The World on Wheels

Albert Casals

Illustration by Gianna Meola

Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Tioman Island, Malacca
From my journal, on July 27

“One thing I've learned in my travels through South Asia is the respect you need to have for the supremacy of insects. I mean, you should probably realize just by intuition that you'll be living with insects whether you want to or not (which is to say, if you're not expecting to find insects in Malaysia, where on earth are you expecting to find them?). But no matter how much you see it coming or resign yourself to it, they will never stop surprising you, day in and day out.

In Europe, insects were small things that startled and fled when you moved: gone in the blink of an eye, a simple rumor. But in Thailand and Malaysia, insects are the masters and lords of the country, and you are the intruder . . . and don't they know it. Butterflies the size of your hand, beetles watching on curiously as you do your business in the bathroom, swarms of omnipotent ants, and, most of all, mosquitoes. Ah, the mosquitoes. Instinct and logic say that mosquitoes should flee when you bother them—they're the most hated beasts on the planet and half the vertebrates on Earth dedicate themselves to squashing them whenever they can; well, that certainly doesn't happen in South Asia. Here, mosquitoes attack in herds and use paramilitary strategies to realize their incursions. They tend to adopt guerrilla tactics, jumping on you without warning. They suck as much blood as they can before disappearing so quickly you don't have time to exterminate them with bug spray. I don't know how they could have developed such efficient and precise techniques against humans in a part of the world where half the population is Buddhist and would rather die of blood-loss than kill a mosquito, but the fact is they know how to deal with us and have no fear. It's really the opposite: if you see a swarm of mosquitoes coming your way, you make for the water. That's the only place you're safe.”

This journal excerpt was written a while before my trip to Kuala Lumpur, or ants would have occupied the foreground of this description of the eternal combat against insects.

It was on my train ride to the south of Malaysia where I first encountered these inoffensive insects that, as a group, can bury a house if they put their minds to it.

I had managed to stow away on the train (because, obviously, the price of the ticket would have forced me to spend more than my three euros), and thought I'd already evaded the habitual tribute to the train owners. What I didn't realize was that the owners of the train were not humans, but instead ants, and they would not overlook the toll so easily.

Everything was going perfectly, so I decided to go to sleep, confident in the knowledge that the Malaysian conductors would be too lazy to collect tickets at night. I woke up just as peacefully the next morning, only realizing the offering I had surrendered to the real owners of the train when I went to grab some breakfast: my backpack.

When I went to open my bag, I discovered that it was full of ants, a horrible living mass of them. I've never been scared of bugs, but the surprise made me fling my backpack away. Once I had recovered enough to cautiously approach it, I tried to figure out why millions of ants had decided the ideal place to spend the night was my backpack. The motive was fairly obvious: bread and cookies. I emptied my bag with brisk and slightly spastic movements, and concentrated on ant genocide. My weapons of mass destruction: two cans of bug spray. As I brushed away the bodies, my incredulity grew. It wasn't just that I'd left my backpack open: the ants had penetrated the fabric, and then made a hole the size of a peanut in the metallic plastic around the Oreo cookies, already half devoured. I'm sure I've never been happier to not be a cookie.

Despite my little adventure during the trip, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL for friends) in one piece and excited to explore the city. The problem is, capital cities have the annoying tendency to be enormous, and even though KL is approximately the same size as Barcelona (nothing like Bangkok, which is colossal), my stay was full of surprises.

I soon discovered KL had a curious hold over my person: Once I had been walking for a while with a destination in mind, I would feel the strong impulse to go in an uncertain but certainly counterproductive direction, which meant I never arrived at my destination. But I didn't care; I couldn't resist the impulse, and didn't hesitate in turning on to any random street I found, which basically had two consequences: I ended up knowing KL better than any other city in the world, and I arrived in the most unexpected of places.

Especially strange was the first day, when I ended up (don't forget that Malaysia is an Islamic country) in a middle school . . . for girls. The guard at the gate let me in calmly because he thought I was a girl (a relatively common error by adults around the world, and particularly in Asia), and I found myself, without knowing it, in a place where my simple presence had the power to start a massive revolution. In one of those happy coincidences, just that day the teachers had gotten together to give students their marks or something, so that when I entered I found almost all the classrooms without a teacher; the students were doing homework, talking in low voices, or were generally occupied by quiet activities that ended pretty abruptly when they noticed a boy close to their age, who was a westerner, and in a wheelchair (to give a surrealist tone to the apparition), observing everything with curiosity. The agitation was as massive as it was immediate: the girls got to their feet and, since in Malaysia people speak very good English, began chatting with me. When on top of everything I explained I was traveling by myself and had ended up there entirely by accident, the chaos was absolute: you would've needed to mobilize an army to control the situation.

