For his day job Robert works as a self-employed software consultant. In his spare time he writes, edits and self-publishes books.
Robert's interest in travel goes back to his twenties when he spent most of his time abroad. His experiences included; a summer in Ibiza, hitch-hiking around Europe and touring the USA & Canada. His most eventful trip was in 1981 when he travelled around Asia.
Born into a religious sect known as the Exclusive Brethren, his father John took the brave step of leaving it with his young family when Robert was nine years old. Robert never saw his grandparents again but is thankful for being able to grow up outside this restrictive group. His life has been full of adventures that he would never have experienced otherwise.
Had I made the right decision?
It was such an easy one to make nine months ago as the four of us flew home from Ibiza after a magical two-week holiday. We vowed to return for the next summer season.
Now here I was, alone, as the bus headed out of Victoria Coach Station into the gloom of a rainy mid-April morning in London. As I peered through the window, I could just make out the outline of Sarah as she walked back towards the train station.
* * *
In July 1976 I had spent two weeks in Es Cana, Ibiza, with three mates. Our holiday ended too fast, and we aimed to return for the start of the 1977 season. Circumstances changed and one by one, Mutts, Sam and Siv postponed their departure until later in the summer. I remained determined.
I had started work at Williams & Glyn’s bank in the City of London after leaving Reigate Grammar School. It was my intention to work there for a year, before going to university. Money altered that, and I had stayed with the bank instead.
My choice to go abroad for six months shocked my parents. They worried it would impact my future career. Siblings Christine (16) and Alastair (19) thought I was mad. Both had questions about what their 21-year-old brother intended to do.
This decision to leave became more complicated as I grew close to Sarah. We had met in the autumn and soon got very involved. Our social life together was great as we enjoyed ourselves at parties, pubs and discos. Favourite memories were of the Monday mornings I took time off work and sneaked round to Sarah’s house after her mum left. Sarah opened the front door in her dressing gown, and we went straight up to bed where we kissed and cuddled the morning away. One Monday, we were making love in the front room when a key clicked in the door. We scrambled for our clothes, but it was obvious to Sarah’s mum, as she walked in, what we had been doing. After a while she forgave us.
It was difficult to save money. I netted £120 a month at the bank but also worked behind the bar at the Station Hotel to earn extra cash. The Station was the only pub in the village of South Nutfield where we lived.
When I left there was enough in my money-belt to keep me solvent for the first few weeks in Ibiza. I had £400 in travellers’ cheques (the equivalent of £2400 or $3000 today) plus 40 French Francs (£5) and 5400 Spanish Pesetas (£45).
* * *
On the morning of April 12th, 1977, Sarah accompanied me for the hour-long train journey to London. Few words passed our lips. We held each other close. Bouts of sadness swept over us. There was a sudden realisation of how much our lives would change.
We walked to the coach station, and the pain became intense. After an emotional farewell embrace, Sarah waved me off. The coach made its way through the traffic of central London. I tried to make myself comfortable, but the turmoil in my stomach and unease in my head got worse. My eyes gazed at the grey city scenes outside as we travelled around the outskirts of London.
The enormity of my actions enveloped me for a long time. The bus picked up speed. As we neared the port of Dover, my mood changed. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I was on my way.
* * *
The ferry edged away. In the early evening light, the clouds cleared, and the sun appeared on the horizon for a moment. Through the descending gloom, I glimpsed the famous white cliffs of Dover as we left the shores of England.
The seas were choppy, and the wind icy as we sailed across the channel. I put on a jumper and buttoned up my denim jacket. Determined to stay on deck, I enjoyed the chill that blew against my face and through my hair. A surge of elation swept over me as I realised my dream was coming true.
Deep in my own thoughts, I did not hear her approach. It took a few seconds to realise someone had spoken.
‘Hi, where are you heading?’ she repeated.
Taller than me and several years older, long blonde hair wrapped around her shoulders, and pale blue eyes glistened.
I averted my gaze for a moment, before replying, ‘Hi, sorry I didn’t notice you there. I’m travelling to Barcelona by coach, and then getting a ferry across to Ibiza.’
