Monday, December 7, 2009

a review

Touching the past – joyful theatre to help you remember!

LAST THURSDAY in the Continental Pub’s art space I witnessed mementos coming to life. “Human Remains”, a play devised by the whole company, a group called Touched Theatre, came from member Beccy Smith’s idea to recreate and celebrate her Great Uncle’s life, the African adventurer James Tunstall. And they did so using the things he had left behind!Uncle James was born in Manchester in 1927 and forged a successful career in Africa working as a crocodile and locust hunter and even discovered a new species of locust. His life is dramatised here through the lens of a young photographer called Stanley (played by Gilbert Taylor) who inherits his Uncle’s artefacts and uses them to make mock-ups of his life and experiences, capturing this “still living” in photography.We live his life once more through inventive puppetry and unusual use of his objects, enjoying the song he once sang, “I’ll hunt for you”, accompanied by his violin bow playing a saw, and his letters are flown around the stage in the manner of Savannah birds! At another point his stick is used to reflect his old age as it is limped across the stage. When it is finally leaned against a table, the beeps of a life support machine becoming continuous signal his death.The beauty of this lovely play was that it showed the value there is in making an effort to think about memorabilia. James in one letter wrote: “I think I am losing touch with you all back home”. It is easy to do, but through this play we are able to connect with him again in quite an unexpected way. So the next time you come across mother’s letters or a friend’s treasured gift treat yourself and go on a wonderful trip down memory lane. You might enjoy it and who might even feel real again!

The Continental is on South Meadow Lane, by the river Ribble. For upcoming events and tickets call 01772 499425

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bilsten Protest site

And we turned off the road by the VW garage and entered the wood, looking back in the dark the neon VW sign seemed to simplify into a Peace image behind the lattice of trees. A further 400 yards of dim and dimmer plodding we were in the Site.

Our steps triggered the first line of defence, the dogs. Yapping and growling, we called out over them to their owner John. With dreadlocks and a flashlight on a band around his head, he led us down a pathway and over the river on a little wooden bridge to a corral of huts and awnings where a warm fire awaited us. We were there as couchsurfers and were immediately accepted even though we had not notified them we were coming! We took a seat around the fire which when lit to its full shone a pale orange light upon a sign - "Welcome to Bilston Vasey - you'll never leave." The site had been here for 7 years and though the people had changed it appeared the site would never - until the Bailiffs came. A local industrial estate was to be extended here, and a connecting road was to be built through this glen, so a group of environmental protesters had set up camp among the trees to try to block its construction. And every environmental protester must eat, so off we went to the local Marks and Spencers in a retail park and raided its skip of its discarded edibles. "I wouldn't want to spend the Queen's currency if I could help it," said John. Three or four very large bin bag sized bags including the wonders of Sushi, top range mince pies and a feast of lovely muffins, scones and rolls, not to mention bagfuls of potatoes and veg, were hauled campward and a supermarket trolley was requisitioned (to be later turned into cutlery in the fire!). And to damn the establishment further we hurled two bouquets of pink roses at the M&S security cameras to lodge them in the protective grid, a moment where the flowers became Molotov cocktails of joy in an impish show of disobedience.

The next day after a night in the ground level gypsy caravan, the drapes of the evening had been taken down and the mazy spread of tree houses and walkways sprawled across the canopy above us like lazy orangutans. Rachel had seen this place on, reading something like "couch spare in a tree house - turn up any time, no need to ask!", so we did just that arriving here in the scenic border country 30 minutes outside Edinburgh. Today we learned tree climbing, via ropes, abseiling down afterwards. We also took a stroll to get some wood for Tom who was constructing a musical instrument, a cross between a mandolin and a fiddle he called a "Mandifiddle". The day after we went a wandering up glen and down burn, tracing our way around the genetic modification epicentre that is Roslyn Biotechnology to arrive at the centuries old medieval church at Roslyn that has been made famous by the Da Vinci code. As we were now down with civilisation, we merrily leaped the fence and saved ourselves £7.50.

Back we tramped to the site, tramping an appropriate term, wet shoes sludging through the draining fields to the mesmerising glow of the fire. Talk goes around the fire from 4pm in winter, as there is light there, and if you have nothing to say you stare into the fire. Some people had been here for a long time, others had diffused here from a protest site in Ayrshire where a coal field was going to be plumbed very soon, the bailiffs were expected at any moment, the eviction order had been served. £100,000 a day is the fee for the specialised eviction team - you would have to recycle a lot of M&S roses to pinch that sort of sum. One man, a scouser named George, knew and was friends with "Swampy", the face of the Newbury bypass and an environmental protester celebrity. In that siege the protesters dug deep in tunnels and eeries high in the trees and kept the eviction team at it for many months. In fact John had had to leave Ayrshrie taking his dog and a friend's dog with him to save them from being taken away.

However our time was up and Rachel and I were to be evicted by commitments of our own, Rachel with her Ba (Honours) studies and me with my graduation ceremony and first day working at Social Services coming up over the next two days. As we left the gathered companeros who were sitting around the fire Tom turned to say "Good luck with everything, Job, Career, Degree" (i.e. the trappings of society which he mistrusted so). And as we tramped back to the cold light of the VW sign, part of me was also mistrusting, doubting and finding the life i would return to a bit hard to digest. Here we had had lungfuls of woodsmoke, glens with gushing rivers, 500 year-old yew trees, folk singing by the fireside and small adventures padded out over carelessly slow measures of time. It was a sad feeling to leave, but I am still warmed and inspired by the experience and the people there and if it is at all possible I want to go back.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Down and Out in Paris - Home to Preston

