The beginning of the end

As I prepared to do just as Nina did and leave Madrid for Paris to begin the journey home, I reflected on our journey together. Sure, I took a slight detour or two, Estapona and Lanzarote – but our paths merged for one last time that final night in Madrid. Prior to leaving Madrid, Nina spoke to the maid, Rosita, about all the places she missed out on visiting. I too am thinking about places I missed out on seeing but more importantly, I am reflecting about all the places I have been. Not just in following Nina’s footsteps on this trip but my whole gap year. I was preparing to return to Paris – back to where it all began.

I took my last paseo from my hostel, up and through the Puerta del Sol towards the Plaza Mayor. I looked around me as I wandered through Sol. The usual buskers, beggars, touts and lottery ticket sellers were there. I remembered Nina’s description of the paseo. She wrote:-

“All the street-sellers are out, and all the beggars. Shabby and dusty, the necktie vendor moves hither and thither offering to the strolling crowd a score or so of silk ties flung loose across his arm. The cake-seller stands against the wall, an uncovered basket at his feet from which passers-by who have no fear of germs may purchase sugared buns or fine little pipes of bread or sponge-cakes smeared with jam and then rolled in coconut. The peanut man, the lottery-ticket man, the cool drinks man, the newsboys are all aboard for the paseo shouting their wares.”

The beggars and the lottery-ticket sellers remain but newsboys and peanut man are long gone, as are the tie-sellers and cake-sellers. Now the street-sellers offer trinkets from north Africa and children’s toys. There are mini trumpets that the children in prams blow loudly as their parents push them through the crowds. There are plastic things that light up brightly when propelled into the air by elastic bands. They don’t last long – after three to four trips up in the air the elastic gives and the children cry. Another plastic gadget changes the sound of a voice when it is spoken through. There are glasses and ears and headbands that light up in flouro-colours. African women walk through the crowds in traditional dress with baskets on their heads. Make eye-contact and the baskets are whipped off to show the wares, hand made leather wrist-straps, elephant and camel key rings, fruit baskets that fold into a bread board shaped like an apple. The statue buskers stand still hoping for a few coins to be thrown to them. Others dress up and charge one or two euros for a photo with them. Sol’s Christmas light and decorations shine brightly and the Christmas tree stands tall and shines brightly in its ever-changing colours. People stop to take their photos in front of the tree – and while all of this is happening, the Madrid crowd surges past at its own pace with its own sound.

I looked around Sol before seeing more of the same in the Plaza Mayor. I moved with apprehension. Not because of the Madrid nightlife or its people but I knew the following morning I would leave for Paris. Paris – it is the beginning of the end. It is the beginning of my trip home. It is the beginning of resuming a normal life at home. This time, home will not be to pick up a few months work in a different city. This time home is back to Sydney. To live, to work, to once again be with family and friends. The apprehension stems from the knowledge that I will have to find work and to start life over again. My optimistic self is telling me it will be ok. The pessimist inside is rolling her eyes and sighing heavily. There is the nine-to-five to get used to again. The crowded public transport, the traffic, the people – yet before all of this, there will be Paris. I reminded myself about Christmas in Paris before one night in London and home on New Year’s Eve. It seems to appropriate to sleep the last night of 2017 in Australia and wake up and begin a new life again in 2018 on its very first day.

When Nina spoke with Rosita before leaving for Paris they listed off places Nina should visit in the future. Reflecting on where I have been, I thought I would make some lists.

Top seven places I visited during 2017 that I had never visited before

  • Seville
  • Granada
  • Lanzarote
  • Sicily
  • Dresden
  • Burgos
  • Naples

Top seven experiences

  • Walking the Camino – this will be number one for life
  • Climbing Mt Etna
  • Boating around the feet of Malta
  • Spending quality time with friends in Melbourne and Victoria
  • Meeting the Italian relatives in Molochio
  • Feeling like a Parisian
  • Driving around Lanzarote (don’t mention the guard rail!)

Worst seven experiences

  • Gibraltar – what a let down.
  • Taxi strike in Madrid
  • Hitting that guard rail with my little red car in Lanzarote
  • Avoiding all the cyclists that train in Lanzarote. I was pleased I avoided them it was just an added anxiety getting past them safely
  • My last dinner in Madrid
  • Loneliness that crept up on me at unexpected times.
  • My break-down on the Camino when the pain got too much

Places to visit or re-visit

  • Sicily
  • Seville
  • Lanzarote
  • The rest of the Canary Islands
  • Bilbao
  • San Sebastián
  • Granada

I guess that means I’ll be travelling to Spain again some day. Preferably not alone.

