Posts Tagged With: Travel and Tourism

Poland To Portugal: The Big Hitchhike Across Europe

Poland to Portugal, by thumb

Poland to Portugal by thumb

I was once again in a tough spot. This pickle in Portugal had suddenly edged my previous predicament in Spain. But even with the situation rather dim, in Spain I had not felt compelled as I did in Portugal to hastily scribble “S.O.S.” on a piece of discarded cardboard and hold it above my head in a last-ditch plea for help. But this was Portugal, where strangers on roadsides are viewed with great suspicion. You are simply a wayfarer in need of a ride, but to the Portuguese you are the Grim Reaper. Portugal and neighboring Spain are notorious in the hitchhiking community. Some hitchhikers I met along the way said snagging a ride in Spain was next to impossible, and that I found to be true. It took an inordinate amount of effort and tedious hours, sometimes days, to get from one point to another on my journey, but Portugal was just as bad, if not worse. At best in both countries, all I got were wary glances, dumbfounded stares, or flatly ignored. At worst, a firm and nasty “no!”.

Lyon to Marseille

Lyon to Marseille, but switched course and headed to Toulouse instead

I am not saying Spaniards and Portuguese are unfriendly or unhelpful lots – they most certainly are kind to strangers – but only once they get to know something about you. So many were quick to invite me to their homes and extended a hospitality beyond compare. That happened once I got an opportunity to share my story; who I was, where was I from, what was my business in their country. Otherwise, you are nothing more than a sinister stranger they see on the road, and quite understandably they want nothing to do with you. Some would say that’s just plain smart, from a safety standpoint. But I would also point out that the unease is a two-way street, perhaps far more so for the hitchhiker. To get into a stranger’s car, everything of value that you own stuffed in a backpack, requires a good dose of courage and a certain level of trust in humankind.

During my hitchhike from Poland to Portugal, I was very fortunate. I met so many nice people who offered a ride, sometimes without me asking. They invited me to come visit, and some straight away offered a spare bedroom. They happily made me breakfast and shared evening meals. I was truly humbled and blessed by their generosity.

Spaniards and Portuguese were no exception. The key in Spain and Portugal, I learned, is to talk directly to people. Holding a cardboard sign and standing on the road is not  as effective in Spain and Portugal as it was in other parts of Europe. Being able to have a chat, however quick, put minds and nerves at ease.

 While in the hitchhiking community Spain is known as a very tough place to get a ride – and it is a thriving global community what with websites that detail best spots to be to ask for a ride – I would add Portugal to that list. I knew it would be tough in Spain, forewarned by others who had already blazed the path. But I could not have imagined how tough.

Toulouse to Bayonne

Toulouse, France, to Bayonne, Spain

Young, attractive women have very little trouble getting offered rides – usually from men hoping it will lead to something more (it usually doesn’t) – but even young women traversing Spain said they had some difficulty getting people to stop, especially if they were with a male companion. I had very little trouble in other parts of Europe. In some countries, such as Germany, rides came even just sitting around taking a break. And if you’re wondering, yes, race and nationality played a huge part, leading to a couple of brushes with police in Spain and Switzerland, and some down and dirty honesty from some motorists – “If you were from Africa I would not give you a ride” – about racism in Europe. But more on that later. For now, back to my predicament in Portugal.

Bilbao!

Bilbao!

Cars and oversize trucks sped toward me like competitors in the Indy 500. I was on a highway shoulder wide enough to keep a safe distance between me and the speed demons. A trucker delivering new and almost new used cars to Faro, Portugal, a city on the country’s southern shore, had dropped me off there. It was my first ride ever from a trucker. Those guys notoriously prefer to share their cab space with women, the more attractive, the better. But at a truck stop restaurant in Grandola, a small Portuguese village, I struck up a conversation with a couple of Portuguese businessmen who explained that the only way to hitch a ride in Portugal, especially from a trucker, was to ask, loud and clear, confidently. This was no task for the timid. These two businessmen who were on their lunch break and were regular diners at this truck stop, became somewhat of my hitchhiking agents. They struck up conversations with truckers around them, all seated at the restaurant eating lunch, about the importance of asking, not just standing there holding a sign. The truckers nodded in agreement, and one joked that only women get a pass on not outright asking.

Zurich to Biel, Switzerland

Zurich to Biel, Switzerland, with the super cool Howald brothers, Patrik (left) and Dominik (right)

“They just have to stand there and look pretty…and sexy in a skirt,” he said in Portuguese, with one of the pink-shirted businessmen translating.

“Maybe I should stand on the road in a skirt,” I joked.

“I don’t think it would work,” one of them replied, laughing heartily.

“Unless you maybe wear a wig,” another said, revealing a row of yellowed broken teeth.

This banter put us all in good stead to the point that the truckers began to ask me questions about my nationality, my hometown, why was I in Portugal, where was I headed and so on. Most of them said they were not going in my direction. Others kept silent. As truckers began to file out of the restaurant, I began to ask for a ride and got no positive responses. Keeping a close eye on the time – 3 p.m.  – I decided to go stand by the road with my cardboard sign, “LAGOS” scribbled on it with a thick black marker, to maximize my chances.

