, and we must have wasted too much time there. It’s already night when we reached our stop at Burgos, another university town.
Before continuing our journey, we saw the Burgos cathedral and I thought about how overrated cathedrals are. Grandly made with profits from exploiting America, with money better used to improve social capitals, and were used for centuries to offer false hope to people, while teaching them to blame themselves for institutional faults.
We rode across the Basque Country and went to our next major destination, Lourdes in France, another town where Mary supposedly appeared in 1858. Just when I got the hang of Spanish, I had to deal with Europe’s most unsynchronized language – what is written is so different from what is said. For the next week, however, I would grow loving France while unimpressed with Italy.
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