There is a phenomenon derived from boredom, which is produced in schools and which I call the “bee effect.” I myself have tested it many times. The theory is that absolutely anything that breaks the routine and monotony of school seems infinitely interesting. It's what happens when you're in class and a bee enters through the window and has people screaming and jumping from their chairs: automatically, that bee becomes the most fascinating thing you have ever seen, because it liberates you from the boredom that is school.

This same effect, but multiplied several times, is what followed my arrival in the school in Kuala Lumpur, and very quickly there were a hundred and fifty prepubescent girls wheeling me around, ready to show me the entire building, every single classroom, and any and all activities in order to take advantage of this marvellous opportunity. From every balcony I was bombarded with questions, asking me to repeat my name again and again, everyone responding with so many things at once that my brain couldn't absorb the information. Obviously, a chaos of this magnitude doesn't go unnoticed (in fact, I'm surprised the special forces didn't come), so very soon teachers were appearing, unable to believe their eyes, and began to pacify the school as fast as they could. They weren't actually angry with me, since all I'd done was enter someplace I shouldn't, and we all know this is precisely the type of mistake poor, innocent tourists often make. What they did do was kick me out of the school (quite politely, but firmly), putting an end, in a rather abrupt manner, to my stay in the schools of Kuala Lumpur.

The rest of my stay was just as interesting, though perhaps less intense. I visited Chinatown, and made the unfortunate error of taking the train instead of the metro, ending up several kilometres from the city with no other option than walking back (which is also pretty funny, in hindsight). A different time, I managed to sneak into a pretty tall, fairly well-known tower that does not look like it should be able to remain upright. It was definitely a fun stay, though not very long, since I was left with fewer days all the time and I didn't want to spend the whole trip in an enormous grey capital (I don't mean to offend the Kuala Lampurians, it's just that all capitals are the same).

Having to choose, from Kuala Lumpur, where in all of Malaysia I should visit (especially knowing it was the only place, or at least one of the only places I'd get to see) was not easy. To be honest, I had no idea, but I was enthusiastically recommended an island called Tioman. They repeated endlessly that the island was calming and pleasant, and given the stress of Kuala Lumpur, I couldn't resist. It wasn't a bad choice. The peaceful island was almost everything you could ask for after such intense days in KL, and it didn't take me long to acquaint myself with the area where I arrived. From what I learned later, the island is fairly large and has lots of very different areas, some of which are paved, with a pretty boring city that even has an airport. The area I arrived at, on the other hand, turned out to be quite special. It reminded me a little of Tonsai, which is the island I enjoyed most on that trip. I was quickly warned to be careful if I wanted to sleep on the beach, because there were salamanders. I assured them I would, completely unconcerned, with the bravery that comes from ignorance; because truthfully, before my visit to Tioman, I wouldn't even have been able to draw a salamander. If I had been forced to answer the question “What is a salamander?” I would have been hard-pressed to give you any consistent data besides that they were, in my imagination at least, some kind of multicolored lizard. I had never seen a salamander, and was pretty shocked to come across what I would categorize as a “crocodile of modest dimensions” chasing a cat that was fleeing desperately, with the kind of speed that's only possible when running for your life.

The scene was pretty disturbing, and gave me a much more realistic vision of the dangers that awaited me on Tioman Island. That night I hung the hammock considerably higher than I had previously.

Tioman Island did provide me with more than an improved knowledge of South-Asian salamanders. The area of the island I found myself on was the most secluded, full of people with little to no anxiety over tourists, who I immediately got on with. I found people to swap books with, and got to know the islanders, including a surprising amount of kids. They seemed very nice, but they weren't Singaporean and didn't speak English; interactions with children are quite limited if you can't chat with them, though I managed to teach them how to use the wheelchair, and wheeled them all over the place.