Genevam Switzerland, to Lyon, France

Geneva, Switzerland, to Lyon, France

I was still just steps from the door of the restaurant to talk to those headed back to their trucks. Hopefully someone would be headed directly to  Lagos , another town on Portugal’s southern coast. It was my final destination – the prize – the end of the Poland to Portugal hitchhiking journey. After about 30 minutes standing there and beginning to worry I would never get out of this tiny village that consisted mainly of this truck stop, farm houses

To Toulouse!

In Toulouse, France, destination Spain!

and olive groves, a trucker who emerged from the restaurant called out to me. He shouted that he was going to Faro and I could go with him to nearby  Albufeira, just before the highway split to go to either Faro or Lagos. He said he could drop me off at that spot on the highway and from there I could get a ride to Lagos.  Instead of nearly three hours away, I would be within a half hour of Lagos. Albufeira was not exactly Lagos, but close enough. Or at least closer. Perfect.

We walked to the back of the truck loaded with approximately 15 small cars and he popped the trunk of the one all the way to the end, on the lower deck. I placed my backpack inside, walked back to the front of the truck and climbed inside the cab. Wow, great view of the roadway from this perch, was my first thought. My second thought was I hope this guy had enough sleep because this is one big rig. He fired up the engine, it sputtered and roared to life, and off we went. We’d be just outside Albufeira in about two hours. Paolo the trucker was extremely nice, despite his gruff exterior, offering food and drinks on the way. He had a huge beer belly and a whole supply of food and drinks in the truck’s cab to fill that cavernous stomach. He was only 34 years old, but he looked closer to 50. Just behind the two truck seats there was a bed with rumpled red sheets. We chatted about everything from family to travel. He was married with a daughter about to turn 5. He said he had driven a commercial truck to just about every corner of Europe. He was Portuguese, which explained why Spain was his least favorite country. He did not hide his disdain for Spain, the two neighboring countries with centuries-old differences, not to mention soccer grudges.

Rescued me from a lonely rest stop, to Lyon!

The girls asked their dad to give me a ride. Arrival in Lyon, France!

When we reached the drop-off point, it took just one glance and I immediately felt uneasy. It was all highway – no restaurant, no service station, nobody – a no no in the hitchhiking book. With cars zipping by, it felt like that time in Burgos, Spain, where a well-meaning man picked me up in the heart of the city and dropped me off just a few miles up ahead on a highway, and said if I walked just up the road along the highway shoulder I would come to a gas station where I could then ask for a ride to my next destination, Salamanca. Well, what he failed to tell me – perhaps he did not know – was that the gas station was more than 7 kilometers away, a grave distance even without a heavy backpack in a blazing sun on a very busy highway. In a move to put a safe distance between me and the traffic, I climbed over the metal barrier and awkwardly tried to walk along a sloping grassy area, my overstuffed backpack forcing me to lean forward and the slope making me lean right, me trying not to tumble down this slope littered with all manner of refuse tossed from fast-moving vehicles. I was undoubtedly a weird sight in Spain, as bewildered drivers and their passengers looked at me, wondering what in the world was this guy doing on the highway. In most European countries, pedestrians are not allowed on the highway and in some, stopping your vehicle for anything other than an emergency is prohibited. Several miles outside of Dresden, Germany, for instance, the police threatened to fine an elderly woman who had picked me up near the Poland-Germany border.

Arrived Toulouse, yeah!

Arrived Toulouse, yeah!

She pulled over on the highway in Germany to consult with two highway police officers she spotted because she was deeply concerned she had missed her turnoff to Dresden and on to the Czech Republic, where she lived. When she pulled up and got out of her car the officers seemed very surprised. One of them, visibly angry, immediately began shouting at her. “Are you crazy!?” he said. “You will get yourself killed. You are not supposed to stop on the highway!!!” The dear old woman tried to explain that she simply was seeking direction. But the officer, now switching from English to German, started shouting the word “Fine”, as in a ticket, while the woman tried to explain her situation. He would not listen. The other officer, a woman, just stood and watched. When the old woman started to grow upset, I jumped out of the car and walked up to the officers. “Is this the way to Dresden?”

Kindred spirits

Kindred spirits

I asked the policewoman. The angry male officer turned to me and said “Dresden? Yes, Dresden, straight ahead!” I said that’s all we needed to know and we got back into the car and at the first opportunity, drove off. In the exchange, the pissed off cop told the woman in German that even with plenty of room to stop, it was not allowed. Back on the road she was so shaken that I did all I could to calm her down, chatting about a subject she seemed to enjoy – her remote house deep in a forest in Czech Republic. She had invited me to come visit and to stay. She was Polish by birth, but left Poland years ago, she said.

That was my first encounter with the police during my hitchhike and I did not want to risk another. After a very trying hike that included a river-crossing across a highway bridge, I made it safely to the gas station. When I sat down in exhaustion, a trucker walked over to me and handed me his half-eaten baguette and sausage. I was tired, but did I also look hungry and destitute? I had food in my backpack. That’s what I ate.Bilbao2

 On this very busy stretch of highway in southern Portugal, I did not want a repeat of Burgos, Spain. But it appeared headed in that direction. I watched vehicle after vehicle speed by. No takers. As the sun started to descend and I began to walk to another spot on the highway, if nothing else to shift the energy, I realized I was boxed in, surrounded on all sides by expressway ramps and interchanges. A walk in any direction led to nowhere out. Climb that fence or steel railing and it could prove a fatal mistake. Some were driving so fast that my original ‘LAGOS’ sign was probably just a blur to them, if they bothered to look in my direction at all. Funny how even on roads where drivers drove slowly they pretended not to see me. Others would smile or wave or flash a peace sign, yeah, just what I needed. Peace, dude! Yet, at the very least it was some acknowledgment that I was there, real, and being seen. The ones who ignored were a hoot. You are standing right ahead of them and they look right past you as if you are transparent. Stare ahead. Ignore. But the dodoheads were the ones who took one glance, slowed to read your sign or have a look at you, then hit the gas as if taking off in a drag race.

