('On-line' text of)
- A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006, 2015
Eventually we get another lift, away from the police checkpoint with the grumpy gendarme, which happily takes us a good distance onwards towards Montpelier. And as the new day breaks, we find ourselves further still, with the scenery appearing increasingly rural, positively scenic, dotted with villas and very expensive looking residences, mostly with high crenallated walls, grand and expensive, castles.
We are passing through the grape-growing region of Southern France and are within sight of the French Pyrennees. The low walls of the vineyards stretch out in all directions. I realise we are within sight of the French Pyrennees. On the stepped terraces dusty pale plentiful green clusters of ripening grapes bask in the warmth of the sun. Birds hop and fly about peacefully in the tranquillity apparently unperturbed by the sound of the engine of our compact Citroen car as it noisily complains at the hilly terrain.
When the road evens out, and we can hear ourselves speak, we recount our recent adventures to our driver, a middle-aged English woman, who listens eagerly. The car takes us ever higher, the countryside becoming ever more rugged and mountainous. We drive for quite sometime before I catch a glimpse of a sprawling village beyond, which I surmise must be our driver’s destination. Arriving at an imposing white villa, we are shown into the kitchen are all soon sitting relaxed and enjoying a hastily prepared snack and a cup of tea.
I enquire of our host about the local bus services to the border, and the lady offers to go out to find out more, which she does after a few minutes more.
Whilst she is out, Yolanda and I spend the time in idle conversation, sometimes glancing at a magazine and occasionally gazing out of the window. Oh, such a change to sit and be quiet awhile, and it turns out to be a long time before the car returns.
‘No buses at all!’ the lady announces, ‘But don’t worry I will take you to the border myself!’
True to her word, our benefactor is soon driving us ever deeper into the Pyrennees, and as she does so she asks us of our hopes and plans for our trip. Hearing of our ambition to travel overland to India and perhaps further, she eagerly endorses our plans – which fills me with some much-needed reassurance.
The castellated walls of the border post come into view and as we draw near the car slows and halts. Waving our lady friend goodbye we turn to meet the officials standing there in front of the road barrier.
* * *
Yolanda and I proffer our passports to the border guards and patiently wait their return, but the two men indicate they do not intend to let us pass!!
Immediately recognising the gravity of the situation I determine not to take their decision seriously but to treat it as a joke. Smilingly, I ask them to buck up and stamp our passports. But, though the ploy seems to leave them confused, they are not won over that easily. So, I think to mention that we do not wish to stay in Spain that we are merely travelling through on our way to Morocco. Apparently these are to them magic words, the ‘open sesame’ to getting into Spain, for with evident reluctance, they stamp our passports and raise the barrier for us.
I suppress my desire to dance a jig - instead I take a British £5 note to the bureau de change, someway down the road, and change it into Spanish currency, then take off down the steep winding road. Once we are safely out of earshot of the guards we stop to fume and rant as we recall the incident back at the border. It seems so unfair of them to put us through all that. Met with this response some might well have given up and turned back. This trip is quite a test.
The sun is gently setting, so we make an effort to get to get to the nearest habitation, but the distance to the next village seems to be a very long way yet. We come across a laubergio (inn) and after a few moment’s hesitation we enter and order a cheese roll and coffee, for each of us. When I come to pay, I reflect that if the cost of our snack is anything to go by, we are going to have trouble surviving our passage through Spain; I worry how much a hotel will cost, and after our snack, we press on in hope of finding modestly priced lodgings.
The trees and hedgerows are alive with the sound of nature; the sound of grasshoppers grass hopping is actually so loud that we struggle to make ourselves heard. Several lizards scuttle across the road, barely distinguishable from the trail of dust they stir.
We decide not to stay in a hotel, even if we find one, as it seems a better idea to sleep rough. After all, it is a warm dry night and we might soon find a suitable place to camp. But the light is failing fast as we hunt for somewhere we might stop to sleep. We have no torch, so in order to see we rely solely on the glow from the sky
‘At last! I was beginning to think we wouldn’t find anywhere,’ I say to myself as I heave myself up and attempt to climb over an iron gate.