There wasn't a day when I wasn't meeting new people, and at night I was invariably invited (practically dragged) to the only party in the area (I don't think there were enough people to have more than one). Soon my hammock was forgotten between two trees, and I slept in the house of one of the islanders who offered his home to me.

The days passed quickly, and I probably would have stayed longer if I hadn't met some tourists who were, surprisingly, not westerners. They were a Malaysian family who'd been spending their vacation on the island and were going home the next day.

I met them by accident, in one of the restaurants on the island that often let me eat on the house. I was by myself that day, and they were at the table next to mine, chatting happily. We ended up talking about what we were doing there, and the conversation just progressed from there. The mother (who I quickly discovered had an iron control over all the members of the family) ended up inviting me to spend a couple days at her house, and I decided to accept.

After a full, truly exhausting day in the car, I found myself in front of an immense and very modern house in a city that I didn't even know the name of (though future investigations would lead me to believe I was in Malacca). Their decadent lifestyle, in stark contrast to the rest of Malaysia (where people weren't dying from starvation, but lived humbly), made me question what kind of family I was staying with, and I eventually found out the mother was nothing less than one of the country's government ministers. Honestly, the only thing that made me uncomfortable was that they had a maid, who lived in the house and who did everything: food, cleaning, etc. She worked twenty-four hours a day, lived with them permanently, and truthfully, I didn't know what to think. I had never met someone who worked as a maid, seemingly without having a life of their own, and I didn't like what I saw. She didn't seem unhappy, and I suppose there are infinitely worse jobs, but still . . . Something about the situation made me uncomfortable.

Aside from that, the rest of the stay was great, especially because they were celebrating some kind of local festival, and there were lots of performances and parties.

In the following two days I got to know Malaysia much better than ever before, and I got to taste all sorts of local foods on the insistence of the family's mother. But, no matter what I did, there was no way to ignore the inevitable: my trip was ending. Unless I wanted to stay and live in Malaysia, I had very little time to get back to Bangkok and catch my flight home.

Going home was much harder than it had ever been before, but I won't go into details, because the aura of nostalgia that surrounded me made it so that nothing particularly interesting happened on the return trip (which, in any case, was very short). I had never been traveling for so many days at a time, and I felt like I could no longer go back to life as normal. Having to get up at the same time each day to go to the same place seemed as inconceivable to me as learning to fly, but I knew at the time that I didn't have any other option . . . Though the day when I would was approaching, slowly but inexorably. The promise of that day, which has now arrived, was, I suppose, what gave me the strength to get on the plane home, leapfrogging my way across what felt like an endless amount of airports before landing in Barcelona.

Europe: Germany, Belgium, France, and Scotland
Summer of 2007, Discovering Chairhitching

Time is, of course, inexorable, and also mean, so my date of return arrived all too soon. After a trip that ended up taking two months, and which had spread to a few more countries than Thailand, I found myself back in Catalonia, in Esparreguera, in the same old house, without having to sleep in any parks or on any beaches.

The most curious thing was that, on my return from Asia, I found the house had shrunk. I was sure that my bedroom had never been this small, things hadn't been so close together before. Had there always been this many clocks scattered around the house, throwing the time at you whether you wanted to know it or not? And all these nicknacks, so small and useless and easy to lose, had they been there when I left . . . ? My wheelchair was unsteady without the usual eleven kilos of luggage on the back, and . . . and . . . I needed to be traveling again.

I couldn't go back to Asia, I didn't have enough money to fly there. I was out of money, but I wasn't out of time: I had one month left before the start of school.

I thought it over, and decided I had to find a new challenge that could make a trip through Europe into a decent adventure. I had to really rack my brain to think of anything. Architectural barriers were a joke, a bit of fun in the best of cases. I'd slept on beaches, in parks, train stations, or people's homes. I even knew how to stow away on a ship. After my trip through Italy and Greece, a year of traveling through Europe, and two months in Thailand, my confidence was pretty unshakeable.

But there was one thing missing: getting from city to city required a choice between paying or not, and unfortunately, my budget required me to take the less legal of the alternatives.

Being a stowaway can be fun and exciting, of course, but in some ways it stops you from really enjoying the trip: you know you're doing something (even if it's remotely) wrong; you're on watch for the inspector, you have to remain on high alert all the time, and any time you have to take any type of transportation you get nervous, even though you know it'll be fine.