And then Waseem tried to hitchhike with a Motorway Servicing truck using a stolen motorway sign, saying "Direction Paris" and we were apprehended and the sign returned to the authorities. The man was very kind and dropped us at the motorway service station.
Here we were whisked northward after not much waiting by Nicolas and Celine. They dropped us in Tours at the busy central square, where we went to buy food from the supermarket. A quarter of an hour later we found ourselves at the edge of the town forming a one-two combination of Waseem with his thumb and me with the new sign. Kangny, an artist from Paris, whizzed to a halt and we almost didn't spot him and then seeing him dashed up the road to jump in. The drive was still quite a long one to Paris, but he was going all the way and could drop us in the St Denis region where we were to meet Muhammed and the rest of the rap group. So we relaxed and talked, the landscape mellowing as the sun set and the broad flat french fields accentuated the endless rhythm of the car speeding along the autoroute. Waseem called Muhammed and it seemed things were difficult for them to get accommodation for us as their apartment was very full with 5 staying in a 3 bed apartment, and what with all their music things it was difficult to find space for us. But they were going to sort something out so we remained hopeful. Kangny offered me a coffee but it didn't help, at this stage I felt abject and was finding it hard to keep chatting.
At 10.30 we arrived in Paris. Kangny took a photograph of us with our sign, saying "Paris", and we said goodbye to him and went into a nearby cinema to change. Here Waseem called the rap group, and we got some awful news - they had no accommodation for us. We had travelled all the way from Spain to reach them and they had let us down. I was actually drunk on fatigue, and quite enjoying the feeling so I didn't get cross and neither did Waseem. We both resolved, however, to go back to England as soon as possible as we had had enough.
It all called for a kebab, so we strode over to the eating area, skirting the Stade de France as we did so. Suitably sustained, I popped into a bar to use the toilet and widdled into the hole keeping well back with my flip-flops. And I then held down the flush button. This was not a good idea, as a cascade of water plunged down into the sunken bowl and splashed up over the lip onto my sock-covered toes. So I had to wash both the flip-flops and my feet, and when I came out and made a joke of it to the man at the bar he laughed and bought me a drink. I called Waseem over and we had a drink together, but when I returned the favour and bought him a drink and one for me I was shocked to find it costing 6 euros for a Ricard and half a lager. They also new a hotel with a free room, lucky as France were playing football tomorrow at the nearby Stade de France, so they walked us around and dropped us off there.
The next day when we emerged over an hour after check-out time, we went to the Internet cafe and booked a bus to London and a bus from London to Preston. Calls to home and to cancel my card concluded business and so we decided to explore Paris by bus, first traversing the extensive multicultural areas of the north and north-east, and then taking a bus to the centre (jumping off for 10 minutes outside the megalopolous Louvre building) and back, descending from the bus at the international bus station. We we were lucky as there were seats still left at the Coach desk, but while we were waiting I heard a shriek and there running towards me was a familiar face yelling "Helloooo Thooomaaasss!". It was Rachel, who you may remember I stayed with in Heidelberg and travelled to Munich with. An incredible coincidence, she was travelling back to England too, after a time surfing on the west coast of France, and was very brown. She had stayed the previous night on the banks of the Seine, literally, in her sleeping bag!
So we all travelled back together n the 10pm bus from Paris. There was an incredibly funny snorer on the coach, and at Calais we had our passports stamped to the pleasure of the customs officials. On the boat we sat on deck and gazed around the immense blackness for the short crossing, not feeling too cold. Then we were back in England and soon after, in London where we said bye to Rachel who was getting a different bus to Preston. We left at 7am and when we were out among the fields it was clear that England lacked the brightness of the European countries I had visited, things were dim or even dreary. And perhaps because of this the landscape emanated colour and made me feel glad to be back.
And back in Preston we found Rachel again and after 10 minutes there was mum too. I was home. We drove Waseem back to his Preston home and mum took me back to Simonstone where food and home cooking awaited.
Well, that's it, here is where it all comes to an end. In all I had travelled for 10 weeks, covering some 10,000 kilometres mainly by hitchhiking and had visited 12 countries, alone and in turn with Rachel, Kieran and Waseem. Not bad really if you also consider it had only costed £140 per week, a price massively inflated by the hotels and hostels we had been forced to use due to the lottery of hitchhiking. But then again, it wouldn't have been the same if I and we had planned things. Nothing that I did was planned anything more than a week before, and even then was only accurate to within a day or two and to a region. Only the one way plane ticket I took from Manchester to Brussels was genuinely premeditated - everything else was either whim or reaction. But that was the beauty of it and why I would recommend it to others.
But if you try it, you must remember that you are a drifter and have your wits about you, not for your safety but for your sense of your self. It is uprooting and alienating, so make sure you are willing to fight for who you are and have a clear sense of what you want out of it. Honestly, I travelled out of panic, out of having most of my goals in life fulfilled and of having lost direction, and so when I look back at the difficulties I experienced, such as loneliness or sleep deprivation, I only wish I had more of a clear reason to persevere. If I had, I think I would have got more from it and have been a better person too. It was good, yes, but for me it was not in fact brilliant.
So now, it remains to say thankyou to mum and dad for giving me the money was a graduation gift and also thankyou for my travelling companions for being good friends. I hope you have enjoyed it as readers. I am sorry for finishing it off so late. And well, I shall hope to see you around the planet sometime. If you need somewhere to stay you can of course come and sleep on my couch anytime and if you are hitchhiking I will pick you up. I would have to! I am in debt now so I don't have the choice.

Monday, October 5, 2009


At 2pm our bodies were exhumed by that grim autospsy techician, the conscious mind. I felt like the fluffy dough of my thoughts had been mixed with asbestos-laced concrete and melded together with super-glue, and the physical pretences of my bipedal frame were as loose and fragile as an inwardly exploding tower block. Mr Wasim was also suffering much as I, our dentist chair faces abused by the aneasthetic of utter exhaustion, hanging around the jaw badly tailored. And as we moved back to the petrol pump, our abused selves somehow formed an agreement to coordinate movements, if only to deliver us to our hitching post like a pair of stringless thunderbirds, our dead-weight torsos riding magic legs.
A quick visit to the pharmacy of the petrol station's coffee bar and we were out there again, soliciting lifts. And we were lucky very quickly. Yvonne and Simon welcomed us into their car and we were off north in their very nice BMW. They dropped us at a petrol station to the south of Poitiers, just as night was circling above, spreading its black wings over us. Quite a bit of can't be bothered soliciting later and two excitable young ladies, Chloe and Camille, picked us up and dropped us in the middle of nowhere on an obscure road connecting to the autoroute. This was bothering as it was now 2am, so we dropped into a place behind an electircity station to sleep, but the heavens opened and drenched us and we fled off along the autoroute to find a service station, with a pair of road signs as tobbogans (down the motorway verge) and umbrellas for our heads. Our predicament was now extremely obscure, cars and trucks honking at our masked faces staggering up the hardshoulder. Five kilometres of this bleak winter weather and we spied an alternative, a vast and bizzarre recent construction, a grand and enigmatic mini-city known as Futuroscope. Clambering the fence, we wanted for nothing more than dryness and warmth and after a few staggerings around the sodden eerily empty plazas, by triangular buildings and monstrously zany archways, we came accross a hotel of quite incredible pretensions but realistically low prices. Sixty six euros and a room for two.
In the morning everything was wet, ruined like scribbled phone numbers from the night before. We were smelly, and I went down to pay, had my coffee and washed it down with a cheekily dispatched conversation to practice my french. I endeavoured to express joy at my "small" coffee being actually really big, only to confuse the waiter into thinking I wasn't satisfied. Very droll, and we got there in the end.
So off we went, and leaving my credit card somewhere lying behind in the hotel, we drifted motorway ward once more.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Red in Bordeuax and a kingdom for a car

From San Sebastien, we eventually got a lift away from the border, hopping into France like docile frogs in the menacing headlights of destiny, making only a few steps north to Bordeaux. The first lift dropped us on on the side of the motorway, and only Waseem's generosity in offering his phone for the use of a french lady at a toll barrier won us the good fortune of her reciprocation in whisking us 50 kilometres upwards. Another step took us to Bordeaux, faster than you can say motorway and all we could see were the minutes crushing under our fleet rubberised feet. We had made it through the gorgeous Landes region, the largest forest in France and the largest (alpine) forest in Europe, all 100 kilometres of it! Thumbing it, over the blue smells of the roadway our nostrils glimpsed the pleasures of a tree environment that would freshen a whole galaxy of patronised toilet facilities. But then, dropped off like unwanted babies at a Bordeaux petrol station, we puckered and persuaded but nobody could handle our responsibility. Hours went by, and Mr Wasim and I (as I was now calling him, my good friend, in a James Bond accent) slowly morphed into double-oh zeros, glum dummies without purpose or willpower as the dwindling evening travellers on the forecourt spurned our feeble pleas. At one point, Mr Wasim looked like a petrified duck and my husky voice resembled that of a well kicked dog. We were down and out now, spitting tiredness, dreaming of not and never, enthusiastically finished. That's right, we had it with the baguette and were bored with the Bordeaux. And by 830 am, after sitting and gurning at bleary eyed glaucoma besieged pump patrons for eight hours of baleful donkey headed yakking, failing to pick a juicy one from the diarrheal dregs that sluiced between our sentry positions as the mocking fart of the gush of the automatic doors closed our indigestible fate behind their backs, we manually shifted ourselves in the general direction of a hotel to render ourselves comfortably unconscious of the raw line of hot coals that had become the tedious element of time. Cooked in the small air of our sweaty room, we awoke dazed and only marginally more energised. Fatigue was the marble hippo on both of our backs and was set to get worse too, and whole business of asking for lifts was finally losing its appeal. Fuck it was not the motto, but listlessness was the mind frame and, perhaps in a good way, the feeling of wanting, asking and hoping to Travel was dieing. Home thoughts were abroad and though we were soon to be back, the next few days were to test our personal strength and good humour morwe than we would have liked. And if you are not too tired either, look out for the next burst of writing ina few days time. Thanks, bye for now, Thomas.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A white thumb against a dark sky

