My head turned toward the source of the scratchy falsetto. A guy in camouflage cargo-pants strummed Radiohead on an acoustic guitar. He lacked Thom Yorke’s tune and range, but the harried commuters rewarded the performer’s sincerity by tossing coins into a dusty cap at his feet.
I looked for an exit but saw only more frazzled faces, belonging to people who scurried up and down stairs, toward the metro entrance or into a bright bar with a glass windowpane. The chaotic scene spun my head to an acoustic rendition of the song Karma Police until my eyes latched onto a bronze sign that said, “Las Ramblas.”
As an escalator took me above ground, sunlight moved from my hand to my forearm, resting on the moving handrail. The jolt that preceded a grand entrance pulsed through my veins when the murky subterranean light lifted in its entirety. A steady stream of conversations in different foreign languages grew from a murmur to a cacophony. By the time I reached street level and stepped off the mechanical stairs, I couldn’t even hear the deep breath I took. But I could still see and my neck craned as I gazed at elegant stone buildings with black iron balconies, glistening in the late morning sun.
The glare stung my eyes. I blinked and lowered my sights. Camouflage-colored tree trunks with spindly branches and green leaves shaded a pedestrian promenade. One-way streets on either side buzzed as if they were avenues from the volume of scooters, buses and cars. The sandy pavement beneath my feet was solid, but gave the optical illusion of walking on waves, which was appropriate, because it was the only word to describe the situation.
The first wave of tourists crashed into my shoulders on their way to the metro station’s escalators and steps. Other visitors knocked into my back as they rushed to join the sea of people, stretching as far as the horizon. Unable to get my bearings, I felt the undertow of the crowd sweep me away, taking my flailing body down one of the 100-places you had to visit before you died, according to a popular Facebook app.
The drowning sensation ebbed and I caught my first breath as I passed a man covered in thick white paint. He sat completely motionless on a toilet atop a wooden box. The humidity leaked through my clothes and latched to my skin, like droplet-sized leeches which fed on life energy, not blood. How the hell was he not sweating enough for his costume to melt?
I had no time to stop and ponder whether the locals might have a heat resistant gene. A new tide of people carried me forward. Chirps and whistles from the blue stands selling caged animals pierced the blend of babbling conversations and stop-and-go traffic. My nose wiggled to sooth an itch from the pollen of blooming flowers on florists’ shelves while my eyes watched artists sketch cartoon faces and celebrity portraits.
Amid this medley of sights, smells and sounds, I spotted a familiar image. In the window of a red kiosk was a poster of a black and white donkey. I wondered whether the animal’s popularity had anything to do with the locals preferring Democrats to Republicans. The more I thought about it the more I didn’t like that theory. Why would Barcelona’s residents publicly support a US political party? They had their own, right? There had to be another reason behind the ass’s importance to the Spanish.
I needed to pause and slow my overstimulated, jet-lagged mind. I stood on my toes to see where Las Ramblas ended. It didn’t. There was nothing but wavy lines of tourists, vendor stands, human statues and trees, for what seemed like miles into the distance. To my left, past the one-way street flanking the promenade, I spied a sign in a restaurant window, pitching typical Spanish food and air-conditioning.