Wednesday, 30 April 2008

It is the evening before the day after. I stumble my way out of my student bolthole, my cavernous rucksack barely squeezing through the door frame, and waddle my way to the train station. As I sit on the train to Oxford, my spinal column somewhat the worse for wear, I make a mental inventory of all the things I probably should have packed but haven't. Oh well, it's too late now. And anyway, this is a journey into the soul itself. We will most likely be divesting ourselves of material possessions as we progress, because

a) things are heavy, and we'll get sick of carrying them, and
b) we will be brimming with spirituality by the time we reach fair Morocco, and hence we will have no need of consumer durables. I'd like to keep hold of the toothpaste though. If I'm going to radiate holiness and attract a band of followers, I want to make sure my gnashers sparkle.

Sofia picks me up at the station, and drives me to her palatial family pile. The whole interior is immeasurably Swedish, the airy minimalism vandalised by Sofia in her bid to make it feel "homely". The fridge has been splattered with magnetic coloured spots, and a sign above the toilet helps you identity how dehydrated you are from the hue of your urine. Sofia's mother implores me to take good care of her, which I promise to do. Thankfully she didn't get that in writing though. I'm under no contractual obligations to return her in one piece.

We pack and re-pack our bags and try and ready ourselves for our quest. Next stop, Morocco!

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Life’s a hitch, and then you die...

After a good sleep and a hearty breakfast, The Road is beckoning. We both rattle around hyperactively, my innards fluttering with butterflies - part excitement, part nervousness. Having done no real preparation for the trip, we decide now might be the time to unfurl our road map of Europe and plan our route. Hitchhiking by its very nature requires a degree of spontaneity and luck, and a constant reworking of plans, but our basic route is established: we will make our way down the spine of France to Bordeaux, then on to Barcelona and follow the autoroute that runs westward along the south coast of Spain to Algeciras, where the ferry to Morocco departs from.

Like a balloonist casting off ballast, I throw items out of my rucksack until it is light enough to be carried comfortably, and we are ready for the road. We are to be dropped at a service station south of Oxford. On the way we glide past nuclear power cooling stations which, once the apogee of the futuristic, now look like relics of an ancient civilisation. Sofia and I chatter nervously, unsure of what to expect. What exactly have we got ourselves into here? It is too late for doubts now though, and the only way is onwards.

We arrive at the service station and set about getting a lift. Being rank novices, we are totally ignorant as to methodology. We try lounging about outside the service station with our signs, hoping to entice a sated customer into giving us a lift. We then resort to waving our signs frantically at passing cars. There is much talk of tactics, of finding the mathematical ‘sweet spot’ where we are most likely to ensnare a lift. Sofia at this stage confides that she is “not sure how comfortable I am with asking people for lifts”. I smile balefully and allow my head to sink into my hands.

Initially we are hopelessly diffident about approaching people, but coldness and impatience soon overrides our hesitancy and we start to approach lorry drivers individually. We are knocked back a few times before, wandering back to the car park approach road, a car stops. Our first lift! The driver is a “development officer” for the Royal Yachting Association, with a ‘silly man’ voice. He tells us that he has been to Marrakech, and that whilst we are young and will want to “investigate the culture”, he wanted out after a few days. In spite of the complete lack of poetry in this man’s soul, my heart sings with gratitude to him for getting us underway.

The man gives us several options as to where we want to be deposited, the best of which is a Tescos. After filling up on snacks, we go and tout our wares on at least five different roads. There are no takers. Eventually an altruistic, muddle-headed Frenchman picks us up, his car full of walking paraphernalia and shopping. As soon as I see the Guardian on the backseat, I know we are going to be okay. His initial aim is simply to drop us off at a better road, but his destination continually recedes since there is, apparently, "nowhere to stop".

The Frenchman's plan was to deposit us at the side of a busier road, but this soon becomes the slip-road to the motorway to Portsmouth. Then half way to Portsmouth. Then to Portsmouth itself. Finally our driver gives up trying to fight against the tide, and takes us all the way to the docks. Having made it to our first port of call, we inhale a lungful of sea air in triumph. As we toddle to the ferry terminal, we bump into two working class women huddled together and smoking on their break. They offer us cigarettes and wish us luck on our voyage.

