Last Post From Calais… for now

–> Read this first! <–

A text message from a friend: “Are you Sans Papiers? Am I going to have to come and feed you?”

After an emotional morning I was overjoyed to hear that my passport had arrived in the post. I could go home! I decided to leave that night as I would still only have four days in Brighton and lots to do while I was there, preparing for my big traveling adventure (more on that soon…)

Cycling down to the ferry I passed lots of Afghan men carrying boxes and bags full of food. I waved from my bike and nearly swerved into the pavement as my front basket was also laden with food. They saw me and recognising me, shouted “Jo! Jo!”

To my shame I’m finding it very hard to remember anyone’s name. I have enough trouble with this under normal circumstances, but my efforts are even further frustrated when I can’t even pronounce the name properly to begin with! I recognise people often, but usually have no idea where from. These people were obviously heading towards the Hazara Jungle – one I spent some time in on my last visit but didn’t go to at all this time. Why had I not gone back there?

I shouted “I’m late! I’m sorry! Goodbye! I’ll be back soon!”
They shouted their goodbyes after me.

After buying my ticket and infiltrating a line of cars with my bike I saw them again, passing by on the other side of the giant white metal security fence. I was painfully aware of how much each of them wanted to be in my place. Why should I have such privileges, denied to so many?

We waved to one another again through the white metal bars and they were gone. I will be back.

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Captain Scarlet’s Journal

Day 1,

We arrived at Port Solent last night. We have a female skipper, which pleases me. This makes a majority female crew with only two out of six males. I’m not surprised to hear that this is unusual. The males on board are my vegan buddy Jamie and Dave, here learning to sail with his girlfriend Sarah. They are a very Dave and Sarah kind of a couple, clearly a little alarmed at the prospect of sharing a small boat for five days with three freaks from Brighton with peculiar dietary habits. For once mine is not the weirdest or most awkward, having been outdone on this occasion by ‘100 Mile Beth’ and her local food experiment. She is frying pancakes behind me as I write in my journal. Jamie, Beth and I have brought all of the food we need with us for our five days of sailing. Beth has a whole bag with just salad in it as well as a trolley-bag full of other stuff after panicking that she wouldn’t have enough to eat.

The weather is bad and currently looks to be bad all day. When we start moving in about 45 minutes I shall find out whether I get seasick or not. I have lots of ginger with me just in case – apparently ginger is good for seasickness.

Day 2,

I am pleased to report no seasickness from any of our crew. The sea got a bit rough yesterday too, so I’m sure we would know about it. Today the weather is clear and hot, yet still with a fierce wind once you get out to sea.

My mind is awash with seafaring jargon. It’s all reefs and bowlines, fenders and cleats, jib, boom and halyard. I am reminded of my first ever school French class by the way we are thrown right in at the deep end, left to decipher the commands we are given by deduction… “Jo, could you put the main halyard on the winch please? We’re going to put a tack on.” Umm…

Gybing sounds to me like some kind of strange dance. In a way it sort of is. The way we wiggle the boat slowly along our course while sailing with the wind. It can be a dangerous dance though. A sign on the deck clearly states:

WARNING
GYBING can cause injury
Be Briefed
Be Prepared
Be Safe

Blimey!

Day 3,

This morning I managed a spot of yoga on the pontoon at Hamble where we moored up last night. Hamble is the most expensive marina on the Solent, but according to our skipper Karen, they also have the best showers.

Last night we did some night sailing. I loved it. All of the big ugly depressing industrial buildings and oil liners and container ships vanished under a velvety black cloak. Only a man-made constellation of lights could be seen on a sea of inky ripples. We learned how to navigate by the lights: occulting, slow and quick flashing red and green buoys; north, south, east and west cardinals; how to tell which was a vessel is traveling: green light for starboard, red for port.

Today the sea is a shimmering aquamarine dress with glittering sequins. The sun is out but the wind still bites through my five layers of clothing, woolly hat and scarf. I am getting nicely tanned through my factor thirty sun cream nonetheless.

Day 4,

Last night was spent at Lymington, definitely my favourite marina so far and the only one not to have been privatized. Portsmouth seems an exact clone of Brighton Marina and Cowes and Hamble aren’t much better – hardly worth going anywhere if that’s all you’re going to see! Lymington is just a small pontoon out the front of the village. A bloke comes chugging along on his little boat to collect the mooring fee with a bus ticket machine.