I convince myself that we have found a good spot. It appears to be a large field, so, in order to avoid any unwelcome attention from locals, we decide to sleep adjacent to the road where we will be screened by a vast clump of bushes. Mercifully the grasshoppers and lizards are not in evidence here - all is peaceful.
As we prepare our bedding for the night, I bolster the flap of my sleeping bag with my jeans and a sweater, and then I take a leak in the bushes. Before getting into my sleeping bag I place our passports and cash reserve in my ‘pillow’, then settle down to stare at the sky, which although fairly cloudy one can still see a multitude of stars.
I think of how far we have come. It is wonderful to have a place to stretch and relax. a chance for us to get over the strain and worries of the day. Winding my wristwatch I murmur goodnight to Yolanda.
‘Have you got the passports and the money safely?’ she asks.
‘Safe and sound,’ I reply, making myself as comfortable as possible and closing my eyes. I offer a quiet prayer for our welfare and for that of my dear mother.
* * *
Awakening I can’t place where I am, in fact I’m not even conscious of who I am. I take a quick shufti and find myself lying in a sleeping bag, in a field
Suddenly a shot of pain disturbs my train of thought.
‘Ah my face. Ow! Ow! Ow!’ I yell.
‘What is it?’ comes a bleary voice.
‘My face! Ow! It’s really painful, take a look at it would you!’
‘Oh! You’ve been bitten. They look bad,’ my girlfriend announces solemnly.
My attention falls on Yolanda’s sandals, which are lying close to, on which little red insects are coming and going. So the ants bit my face and the worst that happens to Yolanda is this bit of interest in her sandals!
‘Now that’s hardly a fair deal’, I mutter.
I rub and massage my face vigourously, which unfortunately only seems to make the pain worse, much worse.
Now I realize my sleeping bag feels damp, which isprobably the effect of the morning dew, so I peel off the bedding, get myself dressed, lace up my boots and pack up my belongings. Shaking the red insects off Yolanda’s sandals I offer them to her; the sandals that is, not the insects.
As I brush my fingers over my cheeks and can feel the bites, swollen and very sore.
We decide to get going, and walk into the local town of Port Bou, a picturesque little with pleasant looking house,s and shops with shuttered windows. In the cobbled market square we find a water point where we, as discretely as is possible, we brush our teeth and freshen ourselves up. On brushing my hair I discover that it has become matted and totally unmanageable, but I do my best to make myself presentable. We make for a local café and breakfast on orange juice and bread roll, at no great cost. Yolanda seems surprised she does not understand the language here, for it seems she had assumed that Spanish would be similar to Italian. As it happens, I am secretly glad that we are in the same boat. I haven’t enjoyed being translated for, and it is better for us both to be on a level.
In the town we catch sight of an officer of the guardia, who, with his handgun and devilish black hat, has Yolanda cowering in fear. Personally I can’t relate to her fear but I let it guide me and keep myself from his view. I get the impression that Yolanda has heard something about these police from someone. I know nothing about the administration here, my knowledge being limited to just the name of the boss, General Franco, whose his face stamped on every coin
Seen from Port Bou, the Pyrenean views are most pleasant, with verdant rounded peaks and slopes etched with paths roads and streams. I can easily understand someone wanting to explore them but right now we are set on traveling onward down the coast.
We find a good position to hitchhike from, closeby a signpost which reads ‘Barcelona’. The morning is still young so the traffic is very sparce. Standing waiting for a lift, I scrutinise the house in front of us, with its several stories and large green painted shuttered windows. My attention wanders to the weathered faces of adults and dark eyed children that pass us. Then I stare up at the little houses on the cliff top, which face out to sea.
We are high above sea level and I strain to see more than the shapes of vessels floating upon it. Automatically I raise my thumb at the sound of any approaching car.
Of a sudden I become aware of raised voices and quickly turn my head. A van has stopped, its occupants wave and shout to us.
‘Come on hop in!’ a voice calls.
