Monday, 10 November 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Cristobal

Where To Look For Life
I think it was in 1982 that I met Cristobal. I was working as a night bedroom steward on a cruise ship – The magnificent QE2. One morning we docked in Quebec, not far into the mouth of the gigantic St Lawrence river in Canada. It was a sunny autumn day and the light really intensified the colours of the painted wooden buildings, the maple trees with their leaves turned gold and the verdant green pine forests stretching into the distance against an azure blue sky. Strings of logging barges were stretched out along the St Lawrance heading inland towards the great lakes and there was already snow on the caps of the distant mountains.

QE2 in Quebec Harbour

On days in port like this I tended to avoid hanging out with other crew-members. Their idea of a special day out ashore was to visit six waterfront bars rather than the customary two. In most ports we visited, I tended to head into the rougher fishermen's quarter or the poorer residential districts in order to experience a more genuine taste of local life. But Quebec seeming to lack much in the way of either. After breakfast in a small old-world cafe I decided to head on a small road out of town – up into the surrounding hills. And it was here that I met Cristobal.

Heading into the Quebec hills

Met On The Road
Leaving the city I had stopped at a small roadside shack on the outskirts to buy some bread rolls, an apple, a bag of nuts and some cheese. This was to be my lunch in case I could find nowhere to eat when the time came. As I sat down on a rock to eat that lunch later, I saw a man sitting right out on the edge of a rocky ledge that looked down over the surrounding countryside. I raised my hand in welcome and he returned the gesture but remained where he was. Hoping I wasn't disturbing a man with a desire for solitude I proceeded to eat my lunch and it was only after this that I decided to quietly wander over to the edge of the ledge close to where the man still sat, silently looking out.

"Impressionnant, no?"
"Ah oui, tres impressionnant!" I replied. "Pardon, je suis Anglais. Je n'parle pas bien Francais."
"No problem, mon amis, I speak English," he said, smiling.

Although this man had spoken in French, I felt fairly sure from his accent that he was neither French nor French Canadian. His skin was also dark and his wide high-set cheekbones suggested to me he might perhaps be of ethnic Canadian decent. A Canadian Indian. His face was creased and his dark hair was greying at the temples so I determined he was probably in his late forties or early fifties.

"My name is Mark. I'm pleased to meet you," I said. "So do you live locally or are you visiting like me?"

"Ah, I am always the visitor, mon amis. My name is Cristobal. I am originally from Columbia – Cartagena."

"Are you here on holiday?" I asked.

Cristobal laughed. "Hah, on holiday no my friend. I walk."

"You walk? So do you mean you have come here to walk?"

"No no! I walk everywhere. For many years I have been walking. I am, as you say, an addict. I cannot stop from walking."

"Oh I see. Wow, so you walked here from Columbia?"

"No. Or actually, I suppose yes. To be correct I did walk here from Columbia, but on my way here I walked through Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia... Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan... then Iran, Turkey, Europe and most of Africa. I go to North America soon I think. I am in Alaska before here. Okay, sometimes I take the bus. I mostly walk but hey, I am not crazy!"

I was dumbfounded. "How many years have you been travelling," I asked.

"Must be forty-four years this year I suppose."

"Do you mind me asking how old you are?"

"Sixty-three years on Christmas. I am born December twenty-four."

Again I was shocked. "Walking has kept you young Cristobal!"

"Yes I think so, but my feet are old!" He removed one boot and sock to reveal an extremely calloused foot with a very gnarled set of toes.

Where The Road Invites Me To Go
"Tell me Cristobal," I said, "what drives you to keep on walking? Why have you not settled anywhere?"

"I told you, I am like addict. It is the road ahead that drives me. Invites me. Enchants me even. Not all roads, only some. For example look down here. Do you see this road? It is a good road surface I think, and straight. Easy with not too much hills or trees for stop the view. This road is good for cars and trucks but not good for me. But on the other hand, look over here. Can you see this road. Small and turning about and about. Many hills. Not a good surface I think. Sometimes the road goes around the hills or sometimes over. Many trees stop the view but in the spaces the view must be special I am sure. Ah yes this is a charming road, Mark, don't you see?"
I thought about some of the lovely roads I'd seen in my life, and some that were less lovely.

Some roads are less inviting than others

But who could resist these two roads in Dingle, Ireland?

"Yes I can see what you mean," I said. "It's more interesting."

"Yes of course, interesting. Walking along a road is like passing through the life. It can be too much the same, only taking you from one place to the next place as quickly as possible, or it can be with much variety – changing all the time with surprising things and people. Life is for the experience no? Not for living your life as quickly as possible. So this is my obsession. When I turn around a corner in a town and I see an interesting road, stretching out before me, I must follow it. I cannot resist. I cannot!"

"So after North America, will you return to Columbia?" I said, pouring him a hand-full of peanuts.

"Maybe. Yes amigo, maybe. But it is not my ambition. I never am planning to walk around the whole world. I told you it is an obsession. But I am only going where the road invites me to go. The special road. In each place I look and when I see the special road, I know this is the road I must go, you see? No hesitation. I think it is like, my destiny. So yes, maybe I go to Columbia. But this time I go like a visitor. I was a boy working in a mine there you know. Work in the dark all day. Never see nothing beautiful. After one year I have two days vacation. I want to see another place from outside Cartagena so I walk into the hills. When I pass over the top of the first big hill I see a whole new world before me. And a road. A charming road. I begin walking down and along this charming road. And I am still walking on that road amigo. I am walking my special roads then, I am walking them now and I continue. Ah yes, I continue until there is no more charming roads. This is my life."

Powers Of Observation
It was lovely walking back into Quebec with Cristobal. His trained eye saw so much more than mine. Geese circling in the distance, looking for water to land on during their long migration journey, or so he said. An old man splitting cedar shingles to repair a visible hole in his cabin roof. Ruts in a field where a car had been driven at speed. Joyriding kids or a criminal being pursued by the police. A bear's footprint. A woman dowsing for a spring watched by a farmer and a group of children. Ordinary people like me would have passed along that road and seen none of them.

Enchanted Road
Waving goodbye to Cristobal was painful. Not so much because I would miss his company, but because I had learned what he meant about the invitation of especially charming roads. I left him at the other edge of the city, after he had shared a beer with me in a small tumbledown bar. As we reached a road junction we stopped and he bid me farewell, before heading across the road and into a small housing estate. Wandering back in the direction of the docks I was wondering where he might have been heading when I happened to look around over my shoulder. It had not been visible from where I left him, but now, looking up I could see the unmistakable signs of a road through the gaps in the bright green pine trees. A small cabin, then what looked like a sawmill. A rocky outcrop where I could only guess what a stunning view it would afford down over Quebec harbour. Yes this was indeed a charming road. An Enchanted road. I felt a sharp pang of regret as we sailed that chilly evening. Regret that I had not thrown caution to the wind and followed it.

The sea is a lonely road

Some Other Charming Roads Cristobal Would Love:

This inspiring road to Iran from Caldiran, Turkey, was used for the front cover 
of the book (Long Road Hard Lessons) about the 10,000mile cycle journey with my son Sam.
Views like this constantly spurred us to carry on towards our goal - Tokyo.

The tiny Slea Head Road in Dingle, Ireland, where our cycle journey to Japan began.
N.B. The beach is where the movie Ryan's Daughter was filmed & where they are currently filming the next Star Wars.

Cycling up this mountain road in Southern Turkey was hard but well worth the effort

 The Yellapatty Tea Plantations. This road through The High Ranges of Travancore 
in Kerela, India, is one of the most beautiful roads I've ever seen.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.