It was definitely something I wanted to eliminate from my travels, so I could experience them fully, and I'd always had some idea of how I should accomplish this. In one mythic word: hitchhiking.

Don't assume my doubts would be different to anyone else's: How do people actually hitchhike? Is it still possible? Where's the best place to stick out your thumb?

Since I like the direct approach, and it seemed exciting, I decided the only way to find out was to try it. I bought a fifteen euro flight to Frankfurt, and decided that when I landed in Germany I could only travel by car.

And if I didn't manage it, I'd have to stay and live in Frankfurt.

Motivation is important.

Frankfurt, Germany

It didn't take me long to recognize one of the stewardesses as I boarded the plane (which made me think that maybe I was traveling a little too often), whose face transformed into a mask of terror at the sight of me.

Yes, I was “that one,” the one who won't let anyone carry him up the stairs of the plane and who instead prefers to climb them himself, even if he gets his pants dirty. The one who insists on finding his own way to his seat and who limits himself to smiling amiably at the other passengers when they stare at him, unable to understand anything about him. The one who doesn't warn the special service so they can take him to the plane in a special bus, instead choosing to jump on one of the regular ones (despite the bus driver's look of horror). In summary, the one who tended to transform the order and meticulousness of an airport into a chaos without precedent. That one.

Once I was sitting, the stewardesses dispersed, murmuring something along the lines of “Attention, attention, Code Red, I repeat, Code Red!” and a stewardess with an air of superiority approached, obviously intending to make me understand (not particularly politely, but I assure you I paid her the utmost attention) that it was not normal to crawl to your seat.

I looked at her with a smile on my face for the entire length of her speech (I've long been immune to conversations like this one, and now they only bother me if I really think they're going to force me off whatever mode of transport I'm using), and I even made a few attempts at creating dialogue.

For example, mentioning details like the fact that it was I who was dragging myself across the floor, not her, and that, just as I don't tell people how to get places, it would be nice if she could do the same for me.

I also tried to point out some of her more contradictory statements, like the fact that they were supposedly barring me from crawling on the ground out of concern for me, and yet this great concern didn't seem to include any interest in my freedom to choose or my independence.

All in all, the conversation didn't produce any great results, as is often the case (though not always!), and I made a mental note to make for the stairs as soon as they opened the doors on arrival, just in case they planned to force me into a special chair.

You just have to add some excitement to things or they become profoundly boring the more you do them; flying is no exception.

Changing the subject, I did get to do more than have fun adventures with the airplane staff: I befriended the girl sitting next to me, who lived close to Frankfurt, and I got to talk over some of my insecurities regarding hitchhiking.

It's always good to compare opinions, and, besides, with time I've learned that you can make some very pleasant discoveries by opening up. In this particular case, it turned out she had more than enough room in her car, and offered to drop me off at a good hitchhiking spot. I had no idea what kind of spot that might be, but anything was better than staying at the airport, so I gratefully accepted her help and soon after landing we were in her car.

Now I was faced with a tricky question: out of all the possible spots by the highway, what was the best place for hitchhiking? Was a long stretch of flat highway better, because the driver had time to see me? Or maybe if I gave them too much time to think they'd decide that someone else was bound to pick me up, in which case was it better to wait just around a curve? If I found a space for a car to stop, should I wait in front of it, or behind it?

To be honest, I had no idea. And since I didn't have much information to go on, I figured I didn't need to overthink it. No matter how much I mulled it over, it was always going to depend on my luck, meaning there wasn't much point to me stressing over it. In other words, I was tired, so I went to sleep.

Fortunately, I've always had a pretty close relationship with luck. Thinking about it, I've always pictured it as that aunt you only see once a year, who is so happy to see you that she loads you up with presents that you never know what to do with later on. And clearly, happy after not having seen me for many weeks, she did not fail me: after an hour of deep sleep in the car, I woke up suddenly to see we had stopped at a gas station. It was pretty sunny out, and there was a grassy area with tables not far off; and as I said, I was tired, so I was unable to resist the temptation, and told my friend that it was a perfect place for hitchhiking, convincing her to go on without me.

What would you do, if you found yourself in a deserted part of the Frankfurt area, no one in sight and a sunny patch of grass demanding loudly that you lie down? Well I, on the first day of my trip, thought it was pretty obvious what to do: take a nap.

