Vintage Jim McDermott: Going Where You're Meant To Go, A Road Trip, Part Two
Thank God for the fates, for Noriyuki Haga, the number 41, and Estrella....goodbye.

It's hard to get your ass in gear once you settle in at El Chozo, a getaway bar in Tarifa Spain. El Chozo (the shack) is the kind of joint you'd end up at with a suitcase full of stolen money, dyed hair and clothes that blend you in with the locals. It's not a rough joint per se, but wise patrons stick to tequila or cerveza - best not to order anything with an umbrella in it. You sit in the sun at a weather beaten picnic bench, watching windsurfers dart back and forth on top of the waves. Tarifa is located at Spain's southernmost tip, the African continent visible across the Mediterranean. The wind is unrelenting. Sea spray froths onto the porch, Jackson-Pollocking your Wayfarer lenses. Familiar sounding music you've never heard plays on the bar's crackly stereo. My travel buddy Tim Orr and I were headed to Portimao for the World Superbike races. We had only two days left to get across the rest of Spain and all of Portugal, but El Chozo's gravitational pull was very strong and we weren't moving. Digging into yet another epic paella, Tim's moby rang. It was WSBK announcer Jonathan Green, already on the ground in Portugal but missing companions likely to encourage misbehavior. Jonno was going on about how amazing Portimao was, chiding us to hit the road to Portugal and join him for dinner in the old port town. We were eager to see the new circuit, so a quick "la quenta, por favor" to the barman, and our time on the lam in Tarifa was over.

Long renowned for lenient enforcement of posted speed limits, Spain has cracked down in recent years due to a staggering number of highway crash atrocities. That said, so long as you're not in a residential area or driving like you're in the Gumball Rally, you can roll at a pretty good clip. In the south, antique billboards appear roadside, large black bulls from the late 1950's which advertised Grupo Osborne alcohol products. Spain banned all billboard advertising several years ago, but the black silhouettes were so beloved by the people that an exception was made, and they are now protected landmarks. Tim kept his foot down, and we noted our progress by the blur of the wooden toros. We arrived in Portimao just after the sun went down, making good time.

Out for dinner, the port area in Alvor is much smaller than Portimao. There are plenty of tourist dives to get sucked into, "authentic" English pubs where you can get soggy fish and chips and flat beer for 20 Euros. We ignored the barkers outside the traps and chose an excellent seafood restaurant right at the waterfront called Ababuja. Brightly painted fishing boats are anchored just outside. Fishermen sell their daily catch to the eatery, and within a few hours it's being grilled outside on an open wood fire. We sat down and a gaunt, ashen-complexioned waiter floated over to our table. Protruding front teeth, deep socketed eyes and a wavy curl of hair breaking across his forehead, he was Nosferatu with a cowlick. His accent was playing the part too, the Portuguese a mix of Spanish and Transylvanian tonalities, spoken in a vampyre cadence. He recommended "greeled veelette ov goulden cee bereem." The food was incredible, especially a tray of fingernail sized clams, hundreds of them sitting in garlic and wine broth. Jonathan Green shared racing tales, gripping but in a far less animated manner than his typical WSBK broadcasts (although he did mention that the food was "cracking!" and his favorite seafood restaurant back home was now "relegated to 2nd place!")

It was tough getting into the Algarve racetrack for the first few days, the main road in wasn't finished. We drove up every damned dead end in the Portuguese countryside before we figured out the way in. Right up until race day, they were building the place, an army of men moving earth in giant construction vehicles. Incredibly, come Sunday morning, everything was ready. The script played out perfectly, Troy Bayliss winning both races, one of his textbook make-the-magic-look- easy performances, and then he was retired. It was sad, it was the last Beatles gig on the Apple rooftop, but at least we were there to see Troy win his last World Superbike races. And better yet, I was scheduled to ride Troy's bike, and 4 other factory WSBK machines the following day.

I tipped the 1098 F08 into the corner, feeling confident, eyes glued to the exit. Without warning, the front tire slid away towards the outside of the turn, violently throwing me to the tarmac. My head slammed against the ground as I rolled, watching the factory Ducati pirouette away from me, carbon fiber splintering, titanium sparking as the footpegs dug in. Bodywork flew into the air as I came to a stop in the middle of the track, unable to move. A speeding factory Honda came around the corner, too fast to stop and headed right for me. I curled into a fetal position, waiting for the impact, screaming.......and then woke up in my bed at the hotel. Talk about the other of all "night before track day" bad dreams. At 5am I decided I'd had enough and went downstairs to find coffee. Before long it was time to go to the track. Riding the World Superbikes was surreal, it felt as if any moment someone would ask what the hell I was doing sitting on the motorcycle. Journalist credentials open many doors, but not all of them. During a race weekend, you have to tread very carefully while a team is at work in their garage, staying well clear of the bikes. Now, the mechanics were rolling the machines out for me, blipping the throttle to keep the idle up as I mounted. It was like being in a waking dream. Like all good dreams, it was over long before I wanted it to be. Gear packed and in the boot of the car, I took one last look at the team transporters, hospitality units and grandstands and thought, "did that really just happen?" And then we were off to Cordoba.

