Friday, September 11, 2009

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!

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