Viner Con Migo, Senoritas

Pamella Laird

© Copyright 2022 by Pamella Laird

Photo of Alphonse, Paula, and Miguel..
 Photo of Alphonse, Paula, and Miguel..

We looked at one another. What on earth does he mean? He beckoned us off the side of the road towards a half-hidden dusty track. A second guard lined up behind us urging us to move along. The two uniformed young men had been among several guards at the border when we crossed into Spain.

As far as Paula and I knew there’d been no problem coming through the border, passports and visas seemed okay. On the other hand, neither of us had felt at ease as we eyed the half-hidden holsters that each of the five or six guards wore. However, we did feel they all looked very young for such a responsible job, i.e. sifting the saints from the sinners.

Back there, while waiting in line we’d kept an eye out for passing cars but in those days, twenty minutes had gone by and only one car had driven through the gates to be waved on into Spain. Having to stand in unaccustomed heat for over half an hour at the Border, we’d unhappily grown more and more clammy. The previous day, back at Perpignan, a couple of youth hostellers heading the opposite way, had warned us that the depression the Spanish had endured since the end of the Civil War in 1939 was ongoing. But for how long and how might that affect us, we wondered?

One young hosteller said, “They’ve got all sorts of rules and regulations. If you’re thinking of hitch-hiking, take care, ‘cos they don’t like hitchers, in fact they say it’s illegal. So, ‘watch out!’” Perhaps they needed the income of tourists travelling by coach, but if that was right, so far we’d seen nothing like a coach.

Fair warning, but on asking around in the common room, it was suggested ‘We give it a go anyway.’ Ominously there were no suggestions about transport from the border, just shrugged shoulders. This meant, if heading to Barcelona, or anywhere else in Spain for that matter, you took your chances by whatever means you could.

The morning after that discussion, Paula and I fronted up to Armed Border Guards, sweating in their serge uniforms and peaked hats. Albeit in holsters, the unmistakable shape of revolvers was unexpected and intimidating. As travellers from a peaceable land at the end of the world, this was an initiation for us.

Even if it is illegal, how do they expect us to get to a bus or train station?” asked Paula, wiping her brow with a none-too-clean handkerchief. We’d been on the road for almost four months but knowing Spain then, to be a police state; moving from place-to-place required serious thought. From leaflets we’d found at an Information kiosk, trains seemed to be the answer, but where were they and how did we get to them?

The sun took no notice of our cotton hats and like red-hot coals, blazed indifferently on our heads. While waiting for attention and scrutiny of our visas, we had ample time to study the complex of scruffy and flaking once-cream and green-painted official buildings where numerous bored young guards loitered.

A sign warned us it was 190 kilometres from the town of Perpignan to Barcelona, at least we were now at the border. Not only were we melting in the heat, we foresaw real problems ahead in getting to see such sites as Alhambra; Toledo and Granada also came to mind, not forgetting the occasional bullfight. It was possible we were wandering into a maze of trouble.

Let’s risk it,” I said. “It hasn’t been an issue so far.”

Maybe,” said Paula, “But we’ve only taken one step into the place, I don’t want to be locked up for life, certainly not in a Spanish dungeon. Besides, no one knows we’re here; have you thought of that? Have you told your parents where we are?”

Well, I vaguely told the family we’d be hitchhiking in Europe for a month or two and I mentioned Norway and Italy and a few other places but no timing.”

That’s what I mean; no-one will know. We could be anywhere! Last letter home, I said we were heading for Spain, I didn’t say when or what part.”

At the barrier we’d been sternly questioned about travel arrangements and did we plan to ‘auto-stop?’ In unconvincing English, we said openly that to begin with, we had no choice, as there didn’t appear to be any way from the border to get to a train or coach. Sidelong glances and mutterings among the five or six swarthy guards created even more sweaty hands and more uneasiness for us.

Eventually, with much gesticulation and authoritarian blah-blah (to us), they waved us through. It was hot. The heavens, like a vast, blue sapphire parasol were suspended above and apart from the clip-clop of a donkey and its cart loaded with what looked like a kind of green fodder, the only other sound was the snapping of seedpods. With packs sticking to our backs, we walked towards the sagging, half broken sign that told us it was 180 kilometres from the border to Barcelona. That was no help at all.

As we crunched along the shingle edge of the road, where every stone impressed itself on the soles of our feet, ever-optimistic, Paula turned and grinned at me. “I’ve no idea what they were talking about, but it seems we’re not going to be clapped in irons.”

