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Somewhere between ripping sunburnt thighs from car seat plastic, and the first rubber sole touching down on asphalt, I lost my hat. I only knew it when my naked skull began to fry.
A scorching Sunday afternoon and I’m hitchhiking in Spain for the first time in over thirty years. Pushing fifty-five and on the road again. Just for the crack. I feel like a runaway puppy. Heading down the highway south of Conil de la Frontera to see where it takes me.
Yet, as degrees Celsius start to match degrees latitude, a hairless man needs a hat in Andalusia. And there went mine, speeding off in cloud of dust, borne away by a man in a van. I would never see it again. I stick my thumb out.
The summer of 1970 the fabled digit wove a meandering path from London to Lisbon and back. Six countries in as many weeks on twenty-five quid. Along with Gordon. Fresh out of Winnipeg, all Strawberry Fields, magic mushrooms, and still dewy behind the ears. A goofy grin and hornrimmed specs mounted on an upturned mop clad in denim. Gordon. Heady, hippy days of endless horizons. Sleeping beneath tents of star-spangled skies on mattresses of grassy meadows. I never slept better. My nights filled with youthful dreams paving the way to each new dawn.
We may not have had much money, but there was enough for wine, bread and cheese. Besides, with God’s summer larder to pillage we couldn’t go too hungry. Fat blackberries gleaned from hedgerows, squashy cherries fallen by waysides, and the grove of unripe peaches we plundered, only to suffer stomach pains. There were days without food, and days with meals at highway restaurants paid for by sympathetic Good Samaritans disguised as travelling salesmen.
Despite all the flashy cars zooming by without stopping, no one was richer than Gordon and I that summer. And we knew it. Even when our cash finally ran out in Switzerland, and we were reduced to begging and stealing, we knew it. Only, by that time, Gordon seemed to know it a bit less than I. My own disillusionment set in when my rucksack and passport were filched in Germany. Karma for our transgressions.
Three decades fly by and I’m on the road once more. Dropped off on the main drag outside Vejer de la Frontera, a few miles along the way to wherever I’m bound. This is it, I’m thinking, freedom at last! Now the fabulous digit has a chance to work its mojo again.
That’s when I discover I’m also hat-free. Man in van owns new hat. Well, new to him. For two years it’d served me well. Now we are parted. Fare thee well hat, I wish you a safe and interesting journey. No sooner have we taken out goodbyes, than a classic old Merc glides out of a string of indistinguishable steel on wheels, and draws to a halt. Ringed brown eyes, veiled in smoke, squint from beneath an enviably wide-brimmed panama, through an open sunroof. A nocturnal, nicotinal creature peers out of its burrow to offer me a lift.
Juan plays horn for a fourteen-piece soul outfit. Summers they work carnivals and fiestas all over Spain. Winters he blows jazz wherever he can. My head reels to imagery conjured up by his words and his panama. Straight out of Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart via Peter Blake by way of Miles Davis. Visions of New Orleans, Motown, and Sergeant Pepper. The sweet, sweet brass of The Midnight Hour by Geno Washington and his Ram Jam Band. Otis Redding at Granby Halls Leicester. A gig to remember. He died in a plane crash later that year. Tell me about it. Art student nights movin’ and groovin’, trying to get my hands into sweet little Alex’s panties. A lifetime away. Sweet little Alex the art student from Portsmouth, red hair and freckles; her skin the scent of fresh-picked apples. Sure to become a teacher.
And Juan can boogy. All night gigging in Toledo, yet still driving 250 miles home to San Roque, a few miles from Castellar de la Frontera. He tells me about the once deserted mountaintop village that has been reclaimed by hippies. Just what I’m looking for. Hypnotised by nostalgia, I long to see flowing hair and open-toed sandals again. I want to listen to Jimi Hendrix; to scent the aroma of patchouli, and other exotic substances, wafting through the beautiful night air. Juan offers to drive me there. But first, he has to drop off a poster at a friend’s house in Tarifa, the windsurfer’s paradise at the doorstep of Morocco.
The castle at Castellar de la Frontera was raised in the 15th century and only abandoned in the 1950’s. Frontera means frontier. Once one of the last frontiers between Christian Andalucia and the Islamic North Africa, the Moors finally retreated out of Europe completely in early 1492. As these thing go, on October 12th that same year, Christopher Columbus discovered America, strangely enough. Can’t help thinking there’s something symbolic about that.
