I targeted Barcelona ten months back. I was going. The RAUXA cultural program of the XIV International AIDS Conference would be the place to connect with other artists doing things like I was, writing songs and stories around matters of HIV and AIDS. I wanted the experience, I wanted to hear other voices from other worlds, to be told what they wanted me to carry home and be soaked in a way that I might continue to learn and understand why I did what I did. RAUXA, a Catalan word for “the capacity of creativity”, wanted that we, the artists, performers, thinkers and writers “flood the city with the power and creativity which comes from the heart, what it means to coexist, survive and die of AIDS and break down the barriers of indifference in the face of AIDS”. The flood in the city however, turned out to be merely light summer rain but the personal experiences of my two weeks in Barcelona flooded me in ways that still flow out of me.
How I get there in the end amazes me but reaffirms that this gig had my name on it. I was meant to go.
My application to perform as part of the cultural program is selected and I receive an official invitation but no offer of financial assistance. They encourage me to gain the funds in Australia; funds that aren’t available. I tell them our government doesn’t have much of a commitment to funding art in HIV and AIDS. The convenor assures me she has ways of getting me there and I assure her that I am going to be there. I eventually receive a letter from her that my application for financial support to perform at RAUXA has been successful and that I will be hearing from them again soon, ‘to finalise the details’. Yes! I’m going! But I receive no further details or any response to my emails enticing the offer that she’s swung in my face. My next contact with the convenor is face to face in Barcelona. When I see the drop in her face as she reads my nametag, I say to her, “I told you I was coming”. She hadn’t believed me.
Seven days short of my departure I’m going to Barcelona with a passport ready and a house and dog organised but with no ticket to get there or any accommodation. I get a phone call. An Australian organisation I’d approached for funding offers me what is needed. A delegate of theirs is sick and unable to attend the conference and an offer to the next in line is not accepted. Would I like to go to Barcelona? It came to me and I graciously and immediately accepted.
Landing in Barcelona on a Friday morning two days ahead of the conference with a couple of hours sleep and only a few clues as to where I’m staying gathered in the haste of my departure, I go in search of my accommodation. It’s a strange address that I’m looking for, ‘La Ramblas, 6 La Ramblas’. I’ve been told that I’d be sharing an apartment with several other Australian delegates, at least one of them I thought might have been on my flight and would know more about where I was staying. At Frankfurt Airport I met up with two Australians going to the conference but they weren’t in the party I was joining. We did however share the experience of our entire luggage, including my guitar, being left in Frankfurt and not arriving in Barcelona till the last flight that evening. This would turn out to be a blessing for me.
The address I’m looking for, what I expect to be tourist apartments is a locked door in a wall on La Ramblas, the busy tourist strip of Barcelona; a little like Circular Quay and a lot like Kings Cross; buskers, beggars, rip-off tourist shops and expensive food. The street number is right but there is no reception, just a locked door and a set of buzzers on a wall. I try all the buzzers once, tell them my name but everyone speaks Spanish at me and no one lets me in. This is a private building says the woman selling jewellery from a window in the stairwell. She understands a little of the language that I force on her. “Una apartamento”, she said, ”tourista”. One apartment was for tourists but she doesn’t know which one.
Maybe it was the wrong building, so I start doing the rounds of every premises on the strip that offers apartment accommodation and has “La Ramblas” in its name. I quote my name at the desk, other names I think might be in the party and the names of any Australian AIDS organisations that I can think of to see if there is a booking for me somewhere. I start to feel the need to find someone who can just help me. I also discover in the process that 20,000 conference delegates along with Europeans on summer vacation have booked out Barcelona for the week.
I’m wearing my winter clothes from Sydney, a long sleeved thick t-shirt, jeans and jacket and boots and socks that I’d put on well over twenty four hours ago. The clothes I want to change into are in Frankfurt. As I move with the morning I get my first taste of Barcelona’s vicious midday heat. While the city quietens for siesta I go about it all the wrong way, rushing around everywhere, working up a good sweat that starts dripping through my long hair leaving it lank and drawing attention to me.
