Bordeaux – Cuimbra Fri March 23

Both our alarms rang at 4 am, which was the scheduled departure time. I managed to get up at 5. I didn’t dare to wake him up directly, but thought that if I went to

Both our alarms rang at 4 am, which was the scheduled departure time.

I managed to get up at 5. I didn’t dare to wake him up directly, but thought that if I went to the toilet he’d wake up from the sound of the car door. However, it wasn’t possible to open the door without turning on the engine. Neither was it possible to turn on the lights. Instead I started to pack my bag as noisy as possible and it worked; soon he came crawling out of the lower bed and wrrrroooom we continued towards Spain. Before I had thought it’d be weird to sleep in a tiny truck cabin with a stranger, but it was really nice, just like being a boy scout again.

At sunrise we passed the border. San Sebastian is a beautiful city and seen at dawn from a truck it was magical. Tiego went off the highway and started driving on a smaller road up the mountains. In the middle of the Basque country there is a service area with free showers for truckers, and that’s were we went. We drove up and up and up on dwindling roads. After a while there were patches of white in the grass. Is that snow? Nooo … there can’t be snow in Spain … but suddenly we were in the middle of Winter Land. More snow than at any time during the past winter in Sweden. A fresh chill blew in through our open windows.

When we came to the gas station we saw newly-washed drivers jump over piles of snow with their towels and slippers. It might be snowing up here, but hot showers are free! Tiego had asked repeatedly if I didn’t want to shower but I didn’t find it necessary since I had one in Paris. But then I thought that perhaps he knew more about my hygiene than I did so I got my towel and we went to the building. They wouldn’t let us in till 9 am so in the meantime we had breakfast and threw snowballs. The water had only one temperature and it was a very hot one so I burned half the body while the other was freezing from the winter wind blowing through the shower room. We hang up our towels to dry in the truck cabin and continued to Portugal.

In the afternoon we were out of Winterland and stopped for lunch. The stew from yesterday night had marinated on the engine-warm cabin floor between my legs the whole day. We heated it on the gas stove and added some spaghetti. There were other Portuguese trucks here and Tiego asked them if they went to Porto and in that case if they wanted the company of a gentle Swedish hitchhiker. One driver told that he had once picked up a girl who was going to Portugal. At night he had let her sleep in the upper bed of his cabin and when he woke up in the morning she was gone and so was his wallet, passport, watch and laptop. After Tiego had translated the story to me the atmosphere got a little bit awkward. I tried to cheer it up a bit by saying: “I am not much better than she is. When you wake up tomorrow you will have no meat or spaghetti left”. I am not sure he took the joke the right way since he heartily replied that he had a gun and would come to Sweden and shoot me with one shot if I wasn’t nice.

The stew tasted much better today. It was in fact so delicious that I had to write down the recipe. Here it is:

Portuguese trucker’s meat stew
Chop one onion. Fry it in a pot together with lots of oil and yellow stuff from a bottle. Add 4 big pieces of meet and let boil for half an hour. Add salt and pepper. Marinate the stew 24 hours on an engine-warm cabin floor between the legs of a hitchhiker (make sure he takes showers) and heat it again. When it boils, add spaghetti and let boil for 10 minutes. Voila!

Tiego ate with the fork and I with the spoon. I started making up a board game where one player plays the spoon, one the fork, one the knife and one the chopsticks and there is a stew full of different ingredients and the players get to trade and combine their cutlery skills in their pursuits to eat as much as possible. After finishing the meat and spaghetti I drank the whole soup. Then we washed the dishes and continued our journey, listening to the same eight Portuguese Eurodisco songs that we had listened to the whole day and the day before. ”Yippie yeeeeeeeeeah yeah yippie yeah”

A plane flew above us. Tiego said that his dream was that his son would become a pilot when he grew up. He would drive his truck on the ground and his son would fly the plane in the air.

The sky got dark of heavy rain clouds. But near the horizon the sky was clear blue. I guessed that the cloudy parts were Spain and that the blue sky behind was the sky of Portugal. And it was! When we crossed the border the sun was shining and it was real summer again. We went straight to the coffee bar. He had talked the whole way about the Portuguese coffee. He said that when driving in Spain or France he had at maximum one or two cups of coffee a week since it tasted so bad while in Portugal he had 8 coffees a day. Now he wanted to buy me one and was really excited about how my face would brighten up like if I had met my saviour. Unfortunately I felt such respect for his long-cherished coffee ritual that I did it exactly the way he did it, including emptying a whole pack of sugar in the tiny cup. Since I never add sugar otherwise I was overtaken by the sweetness. But behind all the sugar I could feel a taste of something strong, soft and creamy.

At the border we sat waiting for messages. He was waiting for an answer as to whether he should drive to Southern or Northern Portugal, and I was waiting for an answer from the game convention guys who had said that someone could possibly pick me up somewhere on the way from Lisbon to Porto. He got the message that he would drive to Southern Portugal, but since I got the message that I would be picked up anywhere on the coast I joined him. (Otherwise I would have stayed at the border to look for a car directly to Porto.)