Once we’re out of sight, even if it’s unlikely, a car might catch us around that corner. So far I haven’t seen anything that even looks like a car,” I replied.

All morning it’s been donkeys and hand-carts, maybe the occasional horse or mule. It’s depressing to see these faithful animals in this horrendous heat balancing on their backs such huge loads or local lads.” said Paula.
I smiled, “Did you notice the enormous pile of hay that over-heated man had loaded onto the carrier of his rusty old bike? We’re certainly not going to get a lift on that!” I lifted my hat to allow a tiny breeze to cool my head.

Meanwhile, scuffing along the side of the unsealed road in our light cotton dresses, we were unaware of being followed. Having strolled about 200 yards we were nearing a sweeping corner, which we hoped would soon have us out of sight of the guards and free to raise an ‘innocent’ thumb.

A man’s voice called after us, “Senoritas.”

Alarmed, we turned to find an armed border guard close behind.

Venir con migo Senoritas,” said the panting guard. He pointed to a partly hidden path that led off the road through shoulder-high scrub. What could he mean? There was no doubting the authority in his voice but when his mate arrived red-faced and puffing alongside, there seemed little point in arguing the rights or wrongs of our situation. We glanced at one another; what had we done?

Come with me,’ in a commanding voice was an order in any language. After a hasty discussion we turned and walked down the narrow path. One guard forged ahead while the other ambled behind, deliberately forming a barrier to any chance of a get-away on our part. And I can’t say we didn’t consider risking a sideways dash through the thick and prickly scrub.

Alphonse the first guard (although we hadn’t learned his name at that stage), seemed to be of similar age to Paula and me ... 23. Both guards wore heavy, stifling black uniforms, brass buttons fastened to the neck, heavy boots and peaked caps. We sweated in our cotton. The baked earth was hot under our sandals and the scent of sagebrush filled the still air. Like a pair of subdued sheep, we continued, Indian file. We were led through head-high growth for five or ten minutes until we emerged in an open area. Though still surrounded by scrubby bushes there were three or four poplar trees with sparse shade.

There was a mild discussion between the two guards. Miguel, the senior of the two, insisted that Paula stay with him beneath one of the trees. He indicated for her to sit there, in no uncertain tones.

And what’s going to happen to me?” I asked. Could this be a new slant on the white slave trade, or am I about to employ for my personal security, bone and muscle I never knew I had? With my brain in full alarm mode, it seemed things were now way out of our control. I looked back at Paula, “Just stay in the shade, I’m sure you’ll be OK.” But what was going to happen to me? This remote valley was full of inhospitable brush, no greenery and not a river or bird in sight, clearly
no houses or inhabitants.

Venir con migo, Senorita,” there it was again. The guard pointed to his chest, “Alphonse,” and a thumb indicating his mate, “Miguel.” Alphonse’s hand signals clearly indicated that I should follow him up the valley. Sitting at the feet of Miguel, Paula shot me an anguished look. Miguel’s holstered revolver was exactly at her eye level. Her eyes pleaded, ‘Please don’t go.’

Under the relentless sun, my imagination only added anguish to my thirst and fear. How on earth had we got ourselves into this mess? No-one in the whole world would have a clue where we were, not even the country we were in. We hadn’t done anything illegal as far as we knew; merely walked through the barrier from one country to another and with the guards’ permission.

Alphonse led me further over the stony ground fringed with dried grass into a valley of hostile brush-cover and massive lichen-covered rocks with the occasional stunted tree. I had no idea which way to run for safety or help and my brain refused to consider what might be happening to Paula. Heart racing, I knew neither one was in a position to help the other. The valley was miles long and empty of houses or indeed buildings of any kind. Because we had dropped to a lower level, I could no longer see the border office buildings and apart from the ever-present guard, there were no people to be seen or heard. But occasionally a lark quavered in the stillness.

What of Spanish law? Was it rape or a bullet in the head for even thinking of hitchhiking? I looked back over my shoulder as we walked away, but by now, Paula and her guard under the poplar trees were well out of sight. I took a close look at my ‘captor.’ Maybe trying to be friendly would help. “How long have you been a guard?” But he merely turned and smiled; well that was a comfort! Clearly, his English was as useful as my Spanish.

After scrambling through scrub and over rocks for a scary ten minutes, heat noises began to sing in my head and down my back, the fabric between my shoulder blades had stuck with gathering perspiration. I longed for a cool drink, so could only watch my unexpected escort in astonishment as we approached a huge rock about the size of a small car. Pulling a cork from a pipe embedded in its centre, he collected two enamel mugs from a crevice and filled them with the ice-cold water that gushed from inside the rock!