Spain is one of those countries with big skies, where the scenery bends around your ears like a giant Imax screen. It feels as though you can see for 1,000 miles out through the windshield. As dusk fell, huge thunderclouds rolled in, dragging along black tendrils of rain. Every few moments, lightning flashed larger than I had ever seen, brighter than daylight. A huge boom followed, sounding more like an airstrike than thunder. Escaping the atom bomb skies, we ducked into a rest stop for coffee and a slash. Former WSBK rider Giancarlo Falappa pulled in right next to us in his bright red Ducati truck - you know the weather's bad when even Falappa says "uncle". After 1/2 hour, the storm passed, and we got back on the road to Cordoba. Taking an exit ramp off the motorway, we were surprised to see a Policeman on the shoulder, soaking wet and waving his arms frantically. Clearly he wanted us to slow down; we did, just in time to round the turn into a sea of 50,000 Valencia oranges. A lorry truck, it's fabric side covers torn open, had taken the curve too fast in the rain, and it's entire cargo had spilled across the road. The oranges covered the asphalt, 3 or 4 deep between the concrete barriers, and we hit them at about 30 miles an hour. The wheel shimmied back and forth in Tim's hands as fruit THUNK THUNK THUNKED against the undercarriage of the rental car. Just as the rear of the car started to get sideways, we cleared the orange field and thankfully, got traction. It would have been fun to fill out the rental car collision report, though: CAUSE OF ACCIDENT: CRASHED INTO ORANGES.

We parked the car in Cordoba, in an underground garage. Founded by the Romans and once a Muslim capital, Cordoba's old town is a labyrinth of narrow stone streets. Cold rain was drizzling and we were hungry. It was only 9pm, very early for a Spanish dinner, and we couldn't find anything open yet, except fast food. On the verge of going to McDonald's, we heard singing and guitar drifting from a bar, so we went inside. There were two older men sitting at a wooden table, surrounded by a dozen friends. They had one guitar between them, which they traded back and forth depending on who knew the song, accompanying each other. Enjoying the wonderful impromptu concert, we ordered a simple meal of fried calimari, steak, and red wine (it's amazing how many green vegetables can be avoided when you leave your significant other at home.)

Our last day on tour started at a cafe counter, drizzling pureed tomato over thick slices of toast, with crumbles of dried ham and manchego cheese on top. Rich coffee in a small plastic glass and a newspaper, that's a Spanish breakfast. It was election day back home, McCain & Obama on every newspaper cover. We sat at the counter, amongst exhaled clouds of bluish cigarette smoke. Cordobans were starting their morning too, busy but quiet in the small cafe. Cafe tradition encourages customers to throw their small trash on the floor, sugar packets, napkins and Marlboro butts which are swept up sporadically. When the proprietor took up a straw broom in his hands, we tossed back the last of our coffees and left. In the underground garage, we noticed a strong citrus scent as though someone had been cleaning, but realized it was the remnants of the oranges stuck to the bottom of our rental car.

Madrid is several hours drive from Cordoba. 2 weeks on the road, every night a late one, you start to long for the pleasant boredom of home. But an epic trip must end with a crescendo, not a whimper. It's always harder to find a good bar in a big city than a small one. We wandered Madrid for 2 hours, nothing but sports bars and theme bars and doormen with headsets and overcoats. About ready to pack it in, we found ourselves in front of a huge wooden door. It was a bar with no fancy name, the only marking on it the number "41". Tim said,"Hey, that's Haga's WSBK number. This must be our place." Almost empty inside, a DJ was spinning good 70's rock records while a middle-aged couple at the bar rediscovered the joys of heavy petting. And then there was the bartender. Supermodel thin, 5'9, long brown hair, and a face that would make Gisele Bundchen go put on more makeup. She was friendly, told us she made the best mojitos in Madrid and was eager to prove it. We sat transfixed as she muddled, telling of her journey from Uruguay to become a model and Spanish TV presenter. "OK, let's see what you think of these," she said, setting down two short, wide glasses on the bar before us, bits of mint leaf still circling in the crushed ice and rum. November is quite late in the season to be drinking mojitos; perhaps I was feeling a bit sentimental as our trip was ending. But honestly, it was the best damned mojito I've ever had. Tim concurred.

The heavy petters squeezed themselves thru 41's front door, leaving the three of us alone with the DJ. Everything got a bit looser, like it always does in a friendly joint with a sympathetic bartender. First you're smoking one of her cigarettes, even though you don't smoke. Then you're giving the DJ shit about the tunes he's playing, "don't you have "Goat's Head Soup?" Play Star Star..."" Then you ask her name. "Vicky Gonzales" she answers. Drunk and stupid, mixing offense with compliment, you reply "Vicky Gonzales? That can't be your name. You're gonna be a TV Star. With a name like Vicky Gonzales you sound like a single mother of two from Jackson Heights, Queens. You need a single name, like a Supermodel." Perfect and forgiving, Vicky Gonzales from Uruguay laughs and says "OK American guy, what is my new name?" Hmmmmm..."What's the Spanish word for star? Estrella? Yes, that's your new name. From now on you're Estrella." So we stay and drink and talk with Estrella from Uruguay, about South American beaches, where the girls, she insists, are much better looking than herself. She asks questions about London and NYC, says she's go there someday. You say "of course you will," and mean it. Closing time comes way too fast. Despite consuming God knows how many rounds of mojitos, the bill comes, only 20 euros. We protest the tiny charge, but Estrella insists, the bill is 20 euros. Toss back the last drops in the short glass, place it down on top of 50 euro note. "Come back tomorrow, amigos," Estrella says. But we're flying home tomorrow, to England and the USA, so she kisses us on both cheeks, and we wish her luck, scolding that we expect to see her on television next time we are in Spain. Thank God for the fates, for Noriyuki Haga, the number 41, and Estrella....goodbye.

And then we're back on the cold streets with our bent bearings, looking for our hotel. Vagabonding through Spain and Portugal, every day brought unexpected pleasures, tastes and sights. A bit of life without structure does a man good, for a short while anyway. Now, we had somewhere to be again, people and places that were missed. It was time to go home.

Jim McDermott lives in New York City
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