Marathon des Sables – Chapter 16 – In The Navy (Almost)

In The Navy

Early on Tuesday morning we were down stairs at the station, ready for the train to leave. The news on the TV had continued to tell us that there was growing concern that car hire companies were taking unfair advantage of the crisis and that the ferries all along the French coast were booked out for a week. So we were glad that we were waiting for the train to leave for new fields.

As we were coming to expect, the train left precisely on time. My brief experience with the Spanish railways is that they are brilliant, with modern clean trains, good service and uncanny timeliness.

The countryside between Madrid and Santander was more hilly than the previous day, as there are a line of mountains that run across the northern coast of Spain. We needed to cross these mountains before we got to Santander, so the maximum speed we reached on the whole trip was, when compared to the previous day, a rather ambling 230kph. I have to say that the Spanish countryside is beautiful and I can strongly recommend a train holiday.

After arriving in Santander, Nick and I quickly made our way downhill from the train station. We had no idea where we were going but knew that the port had to be downhill from the station. It wasn’t long before we saw the ocean, so knew we were heading in the right direction.

As we scampered along with as much dignity as we could maintain, we came to realise that we were leading roughly twenty other desperate looking tourists with bags as we all rushed hopefully towards the navy ship. Now you need to remember that none of us actually knew that the ship was still here. Not only that but none of us knew where on earth the ship was docked. It could have been kilometres up the coast for all we knew, as we hurried along looking like the Keystone Kops.

But it wasn’t; it was right there in front of us in all it’s glory as we turned the corner. There was a huge, grey, very impressive looking navy ship, complete with guns and all sorts of navy stuff, and it was right here in the heart of Santander. So the Keystone Kops, with us in the lead, stepped up the dignified pace a notch.

We all raced for the gate in the fence where there were guards standing. As we got there they were saying something in an unhopeful sounding voice. Everyone behind us started shouting their questions together as desperation to get home replaced dignity, so I concentrated intently on what the guards were saying. For those who were listening, which added up to Nick and I, we soon learned that this ship wasn’t taking any of us anywhere. I turned to Nick and said “This isn’t going to work. We need to get to the ferry terminal.” Nick said “I agree. The ferry terminal is up this way; I saw it as we came down.”

So Nick and I turned on our heels and, as rapidly as we could without actually breaking into a run, rushed up the port area for 200m to the ferry terminal office, with out bags bouncing along joyfully behind us on their tiny little wheels. The Keystone Kops soon came to the same realisation as we had, but now they didn’t need to decide which way to go; they simply followed us, so we were losing our “advantage”. (Can you feel the desperation in the air? So could we.) We rushed into the ferry office, took two seconds to do a reconnoitre, then rushed to the end of the line waiting to buy tickets. We were the first of the recent train arrivals to make it to the ferry line. Mwa ha ha haaaa!

This line was moving slowly but steadily. The ladies behind the desk were looking amazingly calm considering they were dealing with a bunch of desperate tourists ready to sell their first born if the sale secured a spot on The Ferry. Nick and I kept our ears peeled (I’m writing this story, so I’ll mix metaphors if I want to) so we could learn everything to be learned. And what we learned was that indeed there was a ferry on Thursday that was travelling to Plymouth in England. However, all seats and cabins were fully booked, but the ferry operators were prepared to let in a certain number of extra passengers who would need to sleep where ever they could find a spot.

The line of people was beginning to take on a party atmosphere as everyone exchanged their volcano stories. So’n’so had travelled from Somewhere on Such’n’such bus to be here. Oh the drama, oh the cost. But they were all struck dumb when Nick and I told them our story. The usual response we got was a pause, then a tentative “Really? You’ve come cross-country from Marrakesh?” We had so far crossed two countries, a British outpost and made a water crossing from one continent to another.

Finally it was our turn to buy tickets. I was nervously hopeful as we took our spot at the desk. The nice lady, who spoke very good English, explained the situation to us then sold us two tickets. I was thrilled to finally have ferry tickets to England for the day after next so, as we walked back past the line of waiting people, I did a little happy dance, waving my tickets in the air.