The van has evidently come from Britain, they appear to have customized the vehicle by fixing extra seats where usually there is just space for goods. There are a few travelers onboard but there is space enough for us too. We bundle in and fairly immediately strike up conversation with everyone. They seem very curious about us and appear impressed with our plan to head for India, as they are only coming to Spain and Majorca, an island off the mainland. There is an openness about the mentality about them that attracts me, I even feel a stirring in me to drop our plans and share a holiday with these young people with whom I have quickly developed a strong sense of friendship. They encourage us to join them. But Yolanda seems determined to be aloof and distant. I continue chatting, charmed by their camaraderie and enthusiasm.
The penny eventually drops; Yolanda is not drawn towards their company and for a moment I wonder if I detect a faint air of jealousy. I find it very embarrassing when I realise that our companions have noticed her reactions. Yolanda is scowling.
After a few more miles we reach another town, and the van pulls to a halt and the doors are flung open. The idea is to stock up on provisions and also some of them want to find somewhere to perform their ablutions.
Yolanda uses body language and facial expressions to tell me she wants us to break company with the others, and travel on our own. Though I feel inclined to try and persuade her otherwise it is obvious that her attitude is deeply entrenched, so I don’t chance it. Having taken our leave of our new friends, Yolanda and I walk away in an uncomfortable silence. It is quite some time before anything like normal relations are resumed between us.
We just keep trudging on, and by the time someone else stops to offer us a lift we are quite exhausted. This time our driver is a Spanish businessman who has a fairly good command of English. For what seems like many hours he drivse along the coastal road, and though we all talk from time to time, I spend a lot of the journy idly peering out through the windows. It seems to me the Spanish have a thing about fortifications, there appear to be turrets and castellated walls everywhere.
Eventually, our driver indicates that he is now going off from our route, and so will drop us at the next town, which he does, in sight of the sandy beach.
‘Multo gracias,’ we call as the car speeds away. We are by now quite hungry so we spend some fifty odd pesetas purchasing some bread cheese, oranges and a carton of milk, convincing ourselves we are getting better value for money than by eating in a café.
Having paid for our groceries we make our way along the shore all look for somewhere to sit down and eat. We keep walking and eventually found ourselves outside a beautiful hut constructed from palm branches and leaves. It is as though we have stumbled on some idyllic South Sea paradise, and can’t understand why there is no one else about.
Settling down we sit and ate our al fresco meal to sound of the sound of gently rippling waves, as they gently lap the shoreline. The light is fading rapidly, and when no one comes to stake their claim over the hut, we decide to move our belongings inside, then settle down to enjoy a cigarette, and to watch the splendour of the setting sun - gorgeous reds, orange and pinks shot the sky.
We watch the fading afterglow and the sparks shooting up from beach fires in the distance. Eventually, we decide to walk to the standpipe, which is just a few paces along the beach, and there we clean our teeth and then return to our hut again, intent on an early night.
Lighting a candle we lie for a few minutes, enjoying the coarse rustic charm so enhanced by the flickering light. We savour the situation to the full before contentedly wishing each other goodnight. It seems we are getting the hang of the travelling life; and it appears our plans are working out. Perhaps we really will get to India? So far I haven’t really believed that we would actually make it that far, but now it is starting to feel, just remotely, well… kind of possible.
* * *
We sleep soundly and neither of us arises before eight o’clock. In the bright light of day our ‘paradise’ looks even better than the day before. We arise with some enthusiasm and after freshening up, we finish the remainder of the milk and bread.
As we bask in the beauty of our surroundings we plan to stay for a few days. I guess it must be the general feeling of well-being and lazing about, but we find ourselves return to our hut, peeling off our clothes and yielding to our passions.
Re-affirming our feelings for each other, we then lie in each others arms, we are without a care in the world.
After some minutes spent relaxing together, I feel a sudden urge to get up and put on my clothes; Yolanda follows suit and pulls on her dress.
As we re-emerge into the bright sunlight, I look about me and as I do a chill passes through me, immediately changing my mood.
