Last Tuesday night in Madrid I started to get a little bit lonely. It doesn’t take long. Just one day in fact and I get to the point where I really feel the need of unstilted conversation. So after a few hours’ writing in the afternoon and early evening, I set out in the direction of a couple of ex-pat pubs I’d found online. I know, I know. Ex-pat pubs. It shames me rather to admit it because I think it makes me sound horribly insular. Like I might be one of those people who holidays in the South of Turkey for a week (because after a week you start to miss home comforts) and every day eats an English breakfast. Or like I might actually prefer English people to foreign people and secretly wish the Pakistanis across the street would just move out of the area and find their own little enclave somewhere far, far away. It seems like a slippery slope to me. One minute it’s ex-pat bars, the next you’re marching with Nazis through Golders Green, hate in your heart and nail-bombs in your knapsack. But I did it anyway. And then I got hopelessly lost.
And when I was hopelessly lost, I got cold, teeth-chatteringly cold, so I marched up the nearest hill as fast and as fierce as I possibly could, until I got that sweat that clings to your back like a bad memory and turns cold when the wind blows. And then I got hungry, so I just smoked some more fags like a supermodel. And when that didn’t work, I dipped into a Mexican fast food shop and ate a limp chicken fajita. It was there that I heard a voice speaking English. The voice was attached to a young American woman who understood my need for conversation and rather than judging me, gave me directions to the nearest Irish bar. Pointing out the route on my map, she said, ‘Be careful of the prostitutes there. They may try and grab your penis.’
‘They grab my penis and they have to pay,’ I replied, or would have if it had occurred to me. Instead I just guffawed in a slightly embarrassed way, like an Englishman.
The Irish bar was called O’Donnells and there were three separate football matches on four or five different TV screens. One of the football matches was between Sunderland and Chelsea. I am from Sunderland. Sunderland were losing 2-3. I smiled.
After five minutes or so, I said hello to a couple at the end of the bar…
Kevin and Melissa have been together around five years. He’s an accountant in the armed forces, currently stationed in Italy if I remember correctly, and she is a teacher in New Jersey. Pre-school. They see one another for one week every three months. Usually they meet in a European city they don’t know. This time Madrid. Next time Amsterdam. It sounded like quite an arrangement to me. I figured they must have phenomenal sex whenever they get together. We chatted for about an hour which was long enough for me not to feel quite so lonely, and short enough for me not to feel like I was ruining the very little time they actually get to spend together.
Whenever you tell anyone that you’re attempting to travel the world visiting festivals, generally at least one of the people you’re talking to will suggest one that you must see. Kevin told me about Dark Lord Day, which sounds – I suspect – more interesting than it is. No disrespect intended – I’m sure it’s a wonderful little festival – but the name suggests something super-Satanic, like a scene from Henry Miller’s Opus Pistorum. In actual fact, Dark Lord Day is a beer festival in Kevin’s home town of Munster, Indiana and the Dark Lord in question is merely a chocolatey stout from the 3 Floyds brewery which can only be sold on one day of the year. Hence, Dark Lord Day. I wrote it down. We shall see.
Smoking a cigarette in the street I got talking to a couple of young Argentinians who the very next day were due to move to Bath to study business. One of these suggested the Greenfields festival in Buenos Aires. He promised me I would have a good time.
‘But the women are difficult,’ he said.
‘Women are difficult everywhere,’ I said, trying to bond with him.
He disagreed. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘it’s like fishing with dynamite.’
Aaah, to be young and handsome and not remotely afraid of dynamite.
So the day before, on my first day in Madrid, I visited the tourist board and asked about getting to Almonacid de Marquesada, the location of La Endiablada, my first actual festival. Unfortunately, the nice lady there had never heard of it. She did a little research, however, and told me there was only one bus to Almonacid, that it left Madrid at midday and returned the following morning at 8am. I was nonplussed. How can a bus go but not come back? This seemed a little thoughtless. The lady agreed, then suggested I go to the Cuenca tourist board on the other side of town. They would know more, she reckoned.
I went there and met Inma, who did indeed know more. She knew that a) the bus information was accurate – you could go but you could never leave, b) there were no trains, and c) there was only one place to stay once you were there and it was too expensive for the likes of me and probably fully booked anyway. On my behalf, Inma spoke to someone in Almonacid who explained that basically, La Endiablada is a local festival for local people. ‘They say, “Don’t come here”,’ said Inma, smiling brightly.
After about 20 minutes with Inma, trying to figure out a way of getting to Almonacid, seeing the festival and getting out again without having to sleep in the street, we came up blank and I stood up, dejected, defeated and frankly a little embarrassed that I hadn’t bothered to organise myself better before paying for a flight to Madrid. I thanked Inma for her valiant attempts to help me and we said goodbye.
Walking down the street, I began to think what I would do instead – spend another pointless day schlepping around Madrid taking photos of hobos, apologise to the guys at Joobili, the travel site to whom I had promised a write-up of the festival, and probably blog about what a complete cock-up I’d made of my first attempt to be a proper travel writer, or whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. I stopped walking. I went back to see Inma.
‘I’ve changed my mind,’ I told her. ‘I’ve got to go.’ I explained that I had a sleeping bag and if it came to it, I could definitely find somewhere to sleep, somewhere outside. She looked shocked. ‘But it’s cold,’ she said. She was right. It was cold. According to a weather report in the restaurant where I’d had supper the night before, it was as cold as minus two. I brushed aside her concerns. ‘I’ll be alright,’ I said. ‘It’s not like it’ll kill me.’