I had a little walk up to the local graveyard in the morning and was surprised to discover how much I had missed trees and grass and the colour green. Not sure how I would do seeing only blue and black for days and days on end. I did have one exciting encounter with nature though; yesterday while getting laughed at rowing the dinghy around I came across a fascinating creature that I have been assured must have been a cuttlefish. He swam under my dingy while keeping his big old beady eye on me. I felt we bonded.

Day 5,

I have been having some potent dreams sleeping on the water. Perhaps something lurking deep below is whispering secrets to me while I sleep. During a dream one night I had a clear realisation of how polluted humans have made the sea. It was saddening, sickening and made me think again that we have already pushed things too far. Is there any way out of this? Increasingly it seems not. I mentioned to our skipper that it may not be such a great thing to be flushing toilet cleaner and non-eco (well, any really) washing-up liquid and other cleaners out to sea. Apparently there is an organisation called The Green Blue working with the sailing industry to help it green up it’s activities. They have persuaded TUI Travel, the mega-company that owns Sunsail our sailing school that they need to switch to Ecover. However, it’s going to take a whole year before the change is actually implemented due to the massive beaurocratic feedback loops in a company this size. Sigh.

On arriving back at Portsmouth it took me a while to get my land-legs back, despite having been off the boat for at least an hour or two most evenings. We were presented with our Competent Crew certificates and got a ride to the station from our skipper. My main reason for taking this course was to learn enough to be useful on a boat and increase my chances of hitching one for part of the world travel escapade I’m hoping to embark on later this year. Also, to check I won’t get too seasick and that I actually enjoy sailing. I can definitely tick all of those boxes now, apart from missing the trees.

La Sorga

My female driver – the first of my etire journey – takes me out of her way, up the mountain and into the driveway marked `La Sorga’. It is gone 8pm, cold and dark. She wouldn’t hear of me walking the rest of the way. I walk towards the faint voices and even fainter light behind some tree-shaped silhouettes. The light and voices are coming from what appears to be a wooden cabin, but turns out to be part caravan, part wooden construction. I knock lightly on the glass door, thoroughly surprising the inhabitants whom I discover have never heard of me and were not expecting anyone at all. The `owner’ of the place is away. It must have been him I was emailing and he hadn’t mentioned I was coming to the others. But it’s ok – the more the merrier!

I am introduced to everyone: Caroline is French and has been here only two weeks herself. Antoine and Laura are a couple who met here for the first time two months ago. Antoine is a sunny-faced guy from Belgium and Laura is German and almost always laughing. Then there is Ash, a New Zealander who has been here the longest. He is currently on crutches having slipped in the woods about a week ago and badly twisted his ankle. Ash is freegan. He spent a bit of time squatting in London and also used to work at Pogo Cafe. We probably know some of the same people – small world! Christoph is the only one who doesn’t speak a great deal of English. He is a bit of a clown and always up for some fun and games. I think I will definitely get on with everyone here. We are all around the same age and I cannot help but think that La Sorga feels more like a youth hostel than a community. There are no permanent residents here at present and it all feels rather transitory. This is great for me as a passer-through but I’m not sure how I would feel about it if I wanted to stay for longer.

I arrived in time for a dinner of spaghetti bolognese. Laura is vegan too, so all evening meals will be fine for me to eat. It is decided that I will share a cabin with Christoph. This turns out to be my own double mattress on a mezzanine above where he is sleeping, with my own lamp, a window and bookshelves. Hurrah!

Day 1 – Friday
Porridge for breakfast. Already I can tell this is my kind of place! The morning is spent moving an enormous pile of wood from the front entrance. It has been given to us by a neighbour apparently. It is the last thing I feel like doing after a full day of hitchhiking, but I dutifully take wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of wood behind the caravan for stacking.

I am expecting more work after lunch, but find that everyone goes off to do their own thing. I end up `sunbathing’ in my polo-neck jumper and two pairs of trousers on my rollmat near to the front drive. A peculiar place to lie but with a lovely big patch of sun. A big white tom cat – clearly the bravest of the five feline residents and one of only two who are not blind – comes to sit beside me – then on my book – then on my back, where he gives me a lovely massage. We remain firm friends after this.

