Tuesday, 10 September 2002
I pulled into the motorway service station and parked the Beast outside the shop. The sky was dark and heavy and in the distance the beginnings of the long-awaited thunderstorm could be heard. Although only 50 kms from Barcelona it had taken over an hour to find my way to the autopista leading to Zaragossa. Following signs for Tarragona had not helped either. Just because they sounded similar did not mean they were near each other.
The ‘Service Engine Soon’ light had come on again on the dashboard and I needed more petrol additive to clean the catalytic converters before refuelling. Locking the doors carefully, I went in to the motorway kiosk and found what I was looking for.
I also found stuff I couldn’t imagine anyone on a motorway journey wishing to buy. Whole hams. Woollen sweaters. Hats. Who needs to send a fax whilst crossing Spain?
I went back to the car and was horrified to see the rear tyre was flat. What a stroke of bad luck!
Yet good luck too, for it to happen at the service area and not at high speed in the middle of nowhere. I had a quick look and couldn’t see any nails or glass sticking in the tread.
I asked the pump attendant, an old man with greasy overalls, if there were any tyre repair facilities on the site and he said, “No, but there’s a garage 5 kms up the motorway at the next exit.”
I took out the jack and the silly little emergency spare tyre from the boot and set about changing the wheel. The old man got down with me and I was astonished at his incompetence to the point where I was shouting at him to leave me alone. He had placed the jack under the bodywork of the Beast, not the jack point and had crushed the door cill. He even had me turning the tyre lever the wrong way when loosening the bolts. Bloody fool!
I finally managed to swap tyres and drove up to the pump to fill up. Whilst the old man washed the windscreen, I went to pay for the fuel. I reached into the car to get my leather holdall, I mean HOLD ALL, you know those poncy things that continental men carry on a leather strap? And it was then the ice cold hand of fear gripped my bowels and turned my legs to rubber. I could feel the blood roaring in my ears and my head was spinning.
It had gone!
Everything, all my credit cards, passports, licences, ID cards, documents, papers, mobile phone, Psion, my whole life in one small leather attaché case.
They say a drowning man sees his whole life pass before his eyes as he sinks for the final time. As I frantically searched through the boot and under the seats my whole life swam past me.
I was driving a Qatar registered car on a Qatar driving licence using an Argentine passport and UK insurance to avoid getting involved with the Spanish authorities.
Now I was as legal as the ‘sin documentos‘, the hundreds of miserable sub-Saharans who, every night, flood across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa in flimsy rafts seeking refuge in Europe. I borrowed the filling station manager’s phone, called England and cancelled all my credit cards.
I then called the Guardia Civil who were sympathetic but bemused by my naivety.
“Happens all the time. Mafia, gangs of Peruvians. Threaten the garage staff. Too frightened to see anything. Not to blame. Blink of an eye. Only after money and cards. They’ll throw the rest away. Might turn up, might not. Here, fill in these 93 forms in triplicate and sign your life away, here, here, here and here too.”
The old man was having his lunch as I made my way slowly towards the next motorway exit. Whether he was paid to distract me or simply an imbecile I’ll never know.
The thunderstorm had arrived and the lightening was intense as it struck pylons and TV masts dotted around the hills. I arrived at the little town and drove around until I found the garage where I said to the owner standing outside, “I have had a bit of bad luck!”
He replied, “So have I. This bloody thunderstorm! There’s been a power cut and I can’t lower my roller door to shut up shop and go home for my lunch.”
Nor could he check his computer to see if he had my tyre in stock or even search in the darkened store room. He had a look at the flat tyre. To my astonishment, he showed me the five punctures where the tyre had been slashed by the robbers.
I had been set up!
“Happens all the time,” he said. “Peruvians, mafia,” and gloomily doubted he could repair it. Besides, I didn’t have any credit cards with which to buy a new tyre.
I went across to the bank to see if I could get some cash transferred from my account. It was shutting in 5 minutes but the bank manager ushered me in to his office and made a few calls. The banks were unhelpful. No way could money be transferred over the phone today. However, American Express would have a replacement card waiting for me at the office in downtown Barcelona if I could get there before six that evening.