Top left, in Wroclaw, Poland, my first ride on the journey!  She left me on this highway in Germany, where this other woman, bottom right, picked me up and drove me to Dresden, Germany, my first destination. Both women are Polish but the one with the sunglasses lives in Germany and the other in the Czech Republic

Top left, in Wroclaw, Poland, my first ride on the journey! She left me on this highway in Germany, where this other woman, bottom right, picked me up and drove me to Dresden, Germany, my first destination. Both women are Polish but the one with the sunglasses lives in Germany and the other in the Czech Republic

I got a ride and babysitting duties, wow, that has to be a first!

I got a ride and babysitting duties, on the way to Zurich, Switzerland. Wow, that  was definitely a first for me!

I had hitched rides in South America and other parts of Europe before I set out on this singular journey from western Poland to southern Portugal. I had always wanted to hitchhike across Europe for the experience alone and now I was finally fulfilling that wish. There were many moments I thought “this is insane!” But there were many more moments I enjoyed, getting to know the people who offered rides.

The sun was at the lowest point in the horizon and it would soon be dark. I whipped out my black marker and on the cardboard scribbled “S.O.S.!”

Offered a ride without even asking, just south of Munich

Offered a ride without even asking, just south of Munich

since “LAGOS” was getting me nowhere. Even a police car that drove by kept going. I know the cop in the passenger side saw me because he looked dead at me. I guess a black guy in Portugal on a highway holding an SOS sign is an everyday occurrence. The cops just kept going as if nothing was out of the ordinary. It was at that moment I decided to take the risk and walk up an exit ramp. A bit further on I could see a shopping center. Whether I could gain access to it from the highway was another question. I had looked around the area to see if there was a spot to pitch my tent, but there really wasn’t. The highway ramp was my decision. As I walked toward it, frankly a bit worried since it was already getting dark, I decided to stick my thumb out as I walked. And to my surprise, a car stopped!!! I thought I was imagining that it stopped. But there it was, barely off the road because there wasn’t much of a shoulder. This, after more than four hours! I ran to the car, the man inside cleared the passenger seat of stuff and I shoved my backpack in the back and got right in. I told him he had no idea how he had rescued me from a nightmarish evening. He just smiled and asked where was I going. I said just take me to the center of Albufeira and maybe I could take a bus from there to Lagos. He said the train would be better, and cheap, so to the train station we went. I wanted nothing to do with hitchhiking for the rest of the night and maybe for a long time. In fact, I am not interested in hitchhiking at this time. Talk to me in a few months or years.

Made it to Portugal! Here in Guarda.

Made it to Portugal! Here in Guarda.

TAKE A HIKE, COUNTRY BY COUNTRY, HIGHS AND LOWS

POLAND

I got a late start out of Wroclaw, Poland, to my first destination on this trek, Dresden, Germany.  I set out for Highway A4/E40 sometime after 11 a.m. Generally, if you plan to hitchhike you want to be in place earlier in the morning when drivers are starting to take to the road.
I took a city bus to a shopping mall near the highway on the outskirts of the city, then had to ask several people along the way how to get to the highway. A fruit and vegetable vendor selling his goods under the highway overpass pointed the way and when I walked right by the access point – a grassy slope with a muddy path – he shouted to me from the distance and instructed me to go up the slope. And so there I was on the highway. I took off my backpack and stuck out my thumb. Within 20 minutes I had a ride – from Ewa – a Polish grandmother who has lived in Hamburg, Germany, for the past 35 years. She’s the one wearing the sunglasses in the photo collage above. She was visiting her mother in Katowice, Poland. The first thing Ewa said to me was that she does not like the United States because of its policies. We spent a good half hour discussing American foreign policy, Guantanamo, Iraq, and other issues. Ewa is apparently also no fan of Poland. She said it’s full of racist, close-minded people. She has mixed race children and she broke into to tears recounting how her daughter was badly beaten in Gdynia, Poland, in school, just because of her mix race (white and Arab). It was a very emotional moment. Ewa also lived on the island of St. Kitts with her German husband. They’ve since divorced. She loves Hamburg, she said, where she met her now ex-husband. She said she loves its diversity and embrace of multiculturalism. She said no time soon will Poland open up to foreigners as other neighboring countries. Ewa and I had some very good discussions on many topics, from love and marriage, to politics, to travel. She was very engaging.
GERMANY
A few miles after we crossed from Poland into Germany, Ewa dropped me off where the highway splits – one to Berlin, the other toward Dresden – and there I waited for more than an hour as cars rushed by. At times there were few to no cars. I began to ponder what I should do if another hour blew by and I was still standing there. I was in the middle of nowhere. And as I said I’d give it 10 more minutes then I would begin to walk along the highway in the direction of Dresden, a car stopped. Another grandma, Jolanta, a Polish woman who has been living “in the forest” of Lovosice, Czech Republic. She had just also visited her mother, who is in some sort of home care facility. Her English was nowhere as good as Ewa’s, but she was just as talkative. She was clearly a nervous driver and when she thought she had taken a wrong exit and stopped to ask two police officers on the highway, the German highway cops became very angry with her for stopping and at least one of them was shouting at her for stopping on a highway, even if she had pulled way off the road. He said it was a highway and stopping was not allowed. He threatened to write her a ticket and she was so flustered and so upset that I got out the car to try to smooth things over. I explained to the cop that she simply was trying to find out if we were on track for Dresden. The cop said “Yes, Dresden is straight ahead”. He was not very nice to Jolanta and definitely not very helpful. We got back in the car and it took some time for Jolanta to settle down. She kept saying “I don’t know where I am…where is A4 highway?” I tried to assure her we were okay and she finally settled when we resumed our conversation about everyday things. When we arrived in Dresden, she dropped me off at a shopping mall. I took a tram to the city center.

