There’s this tiny windmill statue on my bookcase, a tacky tourist replica of Cervantes’ inspiration for Don Quixote’s adventures. It’s placed there, in the front of my living room where I’m forced to look at it every day, with careful intention.
At age 16, I scribbled a list of mostly dumb life goals on the pages of a brown journal. In pencil it said “travel alone in a country where you don’t speak the language.” It seemed impossible, so dangerous, so brave. It took 9 years to get over that fear, when a standing invitation from a friend in Madrid and a tax refund check met for the first time.
My six years of Spanish classes were not enough for any sort of cohesive travel plan. Madrid was to be my base, from there I’d travel to Consuegra, a 12th century town in La Mancha where a hill crested with windmills is believed to have been one of the locations inspiring Cervantes to write Don Quixote. There was very little information available online, and nothing save a casual mention of the town’s existence in a few guidebooks. I bought a bus ticket, I think, from a Spanish Web site and stashed in the Important Folder of Documents that I would later leave on the plane.
The night before I left Madrid for Consuegra, I pulled out a giant metro map and studied carefully. Even getting to the bus station on the other side of the city was going to be a challenge. Surviving the three train transfers unscathed, I took to walking in a direction that looked like somewhere a train station might be, noting how strangely the situation, locale and language barriers resembled another time I was lost, looking for a bus stop in Brooklyn, with a heavy backpack and blistered feet.
“Perdoname, senorita. Buscando por,”
Shit. I think. Is it por or para? I never could remember this. Oh well, no matter. You’ve already committed.
“Buscando por el estacion del autobus.”
She says something I half understand and points. I thank her and keep walking.
I eventually found the bus station and through the combined vocabulary of 25 words, bought a bus ticket from a dour middle-aged man behind the counter. I have no idea what time the bus returns from Consuegra, or if I even bought a return ticket. I have no idea where the bus even departs from, or, if we’re being honest, where Consuegra even is.
My plan was simple, I’d get on every single bus and ask “Es correcto?” until I found the right one. Like they say, the 20th bus is a charm. Maybe. 30 minutes into the drive, panic sets in. We were stopping in towns I didn’t know the name of, and the bus driver never makes a point to tell us.
Shit, I think again. I find myself thinking this a lot. I’m on the wrong bus. I’m going to get stranded in the middle of La Mancha, only Don Quixote won’t be here to save me, and he probably doesn’t speak English anyway and everyone knows Sancho Panza is a terrible translator.
I pop up a seat and ask the elderly man in front me “Donde esta Consuegra?” in my best, most rehearsed Spanish. He briefly glances up from his newspaper, gives me a once over and says, as if we were practicing canned responses in 10th grade, “No se.” He motions to the bus driver and goes back to his paper.
Yup. Doomed. Are there hotels out here in these fields, someone who will let me use a phone? Who would I even call? Should I just get off the bus now and hitchhike back to Madrid? I’m going to die in a field in Spain, which, all things considered wouldn’t be the worst way to go. At least there are olives. Yes, I’m going to die surrounded by olives.
An hour later, somewhere in the Spanish countryside, I see Consuegra castle and what appear to be a handful of tiny windmills on the crest. Relieved, I hop up a few more seats to the front of the bus. The bus driver stops on the side of the road, turns to me, and says four words: “Hey. Lady. Tourist. Here.”
My abundant anxiety was apparently more pronounced than my improperly accented vowels.
The path to the windmills isn’t clear. In fact, there are no signs at all. I walk through a narrow road into the town, under a giant arch and clock tower. I pass two old men and a cat, the only living creatures I’d see for several hours. Consuegra is a ghost town.
I keep walking. There’s a handpainted sign with an arrow and, anxiety finally subsiding, I acknowledge there’s a slight chance I’m being led to my death but ultimately decide I’m on the right path. I keep walking through cobblestone roads wide enough for just one car, between crumbling buildings 400 years old. Up a giant, fantastically steep flight of stairs straight up the side of mountain. Then, up more stairs. Then, even more. I’ve spotted the first windmill. No more stairs, now, but a two mile hike. Okay, I can do this.