The port is teeming with fellow hitchers, many who have congregated in an alcove by the cafe. Ferry ports being closed economies, we purchase some astronomically-priced school canteen-style grub and wait for our vessel.

Monday, 28 April 2008

We ship anchor at eleven. After surveying the front-of-ship sleeping quarters, we take a stroll on deck. There is always the same childish thrill as the ferry pulls out of the harbour, and civilisation slowly fades from view. The sea is almost preternaturally calm, although the stars are blotted out by some wispy grey clouds, and the whole scene feels very soothing.

We head up onto the top deck and set up our speakers, twisting to some 50s rock n’ roll. The music somehow seems fantastically apposite. We decide it's time to hunker down for the night as we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, but I am starting to regret not paying for a cabin. The clammy hand of illness rests upon my shoulder, and the thought of a night on the floor or in a tilting chair is not what my body is clammering for. After a few aborted attempts at sleep, I take to exploring the decks. I read, bleary-eyed, in a cafe for a while before finally hunkering down on one of the pew-like benches in the bar on top deck.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

We arrive in Le Havre, the town that inspired Mersault’s despair in Sartre’s La Nausee. I can see his point. The town is a grey monstrosity, the temperature is sub-arctic, and the sleepless night has left me feeling distinctly unwell. This is not an auspicious start. Since the ferry was packed with hitchers, they now line the roadside, so we take the executive decision to walk as far as we can out of the town centre.

We begin flaunting our assets at a set of three petrol stations. As we arrive at the first one, we see a group of hitchers getting a lift, but as they bundle in they tell us they have been here since yesterday. The omens do not bode well. Nevertheless, we must try. We begin a little half-heartedly, but it is interesting how quickly your reserve melts in the face of coldness. We add several layers of clothing, and after much intense eye contact with the passing traffic, we snare a lift. The man is excitable, drives like a maniac, and is listening to pumping house music, which he whistles along to volubly. At one stage he takes a short cut through a French chocolate box town at great speed, as if auditioning for a part as the driver in a Renault advert. I am euphoric, if a little frightened.

He lets us out at the side of a small road in the middle of nowhere, but which is actually a direct road to the autoroute we want to get onto. Everything passing by here is going our direction. Et viola, before we even have time to put our bags down, a car pulls up and beckons us over. We’re on the road again! A short hop (and a bit of Franglais) later, and we’re left a toll-booth on the autoroute. We are in the highest of spirits, the sun is shining and even though there's a severe wind-chill factor, we’ve heard that toll-booths are perfectly hitching spots. The story of my life will thus be entitled Pain at the Payage. After three hours of working the passing cars without a bite, we head into the roadside cafeteria for an edible bite instead, then it’s back to our cold, desolate signing.

After what seems like centuries, a man takes pity on us, and offers us a lift to Caen. However, on realizing that it was slightly out of our way, our saviour takes a colossal detour to deposit us back near the Autoroute. It is only near the end of journey that he confides that he was meant to be meeting a client in one minute: “I will tell them I have been with my English friends though!” The countryside zips passed, and he points it out with pride. Despatched at a toll-booth, we set to getting a lift with maximum zeal. The gendarmes eye us suspiciously, but after some frantic sign waving, we incite the curiosity of a trucker who is intrigued we are heading to Morocco, and we clamber in.

Our driver is the laidback type - he looks Dutch – which suits us perfectly; we need some R&R after our ordeal at the payage. The lift is perfect, but for the dropping off point – the Motorway Service Station From Hell. After going at some fruit like a scurvy-infested pirate in a bid to drown my cold in vitamin C, we start to pester truckers. One kindly man seems about to offer a lift, before he is put off by another trucker, a hard-bitten biker, who tells us that most lorry drivers now have contracts forbidding them from picking up hitchers, limiting the number of people allowed in the cab. Goddamn red-tape. It’s dusk, and there’s a beautiful pink sunset, which casts a glow over the lines of trucks. The whole scene looks like a postcard of sixties Americana.

