The Long Over-Due Update

10-26-08

And then what happened? Ha!

In Orgiva there is a community of hippies that lives up in the moutains. It was well known, easily accessed, and certainly worth a look. What was it like? Hmm… you will just say that you are decidedly not a hippie. You may have a transient lifestyle, support peace, love, drugs, green movements, sustainable materials and energy, but you cannot in any sense of the word call yourself a hippie. You and Alexis stuck out like sore thumbs.

A tall Danish man with a fearsome head of dreads and a large bushy beard offered you a lift up to the community, known as Beneficio. You and Alexis crammed into his car, which was little more than a sardine can, covered in straw, hair, flies, and cigarette ash. A mattress was strapped to the roof. The drive was short and bumpy, and you learned that this man arrived 12 years ago, and was more or less king of the trailer park. It wasn’t a trailer park—more like the Beneficio parking lot. But there are two distinct styles of living: in a vehicle, or in some semi-permanent abode in the woods. The car park looked a bit like a junk yard, with about a dozen dogs patrolling the area, heaps of scrap metal, piles of garbage, and still more flies.

Still, it was a curious experience. You strapped on your bags, went walking toward the woods, and anxiously looked for a cute little circle of tents, brick structures, straw homes, etc. You didn’t make it that far. A man started calling to you from the open door of his van. “Helllloo! Hi. How are you? Come in. Where are you from? Do you want some tea?”

Small, skinny, short hair, round black eye-glasses. His name was Mauricio. Well, no. That was his new name. He was a Frenchman, and his real name was Borice. But two weeks earlier, he claimed he was so bored that he decided to change his name, and because he so loved Italy, he decided upon Mauricio. This wasn’t the first person you met during your travels who had changed his name spontaneously. There was Yolinda—formerly known as Peba—from Belgium, who decided her new name was less agressive and cultivated her more Yin qualities.

Borice invited you into his cat-and-fly infested van, spend an hour preparing tea and talking excitedly about how he loves living in Beneficio, that his position at the edge of the [trailer park] was ideal because he can see everyone who comes in and out. “And I love to have people visit. But I do not like to visit with everyone. I call out to people I feel affinities for. I love-love-love ze girls!” Damn, if only you hadn’t put on makeup.

Mauricio took you on a tour of Beneficio, eventually. You saw shacks and shanties, tents, tee-pees, “bakers,” hermits, families, children, dogs and dogs and more dogs. Folks covered in tattoos, beards, dreds, bells and chains. Barefoot, topless, bent over, and tall. Loads and loads of transients, numerous other more permanent fixtures in the community. Abandoned camps and projects… but no piles of trash, no open fires, no dumping in streams. There seemed to be a few set rules. “But it is great here. It is better than wwoofing,” Mauricio went on, “Because here, if you get up and you don’t want to work, you don’t have to do nothing. And the meals happen in the afteroon, and then in the night you can have a dinner. And if you want, you can put some money in the box, but you do not need to.” You asked who organized those community meals. He was unable to answer.

It took ages to shake Mauricio, but you finally did. Set up camp by the entrance to Orgiva, made your way to the baker and bought excellent Italian-made pan intergral. Eventually found your way to the community dinner tent, where you were to remove your shoes and join quietly in the circle of singing, drumming, smoking hippies. You made the acquantaince of a British guy who told you a bit about the place. You asked him who arranged the community dinners. He was unable to answer. He explained how much (or really, how little) people worked in Beneficio, and how pleasant and awesome it was to live there. “This is really a a special place.”

But as they passed around heaping plates of rice and vegetables, and then later the grass, you still couldn’t get your question answered. “So if I put my money into that little donation box, who collects it, who manages it, who goes into town and does the shopping, who prepares the food?” Answer: everybody. “But how? Who does the work?” Alexis commented that every time you used the word “work” it shook people like the word “Holocaust.” “Maria! These people don’t like talking about work. Don’t you get it?”

