Burgess in Rolling Purgatory

Undo that seatbelt! And other Spanish train etiquette.

By Steve Burgess 7 Jun 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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A bus to Algeciras, a ferry to Tangier, a train to Fes. It’s going to be a long day and already it’s getting longer. The quick bus from Granada to Algeciras- three and a half hours-is full. I am being shunted to the five-hour milk run. I indulge in the traveler’s privilege to curse in a foreign tongue.

The bus rolls through unexceptional Spanish countryside, trundling through every little town on the way. Halfway through along we stop at Malaga for half an hour and I get off to stretch. When I return the bus has filled with new passengers. Two middle-aged Spanish ladies have picked up my shoulder bag and are examining it. They exclaim to me in Spanish. “Lo siento, no habla Espanol,” I say. They reply with another stream of Spanish. I’m sure they are doing some ‘splaining, and I accept their explanation, whatever it is. (“Lo siento”-I’m sorry-is a handy phrase. In fact for a Canadian it’s halfway to being fluent.)

Later the same two ladies decide that my armrest should be put up and set about trying to help me do it with Spanish instructions. When I put on my seatbelt, the man behind me leans forward and clicks it off again. I think he’s trying to be helpful-my obsession with personal safety is probably an embarrassment.

Later we stop in the seaside town of Torremolinas, which I know only from a Monty Python routine about obnoxious British tourists. Three obnoxious Brits get on the bus.

The Golden Age

For a long time the seat beside me is empty. I refer to this now as the Golden Age. It ends in a Costa del Sol town when a bunch of elderly Spanish folks clamber aboard. The oldest of them gets the window seat beside me. He is clearly a man who lacks boundaries-his left leg is splayed out to my side of our shared space, his elbow is in my ribs. When he leans forward to consult with his friends he splays further.

He is a sigher, and a mutterer. He sighs heavily, sometimes veering into outright groans. He mutters to himself. He is not happy about something. He turns suddenly and glares at me for several moments. He has a large, gnarled schnoz that might have been built from leftover scraps of Shar-Pei hide. It sits on a face that looks like a series of bad decisions. He doesn’t smell particularly fresh.

Another member of the party sits in front of me-a garrulous old guy who regales his companions with tales. I get the impression he’s quite the comedian. But for me, lacking Spanish comprehension, it’s like sitting behind a giant squirrel.

On an earlier bus trip from Cordoba to Granada, a teenage girl sat beside me and rebuffed any polite attempts at conversation. I recall it fondly now.

As seen from the road, the Costa del Sol looks like a particularly gruesome stretch of California Interstate. The scenery is marred by many construction sites. Judging by the existing condos, they won’t look much better when finished. Passing roadside attractions offer an assortment of familiar and slightly unfamiliar items. At some pedestrian crossings the “walk” signal features a little green man in a hat who actually walks. When time grows short he walks faster. When the signal turns red I expect to see him under the wheels of a truck, but no.

Fast ferries?

There’s a car in Spain called a Caddy. It’s a Volkswagen. When Outkast sing “Don’t want to meet your Daddy; Just want you in my Caddy,” I’ll bet the Spanish girls are unimpressed.

My favorite town on the Costa del Sol is Estepona. That’s where my seatmate and all his pals get off. Happy days are here again.

At the Algeciras ferry terminal I approach a window marked “Fast Ferry.” One of the other passengers goes to a different window. I am told that the fast ferry has left-a slower one, taking two-and-a-half hours, leaves at 4 PM. I buy a ticket. The other passenger also has a ticket for a 4 o’clock ferry, but it’s a one-hour fast ferry run by a different company. So by approaching the window marked “Fast Ferry” I got the slow ferry. To get the fast ferry, I should have approached the unmarked window.

Luckily a switch is affected and we are off across the strait to Tangier. Onboard, the sound system serves up the hits of Celine Dion. Is it really wise to play the theme from Titanic on a boat? Or Celine Dion for the already queasy?

As Steve Burgess makes his tortuous way across southern Europe and into Morocco, he sends the occasional cry for help.

Read previous postcards here:

Granada, End of the Hippie Trail

Tapas? Tricked Ya!

Burgess Skips Town Again  [Tyee]

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