‘What are you planning to do there?’
I beamed a smile at her. ‘I’m hoping to work for the season in a place called Es Cana.’
Her eyes looked deep into mine. ‘Is this the first time you’ve worked abroad?’
‘Yes, I’ve just finished at a bank in London. Where are you heading to? Sorry, what’s your name?’
‘Everyone calls me Micky, but my real name is Michelle. I’m off to Barcelona and we’re on the same coach. I saw you earlier, and thought, as you are on your own, you’d appreciate the company. I’m an English teacher returning to the school where I work, after an Easter break at home in Bristol.’
Micky edged closer as if to get protection against the biting wind. ‘And what’s your name?’
‘Most people call me Fred.’
‘Is that a nickname then?’
‘Yes, I got it at school, and it’s stuck ever since. My friends know me as Fred although my real name is Robert.’
Her eyes widened. ‘You seem more like a Fred than a Robert.’
I gave her a wide grin. ‘How long have you worked in Barcelona?’
‘Just under a year. I finished Teacher Training College not long after Franco died in November 1975. Spain always interested me. When I saw an advert in the paper for a teaching position there, I jumped at the chance.’
‘Are you enjoying it?’
‘On the whole, yes. Spain is changing fast after forty years of dictatorship, but people’s attitudes will take longer to change. Life for a woman is still difficult. I’m lucky they look after me while at the school, but things can be awkward outside sometimes.’
‘Do you ever regret doing it?’
‘No, not at all. Travel gives you a new outlook on life. You’ll discover that for yourself this summer. Provided you don’t weaken, and I doubt you will, Fred.’
‘Thanks, Micky. That’s nice of you.’
The loud sound of the ship’s siren broke the atmosphere. The ferry had arrived at the port of Calais.
Micky gave me a peck on the cheek and winked. ‘I’ll see you back on the bus, take care.’
‘Yes, great to meet you.’
What a lovely surprise, I thought, as I smoked a quick roll-up, before returning to the coach.
* * *
We were among the first to drive off the ship.
Two officers boarded and gave our passports a cursory glance. Things had become easier since the UK entered the Common Market (later the European Union) in 1973.
After a brief stop on the outskirts of Calais, to pick up another six passengers, we sped off into the night. As there were still free seats, Micky joined me at the back of the coach.
It felt good to have company. We chatted away for ages as the bus headed south through rural France. Then the coach entered the first toll booth and the motorway network. Midnight passed, and we snuggled together to keep warm.
The night flew by as we snoozed and held each other tight. There were several stops at service stations, one where we changed drivers. Other passengers took refreshment breaks. We were so relaxed and comfortable we stayed on the bus.
As the sun rose, we stopped at a little French village. This time we joined the others and sat outside a small restaurant in the early morning sunshine. There was a refreshing breeze. Micky and I enjoyed our breakfast of black coffee and croissants.
It was mid-morning when we arrived at the French/Spanish border post of La Junquera.
Spain was not a member of the Common Market, and the controls were strict. We had to disembark to walk through customs and have our passports checked.
2 – Barcelona to Ibiza
After negotiating the Spanish border, the rest of our coach trip passed fast.
I slept most of the way and missed much of the coast road experience Micky raved about.
It was early afternoon when we arrived in Barcelona. The sun blazed from blue skies. Micky and I had a farewell hug before we went our separate ways. We swapped addresses and promised to keep in touch. That was the last time I saw her, although she crossed my mind often.
I had several hours to kill before the evening ferry left for Ibiza. Most of the afternoon I spent watching the world go by from various vantage points on Las Ramblas as I made my way down the long avenue towards the port. I drank three beers and finished the sandwiches from home.
Micky had advised me to take a taxi to the Ferry Terminal, as it was easy to get lost in the industrial area with its fences, blocked streets and lack of signposts. I arrived in good time and passed two backpackers struggling on foot towards the port.