There are various categories of “no” when you are hitchhiking, and as it would take us 5 days to reach Paris, here is a rundown of the various ways in which people turned us down and left us on the roadside (or, as it happenned, in a ditch sheltering from the rain).
Some cars aren't going far and so can’t see the point in stopping (often they are right in this), and the driver often makes a sign to indicate a left or right turn, so to this you give him an extra thumb to say thankyou. These are the “Traffic Policeman”.
Some have no room due to baggage or people, at which the universal gesture of the driver is to make a W-shape out of their arms and mouth and with their head rolled to one side make a hammy Jewish-looking body shrug as if to say "What can I do? If the Angels were on our side and there was less bulk in this automobile then we would be able to come to some sort of arrangement!". To these cars you share their dilemma with grateful understanding, at least they are not ignoring you and would quite possibly help if they could. These people are the Titans of the road, and at least look this way, full of grace and good intention, but it is always the same expression, and I wonder whether all of them, if they were less well fitted out with ballast, would be as magnanimous to pull over and pick you up? I wonder, they certainly look okay and good, so they are always given the benefit of the doubt and a grateful thumb and head nod is granted them. What with their Jewish waggling and virtuous demeanour, I have called these (I am quite proud of this one) the “No room at the Inners”.
Then there is the driver who is not leaving the vicinity you are in. These without fail lift up their arm and point, in a jabbing motion, down into their laps and shake their heads with judgelike impassivity. Some are serious as they do this, looking a bit grim like wizened Scottish grave diggers (“here’s a good spot!”), while others impart their disappointing news with a compassionate smile. Either way, they are “Finger Jabbers”.
Then there are the strange people who stick their thumbs up straight back at you, and for this reason are very annoying. Some people, great your hopeful “baited” thumb by sticking their own thumb right back at you, often with a look of great humour on their faces. To this, the best analytic response my mind has been able to muster at the time is “eh?”. This gesture could mean one of many things but these can only be elucidated in retrospect which is what makes their response so annoying. There are in my opinion several likely sub-groups which it is possible to categorise the person into after a few minutes of deliberating.
In one group this gesture means that they would never in a month of Sundays pick you up but they do in actual fact find you funny (which isn’t a bad effect to be having) and so are indulging in a generous dose of mockery, mingled respect at your Chutzpah too I don’t doubt, if I am being accurate. These people are often “Townies”, for the want of a better description, and so perhaps we can forgive them as they haven’t after all had very good educations. But they are definitely taking this piss, so some education would be most needed in their case. That’s group 1, the "Laughing townies".
The second group I have come up with I believe actually have no idea why you are standing there, but being spontaneous people are reciprocating your gesture, again with a touch of mockery but unlike the last group, no irony. These are the best subgroup, as their mockery is light and also rather a reflex response as they haven’t really seen you or had time to think, by the looks of their deadpan faces as they blaze by. I shall call these the “Right back at yous”, as you can at least laugh at them as they robotically motor past you.
The last group I think have a certain solidarity with you, they know why you are standing there, and may in fact have hitchhiked too in their pasts and want you to know this by mimicking your behaviour. Theirs is a knowing sort of good humoured “no”. Perhaps they are going in another direction, or are full, but being the same kind of people they give you a “positive negative” by saying no with their thumbs. These people are okay, but a little inconsiderate as you think by their enthusiasm are giving you a lift and you are disappointed when after running after their car for twenty metres that they are not slowing down. These are the “Keep Believing-ers”.
Some people say no without moving a muscle. One highly irritating look you often get is best described as “The Terminator”, often from men, with sun glasses on who (and probably because of this) are not even slightly muscley or macho PRETEND not to see you.
Then there is the “Hauty Finger Waggers” who, as if some Football virtuoso in a previous existence seeks to tell you (perhaps they are dreaming) that they will have none of your diving nonsense against their football team, thankyou very much, they perfect expressions of deep, nose wrinkled insolence, as if your plea is the smell of dog muck to them. Why they do this I have no idea, but their porky little fingers are most irritating when you are only after all politely asking for a lift.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Oviedo part deux - a lesson in receiving: say yes to everything!

Waseeem hadn't eaten all day (no surprise there as it was Ramadan) so we went our merry and inexorable way towards a kebab eatery, arriving coincidentally at about 9pm when the fast could be broken again as the sun burned its way down the vast skewer of the sky!
And how the the meat was burning in the kebab shop, admirable little beauties, two sizzling legs turning in front of the hot lamps, enough to make a grown man blush and we were ogling them like hungry children. But we were to be going upstairs to eat because Shahid, the haltingly kind owner, had invited the two of us along with Katrina and Xavier to come and dine with him after we had come to buy a kebab the previous night and he had noticed we were travellers and so had decided to help us.
Conscientious and attentive, he brought out a lovingly prepared spread in the mirror-clad dining room part of the restaurant, separate from the paying guests. Chicken mixed in with rice, a curry sauce, spicy chapatis, hot bread fresh from the grill and a fresh olive tomato and onion salad. There were inexhaustible quantities, even for five of us, and we were well fed indeed by the time of the dessert, a scrumptious trifle with cream topping decorated with pistachio nuts and a red jelly heart in its centre (which we photographed!). We enjoyed talking to him, he was quietly spoken and was happy to talk with us despite the demands of the restaurant below. Interestingly, the mark on his forehead, Waseem related, was actually caused as is so common by the observance of the 5-a-day praying regimen of being a Muslim. It is also true that a Muslim should be on the look out for people to help, especially during Ramadan, doing a good deed such as this being grace enough to enter heaven, which partially explains Shahid's eagerness to help. The meal was very generous, and we were very grateful come the end of a well-fed and well-rounded (in more ways than one!) evening, and happy to have met and spoke with a thoroughly nice man too. But as we were leaving he asked us if he could pay for mine and Waseem's passage to San Sebastien, at the cost of at least 20 euros each, which Waseem unfortunately turned down. I thought this wrong, and I will explain why.
Firstly, it disappointed Shahid, the feeling being we were less than "family" and this is not a good feeling, as by his gesture he was including us in some way in his family, religious, human or otherwise. Secondly, it would have been very useful to us, as we needed the money, were tired and hitchhiking was a difficult thing to do in Spain. Thirdly, we would have learned the very valuable lesson of accepting a quite incredible gift from a stranger, setting as it does a precedent for our own lives such that we would never be able to be stingy again. This act would have made us better people, had we let its thundering import of staggering cash value thud down into our lives, such that in similar situations ourselves as Shahid we would be a lot more likely to do as he did. True, the meal was very generous, and a very good thing to offer but accepting this gift made us better people too, and if we had refused, it is possible that that act would have even made us worse people. So for us, it was in fact an opportunity to receive those tickets, as we would have become better people and would would have contributed more to the world I feel.
So we left and Shahid kindly inviting us back the next night for kebabs (again on the house) we accepted, but the next evening after eating we went to say goodbye and, you'll never guess what happened, but Katrina and Xavier insisted on paying! I am prepared to say that when I brought out the money from my wallet I felt ashamed to hand it over. The whole point was that he was giving us something for nothing, and I for one would certainly not have come back to buy a kebab on that evening (I was a bit fed up with them to be honest and also, we had been there the last two nights! I wasn't about to just drop in now was I?), so the whole experience took on a most weird and unwholesome (for the soul) aspect of actually "paying the man back" for his generosity. Payment! We may as well have given him a tip too for his kindness the night before, and perhaps a few extra euros for the offer of the bus tickets, and then done the washing up too perhaps like the little Famous Five characters we really were. "Thanks awfully!" we would have trilled, "You've been such a sport!" Nevermind. At least I learned something from the experience. In the past it would have been me eager to recompense (disgusting word in the circumstance) our benefactor. It reminds me of something I once read, a critique of the ethos of Reciprocal Pity, where you look to do good to those who are lacking and who then, seeing you lacking what you have just lost (through giving it to them) then almost queue up to do good right back to you. The odiousness of this system is there ends up being a demand upon the world to recompense the giver, even especially the people you think you have had done a favour to who end up eager to harm their resources a to give it all back to you. Maybe you didn't even want it!
This shouldn't be so, people should give freely and irrespective of the person's losses and though it is then less predictable when (and who!) you receive good back from, at least giving can remain in the realm of good feeling and loving kindness and not in the rule book, and with more genuine goodness in the world, you get your return that way too anyway! And my golden rule: if someone offers you something, say yes. Yes to everything! That way you might even end up in a fix, accepting so much from someone one day that you will be forced to live by their example and won't be able to hold up your head in life ever again if you let chances go by to give things out and be good to people.