After leaving O’Donnell’s on Tuesday night, I went back to the hostel and repacked my rucksack with just my sleeping bag, an extra hoodie and two extra t-shirts. The next day I spent an hour in an internet café before buying bananas and apples and setting off to find the bus-stop for Almonacid.
It wasn’t there.
I showed an old man a piece of paper with instructions that Inma had written for me. The old man gesticulated but did not speak: the other side of the street, a way away. I set off. The next person I asked – a kind man in an office who spoke little English – told me that the bus-stop I needed was inside the bar just a short way up the street. Naturally, when he said ‘inside the bar’, I assumed he was mistaken. So I walked past the bar and turned left into an underground car park. Then I asked the car park attendant, who came out of his little box and looked at my instructions. He told me in Spanish, with gestures, turn right, go inside the bar. They must all be mad, I thought. You can’t have a bus station inside a bar. So I walked past the bar and found myself in another underground car park. This time three very friendly people without a word of English between them all told me that the bus station was inside the fucking bar, you fool. Then one of them took pity on the mounting bewilderment and confusion on my face and walked me back onto the street and to the front door of the bar. He pointed. ‘In there,’ he seemed to say. ‘At the back.’Turns out the bar was called La Estación, and the bus-stop – get this – was actually INSIDE THE BAR. At the back, behind where they served coffee and sandwiches all day, there was a ticket-booth, followed by a waiting room and then an underground car park where the bus pulled in at a quarter to twelve. Fifteen minutes later, I was on my way.
Trundling out of the city and into the Spanish countryside was exciting. It featured more of those moments – of which there were quite a few in Spain – where I was briefly overwhelmed by the fact that I had done it. No matter how long it lasted – and with every day I was feeling that I definitely wanted it to last as long as it possibly could – I’d done it. I was no longer in London. I was no longer sitting in an office on Oxford Street with the same people having the same conversations every single day. I was no longer stuck on a tube train unable to read a book because I was pinned to the door by three separate armpits and a fuckwit with a rucksack in my face. I was no longer doing anything I really didn’t want to be doing. And when, in those moments that came from nowhere, I realised that I was somewhere I’d never been before doing something I’d never done before, it took my breath away and on one or two occasions, made me a little bit teary, like an old man remembering a special friend he’d lost in some pointless war.
Yeah. Just like that.
Arriving in Almonacid de Marquesada was odd. Because it was such a small town, I was expecting to be dropped in the middle of, or at least in sight of, the celebrations. But it was dead. There was just a dusty crossroads like something from a spaghetti western, a display cabinet with a little write-up for the town and road signs pointing to other tiny towns.
I finished my last banana, hoisted my rucksack onto my back and picked a road.
At the top of the road was a cemetery. As it was rather beautiful, I tried the gate. It was locked. I wandered around the perimeter and found another gate. This one was open.
I like cemeteries. This one was particularly pretty.
As I took photographs, I felt slightly guilty and half-expected a tiny man in a sombrero to appear from behind one of the stones and shout at me. No one appeared.
Aside from pretty, it was all rather eerie. I had at least expected to hear the distant clunk of cowbells. All I really knew about the festival was that lots of men in colourful pyjamas ran around the town with cowbells bouncing off their buttocks. It was noisy. That’s what I knew above all else. But all I could hear was cocks crowing and dogs barking. I found three empty graves and wondered briefly if one of them had my name on it.
I walked back to the crossroads and started to wonder if perhaps I’d made a dreadful mistake. Maybe the festival had been cancelled. Maybe it only lasted an hour or two and stopped just before the bus arrived from Madrid, bringing non-locals. I chose another street, which led me to the centre of town where I realised that the reason I couldn’t hear any bells or firecrackers was that everyone was in church. I took off my rucksack and joined them.
I’ll write more about La Endiablada on Collective Effervescence when I’m good and ready. Suffice to say, it is very unusual and in many ways, the perfect start to this journey.
I spent the rest of the day, till around 9pm, trying to understand the festival, taking photos, making films and failing to communicate with people.
In the late afternoon, a bunch of kids found out I was English and started taking an interest in me. After a few rounds of ‘How are you?’, ‘Fine, thanks’ and ‘How do you do?’ (the latter of which never fails to amuse), one of them grabbed his toilet area and asked me how he should refer to his penis in English. I laughed, not sure how to respond. ‘Cock,’ I said.
I wouldn’t say it was exactly a mistake, but it was followed by five four-to-eight-year-old boys running round in circles in the main square shouting, ‘Cock! Cock! Cock!’ and I felt a little naughty. And a little weird.
Before long I was befriended by Piedro, who was from Almonacid but studying to be a journalist in Madrid. He made me film him talking about the festival in Spanish, then he took me into the large repository in the square where the menfolk got changed in and out of their devil costumes. Soon they started to amass as it was time to put their cowbells back on for the final procession around the town. A bunch of the younger ones started talking to me. After a few rounds of ‘Manchester United’, ‘Fernando Torres’ and ‘Tony Blair!’, one of them asked me where I was staying that night. I said I didn’t know. Maybe in the street. I had a sleeping bag, I explained.
‘But it’s cold,’ they said. Then they told me about the guesthouse which Inma in Madrid had told me about. I asked for more details, so Jose walked me up a couple of streets and together we discovered that there was in fact a room at the Casa Rural La Peñata, which would cost €55. I had to make a decision. It was about 7.30 and already shivering weather. I had a couple of hundred quid left of my overdraft. I could definitely afford it, but it might mean struggling more quickly later on, once I arrived in Italy. Then the woman to whom Jose was talking offered me a discount. She could do it for €53. I thanked her but declined. I would sleep outside if it killed me….