We congregate outside the shop, where we are told by several customers that we are on the wrong side of the road for Bourdeaux. We check with the shop owner. We’re on the right side. Eventually a man produces a map in a bid to offer conclusive proof that we are, in fact, on the wrong side. We cross the motorway bridge. By this point hypothermia is setting in, and we huddle in the shop on the other side. A random man comes and spouts routes at us, unhelpfully. Eventually we cave and decide to get the store attendant to order us a taxi. He is singularly, virtuosically unhelpful.

Just as it seems we are about to collapse from cold and fatigue, our guardian angel arrives in the form of a French girl in her early twenties who overhears our plight and sets to, badgering all the drivers in the store. Nothing doing, she sets about her father, who, after a decidedly chilly start, agrees to give us a lift to a hotel in Le Mans. The hotel we opt for is at the top end of budget, but we are hilariously happy to have found shelter, and the room is neat and hospitable. We put on the telly, Sofia showers and I read, my eyes constantly slipping from the page as my sick body nudges me, unrelentingly, into a profound sleep.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The outskirts of Le Mans look even less glamorous in the daylight, like an out of town shopping nightmare. Having no wish to hang around here any longer than is strictly necessary, we decide to order a taxi at reception, to take us to a motorway service station on the Autoroute. Our taxi driver is a amenable French lesbian whose dashboard is bespangled with 'end animal cruelty' stickers.

The meter continues to rise and there are no motorway service stations in sight. We decide to bail out in what turns out to be no more than a glorified layby. As soon as our taxi scoots off, it feels like a mistake. There are three or four lorries, and maybe three cars. I have visions of our naive hitcher corpses slumped against the public lavatories. By this time my sickliness has developed into flu, and my body swings feverishly between the extremes of hot and cold. Standing in the layby, I feel like my bones have been injected with dry ice. Isicles may soon form on my nether regions.

Fighting off the urge to lie down and die, I am seized by a Joe Simpson-esque Touching The Void moment. I go and stand on the other side of the road and aggressively work my cardboard sign at the lorries at they pass. A minute later and a lorry stops. "Tours?" he asks. Damn right. This lift is near heavenly. The driver is Turkish and his cab is luxurious, fitted out with carpet and Turkish flags and trinkets. Most important of all though, the themostat is turned up to forty-five degrees in a bid to replicate the climatic conditions of his homeland. Layers are removed, flesh is thawed, the sighs of relief are palpable.

Our Turkish benefactor drops us off in the town of Tours and, after a precursory look around, we set about getting to Bordeaux, the image of which now lingers before us like a vision of utopia. The sky is grey and moist, but we quickly procure a lift by a man who fancies some company. We are dropped on a roundabout on the industrial outskirts. We trudge through the 'mean streets', wrapped-up in our waterproofs like human condoms. My walk has now become a zombie-like shuffle - my leg dragging behind me. We board the tram and wind our way to the city centre. Sofia's friend Tom is at work, but we are met by his charming friend, Mel, who takes us back to the flat and warms our cockles with tea. Sofia's flamboyantly gay friend Tom returns, and squeals with delight as he sets eyes on Sofia. We wolf down some pasta and Tom returns to work. We agree to follow later.

The bar is incredible: romantically lit, the stone walls are festooned with paintings, the wall behind the bar lined with rows of bottles in a dizzying array of colours like an apocathery's workshop. The place feels like something conjured up from rustic French fantasies of a London-living, second home-owning bien pensant.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The day of rest. Okay so He waited until the seventh day, and this was only our forth, but frankly he wasn't flu-ridden. Flu probably hadn't even been invented then.

Like blithering idiots, we had planned to hitch today, but after a stroll around the narrow streets of the old city in the sunshine we have both reached the same conclusion. It is time for a hitch sabbatical, a day off. We head to the main boulevard on the riverbank, where we lounge by the enormous river Garonne and discover the mirror d'eau, a huge lattice of marble slabs located in front of the Place de la Bourse, which bubble an inch or two of water.