Arrived in fantastic Munich with ride share from Dresden. Thanks Kay!

Arrived in fantastic Munich with ride share from Dresden. Thanks Kay!

I was feeling a bit out of sorts and so I turned away from hitchhiking on my way from to BlaBlaCar  chance. It’s a ride share website, where you can get a ride with people traveling to a particular city and you pay a predetermined amount to help pay for the gas. Funny, I was supposed to meet my ride share at the same shopping mall where Jolanta dropped me off. The driver, Kay, a super nice German guy who spoke very little English, and the two women in the car pretty did not speak most of the way. We made it safely to Munich safely and in good time.

SWITZERLAND

With the exception of a couple of crazy speed bumps along the way, I got rides relatively easily to and in Switzerland. At a rest stop restaurant just outside of Munich, Germany, I was having a snack and checking email on my laptop when this middle-aged man walked by my table once, then twice, then thrice, all the while looking at my cardboard sign sitting on the table and giving me the glance over. The fourth time he walked by I looked dead at him as if to say, “WTF!!” He then approached my table and asked if I wanted a ride to Zurich, as the sign read. I was quite surprise, and asked “right now?”, to which he replied yes. I gathered my things and out the door we went, to his spanking, fresh out of the showroom Mercedes. Off we went – fast – along German highways where there seems no such thing as a speed limit. I learned from him that as a younger man he hitchhiked around the world for 12 years and picking up hitchhikers was his way of repaying the kindness shown to him by strangers all those years. We were stopped at the border. I had my passport ready, but after he joked a bit with the border guard, the guard didn’t bother to ask for my passport. He just waved us through, giving me a long look. In a geographical oddity and perhaps because how the highway is laid out, we entered Austria, within moments back into Switzerland, Austria again, then again Switzerland. He dropped me off at a very large and very busy rest stop, where things got interesting. You see, because of large influx of Africans, some in the country illegally, Switzerland has racial profiling problem. As soon as I had been dropped off at the rest area and held up my sign, my backpack at my feet, the cops came. I’m pretty certain they were alerted by an employee of the service station. There were other people hitchhiking at the station – specifically two German guys – but the cops rolled right up to me in their patrol car, bypassing the two blonde-blue Germans, and asked me for identification. They spoke in German and when I said I did not speak German, they switched to English. I asked if there was a law against hitchhiking at that service station and the two cops looked at each other with dumbfounded looks and shrugged. When I produced my passport their severe attitudes immediately softened. “You are American” one of them stated, my passport in hand, with a tone that suggested he had committed a grave error. While one of the cops went to the patrol car to presumably check my passport, the other seemed fascinated that I was from New York and said she always wanted to visit New York. She was going on and on about New York when her partner returned and asked how long was I in Switzerland (just hours) and where I had entered the country (I couldn’t remember the name of the border crossing). He returned my passport, smiled and said “have a nice day and a nice stay!” Later, one Swiss person after another, both black and white, told me the cops were likely called, as they are routinely, and they arrived under the assumption that I was an illegal migrant from Africa. Hmmmm…How many migrants from Africa are backpacking across Europe? And it was certainly interesting that the cops never went over to the other two hitchhikers to ask for their ID. After that little episode I got a ride offer to the nearest town, a ride I should not have accepted, but I was rattled by the encounter with the cops and also just wanted to leave that rest stop. Only problem was that the guy dropped me off far away from the highway to Biel. It took me almost four hours to get a ride and only back to the same service station where the cops had come to check me out. I was back at square one hours later. Then, a couple from Sweden approached. They were also hitchhiking came over to chat. They were headed to Geneva and I to Biel, all of us going in the same direction, but they several miles farther south. While chatting, two brothers in a van pulled up and offered the three of us a ride. The good thing was they were going exactly to Biel. Patrik and Dominik saved the day! We kept in touch and hung out a few times while I was in Biel. Patrik and Dominik, really super cool and super nice guys! I even met their parents at a local rowing club fundraising event.

AUSTRIA

Now we’re in Austria (5, 4, 3, 2, 1…) Now we’re not!  See Switzerland.

