Wednesday, 30 December 2015

"Love is the only thing you get more of by giving it away."- Exupery / A Midwinter Hitch

Written at time (25/12):
'Sheltering in Lisbon where all seagulls come to winter on dropped bacalao and uneaten sardines.No snow but a festive scene produced by the strivings of an erupted beanbag in a winding back alley. Polystyrene balls all over the shop.

Came through Extremadura in Luis's truck (cargo was bananas). Landscape like a bar billiards table dotted with oaks for toadstools. Stork nesting on a 20 ft novelty roadside tomato bid us safe passage out of Spain. Soon over the border we were greeted by cranes stepping through the fog on their hunt for food. Luis dropped me half an hour before sunset on a small road 70km from Lisbon. After when a stream of cars passed (many farm pickups stacked with hay, all with drivers shaking their heads doubtfully) I told myself to enjoy being surprised by who'll be on the road at this time. Sure enough André and Sandra soon stopped and whisked me to Lisbon whilst giving me a tour of their worlds in perfect English. Made it to the main train station to hear 'God only knows' playing on the radio.'

 Doesn't cover the untold generosity I received at the hands of two thoughtful hitchhiking buskers (Agata and Michal) who decided to rent and open an apartment to travellers for two months. I stayed here for 5 days and learnt important lessons from my hosts and other visitors about how literally vital it is to remember how to give.

The way out there was simple enough, just a metro ride to a garage on the west side of Madrid. Within 20 seconds of waiting Javier drove me 10km down the road to the next station. As I stood waiting for the sun to come up a driver noticed me shaking my hands for warmth and gave me a pair of gloves. Soon after Javier 2 drove me 20km to a station in the countryside where the grass was frosted and waiting was just enjoying the sun and quiet, till Jaime appeared and got me about 50km further to another countryside gas station in Castilla. From here I met Luis (as mentioned above).

To be honest there's not much more I can say about Lisbon asides from its sleepiness and dreamy atmosphere (and the creativity inherent in the thought of being as far west as one can go on the 'rope, and how far eurus bears you past that). The trip has raised far more questions about Portugal than answers, but I will be back to explore and meet more people there. My stay was spent more in being perplexed at how to contribute to a situation created by people who are content with relatively little. I guess the answer as usual is to find ways to pass that on. Great conversations and walks with a Dutch busker named Daan who had just come off the camino and gotten over the theft of his backpack and belongings with resounding positivity.

Left Portugal on Monday at 6am. Found the first Hitchwiki plan backfired fast and instead of an on-ramp to the bridge out of Lisbon I ended up with plan 2- two trains and a scramble around a fence to reach a motorway service station. Starting there at 8am it was two hours till Sonia took me 20km up the road on her way to work. The next wait was 5 hours. Most of it spent at the entrance addressing the stream of cars and adjacent oak tree with a smile and a sign, and then addressing myself with the memories of luck, kindness and possibility that flicker past when you're waiting.
For some reason a moment that cracked my face in a wide grin was a man with his family looking at me as his wife drove past. He didn't frown or shake his head, but watched with an anxious smile as if waiting for the finale of my roadside show, whilst practically squeezing the air with his hands for reassurance. I can't put it into words really, it just felt like he'd decided he was going to be a bystander to the whole thing and then couldn't decide if perhaps he'd made a mistake. I don't blame him but it puzzled me until just after they'd passed, when I realised I'd have to remember carefully never to make that expression to anyone asking for help. The thought filled me with laughter.

Eventually Duarte tapped me on the shoulder and got me out of there. (Lest I forget to mention it, the average English level in Portuguese is another demonstration of how effective it is to subtitle rather than dub English films and TV.) He told me about life in Luanda (Angola) and the difficulty of watching your children grow up over skype, and shared thoughts about moving to London and the reassuring sense of privacy he'd feel there in comparison to his hometown of 60,000 people. I also learnt a lot about the cork industry and the diversity of cultures and landscapes in Portugal.

Reckoning I'd do better on the national road to Spain he dropped me in the rain at the junction where this was possible. I was about ready to call it a day then but said to myself 'Ten more cars.' There were so many it was easy to slip to "Ok, after 50 cars...".
Soon taken a few more km up the road by Claudio. As soon as I got in the car the conversation turned into one about English, and then his teenage son's proficiency in it. Within minutes I was speaking to his son on speaker phone about hitching, living in Madrid, what it's like to be in a band and 'Did my dad tell you he plays sax? Not yet? Ask him!'.
The rest of this drive was spent listening to his son's rock band, interspersed with Claudio stopping the car to point out biological curiosities of the region.
As soon as he stopped I realised it was time to call it a day. Past daylight, empty garage, rain coming in, temperature drop and lettering-akimbo roadside hotel a field's hop away.
I don't know if waiting at the roadside all day and then spending a little money for a lot of comfort counts as living 'the middle way', but not wanting to repeat my usual hitching pattern of 'hitch until you can't stand and then get ill not sleeping enough in the cold' I decided to take the risk that it's not.

This morning at 6am I practically skipped down the drive to the same empty garage and stood there smiling at cars and dancing for warmth for about 5 hours again. Can't put my finger on the thought pattern, there is a happiness that returns every time I remember I put myself into this situation and a bored stupour that comes on once in a while. I wouldn't change any of it. Spent a long time thinking about Van Gogh, it was basically his scene. Big field with a row of bare elm trees in the mid distance, and on the opposite side tilled earth and tidy olive trees watched over carefully by a flock of brown sheep, each slowly jingling the bell it wore.

Well 5 hours of Van Gogh and roadside dementia can do a lot for a person's morale. I packed in my sign (España) at 11 and was making plans to hitch to the nearest train station when a pickup stopped and Luis the foreman offered me a 30km ride down the national road.

Any lift after a wait like that just wipes the slate and you're ready for the next one. Brief chat about politeness in Portugal and Spain and a bunch of location tips for my return in the spring (well that has a lot of plans to fight with but all the best to it), and a brief look at the incredible aqueduct looming out of the fog in Elvas. Throwing caution to the winds I thumbed again and instantly met Antonio who told me he would be passing through Madrid. After a brain tumour and surgical complications ushered him into early retirement he's been living up in Andorra and was returning there.
Exaltation pervades all hitch-hiking. It probably pervades most human situations but for me this is the place where you have the time and social estrangement to really take it on board. And I suppose as with everything else it depends on exposure to chaos and how good one's narrative engine is at sewing the whole story up neatly in hindsight, but jesus christ. The whole thing flips around and what was to be a slightly downbeat bus-ride to Madrid becomes a shoehorning back into the context of yet another person you wished you'd known sooner, and elation at gradually making the distance home to sleep.

10km from Madrid (as Antonio took the road off to Zaragoza) I got my final lift from a young Spanish couple about to drop off their rental car and fly home to Majorca. They dropped me in Goya and I metro-ed home on a cloud of 'did that really happen?' whenever I thought about the morning in Evora. Whole trip's still sinking in but just glad to have recharged my faith in standing at the roadside and to have re-exercised my patience.


Morning in Evora.


  1. Great blog Mike! Feel like I was on the road with you!

  2. So nice to hear what you're up to! Sounds awesome. I love the way you write. Lots of love, Mo xx