Archives for posts with tag: hitchhiking

(This is the beginning of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.)

In 1991, I was working as a personal assistant for a horrible man who owned the Malibu Gym. Every day I’d travel from my home in Marina del Rey along the Pacific Coast Highway past all the houses where the other half lived and wonder exactly where my life was going. One afternoon as I was flying home unconsciously at about 75 mph, I was pulled over by the CHP for speeding.

Sometimes, however, there’s a silver lining.

Instead of paying the ticket, I opted to go to traffic school where, ironically, I met one of those men who lived in one of those houses overlooking the Pacific. As a member of the “other half,” he happened to have a house on a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Barcelona, and for some reason, he offered to let me stay in it for a month, rent-free. I’d never been out of the country before, and I decided it was time to go. I saved some money, quit my job and planned a backpacking trip through Europe using that house in Majorca as a respite. It’s what every 25-year-old should do.

Just before leaving on my trip, George Bush the elder, decided to bomb Iraq in what would become the first Gulf War. My plan hadn’t included there being a Gulf War but since there was, the American government highly recommended not leaving the country. If travel was necessary, they advised Americans to not fly into London. If that wasn’t possible, we were urged to avoid Heathrow Airport. My ticket to Heathrow in hand, I didn’t flinch because I had something the American government didn’t know about: an elephant pendant a friend had given me, which she assured me was some kind of Jewish good-luck-for-travel charm. I figured that pendant and a few earnest prayers were enough to keep me safe.

My father had given me a printout of travel suggestions before I left.

Do not tell people I’m American. Do not wear Nike shoes or Levi jeans or other obvious American labels. Do not give out too many details about myself. Be guarded. Trust no one.

My passport, credit card, traveler’s cheques and emergency phone numbers of U.S. embassies all over Europe were literally strapped to me in a wallet on a belt. Xeroxed copies of everything were sealed, ziplocked and tucked into the side pocket of my bag.

During the first few weeks of my trip, I charted handpicked territories up one side of Great Britain and down the other. I read abandoned English newspapers in train stalls and cafés, and I watched broadcasts of the BBC from the common rooms of youth hostels whenever there was a television. All eyes had turned toward my homeland. I became aware for the first time ever that I’d been born into something considered to be a Superpower. Mine was a nation that was leading a war. We were in the ultimate competition, and like the Olympics, we were waving our flags and rooting for victory.
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(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Yes, I’m a smart girl, and I know better than to hitchhike. And, let’s be clear, there are no excuses. But I’d just come from a month of traveling the backroads of England where kindly strangers pulled over to the side of the road offering me a respite from the obvious heft of my bag. Some of my best travel stories are born in these moments and these people who wanted only to share their time with me. I’d kept looking for ulterior motives in them to no avail. And so my guard was down. I wasn’t careful. And Spain is not England.

So there I was—with my thumb out.

The man slowed his bike, and I got on the back. I told him where I lived. He nodded, and we were off, dust kicking up in the shadows of our past. He kept trying to talk to me. In Spanish. No comprendo. He tried again. And again. I thought he was making polite conversation. Mi Español es muy mala, I offered. And then he said something I understood: Yo y tu.

The man began driving recklessly and laughing. Talking and laughing. Speeding up. Slowing down. And laughing. He used his left hand, the one with the wedding ring on it, to reach around behind him, and grope me. It was the most fun he’d had in a very long time. I knew this from the echoes of his delight.

With no weaponry of my own, what I had in my arsenal was only my anger. And I can tell you that I have never had more of an instinct to kill. Never. When something like this had happened to me before, I was first a defenseless child and then a floundering teen. So now understanding what it would take for me to put back together the pieces of myself in the aftermath of violation, I would sooner imagine mine being the hands of a murderer. And so I did. I looked at my hands, shaking with fear and fury, and I pulled the nylon strap from my camera between them, testing its durability. In one swift move it would be around his neck.

But I knew it would be better to get off the bike. If I choked him while he was driving, it could get ugly. I looked at the ground moving beneath my feet. Stop, drop and roll; just like a fire drill, I thought.

I noticed that if he groped me he wasn’t paying attention to his speed, and he’d slow down. I waited for his hand to reach back toward me again, and that’s when I did it. I threw myself off the bike, hit the ground and rolled into the ditch, disoriented. A thousand pieces of information barreled through my head, processed, evaluated and sorted entirely apart from me. Everything was suddenly useful or not useful. Black or white. Right or wrong. Good or evil. I evaluated the weeds, dirt, grass, sticks, pebbles. There was nothing with which to protect or defend. And nothing with which to retaliate. To torture. To brutalize. To maim. I clawed a handful of small stones as I rose from the ground, an animal. I could dart into the field and lose myself in tall reeds, but a momentary flash of forewarning had me raped and bloodied and dead, my body never recovered, my parents forever wondering. I could run down the road in the opposite direction heading for nowhere, hunted. Or I could be the hunter, engage the enemy, launch the battle.

I looked back at the man on the road, on his motorbike, stopped, watching me over his shoulder, idling. My eyes bore into him, ready.

Don’t. Fuck. With me.
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