Breaking the Chain
I had to get out of Hong Kong.
The city was going crazy, and it was taking me down with it. The second economic crisis in four years was looming. The property boom had bust; the stock market was plummeting and brokers without bonuses were hurling themselves from high windows and making a nasty mess on the streets below. On the pavements, the hordes scurried, shoved and elbowed their way through the summer smog, screeching into their mobile phones in high-volume Cantonese like slowly strangled turkeys. Over the border in big, bad China, the superannuated Party leaders looked on bemused at their new dominion, at this petulant beast called capitalism.
In the marketplace, fruit and vegetables festered. Fish flipped over the edges of their plastic washing-up bowls and writhed on the blistering tarmac. Tensions simmered and tempers boiled. The stallholders settled their arguments with Chinese kitchen knives, the chopper being the Hong Konger's second-favorite weapon after the pointy end of an elbow, while the triads nervously fingered their tattoos and lopped off the little fingers of those who annoyed them.
In the alleyway beneath my flat, my neighbors tried to improve their chances in these uncertain times by burning offerings on the bonfires of that summer's Hungry Ghost festival. The stock market could no longer be relied upon to provide riches, so they turned to their ancestors instead. The smoke wisped its way past my windows and up to the spirit world, carrying the charred remains of paper money, paper sports cars, paper Nike sneakers, paper Big Macs and even paper Nokia 8310 phones, complete with paper batteries. Hong Kong is a material town, even in its spirit incarnation, and it doesn't do to antagonize the ghosts with last year's model.
Over in the office where I worked, tucked away among the antique shops of Hollywood Road, life was no less colorful. I was working as an editor on a weekly magazine. We covered the action-packed life of that nonstop, neon-flashing city; we tried to be incisive, quirky, offbeat, ahead of the curve. It didn't always work.
"This is the most fuckin' godawful
PIECE OF SHIT that I have seen in ten years," the publisher screamed at us one day, clutching that week's offering in his hand and shaking it violently as though he were trying to break its neck. The glass walls of his office shuddered; we editors looked sadly at our feet. Most of the men in our office were either gay or in therapy, in many cases both. They weren't afraid to find an outlet for their emotions, to clench their perfectly pert buttocks in indignation, to puff out their tightly T-shirted pecs, to squeal and stamp their cross little designer-shod feet. I was a straight woman; I couldn't afford a shrink. I dreamed of sitting completely alone under a solitary, leafy tree where nobody would raise their voice to so much as a whisper. One thing was clear: I needed a change of scene.
I decided to go to Spain. I knew the country and I spoke the language after a fashion, even if my attempts did make the locals laugh out loud. I'd even lived there for a while when, as a university student studying Spanish, I'd been required to spend a year abroad. I knew how to order a beer; I could even ask for different sizes depending on the level of alcoholic refuge the moment demanded. I vaguely understood the words on a menu. Spain would be a nice, restful destination, I thought. It would present nothing too difficult. It would be fun to go back--it was eight years since my last visit--and the fresh air and sunshine would do me good.
To ensure my recuperation, I'd even take some exercise. I wouldn't just visit Spain--I'd cycle around it. I set myself a target of a thousand miles and six weeks in which to cover them. I'd start at the top, in the chic beach resort of San Sebastian, then work my way east, over the Pyrenees and down to Barcelona, where I'd strut along tree-lined boulevards with the beautiful people. Then I'd head south to Granada, and westward across Andalusia to Seville, before heading up into Extremadura, Spain's Wild West. I'd then pedal over to the historic capital of Toledo and finally end up in the modern hurly-burly of Madrid.
After six weeks of the cycling cure, I'd be lithe, fit, suntanned. If my tour took a few ups and downs, if I felt the need to let out the occasional primal scream, well, in Spain nobody would notice. They're used to craziness in Spain. In fact, they positively celebrate it. This is the land of the delusional Don Quixote, the obsessive Queen Joan the Mad, and the stark, staring Salvador Dal’. These are the people who have a festival during which merrymakers hurl truckloads of ripe tomatoes at each other, and another in which they run in the path of rabid bulls, all in the name of fun. They drink whisky mixed with Fanta orange by choice.
