The Hitcher

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February 26th 2007
Published: March 2nd 2007
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“On the road time is valueless”: the perfect epitaph for the real traveller! I actually have never believed to the tale of the value of time, not even in these sedentary times of my life, I mean. I guess that once, a very, very long ago, someone decided that “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”, and “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today”, and “Procrastination is the thief of time” and so on with a long list of badly disguised invitations to dedicate one’s life to be productive. The folks at Eurolines must evidently have thoroughly accepted such theories and therefore their express bus Lisbon-Seville leaves at 7am. On Sunday. And, well, to make a long story short (do not forget that “time is money”), I’ll just say that I missed that bus in spite of being the station just a block away from the hostel I was lodged in. I add that the 7am bus was the only one with destination Spain scheduled that day.

Therefore, on an early Sunday morning, while the city of Lisbon still lies half-unconscious after the Saturday night’s drunkenness, I find myself having to decide between: a) backtracking to the hostel, getting back under the blankets and so remain till the very moment when the chambermaid would chase me out with her broomstick; b) getting on the first local bus heading south, leaving the city and then hitchhike a ride to Seville. Plan “a” is tempting, the week I spent in Lisbon has been brilliant, the company excellent but, because of that, I know that once back into “the house” I would end up staying for longer and longer. And neither my funds are unlimited, nor Europe is cheap. Moreover, the day promises to be sunny and warm. So, hitchhiking will be.

I enquire at the information desk and they tell me that buses for Setubal, 45 Km south of Lisbon, leave every half an hour every day, Sundays included. I purchase my ticket and leave behind an absolutely fascinating city. The Baixa neighbourhood at night, with the rain polishing off its cobble stones while “fado” music coming out from the myriad of premises provides an A grade soundtrack, should be included in that famous list of 10 places to see before dying. It is like being at Trastevere in Rome minus the hordes of tourists who rest the latter of most of its original atmosphere. For reasons of geographic clarity, I should explain that I had arrived to Lisbon from San Sebastian by train after a stopover of a few day in Coimbra, central Portugal.

The 8 o’clock bus to Setubal is nearly empty and the trip takes just about an hour. I suppose that driver, spending a good share of his life on these roads, must know better than anyone else which is the best spot to catch a hitch in Setubal. In reality, my supposition will prove totally wrong and the junction indicated to me will soon prove to host so little traffic to the point of making me think about some sort of candid-camera organized by the driver himself. Finally, well after an hour of wait, an aged man driving a white van stops and tells me he’s heading to Santiago. I take a look at the map, Santiago is not exactly in the same direction as Seville but still is over 100 Kms far from here, direction south. It’s a deal.

People who give lifts can usually be catalogued in three groups: those who know you; those who think positive; those who can’t stand to be by themselves and need someone to talk to. Pedro, the man of the van, belongs to this third category. While the little van sped on the IC1 leaving the sea behind and meeting the fields and the dense eucalyptus woods, Pedro kept himself busy by telling me the tale of his life. Theoretically, he spoke a little Italian, in reality he only knew how to swear. But something is something, isn’t it? During my stay in Portugal I noticed that, despite being a Spanish-Portuguese conversation where both parts keep talking his own language absolutely feasible, many (too many) take this like an offence, pretend not to understand and rather prefer to communicate in broken English. The phenomenon, that we could define like “dwarf syndrome” and that I’ve already cited in my last entry about Catalunya, manifests itself mainly in young subjects. Sad.

Arrived to Santiago de Cacem and parted from Pedro, I check on my map again and decide that some desolate beach in the south will be my next destination. This time I choose by myself which place looks better for the thumb-up art, but the result doesn’t change. I end up in another neglected junction, as much as to make me think to be in a country recently bombed on napalm. In an apparently infinite period, pass through the roundabout -in order-: an elderly man on donkey pulled cart who stares at me with the same astonished expression one would have in observing ET landing on earth; a big brown down who studies me during a few second, then discarded the idea of having some part of my body for lunch, raises his right leg, pees on the street indications pole and leaves; three dodgy looking youngsters; a wedding parade. I’m forced to consider the idea of another leg by bus. Santiago bus station looks as if directly taken from some Almodovar movie and brings my mind to a time I will never be able to personally know. I’m lucky, the southbound bus hasn’t left yet.

It’s 7pm when we leave Santiago, it’s nearly 9 when the bus unloads me in a tiny town called Zambujeira do Mar. A night alone with the shocking roaring of the ocean in winter is what I really want. I get down from the bus and walk across the village, nobody in sight. In summer must be a completely different tale, I suppose. According to the billboard at the entrance, Zambujeira’s beach must be some kind of jewel. The same source states that is forbidden to bivouac. But the chances that a policeman decides to go and check it in the dead of the night, in winter, are as many as those of meeting an albino in a solarium. The sensations felt in a (mild) winter night, alone, by the shore of the Atlantic can be thus reassumed (in strictly chronological order) like: curiosity, excitation, uneasiness, fear, calm, freedom, peace. Next morning, “back pain” could be added to the list.

It’s 7am, Zambujeira is as desert as it was at 9 the previous evening. The humidity gathered in my body after 10 hours by the ocean loudly asks to be washed away on good, steamy coffee but I can’t see any open café around. Sao Teotonio, 10 Kms away, seems to be the closest town. Again the hitcher hits the road and again no cars to be seen.. Resigned, I decide to walk the 10 Kms. After all, we are talking of a distance walkable in one and half hour or so. “1 hour 25 minutes, 1 hour 15 minutes… 1 hour…” half an hour later, zero cars seen, my mood starts quickly sliding from gay to calm, to impatient, to tired, to pissed off with the whole world and specially with those bloody cars which I’m sure would flock in by the thousands if I only I wouldn’t need one. Thinking of it in perspective, nothing justified such jolt of mood. Neither the initial enthusiasm nor the consequent impotent anger. But, after all, if it wasn’t that way, I would be an enlightened, an ancient philosopher able to recognize the principles of the existence without transforming life in a restless sea of infinite search.

But even Zambujeirans eat bread and Sao Teotonio baker was just coming back from its daily distribution trip. The sweet fragrance that fills a baker’s van in the morning can turn out to be the worst of tortures if breathed with an empty stomach. I try to keep a “poker face” not to show how keen I am on his tasty load, but evidently I fail in the attempt and the young baker, a 20 years old with good command in english, first invites me to breakfast in the local café, then presents me with a fresh baked baguette “for the rest of your trip”. Good appetite!

My Portuguese experience ends up at Faro, in the southernmost tip of the country. From here I will continue by bus to Cadiz where I count on embarking for the Canary islands first and from there, eventually, to hitch a sea ride across the Atlantic towards the Americas.

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2nd March 2007

before the weekend kicks in...
Memories of my own trip to Portugal come back to me while reading your story! Me and my friend met so many nice people hitchhiking through the country. Your story made me smile. The perfect words to start the weekend with! In Belgium the sun is shining and the sky is blue! I am going to have a nice beer with friends on a big terrace! I will blink my eyes, think of you and drink to your health! Warm greetings, Vanetsa

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