Here Thar Be Monsters!

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28.9.10

Run For The Border

Tim and I met on the TGV from Paris to Madrid. He was a tall, lanky sort with thick beard who was teaching English privately in Spain, but the thing that got us talking was that he was from Waco, and I hadn't met another Texan in almost a year. That alone was cause for celebration, but he also had peanut butter, which at the time was virtually impossible to find in Europe.

I was packing a baguette, cheese, cold cuts, and grapes, so I was able to negotiate a dollop of his ambrosia. We both had wine, his Spanish and mine French, so we made a decent feast for ourselves.

The TGV was slick, and this was 30 years ago. It was unlike any train I had been on: smooth, sleek and beyond fast. Inside was comfortable and arranged with four seats around a table. Between the cars were automatic sliding glass doors and the bridge between was enclosed to protect passengers from the 300 kpm winds. There was a buffet car and an observation car, and walking around was not unlike being on a jet plane: the occasional minor lurch but otherwise solid.

Tim and I lucked out and took over a whole table. We spread our feast out and stuffed our faces and Provence slid by at dizzying speeds ourside. Out to a hundred meters or so, everything was a terrifying blur, but beyond that was acres and acres of wine country. Somewhere out there was the field I had worked in for about a month during harvest. I earned room and board, plus a handful of extra duckies. In the purple distance, the Pyrenees rose against the horizon.

Late in the afternoon, we had arrived at the foot of the mountains separating France and Spain. This was the end of the line for the TGV and I was sad to see it go. We had to get down and go through customs. This was the first time since I had arrived in Europe a year ago that I actually had to go through customs. Usually, the officers just walked through the trains and stamped passports. After crossing through the gates, we has to wait for the train that would take us across the mountains, so Time and I hunkered down and did some intense girl-watching.

After about an hour or so, the train pulled in. My eyes grew wide. I had descended from the 21st century and I was about to enter the 19th. The train through the Pyranees was a coal burning steam locomotice. I felt like I was stepping into a old western film, with the ringing bells and the chugging heartbeat of the train.

We boarded the train and soon it was pulling out. Unlike the glass-smooth acceleration and mind-numbing climb to cruising speed, this was a lurching, chugging wind up that took a good 30 minutes to get to speed. There was no air conditioning on this train, and the interior looked kind of like the Hogwarts train with a aisle on one side and a line of enclosed cabins on the other. Unlike Harry Potter's idealistic transport, this one had a trough running down the aisle against the side that had urine sloshing back and forth as the train climbed and descended through the mountains.

Tim and I had gotten a cabin with a Spaniard from Barcelona, two German girls, and a Brit guy. My German was pretty good, so I spent the time chatting up the girls, while Tim chatted with the Spaniad. The Brit just slept.

At one point, the heat got to me. There was no air circulation and the air was growing unbearable. Having never ridden on a coal burner, I slid down the window without thinking. Within seconds, the cabin was full of stinking black smoke and we all had to bail out into the aisle, where in the confusion, I stepped squarely into the piss trough just as it sloshed to the rear of the car. My popularity quotient had sropped precipitously in less than five minutes.

I cost me a full bottle of wine to make peace.

At the base of the mountains, we switched to a much more comfortable electric train for the trip to Madrid. I still reeked of piss but it had one advantage: nobody wanted to sit in the cabin with Tim and I. For the next six hours, I tied my shoes together and hung the offending one out the window. It helped a little and made the cabin somewhat more habitable.

We arrived in Madrid early in the morning. Tim didn't have to get back to his job for another couple of days, so we found a pension and began to loot and plunder the acient city.

Madrid is a beautiful city, with broad avenues, foundtains and lush parks everywhere that stood in start contrast to the arid and sweltering plains of central Spain. Tim and I wandered around soaking in the culture and flavor of Madrid and during siesta, we would find a cafe where the owner was happy to have the business, and we drank copious amounts of beer.

The second afternoon, after siesta and a case of ice cold beer, we had ended up at the south end of the city. Stangding like a white man at the African People's Congress was a castle of 14th or 15th century design. It was a classic castle with towers and parapets and ramparts that looked like they had stepped out of a story book. There were no signs, no tourists and no sign of life of any kind in or around the ediface, but the gate stood open far enough for a man to pass through.

Tim and I couldn't resist the opportunity and we slipped through the gate and into an empty courtyard. The place looked and felt abandoned and I was having fantasies about taking over and declaring the place a sovereign principality, with me as the prince, of course. We wandered around poking our heads into doors and windows, where we saw desks with papers and typewriters, so there was obviously something going on there. My dreams were fast evaporating.

I pulled out my camera and started snapping a couple of shots. My funds were limited, so I used film sparingly. I chose a couple of select scenes and recorded them for posterity.

Suddenly, there was a distinct sound. Tim and I were both from Texas, so we knew instantly what it was. It didn't just come from one direction, either. It came from everywhere all at once. It was the sound of a hammer being drawn back on a gun. I had heard it thousands of times, but this time it wasn't me doing the cocking. I did what any normal, red-blooded Texan would do when they heard that sound: I froze like a statue. In fact, I was so still I am still convinced to this day that my breathing stopped, my heart paused and peristalsis ceased in my intestines. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Tim was my mirror image.

Glancing up, I could see the wall around the courtyard was lined with at least 50 men, but could have been thousands, as far as I was concerned. At our level was another 20 or so. Altogether, we had at least 100 weapons of various kinds aimed at us. My shoe wasn't the only thing smelling of piss at that moment.

One man walked up to me. I could see from the various things hung on his uniform that he was at least a colonel, if not a general. He had a meticulously trimmed moustache and dark, impenetrable eyes. He stip searched me with his gaze and then reached out and slowly divested me of my camera. He looked at it for a moment, then popped it open and began to slowly pull the film out while staring me square in the eyes. I didn't flinch, though my bowels had taken off running a while back.

"Oh shit," Tim croaked.

"You're telling me," I breathed, still locked on the general.

"No dude. This is Guardia Civil," he hissed.

I knew exactly what he meant. The Guardia Civil was the secret police under General Franco, and still operating, almost with impunity, even after the General's death. By reputation, at best they could make us disappear forever, and at worst, kill us with the flick of a finger.

As I stared a hole in the General's face, I saw the barest flicker of a smirk, involving only the right corner of his mouth. The rest of his face was frozen. He clicked the back of my camera shut without taking his eyes off me, then handed it back to me.

A single bead of sweat had taken up residence on the end of my nose and was making my crazy, but I dared not make a move, other than to put out a hand to receive the camera.

"Enjoh-ee yurrr stay in MAHdreed, gentlemen," the General's voice was a rock hard Seville perfection.

"We should go...now," Tim suggested.

He was facing the gate and I was facing the general. We began to inch glacially toward the gate. We had each other's 6. My feet felt like stone blocks. After what seemed like a month or two, we reached the opening and slid through. Without looking back, we made our way down the street, as close to running as we could be without actually breaking into hundred-yard dashes.

When we got to the opposite side of the city an hour later, we planted ourselves at a table in a small street cafe and began drinking Spanish wine like two men who had just stared into Oblivion and survived.

The next morning, Tim bundled up his gear and headed back to work. Within the hour, I met Klaus, a German guy about my age on break from school and backpakcing around.

"I'm going to Morocco," he announced in that way that Germans do, that make even the loosest of plans sound like they are written in stone.

Morocco, I thought.

We were on the train the next morning, heading for Algeciras, and beyond that, to north Africa.

I wished I had more peanut butter. It's my greatest comfort food, especially slathered on an Oreo cookie.

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