Lauren is asking a pair of police officers nearby if they know of any cheap hostels when Pablo approaches me. Our bikes and deer-in-headlights gaze have given away that we are not from here. Pablo asks where we're from. Are we lost?
A little. I tell him our sob story: from America, long bike trip, just arrived, looking for somewhere to camp, having great difficulty. He's friendly but doesn't know of any spots in the city. He hasn't lived here for a while. He's from Algeciras, and his whole family is still here, but he works up in Belgium. He's home for the holidays.
Let me go ask my brother, he says. In the meantime, come join the party. Can I get you some hot cocoa? Pastries? Here, take these.
It's ten minutes later and we're surrounded by Pablo and his family. We're drinking hot chocolate and eating pastries baked by his aunt and listening to kids singing carols on the other side of the park.
Pablo's brother Miguel is here. He's every bit as warm and friendly as Pablo, and he's kindly offered a solution to our seemingly unending dilemma of just needing a place to camp. I live ten kilometers outside of town, he tells us. You're welcome to camp at my place.
It's not close, but it's something. It is a place to sleep, and at this very moment that sounds like the most wonderful thing in the world.
Pablo and Miguel reconsider. Cycling there at night, especially with all the drinking and revelry going on, is perhaps not the best idea. Okay. New plan.
The new plan is this: we'll leave our bicycles in Miguel and Pablo's aunt's garage just around the corner. Miguel has to go meet some friends for dinner, but he'll be done in a few hours. We'll meet him after, and we'll all drive back to his place together. We can sleep in his house, and in the morning he can drive us back into town to fetch our bikes.
This sounds great. Magical. We thank Miguel profusely and exchange numbers. Miguel heads off, and Pablo asks if we'd like to get a drink at a pub nearby.
He kindly buys us a round, and we talk with Pablo for an hour or two about Spain and Belgium and Algeciras and Brussels and our bike trip. Miguel messages. Dinner's over. He and his wife and his sister-in-law are having a drink just down the block. We're invited to join.
Pablo, Lauren, and I walk through the busy, festive streets of old town Algeciras. We find Miguel in the back of a small local establishment. He's seated next to Alicia, his wife, and Rocio, Alicia's sister. They greet us warmly, push beers and tapas in our direction, and ask us all about our travels through Africa.
The conversation shifts to Spanish. Pablo speaks fluent English and Miguel good English, but the sisters speak less of it. Thankfully, Lauren speaks Spanish. I'd always understood it as very good Spanish, but I'm once again impressed by her language skills. Lauren speaks really excellent Spanish.
As for me. I understand Spanish. I can follow along just fine. But I speak it terribly. My accent is all wrong, and I'm very self-conscious about it, so I've developed this weird sort of Spanish stutter over the years. In my head I speak Spanish with the sultry swagger of Antonio Banderas—like, the real words are actually there, and they sound nice—but they dissolve to mush by the time they've reached my mouth. What comes out is a bit more like a Minnesotan reading from a Frommer's Useful Phrases to Know During Your Weekend Getaway to Madrid leaflet.
So I listen, which isn't the worst thing anyway. The night wears on and, a few drinks down the line, Rocio and Alicia decide they want to go to a venue with some live music. We agree to tag along, but when we arrive there's an unexpected cover and the inevitable investment of an hour or two of your time that the cover buys you. Lauren and I are beleaguered. I'm still sick from Fes, and Lauren's not feeling the best. And we did, after all, wake up this morning in a different country, on a different continent, bike about forty kilometers, take a ferry, face a litany of rejection, and get in two collisions. It has been a very long day.
We try to hide our exhaustion. But our new friends catch our suppressed yawns. "Mira," Rocio says. Miguel will take you back to my apartment, just a few blocks from here. My son is with his father and you can sleep in his room. Sound good?
It sounds great. We follow Miguel to Rocio's flat, thank him a million times over, and hug him goodnight before he heads back out for a few more hours of holiday revelry with Alicia and Rocio. And then, finally, for the first time since Morocco, we lie down and sleep.
A day passes.