I have discovered that La sorga has some strange contrasts: a compost toilet, wood burners and permacutlure principles – but also running water, a boiler, internet and – bizzarely – a washing-machine!

Day 2 – Saturday
There is a market in Le Bugue, the nearest town, on Saturdays and Tuesdays. The market shuts at midday, so that is when we need to get there – to ask the market people for any unsold food they are throwing away – kind of a cross between skipping and begging. Four of us walk down to the main road with the intention of hitching in pairs. Two cars pull over at once – success!

I’m told there is usually a lot more and people seem dissapointed, but we manage to fill a few carrier bags. Antoine has a tip-off about a field where a lot of corn has bee cut and is being left to rot. He and Laura head off to pick some while Caroline and I return home. They arrive hours later with sacks of the stuff. In the field was enough sweetcorn to feed the chickens for a year. We will go again another day and get more.

Since I arrived people have been talking about the party we will go to on Saturday night. The time has arrived and I am almost reluctant to go. I have not enjoyed the last few parties I have been to and not drinking means always being on a different wavelength to people at parties. I have not drunk alcohol for six weeks and have been attempting to abstain for three months. I even spent my birthday sober. Something about the surroundings and the people weakens my resolve and the minute I get in the door and see tables covered in bottles of free booze I pour myself a large glass of champagne and have done with it.

The party is wonderful. It is in a shop which has just opened. It is not-for-profit and runs solely on donations – everything from clothes to toys to computers to furniture – which they fix up and sell on at an affordable price. It is huge and bright and clean and beautifully decorated with a large Mongolian yurt frame (no canvas) at one end, filled with cushions, paintings and information about various projets, of which La sorga is one. A stage has been set up and the bands play some excellent folky stuff that we can’t help but dance to. I am properly warm for the first time in a week and go right down to one layer of clothing. Antoine takes to the stage at regular intervals – a bit of drumming here, a little singing there. He adopts strange squeaky voices and somehow manages to fit in with the rest of the band – at least mostly! We can’t help but dance – all except poor Ash who spends the eveing on one of the sofas with his twisted ankle. There are plenty of children and people of all ages. I am very glad to have come and also very glad for my champagne. Bad girl.

Day 3 – Sunday
I am informed early on that this is our day of rest. Suits me fine. My first hangover in six weeks and I am feeling guilty about drinking last night. I console myself by reasoning that it is still the longest I have ever gone without drinking (since age 15 anyway). I turn down a glass of walnut wine in the evening, to the shock and dismay of Christoph, who claims it is a traditional French drink and I must at least try it. I feel a little better with myself for refusing and feel certain that I can now go on to abstain for another six weeks.

Day 4 – Monday
I was originally planning on leaving today, but I was going to Barcelona and heard by email that the squatted community I wanted to visit there is at capacity until February. I will stay here for two days extra and try to visit Barcelona on the way back.

Christoph left this morning, so now there are only five of us. It seems there are even fewer as Antoine and Laura spend most of the day in their little house and Ash is ill in bed. The skipped paella is suspected but unconfirmed as the culprit and is consequently fed to the cats, much to their delight.

Another lazy day. I spend most of it reading `Frech Phrases For Dummies’. I must sound very odd to the others, sitting in the corner muttering phrases like `What a lovely dress!’ and `peaches are my favouite fruit’.

By evening I am feeling a bit rested out. I have done little but sit for two days. I go for a stroll and nose around some of the other structures for the first time. I also finally make frinds with one of the blind cats and end up with a trail of cats following me around the grounds pied-piper style.

Day 5 – Tuesday
I woke up late – almost 10am. Last night we had a projet meeting and chastised ourselves for doing so little work this week. We resolved to go into town early for the market. On entering the caravan I discover that I am first up. Hmm, strange. I entertain myself while waiting by washing-up and watching the chickens outside.

The cockrel and one of the chickens have escaped again. They are strutting and waddling around on the wooden platform outside the caravan. I witness my first ever chicken-rape scenario when the cock forces himself on top of the squarking, flapping hen and holds the wobbly red bit on her head in his beak to keep her down. I am shocked. After he’s finished she shuffles her feathers violently and he struts about crowing loudly. What a cock. He struts over to a nearby plastic bucket and stretches his head to peer over the brim. On finding it is filled with pieces of sweetcorn he pecks one out onto the deck and gobbles it aggressvely.