Oviedo to Paris: a hitchiking odessey; Part 1: Oviedo to San Sebastien

We thought it might take 2 to 3 days, in the end it took 5! By the 4th of September we would indeed be in Paris, Saint Denis to be precise, huddling dumb and tired-drunk in an unwashed and smelly fug, this time having failed to get free kebabs from the kebab restuarant (Waseem spoke Hindi and, with it being ramadam, it is an ismlamic code to be especially chairitable in this time of the year and it was our pernennial occupation to attempt to exploit this possibility!) and abandoned by the rap group (no room at their inn, the stingy buggers!) we were to be truly down and out. But all this lay ahead. Still the promise of joining the 11 day rap tour with Abdula and his 3-piece islamic group, with concerts at Lille, Stasbourg and in Paris was spread before us, along with free food and hotel accomodation was lit up in the sky before us. We were eager to see Paris, me especially as I wanted to see if it was liveable in (many reports had said to the contrary unless you ahd plenty of money) with a view to maybe moving there. So the carrot was dangling ahead of us and we were to need the motivation as the next days were to be dauntingly difficult.
It all started innocently enough, if booking two children's tickets on the train is innocent. The idea was that the train system has ticket turnstiles, and therefore wouldn't have conductors and so once we were "in the system" we could travel on indefinately, only hopping out at the penulitmate station to buy two more (children's) tickets to ride on to the end, in our case to San Sebastien, on the french border. We thought if we could manage this scam then it would at least save us a lot of effort hitchhiking, Spain being a notoriously difficult place for it but our plan it turned out was ironically childlike as not far from Oviedo a ticket collector boarded the train.
"Look out!" I yelled to Waseem as seeing him board, we scrambled to disembark, Waseem taking the nearest exit and getting down successfully, whereas I made a silly guilty looking dash to the furthermost exit at which as the train started moving the door wouldn't open! The baffled conductor came to my aide and, undeservedly, applying his foot to the door he triggered the alarm sensor and pulled the train to a stop again. I leapt down in relief, the children's ticket a silent partner in crime sitting in my pocket, and as the train sped off we realised we had also left our large bag of food on the train! We were in the middle of nowhere and had lost our food, which was of a value similar to what it would have cost to buy normal adult tickets to the end of the line!
We tried to htichike and for a good few hours (three or four) failed to get a lift and, remembering the time of the last train, we trouped down to the station and caught the train to Llanes, three quarters of the way to Santander (itself only halfway to San Sebastien). In our greed, we hadn't got very far, and were now stuck in a small seaside town. First thing Waseem stopped to break his fast by buying a kebab (free to him from the friendly Pakistani proprietor). Llanes was a honey pot, and was thronged with tourists at bed time, I decided to eat a Spanish delicacy of a pork sausage from one of the several delicatessans (just one, at a euro), this one having a great deal of fat in it and with a squashy fibrous texture that was difficult to explain (Waseem thought it was fat, to me it was like eating plant fibre, each bite leaving a stretched and squishy tooth-marked cut). We had seen a lot of these accross Spain, shops selling "jamon", the bigger ones in Oviedo and Madrid Emporia of Pig, great legs hanging cured and leathery brown from the mirrored ceilings, the bright lights showing off these legs as if they were attched to models! But they were expensive, as was all food in Spain, and we were travelling on the cheap so I was happy with my one sausage.
With no other options we went to the beach to sleep. Set in a perfect bay, scalloped out by the Sea, the sandy beach was lit by gentle night lights studded out upon encircling walkways. We had a dreamy and soft place to sleep. The lit walkways had metallic hand rails giving the sides of the bay the appearance of a land-grabbed cruise ship, a place for the wealthy land dwellers to come and admire the sea with food and drinks (indeed some revellers came by in the night waking the light-sleeping Waseem).
The next day and, thankfully,we had both slept! My only regret was not swimming there that morning in the crisp waves. We wanted to get up and away early, my vain idea was to be awake early to hitchhike when cars were on the move that are travelling large distances. So we moved off the beach before sunrise. The rhythmicity of the waves was calming and had surely helped us sleep, and I wish I has spent more time like this by the sea in the trip. Wary of the open road, and of our failure the previous day, we this time elected again to take the train and paid the full fare straight up. We now had many hours of seated luxury before us, as the train glided through the countryside, which was the magnificent Picos de Europa, great hulking hills tall and rounded and monstrous like dinosaur sides, bare green and treeless empasising the handsome masculine contours. These were very proud mountains, and the low lands were just as vigorous and healthy as the peaks, gushing rivers looking invitingly clean and fresh, patient fisherman standing out on pebblebeds to take fish from the abundant water. Farmsteads, making the best of limited room, gave roam to cows and horses and sheep, added variety to the land and on the hillsides red-painted dwellings among pine trees gave the view an Alpine aspect. Another place we were thundering straight across in which we could happily have stayed for a week or so!
To Santander train station and thence on to Bilbao, more of the same lovely mountainsides but, struggling with the dual demands of having a travel companion and constantly having to move on, I saught out the steady peremanance of the solitary life and my book. Beauty passed by in a blur by the window, frittered away in the windscreen as I whiled away many hours, perhaps a little rudely, gorging on solitude.
Bilbao was gentile, ordered buildings set about a winding river set into a stone channel running through the city, the streets quiet and unobstrusive. In the train station, though, the security guards agitated vigilance and arm-long baton were threatening resonances of the underlying tensions that are present in the Basque country. Remembering that Nursel, the girl who gave me a lift when I was hitchhiking from Masstricht to Aachen and had become a friend, had friends near Bilbao who I was welcome to stay with, we contacted her at an internet cafe and she gave me the phone number of Rafa who she said would sort us out. He lived, however, in the nearby city of Vittoria, so we took a bus out to the bus station. Near the bus station the magnifcent Guggenheim modern art museum was standing, looking a little out of place but proud of it, its controversial structure like an exploded steel-plated armadillo.
Vittoria in its centre has a cool green park, in which a sports team was sitting in a circle doing exercises, and this youthful relaxed flavour gave it a collegiate atmosphere. In Spanish the word is similar to the english word for tranquil: tranquilo. At the bus station, we were met by Rafa, who whisked us off to his place of work, a kebab restaurant! In fact, he owned sixteen right accorss Spain so we had truly landed on our feet given our recent frequenting of kebab restauraunts, especially as he had also booked for us two beds in a private appartment for that evening! So we dined on plates of donner and chicken, with a Turkish salad of olives, lettuce, tomato and feta cheese, and delicious fried potato wedges with properly spicey chilli sauce and drank cordial and in my case a beer. Served by Rafa's cute and cuddly wife, a Spanish lady who was taking time off her career as a police lady to raise their numerous children (and whose name I ahve guiltily forgotten), we had a good time talking and they were very friendly. Finally a Turkish red tea, a delicious drink if you haven't had it, taken with sugar and not milk, a more mellow drink than the black tea preferred by the english. Then Rafa took us striaght away to the Hotel Pamplona, with a host's senstiivity to the lateness of the hour and our flagging energies, dropping us off there, where as we took the stairs up to slumberland we passed photgraphs of the bullrunning in the notorious nearby town of Pamplona. Apparently, they also do it here and in Bilbao, from time to time, but the famous one is in Pamplona. A last inspection of Waseem's feet, he had cut one of them, the blister's sharp edge giving his big toe difficulties for the last few weeks, and urgent foot and body washing and we were able to sleep uninterrupted. So the next day we were refreshed and got up and, after visiting the modern art gallery got the bus to San Sebastien. But the nearer we got to the Pyrenees, the more the grey skies coalesced and bulged brimming with water and had a look of, it seemed to us, loathing for the wandering traveller. Less and less of the countryside was becoming visible, only chilly gases that swirled up and down the steep sides of the barrier that was forming between us and France. In the coach, more noxious gases were swirling, as in our clsoe proximity we realised the toll our mouths were taking from accomodationless travelling (and fasting), a curious stench coming from them necessitating talking with hands over our mouths! In falling darkness we arrived in San Sebastien, the time now 8pm. Once more, we walked through a foreign city in search of a kebab restaurant, this time we had to pay the full price but with nowhere to sleep (surprise surprise as we hadn't booked one, as ever things were made up as we went along!) we walked to the centre to take a bus towards the frontier, the now torrential rain soaking the streets and our ponging feet. We looked every inch the down and outers, glistening in the wet, me in a kagool and Waseem in his water-absorbant army jacket. The bus we were taking went "towards" the motroway but after some confused dicusssions with fellow passengers as to where we should get out, we jumped down in a badly lit frontier town, dodging the rain in amongst the shadows of the shops, looking for signs for the motorway. It turned out to be far enough away to make walking (in rain) difficult, and the taxi was our last option, ten euros to get us to the service station on the autoroute into France. Waseem, still partially "on empty" despite his fast-breaking kebab, called our preambulating cravan off the road and into a kebab restaurant where the people there was delighted to have us (and to offer us free kebabs and drinks and chips, I might add!). They so rarely got to speak to fellow Pakistanis that Waseem was a resounding hit and talked happily to them and we had a great time, exploring how we had all got to this meeting point from our various home countries. The proprietor, Ahmed, was particularly kind and talked to us with great warmth and interest and was very happy to receive us at his home when he learned we ahd nowehere to stay. Here he let us take his bed for the night (he slept in his daughter's vacant bed in another room). He was very generous and attentive as a host and layed out fresh towels and fruit and drinks for us and we sat up talking for a while, Waseem and he talking long after I went to sleep at 130.
It was here I got a first insight into the perverse and hard life of a Pakistani expatriate. Here in the west, Ahmed would work a good ten hours each day, 5 or 6 days a week, and would earn a lot of money. A large fraction of which, most in fact, he sent home to Pakistan to his wife and children there, a similar trend Waseem told me was seen in England. But the rub of the matter of it was that the cost of living in Pakistan is so low that his family were living there in luxury and great idelness while he was struggling in relative simplicity and working long hours (espeically so for a man in excess of 50 years!). Far from his family showing gratitude and humility, they were in fact exploiting him and living a richer life in a poorer country, a paradoxical truth about the so-called dependents of a pioneering european immigrant like Ahmed. A real eye-opener.
The next day he walked us out and over to the border, only a 5 minute walk through an open menagerie of shops and coffee places! What coincidence! We knew we were in the vicinity, within 10-15 kilometres of it, but we had no idea that upon waking we would have a short stroll to the border, in fact by a river overlooking a short pacth of water to France! And there it was, looking funny as if wearing an ill-fitting suit, the mighty nation of France awkard and cramped in this far southern corner, its only visible extants a few houses, a bakery (Boulangerie), a a newsagent (Tabac) and a rocky cliff face going upstream. Curious. So Ahmed bade us a sincere and warm goodbye (saying, rather touchingly, that he would miss us!) and with such wind in our sails we had the perfect goodwill and energy to start our travels that day. Saying goodbye we walked over the bridge and into France without looking back. It was Adios Espanya and Bonjour Hitchhiking - our troubles were just about to begin!