We'd intended to hit the road the morning after we met Pablo, Miguel, Alicia, and Rocio. But they would have none of it. After learning that we had no plans for the holidays, they insisted we stick around. Spend it indoors. With good people. Partake in the Spanish traditions. Stay and celebrate.
To us, it's a Christmas miracle.
Our time in Algeciras is one of the best times we've had on this slow, winding journey. Had we done the ordinary thing and booked a hotel room right off the ferry, we would have had a fine but uneventful night of sleep. We would have left in the morning, well-rested, and probably spent a cold, lonely Christmas somewhere in our tent. We would remember Algeciras as nothing but a gritty, expensive rest stop on our long way around the world. Not the end of the world, but not the best of it either.
Instead, here's what we remember. Food. Lots and lots of it. Salad and soup and pasta and bread and chocolate and cake and one million little tapas. Dishes made vegan and vegetarian all on account of us. Lunches spanning hours and dinners that begin at four and end at two in the morning. Coffee served at two in the morning to keep folks up until five in the morning. Olive oil and walnuts and wine. Oh, so much wine.
Long, lazy mornings. Hangovers. Walking out into the crisp Mediterranean air with all our coats. Mostly grey skies, but so many twinkling lights you feel warm anyway. Christmas trees everywhere. The smell of juniper. Old brick, old stone. Honey rum. Everyone dressed in their most stylish clothes. Besitos for all: one kiss on the right cheek, one on the left. Riveting flamenco with twenty new friends at a ritzy downtown bar. Big cookouts. Food and drink always finding its way into our hands and plates.
Family. So big and so full of life. Hermanas and tíos and abuelos and primas and amigos por toda la vida. Way too many names and connections to keep straight. Lots of laughter and lots of love. Lots of meals. Lots of Spanish. So much Spanish it gives me headaches by the end of the day, trying to understand it all. Or maybe that's just the wine and honey rum.
The meals begin on Christmas Eve Eve and continue through to Christmas. We rush from one engagement to the next, and are brought along like close relatives or old friends. We're greeted and treated like part of the family. Our Christmas Eve consists of maybe five separate outings, beginning in late morning and continuing on well past midnight. Our Christmas is spent eating all the food that didn't get eaten on Christmas Eve. This takes some time, and everyone has plenty.
In a few short days, we grow very close to our adoptive family. Though we visit Miguel and Alicia's house one afternoon, mostly we stay in town at Rocio's. So do Miguel and Alicia, one big sleepover close to all the action. We talk a lot, always in Spanish, and we promise to keep in touch once we leave. We keep that promise.
On the drizzly grey morning of the twenty-sixth of December, we reclaim our bicycles from the garage we'd left them in days earlier. We have one of the most difficult goodbyes of this trip. We thank our new friends for making our Christmas so very special, and our stay in Algeciras one we'll always cherish. We say we'd love to stay forever, and this is true. But the road calls, they all have post-holiday lives to get back to, and our ninety-day-entry into the European Union's Schengen Area has already begun its count.
Well-rested, well-fed, and so very well-cared-for (and with several quarts of leftover Christmas soup in our panniers), we pedal out into the rain.
Back over our second or third Christmas Eve dinner, I'd asked in my broken Spanish how the road to Ronda was. I was told in the universal language of a hand going almost vertically skyward that the road to Ronda was very steep.
The road to Ronda is very steep.
It starts flat enough. We leave Algeciras the only way we really can, the one road out of town headed north. This road is a highway. We know we're not really allowed on it, but there is no other way to get out of the city. It's like Cape Town all over again.
It's never pleasant to cycle on a highway. It's decidedly less pleasant to cycle on a highway in the rain. The morning has gone from a light mist to proper precipitation, heavy and constant. Motorists zip by and splash big puddles onto us and our bikes. Our "waterproof" gloves are still pretty worthless.
A vehicle slows behind me. I turn to look and it's a police van. Wonderful. It flashes its lights and signals for us to pull over.
We dismount on an exit ramp and greet the officers in Spanish. You know, they say, this isn't a good road to be cycling on.