Shoes and socks are removed with indecent haste and we splash around like children. Sofia's robotic slow-mo walk through the water looks incredible. We stop and watch some dancers performing beautiful balletic moves, the water lapping over their toes. Sofia then makes the schoolgirl error of splashing me a bit, so I feign injury and then when she comes over give her a faceful of water, before sprinting to the side and using an elegant French family as a human shield. A truce called, we run into two charming Americans. They give us a lesson in the anxieties of liberal Americans abroad. After apologising for their nationality and assuring us that they aren't 'patriotic' and that they don't worship Dubya or American foreign policy, we have a nice chat. Since they have been speaking French to each other for the last six months, we give them a chance to refresh their native tongue. They are heading to Spain soon. We encourage them to hitchhike, but bus tickets have already been purchased. Shame.

In the evening, burning with a yen for crepes, we take to the streets. After some confused wandering (the randomness of the hitch has sent my usually reliable internal compass into a spin), we alight upon the mother of all crepieres. I have a salmon, asparagus and bernese sauce crepe, which leaves me feeling full for the next 48 hours. Afterwards, we head back to Tom's impossibly glamorous bar. Feeling the urge to satisfy my piratey desires, I demand forceably that he "grog me". This shall serve as a catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

We rise good and early. Bordeaux has rejuvenated us. No longer am I the living dead. Our eyes are bright (well, they're no longer murky and bloodshot). Our tails are bushy.

We follow the boulevard out of the city centre. The weather is appalling. We bump into another set of hitchers, who look bedraggled and spiritually spent. Having spent the last day and a half living a life of opulence - our own beds in a cosy apartment, chi-chi bars and calorific crepes - we feel smug and self-satisfied. We express our sympathy and wish them luck.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over where to stand, we soon snag a lift with an incredibly cool guy, driving a black Mercedes. In fact, he is perhaps a bit too cool because both of us are too scared to talk to him. I opt for sleep, whilst Sofia rides upfront and squirms with awkwardness. We are dispatched at a service station just outside of Toulouse (or "Tolouse" as our cardboard sign would have it). This is just as well, as my bladder is close to eruption, and I am craving some overpriced food from the estacion de servicio. I prop up our signs on our tables, so that we can be working our pitch whilst we munch and slurp. Soon enough, a Mickey Rooney lookalike (albeit a slightly older version of Mickey Rooney as he was in Rumblefish, when he was glamorously shifty, rather than corpulent and creepy) wanders over and eyes us with curiosity. After a short obervation period, in which we are clearly, he utters the immortal line: "I'll give you a lift, although you're allowed to change your mind once you see my car."

We assure him that we are not pernickey hitchers and that as long as it has wheels and it goes, we'll be content. As it turns out, the winding mechanism on the driver's side window has bust and been replaced on a pro tem basis with gaffa tape and plastic wallets. This makeshift repair did manage to keep the wind out, but had the unfortunate effect of generating a loud noise which drowned out conversation once we reached the Autoroute. Our driver, Jerome, is a Carlos Castenada-reading, jazz-loving customs official who has lived in Blighty for a time.
After some shouted conversation (he tells us a great story about him and his friend wearing shades and pretending they were Miami Vice cops), he takes a shine to us (or decides we are a danger to ourselves) and invites us back to his house to stay with him, his wife and his two children.

Upon arrival Jerome's beautiful (and clearly exhausted) wife Rima thrust the youngest child into his hands. The older child, Victor, age 5, turns out to be a wonderful, vivacious boy who, after exhausting his five English words, quickly coerces Sofia into playing games. N.B. it is a rule that adults are incapable of understanding most games children play, and should be advised that winning in such games is impossible, and maybe even prohibited by law. Emerging from the lavatory to demands from Victor for a display of swordsmanship, it transpired that whilst peeing Jerome had kindly informed his first-born that I was a swordmaster! I stood my ground, brandished the toy sword, before informing Victor that he was too young and that I would return in a couple of years. Phew.