I found out two days later that the people immediately behind us in the queue were the last to get tickets for the Thursday ferry as it was then full. Oops.

Now the next race was on. Sure, we had tickets for the ferry, but we still didn’t have a room for the night. We stepped outside the ferry office and looked around. There, across the road was a good looking hotel, the Hotel Bahia. Because we were still in front of the Keystone Kops, we still considered that we needed to hurry, so with hardly a word Nick and I dragged our bags across the road to the hotel and booked in for two nights. And a lovely hotel it was too.

Now was the first chance since leaving Marrakesh for us to be able to simply relax. We didn’t have any commitments from now, which was two o’clock in the afternoon, until one o’clock Thursday afternoon when the ferry was loading. So we lounged around for a bit, watching the BBC to keep up with the news. From our window we were able to watch the navy ship leave. It was very impressive but also rather galling because, for a brief moment it had seemed that we may have been able to come swanning back into England in style, but that moment had soon passed. Reality had smacked us as we, and the rest of the Keystone Kops, had been left on the dock. And now we could stand and watch as it slowly pulled out and left us all behind.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with doing emails, going to the supermarket for the bags of emergency food, exploring the beautiful city of Santander and amazing at the architecture. Being from Oz I’ve never heard of The Bank of Santander, but apparently in Europe it is an important bank. Well guess where the beautiful head office is? That’s right; Santander. It was just behind the hotel we were in.

Exploring a new city is one of the joys of travelling. It is wonderful to be wandering slowly down a street then suddenly come across a building that has a market inside selling a range of exotic salamis and cheeses. There were all sorts of cafes, bars and restaurants. There was too much to take in in one afternoon. Next to the hotel was a lovely garden area with a café and a children’s play area. In the play area was a beautiful and classic carousal, with the lights and the bobbing horses. Doting parents could sit at the outdoor café drinking coffee and eating cakes while the children went round and round on the carousal. To be honest, I was struggling to comprehend how Spain could be caught up in the deep financial problems sweeping through Europe. It certainly didn’t look like it from our perspective as we explored this prosperous looking city.

That night we wandered off looking for a café or restaurant to have dinner. Because we were in Spain, Nick had a desire to have a typically Spanish dish called Paella, which we came to learn is pronounced “Paaya”. Plus he considered that there was a good chance that paella would be gluten free, which meant that I could also have it for dinner.

We walked up the road checking out the various cafes and restaurants, finally settling on one that looked like it would fit the bill, Café Te. The main waitress was a small lady who was full of life, laughing and cajoling customers in a loud voice. When it came time for us to order, it was fun as we decided with her whether the paella in the picture was gluten free. Her English was, well, nil and my Spanish was, well, virtually nil. However Nick, with his combination of reasonable French and slight Spanish was able to translate and understand much of what she was describing. So between us we decided that the paella in the picture was worth the small risk for me. Fortunately this was another example of how the Spanish are well aware of gluten free, so our charming waitress knew why it was important for me to know what was in the dish. It was all good fun deciding all of this, with lots of laughing and joking.

The evening went on with her yelling incomprehensible jokes in our direction and, after a little more of the red grape juice, us yelling back at her with lots of laughing. But finally it was time to leave and for us to wander back to the hotel. A quick catch-up of the latest news on the Beeb and we called the day over.

*   *   *   *   *

The next day, Wednesday, was a rest day as we waited for the ferry. Of course we kept a close eye on the volcano updates, which were going from bad to worse. We heard that now the recriminations had started, with airlines and others saying that the governments had over reacted by closing down the airspace. I was in two minds; firstly I don’t like the way western governments are rapidly becoming nanny states, but then I don’t relish the idea of falling out of the sky because the engines of the plane got clogged. I think sometimes there are situations where there simply isn’t an easy option.

So Nick and I pushed all of that to the back of our minds and set out to explore Santander. I won’t bore you with the details, so I’ll just say that Santander is a city that would be a good addition to any travel schedule in Spain. It’s an attractive, clean city with beautiful architecture and great restaurants.