No, dammit. You didn’t. And you still don’t. Until the moment you left, you couldn’t figure the place out. You had to sneak out of Beneficio before Mauricio woke up, because up until then, you had been unable to enter and exit the compound without waking him.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>

One story follows another. You excitedly made your way further south, to the coast, where you had a too-good-to-be-true job arranged for a few days. You would be wwoofing in a little town called Maro, on a proper organic farm and vegetarian kitchen, where you would be expected to work a bit in the garden, and a bit in the kitchen. In exchange, you would be given a cliff-side cabana overlooking the Mediterranean, would only need to work two hours a day, and would then pay 5 euro a day to cover the cost of food. If it was gourmet vegetarian, you didn’t mind paying (though you did ask if it were possible to work more hours per day and not have to pay. The answer was no).

Too good to be true. How did you come to believe that this farm would be all these things? Word or mouth from a girl you met in Belgium, who in fact never actually worked there, but only took photos of the place for a day, and probably never saw the accommodations.

Everything went wrong. The farm was not a kitchen. It was under-developed, over-grown cliff sides dappled by avocado trees. The place swarmed with flies, the cabanas were outdoor lean-to’s with ages-old mattresses set on wooden pallets, infested with spiders and dust mites. No toilets, no showers, no source of DRINKING water. You met your co-workers. A group of lost, half-starved Germans who explained that the kitchen was a small room with completely empty shelves, and you could go into town and buy food that you needed and could use the facility to cook. But wait? Weren’t you going to be fed? You asked your boss. Yes, of course, for five euro per day they would give you some of their unripe vegetables growing on the property, and if that wasn’t enough, you could go into town and buy some rice or something.

Five euro per day, EACH? You and Alexis can eat for four days on 15 euro. Unacceptable. And not have to pay for accommodations that were, in fact, WORSE than the manner in which you were already living! You left within two hours, faced this brutal defeat—crushed spirits—hot sun, no water, and spent the night on a rock face in the next town. Anything beat those mattresses.

You can feel it now: Alexis’ critical eye as she watches you compose this blog entry. She doesn’t want your readers to think that most of your experience in Spain went completely bust. It didn’t. Sometimes, luck comes your way when you least expect it. You reached Malaga in one ride. The lads (British) took you straight into the city and dropped you on the beach. Nice city. Nothing to scream about, but the beaches were the nicest urban beaches so far, and the city had a very relaxed feel to it. You had a beer, had a shower (beach showers!), and snapped a few photos before beginning to trek out. A girl on a bike noticed your backpacks and started talking to you.

“Hey! What’s up? Where are you from? You’re from Seattle? No shit! I’m from Forks, Washington!” From where? Turns out it was the town featured in the new, trashy Twilight series. Alexis, having read the series, started talking about it, and before you knew it, you were all moving down the beach togehter. Her name was Layla. She was 30 years old, teaching English in Malaga, and having the time of her life. Gregarious, loud, fearless. That was Layla, and she offered you her apartment within five minutes of meeting you. You were unsure about whether to take her up on her offer, feeling it too good to be true, but by the time you were seated in the park, playing your harmonica along to her street singing, you realized you were a match and gave her a definitive yes.

She introduced you to her friends, their guests, and so on. You saw parts of Malaga you would have missed. Eventually found yourselves in her large apartment, eating the most delicious curry of your life, drinking, laughing, watchign Youtube, playing music, and sleeping on a clean soft mattress. You had the time of your life, spent another day in Malaga recovering. Your body, the moment it detects something soft and comfortable, shuts off, and you turn a bit catatonic. She completely understood, having travelled much herself. She gave you free reign of the place, laid no expectations on you, added no hidden costs, and was pretty much the best damn person you’ve ever met. Your last night in Malaga, you hung outside a theater juggling, playing hackey sack, and attempting to ride a unicycle.

>>>>

11-07-09

You are marooned.

