Travel Alchemy

by belinda

“Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.”


We kept getting our timing wrong in Spain. We woke up too early & tried to do things when everyone was having a siesta. But on our last night in Santander, we veered off the tourist track & stumbled upon a restaurant packed with locals. We were only there because all the places to eat on the popular beach strip were full. We’d been walking for a few hours, exploring the beaches and the Palacio de la Magdalena at the top of the hill, the royal palace dripping with fuchsia bougainvillaea and overlooking dramatic cliffs, with endless ocean views.

The kids were so hungry that they were gnawing on their elbows, and we were just short of returning to our hotels and ordering overpriced room service. But this particular restaurant made space for our party of nine by dusting off some plastic tables and chairs & putting them on the pavement, as we sighed with relief. The waitress apologised for her halting English and we apologised for our terrible Spanish.

We ate garlic prawns and juicy tomatoes and crispy calamari. Some things got lost in translation and dishes turned up on our table that we didn’t think we’d ordered, but which were delicious anyway. A teenager at the table next to us called Sofia wanted to practice her English so she offered to take our rowdy kids off to the local ice cream shop and they returned with huge smiles & even bigger ice creams. Ben’s tutti-frutti ice cream dripped down to his elbow as the summer air melted it faster than he could eat it. Sofia told us that she wants to go to America one day, so she “can see how other people live”.

Then all the kids played foosball together, while we drank rioja sitting outside in the warm Santander evening. These are the moments I love about travel. They don’t happen often but when they do, they’re golden.

It got me thinking about travel alchemy. You know how often things go wrong when you’re away from home? Your child gets sick and the pharmacy is closed, or you leave your phone in a taxi, or there is a misunderstanding with a waiter. Or you argue with your husband because you want to do different things. Often, what’s supposed to be relaxing turns out to be stressful, through nobody’s fault really.

But sometimes things work out perfectly, by happy accident. Often when you surrender to the moment, instead of trying to over-engineer an experience. You eat a cheap delicious meal and your kids make new friends and you feel accepted, just for a minute, into a world that is not your own. You get a glimpse at how other people live, like Sofia wants to do one day. For the naturally curious among us, this feels a bit like magic. When something ordinary feels extraordinary, even for just a short while.

This is why we travel, after all. To have our eyes opened. Our minds expanded.

And for this, I am grateful.


I’m aware that travel posts may be triggering for anyone not able to do so right now, especially in South Africa. But your time will hopefully come soon, especially as vaccination rates speed up. Sending love to all.

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