He rolled down the windows and inhaled the smell of Portugal in deep breaths. His face was all happiness; Portugal! Portugal! Home again. And it did smell different. A bit like Taiwan. It got dark and the highway got narrower, passing over several bridges and with sharp curves; yet cars were driving faster than ever, including our truck. Tiego, who used to be all sunshine, started complaining about living standards in Portugal. He said that 25% of the people were rich, 20% middle class and that 55% were poor. He said that the salary of an ordinary worker was 400 € a month and that one had to choose between owning a car or sending the kids to school. He said that I shouldn’t hitchhike in Portugal, that 18 (or if it was 80) per cent of drivers were bad people, with guns. In the flickering light of the cars that roared by in the other direction his face looked different and his talk got me nervous. I realized that I would soon be walking the dark streets of an unknown city like a big grilled chicken ready to be ate by anyone. I couldn’t help it but started fantasizing about how it be to get beaten up and robbed of everything. And what if my glasses would be broken! I’d be completely helpless. I am so blind that they laughed at me when I was monitored for military service. ”You’d shoot your own soldiers” they said. Hitchhiking would be out of the question. Even taking a plane would be an adventure. I went home without glasses from Denmark once and it was just by pure chance I didn’t end up in Italy.

I asked Tiego if he thought there’d be a hotel in Condeixa, the town where I was to leave the safety of his truck. He had no idea, but said there would for sure be hotels in Cuimbra, a larger city on the way. I asked if he could take me to downtown Cuimbra. Hitchhikers who ask truck drivers to take them to city centers don’t come to heaven when they die. They come to hell and hell is a rainy gas station in rural Sweden where no one ever stops. But I wasn’t the professional hitchhiker anymore, I wast just a scared kid who was desperate for a pair of white sheets and a door to lock behind me. Tiego wasn’t too happy about my request but was too kind to not drive me to downtown Cuimbra. I thanked him a thousand times, got out of the truck and started to walk towards the lit up area pretending to know exactly where I was going.

The old town was crowding a hill overlooking the water. Beautiful! I came to what looked like the main square and started walking down what looked like the main shopping street. Everything was closed but people were still out and it felt reassuring since I was alarmed and didn’t want to walk on empty streets. I peered into all back alleys for cheap hotels but didn’t see any. When the street ended I took to the left and finally saw a sign saying ‘pensionace’. I went inside and inhaled the familiar smell of cheap hotel. A television showed football, a telephone behind an empty desk looked like it was 100 years old and there was a list of prices on the wall next to it. A room with ”privacy” was 23 € and one with ”special privacy” 27. I rang on the bell and after some time there was a slow creaking from the narrow stairs. An old man came down one step a second and said something nice in Portuguese. He slowly went behind the desk and I pointed at the ”privacy 23 €” line and said: ”I want one of these”. The old man shook his head and slowly reached for an old envelope and a pen and wrote ”20 €”. I didn’t know I was bargaining but ok I said and gave him my VISA card and to my horror found its magnetic stripe covered with chewing gum. The old man waved my card away and said ”tranquil” with a soft voice and started walking slowly up the stairs. I followed him to a very nice room with antique wooden furniture and – to my delight – a bath tub. I signed some paper, put my clothes in the bath tub and left the hotel to hunt for dinner.

The peaceful nature of the hotel manager had completely washed away my (totally exaggerated) fears and after leaving most of my belongings at the hotel (including a pair of spare glasses) I attacked the Cuimbra night.

I walked back towards the center on another road and this one had plenty of cheap hotels and restaurants. A big group of French high school students filled the street and later there was a funny-dressed orchestra – resembling some kind of fraternity – tuning their instruments. I found a cash machine and to my relief my chewing gum-polluted VISA card created a stream of sweet euro bills. I got hooked on a ”Portuguese pork” for 6 €. It sounded touristic, but the restaurant was full of young Portuguese people so it couldn’t be merely a tourist trap. They started by serving me a plate of fried sea stuff and olives. I hate when they serve you and charge you for food you didn’t order, which is the custom in some countries. But my experience is that it is seldom worth to argue about it and this was not the right time. I had hitchhiked to the South-Western tip of Europe and found the majestic Atlantic ocean, so of course I had to fry it and eat it!

The pork was greasy and good and after it I started exploring all the alleys in the neighbourhood. I was the opposite of the person I was one hour ago. Cuimbra was like a labyrinth of narrow and well-lit streets lined by white walls and full of night-closed shops. I heard the sound of live music and followed it till I found myself in a jazz club. In Czechia ”a beer” means 5 dl, in Sweden it’s 4 and in France 3. So I was joking to myself that a beer must be 2 dl in Portugal. And it was. Tomorrow will be the Porto board game convention so it’s best that I go to sleep early I thought and stayed for one or two songs, downed the egg cup, went to the hotel, hung my clothes to dry and fell in a deep, warm, safe and comfortable sleep.

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