My delusions of speaking Spanish well enough to get by were about as giant as Quixote thought these very windmills to be. I’m alone on a mountain in Spain, ill-prepared and cold, on all fours attempting to climb up the edge of a very steep cliff leading to some castle ruins. This, I think, is possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
The altitude is getting to me. Or maybe it’s the 50mph wind. Or maybe it’s the single cup of coffee sustaining me. Whatever it is, I brace myself against a 12th Century windmill that inspired one of the greatest literary masterpieces, a work that so profoundly touched me when I read it the first time I came all the way to Spain, alone, to fight windmills for myself. I’m hundreds of feet above the red roofs of La Mancha villages. I’m eye level with mountains and clouds. I’m finally alone in a country where I don’t speak the language. Not only alone in that no one is traveling with me, but literally alone. There’s no one here.
Inspired half by the power of my mountain top epiphany and half by the cold gust of wind that knocks me back to the ground, I scream a half victorious/half frozen scream before realizing I’ve been joined on the mountain by an elderly German couple and a group of French school kids.
Halfway back down I stop in a small 18th century Catholic church, with centuries old wooden pews, a gold altar, and a Plexiglas box of coin-operated fake candles. Still alone, I make an offering to St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, storms, toothaches, and epilepsy, and continue back down the hill.
The main drag into and out of town is 50 yards long, tops, and is home to what I gather is the town’s only tacky tourist/bulk candy/scarf store. An elderly Chinese woman who speaks no English and very little Spanish comes in from the backroom.
I buy a bottle of water and point to the tiny windmills in a glass case.
“Dos, um, windmills? Por favor.”
“Windmills?!” I say, making my arms windmill blades in “I’m a little teapot” fashion.
“Ah! Molinos! Dos molinos?”
“Si! Monlinos pequenos!”
She says something I don’t understand.
I furrow my brow and make a distinctly American face, much like a deer who lived comfortably only ever having to make or listen to deer sounds, now standing in the middle of a 12th Century road with the oncoming whirr of an engine. Squinty eyes, head slightly cocked to one side. It’s American for “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re saying.”
She slows down and asks again, in Spanish. “How many people? Like, one, two, three,” holding up her fingers to make sure I knew she was counting.
How many people? I realize what she’s saying. I’m a woman alone, two hours from Madrid and seven from Barcelona. The town draws some intrepid tourists, but usually by bus tour and usually for festivals, maybe a school group or two, maybe even an elderly German couple, but apparently not a woman alone. She’s asking if I’m traveling alone.
“Solamente mi.” Only me. It sounded so much better in Spanish in a tacky tourist/bulk candy/scarf shop in middle of nowhere, Spain. Back home “only me” is akin to “table for one.” It means lonely, and lonely means sad. But more than that, traveling alone means danger. We’ve done an excellent job of discouraging women from being alone, lest they be judged harshly by a jury of their more sociable peers or risk harm to their safety. But alone on a mountaintop in Spain, I’ve never felt more connected.
“Que valiente!” She declares. How brave. Here, in Spain, solamente mi means brave.
She points to the cut on my hand with concern. It looks bad, I try to say, but really it’s fine. It’s nothing. She makes the gesture of pulling a band-aid off and runs to the back, returning with a box of bandages. She takes my hand, and wraps the bandage around my hand like I’ve been fiercely injured while fighting windmills. Serious first aid for what is slightly more than a paper cut.
“Para,” or maybe she said por, I never could remember these things, “la chica valiente.” For the brave girl.
Lacking the vocabulary to express my gratitude, I clasp my hands to my heart and say simply, “Gracias,” paying careful attention to lisp my c in true Spanish fashion. In a Spanish tourist shop, in a language somewhere between Chinese and English, “woman traveling alone” translates roughly to “brave girls get taken care of by strangers,” and this is a language I love.