Friday, 19 September 2008

5: Is it safe to eat this many cakes?

Initially I was very impressed with my new cycling partner's grasp of the Spanish language. Following a very pleasant final night in Santander with couchsurfing hosts, Belen and Manuel, Kirsty had demonstrated her proficiency in Spanish admirably well I thought. Having spent only three weeks in Cuba learning Spanish whilst cycling around the island, Kirsty now seemed sufficently qualified to lead me further along some Spanish roads and bring a hopeful ray of light to what remains for me, a linguistic desert. As the days wore on, however, I realised that key aspects of my daily routine had been completely overlooked in Kirsty's linguistic training and were simply beyond the scope of her Latin American Spanish phrasebook. At mealtimes it sufficed to establish that the meal I wanted had to have meat in it, after that it was a case of eagerly waiting to see what exactly I had ordered. Normally this wasn't much of a problem and a fried slice of some animal would duly arrive, but on one occasion in a little village called San Antolin, matters reached a head. Having spent the previous four days traversing the mightily impressive Cordillera Cantabrica and having been almost simultaneously frozen, soaked, and toasted, I was ready for some filling food. We found the only eatery that we had passed in the previous 50 km of Asturian wilderness and I sat down to a dinner of what turned out to be pig knuckle fat. With Kirsty unable to eat her own food due to her hysterical laughter, I tenderly sild my way through two of the knuckles before pushing my plate aside in a rare moment of gastronomic defeat.

Our slightly inland route westwards across northern Spain was quite spectacular, bringing us up, down, and along beautiful mountain valleys, and on occasion, past what must be some of the largest open-cast coal mines in Europe. My standard of living increased dramatically as 1-star hostals became the norm, although we'd probably have ended up as frozen corpses on a couple of occasions had we been testing the limits of our lightweight sleeping bags inside our tents. Santiago de Compostela marked the end of Kirsty's cycling foray, and she began the return pilgrimmage to Edinburgh by train and boat, while I continued south to Portugal.

In the six days it took to ride down the Portuguese coast to Lisbon, one of the stops I made was in the northern city of Porto. I was staying in a hostel there one night, having locked the door to the dormitory since it was after midnight and I had presumed that no one else was going to be turning up. I'd just fallen asleep when there was banging on the door. Bruno was from a small town on the opposite side of the country, near the Spanish border, and he entered the room with gusto, turning on lights, appearing in no way apologetic to have roused me from my much needed beauty sleep, and he proceeded into a one-way conversation at full throttle. He immediately started to warn me of the dangers that the unwary visitor faced in Porto and advised me to leave nothing on display as only last night had he had a pair of shorts and a t-shirt stolen. I cast my eye dubiously over my own scattered belongings and thought it highly unlikely that some drug crazed FC Porto fan was going to run away with my Borat-style padded lycra shorts. "One can only hope" I muttered, trying to feign tiredness and irritation at having been woken up so abruptly. Despite my attempted indifference, Bruno's life story unravelled before me - his exchange year in Poland, finding work in Portugal as a fledgling civil engineer, his country town, and his father's recurring nightmares. When he mentioned that the source of the nightmares was as a result of his father's experiences as a soldier in the Portuguese colonial army in Guinea Bissau, I became more engaged. One of the last imperial powers to release its African colonies (present day Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Guinea Bissau), I was interested to hear a Portuguese perspective on their colonial adventure. Independence for the colonies only occured after Portugal's own liberation from the dictatorship of Salazar in the early 1970s. Bruno hoped to work in Angola in a year or two as a civil engineer, but he had clearly inherited a depressing and skewed historical perspective. Regarded by many as one of the more brutal and destructive imperial powers, particularly in the period just prior to their departure, Bruno had apparently absorbed the colonial baggage as he said that the collapse and failure of the infrastracture and newly independent nations was clear evidence that the Africans did not know how to govern or main the infrastructure in their countries. Too tired to argue the point, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