I bought my ticket, which was excellent value at 334 pesetas (£2.85). A cabin would have cost treble that. After boarding the ferry, I bagged a seat on the upper deck.
There was frantic activity on the dockside as the last of the trucks drove across the ramp. The nine-hour trip to Ibiza was soon underway.
On deck, I leaned over the railings. The twinkling lights of Barcelona faded into the distance. A crescent moon reflected off the dark ocean as the ferry sailed through the calm waters of the Mediterranean. There was a gentle breeze, but it was still warm. Waves lapped against the sides of the boat as it ploughed onwards.
I smelt the saltiness of the water and the clean sea air. Along with the faint whiff of diesel from the ship’s engines, another familiar smell drifted over. I recognised it from various parties at home. It was the sweet aroma of hashish and came from my left. I turned in that direction and saw a young couple smoking a joint.
I had tried hash twice, but it had done nothing for me. Several of my friends swore by it and recommended the relaxing effects it had on them. I preferred beer.
The guy saw I was looking over and beckoned me to join them. He was tall, with long greasy black hair, and a knowing look on his face. She was shorter with plaited brown hair. Her hazel eyes twinkled in the moonlight as she smiled in my direction.
His husky Scottish voice whispered, ‘Did you want to try some my friend? It’s nice stuff.’
With a shake of the head, I changed the subject. ‘Hi, my name’s Fred. It’s a lovely evening, isn’t it? Have you been to Ibiza before?’
They both chuckled as if they shared a secret. ‘I’m Alex, and this is my girlfriend Sharon. We’ve lived in Ibiza for four years now and have just been to Barcelona on a shopping trip. Where are you headed?’
‘Es Cana. I spent a two-week holiday last year with three of my mates. We all planned to come back again for the season, but I’m the only one who made it. My plan is to spend the summer there and get work, maybe in a bar.’
They looked at me through glazed eyes.
Sharon’s voice was soft with a noticeable Nordic accent, ‘Yes, we know Es Cana well. We have a stall at the Hippy Market there every Wednesday during the tourist season.’
My eyebrows raised. ‘What type of things do you sell?’
‘Necklaces, wristbands and clothing we make ourselves. Alex is good at caricatures and makes money doing those. We go to different places during the week, such as Ibiza Town, San Antonio and Santa Eulalia. The Hippy Market at Punta Arabi in Es Cana is our most profitable though.’
‘Fascinating. Where do you live?’
She drew on the remnants of the joint. ‘We are part of a small commune in a remote area to the north of the island, three kilometres from the old fishing village of Portinatx. It is a lovely place. We rent a 300-year-old finca from a local couple who have retired to Ibiza Town. The setup is basic with no electricity or running water, but we find the surroundings suit our lifestyle.’
Alex sparked up another joint and took several deep drags before exhaling the smoke. A smile crossed his face as he offered it. ‘Have you ever indulged, Fred?’
‘I’ve tried it twice in England, but it never agreed with me.’
‘You should try this, it’s the finest Moroccan hashish. We’ve just picked up a consignment in Barcelona. It gives you a clean high and is the best gear I’ve come across.’
I thought before shaking my head. ‘No, you’re OK. When the time is right I will, but I want to keep a clear head for the moment.’
Both looked at me in amazement.
Sharon’s brow furrowed. ‘Don’t leave it too long, I’m sure you’d enjoy it if you tried it. We know from experience it gives you a new perspective on life.’
I felt uneasy but still resisted. Our conversation became more difficult as they floated off into their own worlds.
Alex smirked. ‘We’ll be here all night, so if you change your mind come and find us.’
‘Yes, will do. Thanks for your company. I’m going to buy a drink. Did either of you want anything?’
They shook their heads in unison.
I walked down the metal staircase and found a small bar. The barman was standing around looking bored.
He turned to face me. ‘What can I get you, mate?’
I had expected to try out my Spanish, but the distinctive Australian twang threw me.
‘I’ll have a large vodka and orange juice, please.’
His eyebrows shot up. ‘They’re all large in Spain, mate.’
He put ice cubes into the glass and poured vodka until the ice floated. Then he added the mixer to the remaining third.
