This picture is being shared all over the place:
First, I love that some people respond to this as if this is the most radical, crazy, hip thing they’ve ever heard … as if this is the first time they’ve heard of such a thing, as if only a young person in 2015 could think of such badassery. Yeah, not so much.
Second, I love that this bus seems only made for sleeping. There’s no kitchen, no cabinets, no bookshelves, no … anything but beds. This is an odd way to try to travel even a super tiny country!
Third, I love that this reminded me of my long-ago experience of traveling in a converted milk truck with two wonderful, usually-drunk, Englishmen and a very sweet young Dutch guy.
— Oh yes, it’s another travel story! —
(And it’s a long one!)
Back in my many-years-past youth, when I spent some time hitchhiking in Europe, I wound up in Sagres, on the Algarve in Portugal. I arrived there by bus, having temporarily thrown over my hitch after some unacceptable scariness in Spain. I had put the town on my itinerary because it has Henry the Navigator history, and was close to Cabo de Roca, a lighthouse that marks continental Europe’s furthest western edge. I liked filling my planned/unplanned trip with weightless items that left me as free as I wanted or needed to be. On paper, Sagres was an overnight stop before heading to Spain. But Sagres turned out to be a stop-rushing-and-enjoy-the-sardinhas-asadas kind of place. That “overnight” lasted five days. Nothing to do, nowhere to be, no reason to leave. There was thick, rich cafe leche to drink, vinho verde to wash down the sardines, beautiful beaches to stretch myself out on and cultivate my first deep-in-the-skin-so-black-my-mom-didn’t-know-me-at-the-airport tan.
I did drive out to see the lighthouse on my last day. I love lighthouses, and that one didn’t disappoint. And the view, the wind, the edge-of-the-worldness of the place was fabulous. Definitely worth the spot on my trip plan.
I don’t remember when in those five days I met David and Roger. (Their real names. Because they were lovely, kind people, and maybe there’s a chance that one of them will stumble upon this all these years later and we’ll reconnect.) They arrived with cute, bespectacled, Marcel, a Dutch hitchhiker they’d picked up a while before reaching Sagres. They arrived in the Hotel Leyland, a milk truck they’d converted into a mobile home.
They were my companions for the lighthouse trip, and when they announced they were leaving Sagres the next day and heading for Spain, I happily accepted a ride. Seville is maybe a two-hour drive from Sagres, maybe a bit more. We made the trip in ten days.
We left Sagres late morning and headed into Lagos … where we found an English pub and ate English food and didn’t leave and didn’t leave and didn’t leave. At first, I was anxious — when were we going to get to Seville? Then I let that go and relaxed. What did it matter? We could stay anywhere. It wasn’t as though I had some kind of schedule to keep. (Okay, I did have plans to meet a friend in Siena for the Palio, but that was weeks away.)
Eventually we started looking for a place to stay the night. After the windswept wildness of Sagres, Lagos was too citified for us, so we drove east. On my map, we found Olhão. It was little. It was on the ocean. It would surely be fine. But when we got there, it wasn’t as fine as we’d hoped, so we drove on. A short while later as night fell, we were in an even tinier town, one we couldn’t be sure was on the map. There was no hotel, but there was a campground, so we moved in.
Sleeping arrangements, you ask? Easy. Marcel slept on the bed that folded out of the dining room. David had a one-man tent that he set up beside the Leyland. That left Roger and me … and the bigger-than-queen-sized bed that could be created at the back of the truck.
“Don’t worry about Roger,” David told me that first day. “He’s gay.”
I don’t actually know if that was true. It hardly mattered. Roger was usually so full of alcohol at the end of the night, sleep was all that could happen on his side of the bed.
We woke up that first morning to discover ourselves in a tiny paradise of a place. You could buy a big jug of vinho verde for about $5 … and get your $3 deposit back when you returned the jug … and yes, for $2 you could leave your deposit and just get a new jug of wine. There was a great farmer’s market where we bought delicious produce (Portugal is still one of the greenest, most growing-est places I’ve ever been) and where, to my horror, the guys all bought tubes of sardine paste. Yes, really. Tubes like toothpaste full of something red and fishy and “fishy” that they squeezed out onto slices of bread and called a meal. A half-step from our campsite was a wide inlet. When the tide was out, it was full of people digging for clams. When the tide was in, you could stand on the pier opposite the campsite entrance, and someone would come by with a boat and take you across to the beach island — a miles-long stretch of empty, pristine sand.
After breakfast that first morning, Marcel, David, and I were standing on the pier just looking around and a pretty young man motored up in a skiff and asked if we wanted a ride. When he told us about the beach island, we climbed aboard. His name was João, and he ferried us across for something like a dollar and the promise to meet him in town for a drink that night.
That beach! Sagres was where I discovered that I am a beach person (shocking that it took me 22 years to make that discovery), and our little unnamed paradise was where I was glad to have made that discovery. It was a skinny strip of sand that went on and on. The three of us wandered together and separately for some indeterminate, sunny time then made our way to the pier and found a ride back across the inlet.
It was on that glorious beach where I read my first Dick Francis mysteries. The bookshelf in the camper was full of them — I forget if he was David or Roger’s favorite — and they were quick, fun reads. I went through at least five of them before leaving the Leyland.
We kept saying we’d go to Spain the next day, and then something would come up — the chance to drive into the hills and visit an lemon farm (random and excellent), a celebration one night that meant everyone dragged their dining tables into the street and cooked and fed everyone else (including us) — or just the pleasure of staying a little longer.
After seeing the men’s fascination with sardine paste, I decided to use some of the hotel cash I was saving to cook breakfasts for us. I am more surprised by this turn than you may be. As much as I love cooking, and as much as I love taking care of people, these are loves I’ve grown into, cultivated over time. Back then, I was definitely not a happy homemaker type, eager to please my man men.
But, clearly, I was. Manic Hostess Girl was lurking under my surface even then. I agonized over what I’d make and the fact that I didn’t have my favorite recipes handy. What (of course) turned out to be true was it didn’t matter what I cooked or how well I cooked it. When you’re cooking for men who’ve been eating sardine paste on stale bread, anything you cook is going to taste like heaven.
After our long, delicious sojourn, we were ready to head for Spain. We made the drive in no time, seeing as we were practically at the border already. We stayed together a couple of days in Seville, but by then I needed to be getting my meandering self to Siena. I forget where Marcel was headed, but he left first. Roger and David drove me to the train station (no more hitching in Spain, thank you), and then drove to Morocco. I’ve always regretted not going with them, but my friend was waiting in Italy (and I could feel that, without Marcel, the dynamic in the truck would have gotten weird fast).
We said our goodbyes, and I watched my Englishmen and their milk truck drive away. And thus ended my stay in the Leyland.
Roadtripping with your friends in a converted bus is a fabulous idea, but even 30 years ago, I knew it wasn’t an idea we’d made up. And, when you decide to let that photo inspire you, remember to build more creature comforts into your bus. You’ll want more than beds!
So that was shamefully long-winded! If you’ve made it this far, you’re a kind and special person. You deserve a treat, and here it is:
It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!