I have an itch to scratch

I think I first got the itch to visit the Canary Islands on my first visit to Spain back in 1987. There was talk about ‘contraband’ coming into mainland Spain from the Canary Islands. I can’t remember what the contraband was, it was either bananas or hashish. It sounded so exotic and mysterious. I wanted to visit but it did not happen. Years later I was hunting through a book stall and I found a small travel book on the islands, complete with maps. I didn’t know then if I would ever make it to the Canaries or not but for five dollars, I bought the book and poured over the maps. I read about the year-round great weather and the history of the islands. A few years after that, I was watching a film by the Spanish director, Pedro Amodovar, Broken Embraces. The scenery in the film was so stunning. There were black lunar landscapes. Stark yet contrasting landscapes. Large mountains, black beaches and strange sculptures on roundabouts. I had to see this. Since then, like the Camino, the Canary Islands has itched at me that I needed to see it, to relieve the itch, to soothe this itch. I wanted to visit after I had finished the Camino but neither my visa nor my bank account would allow it.

The Canary Islands are 100 kilometres, off the west coast of north Africa. They are adjacent to the Moroccan and Western Sahara border. They are governed by Spain who have controlled the Canaries since around 1495, despite some takeover efforts notably by the Dutch, yet are so different from any other part of Spain I have been to. There are seven main islands and many smaller ones. I read somewhere that many people believe the Canaries were named after the birds however, the more popular belief is that they were named after the Latin word for dog ‘canaria’. I haven’t seen any canaries here but I have seen a few dogs and lots of evidence that there are plenty of dogs around – judging by the dog poo on the sides of the road.

After making it to the airport on time despite the taxi strike, I board my plane and am excited to have not just a window seat but the row to myself. As we fly into Lanzarote, my face is pressed to the window. I can see the blue Atlantic with almost no horizon against the blue sky. There are volcanic craters, sticking their heads out of the ocean. There is a medium sized barren island with two small, white towns hugging close to the sandy shoreline. Then we start to descend onto Lanzarote. There are hills, mountains, more craters, not many trees and colours of green and black against a thousand neutral tones. While waiting to get off the plane, I start to chat to an elderly English couple. They come here all the time and ask where I am staying. I look up on my phone and show them the name of the accommodation and the address. “Ooooh”, he says, “that’s up the  north. It’s very pretty. We are staying up the north too, but further north than that”. I ask them if it is easy to get around the island. “Without a car?”, he questions. As I nod, he slowly says, “There are buses but they don’t run very often. You should download the app. We’ll be getting a bus but I don’t know if it goes through that town. A taxi is likely to cost you fifty euro”. I gasp, eyes pop. I should tell you that the only research I did prior to booking my trip and arriving, was to look on IMDB to see which island the Almodovar movie was filmed on. I booked the cheapest flight plus hotel that I could find on a travel website I had never used before – but hey, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.

Outside in the warm sun, I tell a taxi driver where I am going and show him the address on my phone. He asks another driver and four or five more enter the lively conversation on where it is. Finally, they all agree and I am off. Each roundabout we go through, has on it either a modern sculpture, a landscape feature of cactus, a landscape feature of other plants that don’t need a lot of water, a landscape feature of dry stone walls made from black volcanic rock artistically placed or a combination of some or all of the above. The road north pretty much hugs the east coast as we fly by white villages. To our west large mountains loom in their emptiness. Apart from the roundabout and the villages, there are no trees, especially on the steep mountainsides. We reach my accommodation and although I am only forty euros lighter, I feel the pain of such a high cost of a taxi but am happy as I would have had to do the ‘bag drag’ up the hill from the bus stop I noticed. Ricardo is there to check me in, but he wants to hurry. There is no reception at the place and I had to meet him at a specific time, hence the taxi rather than the bus. The accommodation is a kilometre up the road from the main highway and the coast. It is in a tiny village. I comment to Ricardo how far it is, wondering to myself how the bloody hell I am going to get around. He shows me my room. It overlooks a small blue pool and over the stone wall, I can see the ocean. It has a bedroom, a large living room/kitchen with the very basics and a small bathroom. I ask Ricardo if there is a supermarket nearby and if there are any places to eat in the village. I have a kitchen but no food. He tells me there is one place in the village about 500 metres up the hill. It is only open at breakfast. As I said, Ricardo seems to be in a hurry, he tells me if I want a supermarket I will have to walk down the hill and to the left to the gas station. It’s two kilometres there and back. “You can walk four kilometres”, he says to me. I can, but ….. “ok, adios” says Ricardo and he is gone.

So after the siesta and when the weather has cooled, I walk down the hill. I have to walk on the road as the sides are covered in low-lying brush and rocks with some cactus plants thrown in for good measure. I get to the highway, still no footpath, so along the road I walk, facing the on-coming traffic and get blown and buffeted about by the tourist coaches as they thunder past. I do the Jesus shop, water, wine and bread plus I add a few easy to carry items home to have some sort of dinner. Back along the highway I go, back up the big hill I go. It is so quiet up here, I enjoy my first night thoroughly. The wine helped. I watch tv and sleep like I haven’t slept since I left the farm in South Gippsland.