The sun was setting when I woke up, and some kind of instinct commented quietly that hitchhiking at night required more experience than I currently had under my belt.

There were cars parked, and others who stopped every now and then, but to be honest I wasn't that bothered: I had more than enough time, and I'd done enough for one day already. There's no point in doing things you know you won't achieve, so I decided the best thing would be to go to sleep early and be ready for the day early the next morning.

My decision seems to have been the right one, because the next day was destined to be a good one, and I knew it from the moment I opened my eyes.

I have to admit that at first I had no clue where to start: I waited with a nervous expression at the gas station exit, but even I wasn't sure what I was doing, and it must have shown, because every single car passed me by without a thought.

After a while (not very long by hitchhiking standards, though I didn't realize it at the time) I decided I should at least make sure I was going in the right direction, and asked for a highway map. That, I suppose, was the magic moment when all the pieces fell into place, and I learned the real secret to high-speed hitchhiking.

By asking for a map, and without any real initiative on my part, one thing just led to another and I ended up in the car of the couple who had shown me the map, moving (oh, the bliss of a hitchhiker finally in motion) across the freeway at speed-limit. What was the secret? How did I do it? The answer is simple: talking. Talking, something I couldn't well do at a distance with my thumb in the air, had made all the difference. They realized I was a normal person, we got to know each other, we got along, and at this point all barriers disappeared.

The trip and its adventures had begun, and it seemed I had finally figured out how to hitchhike . . . My way, of course.


From: Albert
To: Home
Sent: Sunday, August 19, 2007

“[. . .] This trip, which is looking unexpectedly promising, couldn't have begun better. I've only been here two days, and already there's loads to talk about. To start with, I have finally seen the light. I have finally understood what THE way to hitchhike is, THE way to travel. In one sweet word: chairhitching. Old methods of hitchhiking are being left behind, the solitary travelers of the highway raising a trembling finger, the nervous drivers passing them by. The era of chairhitching has arrived.

Let's talk about chairhitching. There is a key element: gas stations. This is where people stop on long journeys, to eat or go to the bathroom . . . basically all the biological needs of humans. Of course, for the chairhitcher, this is paradise. And the chairhitcher is simply someone who has realized it is much easier to pass someone by than to say “no.” Instead of waiting for someone to find the goodness in their heart by divine inspiration, why not help them with their noble task? The obvious conclusion is that, for the happiness of others (since doing good deeds makes people feel good about themselves, and therefore happy) the chairhitcher will ask them in person where they're going, and if they could come with. The only requirement is a dangerous lack of insecurity, and the aforementioned wheelchair. The rest will take care of itself.

People say that when you try to hitchhike you don't get picked up, or very rarely, and all I can say is that people stop for me, and for every other hitchhiker I've met.

Another inconvenience I've heard mentioned are the dangers of the highway. Either all the TV show rapists and psychopaths are on vacation (what, don't villains get holidays?) or they simply don't exist. Until now I've only been picked up by welcoming families, nice couples, and just the friendliest people. In fact, I haven't actually spent any money, no, instead: I'm earning some. In two days, I've been given twenty euros, and I've spent . . . three.

The result: I have too much money. In fact, with this, and another new strategy I'm trying out, I'm thinking of making the objective to return home with exactly the same amount of money I left with.

I mean, all you have to do is look at the distance I've traveled in these few days: from Frankfurt to Belgium, and all that even though I spent almost all of the first day sleeping, I was so exhausted. When you hitchhike, your options are endless: if it weren't for Arnau in Luxembourg, I could be in Amsterdam right now, or Brussels, or on my way to Paris. I'm offered all these options, this only in . . . what? Thirty-six hours? I'm telling you, a week from now I could be in Chechnya.

On top of that, separate from the hitchhiking, my luck continues to flourish.

You guys predicted so many rainstorms and floods that I wouldn't have been surprised to find a Germany overrun with giant calamari. Instead, I've found a friendly, timid sun, perfect temperatures, the kind that make you think “Oh, if it could stay like this all year, the world would be a better place.” Plus, the climate seems to have taken a liking to me, as we are perfectly coordinated. These two days it only rained twice: yesterday, while I was eating lunch in a bar (under a roof for the first time, since every other meal has consisted of a sandwich eaten outside), and right now, while I'm writing, also under a roof. And we all know that when I'm done writing the rain will have miraculously stopped. Basically, compared to Asia, Europe is like a domesticated puppy, and it knows it. It doesn't even try to hide it anymore.