He passed it over the bar. I handed him the correct change and pulled up a seat. As I sipped my drink, the taste of vodka was strong. I fell into conversation with the barman, Aaron, who had been working on the ferry for several weeks. With long fair hair tied back in a ponytail, he looked tired.
I flashed him a grin. ‘How did you end up getting a job here?’
‘I travelled around Europe for six months, but my money was running low. A Spanish friend of mine put in a good word, and I landed this little number. It’s not well paid but keeps me going.’
‘How much time do you spend on the ferry then?’
‘It’s almost non-stop. The only chance I get to take a nap is when we dock. Even then I stay on the boat in my cabin.’
‘No wonder you look so tired.’
‘Yes, it’s a lot of work but I’m due a week’s break after this trip. So, I hope to catch up on sleep and explore Barcelona then. I’ve not had the opportunity yet.’
I ordered another vodka and orange just as a group of Spanish lorry drivers came into the bar. Their loud conversation and raucous laughter grated with me, so I said goodnight to Aaron and headed upstairs.
Settled in the deck chair, I pulled my sleeping bag up around me against the cooler breeze of the night and sipped on my drink. The effects of the vodka soon sent me to sleep.
It was after 7 am when I awoke. The screeching of birds around the boat meant we were nearing land. I watched in awe as the coast of the island came into view, and the sun rose over the horizon. Everything looked so peaceful as we passed tree-covered hills fringed with sandy beaches.
A small group of fishing boats headed in the opposite direction. The stone walls of Ibiza Town appeared as the ferry manoeuvred past the rocky outcrops towards the harbour. Within minutes, we had docked and disembarked.
I set my mind on getting breakfast, before finding the bus station and making my way across the island to Es Cana.
3 – Back in Es Cana
As I walked from the bus stop towards the seafront that morning with my black duffel bag, the streets of Es Cana were quiet compared to the previous July. I saw a few locals and just the occasional tourist.
In the middle of an elevated row of shops, I came across the closed front entrance of Grannies Bar. I peered through the bars of the gate and down the steps. There were empty glasses on the outside tables. I saw a scrawled notice: Open from 8 pm. I aimed to come back later to catch up with Mick and Pat, the bar’s owners.
Further down the road, I arrived at the Restaurante Es Cana. It overlooked the curving beach which formed the seafront. I took a seat at a table on the veranda.
Life slowed as I soaked up the warm spring sunshine. I gazed out at the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. There were several people scattered along the clean sandy strip, a sharp contrast to the packed beach I remembered.
The waiter came across. During the winter months, I had tried to learn Spanish from a Berlitz book and tape recording. Now was my chance to test it out.
He greeted me, ‘Bon dia senyor, com estàs?’
I struggled with the accent but assumed he had welcomed me and asked how I was.
With a slight stutter, I answered, ‘Muy bien gracias y ¿usted?’
This was a phrase I had learned – Very well thanks, and you?
The waiter replied, ‘Molt bé, així que gràcies.’
I did not understand a word. This was not the Spanish I tried so hard to learn. As I stared at him, he asked another question, ‘Vol alguna cosa de menjar o beure?’
I recognised the words for eating and drinking, so I replied, ‘Puedo tomar una cerveza frio por favor.’ – Can I have a cold beer, please?
The waiter bowed. ‘Si senyor, cervesa embotellada o cervesa de barril?’ This time I understood. Did I want bottled or draft beer?
I stuttered again, ‘Una botella de San Miguel por favor.’ – A bottle of San Miguel, please.
San Miguel had been my favourite beer the summer before, although it got warm in the July heat. I assumed it would stay cool for longer in the more temperate April sunshine.
Within minutes the waiter returned with a chilled San Miguel. ‘¡Salud!’
‘¡Salud!’ – Cheers.
I lifted the bottle to my lips and sipped on the tangy, refreshing beer. It tasted fantastic. I relaxed more and more with each sip.
As I sat and chilled out, my thoughts turned to the Spanish I had tried so hard to learn.