Eventually the others emerge. Caroline and I hitch into Le Bugue while Laura and Antoine finish breakfast. There is something good in the air today. The first car we see pulls over before we have even made it to the main road. A man at the market breaks open an orange and gives me half as I pass his stall and another sticks his tongue out. Perhaps it is my pigtails. Caroline says I look like a little girl.

We fill all three backpacks and three large shopper-bags with food. Lots of it skipped from the supermarchè and market and some more we actually paid for, like the indispensible yeast extract and some apples and broccoli. Some of us have been feeling a little lacking in vitamins. I buy almost €5 worth of olives as a treat for us all to go on the pizzas we are making tonight. Today is also Bread Day, and that means pizza also. Yum.

Tomorrow I will leave here early in the morning and hitch down to Ecodharma. It’s strange leaving here – in a way it was just one stop on my way to Spain, but I have stayed longer and settled in more than I expected. I wonder if I will return?

Links:
La Sorga’s page on Intentional Communities Website (how I first found them)
Website
La Sorga Wiki

Rennes

There were three clues that told me I would be staying in a squat in Rennes. The first was my couchsurfing hosts profile saying ‘squat the world!’ The second was being warned I would need to say my name when I got to the door and the third was seeing the door itself.

On entering I have my suspicions confirmed by Manuel, my friendly Europunk host. The main reason I am in Rennes is after searching CS for the keywords ‘anarchist’, ‘vegan’, and ‘squat’ in France, his was the one that kept popping up. This is great – squats were on my list of things to find in France along with permaculture communities, social centres and protest sites.

I have arrived just in time for what Manuel nicknames ‘The Green Meal’ – green beans with pea soup and some other green vegetable broth that nobody can remember the English name for. There is also some nice French bread and some sweet stewed fruit for dessert. I break out my jar of vegan chocolate spread as well. It is everything I dreamed it would be.

Manuel explains that they go skipping at the markets a couple of times a week for vegetables. He has an old friend who runs a bakery and gives him whatever bread is left over at the end of the day. They also steal some food from supermarkets.

After dinner I get a tour of the building. It used to be several appartments and I get lost through room after room after room. Some parts of the building are in better nick than others. They have also been busy repairing, cleaning and decorating some of it. The nicest bit is the attic, particularly Manuel’s room which has wooden panels on the walls and a slanted ceiling. The worst is covered in damp patches and peeling plaster – a wall Manuel says they wanted to knock through but then discovered it was keeping the building stable. There is only one toilet in the whole building. A peak out of the back door reveals why – a row of toilets, each with it’s own door. One for each of the old apartments. How bizarre! There is also another apartment which is only accessible from out the back door. This one is very large and I’m told they will be having a gig in there on Saturday. It is also sometimes used for large group meals.

I choose ‘The Tea Room’ to sleep in. It’s in the attic next to Manuel’s room and has a heater, fairy lights, two sofas, bookshelves, a couple of coffee tables and a good supply of redbush and honeybush tea. The attic is where they all slept for the first few nights. This is confirmed by a row of hardy locks running down the inside of the main door up here. The tea room is now a chill-out space as well as a venue for small feminist gatherings. It also has a nice clean looking mattress. I get some allergic reactions anyway – probably from the damp and the dust (I am allergic to everything!), but sleep about ten hours in spite of it.

In the morning I do yoga in the other attic room – a large one with nothing but a sink, bare floorboards and a table made out of a large wooden pallet with bricks supported by two computer towers for legs. Yoga helps with my aching, but not much and I’m really feeling it as I walk around town on my unsuccessful mission to hire a bike (why is it so hard to hire bloody bikes in France?!?)

Before leaving the house I found Manuel dragging a shower cubicle out of the downstairs outside apartment. He says he is cleaning it up to use as a changing cubicle for their free shop. The shop is currently lots of boxes and shelves of clothes and books in the room by the one functioning downstairs toilet. I think I can successfully tick squats and social centres off my list of things to discover here. Mission successful! Tomorrow I am moving on to La Sorga, a permaculture community East of Bordeaux.