It is raining. Freezing cold (not quite freezing, but with the wind-chill, WORSE). You are somewhere outside San Sebastian, in the north of Spain. The clouds are thick and grey, as is the smoke that hangs heavily in this room packed with approximately 150 men. Mostly Spanish men. Truck drivers. You are in the truck driver hub of northern Spain. All the Spanish and Portugese drivers passing north to south, or east to Madrid hole up here for their 24-48 hours off.

Weekends at the truck stop are a unique type of lonely. Though there are dozens of people to talk to, interactions are brief and superficial. A crowd of guys from the same company might collect around a single table and watch the races on TV; pairs sip coffee and beer together, hunched over the bar, hands flicking left and right—a wish-washy gesture of indifference. On the far side of the room, a dozen men dine, each alone, in style, with a bread basket, oil, vinegar, main course, and a bottle of wine to himself. You and Alexis are the only two women in the room.

When you tramped through the door of the 24-hour restuarant at midnight, damp with freezing rain, over a hundred men looked your way. You smiled confidently and bee-lined it to the women’s room—pristine, unsullied, practically never-been-peed-in. Safe haven. The next morning, you would be able to find yourself a nice trucker to take you all the way to Carcassonne; you would be able to travel in style, in heat, high above traffic (albiet slowly, but steadily), without worrying, and without the need to stand in the bitter winds and showers, pleading for the next lift with tears squeezing from your eyelids.

Are you exaggerating? Not in the least. Somewhere along the line, autumn moved into Europe; and while you were blissfully unaware down in the southern Mediterranean coast of Spain, the North of Portugal and all the land within 300km of the Atlantic coast was getting soaked. Last night, you and Alexis pitched your tent practically between two trucks, on the frigid, pebbly-grassy ground, clung to each other for dear life, and shivered your asses off. It was a near-sleepless night, interrupted at 5:30am to light to stove to offer a little heat. You boiled water, infused it with cinnamon and tobasco (dusgusting, yes), and gulped it down to warm you on the inside.

You had been wet for two days before this, unable to dry even your socks. You have lived in a perpetual state of dampness since leaving Porto. A month ago, a cooking fiasco rendered the bottom of your tent full of holes (not a problem in dry conditions). Two months before that, you might have packed the tent damp and left it in the bag for two weeks. What you had was a mildewey, nasty, water-logged, leaking tent (that smelled like a sewer). You woke in that first morning of rain and promply went on a mission for a new tent. And you DID find one, accidentally, when one driver took you too far and dropped you in a commercial district. You bought yourselves new accommodations for 26 euro (paid for itself in one night)–it is a bigger, BETTER tent than your fancy one from Ireland.

The bigger problem was trying to escape that district and head in the direction of Spain. The only road out of the city was the motorway, and TWICE you were admonished by Portugese highway security for walking on the autopista. When you are wet and cold, your threshold for patience goes down. Or maybe, the longer you travel, the tougher, more confident, more assertive you get (certainly, you tolerate less bullshit). Everytime a security agent of some kind (male, of course) approaches you, you notice that he takes a moment to gear himself up; their is a sharp intake of breath, an adjustment of posture, a set of expression, and then he waggles his finger at you and says something to the effect of (in whatever language), “It is PROHIBITED to walk on the motorway!

Knowing that this was going to happen, you prepared your retort with the first pair of security guards. You leaned in though the window, held out the torn-out page of your atlas, and showed them your exact location on the road, and where you intended to go. “No money for train. No money for bus. This is the ONLY road. What can I do?!” you shouted to one’s face, over the noisy of the rain and traffic. He looked baffled. “It is prohibited to walk on the autopista.” You showed him the turn-off on the map, and repeated. “Yes, I know. NO money for the train. NO money for the bus. I must WALK. How can I leave, if this is the ONLY road out!?”