FRANCE

France was by far the easiest country to get a ride once I was out of the city and at some highway rest stop. People were far more open and willing and incredibly eager to help. After I was picked up just south of Geneva, Switzerland, and dropped off a few miles from my destination, Lyon, France, I waited for a very long time at a particular rest stop because as it turned out, it was the height of the holiday season and most cars were jammed packed with families their belongings, all headed to the south of France. There was no room in most cars. So it took hours to travel a relatively short distance. Four hours at a rest stop is too long. Just when I began to wonder if it ever was going to happen, I took a bathroom break and upon my return to my backpack, which I had left outside with my sign propped up on it, a car was about to pull away. There was a man driving and two teenage girls inside. One of the girls – I heard and saw her – gestured toward me and told the driver that I was going to Lyon. The other girl also signaled. The man shouted from the behind the wheel to ask if I was going to Lyon. I said yes, and he said “Okay, we will take you.” They were a family with roots in Morocco, and they were kind enough to take a detour and drop me off in the center of town. Weeks later, leaving Lyon, I met people who were just as kind and willing to get me to the next point, which at first I thought would be Marseilles, but when I met Deniz from Germany, who was going toward Toulouse, which is where I planned to go in a couple of days from Marseilles, I decided to skip Marseilles and go straight on with Deniz to within 20 miles or so to Toulouse. I was just sitting taking a break when Deniz drove by, stopped, got out of his car and asked if I wanted to go with him toward Marseilles. On the way he mentioned he was driving from Germany to a small town near Toulouse, where he planned to spend time learning about wine-making. As we got on our way, it would be dark soon and Deniz suggested we find some place to camp. We pulled off the highway and in to a very cool southern French village, very scenic. Only thing is where we planned to camp, the mosquitoes were the size of helicopters and on the attack. After we feasted on canned ravioli and bread and drinks Deniz had in his car, we decided to find some place else to camp because the mosquitoes were relentless.

The pay off: In Parede, Portugal, near Cascais. Time to take it easy.

The pay off: In Parede, Portugal, near Cascais. Time to take it easy.

 When we got into the center of town, we met some local young people who told us possible places we could stay and they gave us a couple of beers. We drove clear back to another part of the rural village, down a dirt road and in a vineyard, among grapevines, we slept under the stars. We had one scare, as we saw flashing lights from a police vehicle coming down the road. The car just kept going. I slept well…sort of. The next morning at the crack of dawn, we collected ourselves and Deniz drove me to the closest rest stop farther south and a bit out of his way. There, I would soon get a ride to Toulouse from a man who said he was a ski and tennis instructor whose wife was expecting a baby any moment now. He drove me into the city where I caught a city bus to the center of town to meet my friends Francis and Claire. I enjoyed Toulouse and its diverse people. Next stop, Bayonne, France, in the heart of Basque Country.

Claire drove me to a bus stop where she said she had seen hitchhikers in the past. She dropped me off there and I began to do my thing, flashing my cardboard sign, sticking out my thumb, waving a tiny U.S. flag, anything to get attention. Then two other hitchhikers turned up, a couple, and they came over to introduce themselves and to see if we were traveling in the same direction. We were not. So we encouraged each other, us standing at opposite ends of the street. I got a ride first and we waved goodbye. The ride was from an auto mechanic driving a big white van with car parts in it. He spoke no English, so I had to listen intently to his French to understand. He, frankly, had the appearance of a serial killer, and I had my escape all planned out should anything go down, but I relaxed after it became clear he wasn’t planning to kill me. He instead drove me to a better rest stop farther down the highway – bypassing his exit – and bought me a cup of coffee. We exchanged email addresses and he returned to his van and took off. I was feeling comfortable with the time I was making on my way to Bayonne, so I sat to relax on the lawn next to the parking lot, my American flag prominently displayed on my backpack. I was there for no more than 10 minutes when a young French couple – also in a van – stopped and offered a ride toward Bayonne. They were on their way to Dax for its annual running of the bulls and festival. They would drop me off somewhere along the way, just before their exit to Dax. It took me another hour or so to get a ride directly to my final destination, Bayonne. I was surprised how much I liked Bayonne. I highly recommend you visit, especially in summer. I had some difficulty getting a ride out of Bayonne, mainly because – I was later told – I was simply in a bad spot. It was definitely a spot for hitchhikers, as I watched one hitchhiker after another get rides. I aborted my departure and the next day took a bus to another nearby city where I struggled to find the right spot, as described by the website, but finally got a ride from a young woman who drove me all of – drum roll – less than a mile! She said she was going home and that I could get another ride from the town. She was right. A couple – he Spaniard, she French – said they saw me and had passed me and they did a U-turn to come pick me up.

SPAIN

They drove me to a gas station in San Sebastian, Spain, and from that point my next ride came from a young, tattooed and pierced wild child with a dog in the backseat and friend in the front passenger seat. They drove me to a spot in San Sebastian at which I had no luck for more than five hours. Then I realized, I’m in Spain. I walked with my sign to another highway entrance and it took just over an hour to snag a ride from a guy going toward Bilbao. My sign said Burgos, but Bilbao would do just fine. I just wanted out of San Sebastian, already! He drove me to a rest stop outside of Bilbao, where my Spanish nightmare unfolded.

