When I said goodbye to Clementine and co. at a petrol station just past the border of Spain, a twinge of loneliness struck me, but it was quickly offset by the wonders of gratitude. They offered to take me slightly further if, after twenty minutes, I couldn’t find a lift, but darkness was beginning to spread its distrusting influence over the land, and I was happy to resign for the night, like a soldier satisfied by their day’s efforts. Except my efforts were in the pursuit of adventure, not war. And far less brave.
I found a spot to charge my phone in the petrol station café and tried to access the WiFi. It turned out to be one of those frustrating systems that sends a confirmation number to your phone that you then have to enter to connect and, for no discernible reason, I received no such text. I decided to abuse my mobile data instead, recognizing that it was a little too early to descend down the road and (all too predictably) find somewhere to camp. Being in rural Spain I was spoiled for choice: all of the surrounding roads were accompanied by beautiful, contorted trees and lush grass.
It was Saturday, and I hadn’t showered – unless you count drowning yourself in the sink of a public toilet – since Tuesday. Yes, you guessed it: there were shower facilities at the petrol station. I tentatively asked the man behind the counter how much it was to use their showers, and his response couldn’t have been any better if I scripted it myself: “They are free, we just need a form of photographic ID to keep hold of.” I handed him my passport, yanking it from the small front pocket of my backpack, and skipped towards the showers; a perfect picture of relief and desperation.
Afterwards, I grabbed a ‘Cup-a-Soup’ and a baguette, preparing to have a poor man’s feast. Once I finished eating I had officially exhausted all of the wondrous possibilities of the petrol station, so I hurtled down the road and pitched my underneath a crooked old tree. I hung my bright pink towel across its weathered branches, crawled through the tent’s narrow opening and drifted off into a deep sleep. Since the temperature didn’t flat-line and slowly bleed out like it did in France, I could be comfortable in just boxers and a vest. Not quite sleeping naked as I would back home, but much closer to it than the Eskimo apparel I wore every previous night.
The next morning was a seamless repeat of the night before, so I won’t waste anybody’s time with the details. Fast-forwarding past the monotony: I secured myself a killer lift after an hour or so of ‘thumbing’ strangers with no luck (I’m trying to find as many creative substitutes for ‘hitchhiking’ as possible). A reserved but friendly German couple whisked me up in their shiny black Audi – at least, the car was definitely black. She spoke very little English, but he was near fluent, narrowing the conversational pool to just 2. At first our dialogue was constant but vaguely awkward, and after that it dropped off altogether, save for the odd anecdote or sentence regarding my plans. “Where are you going to sleep?”, he asked. It was a question I had no effective answer to, however he was willing to take me directly to wherever I needed to be. I could imagine a much-less-suburban-more-gangster version of their exchange before extending such grand generosity to me, where he turned to his wife and echoed the infamous words of Don Corleone, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Such wicked kindness, it was, because it willed me to take some initiative. I tracked down a campsite on the outskirts of Valencia, by the coast, and booked myself in for the night, handing ‘Don Corleone’ my phone so he could punch the address into his Sat Nav. Amusingly the address heralded no search results after several attempts, rousing up very slight irritation in a man who epitomised composure. After a little more research I found the same address, only with one different digit in the postcode. Eureka! It was right! Any potential German hulk scenarios vanished, but it was probably better this way.
Camping Barraquetts, it was called. Neither I nor the German couple were aware how much of a detour it would be from there destination (Granada), until we arrived, after a good 40 minutes of meandering through central Valencia and tackling the dustier, twisty roads of Mareny Barraquetts, the small town 20km South of Valencia that seemed much further away. Perhaps it was my sense of guilt that made time stop, but when we arrived and there wasn’t a campsite in sight I could do nothing but warmly thank them for their help and wish them a great holiday. After all, Sat Nav had completed its route, so I couldn’t be far away. An hour later, I arrived, drained by the scorching heat and the endless frustration of trying to use Google maps with a bi-polar internet connection.
After orientating myself I decided to return to the beach, where Don Corleone left me, for my first swim in the Balearic sea. It was a foolish decision: the grinding weight of my backpack and the relentless heat (it was 6 in the evening, but you couldn’t tell) caused me to retreat to the campsite. There I decided to set up my tent and leave all my belongings inside, before going on a hunt for food. A couple with a young baby were camping next to me, and their presence compelled me to let go of my possessions for once.
I found my way to the beach and walked along the shoreline, feeling the sand beneath my feet and the cool water washing over them. The sun was beginning its descent and I was cooling down with it. My only concern was the fact that my options for food were seemingly nil, as you would expect in a small town on a Sunday evening. But perseverance would pay off, I believed, and the beauty of where I was couldn’t be shattered by anything else. I was somewhere I never expected to be, as a result of surrendering myself to spontaneity. This was a common occurrence throughout my travels, but one that remains poignant and precious in general life.
Eventually I left the beach and walked along the parallel street, where I saw a small newsagents, standing out in the surrounding darkness. A group of three old women and one man were lounging at a table outside, looking more local than the sand itself. When I greeted them I wondered how many other tourists had set foot in their town, if any. The number would definitely be low enough to form a small fan club. I wound up choosing two large bags of crisps and a packet of mixed nuts, after so much deliberation that the teenage boy behind the counter deserved an Oscar for managing not to burst out laughing, or haul himself at me.
Walking back along the beach, devouring the crisps as I went, wrapped in complete darkness, relinquished of my bag and the psychological shitstorm it often created, I was free. Of course I was free every single day in literal terms – free to go wherever I wanted. But I didn’t feel my freedom reign down upon me so heavily at other times, for a variety of different reasons that can all be traced back to anxiety. At this point I fully recognized that I had nobody to answer to. And isn’t that exactly what freedom is? People often say its the ability to do whatever you want, but that’s seems like a very spoilt and misled ideology. Some things are always out of reach. And how much compromise of the self does it take to become so powerful that you can do anything? Maybe, freedom is quite simply breaking away from other people and their demands or expectations? Maybe it’s finding a space where you are unknown and unaccounted for? Maybe it’s discovering how you think and feel when nobody else disrupts your internal process with their damning preconceptions?