Landing in a foreign city with a different tongue takes a whole lot of getting used to. Maps don’t mean a lot when you don’t have a point of reference. Things and places that I need to find like public toilets that don’t exist become a painful nightmare and how do you work the fucking phones!
It’s Saturday in Australia, the office numbers I know back home aren’t of any use. I decide to head for wherever it is that the AIDS conference is being held. I know that “AIDS” in Spanish is “SIDA”. I‘m walking around asking people not even a proper question just looking lost and saying “SIDA congress?” People must have thought that I was either suffering from the disease and disconnected from me very quickly or got the point that I was lost and knew that this conference was on in their city. But their directions didn’t mean a lot to me in Spanish so I just went from one person’s finger point to the next. Well over an hour later for what could have been a ten minute ride on the Metro system that I didn’t know how to use yet, I get to ‘the place of many banners’.
I hope desperately that the registration desk can give me information on where any Australians who know me are staying or better still are expecting me to turn up. My first approach to the desk to register as myself is unsuccessful. I’m not listed. I explain that I am replacing someone, a name I don’t know because I didn’t think I had to and besides it hadn’t been offered to me. The plane ticket had been changed to my name so I had presumed from this that so had my registration. The supervisor, a Canadian woman, is called in to deal with the loony who won’t go away. I explain to her my circumstance. They were all very stressed she said and this wasn’t their responsibility. I agreed that it wasn’t but “Could you help me, please?” She looked up ‘Australian AIDS organisations’ on her computer that revealed no list of contacts. She said, “I’m sorry we can’t help you,” pointing me to go to the information desk where they only spoke Spanish and only knew where the phones and toilets were. I try my luck at the accommodation desk to find a bed for the night but they only service registered delegates and “No, you will not find any accommodation available, you should have booked it before coming”. So what am I to do?
I know from my experience of other conferences that beyond the walls of the registration desk there is a PLWHA lounge, water and first aid for the blisters that I can feel in my sweaty socks. I also know that I could find in there beyond the walls of administration, someone, most probably somebody positive who would help me out, even take me home but access was denied because I had no registration. I took a rest, sat on the front steps of the centre for the rest of the afternoon into the evening, hoping that someone I know or who knows me might walk past or I might just meet someone, anyone who would take me home and give me a bed for the night.
The centre is finally closed and the registration and information desk staff leave for the day. One of the last to leave is the supervisor I’d spoken to. She notices me sitting there but she tries not to acknowledge me. She’s obviously relieved to be getting out of there, chatting with her colleagues in English that she’ll be in early tomorrow. As she walks past me, she stops. Standing away from where I’m sitting she asks me if I know where I’m sleeping tonight. I tell her simply, “No, I don’t.” She pauses, puts her hands to her head, asks herself a question, makes a quick decision and shakes her head and walks away. I start to ponder on the home she is going to.
Now I’m facing the night ahead. Jet lag is starting to really kick-in in a way that feels like I’m coming down off something. With no option but to remain calm, I tell myself that I can deal with this and eventually the problem will be solved but probably not soon, not until tomorrow and that I must ride with the night till then. There was a sense of fear growing inside of me that came on with the night that I just had to cope with it.
The city started changing, it was going into a different mode, one that I would later come to enjoy and join in on and but for now I don’t know it and it’s got me defensive. I tell myself to stay awake, not to sleep and to keep myself safe till morning. I keep an eye out though for any hiding spots that I could come back to if I started falling asleep.
I get up and move on, back into the heart of the city. People are going out, moving around again like they were in the morning. They’re all looking fresh, rested and quite beautiful while I’m looking more and more worse for wear, sweaty, dirty, smelly and tired. I decide to do something useful and conquer the Metro system. It will occupy me and use my time. The trains are somewhere cool to sit for a while pretending you know where you’re going even if it is only just to a place to catch another train back from. I start to notice that I’m beginning to blend in to the night in a way that I don’t like.
