España Update 7 ~ Departing Spain

Everybody has a story to share about their travels—some comedic, frustrating, or scary. My return flights from Spain to Seattle, 3 flights covering 25 hours of travel, were plum with anecdotes to blog about.  One month after my return home, I’m ready to tell mine, and in hindsight, can chuckle just a little.

In comparison, my flights to Spain 6 weeks prior were very uneventful. I only had one layover and it was on American soil, so I was familiar with navigating U.S. airports, etc.  I was also met at Barajas Airport in Madrid by my Spanish family.  The language difference never really surfaced.  There were no stories to tell, only excitement to share and jetlag to overcome as I lived out my longest day and started my Spanish adventure.

Farewell Mallorca, Spain, my home for 2.5 weeks, summer 2013.

Farewell Mallorca, Spain, my home for 2.5 weeks, summer 2013.

The Best Laid Plans

The first leg of my travel home to America was an early morning one-hour flight from Palma, Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, to Barajas Airport in Madrid.  It was a separate ticket from the roundtrip international portion of my itinerary.  That meant I had to physically claim my baggage and re-check it to the U.S., not something I was looking forward to doing alone.  I made plans to meet up with Victor, another Spanish exchange student, for help, and to reconnect since our last meeting three years ago in Seattle.

Determining a place to meet was one of the comical parts of my journey and opened my eyes to the differences with traveling abroad.  In a text conversation with Victor, I indicated I needed help with my baggage and requested that he meet me at the baggage carousel for my flight from Mallorca.  He told me he wasn’t allowed in that area of the airport.  I thought he didn’t understand my request and asked Pedro to explain where to meet.  In the end, I was the one who didn’t understand as the baggage claim area is a secured area in Barajas Airport, unlike in America.  So I had to initially claim my baggage, nearly 100 pounds of it, on my own.

Squeaking by the 23 kg weight limit with my luggage.

Squeaking by the 23 kg weight limit with my luggage.

A Scary Situation

With my bags in hand at Barajas, I patiently waited for Victor to show.  That was when my trip turned ‘interesting’.  While sitting outside the baggage claim area, a man walked up beside me and, without a word, laid down a backpack next to my luggage.  I watched in shock as he hurried off in another direction not looking back.  I realized immediately this was a safety concern.  However, being in a foreign country, and barely able to speak the language, I didn’t know how to report it.  Luckily others noticed it and called security.

I was long gone by the time security arrived.  I had already eaten up a lot of my layover time waiting for Victor and so I quickly turned my attention to getting to my next flight—praying as I rushed from the terminal dragging my luggage behind me.  I never connected with Victor, later hearing that his phone died and he couldn’t contact me.

While I was a bit fearful about the bomb threat, I was reminded that if I died in that moment that God had answered a prayer I’d had for the last three years—let me see Spain before I die.  Somehow that was comforting to me.  I never heard anything about that mysterious package on the news or while traveling.

A comedic moment, spying the overflowing pile of water bottles at the security checkpoint.

A comedic moment, spying the overflowing pile of water bottles at the security checkpoint.

Navigating Barajas Alone

With no personal Spanish translator, except my phone app, I began texting Rafa, Pedro’s father, for help along the way and keeping him posted on my status.  They had warned me that T4, the international terminal, was a long distance from T2, the terminal where my Mallorca flight landed.  I didn’t realize until I was on site that meant actually riding an airport shuttle bus.  I dragged my luggage onto the standing room only bus to T4, a few miles away along the highway.

Checking in at the Barajas main terminal was another learning experience.  Pedro and Rosa helped me at Palma, but now I was alone.  I asked each airline worker or friendly looking traveler within earshot, “habla Inglés?”

Since I had my boarding pass for my flight to New York, I was directed to a self-service kiosk to check in my luggage.  That kiosk spit out my luggage tags.  Then I had go to another line to actually deliver my baggage and send it on its way.  It was in that line that I met my first Americans.  What a relief!  We shared a few pleasantries and our itineraries.  Then they graciously took my photo—the last one on Spanish soil.

Navigating Barajas Airport on my own with 100 lbs. of luggage.

Navigating Barajas Airport on my own with 100 lbs. of luggage.

Security Checkpoint and Boarding

With my baggage out of my hands, I headed to security, which is less restrictive than American TSA rules—no removal of shoes, no dealing with plastic zip-lock baggies, and no x-ray body scans.  However, they were a lot more thorough with their baggage search—or at least it seemed that way as they took a lot of time with the x-ray machine and going through the carry-ons.  I had also heard other travelers mention a worldwide security alert was issued for air travel the previous day, so that could have been the reason.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Barajas is a huge airport.  It is the 4th busiest one in Europe.  That became very apparent to me on the way to my gate (puerta).  Shortly after leaving the security line area, I saw signs that gave estimates of the amount of time to get to the gates.  Mine read 22 minutes!  Yikes, I thought as I realized the flight was boarding soon.  My 3-hour layover had whittled away to nothing.  My laptop bag grew very heavy as I continued on multiple escalators, moving walkways, and a tram to reach my gate, naturally at the end of the terminal.  The timed signs were actually quite handy as they decreased in value along the way, but the initial estimate was a bit alarming.  I virtually walked right onto the plane with no waiting.

Travel times from the main terminal to outlying gates were posted on overhead signs.

Travel times from the main terminal to outlying gates were posted on overhead signs.

Adios España

As I settled in to my window seat and watched the landscape of Spain soar by below, I was filled with many mixed emotions.  I missed my American family.  After 6 weeks in Spain, I was ready to go home.  My trip of a lifetime was ending.  I didn’t know when or how I would ever return to Spain or physically see my Spanish family again (and still don’t).  It is an uncertainty and pang of the heart that I live with daily and trust God to lead me back in His timing.

My final hours and minutes on Spanish soil were scary and stressed.  The late night before, lack of sleep, and early morning were all starting to catch up with me.  It was early afternoon.  I still had 18 hours of travel ahead of me.

Farewell Madrid, my home for 3.5 weeks, summer 2013. I miss you already.

Farewell Madrid, my home for 3.5 weeks, summer 2013. I miss you already

Re-entry to America was anything but fun.  You can read about my remaining flights home on my next update in this series.

What’s your most memorable travel story?  Feel free to share it in the comments below.

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