Oviedo: we sleep on park benches and a barman pours our cider on the floor!

We arrive and, without somewhere to stay, we went in search of a safe place to lay down our sleeping bags and fall asleep. This "lack of somewhere to stay" was as much by design as anything, a deliberate sabotage to our plans so we could experience sleeping rough and also to give me something to write about here!
First we tried the lobby of a nearby bank, where admittance is allowed during the night to use the cashpoints, or to fall asleep, but one person had beaten us to it and was safely setup behind the double glazing for many more hours to come. It was midnight, and we were on the outside of the glass, and it was cold. We scanned around, looking for a park, but everywhere we saw was quite small and well lit, or had rather sinister looking sprinkler heads that we found difficult to trust. A mad dash into a hostel to haggle with them over prices, we were a bit sick with sleeping rough after the journey down, yielded nothing coming, so we went back to one of the parks and, taking it in turns for one of us to "keep watch", we attempted slumber. But the cold and the noises of the night meant that Waseem, first up to sleep and a very light sleeper, failed to do so, so we went in search of somewhere quieter and, vainly, warmer. A long hungry straggle through the town, though, yielded nothing - none of the other banks had places where the cash points were on the inside. The situation was bleak and there was no possibility of negotiation, the sun would only come around again when it was ready. So the hours were whiled first on a park bench near the bus station (where I slept like a log and Waseem, well, didn't) and then, when the centrally heated bus station opened at about 6am, we moved our "beds" into it and I slept handsomely with Waseem also getting a few winks. It is a real advantage to sleeping rough if you are also good at sleeping, but even still I only got about 5 hours. By 11am, we had done all of the prostrating, sleeping and sham-sleeping that we we were possibly capable of and, because we had done rather a lot of that now, it was time to put a stop to it and get on with the day.
So we slouched over to the cathedral, part of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route which terminates several hundred kilometres to the west of here in Santiago, and sat around like dazed hermits at all the trafficking people in and out until Kristina, our host, arrived at 3pm.
Kristina, alternately friendly and short, was another of Waseem's friend from UCLan in the previous year, and was our chirpy host for the next 2 nights as we regained our strength and with Xavier, her boyfriend, saw a little of the Asturian nightlife.
One street she showed us was named Cider Avenue (or Avenia Sidera), cider being a regional delicacy here. "Great!" I said, "I like alcohol and the drinking of it. Can you show us some of your cider?" So we went in one of the cider bars, elsewhere from this street as it happened, and were amazed at the style of pouring it.
The cider was completely flat in the bottle, and so the barman, in ceremonial fashion, would hold the bottle high above his head and pour it into a glass held down by his hip, introducing gastronomically necessary bubbles into it while all the while staring off blankly into space as if he he was really very bored and that this was really very easy. Of course, at any moment he might drop some of the precious stuff, or pour it down himself in sticky-staining rivulets, but I think the purpose of his expression was to show his nonchalant confidence that in his hands this was not going to happen. But spill it, to my English eyed disbelief, he did! Luxuriously! Straight and unapologetically onto the floor! Sacrilege! This would never happen in England! But the drink, served out in it now-bubbly glory, a third-filling the large glasses, was very tastey and had surely benefited from the pounding pouring technique, the sweet bubbles tickling the palette. Yes, I would say that the delicacy is in the pouring too!
And everyone was enjoying a drink, even the waiter was getting in on the act in the high altitude pouring method, this time standing at special pouring-booths out amongst the tables, looking very much like urinals made from halved-beer barrels, at which the especially portly man in his pristine whites stood to pour, his belly an excellent counterpoint for balancing to the pouring arm craned up and above his head's central balancing sensors, staring off into the distance, looking for a ship arriving from Tahiti it must be presumed from his expression (he was certainly not losing any sweat over the perfect transferal of paid commodities between bottle and glass!).
And then, to round the experience off, the bar was actually built like a long urinal, with a liquid drainage canal running along its length, and you were invited to discard your dregs (had you got any, I being an English drinker hadn't, having loudly and unceremoniously sucked my dregs out in a moral riposte against alcohol wastage) into it, again with a look of lordly aplomb, if you could muster it (I was almost crying at this point). By the second drink (half of it poured onto the floor by the blind and non-present barman) I was getting into the spirit of it all, straight away downing my drink (as was the custom) but leaving a hefty amount in mine (about half of it!) to gayly throw it straight back down the front of the bar! Brilliant fun! And of course, unlike the English reasons for drinking, this was more done for its community binding ritual and once I had left my desires for "getting pissed" along with my smelly mackintosh at the coat stand, I was appropriately tickled by this terrific novelty (if a little harrowed!) and would happily do it more often given the chance. But a warning to you, only practice drink chucking in a chucking-friendly establishment, always asking the barman first and don't bring alcoholic friends with you. It would be just too cruel!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

South to North: a coach ride and a geographical snapshot of the countryside upto Oviedo

