My parents grudgingly paid up the $5,000 and packed me off to Spain along with my three pieces of luggage—a violin, a backpack, and a pull-on. I was going halfway across the world to Spain with my orchestra, the Philharmonic division of the San Jose Youth Symphony. We were touring through Spain to perform six concerts along with International Piano Competition Gold Medallist Jon Nakamatsu.

I was supposed to be excited, right? Wrong.

I wasn’t looking forward to two weeks in Spain. I hated the idea of being away from home for 15 whole days, even though I really could use a break from my parents. I also knew from my last trip to Spain that the food would be terrible for vegetarians like me, and that my smattering of French would be utterly useless in Spain. Adding to the uncertainty of the time was my grandmother’s health. A week before I left for Spain, my mother flew to India. The cancer had returned. This time my grandmother was just weeks away from death’s doors.

I felt truly alone as I waved goodbye to my dad. I munched on flaming hot cheetos through the loneliest bus ride of my life to San Francisco airport. I envied my talkative fellow musicians and realized I was normally the person who couldn’t stop talking. At the moment, I felt alone and annoyed that I was on a lame trip to a place I had already visited with my parents.

My roommates—Michelle and Tiffany—and I barely recognized or acknowledged one another the first night. The group dinner was an awkward cocktail of stolen glances, stilted conversation, and Mediterranean food. I picked at my food, moving peas from side to side. I occupied myself with wistful thoughts of matar paneer and phulkas. I pretended to sleep on the table. My roommates seemed to be mesmerized by their food.

Over shopping trips and late night sessions in our hotel rooms, I slowly got to know Michelle and Tiffany. We laughed at Spanish music videos on television, went crazy buying jewelry poked into umbrella edges and sold by Indian and Sri Lankan vendors, and giggled as our orchestra conductor complained—for the hundredth time—about not being able to smoke on the tour bus. How did he fly nonstop and nonsmoking from San Francisco to Frankfurt, we wondered.

Michelle and Tiffany empathized with me while I, well, vegetated over lunch and dinner. My daily meals varied—from one salad to another. Pretty soon, I was ending up at McDonalds where I could read the menu. I loved eating McFlurries every night but realized that ice cream (in its many avatars), patatas fritas (French fries), and fruit and yogurt cups were expanding my waistline.

Halfway through my trip, I was woken up by a dreaded telephone call early on a Saturday. My grandmother had passed away that morning. I felt relieved that her suffering had ended. Yet I would never again smell the Cuticura powder on her cool skin. She wouldn’t make her famous kozhakattais for me anymore. No one would take my side during the huge shouting matches I’d have with my mom. Gone were the days of some serious jewelry ogling and shopping in Chennai. Gone were the good times, the many hours my grandmother and I would fritter away eyeing bags and beads through shop windows. I had just lost one of the few people in my life who really cared about me.

Despite the news of my grandmother’s passing and my disastrous meals, my trip did begin to take a happier turn as the orchestra crew became friendlier and I got to know my roommates better. Jon Nakamatsu turned out to be the coolest person on our tour. This world-famous pianist with a Carnegie Hall debut was on my bus and he was actually treating us as his equals, acting like a whacko kid himself. We all laughed as he imitated the abstract pianist— who was supposed to look like Jon—on the back of our tour T-shirts. He surprised me by asking to take a picture of me and my roommates. I loved listening to him play the Rachmaninoff piano concerto, and I was amazed that I, the smallest star in the galaxy of musicians, was actually accompanying him. For the first time, I loved being a part of my orchestra. I played my best, and it felt great.

Even with irritating chaperones, curfews, and rehearsals, I managed to find time for myself. I discovered what it’s like to be away from my dad’s complaints and my mom’s constant reminders to practice violin. I had the liberty to do just what I wanted. My orchestra was allowed to go out in groups of three or more, so I explored all of the places we visited—Barcelona, Valencia, Murcia, Granada, Seville, and Madrid.

Through the good and the bad, I managed to learn a lot—especially that I should never leave my room key in … um, my room (three times!). I realized that I was quite capable of surviving on my own, whether it was talking to strangers, going out by taxi, or just packing my suitcase every second day as we trooped from city to city. In two weeks, I seemed to grow a whole other dimension and discovered that there was one part of me that would always remain independent. Yet, I knew that I’d always miss the comfort of home, the aroma of tomato rasam, and the security blanket called my parents.

I certainly don’t want to lose what I’ve gained on my tour. Except, perhaps, those McFlurry pounds!

Pavithra Mohan is a sophomore at Saratoga High School.