A Working Retreat at Ecodharma

G threw the land-rover up the mountain, pointing out the sights to me… “This is the start of the land we have been using.” I am immediately struck by his choice of language, careful not to claim ownership of the land. He may have paid money for it, but how can land be owned? It’s indicative of the mixture of radical politics, ecology and Buddhist ideas that brought me to this place.

Guyhyapati, (or ‘G’), has been here eight years. He saw the south-facing slope of the valley from afar while out climbing and knew it was the place. He found the man who owned it in the village, persuaded him to sell it, raised the money and now here he is: recounting the story to us eight years later. G flicks his long grey hair to the other side of his head, exposing the shaved part underneath. He speaks gently, confidently. We sit around the kitchen in that house that G first bought. The ‘land we are using’ has now extended to cover a much larger area, including six houses, though most are little more than ancient dry-stone-wall structures with rotting tree-trunk beams attached. This kitchen is currently the only part of this house that has been done up, although there is another beautifully renovated house some friends are staying in further down the track. G mostly lives in the yurt just behind the kitchen. It seems obvious that although eight years have passed, this is a community in its infancy. G wants it to grow slowly and sustainably.

A typical day at Ecodharma:

My alarm goes off at 5:30am. Groggy and cold I pull myself from my sleeping-bag and grab a pile of jumpers. We meditate at 6am in the small dome just down-slope of the yurt I am sharing with Lucy, a girl from Manchester I became friends with instantly. I do the first forty-five minutes of meditation and then return to the yurt to practice yoga looking out over the mountains as the sun rises. On a warm day I can remove a couple of jumpers at this point.

I make my way up to the kitchen and am greeted by warm smiles and nods from those already pottering around the small kitchen making breakfast. I have become quite fond of porridge mixed with crunchy cereal and runny mulberry jam. There is always a kettle boiling or pot of tea stewing. Olive oil sits in a little metal oiling can – for lubriacating the pan-fried toast along with the homemade jams. There is fruit too. Apart from the clinks and clatters there is silence until all are present and have eaten. I watch the army of cute but wild kittens playing with whatever bit of food they have managed to snatch from still sleepy humans. G rings a bell to signal the end of silence. We take it in turns to speak whatever is on our minds, how we are.

After check-in we work out jobs for the day. The people who arrived before me had already levelled off some new terraces and begun making a fence to keep any wild pigs off whatever veggies might get planted there. I learn how to use a pickaxe, a backhoe and some other tool with a funny name. I learn a bit of plumbing stuff too and install a new shower (tap resting on wall in private area). All water comes from the spring that runs through the valley, other than the foul, stinking washing-up water which comes from the roof – rainwater mixed with rotting fruit.

After a few days G realises heavy work is not my strong point and I am moved onto painting and kitting out the beautiful new Mongolian yurt for a woman who will soon be beginning a six month solitary retreat. I learn that sanding before painting is a good idea, what a ‘key’ is and how to wire up a solar panel.

We finish work at 2pm, although two finish early to cook lunch. We have a rota for cooking and cleaning and I sign up for a mixture. We take turns to cobble together experimental feasts for the others. The food here is a locavore heaven, all fruit and vegetables are grown locally and even the bread comes from a squatted social centre 17km away who grow their own organic wheat. Peaches come from a workers co-op nearby. The valley itself produces a huge array of herbs as well as plums, mulberries, blackberries, apples, figs, mushrooms, rosehips, various nuts, honey and more.

There is free time until 5:30pm. I alternate sleeping and reading with the odd walk or chat.

In the evening we have study – more like a fervent debate. What is Ecodharma? What are the five precepts? How do radical ecology and Buddhist ideas fit together?
Sometimes we sit in the meditation dome, sometimes the kitchen, often G’s yurt. I suspect I’m not the only one who likes that option best – sitting around in the warm, teapot in centre, grandma cat on somebody’s lap.

We eat supper around 7:30pm. Usually soup, sometimes toast. If we’re lucky, G will make his special chocolatey-almond dessert. After supper there is often a puja or meditation period before bedtime.

I read by candlelight every night before sleeping, listening to the sounds of the crickets, birds and other inhabitants of the valley. There is a small candelabra hanging from the ceiling of the yurt. If I get back after Lucy I can see the yurt lit up like a beacon to help guide me home.

