Pilgrim

That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x

From Burning Desert to Sapphire Sea

One minute I’m standing on a high rock, staring into a lunar desert whilst desperately trying to even up my tan lines; two hours later I’m staring down at a school of damselfish drifting over a coral reef. I’m still struggling to get my head around it.

Sunrise feels far longer ago than this morning. After putting the finishing touches to last night’s report, I left the others sleeping in the campground and set off alone into the desert once again, this time to see the sunrise. I made it to the other side of the valley in time to catch the first rays of sunlight bursting over the cliffs. The sand was full of tracks: the footprints of beetles, snakes, camels and four-wheel drives crisscrossed the valley floor. There was even a lone skink trail halfway across, both satisfying and amusing on a more personal level (for the record, it’s an old family joke about lesser-spotted three-toed eagle-eyed skinks that gets wheeled out whenever yours truly gets boorishly specific about animals). The others were mostly up and about by the time I returned, and in perfect time for half an hour’s meditation before breakfast. The hefty futur Ahmad and his brother Khaled prepared for us was a kingly feast: fresh bread, helwa, jam, hummus, falafel and hard-boiled eggs (there’s no escaping them!), and that’s without mentioning four glasses of that lovely sage and cinnamon-infused Bedouin tea. Dee-lish. God help my teeth over the coming year, because Spain and the Arab world most certainly won’t.

The jeep tour of Wadi Rum was a pretty standard exploration of the main sights, as you might expect: the early Nabatean rock art, Lawrence’s house and the rock arches. I needn’t elaborate much; such sights, stunning though they may be, are better detailed in guidebooks. Besides, Langelsby’s got it covered. I highly recommend you go for a tour if you’re in the area, though. On a more personal note, I found it profoundly ironic that I finally found a haven for wildlife, in what must be outwardly one of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet. Desert larks, white-crowned wheatears, rock martins and rosefinches followed us from rock to rock whilst the ever present grackles, the tricksters of Wadi Mujib, whistled noisily overhead. No sign of the nocturnal denizens of the desert, but a welcome change from scabby cats and pigeons. The naturalist in me will never be suppressed. So says the lesser-spotted three-toed skink, at any rate.

On the knowledge that wrangling a bus from Wadi Musa to Amman might be beyond us, we arranged with Ahmad, our kohl-eyed Bedouin guide, to take us as far as Aqaba instead, where buses to Amman would be easier to achieve. Aqaba may be your run-of-the-mill beach resort these days, but it has a notch on everything I’ve seen before: the Red Sea. Sapphire would be a better name by far. I’d heard stories and seen pictures, but I’d never really believed quite how deep a blue the Red Sea was. Quite by accident, and with no small meddling from my heart, I found myself physically incapable of passing up the chance to go snorkeling.

Water sports and I don’t have an easy history, let’s say. Ask the population of Whitstable, who watched me capsize a kayak twice and have to be towed ashore (yeah, that still smarts). Swimming’s just about my favorite sport, being both an important skill and the only sport I’ve ever enjoyed, but I have breathing issues – something to do with my nose – which makes most other water sports more problematic than entertaining. Snorkeling has always been a dream of mine, though. Not as technical as scuba and easily doable for somebody with breathing issues. I say that, at least. It’s easy in retrospect.

The first forty minutes were tortuous – not because very salty water kept leaking into my mask, or because I was panicking over the oddity of breathing through a tube, but because the scenes opening up below me were nothing short of some of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen (ouch, that was a bad pun). Stacks of frilled and fringed coral giving way to deep, sandy gardens shimmering in the crystal sunlight. Black sea urchins stretching their tapering spines out of crevices. Angelfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, even clownfish, frolicking just inches in front of me. It was like living a wildlife documentary in the flesh. By the time I’d finally worked out how to breathe properly – ironically, the key to it was simply calming down and having faith in the tube – we only had five minutes left in the water. But those last five minutes were magical, even more so than the stars over Wadi Rum. Who could possibly feel lonely, or even give loneliness a second’s thought, with scores of brightly colored fish teeming about so close to? Those were my brightest moments.

Christ, but I feel like a tourist right now. I’ve just tackled three of Jordan’s biggest attractions in two days flat: Petra, Wadi Rum and the Red Sea. I didn’t really give Petra much clearance, did I? Mm, I’ll leave that one to the girls over at Langlesby Travels (https://langlesbytravels.wordpress.com/).

It’s been a busy weekend and a half. It feels unreal, somehow. But I don’t regret it for a second – and for once, l don’t even feel ashamed. I am a tourist. Jordan thrives on tourism. I guess I’m finally beginning to accept that. And about time too! Travel is no more and no less than the best thing you can do with your life, and it’s such a shame to have it spoiled by something you could never change, even if you wanted to. BB x