The winding mountain road literally finishes at a shady bar outside the castle walls. I reward Juan with an ice cold beer. We exchange email addresses on the backs of fag packs before he points the Merc back down the mountain. I order another beer. It wasn’t until the 1990’s the fortified mountain village became colonised by hippy artists and musicians. And, as if to prove it, an old German hippy pops in to slake his thirst. Not the first time that day by the cut of his jib. He looks like a mountain man, his face sun and beer rosy, greying dreadlocks tumbling about his shoulders
Sensing I’m alone, mountain man noses I might need a room. With what sounds like a warning, to my ears, he advises me to go back down the mountain to the new town of Castella. I thank him for his advice while choosing to ignore it. Mountain Man don’t scare me. He downs his beer hurriedly and sidles off to pick a few more magic mushrooms, make ashtrays out of skulls, or whatever they do to earn crust in these parts.
Inside the village walls the rest of the hippies are keeping a very low profile. Either that or they’ve all gone off to a rock festival. Apart from Mountain Man, the well-kept streets are deserted. But he’s the type that always gets left behind. I spot him scampering into some bushes. Perhaps he’ s spotted a skull.
Not a soul, a ghost town, apart from a sprinkling of sunglazed, baseball-hatted tourists; their Nikons stalking hidden ghosts. And the white-haired old woman who suddenly looms up in a shop doorway. Seemingly stranded somewhere between a heavy siesta and Woodstock, there’s something vaguely out of place about her. A touch of Germaine Greer on gin, perhaps. Or maybe it’s Maggie Thatcher on acid. She doesn’t quite fit the hippy bill. Too Home Counties meets Glastonbury in a Laura Ashley rummage sale. Or perhaps I’ve been out in the sun too long.
In answer to my question she tells me there are no rooms for rent apart from the expensive casa rurales. How does she know I’ve hardly any money? Perhaps she’s the village psychic. She slinks behind her door to hide with the rest of the spooks. I am in a hippy village at the top of a hippy mountain with two old hippies and no hippy beds. And it’s getting sinister. Sold a dummy again. No patchouli, no Jimi Hendrix, no tripping hippies. All metamorphosed into creepy, dreadlocked, reclusive wrinklies hovering behind net curtains. The rainbow-coloured buses they arrived in lie rusting by the wayside or in gardens.
From the castle battlements spectacular views of southern Andalucia melt into the straits dividing two continents, Europe and Africa. They are closer to each other than Dover is to Calais. Built to dissuade the Moors from returning to reclaim Andalucia, the thick castle walls did the job.
The country lies beneath me like a map on a table. I plot the rest of my journey by tracing a fingertip through air betwen us. At the tip of Spain the Rock of Gibraltar stands in the way of Africa.
It’s getting late. Seeing few cars, I walk the 8ks to the new town of Castellar at the foot of the mountain while it’s still light.
Constructed under Franco to prod the villagers down from their former mountain eyrie and into twentieth century obedience, stark white cubes rendered pink by the setting sun stand far enough away from the main road to ensure few passing travellers see them. Those who dare call in are greeted with suspicion. Nobody asked to live there, and those that do can’t understand why anyone would want to visit. Nor can I. Designed by statisticians for the creation and storage of statistics.
In the main square I ask a loitering statistic with a fag glued to his lips where to find a room. He points at nearby cube. An old woman sits in a wheelchair on the verandah chatting to a man quietly filling a huge sweaty tank top. Rooms are 9€. The hall décor reminds me of the motel in Pschyo. I am the only guest. Another statistic. I note with alarm that the shower has a misty plastic curtain.
Following a couple of cognacs too many at the Stalinesque restaurant in the town square I wake with the realisation that I don’t have enough folding to pay for the room. The only cash machine in town died overnight, and the bank clerk doesn’t know when it’ll be fixed. The nearest is in San Roque 10ks away.
In less than ten minutes the fabulous digit snares a new-ager driving a Citroen van. He tells he tried hitching to Barcelona the week before, but ended up having to take the train. I could chop my enchanted thumb off then and there to make him a gift of it.
A carload of east European gypsies pretend they are going to run me over on the way back. A tiresome old joke. Then one of them attempts to sell me a watch. Undissuaded by my shaking head he goes on to try and bum some petrol money. The guy’s got a front bigger than the Albert Hall; the car’s already bursting, so there’s no chance of a lift.
Before I can suggest where he straps his timepiece he closes in on a hapless biker resting under the shade of a tree. Meanwhile a Swiss businessman pulls up. He drops me off outside Castellar. I almost reach my pension when a voice calls out. A woman driving in a battered Renault 4 draws up beside me.
Hilke tells me she saw me hitching earlier when she was going the other way. But now she’s going mine and offers to wait while I settle up with the man quietly filling the same sweaty tank top to bursting.
Stubbing a spliff in the car ashtray, Hilke says she publishes books on hallucinogens. She has lived up in old Castellar for eleven years. Having chanced upon one of the elusive hippies of the town, I feel like a David Attenborough rediscovering a lost tribe of mountain gorillas. She drives me to a bus stop to catch a bus the short distance to La Linea, the frontier town, from where I stroll across the border for a day out in Gibraltar.