The Great Hitchhiking Adventure – Part 2: Toulouse to Ecodharma

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.
‘England,’
‘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?’
‘Yes..?’
‘I grew up in Swindon!’
‘No!’
‘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…

The Great Hitchhiking Adventure – Part 1: London to Toulouse

I spend ages getting out of London – even longer due to waiting 50 minutes for the bus I left my tent on to do it’s round and come back to where I got off. Having retrieved my tent and found the road junction marked on hitchwiki.org, I wait patiently in the pouring rain with a soggy cardboard sign saying ‘France please!’ and a smiley face. After around 20 minutes a waiter comes out of a nearby pub with a cup of tea for me and discovering I don’t drink milk, takes it away and comes back with another – black with a bit of lemon. Bless.

My first lift is Adam. Adam has just started growing vegetables and has never heard of Peak Oil. I fill him in on all of the happy details. Adam is quite well travelled but has only been to what he calls ‘party towns’ to get drunk. Apparently this includes Cuba. I tell him about ‘The Power of Community’, the film about Cuba and how it’s handling the energy crisis. This sets him thinking… ‘hmm, yeah, there were a lot of people hitchhiking and it was a bit like that now you come to mention it.’ Telling Adam about my plans he just keeps repeating the same thing – ‘It’s like a different world’.

I meet another hitchhiker at junction 10 of the M20. We both have signs saying ‘France’ and decide to travel together until we get there where we will go our separate ways. Max has a more upfront method of hitching than me. He approaches cars as they are waiting at the traffic lights, knocks on the windows and asks for a lift. I stand by the turning with one of our signs. It’s Max that gets us the lift after asking around 15 cars. We get a lift to Dover with an Iraqi man and his Argentinian girlfriend. Max tells me about the number plate system for French vehicles which could be helpful for my hitching. Apparently the first two numbers indicate the region the car is from. I scribble down the numbers for some of the regions I will be passing through from the book Max is carrying.

Max paid £12 for a ferry ticket, but I have been reading about boat hitching for a long time now and want to at least give it a try. I have around fifteen minutes before they stop boarding foot passengers. There is a road with a long string of lorries heading past the ticket office, so I stick out my thumb and wait. Many lorry drivers shrug or frown at me but a couple smile and eventually one stops. Tom is Croatian and lives in Germany, on his way home now after six weeks away driving. At the booth I hand the man our two passports and a slip of paper Tom hands me. ‘What are you carrying?’ the toll booth man asks. ‘Oh, some crates, some pallets…’ Tom starts to explain. ‘Oh right, just stuff basically!’ The man laughs and hands back our passports. Off we go then! Tom has a laptop and internet in his cab. He asks exactly where I’m going and works out that I will travel 1300km in total from London to the place I am heading to in Spain: Ecodharma.

I am driving off the ferry in a truck with Manuel, my Portugese driver. Manuel is a little bit racist and thinks Indians are dirty, but other than that seems quite nice. I try to avoid the topic and get rather nervous whenever he mentions nationality. The time is now 8:45pm – an hour ahead of the UK – and it is already getting quite dark. Manuel is driving all of the way to Portugal but will stop for nine hours in Tours to sleep. Tours will be great for me – if I can hack driving all night to get there!

I sleep fitfully in the passenger seat for what seems like five minutes in every fifteen. I awake in the middle of the night to discover we have already passed Tours. Tours was actually somewhere I had wanted to visit on my route, but oh well. Manuel parks at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. This is the end of the line for me as he will sleep now. I get out in the cold, thank Manuel and tentatively wander into the service station. I get some Euros from the cash machine, the first opportunity I have had, and buy two small road maps: one of France and one of Spain for €2.95 each. The man behind the counter doesn’t speak English. ‘Ou et… moi?’ I ask, showing him the map. ‘Ici?’ he points. I am just outside Tours to the South. It doesn’t look like there are many other towns nearby, and besides it’s only 5am. Thinking of Max’s technique I ask some men where they are going, but they just grunt at me and walk off. Another man asks where I want to go and offers to take me to Poitiers. I accept gratefuly.

My new driver speaks barely any English and communication is hard, but he does give me €20, offers to pay for a hotel or to put me up for the night (I decline both suggestions) and buys me a coffee at a service station and a mint tea in Poitiers before leaving me to go home and sleep. He says God told him to give me money. Thanks God!

