Toulouse is a beautiful city. There are some places I go that I know immediately that I need more time in and this is one of them. It’s great to be travelling alone and without time restrictions and I decide to stay in Toulouse for a couple of days. Through some synchronicity I find a couch-surfing host quite quickly and am walking to his house when a man stops me and asks if I would like to join him for a drink. I immediately refuse.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks, seeing I don’t speak much French.
‘I have been to England a few times,’ he says, still walking beside me, ‘London, Swindon…’
‘Wait a minute…’ I stop walking, ‘did you just say you’ve been to Swindon?’
‘I grew up in Swindon!’
‘Come on, let’s get a drink.’
Joel thinks I’m crazy. Crazy for hitchhiking, crazy for travelling alone, crazy for staying with strangers. He is not the sleaze I originally took him for, but is actually very polite, respectful and intelligent. He says he prefers to meet people on the street rather than in a bar where they will just be drunk. Sex is of course nice, but he is interested in meeting people for conversations also. It’s nice to have a drink with somebody friendly and we have a good chat.
The velos are bikes you can rent for a euro a day plus a sliding scale depending on how long you use them for. It takes me a couple of days to work out the system as there is nothing written in English about them, even at the Tourist Info Office, which is otherwise very useful. There are velo stations all over Toulouse and I constantly see people riding them around, so eventually I get somebody to show me. Once on one myself I realise they are not quite as romantic as they look when one is wobbling down a cobbled street vibrating fiercely. The bike is largely made out of plastic and has a large advertisement for HSBC bank on the side, but still, I miss the bike back home and this is a poor substitute but quite fun nonetheless.
I spent my first night in Toulouse with Franek, the couch-surfing ambassador for the city. Franek shares a one-bedroom flat with his sister Iris but loves having CS guests and would rather share a room with his sister than turn anyone away. There is another guest staying the second night, a German man called Matthias who I instantly take to. To avoid overcrowding I spend the second night with Franek’s neighbour, who we discover by accident is also a CS host.
I am in a campsite about as different from the one at Castelsarrasin as you could possibly get. Dodgy pop-dance music blasts out of the cafe-bar behind me. I’m sitting at a blue plastic table eating chips and drinking beer. My blue plastic chair has ‘Nestle’ emblazoned across the back. This ‘Camping Village’ charges €10 a night, €20 if I leave after 10am! They have taken my passport to ensure I pay before leaving. It’s such a shame because this is a really beautiful town, nestled right in the heart of the Pyrenees. I was expecting to arrive at Ecodharma today. I at least thought I would get out of France but no, I’m still here. I am wishing I hadn’t taken the advice of the man smoking outside the bar back in the town and had carried on to Andorre rather than stay here tonight. He’s probably an undercover tout for this campsite. I am intrigued to see Andorre, a tiny little independent country I had never heard of before, right on the French-Spanish border.
I had some good lifts today. Not long ones, but nice ones. One was a man whose name I have sadly forgotten. He’s a meditator too and we had a really interesting conversation while listening to the most beautiful music as we drove through the winding mountain paths and remote crumbling sand-coloured villages in the French Pyrenees. ‘It’s music from the desert’, he said. Really enchanting. My driver was the second who waited for me today, rather than the other way around. ‘You didn’t have your thumb out, but I guessed you were hitchhiking’, he said. He and his wife, both aged 50, have recently moved to this area from further north. He said he feels 22 again. His love of the area is infectious, especially as he tells me local legends and points out hidden landmarks.
The first lift that waited for me today was not so great. No, that’s mean of me, he was nice enough. He had his lorry pulled over and waited for me to catch up to him at the toll booth I was heading for on the autoroute out of Toulouse. Hitching on the autoroute is illegal, just like on British motorways, but you can walk along behind the barrier and it’s ok to hitch at the tolls where a lot of people also stop to use the public toilets. This driver seemed quite keen for me to take off one of the tops I was wearing and to let down my hair. He emphasised strongly how hot it was. He didn’t speak English, but made it clear in French that he was a man and that I was in fact a woman. I was convinced by him to take a very roundabout route through Perpignon. I changed my mind halfway and got out at Carcassone and headed south on the smaller D roads – hence still being in France.
I stop for a sandwich in the most beautiful place I have been to so far: a remote picnic spot outside a tiny village up in the mountains. It’s a crappy place for hitchhiking and I wait an hour – my longest wait by far since leaving the Uk, which I blame on the amount of ex-pats living locally – but I don’t really mind because the area is so outstandingly beautiful.
My first lift of a new day speeds through the mountain roads with dance music blaring – ‘you’re so sexy – sexy, sexy, sexy’ sings the woman on the stereo. My driver is heading to the first town in Andorre, which it appears serves as an off-licence to the whole of southern France. Andorre is not in the EU and alcohol is a quarter the price, a packet of cigarettes is around €2. My driver warned me earlier that there may be a ‘traffic marmalade’ and I see what he means as the queue gets longer and longer. It’s not only alcohol and cigarettes that are cheap, but also clothes, food and oil. We cross the border without any hassle. Au revoir France!
After a forty minute wait I finally get a lift out of Pas de la Casa, the first town in Andorre. It’s small but still very built up and has cows grazing on almost vertical patches of grass. I feel certain they will fall and crush the cars parked along the side of the road directly beneath them. Now my new driver and I take the wiggliest mountain path ever to this tiny country’s capital, Andorra la Vella.
I arrive in Isona after a semi-dodgy hour and a half long trip with a man in a tiny white van. I’m waiting for Guhyapati (‘G’ to his friends) in Bar Miami. I think I am the only English person and the only female apart from the barmaid. I seem to be an unusual sight. I drink my last half pint while waiting – it may be a while before I consume alcohol again. G arrives and greets me like an old friend, although we only met once before for a brief ten minute chat at the Buddhafield Festival. He has exactly the white landrover I imagined he would. I get in and we wind our way up an ever remoter road that turns into a track at steeper and steeper angles. G tells me a little about the centre and points out landscape features as we pass. He also tells me who else is on the retreat and it turns out I know one of them – he will be surprised to see me! There are only 8 of us, but another 3 will arrive over the next few days. My sense of exitement is growing…