The Kindness and Cruelty of Strangers – Part 1 (Or How Being Cheap Can Get You Killed)


I was seated in the backseat of an Opel Corsa; in the driver’s seat was Miguel S, 32, and on shotgun was his girlfriend, both of whom I’d met for the first time that morning. We were driving on the highway heading to Girona, about an hour and a half from Barcelona.

Why was I traveling in a stranger’s car you might ask? The answer was simple: I’m cheap.


I had hitchhiked once before, in Bacnotan, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, several years ago. I wasn’t alone though, and this was out of sheer necessity. Long story short, a mate and I had taken a siesta while our friends were in the water surfing. We didn’t notice them leaving, and they had assumed we had ridden in one of the other vehicles back to our lodgings in Urbiztondo, about forty minutes away by car. We woke up, and realising that we had been abandoned, walked out to the main road in our board shorts with not even the equivalent of €1 between us, to thumb a ride. My mate was awfully relaxed about the whole thing–I had a feeling he had done this before. Fortunately, the first car we hailed picked us up. It was a high school teacher in an owner jeep. He wasn’t going in our direction completely, so we had to take another ride, this time by public transport. Jeepneys do not have any dress code, and since this attire is fairly commonplace in rural areas in the tropics, two shirtless guys in nothing but board shorts and flip flops did not raise too many eyebrows. Although we did elicit some giggles from some schoolchildren. The driver seemed to understand our situation and did not ask us to pay the full fare. Upon arriving at our lodgings, our friends were quite amused by the entire affair, and I was less than amused that they didn’t even consider returning for us once they’d realised we’d been left behind.

Whereas being half naked in a stranger’s jeep and in a Public Utility Jeepney with a friend a few years ago was a matter of necessity, now I was by myself in a stranger’s car for less-than-unavoidable reasons: I was using the car-sharing platform Blablacar for the first time in order to get to Salt, Girona from Barcelona to see The Coup, a hip hop group from Oakland, California, as part of Girona’s annual Black Music Festival.

I had heard about Blablacar from a schoolmate who had used it to get to Madrid, and she had vouched for it, saying that it was quite secure. Blablacar works by connecting people who have cars with those who don’t, with the car owners covering their petrol by charging the riders less than it would cost if they took a bus or train. The website requires you to create a profile, and there is a feedback system which keeps the members accountable.

The Coup were playing from 2200 up to 0200, so I had booked a ride back to Barcelona the next day, at around 1630, this time with Arturo B, 44 years old, Renault Espace. Both rides cost a total of €14. But I still had to sort out where I would spend the wee hours of dawn after the concert. And whereas Blablacar costs something to get somewhere, to stay somewhere there is another online platform called Couchsurfing which is absolutely free.

I had been a member of the Couchsurfing community since 2010, but had never had the opportunity to participate. The way Couchsurfing works is, you offer a couch (or bed) in your home to travelers for a night or more, and they in turn are expected to pay it forward, hosting people in their hometown. The community had modest beginnings as a non-profit, but had grown massively, and was eventually bought and turned into a for-profit enterprise, much to the dismay of many veteran couchsurfers.

Spending one night in Girona seemed like the ideal opportunity to give Couchsurfing a try. I was able to find a host fairly easily (Guillem, 22, 9 positive, 1 negative reference), but the day before he said he couldn’t host me without giving any particular reason. I tried finding other hosts, but since it was at the last minute, I didn’t get any confirmations. As I had already booked the rides on Blablacar and paid for the concert tickets as well–and the Coup was one of my favourite hip hop groups–I opted to go the way of the ballsy and the brainless: I decided wing it.


All part of the Couchsurfing experience of course
All part of the Couchsurfing experience of course

So an hour and half later, after bidding Miguel and his girlfriend adieu, I stood in the middle of what appeared to be a shopping complex in Salt, Girona. No worries, I had a tablet and all I needed to do was find a wifi hotspot so I could get to the venue. I hung around a bowling alley for a bit since they had free wifi and window shopped since the concert was still three hours away. The map showed that the venue, La Mirona, was only 15 minutes by foot and upon consulting with some locals, apprehended that Girona was around 45 minutes by foot, since public transport wouldn’t be available after the concert. No problem. A 45-minute walk was a piece of cake to me.

At 0100 the Coup took the stage.

An amazing set. During the after party, Boots Riley and the rest of the band hung out with the audience. The Spanish women were all over them of course, and after managing to snap a few photos, I drifted to the bar.

Boots (on the left) and Jayjay, whom I would meet again later.

At 0400 I exited La Mirona. It was dark, and the temperature was around 12°C and I started to walk. I was crossing a bridge when I heard voices behind me. A cursory glance showed two men, and as they drew nearer, they became two black men speaking English. American English. California English. It was the guitarists of the Coup. They were a bit disoriented and were looking for their hotel. We walked together, chatting and smoking, and I felt like I wanted to tell them I had no place to stay that night, and could I crash at their hotel? But my Asian etiquette would not let me.

According to Chris Rock, Martin Luther King Boulevard is violent and dangerous street. And here I was walking on the Spanish version in the middle of a strange town in the dead of night.


We parted ways and I continued to walk.

At around 0500 it was getting colder. I had taken a few wrong turns, and I was starting to run out of energy. My plan was to get to Girona and find a hostel or something, since I’d been there before and it was more accustomed to tourists than Salt. But by 0530 I couldn’t keep on.

The cartons came from the bin, the blanket I had brought. Because I have foresight.
The cartons came from the bin, the blanket I had brought. Because I have foresight.

What would have been my first Couchsurfing experience turned out to be my first homelessness experience. I think someone came in at one point to use the machine, and the bright fluorescent lights kept me from getting any quality shuteye, so less than an hour later I was back on the road.

It was getting light, but colder than ever. I saw a door to an apartment building ajar, so I went in and napped on the steps for a bit just to keep warm.

Walking into a town at dawn feels like a scene straight out of the Walking Dead.

Two hours after I had left Salt I sat in a cafe sipping tea. It was the best tea I had ever tasted.

The rest of the day I strolled around Girona, sketched, listened to some blues music in the plaza, had lunch, met with Arturo, 44, at 1630, picked up two other riders, and slept like a dead man until we reached Barcelona.



To be continued.