Walking towards us along the beach at some speed is a figure pushing a bicycle, a policeman, a guardia! I quickly avert my gaze and sit down, pretending not to notice him.
As he draws closer he halts and stares at us in tight-lipped muteness, all the while leaning on his bicycle.
Suddenly and harshly he snarls questions in broken English - questions as to our citizenship and as to how long we have been here.
Sensing danger in his manner I answer that we have only just arrived. His dark mood softens perceptibly; he looked less angry, less threatening. He stands a while, pondering the situation looking from one the other of us.
‘Pass-e-Ports!’ he demands, holding his hand rigidly out towards us. For a long while he studies them before looking up again. ‘Oooh kaay!’ he says fixing me with his steely eyes, ‘Now, Go!’ He spits out his command, gesturing back up the beach.
We stare at him defiantly, but instinctively I realise he not one to mess with.
We retreat inside the hut to silently gather our baggage before obediently making our way back up the beach. All the while he stands there leaning on his bicycle, giving us the evil eye.
It could have been worse, I figure, for had he come upon us just a few minutes earlier, well, it really doesn’t bear thinking about! Yolanda often prattled on about “listening to the small still voice within” a quote from her ‘Voice of Isis’ book. But, perhaps the authors knew a thing or two after all?
I confess I am more than a little annoyed to be turfed out of our beach paradise in this way, and, when we are out of earshot of the policeman, we shower him with abuse. But the over-riding emotion is not one of anger but one of relief, that we are out of his clutches and have thus avoided finding out what the inside of a Spanish jail looks like, at least for now!
My facial sores still irritate me, and wandering further along the seafront I sense that everybody who passes is staring at them. It is difficult for me not to think about the bites.
We keep on walking and eventually come to a railway station, so go and look about there. I find myself studying the crowds, the tourists who are milling around here. There is a middle-aged gent in white short-sleeved shirt, baggy trousers and sandals, who heads for a newspaper stand where a quantity of English newspapers are spread. By his intent expression I figure the newspaper vendor is on his way to a quick sale.
I note the headlines of the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘Daily Telegraph’, they carry photographs prominent British politicians, Alec Douglas-Home, and prime minister Harold Wilson.
‘Oh who cares?’ I muse to myself.
When I was at school, my schoolmasters had tried to give us the habit of reading newspapers, though in my case they were unsuccessful. In this sun drenched holiday resort of the Costa Brava, who on earth needs to be kept up with the news, especially from out-of-date papers?
‘Who wants yesterday’s papers? Nobody in the world!’, go the lyrics of The Rolling Stones’ song. Remembering the lyrics I hum and sing the song to myself.
Then I get chatting with an English tourist of about my own age, he is togged out in shorts he has a camera swinging from his neck, and in his hand he grasps a bulging holdall. He explains to me he has the Spanish equivalent of a ‘Rail Rover’, which affords him cheap unlimited travel around Spain. I consider the possibility of oour catching a train down the coast and set about consulting the railway map and timetable, thinking it might be a nice a change from hitching. On the surface it looks like a good idea, but I know it is silly to fritter away our precious funds. I am tempted but I do not yield. As the train pulls away from the station I try to convince myself that we wouldn’t have enjoyed the trip.
We return to the main road and start hitching again. We are soon lucky and our next lift whisks us off further along the coast to a huge resort with numerous high-rise hotels. We thank the driver and get out to explore.
Surveying the shops I notice a supermarket, something of a novelty back in England. Since we don’t know the language it makes sense to be able to browse the stock and make our choice at our own pace. But as soon as we enter the store, the mawkish looking woman in attendance gives us her total attention, babbling in her native tongue and shadowing our every movement. Whether she just hasn’t adjusted to the principles of supermarket shopping or she is just suspicious of foreigners I am unsure. Anyway, she proves to be an utter pest, and as we realise that there is to be no let up in her relentless attention, we opt to buy nothing at all.