What I have learned is that it makes sense to have a road map when hitchhiking. I won't buy one till I've earned a little more money, but for my next trip through Europe I need to have one. Highways were a mysterious territory I'd never had to worry about, but the doors have been opened to me and I've discovered that they're not so complicated. Basically it's like a very large maze, and you have to find the shortest path to where you want to go. When someone offers to take you, you calibrate the options, evaluate whether the route they're offering is worth it, whether you should go forward or not. It's really fun, and you end up in every town imaginable: I'd never realized just how many little towns are scattered throughout the world, the inhabitants of which seem eager to help you to your destination. I will of course take advantage of this new knowledge.

I think I'll go to France in the next couple days (or maybe to Holland, depending on how things go), so that I'm slowly getting closer to home. But thankfully I still have a lot to go before I have to return, and I need to keep traveling.

I think that's all for the moment . . .


Belgium (Yes, let's end things in Belgium)

There comes a day when, sooner or later, you discover hitchhiking. I am not the first nor the last to stare incredulously at their hand, which can stop three tonnes of metal in motion with just one finger. And when the day arrives to test it, you realize that you've entered a world with an unattainable amount of possibilities. Being able to go absolutely anywhere, at any moment, without having to worry about trains or airplanes, is a privilege; but it's also a dilemma, and it makes it truly difficult to stick to one destination.

You're in Germany, and a car stops for you and says they're headed toward Brussels, and you think: “Well, why not? I've never been to Brussels, I'm sure it's cool.” But when you're halfway there and you stop to rest another car will comment that they're headed for Poland, and you say to yourself, “Wow, Poland must be incredible, and I'm sure there are far fewer tourists in Poland than in Brussels!” and then just as you're about to get in the car you realize that you'll be going back the way you came, and then you feel pretty dumb. You definitely need to be sure of where you're going, when hitchhiking, or you won't go anywhere. This is a law I was quick to learn during my trip around Europe, and that's why I gave myself a final destination: Luxembourg, where Arnau, one of my best friends from Catalonia, was spending his vacation.

From Frankfurt, the route to Luxembourg should have consisted of an almost perfectly horizontal straight line, but things got a bit twisted (literally) due to my total ignorance in the realm of hitchhiking.

The problems (or fun, depending on how you look at it) began when I left the heavenly gas station where the girl from the airplane had dropped me off, and headed toward unknown territory in the car of a German couple, who left me at another gas station near Cologne, and from there I joined another car before being abandoned at a little town called Verviers. The idea of stopping in a town seemed perfectly straightforward and logical at first, but once the car had driven off I was a lot less sure. Everything had gone great while I stayed in gas station areas, talking to people in person and asking if they could take me, but I still hadn't tested the method of sticking your thumb in the air, and frankly, I wasn't totally convinced it would work. Where was I supposed to do it? In the middle of the town? Even though I had no clue how to hitchhike, the idea seemed ridiculous, and I was pretty sure the drivers would agree.

Remembering how well things had gone at the gas stations, I decided that all I needed to do was keep to the freeway, so I headed back there.

My plan was, as you can see, nearly flawless. I was only making one small, inconsequential error, which I learned later. It had of course never occurred to me that walking on the side of the freeway could be illegal. The idea, if it had ever occurred to me, would have seemed ridiculous: freeways have these little paths designed for the express use of pedestrians, and I would never have thought that those little paths (with borders and everything!) could be exclusively decorative.

It's like putting a fountain in the desert with a sign that says “Drinking is forbidden,” or giving someone a Playstation 3 and telling them they can only look at it.

So I've always thought (and still do) that, considering the circumstances, I wasn't committing any great crime by infiltrating the depths of the freeway. Unfortunately, the police didn't agree.

August 23

“[. . .] As I left Verviers, I was perfectly calm, trying to find a car so I could keep going, when all of a sudden a police car appeared and parked right in front of me. At first I thought policemen in Belgium are so nice they pick up hitchhikers, but when I saw their faces as they came toward me I had no doubt things were not going to go well; and though in my travels I've always had problems with stewardesses and train conductors, the police seemed like they would be even less tolerant of my peculiarities than the rest of them combined.

