Like politician’s careers, journeys often end in disappointment and sadness.
Fortunately, that usually gets forgotten as the memory lays down a rich seam of summits and highlights, powered by the copious photographs taken at those moments. My notebooks do a similar thing: page after page of intensely scribbled notes when the going is good, blank pages at the end, rarely a single mention of the flight home, apart from the time when the plane was diverted in a terrifying typhoon and we were grounded for a week in Taiwan. I wouldn’t have minded, but the flight was from London to Manchester.
Not really. That would definitely set the pen racing across the pages. However, I did once get blown off course to Taiwan after we tried and failed to land at Hong Kong’s old airport. It’s a standard traveller’s tale nowadays to talk of a mountain airstrip in the Himalayas and the bumpy landing, but to really experience air terror you had to try Kai Tak in a 747 during a typhoon. At the best of times, that old airport was scary. You skimmed the rooftops of Kowloon, performed a right-angle turn and dropped the tub as fast as possible because at the end of the runway was the sea. I once looked down to stare, eye-to-eye, into the face of a startled Chinese housewife washing her smalls in a plastic bucket on the roof of her block. She liked pink.
This time the 747 wingtip would have almost whipped her knickers off. The Australian pilot twice tried and failed to make that rivet-wrenching turn. As he came back for a third attempt some passengers shouted protests, then as the plane rolled, shuddering like an epileptic whale in its death throes, they began screaming.
Old Ahab at the controls heard their pleas and wisely abandoned the landing and we escaped across the South China Sea to Kaohsiung City. Cathay Pacific put us up in a five star hotel and in my bathroom I found there was a television on an arm over the bath. I ran a deep soak, shattered after the flight, desperate to relax and then sleep. When I got in, I swung the arm out in front of me and the tv fell off its gimbal into the water. I have never exited a bath so fast. Only then I discovered that the device was not plugged in. I replaced it on the gimbal and left it to drip dry. The notebook might have gone blank forever then, which of course it will one day.
Last week’s story ended with me walking out of Yegen, a village in Spain’s Sierra Nevada. The writer Gerald Brenan’s home in the 1920s had been a highlight, particularly my time with the old man, Antonio. I’d seen him a few times. We took a glass of ‘tinto’ together in the bar a couple of times and I went back for another visit to his house in the gorge where we ate the same lunch of home-made cheese and bread with swigs of wine from a stone jar. He was generous and funny, telling stories of his past, much of which I failed to comprehend. Looking back now I can understand how he must have missed his children who were probably the same age as me. He had an address book which he showed me. There were only two addresses recorded, somewhere in Germany, but I knew he had four children.
After Yegen I did not grasp immediately that my journey was over. The villages were still Alpujarran, the people still counted time up the joints of their arm, and they still counted money in fives – a tradition that had flummoxed me and caused some confusion over prices. Veinte duro meant 100 pesos. The donkeys were still decorated in gorgeous scarlet sashes and straps, but soon there were no more of them and I was trudging across a hot arid desert. The dogs became hostile. Finally, I hobbled into Almería on the coast and spent hours in an increasingly desperate search for a cheap hostel. They were all full, except for one windowless ground floor room next to the main road. Filthy, grey and full of flies, the only decoration was a dowdy painting of Christ’s agony. In a funk of despair I threw myself down under it and slept.
Next morning I flicked through a tourist brochure. One photo showed several bleak new office blocks and was captioned, ‘modern development’. The next showed two half-naked tourists and was also labelled, ‘modern development’. The hinterland I had just walked through, I learned, was ‘as wild and solitary as when the world began.’ Almería itself was, according to my opinion at the time, as ‘vile as when the world ended’. Half the population survived by selling lottery tickets to the other half. The vendor’s cry was, ‘If you want sugar, you must buy a drink.’ In the face of this awful place my resolve to walk collapsed and I took a bus across the south-west corner of the country to Mojácar. In doing so I inadvertently missed Cabo De Gata which, thirty years later, I discovered is a wonderful hike. In those thirty years I have also learned a bit more stoicism, to survive those dips in fortune.
Mojácar was full of British expats who looked either like members of Bucks Fizz or East End villains, or both. The landlady was discussing with another woman whether she was still taking, ‘the little five mill’ red pills’? When a Spaniard came into their bar, the mood subtly altered, that slight shift in body position, the almost undetectable alteration in conversation, similar to when a visitor at our house admits to reading the Daily Mail. Fortunately this foreigner was only delivering something. The landlady managed a few awkward phrases of the local dialect (cocknified Spanish) and he left. I followed.
It felt as if the journey was now broken and I hadn’t the energy to repair it. Buses to Albacete and then Cuenca followed. Arriving in the heat after a long uncomfortable bus ride, I walked into an empty church just to find somewhere cool. I sat bolt upright on a hard wooden bench and fell into a deep sleep. Two sailors in cocked tricorn hats were walking across the sea towards me, beckoning. I woke with a start and found myself surrounded by grotesque gnomes dressed in black all staring at me. It took a panicky few seconds to remember where I was. They were widows come for the catholic mass. I fled before anyone could ask me to pray. The notebook ends ‘Madrid from Cuenca by bus.’
All those in Yegen who remembered Gerald Brenan, El Brenan, will be gone now, including Antonio. The stone house in the gorge will probably be a gentrified retreat for a creative from Berlin or an architect from the Home Counties. The curious bread oven in the bare stone kitchen will be turned into a feature that does not produce bread. But tucked in the back of my notebook, after several empty pages, I find a slip of paper that reads, ‘Antonio Blanco Romera, Yegen Monte: Negro. Granada España’. On the reverse the old man has written in a cursive antique hand: ‘Calle Division No 19’. Antonio’s memory survives, at least a little, inside my notebook and I won’t forget his face and his kindness. I will, however, try to forget Almería.
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