The two exchanged a look. They argued with each other in Portugese for a minute. Then, “No walking on autopista.” You pointed down the road, “Then will you take us to the ramp?!” Not enough space in their pathetic little patrol car. The arguing continued for several minutes. The men were armed with but one line: “You have to walk back to where you got on. No walking on the autopista.”

Fine. You and Alexis walked back, waited roadside, and eventually hopped into a van of baked salesmen in their company-party-mobile, who, after hearing your predicament, took you to the turn-off you needed (stoned drivers are always the nicest). Again, you needed to walk on the autopista. You and Alexis made it a kilometer down the road before another patrol vehicle stopped. The man hopped out, much more assertive than the last two, and fixed himself to say, “It is prohibited to walk on the autopista!” You interrupted him with the enthusiasm of a pathetic, lost, little girl—hoping your new angle would get better results than the last time, “Thank you! Thank you sooo much! Can you please, pleeease help us? These men LEFT us on the side of the road!”

He didn’t buy it. At that point, every security guard new about you and Alexis on that road.

No walking on the autopista. That is it. They never take you to the next exit. You have to walk back the way you came. It is permitted to walk backwards on the autopista. Always resisting progress. You and Alexis bitterly went back to the exit, decided to pitch your new tent under a bridge, and attempt to dry out your gear. But no-can-do. Ever seen a Portugese mosquito? How about a thousand? They come in clouds, huge, soundless, and chase you no matter how you try to swat them away. You dove head first into your abode, hugged your knees, and watched those little fuckers collect on the other side of that thin polyester. Worst day ever. Worse than your fiasco in Le Mans, France.

Yes, okay, this all starts out gloomy, and seems to get gloomier. But its not that bad. Just cold. Your first ride the next day was a sweet, uber-polite and helpful Portugese trucker, who told you that if you are trying to get all the way to Italy, you chose the wrong day. Huh? “All the drivers take the day off today! Tomorrow, everyone goes to France and Italy. It is slow, but they take you the whole way.”

Your readers may be wondering why you have not hitch hiked in semi-trucks much before. First, you only covered short distances. Second, they never stopped. Third, you never tried to make them stop, because of some slightly inaccurate information, which is as follows: apparently 1) truckers are not insured to have hitch hikers; 2) they are not supposed to have more than one other person in the truck with them (seat belt laws); 3) they only stop when they expect sexual favors.

All not very true. Items one and two, sure. But EVERYONE breaks the rules. How else are you supposed to take your wife and kids with you if there is only one other seat? When you drive 8-9 hours a day, you just want company. Even if you don’t speak English. Just to have another PERSON sitting next to you is all you care about. You have not met one trucker who expected anything from you.

You and Lex spent the entire day riding in trucks, and covered hundreds of kilometers yesterday. It was amazing. Equally amazing was that every place you were dropped, you could seek refuge from the elements in the restaurants and bathrooms of the service area. One service area on the Spanish-Portugese border was less than helpful (the moment you re-entered Spain, the bullshit honking and blow-job motions ensued), so you braved the wind for a long time before a sweet Polsih guy working for an Irish company pulled over and drove you for 6 hours. He is taking to day off today, and you and Lex have been killing time in the truck stop since 10am (going on 5:30 now). All the drivers to France and Italy don’t leave until 8 or 10pm, and you are hoping you can catch a long ride during the cold hours of the night, so that you will not be forced to camp again in this weather.

And now for the good news. 😉

The week prior to your attempt to dash across Spain and France, toward Italy, was spent in Portugal. And it was utterly AMAZING. The moment you crossed the border, everything was sunshine, rainbows, lollipops, and good fortune. EVERYTHING. Every half hour or so, another, “Thank you, Portugal!” moment occurs. Before you got there, you blasted through Tarifa (the southern-most point of Europe), Cadiz (one of the oldest cities in Europe), and Seville. You also accidentally camped in a field with bulls—whoops. None of these cities were anything to scream about. They all seem pretty much the same, but you had quite an adventure exiting Seville, walking over bridges during rush-hour traffic (it was the only time Spanish drivers DIDN’T honk at you, for fear of killing you, lest they take one hand off the wheel—yes, it was that close). You camped on Concrete Island (next door to gypsies) had one hell of a time getting a ride OUT of the city (got picked up by an Algerian guy who gave you all his endorsements on the off-chance that one day your would visit and marry him), and finally made it to Portugal, free and clear.