Cycling in Spain would be a hassle-free adventure. The Spanish are fond of cycling: it ranks as the nation's second-favorite sport after soccer. They watch cycling, join cycling fan clubs, sponsor cycling and, yes, at the weekends they even go cycling. Spain, after all, is the land of one of the most legendary cyclists the sport has ever seen, Miguel Indurain. In 1995, Indurain became the first person ever to have won the Tour de France five years in a row. The Spanish, used to scant glory on the world stage, went completely crazy. The press started to refer to Indurain as a god; the nation duly worshipped him. In the summer of 1995, an estimated six million Spaniards sat on the edge of their armchairs and bellowed encouragement at their television screens as the tall, lanky Navarrese pedaled through three long weeks of pain and glory. Thousands more actually traveled to France to see the great man pass before their very eyes. They gazed in awe as Big Mig's long, strong legs hammered up hill after hill; at 6'2", he was ludicrously large for a cyclist. Hormone-high teenage girls screamed and reached out to touch him as he and his rippling quadriceps pedaled by.
When the Tour was over and they could safely abandon their TV sets, Big Mig's followers flocked to the cycle shops and kitted themselves out with shiny new bikes and resplendent Day-Glo Lycra outfits that never looked quite as good on paunchy computer programmers as they did on the pros. And on Sunday mornings, they took to the roads in their droves.
I wasn't exactly expecting the kind of reception that Miguel inspired--to be honest, teenage girls have never done it for me anyway--but I held out high hopes for the occasional friendly smile, an encouraging toot of the horn, cozy chats with new-found friends in rustic bars overseen by ruddy-faced, perpetually smiling barmen, ever ready with a refill of rioja, a bowl of olives, a spicy slab of chorizo. My friend Sheena had a most exciting dream in which I had a wild and tempestuous fling with a bullfighter, a prospect I didn't dismiss out of hand. Romantic entanglements had been thin on the ground over the last year or so (I had had quite a steamy cyber affair with a policeman in New Zealand, but after a while even he had to be downgraded from cyber lover to e-mail buddy), and bullfighters, let's face it, have very nice bottoms.
Only one small but vital ingredient for my recovery was missing: I didn't own a bicycle. And so I e-mailed Mr. Chang, a bike builder over in Taipei--one of my Hong Kong friends had bought a number of bikes from him and Mr. Chang promised to give me a good deal. Better still, he was traveling to Hong Kong on business and would hand-deliver my new acquisition to my door for no extra charge. He would build me, he said, a top-quality road bike, a truly cosmopolitan machine whose parts were sourced from the best manufacturers around the globe: a handmade frame and Selle Italia saddle from Italy, clipless pedals from Germany, Shimano gearing from Japan, ultraslim racing wheels from Taiwan. He'd fit a triple chain ring, enough to power me up the most gruesome of hills. The bike would be so light I could lift it with a single finger. It was to be a veritable lean, mean speed machine. A few weeks later, at eleven-thirty at night, the telephone rang. I was given a car registration number and told to bring the cash. Mr. Chang and the bicycle were waiting in the alleyway downstairs.
Mr. Chang beamed and nodded; his grey, thinning ponytail bobbed up and down. With his orange-patterned cycling jersey and yellow-tinted wraparound glasses, he looked as though he might have cycled all the way from Taipei rather than landed just an hour ago at the airport like everyone else. His accomplices rummaged around in the back of the van and produced wheels, then a frame. They gave a few practiced turns of the wrench, and we all stood and gazed at the gleaming, pale-green bicycle before us. Beneath a dim orange street lamp I handed over a thick pile of banknotes. We nodded and smiled some more, then we shook hands and went our separate ways.
I handed in my notice at the magazine. I stoically survived the tantrums and hysteria that broke out around me. Three more issues to go, then two, then one, before I would be blissfully alone, away from the whole crazy bunch of them, adrenaline pumping not because the deadline passed five hours ago and the incensed printer, facing a long night ahead, was about to take his chopper to the lot of us, but from the wild exhilaration of haring down mountain switchbacks, from whizzing carefree through olive groves and vineyards, concerned only with where my next beer might come from and what I might like for lunch. There'd be no more sandwiches gobbled on the run, no more congealed noodles delivered from the takeaway on the corner and scoffed in seconds flat with disposable wooden chopsticks and inadequate quantities of soy sauce squeezed out of ridiculous fish-shaped droppers; in a few days' time I'd be leisurely tackling plates piled high with tapas, hearty rabbit stews, slithers of perfectly cured ham--and drinking cold beer after cold beer in the recuperative sunshine of Spain.