The intense heat is making us very weary, so it is not unreasonable for us to decide to take a break from hitchhiking and instead to go and lie down on the gloriously sandy beach. But there are already hordes of sunbathers stretching themselves out, lying in their costumed bodies browning their otherwise fair skins. Yolanda produces a one-piece bathing suit she intends to wear and finds my pair of swimming trunks for me from within the rucksack. In time-honoured tradition we shuffle about uncomfortably beneath our towels and only after considerable exertions emerge with our bathing costumes on, all too conscious of our pale un-holidayed skin.
We take to the blue waters but I am careful to keep an eye on our belongings. I wade in and am instrantly refreshed and cooled down; Yolanda takes a brief swim.
Soon we are back on the beach, towelling ourselves down and getting on with the serious task of tanning ourselves. We apply suntan oil liberally over our faces, limbs and bodies; the sun is scorching hot, hotter than I have ever experienced it. But I am determined to make the most of this coveted opportunity to get a decent tan, so we long lie here, shifting about, rolling over, turning our faces this way and that. The severe overheating and the mind-numbing boredom of lying here really tests my patience.
‘I’m going to get a drink’ announces Yolanad. ‘What about if I get some oranges as well?’
‘Good idea, I’ll look after the stuff.’
Yolanda slips on her dress and is off.
Time slips by and Yolanda does not return, so I begin to fret that something might have happened to her. All too often the mind does that, it seems to need to find something to agitate about.
Eventually Yolanda returns and the oranges she brings taste really good. Then we settle down again to tanning ourselves a good while longer. I can cope with the boredom of lying there, but the heat is really overwhelming, and I am beginning to feel like I have really had enough, and am feeling woozy. It must be time to get a move on.
Once we get back to the main coast road we stand about, waiting for a lift. I don’t know about Yolanda but I am feeling dangerously de-hydrated. I figure it would be a really nice luxury to be able to pop back to a hotel room. Actually I am feeling slightly faint and even a bit sick and I think Yolanda is too. We both start to feel somewhat desperate, so desperate in fact that we made a pact that we will go in either direction, just so long as we can get a lift. Standing on opposite sides of the road, we raise our thumbs to any passing vehicle.
By good fortune a car stops for us, and it’s pointing in the right direction, and the breeze blowing through the open window, though warm is nonetheless refreshing. Perhaps it’s because I’m thirsty, but I become fixated with staring at pools of water gathered here and there on the tarmac. I wonder where the water is coming from and why it is flooding the road. But I then notice that I don’t hear a splash as we go through them – that as we approach a pool of water it disappears, only to be replaced, by others in the distance - mirages nothing more!
From the other direction a steady stream of vehicles flow - oil tankers, lorries and cars belch forth exhaust, filling our nostrils with fumes. The glare of the sun is clearly too much for Yolanda - she dons her sunglasses, but I have none, so I have no choice but to squint. Dust is everywhere here, on the road, in the air, in our eyes, and in our mouths. Telegraph poles, signposts and houses keep flashing by us. Horns resound in my head as again and again we overtake and are overtaken.
As the day wears on, the glare and the heat subside and the draft from the window blows cooler. I become aware that oncoming vehicles are now showing their lights, the neon advertisements glow in the twilight sky. Relentlessly our driver drives on, stopping only for traffic signals.
It is well into evening before the car pulls over to the side of the road and we come to a stop. Our driver tells us he needs to sleep. It will be a chance to relax from the incessant motion, but, instinctively, being naturally cautious not to expose ourselves to unessarary danger, I resolve not to sleep.
As I chew gum I watch first our driver and then Yolanda fall to their slumbers. The unearthly glow of the streetlights colours the air. I light a cigarette but in the half light I find it difficult to ascertain how much remains unsmoked, so I take to feeling the length of the cigarette and consequently get rather sore fingers.
My girlfriend is first surface from her sleep, and we speak together in hushed whispers so as not to disturb the driver. The time passes slowly, very slowly indeed.
* * *
From out of the gloom come the sounds of yawns, grunts and a long sigh – sounds of our driver awakening, finally our driver’s head bobs up. Opening the car door he lets his feet fall to the ground outside, then he leans over to rub his legs. Turning to us, he indicates that we should await his return, and with no more ado he makes off, disappearing into a nearby building.