We bade goodbye to Luis at the bus station in Cacares, near to Trujillo, and I was sad as he had become a friend. The way out of Extramadura in August cuts across a dun coloured Savannah like terrain, beetle cattle scattered across it, strange int heir brown wobbly flesh, shiny skinny ribs and cardboard rectangular shapes. Low buffon trees stood in silence, exotic drinking vessels standing on black shadowed beer mats. Time skulked and idled, it was hot.
Land runs freely here, among the trees and up and down the hills without interruption by field marking or fence. On stranded hillocks, boulders the size of the houses, piling up on top of each other, leaning in like indolent teenagers.
Nearing Salmanca, the yellow ground sprung green and brown, blue-green fruit tress flashing their silica leaves in the sun. A large reservoir, faced off around its edge by bright white sand was surrounded by the massive heights of the Sierra de Gredos, part of the Sistema Central mountain range. According to the map, the highest peak seen from my view was the 2400 metre whopper, Calvitevo. These peaks have ground down summits of fine rubble, with stunted trees and bushes making it up to near the top, the heights simple and inviting to exploration, serene below the space helmet moon. A miscellany of small valleys lay down below the coach, wrung around with walled fields along their contours, making a patchwork pattern. At a pass between high points, the stone wall etched fields are like riveted bands making the burned hills appear as leathery helmets.
On the way to Zamora, the land becomes less chaotic in design and altogether more boring and affluent. Square constructions and an agriculture with a golfcourse-aesthetic, even the scrub land seems orderly and twee, all the groves and crops geometrically plugged into well-watered spaces in the landscape. Rustic no longer. But at least dramatic in its expansiveness, one vista throwing open a vast blanket of wheat fields drifting for kilometre after kilometre in both directions, wind turbines lining the vanishing hills like idling blades on a combine harvester. A field of solar panel blades almost presuming to deceive the viewer that the earth is a thing that can fly. Now at Zamora, we traverse the lush Rio Duero and the bus stops for a break.
On again northwards, sun flower fields among the wheat, silos standing around like disused rocket packs. Another change, and we see trees! A veritable forest, the first in all of the 1000s of kilometres we had seen in Spain. Whole groves rushing upto the roadside, thick as polar bear fur, vivid and lush, random roadside bunches in exciting sprays like a florists mixture, one sandstone Church on a promontory looking down proudly over these Spanish rarities as if to say "look at our trees!".
Next the land dropped away below the road and became wet, the mango orange sun slipping low towards the shattered jawline of peaks, cornfields looking like stubble upon a now grass inhabited landscape. The sun plunged lower and the hills sulked a misty blue, a final splash and it was gone and Waseem broke his fast with a twenty pence muffin soaked in orange juice (our discovery!) and a sandwich he bought in Cacares when we departed. Up ahead in the falling light, the dark lilac arms of the Cordillera Cantabrica pulled the coach up and over into Oviedo, the dark tugging at our eyelids and at my pen, its handsome heights soon shrouded from attention, my last sight the altitude throwing yellow vegetation and scrub back into view, something normal at sea level in Extramadura.
Sso here ends my geographical description of an eight hour bus ride up most of the length of Spain's western half. Make of it what you will, but what was clear was that as the bus advanced the landscape's wealth increased in terms of greeness and growth and modern construction, familarity (in an englishman's eyes) and order increased and by inference fun decreased too. Extramadura seemed to be more rustic than I had ever imagined a european countryside to be, idealistically rural, unassuming and with a restrained ambition. I was sad to have left there. Extramadura was the most beautiful landscape I had seen in all of Spain, but how would Asturia (like Austria!) and its famous Picos de Europa mountain country compare? Stay tuned...

Pigs, kissing friends and sword fights in castles: childhood in Trujillo

It is difficult to imagine the charmed life of a not unhappy chiled growing up in the exquisite little town of Trujillo in Extramadura, Spain. And whether it involves cutting the pigs throat with your bare hands, feeling and smelling its blood, or fighting with antique swords in palaces not yet visited by thieves or archeologists, a Trujillo upbringing would surely vibrate with exhilaration and wonder.
Just a small glimpse at the golden nugget of the memory of our friend, Luis, yielded many stoires, and as we walked and talked our way around this huge village, basking on a granite rock, he talked about his life here, pigs, girls and trespassing being some major highlights.
Every year, the family kill a pig, an event central to their meat-loving life. Hilariously, their early morning post-kill coffee was interrupted twice one year by the presumed dead porker making a red bannered resurrection dash. Another year, the pig leapt off the barbecue, only to sprint around in a flaming halo before the decisive blow being belatedly applied. Perhaps they are better here at eating pig than at killing it! Poor Waseem, unable to eat the neck-less, and so ‘Haram’ meat, was the centre of much genuine but unquenchable curiosity at meal times, almost in opting out of this large “chunk” of their culture in this way he became curisouly alien and invisible to any inquiry. And what with temperance at the dinner table being decisively out of vogue, we were both the source of great mirth and head shaking bewilderment.
But back to the children, on the walk we headed in along climb to the top of this (children's) playground of civilization, on the way up we came to the Alberca, a pool of spring water cupped in a 30 metre deep spiral staircase of stone. Luis would often plunge off its sides, daring friends even strapping a table to a nearby turret and leaping off from a great height to watery safety. A worn down trough was for the arab women to wash and socialize, and nearby were places where Luis would bring girls, or “kissing friends” as he called them, to little centuries old romantic locations.
He and his friends would no doubt have poked fun and played around the various statues and historic erections, the impressively macho bust of Francisco de Orellano (1511-1545), his impassive glowering face a veritable font of ape and ridicule, one of many structural playthings at a young persons luxury. Discover of the Amazon and townsman, along with Pizzaro, slayer of half of south and central America, warrior role models are in good supply here fof the youth.
And what would an impressionable soul make of the whirlwind season of larger than life fesitvals? In Easter, men in KKK-style white pointy hats promenade around with sculptures describing the stations of the cross, and then on the 5th of September, a giant Virgin Mary (Trujillo’s Victoria) is carried on a giant wooden polished brass cradle, complete with candlebras, down from its castle fortress to the central square by a society of carriers, the noise and colour heightened as families dance to celtic sounding reels in traditional dress, boys with long white shirts and red neckerchiefs, black waistcoats and close fitting caps, the girls in decorated dark skirts, plumped out with underskirts. On Mayday, they outdo us by partying like there is no tomorrow at a Monty pythonesque titled “Fanfare of the Cheese”, celebrating not just the local specialities but also several special bullfights. In one local cheese, the purple heart of the thistle weed is poured into the fermentor to make a special flavour, its spikes also the bane of the unwary youth playing around the scrub that line the castles ramparts. Here, cacti grow, great strap like pads of thorny green in overgrown reveries of succulence, their fruit reddening on the branch free to pick. Dopily, Waseem having taken one down to inspect, I tried to wipe off the ultra fine hairs with fingers, only succedding in inflicting an irritation all over our hands. Luis’s mother had once taken tweezers to his tongue. Another day, we explored the other major stinging thing hereabouts, turning over a large rock and discovering a large yellow scorpion having a siesta.
There was other free fruit, lemon orange and pomegranate drooping from heavily laden trees within a climb’s grasp, atop odd ramparts or leaning off walled gardens. And if you had real cheek, you threw your towel over the glass atop the walls of the expensive houses and, while the owner was away, enjoyed his fruit trees, manicured lawns and the cool water in the swimming pools. But not all of nature is up for grabs, some passing nuns a reminder of the three nunneries Luis mentioned were in the town (down from 10) one of which is closed now but used to have an outdoor toilet which wreaked of pee!
The town is thick with little nooks, the narrow streets acting as corridors to transport knowing youth to unknown destinations away from the adult world and to places to play freely beyond the inward looking gaze of the closeknit community. Come here, I would recommend it, and bring some children!


I managed 3 days. By the 3rd, my legs had become very heavy and my inertia was doubling up, my siesta now 3 long hours of complete absence. Falling alseep at night, my body horizontal and sleep once more my best friend, an image popped into my mind of a sun straddling a horizon line, in balance between above and below, and it seemed to me that it was representing something I was feeling. The urges in my body had mellowed, my desires had abated and I had rapidly lost a lot of those irritating impulses of "hunger" and "thirst". At 9pm, 20 minutres before we "broke", I had on each evening felt disinterested in the meal, and though we did gorge ourselves a lot in the 4 hour time window before bed, to the point of nausea in my case, this was more out of anxiety than anything else and a desire to stand up well to the next day and the 36 37Celsius heat.
So for 20 hours each day we had no drink or food, and also didnt use toothpaste or admit any flavourings to our mouth, as is correct muslim pratice. We had also shaved our arm pits and groin, as is also generally customary for a muslim. But by the 4th day, I became reluctant to continue, mainly because I am not a muslim and because the heat and an exhasuting one hour 5 a side football match sweated out an armful of body fluid and I had experienced what I ahd set out to.
It was really surprisingly easy, and if I was a believer it would have been no real challenge, but for comfort sake and also as I am trying to lose a little weight (ironically, though your stomach is shrunk by the fast, I was overindulging in the feast) I have since been mainly as normal, though I have done a couple of days of fast since. Try it, I think you will learn something from it, and as it is practiced between sunrise and sunfall, my memory of it will always be of that vision I had of the drowsy sun, balanced on the horizon line poised to set.