I'll end this monologue with one other thought that has occured on the couple of hundred odd hours that I've been spending on my saddle over the past couple of months. Traveling by foot or on a bicycle or other such means, can help you appreciate how people can treat or view others based on first appearance. I remember passing through the industrial outskirts of Orleans several weeks back, when I saw a group of children from a nearby caravan encampment washing their clothes at a fire hydrant. The image resonated with me at the time, realising that what I regarded as the daily burden of washing my clothes by hand, if a suitable place can be found, was for these kids an everyday event. Another somewhat insightful moment occured when I was collapsing off the bike in the afternoon heat of a small coastal village in Portugal a couple of days ago. I was obviously looking the worse for wear, smeared with sweat, salt stains, and a congealed layer of sun screen, diesel fumes, and dust. I approached a passerby and in my best concoction of Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English, asked him for directions to the bread store. The man took one look at me and shaking his head and wagging his finger at me, walked resolutely on down the street. How many times I've seen similar jestures to others, yet although I was able to laugh it off, it was also a very disturbing sensation to be scorned in such a way. Of course, I can only relate on an extremely superficial level to others who experience such moments on a daily basis, but perhaps it's one good reason to get down and dirty on a bicycle.

Lisboa, Portugal
Trip distance: 3545 km

Monday, 1 September 2008

4: The never-ending hunt for porridge oats

Well I hadn´t intended to be providing weekly updates, I thought perhaps I might have done it by country instead, but at the speed I´m moving at people would probably forget the blog address in the interim. I also have an hour to kill before my Scottish cycling partner for the coming fortnight, Kirsty, arrives in on the ferry from Plymouth. I´ve got Rocinante tied up outside, but within view, here in downtown Santander where I´ve been taking some time off the bike for the past few days. Having had some pre-arranged dates made with friends for meeting up in Santander, I had several days to make the 250 km journey from San Sebastian to Santander and so I could take my time. This was fortunate as the hills themselves would have forced me to take a slower pace along this mountainous coast, but I would probably have been frustrated if I had tried to push a quicker pace. The exertion required to bring myself and the bike to the top of the hills was more than compensated for, however, by the spectacular coastline. The towns and villages in between held less appeal, especially those which have been blessed or cursed, depending on your point of view, with a fine beach. Such a feature ensures that your town will be inundated with those seeking to worship the sun-gods and will ensure your town´s urban arteries will be clogged with the daily migration from the town to the beach. The northern coastal resorts tend to attract an overwhelmingly Spanish clientele, probably driven away by the high cost of the more developed Spanish resorts along the Mediterreranean. The roads between these seasonal resorts offered sanctuary, however, and were for the most part surprisingly quiet and bereft of traffic.

Guernica is today a somewhat drab collection of modern architecture, but the town holds a very special place in the heart of many Basques. Not only was this the site where Basque elders held court in the past under an oak tree, the remains of which stand outside the present Basque parliament buildings, but it was also where Hitler´s airforce bombed the town in 1937. The facists, under General Franco, wished to destory the bridge in the town centre that provided a vital supply route for the Reds during the Spanish civil war and so they orchestrated the bombing and requested the Germans, eager to test their military equipment, as well as support Franco, to destroy the bridge. Carried out during the busy Monday afternoon market, however, not only was the bridge destroyed but so was most of the town and a total of over 2000 fatalities. This was the event that later inspired Picasso´s depiction of the bombing, now kept in Madrid.

One thing that I hadn´t understood whilst I was traveling through Euskadi was how, if the region had been so repressed by Franco, had the economy been so well developed and how northern cities, such as Bilbao, had been at the forefront of industrialisation in the mid twentieth century. A fellow I met in Santander, however, explained how Franco´s policy had actually been to develop and industrialise the Basque region to such an extent that it would be brought into the fold of Spain. This was also achieved by a type of latter day settler colony and by encouraging workers from other regions in Spain to migrate to these northern industrial areas to work and live and ultimately to breed out Basques from their own region. A very simplistic assessment of the situation, of course, and still just reflections from an ignorant passerby, but its certainly an interesting place to spend some time.

Thirty kilometres from Bilbao I crossed into Cantabria and left the Basque flags and language behind. While Santander doesn´t get much of a rating in the dog-eared photocopy I have of an out-of-date travel guide, I have really enjoyed my last few days in the city, catching up with some friends and spending time getting to know a place a little better and finally managing my first swim in the Atlantic since leaving Ireland. Destroyed by a fire in 1941, the city does at first seem to lack the old worldiness that has usually been present in the centre of cities that I´ve been passing through, but for me there is a relaxed and unpretentious charm to the city, boasted no doubt by the fact that I´ve found my first bag of porridge oats since central France.

Hasta luego!

Santander, Spain

Trip distance: 2285 km