Our hosts filled us with pasta and salad and plied us with alcohol. After asking if I thought the red wine proffered seemed okay (always a daunting question: was it from the family vineyard? Was it from the ancestral wine cellar? Oh God...), Jerome declared me "definitely English". The wine was slightly corked, but as my nose was still ravaged by coldiness, I was none the wiser. Vino was followed by a fantastic French apple liquor which, having been kept frozen, was breath-catchingly cold and so really hit the spot.

We slid into bed, our faith in human nature restored.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

We wake to a beautiful Perpignan morning. The courtyard outside Jerome's house is bathed in sunshine. After a breakfast of jam and brioche and some dedicated sign-making, Jerome offers to drive us over the border to Spain, since he is going that way to fill up on petrol. I have been appointed official sign-maker, Sofia's efforts resembling the work of a mentally-troubled eight year old.

The landscape Jerome drives us through is spectacular. For the first time on the trip, it feels Mediterranean. The rock formations are white and sun-bleached, the forests an exquisite dark green. "This is Spain". After our protracted farewells, Jerome leaves us at a tollbooth, but we have spent long enough already looking forlornly at the things, so we walk the 200 yards down the embankment of the motorway to the service station.

The service station is like a ghost town, and has a strange, decaying ambience. It's kind of how I imagine purgatory: a deserted, run-down Spanish service station. I hope I am not going to be here for the rest of eternity. Already I am having visions of being kept here against my will, maybe by the giant white globe from The Prisoner.

The totalitarian globe thankfully does not make an appearance, but we are desperately in need of cardboard for sign-making and, as if by magic, a cardboard box is blown towards us by the gusts of wind. However, just as it is drawing towards us, it is mown down by a huge articulated lorry, which sends it flying towards the motorway. A chase ensues and I stop it. Phew. We can once more advertise our destination to drivers.

We are rescued from a lifetime of service station tedium by a Moroccan guy, Mohammed, and his friend who is acting as chaffeur. They stop for us and we dive in, destination: Barcelona. The driver spends the entire trip in a state of perpetual amusement, whilst we chew the fat with Mohammed. After a bit of multilingual chat, Mohammed, frustrated by his rudimentary English, borrows our French to English dictionary and jokingly instructs us to sleep whilst he retreats to work on his sentence. We wait on tenterhooks the entire journey for this perfect sentence, but sadly it never materialises.

Barcelona is as exhilerating and bustling and touristy as I remembered. We make our way to the Youth Hostel by an incredibly byzantine route, and relieve ourselves of our bags, before hitting the town for some food and drinks. Since today is Sofia's birthday, under normal circumstances we would be drinking ourselves into a coma, but she is still stricken with the lurgee and we settle for a hot chocolate and chat. Later in the evening we take the metro to the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi-designed colossus. Apparently the prjected date for completion is 2026. I've heard Spanish builders have a hasta manana attitude, but 144 years on one building seems excessive. At night the whole edifice is illuminated by well-placed spotlights and looks delightfully Gothic.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Barcelona, it was the second time that we met...

It seems a shame not to stay longer in Barcelona, but we must be moving on. The aim of the game is to spend as much time as humanly possible in Morocco, and so we are on our way. The walk out of town to find a suitable hitching spot is arduous, requiring us to traipse down the longest, straightest road ever. Morale is restored with the purchase of twizzlers that spin in the wind for our backpacks (Barca blue and red for me, the Swedish blue and yellow for miss Sofia), but the sun is fierce and we have to resort to our factor 2000 suncream to avoid a roasting.

Last night we had discussed trying to get hold of tickets for the Barcelona Champion's League game, but decided against it because time was against us. However, after much re-positioning and fruitless sign-waving (we later learn from an acquaintance that Barcelona is notoriously difficult to hitch out of), we've had enough and we decide to abandon hitching for the day and try and snare a pair of tickets for their Champions League game with the German side Schalke 04. It will be a belated birthday celebration for Sofia.