There are other dirty, smelly, tired looking people coming out into the night. Plenty of them, beggars, junkies, whatever names you want to give them; street people for whatever reason. I sadly realise that I look more like them than the beautiful people travelling to where they know they’re going. I was hanging around the places of homelessness, train stations, subways and doorways. Whenever I’d stop somewhere for a rest away from other people it wouldn’t be long before I’d feel noticed and feel like I was being moved in on, so I’d move on and away to find another place. This got really tiring.
I decide to get out of sight, to go back out to the airport that is miles out of town and collect my luggage off the last flight and sit with it till morning. I now know how to get there by train but what I don’t know is that there are no more trains going to the airport just the one last train coming back from the last flight in at 11.30.
The interchange station is very quiet, this should have been a clue but I wasn’t thinking much anymore. I make what I hope is one last phone call home to my partner in Sydney to tell him of my plan and where I’ll be and he makes me promise to keep ringing during the night. While I’m on the phone a guy comes up to me presumably to ask me for money or cigarettes like everybody else has been doing all day but he gets the message to fuck off even before he asks me. I’m not in the mood. Behind him I notice a couple of other guys lurking about looking and doing like he is. I cut the phone call short saying to my partner, “I think I’d better get out of here, something’s up”, and I left to go down the stairs to the subway. Just as I’ve gone a few steps down I hear a person whistle. A signal I take to stop. I turn around and see these same three guys moving in to follow me down, down to an empty platform with no train coming. The whistle was an all clear to make their move on me. Instinct gave me to bolt and I ran back through them not at all scared just totally pissed off and fed up. One of them grabbed at my bag but I had the force and the momentum to pull it with me and they didn’t give chase. I ran straight out of that place abusing the security guards on the way, jumped in a cab and told the driver the only place I knew, “La Ramblas”.
I figure now to do like my dog is doing while I am so far away; not going anywhere in case I come home and she misses it. I figure to keep my eye on that door on La Ramblas that I have no key for. I would approach anyone who came and went from that door and ask if they knew of any Australians in the building. Hopefully they’d arrived on the last flight or were out for the evening and I’d spot them coming home. I pressed all the buzzers once again asking for Australians and was mostly abused in Spanish. I accosted several people who passed through the door but I either terrified them with my onslaught of English and the crazed look on my face or they knew nothing of Australians in the building. So there I sat, on the doorstep of the corner building next to the apartments, watching and waiting.
Through to the morning La Ramblas changes by the hour. The restaurants close, the nightclubs open. There are people all about and I feel less obvious tucked into a doorway just out of the light. To the left of me there’s a wide dark alleyway that leads down the side of the corner building to the central markets that have long closed for the day. A voice calls to me from the dark and comes forward to meet me. Leaning on the corner of the building into the edge of light, she has the face of Asia, the arse of Africa and the swing of a hooker. I guess she’s offering her trade but she’s only after one of my cigarettes.
The doorway that I’ve taken as mine turns out to be one for tranny trade after midnight. I was there first tonight and she seemed to accept this. She took up her post on the other corner opposite to me, on the other side of the lane-way. The $20 blow jobs she had on offer were sold on the corner but done down the alleyway. Whenever I’d move away from my doorway to wake myself or to get another coffee, I’d come back and my spot would be taken by her or one of the other boy-girls that had come out to work the night. Fair enough I thought, must be another rule. So then I’d sit at the top of the stairs of the closed subway station till the next job was scored and the deed was taken down the lane. Then I’d reclaim my spot it but I’d owe another cigarette. She must have thought I was trying to trade. I guess I had a look of desperation that I was prepared to do anything and I probably would have, for a bed.
On my breaks from the step I wander La Ramblas, make another phone call home, get another coffee and a bottle of water. I start to recognise faces that I’ve seen throughout the day and they begin to approach me never sure of what it is that I am doing here. They ask me, what was I wanting “coca? jaco? maria?”, “cock suck?” or was I selling? Whatever I was doing was ok, they just wanted to know what it was to settle their curiosity. Not the security guard at the all night McDonalds. I wanted to use their toilet again but he wouldn’t let me up the stairs. I can’t have looked too good and I hate to say it but I probably looked like just another junkie. Another shop where I went to buy water quickly shooed me out, they didn’t allow gypsies, beggars, tramps and thieves.