Picture Deptford High Street on a sweltering afternoon. Cram it with as many jewellers, off-licences, camera shops, and drunken squaddies as you can find. Drop it onto an unsightly hump jutting out of the south of Spain, sprinkle lightly with monkeys and there you have your Gibraltar. A rock that looks like it was dropped from a huge alien spacecraft to squash something.
Saw the roofs off all the double deckers before giving them a good kicking and you have the colony’s main bus service.
I can hardly believe it. Scarcely have I alighted before I realise my passport, cash, and cashcard are missing.
Down at the police station a reassuringly English looking bobby called Brian carefully fills my details onto a form and puts it safely into a drawer before bidding me a fond farewell. We Brians know how to communicate with one another.
I am back on the streets without ID; four unusable euros to my name. Now only I knew who I am, the rest of you will to have take my word for it. Morbid thoughts of having to sweat out the rest of my life in Deptford with a hump sticking out, cut off by water on three sides, fill me with dread. Left with no choice but to hitchhike home, I head back to the frontier.
Though Brian had assured me that the slip of paper he’d given me would get me past Spanish immigration, Gibraltar immigration aren’t quite so convinced. To gauge by their faces they aren’t too bothered what I do. I’m just a problem best solved by self-deportation. Taking my chances, I meander through the border post, holding a piece of paper aloft, looking bewildered. An old trick I learned on the road. It really works. Though a sensitive naval base en route to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve had more difficulty getting into Kensington High Street Odeon on a valid ticket than I had getting back into Spain.
It’s a three or four mile walk under a blistering sun before Ernesto picks me up in his souped-up Mitsubishi. He tells me he can take me up the mountain to Castellar, where all the hippies are. I tell him I’ve already been. On hearing my adventures he slips me 1 50€ for a coffee to help me on my way. With the few euros I didn’t lose, I have enough money for the bus to Tarifa. 80ks to go. I might’ve guessed the last 80 would be the toughest. Sod’s law. It’s at times like this I know the whole world has turned against me in an evil conspiracy hatched by George Bush. Forcing a smile I stick out a weary thumb this time.
A German handyman in a camper drives me a few kilometres to the middle of nowhere. I can only suspect he does it on purpose, because no bastard will stop there. George Bush has a lot to answer for.
The evil conspiracy theory is finally dashed when Juan number two pootles along an hour later. A wind surveyor from Seville, he’s been searching out new sites for windmills on the Costa de la Luz, one of the windiest places on earth. He drops me at the turning for Zahara.
Only 40ks remain. The cars speed by. Another hour passes. The cars speed by. The evil conspiracy theory raises its ugly head once more.
Juan number three is Juan number two pootling back. He picked up his wife and Juan number four (aged two) in Zahara, and is taking them home to Seville. While his parents chat, Juan number four gurgles cheerfully from the rear, in both senses.
We part ways at Conil. I am back, minus passport and cash. What took me six weeks in 1970 takes me just over a day more than thirty years later. Yet it was worth it.
Hey, Gordon! Wherever you are, nobody talks to nobody on the buses no more. Fresh out of Winnipeg, all Strawberry Fields, magic mushrooms, and still dewy behind the ears. A goofy grin and hornrimmed specs mounted on an upturned mop clad in denim. Gordon.
This account was written in 2004.
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
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Thanks for pointing me toward this — it was a good read. It sounds as if in thirty years the world changed more than you and not always for the better. Lots of beautiful prose here but this line caught me early on:
The summer of 1970 the fabled digit wove a meandering path from London to Lisbon and back.
Great stuff. Perhaps in thirty years I’ll be able to look back and juxtapose just as you have. Keep up the wild life 🙂
Great to have you visit. As I said, though about different things, at different times, on a different continent, your stuff reminds me of a lot of the stuff I did back then. Somehow, it all seems so much harder now, like too many people learn too much, too early through the eyes of a TV or computer screen that has learned to stare silently back, while taking notes.
I’ll be posting more memories of those times, as the mood takes me. But, for an awful lot of them, I was just that bit too wasted to remember, and there are ones I’d rather forget. Still, it was all good, even the tougher lessons I learned.
Bowie was already steaming along by that time, for us in the know, with Space Oddity released in 1969, believe it or not.
Oh Bryan, your writing… Just wonderful writing.
1970 is so long ago. Bowie was at a height in 1977, but also Elvis died 77 – but you’re talking way before this. And three decades between trips? Amazing, is time.
Enough for bread, wine & cheese… 🙂 I feel that.
LOVE your writing, Bryan.