the road to mag+s

2:45 PM

I didn’t know what to expect but it certainly wasn’t that.

The plane was finally descending toward Aeropuerto Internacional de Madrid – Barajas when I gave in to my impatience and took my first peek of Spain. The original plan was to wait until my own two feet were on the ground and carrying me out of the terminal; I would step through the sliding doors, feast my eyes on the entirely new landscape, and have the warm Spanish summer awash me while Placido Domingo sings Puccini in the background.

But all that was chucked out at several thousand feet above sea level as the need to see a patch of (to my time-warped mind) imperial Spain became too intense to rein in. Blame it on the countless stories of oppression by the Spanish Conquistadores drilled into my brain by history and Filipino literature teachers. My relatively-decent EQ didn’t stand a chance.

I leaned towards the burly elderly Spaniard who sat next to me since the layover at Doha and looked through the window – undulating golden hills that were occasionally punctuated by clumps of green.

The scene was straight out of a movie or an oil painting, and was completely foreign to my eyes. Only once have I seen a sea of gold - in Melbourne, where it was flat and still. But this, my very first image of Spain, was ripples of amber. Since then, I kept to the visions of art flashing through the tiny porthole. And a few more minutes into the show, the airport finally came into view.

The Aeropuerto Internacional de Madrid-Barajas terminal four is a must-see for me as much as Madrid’s Plaza Mayor or Palacio Real. Travel magazines have reported that this glass, steel, and bamboo structure wowed everyone when it opened its doors in 2006. So much so that it won the Stirling Prize for architecture. And for someone who finds airports to be one of the most magical places on the planet, I expected to be floored by it.

We finally made touchdown and, much to my utter disappointment, were directed to terminal one to disembark.

As I and the rest of the pilgrims from the Ateneo de Manila to the 2011 Jornada Mundial de la Juventud (JMJ) Madrid pushed our trolleys out of the arrival section, we were greeted by men in red polo shirts, wearing excitement and bright smiles that remind me of theme park attendants. They introduced themselves as Jesuits of Mag+s Spain and our host for the entire duration of the 2011 JMJ.

After some hand-shaking and small talk, we were ushered to the loading bay where the airport bus would whisk us to terminal four. The bus to Loyola will be there waiting for us in two hours. It seemed that I was about to be granted my wish after all.

From the motorway, I hoped to catch a glimpse of Madrid. Who are you, Madrid? How do you look? The bus climbed to take a right turn and then like they do so well in the movies, four skyscrapers started to rise out of the horizon. Followed by…. nothing else. Were we too far from the city to see anything but those? Or were they the only tall structure in the city? If that was so, then what kind of a capital is Madrid?

Terminal four looked exactly how it did in the pictures - bright, airy, and sleek. It says to the first-time visitor, ‘Welcome to Spain. We live in the 21st century.’ It was everything I expected. And the problem, I think, was just that. Though the architecture was superb, it didn’t feel like I flew 18 hours to get to Europe. Instead, it felt like I was in one of Asia-Pacific’s major airports. (Then again, that’s just me. I could’ve been hallucinating for all I know. The cabin air must have done something to some of the neurons and synapses in my brain.)

seems to me a cross between the Southern Cross station in Melbourne and the Pudong airport in Shanghai

interior bathed in natural light.

Celina, a former student of mine, with her charming pixie hair
queuing to get on the bus that would take us to Loyola

We then spotted a constant in most of the major transport hubs in the free world – the unmistakable McDonald’s sign. Most of the group decided to have lunch there. I, on the other hand, refused to spend my money on what was going to be my very first meal in Spain on a value meal. So instead, I fished out a granola bar from my bag.

At the airport, we met an American named Sal and his sister and later on, a group of Italian boys. They were all heading to Loyola, just like us, to take part in Mag+s. And we all ended up riding the same bus.

fr. tony and kai. that's our group seated all the way to the back of the bus. 
The drive was eight-hours long and the terrain was diverse as the empire’s former colonies. Golden undulating hills occasionally yield fields of solar panels, windmills, and sunflowers. Patches of the motorway were carved right through red mountains. Gray rocky mountain ranges loom over the horizon. Every so often, I would wonder: Did Rizal see this? How did the illustrados find this completely foreign scenery?

the sight of sunflowers made that particular summer day a lot more pleasant.

peppered throughout the motorway, the iconic bull reminds visitors that they are indeed in Spain.

made an hour-long stopover at Lerma

 gate to the old city of Lerma

If not for the cars, i would've thought i was thrown back in time.

 The landscape slowly turned to green and signaled our arrival in the north. Thick forests became backdrops to Swiss chalet-like houses and rain became our constant companion as we wound our way through the mountains.

 the landscape to the north: sunflowers, fields, and rocky mountains

with my seatmate, Katsy

By this time, we’ve been traveling for more than twenty-four hours. We were wrinkled, restless, and hungry. It seemed like Loyola was at the other end of the world and we’re not fated to reach it in this lifetime. Then suddenly, we spotted a banner that spelled out the word Mag+s. And just like that, we were finally there.

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