Trujillo and the four poster beds

We arrived at 1145 at a nondescript bus station on the edge of the Little town called Trujillo. All around in the clear night vast open fields had been discovered through the pall of the evening, ranging far and wide and free, the abrupt flat-handed check of the stone walled streets jolting us awake. Our 4 day rolling transit was at an end. And with no preconceptions, the sense of exoticness intensified the feeling of triumph, our arrival made regal as we were whisked onto the historic cobbles of the central square by a kind girl and her father in their large 4 door car after we had asked them the way.
In the oval square, packed out with palaces and memorials to time, my doubts over coming were left sprinkled over the vast uninvisionable landscape behind us, (2022 kilometres to be precise, according to Google Map Routefinder) and a soujourn of homecooking and domestic delight was spread accross our itinerary like a delicious picnic. So near to a comfortable bed and security, and the clock ominously hovering at 5 to midnight, Luis wasn’t answering his phone and so Waseem called a friend in England who began relaying instructions to find his home as we marched around, a bit like in Challenge Aneka, if you remember this. Would we sleep on the street again?
Trujillo turned out to be a maze of homogenous terraces of squasehed together plastered cottages, shuttered and huddling in their ancient but secretive glories, the path ahead snuffed out at every turn by sense-boggling blind bends. When we were on what we thought was the right road, trundling with our heavy bags like sleep walkers, we were on the look out for the curiously described “house under the bell with the nest on it” which was in fact nowhere to be seen, and just as it looked like we would be sleeping on the street (we were not on the right road!) we made contact with Luis and he guided us “home” to bed. A hefty meal later, we lifted ourselves onto a four poster bed each and among deliciously crisp sheets imitated rocks plunging inexorably into a deep sleep. Staying at Luis’s parents was like being dipped into a domestic bliss of the sort I had almost forgotten about.
When we got up though, it was the dawn of ramdam and we would have to obstain from many delights until nightfall. Would we manage? Would we become deranged, and wander in the brilliant sun and hallucinate pastries, or gorge ourselves from the larder? Stay tuned until the next exciting installment!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Luxembourg to....

It was much too tempting, free food and accommodation, far away in deep dark Spain, and then afterwards a fully paid for room and meals at hotels with a touring music group, I couldn't go home. I also had around a hundred pounds of what i had budgeted to spend, so it was a challenge to stay cheap for a further 3 and a half out came the thumb and after taking the public transport (and not paying!) we got a lift southwards with Hakm, an Algerian Frenchman. France blew by in a wondrous blur. Hakm dropping us off at a petrol station, only for Eric and Ile a half hour later to whisk us a further 500 kilometres to just north of Lyon by 11pm. An indulgent one hour break in the service station, and "xxxxx" (can't remember at the moment), another French Algerian man, a chauffeur for Glasgow rangers footballer amongst other people, took us as far as Montpellier, a further 400 kilometres! Out we jumped, and had our photo taken with him, and as we had our standup wash in the toilets, Waseem recounted how he had begun to fall asleep at the wheel, Waseem asking him, with English restraint, "are you all right?" and we got there in the end. I had slept through the drama.
Pascale then took us on to the Spanish border, another large drive, he was a chemical salesman and his car smelt like it. Again I plunged into sleep, Waseem informing me again afterwards that he had started to sleep at the wheel and that he had asked him to pull over. Dangerous stuff, hitchhiking overnight. I slept right through it again, but I had been making good french conversation for quite a few hours of that night, and so probably needed to rest my English language shy mind. Smelly and tired, we were at a toll station and Spain was within walking distance, and so we slept in a field by the motorway. UP we got and, not soon after, we were into Spain with Victor and Florence doing a booze drive. The hills by the coast are rounded and well coiffed, like broccoli heads or poodle perms, the car rolling on by hay bales round like wheels. These lovely green hills, i noted from a road sign, were shielding our view from the white-toothed glare of Cadaques, its square and brilliantly white houses clustered around a bay immortalised by the surrealist painter, Salvidor Dali.
They dropped us off at a little town, where they had come to buy some eau du vie and some cheap San Miguel. Most of the people here were french, and we found it difficult to get a lift and walked out of town in 37Celsius and jumped over a fence to get to a petrol station on the motorway. Here it was difficult too, either the heat or the national temperament making people less communicative and helpful. But a couple of hippies, Tulla (listen to her at myspace, under the name of Sardana, she has appeared at Glastonbury!) and Carlos picked us up and dropped us off at a toll station, where we got a lift within 5 minutes by Sergio in a BMW convertible. Unfortunately when he dropped us off at Tarragona, just 100 kilometres south, he left us on the side of the motorway and so we marched off along the side of it in the hope of finding a petrol station. Petrol stations are better for hitchhiking as you are able to talk to people to ask them for a lift, and they also have more time to think about your suggestion. However, we just encountered a toll station, where unfortunately we were asked to move on. 4 or 5 kilometres later, after following the motorway westwards towards Llieda on the Madrid road, it was getting late and so we decided to sleep at a parking place by, or on in Waseem´s case, some chunky furniture. Before sun fall we stole some grapes form the vineyards and ate almonds off a tree, tasting richly of marzipan!
5 kilometres from a service station, we started off to hike there along the motorway, with the fanfare of the occasional horn honk to keep us to good speed and soon after a passing RAC van who escorted us along the hard shoulder with its flashing lights. Once more, a Spanish service station and we were met with the relatively terse and unfriendly responses of those we questioned about lifts, but Waseem with another of his good ideas went over to ask some people getting out of a large coach and they gladly agreed to take us as far as Madrid, 5 hours away! They were all Christians from a church in the Lebanon, and bade us Inhsala as we jumped aboard. I was mute on the voyage, as the music blared and Waseem entertained two small girls with the hand trick (where it looks as though your finger has been chopped off) and played games with them and chatted to the very friendly Wasim. Pssshhh, the doors opened and we stepped down (onto the side of the motroway again!) and with a feeling of elation jogged down the motorway verge, across a bridge over a few barriers and to a bus stop where Ily, the Lebanese minister, told us there would be a bus stop to the centre.
A hostel stay later, we were knackered, the trip having taken much longer than anticipated, we tried to hitchhike at the outskirts and dramatically failed, wandering this way and that to either hail down cars or search for buses to take us to better positions, with 16 kilograms on our back in the 37C heat until at 7pm, we gave up after a good 5 hours of trying. And again, in weakness, caught a bus, for a whopping 24 pounds.
In the sinking sun we drove in the express coach though the country around Madrid, where sad tress melted on a golden landscape, undulating and swirled like a caramel cream ice cream. We floated on in our clean, sofa style seats, the sun catching stubble int he fields and lighting them up brilliant yellow, soil a chocolaty brown, and the residual hum of the sunshine colouring purple 50 to 100 kilometres away. this was a vast plain, and on our boomerang trajectory away from the city, a last view of Madrid was sighted, row upon row of houses lit with sharp lights gazing south warily towards Arabian Africa. At least 20 peaks seem at the rim all around the plain, then the coach climbs a fly over, and this number multiplies to 200 then 500 discernible peals, this is a dramatic gathering of landmass! The trees mark the exotic terrain, rotund ones mixed with pines and with anorexic conifers. By the road, a 20 foot high black bull, a 19th century advertising hoarding for "Osborne" wine, retained across Spain for its symbolic depiction of Spain's national character, behind the sky is hot and glowering, as if removed from a fire, in the west it hangs like a piece of unquenched metal dented along its rim in irregular serrations like a scimitar blade by the long stretch of the hill line. Soon we would be in Trujillo, after a whopping 4 days of travelling, and we were in good need of real food and regular washing. But the next day, the 22nd of august, marked the beginning of Ramadan and a new challenge, to accompany Waseem on his fast. Wish us luck!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Budapest, my last night: a guy who hitchhikes with ships, a lost sleeping bag and a lady called Maria...