You realize this entry is all over the place, but how else can you sum up all that has happened?

Your first two nights were spent on the beach of Faro, on the southern, Atlantic coast. STUNNING. Absolutely stunning, hot, and relaxed. No one minded that you made yourselves at home on the beach, that you spent the whole day drinking Protugese wine (a very nice product, in fact). You took much needed rest. (You also came to terms with the death of your camera. Over the past three weeks, it became increasingly testy until it just died. Could not detect its own lens, so none of your experience in Faro was recorded. Just imagine workouts on the beach, wine, a blue deck on which you sun-bathed all day, and home-made fish chowder). The third day, you made it to Lisbon in one car-ride with a very stimulating English bloke who deals in renewable energy and makes a killing at it (Solarpanels4u.com). Lisbon was incredible. Beautiful. Seems like San Fransico, with its Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars. It is hilly, chaming, and full over pocket-sized shops and cafes around every corner. You could walk for hours and keep finding new delights. You also spent an evening chatting with three fun, Australian girls, who shared their bitter feelings with you about Spanish men. Lisbon also introduced you to a delicious lunch, the memorable tarta de nata (a pastry that made you emotional, it was so goddamn delicious), and—best of all—provided you with a camera shop, the owner of which fixed your camera for FREE! It is up, and running, and you have hundreds of pictures of that wonderful place.

Sintra came next. A 40 minute train ride from Lisbon. It was mystical, with a beautiful palace and a moorish castle, wonderful pastry, and the most visually stimulating forest through which you have ever hiked. Something about the energy in that place. You can’t explain it. Out of this world. It makes the list of most memorable energies (Orgiva, in Spain, too).

From Sintra, you prepared to hitch hike the intimidating distance to Porto. The going was tough. The weather was beginning to get damp. One car ride took you to a town nearest to the motorway. The next… a man, whose name you never learned, who spoke very little English and could scarcely communicate, said he would take you to the best place to hitch hike, or to the bus station. He had a 17 year old son, with whom he no longer spoke. Something mournful about him? You are not sure. But after 40 minutes in the car, he showed you to the best place to hitch hike, then continued to drop you at the station. He said, “You can hitch hike, you can take the train, you can take the bus. You can take a fast train, or a slow tain. You can do whatever you want. I don’t like that you hitch hike, but you can do whatever you want. I give you all the options.” He forced to you to take 100 euro. You couldn’t believe it. He had offered to buy your tickets 3 times during the ride, and each time you and Alexis insisted that no, you would be alright, and that he didn’t have to. But by the end… 100 euro. And he pulled away before you could protest.

You cried, briefly—shocked by human goodness. Shocked by the good fortune you’d had in Portugal. You bought your bus tickets. The trip to Porto was relaxed. You slept long and hard, arrived in another amazing city, and treated yourselves to a hostel. Made friends with a homeless British guy named Paul (whom you encountered the subsequent day), and thoroughly indulged yourselves on free port wine and pastry.

All in all, an AMAZING experience. Portugal, in all the time you have spent in Europe, has ranked itself in the top three best places to visit. You are still enjoying the benefits of Portugese culture, even now, and the Portugese truck drivers act as a buffer for the more crass Spanish men, and buy you coffee.

Thank you, Portugal!