A short taxi hop later and we roll up outside the Nou Camp. It is, as advertised, monumental. It takes us about a quarter of an hour just to walk round the parimeter. The ticket office is finally located and it turns out that the first leg is actually taking place in Germany. Wonderful. A flight to Germany being slightly off-piste, Sofia has a little sleepy whilst I bury our sorrows in the club shop, which offers every conceivable commodity (clocks, tea towels, mugs, bed spreads) in FC Barcelona format. My consumer lusts finally satisfied, I emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. Sofia is still feeling rather delicate and time is ticking. Taking into account the lack of progress made today, and the fact Sofia is still feeling unwell, we take the sensible option and get the train to Valencia. This Is Not Cheating. We are expanding the range of our travel experiences.

At the train station, we run into a British girl who had done the hitch last year and was now doing her year abroad in Barcelona. It appears our green hitch t-shirts gave us away. Damn. We must learn to camoflague ourselves more effectively. The train is an air-conditioned paradise. I sit, plugged umbilically into my walkmen, whilst Sofia hunches herself into a ball, shivering and sweating. The trainline runs directly parallel to the seafront, so there are beautiful ocean views throughout the journey.

We arrive in Valencia late and the streets are quiet. The train station is next to the bull-ring, but unsurprising given the lack of light, there is no bullfighting taking place. Bullfighting in the dark sounds like a recipe for a goring. Unless the matador were to wear night-vision googles, but that seems like an unfair advantage and so rather unsporting.

A hotel is located rather quickly. The hotel is rather cramped but we just crave somewhere to crash, and Sofia is asleep virtually the second her weary head hits the pillow, whilst I luxuriate in the delights of foreign language television.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Valencia looks much better in daylight. The sun is shining, and the profusion of white buildings makes the whole place look rather regal. We overdose on pastries and then set about getting a lift. We make the long trek to the city limits where, lo and behold, we espy another hitch couple, looking hot and frustrated. We form a queue. A car stops and, what do you know? They have space for two more! A four-way hitch! Luckily, the driver is a laidback guy in blue and white Bermuda shirt, who chuckles to himself whilst these four crazies talk at each other in dizzying patterns.

We disembark at a tollbooth, surrounded by stunning mountainous terrain. I could quite happily stand and soak up the scenery for hours, but my sightseeing hopes are dashed when Libby and Will snag a lift and, once again, there's room for four. The more the merrier! The driver is a vivacious black Brit called Pamela, who expresses parental concern for us. Virtually the second we slam the door, she asks if any of us had any Premier League contacts as her son, living in Hackney, London, wanted to be a Premier League footballer. Don't we all son, don't we all. The glorious Pamela gives us a lift to the tollbooths outside of Alicante where, whilst decamping from her car, we manage to accidentally filch her red fleece, both groups presuming that it belongs to the other party.

As Pamela disappears into the distance, we start signing and soon attract the attention of a startlingly handsome gendarme. After some flirtation, it becomes clear that he is only trying to usher us to an area where we are not going to get run over. Bless. No matter where we stand, no-one appears to want to stop, and we waste a futile two hours hawking ourselves to no avail. By seven o' clock we are weary and decide to head into Alicante for the night. We pen a big "CENTRO" sign and make the short hop to Alicante town centre.

Once installed in our hotels rooms, Sofia and I take our two friends out to try and procure some paella and initiate them in the ways of grog. The paella is procured and eaten (it is only at this stage that I find out that I don't like paella) and the bottle of dessert wine is polished off. Our appetites sated, we hit Alicante in search of the thinking pirate's favourite tipple, grog. After a catalogue of confused glances, we find an Irish bar where a glamourpuss barmaid is happy to whip us up some grogs once we provide her with the recipe. Deal. Grogs all round! We stagger back to our hotel slightly tipsy and fall into a blank and unthinking sleep.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

This is to be the Day of Hitch. Whilst our friends are wimping out and getting the ferry to Morocco from Almeria instead, we shall not be defeated. Alicante to Algericas in a day. It can be done. It's only 10 inches or so, according to the map.