Pues, claro, we say. Do you think we want to be here?
The day brightens. Less highway, less rain, no more traffic stops. A little sun, even. We've left the city and entered el campo. It's quite beautiful. Verdant and lush, with bike paths and old castles and rolling vineyards.
The climbing we were promised delivers. We slog up several kilometers of steep grades just before dusk. We get permission from a farmer to camp on the edge of his farm for the evening, and in the morning we continue the ascent.
A thousand meters above sea level somewhere deep in the Sierra Nevada is not a very nice place to be in late December. Beautiful, yes, but also very cold. Cold and so windy that we have to stop pedaling and clutch our bicycles to keep them from blowing over.
More rain, more wind, and a chilling, dark descent into the town of Ronda. We ask a man on the edge of the city if he knows of anywhere it'd be okay to camp and he guides us to some abandoned construction just next door. It has a roof and walls and plenty of dry ground for our tent. It'll do nicely.
So back in Africa, it was hot. Oppressively, inescapably hot. In Botswana and Zambia it was hot all day, and by the time we reached Malawi it was hot all night, too. At a certain point, the heat just made everything less enjoyable.
The plan was to maybe continue north toward Egypt, but (along with some other factors), the heat is really what did us in. Kenya, we were told, would be hotter. Sudan hotter still.
We spend a lot of time outside. Close to twenty-four hours per day, most days. So decent weather is important to us. We were tired of hot. We wanted cold.
Europe in the winter sounded dreamy. Snow atop old churches! Bustling Christmas markets! Everyone wrapped up in scarves and mittens! Hot cocoa in cozy cafes! Cheap prices and no tourists!
So we booked our flights to Morocco, and we cycled over to Spain, and we promised ourselves—though we knew it would be cold and rainy—that we would never, ever complain about the cold and the rain.
It is so damn cold and so damn rainy here in Ronda. It was cold yesterday and it's even more frigid today. The sun is floating around somewhere behind these dour clouds, I'm sure, but looking at the sky I couldn't tell you where it is. The sky is the color of charcoal and miniatures lakes and rivers have sprung up between the pockmarked cobblestones outside.
Ronda is gorgeous, no doubt. Even the dreariest of days can't hide that. It has a big old bridge and a deep gorge running right through town. And like every last settlement in Europe, there's a quaint old town built just for walking, with wide pedestrian avenues and hordes of slowly ambling window shoppers.
Today, though, they're all hidden away under umbrellas. Lauren and I are not carrying umbrellas, and so we're trudging through the center of town in our full waterproofs, puffy underneath with several coats, like we just stepped off a mountain. Ronda is, after all, in the mountains.
We spend half the day sitting in a cafe waiting for the rain to stop. It doesn't. Nor is sitting in a cafe for half the day as cozy and convivial as we'd imagined it back on the sweaty shores of Lake Malawi. It's just ... damp.
By mid-afternoon, we suck it up and bike on in the rain. The cycling is quite pretty, featuring a few beautiful descents. Temperature climbs by about one degree Celsius for every one hundred meters of elevation lost, and so things are actually a bit warmer by the time we reach Campillos.
It's a farming town, Campillos, which means all the land along the roadside is fenced off. We ask at the edge of town about a place to camp and we're pointed in the direction of some abandoned buildings by the train station. We're told camping there will be no problem.
We bike down a rutted dirt road to the crumbling warehouses. They smell a bit musty, like mildew and asbestos, but they are nonetheless concrete on four sides with a roof and a floor. Shelter from the rain and the wind, and a place to camp that won't leave us and our tent covered in mud.
Technically, they don't all have floors. Solid ones, at least. The floors in the larger buildings are slatted, long strips of nothingness dropping to a subfloor deeper below. We come to learn (incidentally, from a man on a bicycle taking some drone photography in the complex, who hands us each a beer before leaving for the night) that this place used to be an abattoir. A slaughterhouse. Those slats in the floor were for pig droppings and pig blood.
We camp in one of the smaller units with no slats in the floor.