11-19-09

You waited at the truck stop for 10 hours, caught a pathetic lift for one hour (with someone you decided was in the Columbian cocaine trade, and rendered you nosing around his cab for powdery evidence), but it was enough to carry you back into France—into familiar territory. The weather, however, followed, and you and Lex leapt out of the truck in the middle of a thunder and hail storm. The power went out in the service area for a bit, and trucks were pulling into the lot to camp down for the night, unable to continue in the weather.

It is a damn good thing you bought yourselves a new tent. Damn good. Because that evening was the new tent’s truest test of durability. Rain and wind and god-knows-what else pelted the outside of your little Quecha mercilessly, and you and Lex laughed nervously, awkwardly, and pathetically. Not everyone’s life can be this unpredictable, right? The night, like all the others, was terribly cold, and you woke in the middle of it to light the fire again. At that point, rough nights had been the norm, and there wasn’t much worse that life could throw your way.

Only something amazing. Better. The best ever. Like when the Portugese man shoved 100 euro into your hand, another wave of good fortune crashes over your shores. You were walking along the entrance to the auto route, hoping to reach Carcassonne that day, when two men in a car saw you. The driver leapt out of the car, went around to the trunk, and starting sorting stuff so that the two of you might cram into the car with his hyper black lab puppy. “Where are you going?” he asked, once belted back in and on the road again. “Carcassonne,” you replied. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”

Wait a second. When a man—let alone TWO men—offer to take you exactly where you want to go (you should not forget that Carcassonne was some 250 km away), there is usually an alterior motive. But, as it turned out, these lads were going to Montpelier, and they were gay. You mean, GAY. Stereotypically, wonderfully, FABULOUSLY gay. That is all you have to say about THAT. But you wound up skipping Carcassone, travelling all the way to Montpelier, staying the night, and having an authentic French crepe lesson. You were given your own room, the hottest shower of the year, laundry, and more food that you could eat. In fact, everything that you could have wanted, they had and offered, from internet to long-distance calling (you didn’t take them up on that). And what was the deal? Why such generosity? Why the willingness to take two strangers into their home and roll out the red carpet? Well, Layla did it, didn’t she? But Layla said that so many people treated her well during her travels, she could only pay it forward. As for Said (his name), it was the hospitality he wanted and never encountered, and furthermore, that hospitality was in Algerian culture.

Amazing time the two of you had. You did learn how to make crepes. You drank a few bottles of wine and cider, loaded up on Nutella until you felt sick, and slept like you hadn’t for months. It was, as you already said, perfect. The guys were so sweet (so gay!), and very informative on the gay music front. One of the lads used to be a drag queen and went down memory lane witha few dance moves. Good times.

You moved on from there, up to Marseilles (not that amazing), and over to Nice (much nicer—pun intended). And then, and then… you and Alexis took it upon yourselves to walk the entire coastline from Nice into Italy, and beyond. Three full days of hiking, taking in the bluest, most gorgeous, and most expensive place ever (and having the hardest time in the world finding camping in a place where there are no homeless people—but illegal camping CAN be done on the French Riviera!). At long last, you reached Italy, felt fully welcome by the “bonjourno’s” and the up-down-passion-infused rhythm of the language. Sure, Italy resembles Spain more than France in terms of the amount of garbage strewn along the streets, but the difference (already) is the most striking through the food. You cannot say, even now, that you have had a high-quality Italian gastronomic experience, and you are already pleased! Someone told you that Italian food, while as renowned as French, is much simpler. Things usually contain fewer than six ingedients, because sometimes the simplest combinations are the best. So… the tomato-mozarella panini, the fetuchinni with pesto… already winners.

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Categories: Awesome Luck, France | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Long Over-Due Update

  1. Pingback: On Wearing Green and Lessons In Not Looking Homeless « Fred Mertz' Triumphant Return!

  2. Pingback: Ayahuasca: Down The Rabbit Hole « Fred Mertz Travels The World!

  3. Pingback: Hitchhiking In Portugal: It Sucks | Life Of Travel - A Memoir

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