Yolanda and I exchange questioning looks. There is nothing to do but wait. We open the packet of Spanish cigarettes we had bought earlier, and discover them to be even stronger than French ones, I find they really tear at the back of my throat. I begin coughing savagely and then realise I desperately need a drink – I am hungry too Too much heat and too much smoking, then there the effects of severe sunburn brought about by our stint on the beach – actually, I am feeling decidedly unreal and uncomfortable
Outside the car nothing stirs, up above, around the street lamps night moths dizzily fly. I am so tired of waiting. Where is our driver? What is he up to?
I see a lone figure emerging from a nearby building, it is a man carrying something and all at once I realize that he is heading towards our car. As he knocks on the window with the back of his hand I recognise it is our driver. Catching the gist of his gestures, I lower the window and take the bag he offers to me. I take a peek and find it contains filled rolls, bottles of juice and cigarettes. Reseating himself in the front he leaves his door wide open, and the tiny light within the car stays alight, by means of which we can now see each other properly. A smell of aftershave perfume exudes from his beaming face and he now looks totally refreshed and wide-awake. For my part I find refreshment in the juice, and the food works wonders on my system. When we are almost done with our mea,l our driver takes to handing out other fancies, such as biscuits and sweet bars.
Now it is our turn to take some exercise. We stumble out of the car for a much-needed walk about, it feels so wonderful to stretch my legs again. Soon we are ready to get back in the car, now fully awake and ready for the road again.
After the break our driver is now quite chatty which promises to make the journey ahead more pleasant. Traversing kilometre after kilometre of road, and with our headlights gamely warning us of the twists and turns of the road ahead, we make our way to the city of Valencia. From here we keep traveling to Alicante and keeping mainly to the coastal route we press on towards Almeria. I’m beginning to realise that there is little chance of our visiting Madrid or Granada if we continue much further in this direction. But we are not in control; we are hitching a ride wherever the cars are going.
As the day progresses first one and then another takes us ever further down the Spanish coast, our drivers seem to see our companionship as fair exchange for their generosity.
We have already come a long way away from London - in more ways than one. Along unfamiliar roads we have sped forth through France and Spain; crossing bridges and catching many sights along the way, such as vineyards, mountains, tollhouses, windmills and watermills. Recently we have even made a short trip through the desert, where, according to our driver, cowboy films have been made – and the ghost town of a movie set nowadays stands useless and surreal, the area now being deserted by all but wild animals.
The journey so falteringly begun is gradually gathering momentum, and as the miles flash by my spirits rise. I am pleasantly surprised as to how well we are taking to life on the road. I enjoy observing life around me, watching to see how people outside of Britain are living, searching all the time for inspiration, something to that can show me how to live a better life.
The car slows to a halt in a small village high in the hills and our driver disappears off to the local bakers. Taking this rare opportunity to get out for a moment, we visit a nearby bar, in search of a toilet. There we try a variety of words that might convey our need – ‘loo’, ‘toilet’, ‘toilette’, ‘cabinit’o, ‘lavatori’e – we even resort to mimes and gestures but they are of no avail. Had we waited for our driver things might have been easier for us, but as I am growing desperate I decide to trespass into the back of the kitchen and locate the toilet myself, and I wait with the locals, who sit nodding and grinning, whilst Yolanda too disappears into the back. When our driver eventually puts in an appearance, the woman in charge of the bar, amidst explosions of laughter, explains the situation to him. When the situation has calmed down, he shares with us bread he has bought, and to our surprise it tastes sweet; it is a wonderful bake and not a crumb gets wasted.
Come the evening time our lift comes to an end and after bidding our driver farewell, we are left standing on the side of a very busy road in the fading light. Since it is late and we have travelled far today, it seems a good idea to find somewhere to sleep, and so we climb the steep verge to find a comfortable spot to get some rest. Out of sight of the traffic we figure we will most likely be safe for the night, so we arrange our sleeping bags and coats comfortably, and settle down hoping we can shut out the sound of the traffic that sweeps up from the busy nearby motorway.
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