It was the summer of 2006. Low-cost airlines in Europe have just become known in wider circles, so you could still get dirt-cheap tickets. My boyfriend, Greg and I decided to go on a spontaneous trip – eight destinations in four weeks for about three hundred dollars. Not a bad deal, huh?
We were to fly from Porto to Madrid, except we missed our plane. Not only were we penniless students, but this also happened right after I’d been robbed in Barcelona – our first destination on the trip. We couldn’t afford an extra flight ticket, nor could we have paid for a hostel room, so we stayed at the airport. For four nights. We searched for an abandoned spot, laid out our sleeping bags on the floor, and so our “semi-homeless” life began.
I must say the place was perfect. Clean, in a far corner that not many could see, and in close proximity to restrooms. No one bothered us, and the only thing that caused some inconvenience, at first, was hygiene. However, by day 4, I felt no shame in locking myself in the disabled toilet, getting naked, and washing myself like I had been doing this my entire life. When we finally continued our journey, I almost started to miss our airport home.
Instead of flying, we decided to take a bus that was supposed to take us to a small town by the Spanish border, and we thought we would hitchhike from there. When we bought our tickets, we were asked us if we wanted to get off at the last stop or the one before. Not sure why, but there was a big difference in price, so logically, we went for the cheaper option.
The crew was pretty laid-back, and nobody cared what was going on, which led us both to the same idea. As we were approaching our stop, Greg and I shared a terrified look, and instead of gathering our stuff, we remained seated. We didn’t say a word, but we both knew that we had been toying with the same idea. The bus pulled into the stop, a couple of passengers got off, and two minutes later, we hit the road again.
We grinned at each other filled with pride but felt a little guilty. Cheating wasn’t our style. (Well, not before.) Our logic suggested that the town at the end destination would be bigger than the one we bought our ticket for, and so it’d be easier to find a cheap bus to Madrid or hitchhike. Huge mistake.
We ended up in a village with no proper infrastructure and no English-speaking souls. There was ONE sixteen-year-old girl, who could understand some English, and she translated everything for the whole community. Because of course, everyone got curious when they heard about the two crazy foreigners without any money and Portuguese language skills, who wanted to hitchhike to Spain. And what was their reaction? They simply laughed in our face. They shook their head in disbelief and kept repeating that nobody would ever pick us up. Since the next bus to Madrid was going to leave in two days only, we didn’t have much of a choice but give it a shot anyway, hoping that someone would eventually pity us.
To increase the odds, Greg and I split and stood at different intersections. Sadly, the village people seemed to have been right: all we got was a lot of honking, smiles, and raised thumbs. Some drivers pulled over just to tell us how crazy we were and have a giggle, then wished us good luck and drove away.
As time went by, our initial enthusiasm had waned a little, but we didn’t give up. The clock almost struck 11 pm, and I started to get grouchy when I saw Greg running towards me. “Come on, a Spanish guy takes us,” he said, grinning.
A Spanish guy… What a weirdo he was! Which, of course, I wasn’t aware of at that point.
When we jumped into his car, he didn’t even bother to say hi to me or even look at me, but he was all over Greg, so I thought he was gay. I didn’t speak Spanish or any other Roman languages, whereas Greg was fluent in Italian, so everything was in his hands. He sat in the front seat, I stayed in the back.
Half an hour in, and the guy started yawning and said he needed a coffee, so we stopped at a restaurant. We walked in, and without saying a word, he grabbed my shoulders, pulled me to his chest, and squeezed me like we were best friends that hadn’t seen each other for a long time. I was a little shocked but not as much as when he, a second later, kissed me on both cheeks – leaving a trickle of saliva on my face – and cheerfully screamed into my ear how lovely it was meeting me. Awkward. It was past midnight and pitch black outside when we finally got back into the car.
We were driving on a highway in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t have the slightest idea how far we could be from Madrid or even the Spanish border. Out of the blue, a police car appeared and signaled us to pull over. Two cops walked over to us; they wanted the guy and Greg out of the car and instructed me to stay inside. Strange. They talked so loud, it almost sounded like screaming, but I didn’t understand a word. They were patting them down, looking for drugs. WTF? (Before you asked, we didn’t have any.)
One of the police officers was speaking to Greg, glancing at me from time to time. Even though I didn’t speak the language, I could sense that he was worried. A few minutes later, they let us go, and we disappeared into the night again. Greg told me later that the cops said to him we were idiots to have gotten into a stranger’s car. Not a good sign.
I accidentally looked into the front mirror and, to my surprise, I found myself gazing in the eyes of our driver. I turned away and started to wonder whether this meant that he was watching me instead of the traffic. Then I remembered one of my teachers in 6th grade mentioning in Physics class, “If you can see someone in a mirror, that person can see you too.” This memory and the recognition made me uneasy.
I was avoiding his gaze.
A moment later, I felt hands on my legs. Hands that seemed to be searching for something. There was a water bottle lying next to me on the floor, so I thought he was thirsty and handed him the bottle. He took a swig and placed the flask back, “accidentally” bumping into my legs with his hands.
Five minutes later, the same scenario happened; except that this time, he was staring at me in the mirror while “looking for the water.” I was still in naïve mode (not even a little bit suspicious!) and gave him the bottle again. He drank. For the third time, he didn’t even try to pretend, he simply grabbed my legs and started stroking them. The penny had finally dropped. I froze for a moment, but then my brain finally decided to cooperate – I pushed his hand away. He didn’t give up that easily, though. He touched me again, which I rewarded with a hard kick into his hand and giving him the meanest look ever in the mirror.
At this point, I switched to a “semi-panic” mode. I didn’t know what to do. It was 1 am; we were still on a highway in the middle of nowhere, and the guy was twice as big as Greg. My brain was working hard, “Should I tell Greg what’s happening? And then? What could he do? What could we do here in the middle of nowhere?” So I decided to keep it together and deal with the situation by myself and tried to be as firm as possible.
In the meantime, the weirdo kept talking to Greg, and I could figure out that he was trying to convince him that we spent the night at his place. I leaned forward to whisper into Greg’s ear that under no circumstances I was willing to stay in the dude’s house. Luckily, he wasn’t going to consider that option either.
I spent the rest of the ride chanting a mantra: “Please drop us off at the train station, please drop us off at the train station.” It worked. The guy lived in Avila, which is about fifty miles away from Madrid, and around 3 am, he finally pulled over at the local train station to drop us off. He made a last attempt to persuade us to stay with him, pointing out that the train station wouldn’t be open until 5 am, which was true, but we insisted that we would be fine, so he finally left us alone.
The moment his car lights disappeared in the darkness, my shaking body collapsed into Greg’s arms, and I told him everything that had happened. He had no idea. He hugged me tight until I calmed down.
We spent the next couple of hours trying to sleep in the staircase of the only one apartment building we’d found unlocked and caught the first train to Madrid in the early morning.
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