We did take the opportunity to call into a number of cafés throughout the day to sit and watch the people. One observation is that the Spanish are yet to embrace the idea of giving up cigarettes. It seems that every second person has a cigarette in their mouth, as it used to be at home. Because it has changed so much in Melbourne over the last 20 years, seeing the Spanish reality was a bit surprising.

That night we returned to the same café as the previous night to have the meal that I knew was good for me. Aside from the food, it was good fun there. I have to be honest and tell you that this night we were a little more free’n’easy with the grape juice and were again the last to leave before they closed the doors.

This was a quiet day of rest, cafes and exploring.

*   *   *   *   *

Finally it was the day when, all going well, we were heading back to England. The morning went as normal, with no great surprises. The Beeb was still telling us about the throngs of stranded travellers and were focussing particularly on the main train station in Madrid. Apparently this had become a focal point for tourists coming from all over southern Europe and it was becoming rather chaotic. As we had been there only two days previously, we were again surprisingly pleased that we had managed to stay ahead of the main mob. Call it good planning, thinking outside the square or just dumb luck, we’d had a good dollop of all of it to get us to northern Spain and a ferry this afternoon.

One of our important tasks was to buy emergency food to get us through that night on the ferry and two train trips once we got to England. So we spent a little bit of time ensuring we had more than enough to get us through.

I’ll break here and take the opportunity to explain the potential consequences of me not having my bags of emergency food. Admittedly, it is a little more detailed for me than for a person with type 1 diabetes who does not also live with coeliacs disease (gluten free), but the importance and urgency are the same.

Maintaining the balance between the three balls that people with type 1 diabetes must juggle non-stop for their whole lives to stay alive, being insulin, carbohydrate and exercise/rest, requires a ready supply of carbohydrate at all times. The balance between the three factors (balls) can and does change for many reasons. The weather, stress levels, exercise, state of health and many other things have an impact on the blood sugar level. If you stub your toe, making you momentarily whince in pain, your BSL can easily be affected. So these bags of emergency food are not just a point of comfort; they are a point of life or death.

At last it was time to book out of the hotel and make our way across the road to the ferry terminal, where we found a substantial line of people already queued up. We joined the queue and waited patiently as more and more people joined after us. The room became full of people and their suitcases. There were families with babies and old people and young people; there were backpackers and business men. It seemed as if half the world was on the move.

While waiting for the queue to move, we got talking with those around us and swapping war stories … again. During this enjoyable and intriguing activity, we came to learn that two days before, when we had been buying our tickets, the people further back in the line behind us then had missed out. The next ferry for them wasn’t until the following Saturday, that is two days from now. I crouched down a little, remembering back to my little victory dance as we walked past the rest of the line. Oh dear.

Unfortunately it took at least an hour of queuing before the line even started to move. Then once it did, it took another 45 minutes of slow, slow lava flow before we were finally on the ship.

When we did finally get on board we saw, to our amazement, what a brilliant little ship this was. It looked like it was almost brand new, with restaurants, a cinema, coffee shops, you name it. We explored merrily for half an hour before finally deciding where we were going to spend the night. People were finding whatever seat they could find, and we chose some in a reasonably quiet area, sharing with a couple of ladies from New Zealand, a husband and wife couple from England, who were nice enough to make a donation to my chosen charity, JDRF, after they finally got home, and a quiet backpacker from South America who mainly kept his own counsel.

Of course, because we were on a ship going across the ocean from Spain to England, I was as excited as a kid. But if you overlook this detail, this was one of the worst night’s sleep I have ever had. I simply could not get comfortable and spent much of the night wandering around the ferry, trying not to disturb the lucky people who were sleeping. Some chose to party almost all night in one of the pub areas, but even they eventually quietened down and went to sleep. I know, because I was there to see it. It was an awful night’s sleep.

Not only could I not get to sleep, but as I was coming back to my seat at one point, walking without my shoes on, I stubbed my toe on a chrome upright that was so polished and shiny that I couldn’t see it. I heard a crack and knew then that I’d broken my toe. Sure enough, five weeks later and it’s still a little bruised and swollen.

And so the night passed.

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