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!

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