IT HAD BEEN long day of walking up and down the narrow streets of this beautiful city and I was tired. I was heading home – to my hotel room – at 4 p.m., a time when most Spanish people were heading back into the streets after the traditional siesta hour. Suddenly, what had been empty streets were filled with throngs of people, tourists and locals alike. I walked down a couple of streets that had been closed of to vehicular traffic and both were wall-to-wall people. A lethargic city had turned into a city filled with vibrancy and energy (maybe this is normal, or maybe it has to do with the giant futbol match this evening between Real Madrid and Barcelona), but I was tired and all I wanted was to figure out a way to make it through the maze of streets to the hotel.
Suddenly, however, above the roar of the crowd and the traffic, I heard the clear and distinctive tinny blare of a mariachi band. It took me by surprise but only until I reminded myself that mariachi music is popular the world over. I moved towards the sound until I found the group, in the middle of the Puerta del Sol plaza.
I stood there, taking in the beautiful and nostalgic sounds and watching the reactions of the people gathered around it. Then I noticed, seated behind the group, an old woman, with a smile on her face and her head nodding slightly to the beat of the tunes. She was neatly dressed, wearing a checkered blue-and-brown coat over a light-blue sweater, and she had a blue-and-white scarf around her neck. Her reddish hair was held back a blue-and-white striped band, exposing her white roots. The band played mostly slow music – waltzes and boleros – but towards the end of their performance, they started a medley of faster-paced favorites. Polkas, mostly.
That was when the woman got up from where she was sitting and began to dance across the plaza, in the semicircle between performers and audience. She danced smoothly and with grace, with an ever-so-slight smile on her face and her head held high, almost defiantly so. Her fingers were wrapped tightly into a fist, as if she were holding on to invisible hand. She danced like a woman who had danced all her life, either with her feet or in her mind, and enjoyed every minute of it. I wondered what memories were going through her mind. Of first boyfriend? Of a husband long dead? Of girlfriends dancing the night away when there were no boyfriends around? Of weddings and other celebrations? Of evenings in clubs, moving across the floor as talented and talentless bands played away?
Whatever it was, the memories were sitting well in her mind, and her mind was telling her to dance. And so she did. She danced through the entire medley and she danced through the final two songs of the mariachi band’s set, and she would have danced the rest of the afternoon had the mariachis not taken a break.
And when the last note had faded into the narrow streets and the crowd expressed its appreciation with applause, she stopped her short walk to take her seat, turned around to face her audience and took an ever-so-slight bow, the smile still on her face.
SCENES SUCH AS this, my friends, are why I love traveling.