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Tallying Close Encounters of the Memorable Kind

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 34: SPAIN * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

October 01, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

GRANADA, Spain — I was excited to see the Alhambra again. When I toured the Moorish fortress-palace complex here in 1991, it became my favorite site in the world. Not until my recent return visit did I realize I had forgotten what the Alhambra looked like.

My enduring memory of that first trip to this city in southern Spain is of my traveling companions: John, from England, and Karen, from Canada. We had met on a train the day before, each boarding at a different stop, each heading for Granada and a peek at one of Islam's great works of architecture.

John carried a pair of skis, an oddity on the dry Andalusian plains. He was returning from a fruitless search for October snow in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The three of us shared a hotel room, a couple of meals and a lot of laughs. We parted less than 24 hours later. Whenever I've fondly recalled the Alhambra, I've really been remembering the good time I had with John and Karen. I'd recognize them anywhere, but I couldn't pick out the architectural jewel we strolled through from a one-postcard lineup.

As Andrea and I have wandered the world, we've toured countless castles, cathedrals, temples and ruins. Yet my memory of these historic sticks and stones somehow grows fuzzy before I even toss the ticket stubs. The pictures I instead paste into my mental photo album are of the people we encounter at these sites. The edifices may fade, but the faces linger.

The most stunning site so far on this journey is the group of temples at Angkor, Cambodia, built by the Khmer civilization between the ninth and 13th centuries. Already the awesome and eerie structures have blurred in my brain, but I vividly recall our guide, Phirum Proeun, an articulate and engaging man with a quick smile.

We were in Angkor Wat, the grandest temple, when I asked about his family. He told us his father was a provincial army leader killed in 1975 by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Proeun chopped his neck with his hand to show how and let out a nervous chuckle. It's an image I'm unlikely to forget.

The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous spots in the world, but our visit there was eclipsed by a brief exchange outside with an elegant Indian woman. Andrea and I were standing near the reflecting pool when the woman offered to take our picture. She was a businesswoman who had met President Clinton on his stop in Agra, India, a day earlier. The captivating woman shared her passion for the Taj with us and suggested other sites. It was refreshing to speak with someone who wasn't trying to sell us something, and she was one of the few women we met during a month in India. The Taj was a bit of a letdown, and I was sorry the woman was gone when we came out.

My pattern of drawing blanks on famous buildings while fixing on the people who frequent them is nothing new. I've been to the Louvre in Paris twice, but I doubt I could tell it from the Palace of Versailles. Andrea and I last toured the great museum three years ago, on a November weekday morning. The doors had just opened, and we found ourselves standing alone before the Mona Lisa. Suddenly two young, presumably American, women rushed up, as if on roller skates. They had big hair, frosted lipstick, nails out to here and coats with fake fur-fringed hoods. They paused long enough to each squeeze off a photo of the painting with their matching yellow disposable cameras. Then they bolted from the ornate room all shrieks and giggles, bubble-gum breath wafting behind. Ever since, it's been impossible to hear of the Louvre and not picture those women.

We briefly returned to France on this journey. After Spanish language school, we met my sister, Debbie, in Bilbao driving through the Basque country and the Pyrenees. One day we made a wrong turn and ended up in Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to St. Bernadette 18 times.

I was unimpressed by the church but taken by the stream of mainly infirm and aged faithful who venture there to douse themselves with water from the reputedly healing sacred spring. We were walking down a steep concrete ramp when I heard what I mistook as a yell of pure ecstasy. The old woman went by us in a flash, her wheelchair hurtling down the ramp, an even older woman desperately clinging to the handle grips, sprinting to keep up in high-heeled shoes. I saw the tragedy before it happened, but at the last instant the wheelchair inexplicably turned left and halted. Had we witnessed the unseen hand of St. Bernadette? Who knows? But it will be a miracle if I ever erase that scene from my mind.

My favorite image thus far came in Nepal. We took a taxi from Katmandu to the nearby town of Patan to see a temple. In the shadow of the crumbling temple, two boys played table tennis on a cement table painted green. Instead of a net, they hit the ball back and forth over a line of bricks laid end to end. I don't recall the name of the temple or whether it was Hindu or Buddhist, but my mental snapshot of the boys and their ingeniously improvised net will stay with me forever. That's how I travel: I forget the buildings but remember the bricks.

NEXT WEEK: Taken for a (carpet) ride in Morocco.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on the Times' web site at

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