I got no ride offers. I tried hard, standing there with my sign, making eye contact, waving. Nothing. Asking at night would not help. So I made the decision to spend the night at this rest stop. I would just have to find a suitable place to crash. As I headed over to a large tree under which I planned to sleep, I noticed one of the gas station attendants craning his neck to have a look at me. I had asked him earlier what time the restaurant closes. Within minutes a police patrol car was combing the rest stop with search lights. I hid behind the tree. After a few more spins around the area, the cops got on the highway and left. I did not have a tent at the time, so I slept in my sleeping bag just under the tree. I was awaken by a noise sometime around 2 a.m., and noticed a lot of flashing lights from police and other emergency vehicles on the highway, steps from where I was sleeping. I was worried I would be spotted, not that I was doing anything wrong, other than “camping” on property not meant for camping. I stayed awake for at least two hours, watching the activity, a car accident. Finally, I fell asleep and around 4 a.m., I woke up again, soaking wet. It was raining. I gathered my things and took cover under a car wash port.

From Lagos, Portugal, thumbs up, hitchhikers!

From Lagos, Portugal, thumbs up hitchhikers!

I stood there until daylight arrived. I was wet, tired and not enjoying the moment. At sunrise, I went to the men’s room, brushed my teeth, and cleaned up a bit. I then headed back to the rest stop exit with my soggy cardboard sign. It took more than three hours before a couple of street performers traveling from festival to festival across Europe, gave me a ride. They, a Spaniard with a mop of dreadlocks and an Argentinian who lived in Spain, were going to Burgos, but first a detour to a small village to pick up the driver’s daughter. When we arrived in the village, the “daughter” actually turned out to be his dog. Funny. After a few more detours, finally, Burgos! The driver was kind enough to show me where I could get a ride, but it was a bad spot, as there was not enough room for cars to stop. I persevered. I shouted to a man if he was going to Salamanca and he said no. Then he said I was in the wrong spot to get a ride to Salamanca and he would drive me to the right spot on the highway. And dear reader, you know the rest of the story, assuming you’ve read the main story.

PORTUGAL

A hitchhiker’s nightmare. But! There are still people willing to help. I lucked out in Guarda, Portugal, where the nicest couple (and their kid) you’ll ever want to meet, offered to give me a ride to Lisbon. And when we arrived just outside of Lisbon, they worried that it would be dark soon and did not want to leave me on some roadside, despite me being perfectly okay with that. I now had a tent! So they invited me to stay in their spare bedroom “as long as you want” and I ended up staying about five days. It gave me an opportunity to explore the wonderful coastal region. Luis, Andrea and their son Miguel were very hospitable. I could have stayed on longer, but I had to get to Lagos. I was eager to be on the southern coast. When it came time to leave, Andrea left me at service station, but after one hour I was still there. So she returned with Luis and they drove me to a bridge that leads to points south. There, another hitchhiker appeared. He said his name was Alfredo and he was from San Sebastian, Spain. He was on his way to Lagos as well, then to Sevilla to catch a flight to the Canary Islands. We decided to hitchhike together. After almost two hours, we got a ride to Setubal. But that’s as far as we were able to get. We struggled for more than six hours to get a ride and as darkness fell, I decided it was time to call it a day and find a place to pitch my tent. Home for the evening would be a wooded area alongside the road to Lagos. In the morning I was at it again. Alfredo and I had agreed to part ways, thinking that two guys hitchhiking made getting a ride twice as hard. After asking a few people at a gas station, a man agreed to give me a ride 15 miles down the road. There, I stood with my sign. After three hours, a guy who said he had seen me the day before and earlier in the morning, stopped to give me a ride. He dropped me off at that truck stop where the trucker gave me a ride to just outside of Albufeira. And so here I am, in Lagos. The story continues..

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A Beauty Spark Of Horrors

Beautiful things can sometimes cloud otherwise good judgment. You see a beautiful woman or man or some fancy car and you start to drip with want and drool with desire. Not even for a moment do you stop to consider that perhaps beneath that seductive beauty lurks the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

You would think I would have learned that lesson by now. I once dated a woman whose outward appearance was beautiful – acquaintances and friends were always keen to remind me of that – but what they did not see was her ugliness. She was not a very nice person, after all. I saw that and ended that relationship stat.

But we sometimes forget and again and again allow ourselves to be seduced by looks. That’s exactly what I did last weekend, and it was mighty foolish of me. I had failed to do my homework, look deeper. And I paid the price.

I was really looking forward to the weekend in Iquique. The Chilean town was supposedly the place on the northern coast to relax, have a good time. Friends from work had offered to give me a ride there and all I needed was to reserve a hotel. So I went online and started to search. And after passing on a few ugly ducklings, I found the hotel – a real beauty – the Spark Hotel right near the beach in Iquique. I was smitten: new, modern, super cool rooms with perfect ocean views and all the modern conveniences. The $118 cost per night included wireless Internet and breakfast. Instead of learning more about this vision of loveliness by the sea, I moved quickly to reserve my spot. Had I taken the time to do a simple Internet search, I would have learned that yes, she is a beauty, but one filled with behavior unbecoming.

The sushi bar and restaurant. Looks are deceiving.

A cautionary note left on Tripadvisor.es by a previous guest: “Reserving a hotel based on photos posted on the Internet is not always a good idea.” Ah, someone else had failed to heed the message. She goes on to blast the hotel for its lack of cleanliness and rude staff, which brings me to the nightmare I lived at the Spark – not to be confused with Sparks Hotels – which is spelled with an ‘s’ at the end.