Our first lift is to Murcia. An elderly gentleman, wizened but young at heart, stops and picks us up. He tells us that he used to hitchhike in his youth. His english is on a par with our Spanish, but we coexist happily together and listen as he sings along to Spanish crooners. I bet he was a catch when he was young.

It is as we approach Murcia that we make our first stupid decision of the day. Having just got a lift with great ease from Alicante, we decide that rather than get dropped off at a service station, we will go into Murcia. Three hours later and with tempers fraying, a taxi is required to take us to the next service station. First though we have to convince him that we are actually prepared to pay our way and that we are not expecting him to give us a hitch. Saga over and we are on our way. The taxi driver turns out to be good company and drops us at the perfect spot. Cream cheese sandwiches and a large bottle of iced tea later and we are refreshed and ready for our next lift. After a few false-starts, we are approached by a lorry driver who agrees to give us a lift to Grenada. He's a little concerned that there is two of us, as Spanish law dictates that there should be only one person riding up front in the cab with the driver, so he tells me to hide if we encounter any police.

It seems that such concerns were not merely trucker paranoia, as we actually are stopped by the police. I am asleep at the time, and so wake to a static vehicle and whisperings emanating from the cab. As it happens, the police show no interest whatsoever in my existence and are far more interested in ascertaining that our drivers' lorry is not packed with cocaine (Jerome had told us that Barcelona to Morocco was a classic coke smuggling route). Thankfully our truck is given a clean bill of health and we are free to go.

The Andaluscian scenery is staggering. Mountains roll by, and a low sun casts each new vista in a syrupy, nostalgic glow. Alarmingly, our truck is carrying a very heavy load (we didn't like to ask) and so after crawling up every incline, it careers down the other side with heart-racing rapidity. We are dropped at a small truckers' stop just as the sun is setting, just about intact. The whole thing is like a slice of prime Americana, relocated to Southern Spain.

After taking in the scene, our sign is spotted in a matter of moments by an eagle-eyed Parisian. He is on his way to rendezvous with friends in Malaga for a hard-earned lads holiday and has just driven the 20 hours from Paris non-stop, as the cans of Red Bull on his dashboard testify. Not only is he good company, but the in-car jukebox is perfect: Ben Harper soothes our weary limbs, Michael Jackson gets us tapping our toes, and a CD of desert blues seems to chime perfectly with our surroundings. The sky is festooned with stars, and the silhouetted landscape rushes by. I feel impossibly tired, but happy.

The Parisian speaks superb English, and we talk of everything under the sun. The miles zip by and we are soon in Malaga. The Parisian drops us off at a small service stop on the far side of Malaga. Unloading our bags, he apologises profusely for not giving us a lift all the way to Algeciras, even though that would be an extra hours drive there and back. We tell him not to be so silly, but nevertheless he hands us a 50 euros note as a parting gift. We demur, but he is insistant. We are flabberghasted by such generosity. People are extraordinary.

Standing in the petrol station forecourt bathed in an artificial light, we ply our wares to the passing traffic - what little of it there is. Spaghetti Junction this is not. Our minds addled by fourteen hours of hitchhiking, we soon grow restless and start larking about. I fear our behaviour will stop people from picking us up, but it actually attracts their attention and we are soon riding with a German man and his French boss. Once again when I tell them I am from Manchester, I get the classic rejoinder: "Ahhh, Manchester United, Christiano Ronaldo!" Sofia tries out her German, whilst I snooze and look out of the window. The picturesque scenery has faded away, replaced by lights and buildings.

Our lift had planned to leave us at the junction between Gibraltar and Algeciras but overshot slightly, leaving us on the outskirts of Gibraltar at a tiny petrol station. (Note to self: might there be money in a Guide to the Service Stations and Petrol Stations of Western Europe?) It is well past midnight and frankly we do not fancy our chances. Standing at the roundabout, risking becoming road death statistics, we vow to try twenty more cars before admitting defeat and calling a taxi. The sequence runs as follows: 1. Nothing. 2. Nothing. 3. Indicates with an apologetic expression and a flick of the thumb that he is going the opposite way. 4. Nothing. 5. Nothing. 6. "They're stopping, they're stopping!"