I honestly had no idea what the heck the police were doing there; I mentally catalogued the contents of my backpack to make sure I wasn't carrying firearms, illegal substances, fake passports, mutant viruses, or any of the other things scrupulous people hate, but my luggage was as inoffensive as it seemed; in which case, what were they doing there, and why did they look so menacing?

We all know conversation does miracles, so with my precarious French I tried to transmit the general idea that I was perfectly fine, that everything was great and if they could just make some room for me to get by I'd continue hitchhiking without bothering anyone, least of all them. But my little speech was rebutted with a look that said “Are you kidding me, man?” and a cold voice empty of emotion asking for my passport. I, of course, immediately gave him my passport, hoping things would improve if I just did exactly as he asked, but as it turns out the passport was incriminating evidence of my most horrible transgression: being a minor. My sense of calm was fast disappearing as the police made it clear that they were not at all happy to have a disabled minor hitchhiking on their freeway, and I began imagining scenes of me being repatriated to Barcelona. Where on earth does this obsession with stopping people from doing what they like come from?

The two policemen started talking on their phones and walkietalkies, having conversations that seemed more and more serious and unfavorable to my person (even if I wasn't able to understand everything, my French being what it was), and finally it occurred to me to suggest they call my parents, if they so wished, because my father does speak French. Surprisingly, they seemed to love the idea, and I gave them my home phone number while I desperately tried to figure out where the heck my luck had gone.”

If there's one thing I've never forgotten, it's my lovely encounter with the Belgian police. I remember the minutes passed at a despairing rate while we waited for police headquarters to interrogate and torture my entire family and then decide whether it was necessary to send me to a Belgian orphanage or if it would make more sense to send me directly to the Russian mafia.

From what I've since gathered, the principle suspicion of the Belgian police was that I was a runaway, and talking to my parents (who fervently brainwashed the poor police, as they tend to do with anyone who asks what should be done about my traveling solo) vastly improved things in that regard. According to what I was told once I returned home, the conversation went more or less like this:

POLICE: Mistehr Alexandehr Casals? (Voice calm and assured. The policeman's confidence level: ten out of ten.)

MY FATHER (ALEX): Yes, that's me, I'm Albert's father. IS ALBERT OKAY???!!! (Panicked voice of someone faced with a call from the police, who usually only communicate deaths. My father's confidence level: 0.0001 out of ten.)

P: Yes, yes, do not worry, we are calling because . . .

A: But Albert is OKAY?????

P: Yes, yes, I . . .

A: But he is TOTALLY FINE, he doesn't have ANY PROBLEM at ALL?????

P: No, not at all, eet eez just zat 'ee was hitchhiking, he is a minohr and so far from 'ome, we wanted to confirm zat 'ee eez traveling with his parents' permission. (Voice severe, waiting for the surprise and despair when he realizes his son is traveling by himself. Policeman's confidence level: ten out of ten. But not for much longer . . .)

I should explain that at this precise moment, the conversation changed direction drastically by introducing the final elements for my father to understand the situation, which are the following:


a) Belgian policeman, who doesn't speak much Spanish.

b) Who has found a minor, traveling BY HIMSELF, and oh, DISABLED.

c) Reason for the phone call: figure out if the parents know where their child is.

d) The policeman's doubt: is it possible that he could travel WITH HIS PARENTS' PERMISSION???!?!


a) Confirm without any room for doubt that parental permission has been given.

b) Try to make the policeman understand how it's possible for parents to let their child travel.

A: You said you were part of the Belgian Police. From the French part of Belgium?

P: Yes, sir.

A: You speak French, then?

P: Oui monsieur . . .

(From here on the conversation continued in French, but I'm translating, which is why he no longer has that weird but hilarious accent.)

A: Oh, perfect, then I'll be better able to explain the situation. (Voice calm and assured, in French. My father's confidence level: twelve out of ten.)

P: Yes? (Sudden change in tone has disconcerted the policeman. Confidence level: eight out of ten.)

A: You see, Albert has been traveling for a long time and he always goes with just his wheelchair. And it's not that we don't worry about him, but ever since he started using it, due to leukemia at age five by the way, we've tried to let him be as autonomous and independent as possible. We've taught him not to be afraid of obstacles, precisely because he uses a wheelchair, and you of course know the world is not exactly adapted for such people . . .