I have stayed at all manner of lodging around the world – from five-star hotels to no star dumps – and I can’t ever recall being treated so rudely by a hotel staff. Even in a $7 a night hostel in Colombia I stayed in during this journey, the staff was extremely polite, helpful, attentive and moved quickly to fix problems. Not at Spark. No way. Their job apparently is to make their guests’ stay an utterly and thoroughly unpleasant experience. Think I’m exaggerating? Do a Google search of Spark Hotel in Iquique and read the reviews others have left. Had I taken the time to do that, I wouldn’t have suffered what I went through on my otherwise spectacular weekend in Iquique. As it turns out, my experience was the same as others who have stayed at Spark.

Here’s a typical review of Spark on TripAdvisor, which I wish I had seen before I took the plunge:

Headline: “looks like a 5 star, but service is a 1 star if that!” 
what a total joke of a hotel! me and my boyfriend wanted to treat ourselves to a 5 star hotel for six nights while we were in Iquique, we totally picked the wrong place to rest and relax, the staff are quite honestly the rudest and unhelpful people i have ever come across in my life, the rooms looks amazing but that’s it! no room service menus (ok not the end of the world) but being woken up at 7am by banging and drilling noises as they are still building the hotel! (which is NOT mentioned on the website) we asked to move to a lower level in hope that we will not be subjected to the early wake up call, but the reception was so dam rude, she basically said ok you want to leave then! how are they are going to make money! we couldn’t get into another hotel so we just put it up with for the six nights, i also asked if the hotel had a local map of the area or some information about the area, the answer was a simple no! our breakfast never turned up in the mornings, and to top it all off the maid would knock at the door at 9 am to clean the room! what a joke and if you said no please can you come back later, she never showed up! There is a backpackers opposite this hotel and believe me you would be far better of staying there! — Submitted by a couple from England, May 23, 2010
By “she” I believe they are referring to Gemma, who must be related to the hotel owner, how else to explain how she gets to keep her job with so many references to her and the rest of the incompetent staff on hotel and travel Web sites.
Here’s another review I wish I had seen (I translated from Spanish to English):
Headline: “Bad experience at this Hotel”
Spent a holiday in this beautiful city with my mother, I wanted to find a hotel and this hotel was recommended. With the poor reception, little concern for guests, dirty, poor breakfast quality, the only thing that saved it for us is that the rooms are spacious and have good ocean view, if it is from the 5th floor up.
Waiters of the restaurant seemed to view guests as a nuisance if one has an interest in dining there.
I will never again stay at this hotel. – Submitted by Ceanpela of Santiago, Chile, May 31, 2011
And there are many more like it, even with negative reviews right under people’s noses, they still end up booking. Why? Because they are blinded by beautiful pictures that scream “come to me!” And people fall for that. For me, lesson learned, again. 🙂

The Presidential Suite at Spark Hotel - But don't be a sucker for this beauty

As I read the reviews I shook my head in agreement. I could have written them myself, given my similar experience with Spark. Here’s what happened:
I booked a room online after looking at the photographs. And indeed the hotel is nice. The problem is the hotel staff, from the reception desk to the restaurant to housekeeping. They all seem to hate their jobs and to not want to do it. Even routine requests or questions would spark – pun intended – roll of eyes or an outright rude reply. I don’t have a problem with people hating their jobs, but if your job involves dealing with the public, maybe you should be in another line of work.
When I made the hotel reservation, I noted that I would arrive by bus from Calama at 5 a.m. on Friday. But with the offer of a ride to Iquique I actually would get there at 11 p.m. on Thursday.
I explained that to my Chilean friends who were giving me a lift because they so happen to live in Iquique. They said if it turned out to be a problem, I could stay with them that night – I graciously turned them down and said I could just sit in the hotel lobby for an hour and wait for midnight. Soon as that clock struck 12, it would be Friday.
I actually arrived at the hotel around 11:30 p.m., and the front desk receptionist rightly pointed out that they weren’t expecting me until Friday. True, I said, but it’s only 30 minutes until it’s Friday – rather than pay for an extra day I can either return in 30 minutes or just go spend the night at my friends’. She said that should not be necessary, that she would call her manager to check if I could check in a half hour early and not be charged for four nights instead of the booked three. After she made calls, talked to her manager who said it was fine, and did the necessary check-in paperwork, it was almost midnight. Okay, I asked again, so this is for three nights? Yes, she asserted. No problem. Three nights at $118 a night. Cool. She asked if I would like the password for the hotel’s wireless Internet – how thoughtful to ask – and I said yes. Before I went to bed, I fired up my laptop to check my e-mail. But the Internet was not working. Oh, I’ll deal with it in the morning. I went to bed.

