The Digital Adventures

Chapter 4B

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

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Stagnated and Cultural Influence


We agreed to take him.

He would meet us in Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain as soon as he completed arrangements with his publisher, and wound up his personal affairs, he said, winking at the girl still clutching his arm.

I was anxious to move on to Jerez where my old Jeep was stored, but we had to stay in Madrid over the weekend to claim the equipment our sponsors had air-freighted to us at Barajas Airport.

On Monday the bad news broke. Al returned from the airport to report that the Spanish customs agents wanted close to a thousand dollars to release our equipment.

In most European countries, when a tourist has something sent to him which he plans to take out of the country at the end of his visit, the customs officials will waive all duties and tariffs. But not the Spaniards. Spain is notorious for her huge import duties-often as high as 200 per cent, often twice the cost of the item-which she uses to curtail imports and conserve foreign exchange. Al had tried to explain that we were on an expedition around the world, that we were just using Spain as a trans-shipment point, that we’d be taking everything out of the country with us, that we should not have to pay any customs duty. It was too much for the bureaucrats, who couldn’t imagine anyone driving around the world. They were sure we planned to sell the shortwave radio, the expensive watches, the cases of condensed milk, and the camera lenses, and they were taxing us as if we were in the import business.

Al felt that if we could convince the customs agents that we were really on an expedition around the world, they might give us our stuff without duty; so we held a press conference that evening. Willy, with the help of some friends in the publicity business, had 40 journalists there, and the next morning all the wire services, every paper in Madrid, and half the papers in Spain carried our pictures and the story of our trip.

That afternoon, loaded with news clippings, Al left for the Barajas customs house; he returned three hours later, with neither clippings nor equipment. “They liked the stories, all right. Passed them all around. Said it sounded like a hell of a good trip. Even wished us luck. But they still wanted a thousand dollars.”

I appealed to the American Embassy; Willy pleaded with the Spanish Tourist Ministry; Al petitioned the American Chamber of Commerce; Manu tried his magazine.

We rendezvoused that afternoon at the American Express office, all with the same report: nobody could do anything. Yet we had to do something. We had to get to Jerez to put the Jeep in shape for the trip, and we had to get moving toward Africa before the deserts were blazing. The next day we hired a Madrid customs clearance agent-a strikingly attractive, tall, blonde Finnish girl who spoke six languages-to work on our problem while we moved on to Jerez to work on the equipment prepare for Africa.

The Spaniards are a very proud people. They have lost the great wealth and empire they had in the days when they were masters of the New World and its riches, and they’ve fallen so far behind under their Fascist regime that theirs is one of the most backward countries in Europe. But will the Spaniards admit they’re behind the times? Hardly! Look at their road maps, for example; that’s just what we made the mistake of doing. On these maps you will find, radiating from Madrid like beams from a star, six roads labeled “first-class highway,” and, crossing them, several dozen others labeled “second-class roads.” If the Spaniards were less proud or more honest they might admit that the only classification system in which their roads could be considered “first” would be an anthropological one, for they are aged, weathered, worn, and pocked. And those holy horrors they rate “second class” would make our most wretched farm tracks look like turnpikes.

Leaving Madrid, we decided to take a scenic second-class road that wandered down to Jerez by way of the historic cities of Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. When we reached Toledo we drove through the gate into the city which so charmed us with its undisturbed medievality, looking much l day as it did when El Cid trod its cobbled streets, that we forgot that in those days two donkeys passing abreast would have constituted a traffic jam. We were inspired by Toledo’s churches, awed by its paintings, impressed by its craftsmen, and mauled to pieces by its streets.

Constructed in the days before sidewalks were the fashion, the streets of Toledo are so closely walled in by ancient stone houses that a Middle Ages housewife could easily have borrowed a cup of gruel from the lady across the street without leaving her pantry. The deeper we drove into the city, the narrower its streets became, but we were past the point of no return. We could only move forward and hope. Our hope and our forward progress ran out the same time our clearance did. We were stuck, wedged between the walls, with a raucous chorus of screaming school kids, braying donkeys, and ducking old crones jammed up behind us.