Whilst waiting for power to be restored, I spent the afternoon phoning round trying to find a Cadillac tyre. The AA Gold Star European breakdown service assured me they could have one shipped from the USA in 10 working days. I pointed out that Michelin and Pirelli were well known European manufacturers and it should not be necessary to send to the States for a replacement.
“Well, that’s all we can do for you,” sneered the young Frenchman on the end of the phone.
The rain stopped, the power came back and Mr Gloomy finally patched the tyre.
“Don’t go far and don’t go fast!” he warned me and wished me luck as I headed back to Barcelona and the Amex office.
The six-lane highway leading into the city centre was a mass of traffic and I crawled along, bumper to bumper for an eternity. I finally arrived outside the office block just before six and, abandoning the Beast with hazards flashing, ran up the stairs to the fourth floor office.
“No, you want our Travel office on the ground floor, round the corner.”
I hurtled back down the stairs and burst into the travel agency, nearly knocking over the woman cleaner who was mopping the floor.
“I’ve come for my card!” I gasped.
“Sorry, but our safe is on an automatic time lock and is now closed until nine thirty tomorrow morning.”
I walked out into the street and I’m not sure if I was blinking at the early evening sunshine or the pricking, burning in my eyes.
No cards, no money, no phone, no numbers.
My only hope left was the O’Donovans, who, hours earlier had finally evicted me from their boat after a week of outrageous excess and hooligan behaviour (on my part).
Getting lost on my way to the yacht marina in Barceloneta and ripping off my wing mirror on a badly parked car in the narrow back streets of the old fishing port was the final blow.
I arrived at MY ‘Simba’ running on empty.
Within hours I was back on the road again, refreshed and restored. Cash in hand, wing mirror stuck back on, borrowed mobile at my side and new tyre fitted.
How do you find an all-night garage in Barcelona that stocks unusual size tyres and will replace them at nine o’clock at night?
Ask the O’Donovans!!
They phoned their local taxi driver who found a garage within minutes, something the AA Gold Star service were spectacularly unable to do despite all their hype. We drove there, found the right tyre and had it fitted whilst we waited.
You want a cash loan late at night?
Ask the O’Donovans!!
You need to borrow a mobile phone?
Ask the O’Donovans!!
You need directions back to the motorway?
Don’t ask the O’Donovans!!
I ended up half way down the coast near Sitges on my way to Tarragona again, only this time at midnight. I stopped, looked at the map and turned inland. I drove over the mountains towards Villafranca de Penedes and then on to Zaragossa and home, arriving back here at dawn.
Now begins the tedious process of replacing all the lost cards and documents. Amex had a new card couriered to me in 24 hours. Pity that no one for miles around will accept it.
The British Embassy told me to download the passport application form off the internet and when I queried the need for an upstanding British citizen who has known me for at least two years to countersign the photos and form, I was told, “Oh, don’t worry about that. We don’t expect you to find anyone like that where you live.” Oscar, the bank manager in Leitza, would do fine, even if he is Spanish, about 20 years old and has known me for all of 6 weeks.
Getting a Post Office giro to pay for the passport proved tricky. The young postmaster in Leitza sucked his teeth and said he was too small a branch to issue such an important document. The nearest main Post Office was 50 kms away. He phoned ahead to ensure they would be open when I got there. Spanish Post Office hours vary according to some mystic rites unfathomable to anyone wanting just to post a letter.
Despite being the main Post Office it was no bigger than the one in Leitza, just a small room with a counter and a set of scales. It took about forty minutes to buy the giro and mail the application because every detail of the robbery had to be discussed with all the other people in the post office. Comparisons of the wicked ways of the Catalans were made with the good, God-fearing Basques. Accusations against the Peruvian mafia were matched by the honesty and good nature of the entire Spanish nation, none of whom had ever committed a crime more serious than an occasional speeding fine.
The debate as to whether the Embassy or I would pay for the return registered postage was lively and fully explored. It was with great reluctance that I was allowed to trust the Consul-General to return my new passport at his own expense but I was given a special envelope just in case.
Drove home to find a new MasterCard waiting for me on the garage floor.
Things are looking up.