Wow! Wow! Was this Spanish magic? Where could that water possibly come from? What’s more, my guardian as I began to think of him, knew exactly where to find it. Nothing made sense. After one drink I indicated to Alphonse that I’d like a second one and poured the mug-full straight over my hat and head. What a relief! He laughed and refilled the mugs and pushed the cork back into the pipe.

Meanwhile, I was thinking as we turned to retrace our steps, how was Paula coping in this surreal world? Her safety was constantly in my mind as I feared for her virtue or, God forbid, even her life, and flinched at what I might find on our return.

I found her standing in the poplar tree shade with Miguel beside her. Our eyes met in silent question and relief. We were afraid to speak, as we had no real idea how much English the guards understood. Any plans on running away would have to be linked, one to the other. How could we do that? We crowded into the meagre shade and Alphonse handed Paula and Miguel a mug each of sparkling spring water.

Where would you expect to find spring water in the middle of this barren valley?” I asked Paula.

If you dug a very deep hole?” Paula looked unconvinced by her own words.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. He took a cork out of a pipe that was stuck in the side of a rock. Even had these two mugs sitting there waiting, hiding round the back of the rock. He filled them for us to drink, then refilled them for you two. I’ve no idea how that could be possible, but that’s exactly what he did.”

Paula smiled and drank to the bottom of the mug. Ever sanguine she said, “What I want to know is, why is your hair dripping wet?”

Alphonse went off to replace the mugs in their crevice and on his return, the men loosened their collars and began to teach us Spanish phrases. We learned ‘si,’ ‘buenos noches,’ ‘adios,’ ‘gratias,’ ‘por favor,’ and surprisingly, ‘no.’ We noticed the ‘no’ came last and were even more surprised that ‘no’ served either language! We even learned to count to ten, a knowhow that served me well two years later; but that’s another story. We scratched a rough map in the dust to illustrate where in the world was ‘Neuva Zelanda.’ The guards were not convinced that young women travelling on their own would have come from a land so far away.

Si, si,” said Alphonse, “So, so, joven.”

Joven?” said I.

Si, joven,” and he rocked his arms as if holding a baby. The meaning was clear, he thought we were too young to be wandering around the world—we laughed.

After touring Europe for four months, my hair had sun-bleached to a silver blonde. They pointed to my hair and said ‘Eeengleesh, Eeengleesh.’ Clearly New Zealand had not been a part of their school Social Studies or Geography.

Australia!” I said

Aah! Orstrarlia,” replied Alphonse. “Entiendo.”

Good for you,” Paula grinned, “At least you got us into the southern hemisphere.”

Eventually, growing bored with teaching meaningful words of Spanish origin Alphonse rose from lounging on his elbow and mystified us both by pushing the stalks of three poplar leaves into the bark of one of the trees. He turned, strode back some twenty paces along what, centuries ago may have been a river bed, turned towards the poplars and pulling his revolver from its holster fired at the leaves. The three leaves remained exactly as the guard had placed them. We were left in no doubt ... those things were real. The shots echoed up and down the valley like a death sentence.
Undeterred, Alphonse tried again with the same result; handing the gun over, he insisted Paula, despite her trembling hands, should have a go. Then, even more nervous than Paula, I was handed the weapon. I fired and as before, the leaves remained unperturbed on the tree trunk. Clearly no-one was adept with a hand-gun. We could only assume they were a deterrent for show, rather than for accuracy and use.

While still under the trees the young guards suggested a ‘photo.’ Such a request is clear in any language. Looking back on those photographs, Alphonse and Miguel will remain two handsome young men wearing baggy, unimpressive uniforms, forever standing beneath two poplar trees in a barren Spanish valley.

Two hours after the ‘kidnapping’ and our ill-fated attempts at leaf targets; as two extremely relieved tourists, we were escorted back to the main road.

Here, the guards ‘auto-stopped’ the first car that appeared among the donkey carts and handed us and our packs into the back seat. To our amazement, Miguel and Alphonse stepped forward and each kissed a hand.
Wow! That had never happened to us before. Then they paced back, stood to attention and farewelled us with snappy salutes.

After all these years, we still remember Spain, Miguel and Alphonse with great affection.

Hitch-hiking in those days wasn’t the ‘dress-up affair' with HUGE pack on one's back that is common today. We both had on our backs, tiny satchels with the barest minium of clothes change and toiletries. Our travels through Europe over 4 months, covered 13 countries. There was little fear of kidnapping or assault—times were different then.

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