The next day, I head to the village ‘social club’ for breakfast, the one Ricardo told me about. It’s pretty good, with a tanned woman about my age, wearing short shorts, a singlet top, masses of curls and bright red lipstick who sways to Spanish music as she serves me. A few of the locals are here too, including one man who points to planes as the fly over, looks at me and laughs loudly. On my way out, I see she has tourist maps of the islands, something they did not think of supplying at my place, I grab one as I leave, thankful that I now have some basis of a plan – a map. After breakfast I head back to the gas station. I buy more water, more bread and a few more supplies. On the way past I stop at both bus stops going in either direction and take photos of their timetables, there are just a handful of times in both directions during the day. My plans are firming up. Later that day I research day tours and the bus routes. The day tours are pricey and most start from the populated beach resorts on the south of the island. However, I have a plan for the following day.

The next morning I wake, I can now eat breakfast at home thanks to cereal, pomegranate and yogurt bought at the gas station. After breakfast, it is down the hill to the bus stop to head north. The small island I saw from the plane is the first adventure. The bus detours from the highway, stopping at small towns and villages. It stops at what seems to be a BIG tourist attraction. I am unsure what it is but there is a metal sculpture of what looks to be a lobster. I think maybe it is an aquaculture facility. The bus arrives perfectly timed for me to catch the ferry across to La Graciosa. The ferry ride is fun as the little ferry battles the huge Atlantic waves crossing over the pass between the two islands before settling in to a calmer route along the island. The mountains on the Lazarote side are huge and a string of para-gliders and hang-gliders float and fly above and in front of the black stone sea-facing wall. La Graciosa, has some mountains too but they look small – like mere hills in comparison. The main mountain on Graciosa, gives the appearance that it has been painted using a marbling technique. The colours that radiate out from centrifugal points are neutral, subtle but the effect is amazing.

On the island, we motor into the main village. It is pretty, the houses are all white with either blue or green trim on the doors windows and shutters. The streets are sand. Just sand. I am amazed that the houses stand so straight but I guess under the sand is hard rock. There are restaurants and supermarkets and bikes to hire to ride up the amazing mountain or to some of the remote beaches. I explore for a while before lunching on the waterfront. I explore some more after lunch, there is a bank, a post office, a police station. It is quaint. A perfect setting for one of those light-hearted police or doctor based British mini-series. As we ferry back to Lanzarote the sea is much more distressed, we bob up and down into the headwind and seem to make no progress at all. It is a slower trip back but equally as enjoyable. Once back on Lanzarote, I need to wait 45 minutes for the bus, I pass the time walking around town looking for a supermarket. I figured, if I could by my supplies here I could get off the bus at the bottom of the hill and save walking along the highway. No luck, lots of restaurants, but no supermarket. I have to get off in the town of Arriete, stock up and walk along the highway and up the hill. I reach the corner of the highway and the street up the hill and their is a rally car race down my street. I ask a guy if it is ok for me to walk up the hill “Si, si!” is his reply. I dodge the racing rally cars the whole way up, occasionally jumping to safety into the brush and avoiding the cactus plants which I am assuming would be only slight less painful than a rally car hitting me. I am home but perhaps need to consider a hire car. Doubts flood my mind. I haven’t driven much in the past year. Can I drive on the right hand side of the road? My last attempt, 17 years ago, met with a couple less side-mirrors on other people’s cars. Surely I can do it.

The next morning, I decide it’s time to visit the main town. Down the hill I go to catch the bus. It again takes the coastal route before turning inland. More villages, all white, with the green or blue trim. More mountains. More cactus plants. Lots of tall majestic palm trees in each village. The main town Arricife – ACE is its airport code which is cool – is a pretty town with lots of pedestrian only streets, beaches, shops and marinas. I spend a few hours here before going to a supermarket to get supplies before I head on home and back up the hill. I have made a decision. I will get a car. At home, I start exploring hire car options, then I find out I can get a car from my accommodation. Why didn’t Ricardo tell me this. Expletive laden rant about Ricardo. I ring the number on the website. A man answers “Diga”, (speak) he commands.  I ask if it is Ricardo to whom I am speaking with. It’s not, it’s someone called Francisco. When I ask if he speaks English, he replies that he does. He doesn’t.  In a Spanglish conversation he tells me the bicycles are free. Bicycles? Ricardo didn’t mention those either. I use the Spanish word for car. At just 20 euros a day, I can get a car. I tell him yes, that’s great, I will take one. He tells me someone will come to my room soon and sort it out for me.

Twenty minutes later a guy called Samuel knocks on my door. I pay him the required amount. Samuel speaks no English. I ask if the car is automatic or manual, making gear stick movements with my left hand. He tells me yes, it is automatic and makes gear stick movements with his right hand. We laugh as we both work out it is manual and I work out that I am going to have to get used to changing gears with my right hand. I drive manuals but was hoping for an auto simply because of the fact that I know I will reach for the door rather than the gear-stick whenever I need to change gear. As I am making payment, I think to ask about insurance. Samuel has no idea what I am asking. I am tempted to say “insurancia” but know that would be stupid. I then think of mimicking my screaming and crashing but don’t want to scare him or put the mocca on myself, so tell him not to worry. He takes me to my car. It is a small, bright red Fiat. It suits me fine. I now have wheels. Look out! Look out!! More adventures ahead as I realise visiting just two of the Canary Islands may not be enough to soothe my itch.