At school, I had been hopeless at languages. I studied Latin for two years, and French for five, but failed my exams. I was so bad I only got 10% in my French mock O (Ordinary) Level. They didn’t even allow me to sit the final exam.
My motivation during the winter was different. I wanted to learn the language, so I tried to memorise a lot of Spanish phrases. This was the real world though, and I had already encountered problems understanding the waiter. It would take me a few weeks to learn that the locals in Ibiza speak a Catalan dialect, different from Castilian Spanish. No wonder I was confused.
For an hour, I watched the world go by. It dawned on me I had made it. The hard work over the winter months had been worthwhile. My dream was coming true.
After a bocadillo de jamon (ham roll) and another San Miguel, I settled the bill and headed for the sand.
I tucked my bag behind rocks at the end of the beach, before taking off my shoes and socks and rolling up my jeans. The water was cold as I paddled along the edge. The gentle swell of the sea washed against my bare legs.
* * *
I strolled along the alleyway leading to the Red Lion Bar.
This had been a familiar watering hole the previous year, and we’d got to know Tich behind the bar well. Despite his nickname, he was not that small. Two inches shorter than me (5 ft 6 ins), he had neat blond hair and blue eyes.
Tich was a livewire. Like a few of the English locals, he came from Leicester. This was a connection for me because I was born there, although I remembered little about the place as my family moved away when I was 11.
Everything was quiet as I popped my head around the door to confirm whether the Red Lion was open. There did not appear to be anyone there.
‘Fred, how the hell are you?’
I spun around.
Tich smiled over at me as he rolled a barrel of beer along the floor, and then pushed it behind the bar.
A wide smile spread across my face. ‘I’m fine, mate. How about you?’
‘It’s all good here. Getting ready for another season of madness. Roger and Margaret are still in England, so I have to get everything sorted on my own.’
‘Need a hand?’
‘No, you’re OK. Do you fancy a beer?’
‘Please. San Miguel?’
Tich reached into the fridge and pulled out two bottles. He opened them and passed me one.
He raised his bottle. ‘¡Salud!’
I clicked my bottle against his. ‘¡Salud!’
‘So, you made it back, Fred. What happened to your mates?’
‘Yes, I kept my word, but Mutts, Sam and Siv won’t be here until later in the season. They didn’t save enough money over the winter.’
‘So many holidaymakers say they’ll come back, but few make it. So, well done. Do you think you’ll be here for the season?’
‘I hope so, provided I can get a place to stay and some work.’
‘You’ve come early enough to bag yourself somewhere to stay. Tony’s Bar is your best chance. He has rooms in the basement that are basic but cheap. To be honest, you only need a place to sleep and tidy up.’
‘They’re open, so I’d suggest you head over there to ask whether he still has rooms available.’
‘Thanks, Tich. That’s a great help. What about work, do you know of anything?’
‘That’s a tough one. It’s too early for bar work, and those who come back each year have jobs lined up. You might find something come May or June time though. Tootsies and Grannies get busy in the high season and they always need help.’
My smile widened. ‘I remember they were both hectic last July. Anything apart from bar jobs for now?’
‘There’s building work, but it doesn’t pay well. When you see Mick and Pat from Grannies, you could ask them. Pat’s dad, Jim, has retired here and owns his own villa, but he still works to keep his hand in. You might get labouring work with him. Be warned though, he never stops talking.’
‘Brilliant. Thanks for your help.’
‘No problem, I’m sure everything will work out for you. Sorry, I need to get on and sort a few more things out in the bar and cellar. Why don’t you head over to Tony’s? Do you know where it is?’
‘It’s across the wasteland from the El Cortijo disco isn’t it?’
‘Yes, if you get to the back entrance of Grannies then you’ve walked too far.’
‘Thanks, Tich.’ I shook his hand. ‘I’ll see you later.’
‘Take care, and best of luck, Fred. I’m sure we’ll see plenty of each other during the summer.’
I downed the rest of my beer, grabbed my bag, and headed off towards Tony’s Bar.