Four Chorizos and a Tortilla
"Ah, you like to cycle," muttered the airport security guard, spotting the helmet dangling by its strap from my hand luggage. He whispered secretively, breaking the unwritten rule of the uniform that dictates he should never be friendly, his eyes cast low as he fiddled with his nightstick. And then I knew. This man too had another form, a different identity. On Sunday mornings, he shed the olive-green uniform, the heavy black boots, the power-toting gun and the belt full of bullets and dressed up in figure-hugging, bright yellow Lycra--and went out in public
It was disappointing, however, to find that the Spanish enthusiasm for cycling hadn't extended to the taxi drivers of Madrid's Barajas Airport. Perhaps these guys were out shrink-wrapping their cabs' backseats as Indurain chugged to the top of col
. Wherever they were, they clearly weren't bonding with bikes.
"No," the taxi driver pronounced, directing a reproachful glare toward my shiny green bicycle. With his whiskers set and bristling, he bundled a well-groomed couple with manageable wheelie suitcases into his car instead.
"No," said the next. "That
"--an accusing stab of the finger--"won't fit."
"No way, Jose," said a third--or something like that.
Things weren't getting off to a very relaxing start. I begged, I pleaded and I cajoled. I had a go at anger and indignation. I tried lying through my teeth: "It fit perfectly well in the taxi I took yesterday." Nothing worked. In the end, I reverted to type, and just stood around getting in the way.
When enough of a bottleneck had been created outside the arrivals hall, a kindly policewoman took the matter in hand. She took aside the next cab with a roof rack and told him he was to take me away from there with no further ado. Perhaps she was a closet Lycra case too.
The driver was a stout character, with a spiky little mustache. He shook his head with some vigor.
"No," he said, glaring at the bothersome bike. "It won't fit."
"How about the roof rack," I suggested. The driver puffed his cheeks, let out a mighty sigh that sent his facial hair a-quiver and grudgingly set to with the ropes.
"I don't like it," he grumbled some minutes later when the bicycle was fixed firmly and securely to the rack. "I have to warn you, I think it will fall off." He gave a much-practiced shrug.
"Well, perhaps we could chance it," I ventured. And off we went, all the way to the city's Chamart’n train station, listening out anxiously for telltale scrapes and thuds as we wended our way through the traffic.
My bicycle never did fall off the taxi's roof, so I was still wheeling it when I arrived in San Sebastian some hours later. It was early evening. The sun was shining, the weather was perfectly warm, the birds were singing in the trees and the elegant people of San Sebastian were out strolling in that calm, leisurely way I hoped soon to emulate.
I had a few things to do in San Sebastian. I needed to find a bike shop to fix my gears, which I'd destroyed before leaving home in one of my very rare attempts at bicycle maintenance. That episode had ended, I'm ashamed to say, in a not-very-self-controlled fit of temper in which I shouted at the bike and called it names. I also had to eat lots of tapas, and that would take some time, so I checked into a hotel for a couple of nights. Unfortunately, it turned out to be San Sebastian’s annual film festival that week, so all the desirable hotels were fully booked. I checked into an undesirable one instead, which featured among other things a rubber mattress cover, bed sheets with holes, and a yellowing piece of paper pinned to the wall which demanded, in wavering block capitals that suggested a hand that doesn't hold a pen very often, SILENCE AFTER 11 PM. ANY DISTURBANCES AFTER THIS HOUR WILL BE DEALT WITH BY THE POLICE. I thought it quite delightful.
It was not, however, the kind of place in which to spend many minutes freshening up. This suited me well, as freshening up on arrival at a hotel in a new town is something I've never been able to fathom. When I arrive in a brand-new destination I'm beside myself with anticipation. In the taxi from the airport, I have to exercise every restraint to stop myself from telling the driver to drive faster . . . yes, it's desperate, no, I can't wait. I'm dying to get out into the streets, to check out everything all at once, to eat from each and every one of those amazing-looking roadside stalls whose food would, in reality, strike me dead with a single bite, to get horribly lost because I'm too excited to stop and look at the map. Finally, eventually, we arrive at the hotel; I bite my lip through the entire, laborious checking-in process, and then somebody says brightly, "Let's all go to our rooms and freshen up, and meet back in reception in, oooh, let's say an hour from now, shall we?
Excerpted from It's Not About the Tapas by Polly Evans. Copyright © 2006 by Polly Evans. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.