Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Journey be the Destination

Things happen, and sometimes you´ve got to wonder why.

So, a question for you, dear reader. You are travelling and all of a sudden you feel the onset of motion sickness/nausea. But you don´t have medication or even a sickness bag. What do you do to pre-empt things getting worse? If you aren't the type to be grossed-out by the options, you´d have loved to be on the train two days ago.

i said my goodbyes to 3app and hec and changed two trains and got to Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Eagerly await the arrival of my train - the mythical TGV - to take me to this town on the southern French border called Irun, where I have to take a connecting night train to Lisboa, Portugal. Get my ticket validated by a machine, get told that it was the wrong machine, find myself a yellow machine, and I am finally on the train. The train leaves right on time, and I doze off.

A couple of hours later, there is an announcement in French and there are loud sighs all around. I wake up and see people talking to each other, and on cellphones. All in French, of course. There was an older American couple from Charlotte travelling with their grand-daughter a couple of seats ahead of me. They try to ask some people what´s going on and the one understandable word in the reply they get is Fire.

fire? on this train? - goes the grandma.

The people around us don´t understand. And she gets more agitated. Her next question was one for the ages.

who did it? the terrorists?

I had to laugh. So did the grand-daughter. She calmed down her granny with what was the best line I´ve heard this entire trip.

grandma, there are no terrorists in france.

;-) By this time, the train has slowed down and pulls into Libourne where it stops. I decided to get out and see if I can find someone to tell me what´s up. The scene on the platform was glorious. The place looked like a beach. It was beautiful hot and people were lying on the platform soaking in the sun ! to add to the scene, there were these eastern european model-looking long-long-legged women who decided to take some pictures. and you´d thing it was a fashion shoot for Vogue or some such. I´ll just say there was luggage, cool hats, and even a trumpet involved. The only information I gathered was that there had been a brush fire ahead and trains going south were stopped until it was contained.

The train finally left after over an hour. My connecting train was to be 40 minutes. Shoot.

We then get to Bordeaux and one of those life´s little miracles walked into the coach. A frenchman who spole fluent english. Turns out the fire was 10 kilometers along the track !!! and no word on when it would be safe to go. also, there were 3 TGV´s stopped ahead of us. So, basically it looked like I was hosed and would have to spend the night in the town of Irun. I asked the guy if he knew anything about this town. Non.

How about an alternate plan, i thought. Maybe get off and spend the night in bordeaux? do some wineries maybe? Lisboa can wait, ya. But before i could make up my mind, the train started. At this time, there was another announcement. ´Le Voyageur ... Irun ....´. Le V´s going to be in Irun? Not so. the frenchman said that that was for all passengers connecting in Irun. A conductor was going to come down the train and we had to talk with him. Am I glad the frenchman spoke english ! coz the conductor was speeding down the train in a hurry and i would have missed him if I didn´t know. Stopped him, and all he did was take a headcount.

So, I´m thinking there´s going to be some arrangement. Cool. a few hours later, just as we are pulling into Hendaye, there is an announcement in English that the next stop after this would be the last one, Irun, and we should see the station master about connecting trains. This was going to work out. Train pulls into Hendaye and some dude walks in telling us all to get off !! wtf !! the only thing official about this man in a t-shirt and jeans was that he had a walkie-talkie. Everyone was getting off, and do did I.

On the platform, #1, was another backpacker couple who were going to Madrid. They were asked to go to platform 2 and I was asked to see the office in the lobby. Now, Hendaye is this really small train station under repairs. And, of course all offices were closed. walk back to the platform and the madrid-bound couple are also coming back. there´s nothing from platform 2, we were told. So, we think, maybe the police are a good source of information. the one cop we saw looked like he was a junkie. And both his arms were completely tattooed over. He had a gun too. He tells them that a train to madrid will arrive sometime at night on platform 1. they were to stay put.

He then proceeded to address my case. ´ ... ... ... autobús ...´. wait. you´ve got to be kidding me. did he just say autobús ? turns out, he did. the plan was to get me on a bus to Lisboa. i briefly considered getting on the train to Madrid, but hey, if i´ve come this far, I´ve got to go that far. ya.

So I´m sitting on the street outside the station, feet propped up on my backpack, looking at a taxi driver waiting for a fare. In his underwear. True story. I then leafed through my journal to look for something. On my way from Köln to København, I was talking to a woman from Lithuania (who btw hated chicago :-) who showed me her lithuanian-to-english dictionary. As i was leafing through it, i came across a phrase that i noted down. Nenusimnk(-ite). I don´t know what the brackets were for, but the translation was: Keep Smiling.

A bus finally does show up, but i don´t know if that´s the one. My vocabulary at this time is limited to one word: Lisboa. Say it to everyone around and get assured(i think) that this is where the bus is headed. Pile in. After what seemed like eternity, the driver climbs aboard and makes an announcement. I make out españa. what? luckily, he was met with loud shouts and boos. yeah. and whistling and clapping when the bus finally took off.

now, i´ve slept on buses before and you try to strecth out however you can. but it´s usually within the confines of your own seat. give or take. on this one, however, people had their legs streched out across the aisle into the seats on the other side. it was give and take. legs came your way too ! there was one guy who had his legs up on the headrest across the aisle. comfort class, was this?

the bus gets going and the driver was speeding like a maniac. on a twisty road. that´s when I felt the onset of a nauseating feeling. (gross-out moment ahead:) So I do the old backpacker´s remedy. Take off my shoes and smell my socks. That one always works, trust me. Try it the next time :-)

needless to say, there was very little sleeping on this ride. endured it until around 6-something when the bus stops in some deserted little town. the lights come on, doors are opened, and so is the luggage compartment. driver gets out and walks into said building.

Lisboa? Lisboa? ask the people around me. Suddenly finding myself fluent in the language of the moment, I join in. Lisboa?

The reply was a hurried return to the bus by the driver, shutting of doors, and speeding away. A little startled, everyone settles down. about a half-hour later, the same routine is repeated at another town. Only, this time people are getting off.


no. turns out the bus wasn´t headed to lisboa in the first place ! it was actually chasing the train we had missed !! I had a really beautiful ´around the world in 80 days´ moment right there. he was stopped outside a train station in a town called Villa Formosa and the train was there. Wow !!

Life throws you these amazing curve balls, but it´s not beyond offering up rewards either.

I get on the train, the conductor checks the ticket, shows me to a berth - a bed - and as he´s leaving, I ask him when the train gets into Lisboa. the ticket said 10:50. he shows me that, then points to his digital watch, my analog one, and is saying something in Portuguese. No english spoken here. he´s trying hard, and making all kinds of hand signals.

Then, I understand. In the ways of the unspoken sub-language of men under dire circumstances, he stops talking. He understands that I understand. I smile and give him a thumbs-up. He smiles and gives me a raise of the eyebrows. We shake hands and I settle into my bed.

You see, he was trying to tell me that Portugal´s time zone is an hour behind France. That´s one more hour of sweet, glorious sleep.



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