P: . . . Of course, you are quite right . . . (the policeman manages to add, amid this sudden torrent of explanations, feeling his mental conception of the facts tremble dangerously. Confidence level: four out of ten.)

A: Perhaps we've been too effective, and you can see the result . . .

P: Well, it's very difficult, raising children . . .

A: And really, what's wrong with him having some fun in Europe? After all, Albert got sick when he was five, so he never got the childhood he deserved . . .

P: Oh, well, I, I'm so sorry . . . (stammers the policeman, who is beginning to feel real regret at having dared to disturb my parents with such a trivial matter.)

A: Oh, no, don't worry. What's important is that, since we realized how fleeting life is, we try to ensure he lives life as fully as possible, since he wasn't able to as a child. Life spent in a hospital, at five years old, is so hard . . .

(The policeman holds back tears as he asks himself how he could have doubted the poor boy in the wheelchair, who is still detained by the side of the road.)

P: No, no, I understand you perfectly, and I will take care of everything. I don't know if I would be so brave in those circumstances, but I find it an exemplary attitude.

A: I'm so glad to hear you understand. And by the way, with my fear at first, I forgot to thank you for calling me. It shows that you were concerned about my son, and it's very reassuring in regards to my son's stay in your country.

P: Oh, thank you, only doing my duty.

A: Well, thank you again. Have a good day.

P: Have a good day, sir, and sorry for bothering you.

From what it seems, the emotional conversation (along with the confirmation of the stamps on my passport, which demonstrated that I had already been to half of Europe and Asia) was too much for the poor policeman, who was unable to stand his embarrassment and formally apologized for the setbacks he'd caused.

And that is when, seeing as things were going so well, I decided the moment had arrived for me to make some use of the policemen who'd wasted my whole afternoon and held up my trip unjustly. I don't know, maybe I went a bit far, but next thing I know I have three policemen hitchhiking for me.

Of course, their idea of hitchhiking wasn't exactly raising their thumb in the air and waiting; it was a much more . . . active form of hitchhiking, shall we say: the most intense ones blocked the freeway and began stopping trucks one by one, asking them if they were going to Luxembourg with the clear intention of sending me with the first trucker who had the misfortune to answer “yes.”

I ended up in a truck that was stopping in Malmedy, a Belgian town halfway to Luxembourg. He drove me there in sepulchral silence, looking as if he might be wondering: “Who the hell is this kid? The president's son? A genius who carries the definitive cure for AIDS? A SWAT commander in camouflage??” But whatever misgivings he might've had, the trip continued without any more incidents and that same evening I arrived in the town of Malmedy.

Once I was on the edge of town, I realized that it was pretty late, and nearing time to choose a place to sleep. Even without much experience, a primal instinct said hitchhiking at night wouldn't be very effective, so I looked for a place to pass the night.

The problem came when it started to rain, and for once I wasn't prepared for it.

The situation was becoming more desperate by the minute, but I wasn't too worried. If I could convince the police to leave me alone, the rain couldn't be that challenging a rival. I could see hitchhiking was physically impossible (I was on a road so dead not even ants were passing by) so I started walking in the hope that I would find some kind of refuge or sanctuary from the rain. There had to be somewhere for me to sleep peacefully.

Honestly, I was expecting a cave, some natural refuge or copse of trees (what you always see in the movies), but instead I found something quite different: After advancing for a while, what providence offered me instead was a monastery. Don't ask me what it was doing there (though I suppose the builders of monasteries like remote places), but lacking any place better, I had to make do with what I had. Besides, since the Buddhist monks of Thailand had let me sleep in their temples, and monotheists have always been sort of competitive with other religions, I figured the Catholics would also give me a friendly welcome.

It wasn't very fun, to be honest, because the monks had taken a vow of silence, and could only speak to the workers of the monastery; but even so, my stay with the silent monks had the clear advantage of a bed and a hot supper, which should never be refused, and the unusual opportunity to climb the tower and ring the bell (and, to make it more exciting, the only way to get there was a vertical ladder, so climbing it was as fun as it was challenging!).

Besides, who hasn't dreamt as a child of traveling and having adventures that force you to sleep in a monastery lost in the mountains? No one else . . . ? Oh well.

translated from the Catalan by Ona Bantjes-Ràfols

Used by permission of Edicions 62 S.A. (Grupo Planeta).