Your average room with a view

The next morning, I walked up to the front desk and encountered my first dose of rudeness from a woman named Gemma, who apparently has been at her job for quite sometime because many of the negative reviews going back more than a year reference her, though not by name. I told Gemma that Internet was not working and before I could finish speaking to ask when would it be up and running, she said: “What do you want me to do about it?!” With that, she stepped away to the other end of the reception desk, shuffling some papers. I started to follow her to the other end of the reception area when she walked back toward me with a face that seemed to say “Leave me alone”.
Okay, did I say something wrong? Did I offend her in some way? I had never met this woman before, so why was she being so nasty? I turned to the doorman and he said there had been many previous complaints about the Internet not working. So why did that silly girl so happily offer the password to a Wi-Fi that doesn’t work? So maybe they ought to remove that amenity from their advertisement, no? Doorman nodded yes. At that point another staff person appeared at the front desk. He was wearing a blue blazer like the others, but he looked like a manager. He at least offered a solution: We’ll give you a cable so you can connect that way. Cool. A problem solver. That’s more like it.
I went out for some sightseeing.
The next morning after I showered, I could not find the large bottle of Nivea skin lotion I had brought with me. I searched all over the room. Lotion gone. And the hotel does not provide lotion. I stopped at the front desk to report the lotion missing, and told the front desk manager that I wasn’t suggesting that the maid had stolen it, but that perhaps she simply tossed out by mistake. He called the person in charge of housekeeping and he repeated to me what she said: “We don’t take things from the rooms”. Okay fine, but I’m just…nevermind. Out to the beach I went.
That night I turned on the lights to the bathroom and it tripped something. The electricity went out and with no power, the heating system started to beep…beep…beep…beep…incessantly. Not wanting to deal with the rude front desk, I tried to resolve the matter myself by going to the circuit box in the room. But nothing I did resolved the problem. So I called. And what did I get? Sorry, it’s 2 a.m., nothing we can do about it. Seriously? So how am I supposed to sleep through that beeping noise? I’ll have to wait until the morning, I’m told. So I tried to use my iPod and then a pillow over my head to drown out the noise.

Next morning, called again they sent someone up and from outside the room he fixed the problem. Well only partially. While some lights came on, others such as the ones in the bathroom still were not working. I called him back.

King size bed, king size lack of sleep

Second time around, problem solved.

Checkout time and none too soon. Suddenly, my $118 rate is $143. Wait a minute. After a lot of back and forth, they agree that I am right. I pay the bill, check my bag with the concierge and go for a walk. When I return, front desk guy, who at this point has removed his name tag, tells me I stayed four nights instead of three and I still owe for a night. I explain. He obviously doesn’t believe me and he continues to demand that I pay him another $118 before he releases my bag to me. So now my bag is a hostage. And I can’t believe this is happening. In a few short moments, my friends are coming to pick me up to return to Calama and we have a long drive ahead, so I need to be done with this, I tell him. He picks up the phone and starts explaining the situation to someone on the phone. He Hangs up and insists that I pay up. I tell him he needs to call the receptionist from the night I arrived or the person she spoke to who approved my three-night stay. He finally does that after trying to prove that I owe for the extra night. I tell him that I had options to stay with my friends that night but because the hotel receptionist said it’s not a problem after consulting her boss I decided to stay. Besides, it was only a half hour, less after she got off the phone.
He puts me on the phone with her and what does she do? Outright lies! She says she doesn’t remember telling me that it was okay. She then says she doesn’t recall what she told me that night. At that point, I blew a gasket. I demanded my bag. He refused and picked up the phone to call someone else.
After he got on the phone again and he was distracted, the doorman/concierge emerged from who knows where and I handed him my ticket for my bag. Clueless as to what was happening, he went to the storage room and brought it to me. I had freed my bag! So now I could just walk out the door, call American Express and dispute the charges. I was so done dealing with these idiots. But I waited for him to get off the phone. I overheard him telling the person on the phone that I am American. He also gave the person my name. He hung up the phone, walked over to me and said “We won’t charge you for an extra night.” Really, and what was all this?
So dear reader, the moral of this story is this: If you ever find yourself in need of a hotel, don’t be blinded by beauty. Play detective and do a little investigating. There are too many Sparks out there with outward beauty and ugly inside.
Categories: posts, Rants and Raves | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ecuador to Peru

I’ve crossed dozens of  borders between countries overland in my lifetime, but traveling from Ecuador to Peru was by far the smoothest. So I worried for nothing.

As countless have already attested in accounts on the Internet, the main border crossing on the Panamerican Highway between the two countries – from Huaquillas, Ecuador, to Aguas Verdes and Tumbes, Peru, is an active minefield of robbers, con-artists,  crime-driven taxi drivers, and corrupt and bribe-happy police and immigration officials. This border crossing, if you can, should be avoided, people who’ve suffered through this madness told me.

Most border crossings in South America should be avoided at night, but this one by bus is an exception

So I looked at a map, checked my options and did some serious research. The inland border crossing from Loja, Ecuador, through Mancara and on to Piura, Peru, seemed best. After more research I learned that  Transportes Loja runs buses from Loja (Ecuador) to Piura (Peru). You reach the border, step off the bus to get your passport stamped on the Ecuador side, walk a short distance over the international bridge, get your passport stamped in Peru, get back on the bus, and you’re done. You cross the border with all the people on the bus and the bus drivers (there are two on these long journeys), so it is extremely safe and easy. The customs agents here and police are easy-going, and try to get the buses going as quickly as possible. When I crossed at 4:30 a.m., there was just us from the buses on the border – no one else. Totally painless.

I thought of all those folks crossing at the main border. There, it’s like Russian roulette with your life, money and belongings. At Mancara, it was a breeze. I even leisurely snapped pictures and joked with border agents. They were really professional and easy to deal with.

So my suggestion if you come to Ecuador or Peru and want to cross the border by land, consider going to Vilcabamba, then go to Loja to catch the bus there to Peru. You will save yourself a whole lot of aggravation and frustration.

Transportes Loja, which takes you from Loja, Ecuador, to Piura, Peru, offers very comfortable bus service. The seats recline for added comfort.

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