And so for the final leg of our journey we share a car with a young lesbian couple. They seem bemused that we are hitchhiking in the middle of the night, and drop us off at Ground Zero, the ferry port in Algeciras. By the time we arrive, we have been hitching for 16 hours and our minds are shot. What's worse, I am famished, but help is at hand in the shape of the all-night truckers' cafe by the port. Sofia is reluctant to enter, fearing perhaps chair fights and pillage, but I promise her I will defend her honour. I look forward to some nourishing stodge - it will be anthropological. However, upon close inspection, the food looks unfit for human consumption, like the queasy colour photographs from a 1970's cookbook. But less appetising. Truckers are clearly sturdy souls with superhuman immune systems, but E. coli would have a field day with my skimpy frame. Suddenly breakfast does seem so far away.

The hotel is on the seafront, overlooking the port, and despite some unseemly water seepage in the bathroom, the room is big and the beds are comfy. Sofia showers whilst I channel hop (there seems to be the choice of news, gameshows or pornography) and savour our hitching feats. We've made it! The hitch, the first leg of the trip, is over. Alicante to Algeciras, over 500 kilometres, in a day. Our hearts swell with pride. Although perhaps it's just hitch-induced angina. Tomorrow Morocco, a new mistress, awaits us!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The ferry crossing is calm and time whistles by. The crossing itself takes around two hours, which we spend in a state of grand excitement. Onboard the ship we are made to fill in forms by the police telling them where we are heading.

We disembark, and after some general oohing and ahhing, we set to, and try and corall a taxi cab into giving us a lift to the train station. The cab drivers have formed a cartel, which means they can charge exorbitant fares and refuse to barter. Still, our driver is in good spirits and soon we are on the train, heading to Fes. The train is hot and rather crowded. A little girl totters over and looks at us uncertainly. I try my usual under 5s party piece - making a popping sound with a hooked finger and the inside of my mouth. Instead of the usual look of joy and awe, she looks panicked and begins to cry. They do things differently here.

The journey passed uneventfully enough, and soon we are discharged in Fes. After some
We follow our new friends to the youth hostel in the old city, and head out for some food. Sitting under the glow of the restaurant time, with dusk falling, I tuck into a much anticipated plate of couscous and vegetables.

Back at the youth hostel, we make enquires about going to the desert, and arrange a guide for our tour of the old city tomorrow.

Friday, 18 April 2008

After a light, leisurely breakfast, we congegrate to meet our tour guide for the streets of old Fes. He loo

The "tour" is essentially a glorified shopping spree. We are taken to shop after shop, vendor upon vendor, and encouraged to buy things. Our guide quickly earns himself the name "The Comissionaire".

There is a quibble with some of the others about payment. Things are degenerating. We pay him off and instead go and explore by ourselves.

The only food option is the local outpost of McDonalds. Sofia takes great delight in the discovery of the "McArab" burger. Outside a rather sinister Ronald McDonald statue sits on a bench.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

We wake at 6am. I didn't even know this time existed. I take a cold shower, and stumble into my clothes.


My camel's name, I decide, is Bernard (said "Ber-nah-ddd" as if you are a left-bank intellectual, rather than a Yorkshire miner). He is clearly at one with the desert, and

There once was a camel called Hasou,
to tame him you'd need a lasso
He took Natalia the fair,
right back to his lair,
and when she got home she decided to sue.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Atlas Mountains

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

We arrive in Marrakech and say our fond farewells to our guide. Heading to the main square, the Djemaa el Fna, we have to bob and weave our way through a constant stream of mopeds. In Morocco there are over 500 times more moped-owners than car-owners, and it is not at all unusual to see anyone, from hipsters to old ladies with their shopping, sitting atop of one. We head to a cheap hotel, slightly off the Djemaa el Fnam, and for a small fee, we negotiate to sleep up on the roof.

As the sun sets, we explore the square with all its exciting commotion. There are stalls selling

Monday, 14 April 2008