It was a slow day on the roadwork ridden Polish highways. By the time we arrived in Katowice our hangovers had well and truly fermented and we were glad to be free of the bus. Town was packed for the festival and the meagre selection of hostels in Katowice was fully booked. Ryan had made the executive decision that campgrounds weren’t for us and instead had booked us in for a few nights in a hotel (yup, no spelling mistake there).
We were treating ourselves for the princely sum of 25 Euros a night and if nothing else about Eastern Europe appeals, then this alone should get you there. Despite our southern origins we were Western Princes, wealthy beyond belief and keen to splurge. What time would we be taking breakfast? Would we like the spa heated up now or later? I didn’t even know you needed to heat spas up.
The engines roared and the plane pulled up off the runway. I settled in for the flight and as Morocco fell away my mood lifted. I was still a bit shaky, but the prospect of some friends and Eastern Europe’s notorious nightlife had me well on the way to recovery. I transited through Madrid and, with a full day to kill, walked tentatively down her wide boulevards, still not entirely trusting of my stomach.
It was hot work and I was soon hungry, seeking shelter in the air conditioned aisles of a supermercado. The Spanish on the shelves was too easy after Arabic’s unfamiliar script and I felt strangely at home. I grew bold and, in what could well have turned out to be a foolish move, purchased a beer to have with lunch.
It’s perhaps not unexpected, that over the course of a year adrift you might find yourself craving some familiarity. But I hadn’t expected it to come with the force it did, sitting on the toilet dry retching while I dreamed of home and friends absent. It felt like not much had happened, between Fez and here, but I no longer cared. I was sick and sick of it, and in my weakened state waned. Why the fuck had I come to Morocco in the first place?
Solitude is a strange beast, not really relevant until there is something to compare it with. The couples at my hotel in Fez, the pity from shopkeepers that I had no-one to travel with (not forced, I chose this), the self-consciousness that Ramadan intensified: these all conspired to fuel what came to burn as a numbing sense of solitude, enforced instead of volunteered for. But all men must do some time in the wilderness and Morocco was to be mine.
As the days slipped away I became less and less enthused with Morocco. The lack of booze made for quiet evenings and in the end quiet days too. Despite the coast’s reputation there was no surf to be had – one of the perils of coming in the off-season. I knew I should have planned more. But what could you do? At least it was cheap.
I had had my fill of “culture” (mosques, souks, hustlers and trinkety shit) and was content to take long walks along the coast and swim in the sea, finally embracing the absence of activities holidays are meant to be.
The novelty of hitch-hiking down the coast remained and my Australian partner and I had a few long days sitting in what shade could be found on the side of the road, waiting for the sound of an approaching engine. There, more than anywhere else, our occupation was travelling and we waited patiently, turning down paid rides time and time again, hoping for people who understood what hitching is all about.
A combination of scorching summer temperatures and the topsy-turvy life imposed by Ramadan made my time in Morocco far tougher than I had anticipated. It was a strange time to be a tourist: many shops were shut and the lack of food and water had everyone on edge. It felt like things could blow at any moment.
We left our couchsurfing host’s house after a meagre two hours of sticky shuteye, arriving at the bus stop just before seven. While we waited two men manhandled a gaunt cow into the back of a dirty van, its protests ignored as the door slammed on its time in Beni Ahmed. Then our bus door slammed too and the day’s shuttle began: bus to Bab-something, then a combined taxi to Dad-something – my final goal the Imperial capital of Fez. The longer Arabic names just wouldn’t stick and the small towns blurred into a nondescript conglomerate of syllables, dusty streets and closed shopfronts. I never stayed long enough for it to matter.
Mohammad (our previous host) had assured us that buses from Dad-something to Fez came “all the minutes, yes, many buses”. Despite this there was an absent rumble of traffic and the two young lads at the crossroads swore the bus didn’t arrive until one. So we squished into a combined taxi to Ouzzeane, four deep on the sticky leather seats.
The days that followed Redbeard’s departure were a sombre affair. I walked the streets of windy Tarifa alone, and ate overpriced pizza in an empty restaurant. I drank a little, just enough to ween myself off, and made polite small talk with the other travellers – but it felt forced and my heart wasn’t in it.
I hadn’t anticipated this when I’d planned my journey – if the meagre prep we’d done could even be called that. Everything finished with Redbeard’s exit and I was adrift: unsure where to go next, strung out and lonely. I’ve talked of yin and yang before and this was the rebound I had earned. We’d pushed so far above normal levels of contentment that it was inevitable, or at least apposite, that there would be an equal but opposite reaction. Newton dictated it.
For all my melancholy it wasn’t all doom and gloom, or at least shouldn’t have been. I was still on the road and adventure beckoned, but I felt purposeless. It was as if I’d had my thrills, fulfilled any unstated goals I might have had and in a strange unprecedented way, was ready to go home. It certainly would have been the easy choice: back to the familiar routines of home and uni, never too far from my comfort zone. But this wasn’t meant to be a year of easy choices.
We hadn’t meant to drink. But with Redbeard and I it was almost an inevitability. One last night to see out our brotherhood and our livers could finally have the rest they cried out for. So there we were, back on the beers and dressed in our finest party attire: bucket hats and waxed mo’s aplenty.
The last two weeks had been a bit of a struggle, with waning stamina and the ill health that six months of self-abuse can create. But we pushed on, chasing the dragon, night after night. At this point we didn’t know really know anything else.
Tired bodies aside we were in fine form and lapping up the beautiful combination of sun, sand and skin that makes southern Spain such a magnet for tourists. Rise late, rub face and sneak past the cleaning lady – feeling strangely in the way given that I had paid to be there. Then the beach for countless swims and a touch of paddleball before hunger drove us back to Cadiz’s warren of shops and the now familiar booze aisles of the supermarcado.
The night was all we knew and we pursued it relentlessly.
Going on exchange is good for a whole host of reasons, including the significant amount of free time you find yourself confronted with. Being an avid tripper and having chosen to study in Holland (for obvious reasons) it seemed only natural to combine their readily available hallucinogens with a spot of sightseeing.
So there we were: my ever-keen friend Redbeard and I, chewing a handful of psychedelic truffles (White Diamonds – for the experienced tripper) as the bus left Tilburg. Our destination was Efteling: a fairytale inspired theme park nestled amid the green pastures of southern Holland. Notoriously zany, it seemed like the perfect place to combine the euphoria and other-worldliness of truffles with all the adrenaline of roller coasters.
Two weeks in Italy with the family was just the tonic to the ills of Rock Werchter and by the time Mum flew out of Rome I was back on track. Fortunately, because my next stop was another festival and all the glory and horror of four days in your own filth.
To celebrate being alone again I slept on the floor in Rome’s Fiumicino airport with the other temporarily homeless, before rising early to fly to Bilbao. Redbeard and I were soon reunited and back trying to figure out another unorganised festival set up. In contrast to the Belgian precision the Spanish were positively ambivalent. We wandered up the hill behind the stage and, with no one to tell us any better, joined the rest of the people trying to make sense of camping on a slope. While the view was spectacular the novelty of angled camping wears off pretty quickly when you are constantly sliding out the bottom of your tent.
My final days in Holland arrived with the relentless speed of a Dutch train. Like everyone else I was caught, swept up in the temporal momentum and chaos of exams, last minute guests and goodbyes. What had I taken from this time? Would I ever be back to this cycle-mad place? Answers fell by the wayside as the days slipped away and then I was off for one last bike to the station, sweating under the heat of a continental sun and the sum total of my possessions.