The following I am writing before I forget, it is out of order like a few of the most recent entries.

And a day in the hot hot sun, walking with my heavy bag (with the 5 or 6 books i had bought or had been given while travelling), meeting a new acquaintance Philip (a hitchhiker from Germany who was trying to flag down enormous freight boats to take him down river to the sea) for a photography exhibition at the extravagantly landscaped museum complex and sculpture park, left me abroad in the city and minus my sleeping bag. I had planned to sleep on the hill above the Gellert hotel, where there is a rocky park and a big statue of a lady, lit at night, holding aloft a wreath, but now my plans had changed. The 90 minute walk down to the museum I retraced and then back again, but for nothing other than seeing the city, which was ideal as I saw a lot. Along the way, somewhere near to the brilliant building that is the opera house, I met a homeless lady. She asked me for some money, but not having any, I gave her a bag of plums which she impishly received, her sly charm melding happily into a quite gracious and genuine smile.
"Thankyou, thankyou,"she said, "My name is Maria, like Virgin!"
She pointed over to a nearby church, where there was a picture of the virgin Mary. I gave her my name.
"Ahh, Thomas More!" she said, "God bless you Thomas More."
She had ways of trying to curry my favour, mainly humour edged doe-eye looks, but I resisted them. As I say I didn't have any money, and as much as I liked her I didn't want to condone her good humoured tactics. So we bid each other good bye. I felt quite sad not to have given her more. She was old and had all her possessions it seemed in a little trolley that she pushed around, and she was surprisingly resilient and good natured for someone who could be forgiven for being bitter and hardened. So I felt sorry for her.
But then I had an idea. I still had half a kilogram of Turkish delight that I had bought in the Balkans. I stopped and with much rummaging plucked it out of my bag. She hadn't ambled very far by then, so I jogged after her and gave her the gift.
"Thomas More!" she said, "Thankyou, God bless you, Thomas More, Ahh, thank you!" She said this while showering me with kisses. She was visibly moved and we talked for a short while, about her husband and son (she pointed upwards to tell me where they were) and about her dislike and distrust of gypsies. Then she wanted top give me something in return.
"A souvenir...let me see"
She wanted to give me a ´souvenir´, so she capered around her trolley and shaping herself uneasily, like Freddie Frinton´s drunk, extracted a packet of peanuts. The packet was already opened and her hands looked very dirty, but I accepted it (later to be put into a bin) and we said good bye to each other. I felt a lot of affinity for her, the way she used charm and humour when she was struggling, something I have found myself doing too.
So I carried on walking. It was good to see this area of eastern Budapest as here there are lots of nice cafes and book shops, statues and little parks in the middle of the streets. And it now being 1am I decided to stay awake in a bar and bought a cup of coffee and started to write all this down.
At 530 the bar shut, so it was a perfect time to be setting off, being able to get out to my hitchhiking position at the motorway petrol station early, walking across the river and to the main road leading west which soon became a motorway. Here I got my first lift and was off to Berlin.

Berlin and on to Koblenz

In Berlin I stayed with my friend Dave and his girlfriend, Laura. The first few days I just slept during the day as getting there had been an enormous hitchhike, 24 hours in fact, to make the 1200 kilometres as the crow flies (via Munich).
Everything was going well uptil the outskirts of Berlin, 2 VW camper vans and 3 cars taking me between 100 kilometres and 400 kilometres apiece, although I did spend about 4 hours in Munich, stuck in thew centre and by the time I reached the motorway it took a lot of thumbwagging in the stifling sun for Jurgen to take pity on me and whisk me off up the autobahn. But at Berlin things slowed up a lot and form 50 kilometres away it took me a further 7 hours to reach Dave's house in the centre. One ride took me in towards Berlin and then away again, heading out towards Dresden down another arm of the capital´s motorway network, there being no service stations for the Polish family to drop me at. The one they did find was only servicing southbound traffic, so I then had to backtrack 3 kilometres to the northbound one and make a dash across the autobahn too! I then got a lift from a lorry driver who took me to the north edge of the city (Dave lived in the south) and then I took the metro to what I thought was Dave's and it turned out that there were two streets of the same name in Berlin, so I got the metro again and by 830am was there at Dave's. Nathalie, my friend from Amsterdam who had come to meet me here too had already arrived int he city and was staying at Dave's, I had forgotten that I had given her his number! So it was funny to see her when the door opened, saying "'ello!" in a broad french accent, Nathalie and Dave having never met each other until then. That night we went clubbing, after a long and abortive stroll through the city in search of a squat party, which Berlin has many of. Oliver, who Nathalie had moved out to stay with through couchsurfing rescued us from the middle of we did not know where and in his car took us to a cult Berlin venue, the Kaffe Burger bar, for the Russe Disco an extremely perky Russian themed mix of music and an uninhibited dance floor clientele. In keeping with the cities creative flavour, the disco is run by an author, but I was alive to none of this and by the end of the evening when we left at 5am, I was a shadow. This was a third night without sleep. I really need to learn to say no.
The following night was a little less hectic, but not much so, Dave and Laura taking me out to see more of the groovy nightlife. First up, a rooftop bar on the top of a multistory car park, the upper deck of which in summer is covered with sand and decking so people can shake of their shoes and enjoy a drink in a deck chair. IT was good and relaxing, and from here you could see laser beams playing across the tall buildings on the skyline. In winter, it is just filled with cars. From here, Laura went home as she had a lot of work on, and Dave and I went to the rather wonderful Doctor Pong, two rooms, one with a bar and another with a table tennis table. Simple, but not as simple as the decor, which didn't exist, the grey space around the table lined with basic chairs and here and there stray wires poked from the ceiling. To get a beer, you asked a really friendly girl behind a hatch for a lager from a kitchen-style fridge, and then paid a deposit of 5 euros for a raggedy racket and our game began. Everyone was walking around the table, gently knocking the ball back to the other side, and when someone made a mistake they would drop out. At some times around 30 people would be crushed around the table at the outset, but by the end when 6 or 7 people remained, the players began to play their shots. Dave was really good and managed to get to the last 3 , but I was pretty rubbish and was quite happy to be a part of the communal atmosphere for a brief few shots.
To round off the evening, Dave took me on to a socialist bar near Dave's flat, called Cafe Morgenrot, where we shared a beer and Dave told me how if you came for the all you can eat Brunch, which is a common activity in Berlin, you are asked to pay (between 4 and 8 euros) what you can afford.
A lie in and then Dave treats me to a ticket for the Hertha Berlin football match at the Olympic stadium. The match is rather dull, but the stadium was worth seeing, several statues around the stadium of very strong and serious young men with extremely large and obvious genitalia standing by square horses and the large rectangular columns and vast fascist architecture of the stadium provide a dramatic setting for sporting events in the present day and serve the city well.
Another day I took the tour and there were also several days of much needed flopping in there too too, before having to say goodbye to Dave and Laura, who had been very kind and good company, and Waseem and I then decided, as we were to be staying at Ali´s house, a UCLan friends, in Koblenz that night we took the regional train offer where by you get two tickets for the price of one if you take the slow regional trains. 11 hours later we arrived at Koblenz, en route running out of the station at Magdeburg to see the enormous Hundertwasser (artist) designed apartment block, in a fantastical sweet shop and organic "Castle" style, its walls painted bright pink! This was one good idea Waseem had of many, I would probably just have sat in the station and people watched, but the half hour was used well.
By 840pm, we were at Koblenz, the historic town built at the confluence of two great German rivers, the Rhine and Mosel, where Alis brother Atilla picked us up and delivered us to Ali's parent's Italian restaurant, where we ate, and their guest house, where we slept. The evening was great, it was good to see Ali again, if briefly, and Ali's father kept my beer glass topped up throughout and the food was delicious. Otto at the end of the bar, a regular, kept sending peach scnhapps over to me, and while I tried to find places to stay and means of getting there on the Internet, waseem managed not to lose at dice and Ali went off to pray.
And so the next day Ali and his dad dropped us off in Koblenz and here, deciding on the novel idea of trying to walk to Luxembourg, set off to buy a sleeping bag and some supplies for the journey.