I was hoping to spend some time in Poitiers, but the only bit I saw of it looked like Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton (not good), and besides it is still early and everywhere is shut. Better to head for Bordeaux for breakfast and to see if it’s the kind of place I could spend the day. I’m picked up after a few minutes by a guy heading to Niort, only a few miles South. Ok, why not? His English is as bad as my French but we manage to communicate a little in a mixture of French, English and Spanish, which we each speak equally badly.
Niort is very pretty. I write up some of my travels while waiting for the tourist office to open. I’m feeling quite tired and hungry and looking at my map I can see why: no proper food in the last 70 miles. I have started measuring time in miles rather than minutes.

Alex and Stephan are heading south, partly for a holiday and partly because they like it better there and may just stay if things work out. My sign said Bordeaux, but since they are going to Toulouse I will just go there instead. It will probably be my last stop before Spain and I am amazed to have seen so little of France. I have moved much faster than I had imagined, but am making up for it now by watching crumbling yellow brick buildings and tiny French villages pass by out of the window. There are toll booths on French autoroutes, kind of a pay-as-you-go motorway system. We are taking the smaller roads to avoid some of the costs. I’m still munching my way through the pile of goodies I bought from the magazine-bio (organic shop) in Niort: Almond and hazelnut rice milk, tofu wieners, fake cheese spread, mushroom pate, chocolate, muesli, avocado, tomato and some fresh fruit. That’s all the money the man from Poitiers gave me but I haven’t spent any of my own yet apart from the maps. This food should last a couple of days.

The D roads, although very pretty, were taking too long, so Alex and Stefan decide only to go as far as Montauban. They drop me off a little sooner at a ‘campsite’ in Castelsarrasin. My tent is the only one here. Reception is closed, possibly non-existent and everything either doesn’t work (the lights and at least one shower and sink), or is covered with a thick layer of cobwebs and dust. It’s not entirely unlike a zombie movie, but I’m trying not to think about that as I sit in the dark writing this by head-torch at a round concrete picnic table. There is a phone, which I saw a man use earlier, but tragically I do not have a French phone card. Far from being a well needed night of solitude and brandy in remote French countryside, I spend ages trying to rid myself of the only thing that unnerves me more than zombies: a Polish man named something like ‘Wokash’. Having established that we have the biggest language barrier ever, with Wokash not speaking any English, French OR Spanish and me not knowing any Polish, we eventually manage to convey through the use of sign language, gestures and drawings that:

1. He is Polish
2. He picks apples here
3. He is staying in the caravan – the only other thing in this field
4. He does not like picking apples
5. He wants me to stay in the caravan with him

Wokash is a little more pushy about point five than I feel comfortable about, especially given there is nobody else around. I try to make it clear that I am enjoying time alone and wish to sit and read my book in peace, but Wokash persists in beckoning me to his caravan. Eventually I shout at him in English to fuck off, thinking that if he doesn’t understand the words, at least some of the sentiment will get through in the volume of my request. I wave my penknife at him for good measure as he shied away from it when I first took it out to make a sandwich. He finally wanders off looking a bit sulky. I’m still a little nervous and keep turning my torch off at intervals and listening out for footsteps but he seems to have gone. This just goes to show that wild camping is not all that dangerous really. I’ve wild camped with much better facilities than these and have never had this much hassle.

I am awoken twice in the night: once by a strange man saying there is a phone-call for me. I am groggy with sleep but am still pretty certain there’s no way anyone could be calling me here, so I say ‘no, it’s not for me’, zip up my tent and go back to sleep. The second time I awake to a familiar voice outside my tent calling me – ‘Joy, Joy’ (he can’t pronounce Jo). I unzip my tent. Wokash and the man who woke me earlier are both there. Wokash beckons me. I say ‘no, I’m not coming with you. Fuck off and let me sleep’. I turn to the other man. ‘You know English? Do you understand what I’m saying?’ He says ‘yes, he just wants to be your friend’. I tell them to fuck off a few more times, quite loudly, then zip my tent back up and yell, ‘I’m going to sleep now!’ They walk off laughing and talking in Polish. I am awoken no more. I see Wokash on the phone in the morning and he waves to me. I don’t wave back.