Here on La Ramblas I finally begin to feel in good company and a sense of safety that could support me till morning. One time though, half asleep on my step, a couple of dudes stood over me, probably intending to roll me but my mate the tranny knew whoever they were and moved them on their way. I gave her the rest of my packet.
Morning came and morning moved them all away. The street sweepers with their high pressure hoses were intended for moving more than the dirt. They saw nothing in their way and whatever was, was meant to move.
The whores start leaving, picking up the last of good trade coming from the nightclubs that are closing, English boys on holidays. I notice two Hispanic working-girls resigned to going home, having a coffee and a giggle. They wave for me to come across. I jump at the invitation. I’d seen one of them during the night and knew her friendly smile. Her friend, who spoke a little English, translated for her friend who had noticed me there all night. “Was I looking for sex?” she asks. “No.” They were totally amused. “Tell me”, she says, “Tell me then. What are you doing here?” I laugh with them, “I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out”. “I understand”, she said translating my response back to her friend. They both laughed a little more, one grabbed at my cock and kissed me before I went on my way like them all, to make way for the new business of the morning.
To ring again back to Australia for what is starting to really feel like one last time I have to buy yet another phone card. I’ve been sold cards that don’t work and some that give better value than others. I know now which are the good ones and who are the sellers you can trust. I give this guy a 50 euro note for a 5 euro card. He gives me 5 euros in change. I’m pretty fucked and feeling delirious. I look down in my hand, see just the 5 that he’s given me and from somewhere deep in my core comes a mighty, groanfully loud, slow moan. I just kept saying slowly, over and over, louder and louder, “No! No! No!” I had had enough. He slaps me my 40 and I call him a cunt.
I manage to ring home for what feels like the last time. For the first time I break down. The phone card man has cracked me. I want to go home, I don’t know what to do anymore. I’m feeling like my body can’t carry me any further and my brain can’t do no more for me. Past memories of overseas travel come up from the recesses of my brain and I start thinking that I am in Rome, feeling like I’ve crossed a desert and all my attempts in Spanish came out in Italian.
All that is carrying me now is my link home to the man I love. My last idea is for him to ring the Australian embassy and tell them to come and pick me up at the phone box and get me out of here. I throw to him the decision of what I should do. His advice is right, “Go straight to the conference centre, find the woman who’s letter of invitation you have in your bag and make her do something!”
I think I only just got to the conference centre. I remember feeling like fainting in the subway. It was getting hot again and the quicker I moved the dizzier I got. I dragged myself up those stairs still in the same clothes and with no sleep now for over fifty hours, as filthy as ever. I only needed to approach the registration desk for the Canadian supervisor to notice me. She came straight to me with her apology for how she had walked away from me the evening before saying she’d worried about me all night and could see that things hadn’t gotten any better for me. “No they hadn’t”. She asked me if I was positive. It must have been showing on my face by now. “Yes”. She said the words I was wanting to hear, “I’m going to make sure you’re going to be all right”. I gave her the letter in my bag that in the least established a responsibility that the conference had for me being there. But I had showed it to her the day before.
From this moment things start turning around. I get a day pass to go inside the conference centre and they find me accommodation, but only for one night. By the next morning I will still have to solve the problem of where I am meant to be staying. So. Should I wait around the centre and continue making phone calls? No. I need a shower and sleep. I get in a cab, go and get my luggage, then head straight to my student accommodation. I plan on asking if I can stay another night. I can’t face the idea of sleeping into the night with still nowhere to go in the morning; now with my suitcase and a guitar to lug around.
The woman who runs the place is lovely. Translating through a student of Spanish she tells me she’ll ask if someone would mind me sharing their room the next night. This gives me a little more peace of mind to be able to rest and the time to start recovering so that I could get to the opening ceremony of the conference the following evening…