We had the choice of either trying to back up or pitching a permanent camp in the middle of one of the main alleys of Toledo. Even backing out was impossible with the trailer, and we scratched it so badly we were forced to unhitch it and, with the help of a dozen laughing Toledoanos, push it by hand all the way back to the town gate.

Near Ciudad Real, we saw a sign indicating the road to Cordoba that seemed, however, to point farther west than the route indicated on our map. We asked two local people, and they assured us it was the road to Cordoba. As we drove along it, at ever decreasing speeds, the road, if such it could be called, deteriorated from new asphalt to old asphalt, to old asphalt full of cracks and holes, to gravel, to dirt, and finally and principally, to dirt riddled with deep holes, layered with large rocks, covered with dust and twisted into washboard corrugations.

We found a farmer, and asked the way to Cordoba. He pointed us down the road. It had been our experience when asking for directions, that the average Spaniard just would not know, usually because he’d never been out of his own village; but being a proud Spaniard, he would never confess his ignorance, especially if some of his friends were near. His momentary look of mystification would quickly yield to a smile of enthusiastic knowledgeability, whereupon he would point us down the road, inevitably in the direction we were already headed. You can ask a Spaniard the way to Cordoba or Casablanca or Canarsie and he’ll nod and smile and point you down the road.

After having covered only 35 miles in three hours, we reached a sign, one of those interesting Spanish road signs so far off the side of the road and so faded and weathered you never know if it’s currently applicable. This particular sign informed us that this particular road to Cordoba was “not recommended.” What was recommended was that we retrace our route all the way back to Ciudad Real and start over again on another road.

Since the sign was so weathered, we hoped that it might be out of date, and since we couldn’t conceive of any European road getting worse than the one we’d come on, we decided to push ahead. As a safety check, for we still hadn’t learned our lesson completely, we asked the first peasants we saw if many other cars used this road to Cordoba and if there were many gasoline stations on it. They proudly assured us that this road on which they lived was quite important, that there were many gas stations on it, and that at least 50 cars a day passed this way.

Three terrible hours later we were still far from Cordoba, had not seen a single gas station, and had met only one other car, a Microbus driven by a Dutch tourist who was also obviously lost, having taken his instruction from some proud citizens on the other end of the line.

After ten hours, during which we covered 130 miles, we finally reached Cordoba, though not without penalty, for our camper was listing heavily to one side where the rough road had cracked the undercarriage in four places. The damage could not be repaired because it was Holy Week; so we pushed on for Seville where we planned to see the processions on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the highlights of Semana  Santa in Spain.

Some travelers will tell you that the Sevillianos are coarse and rude, but we found them a delight. They are intense, energetic people who enjoy life to the fullest. They drink hard, dance hard, drive hard, play hard, sing loud, and eat like there’s no tomorrow. They live life to the hilt, perpetually in voice or motion, so much so that anyone with a spark of spirit is irresistibly swept along with them. With regard to its citizens as well as its architecture, it is well said that “He who has not visited Seville has not seen a marvel.”

The processions were also a marvel. For hours they flowed by: awesome religious floats of candle-lit saints carried by hundreds of sweating penitents; priests bearing huge gleaming crucifixes; Christ on the Cross, his crown of thorns half-hidden in the darkness; hundreds of hooded marchers, some in black, others in white, holding stately candles.

An old man explained the reason for the hoods: When the Moors were expelled from Spain in the 1490’s, after having held the country for 600 years, the devout Catholics, who had been practicing their faith in secret in cellars and caves, brought their religious symbols and services back to the churches; but many of them, fearful that the Saracen blade might strike again or that Moorish spies would report them, wore hoods and robes to conceal their identities. The custom survived the generations and is honored each year at Semana Santa.

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