You never know when life is going to take a dramatic turn. On the cusp of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Ryan le Garrec set out to explore a route linking the Portuguese capital, Lisboa, to a border town in Spain, Badajoz. On his way, he found nothing much else than the blissful privilege of getting bored on a bike. In his FAIL 9 film, he reveals the poetry, the emptiness, and the loneliness the road can expose, yet completes the ride with a renewed sense of gratitude for the freedom to roam after learning of the irrevocable events being waged further east.
Poetry: in the Dull Bits
Poetry is in the dull bits; the useless hours, the forgotten spaces and pieces of land, the grey skies and boring lines, the trivial and banal. Poetry is where you forgot to look for meaning—where you expected nothing else than what was there for the taking. Poetry is a cul-de-sac, a forgotten track, an abandoned field, a desperate horse, an empty house, poetry is in a grandfather holding his grandson’s hand; the people along the way who don’t notice your gaze.
Poetry is at the gas station, the cheap hotel, it’s in the friendliness of a stranger and the random rays of light through the most boring days. Poetry is around the corner if your eyes stay open long enough to see it.
She makes much of the nothing that’s there: a piece of tarmac, not delimited from the road, just before the train tracks, just before an old rusty factory, empty and abandoned. Nothing. And yet… There she grows a tiny magic field. It’s a forest of smells, petals, and buds, in pots on the concrete curb. She brings colors where there are none and her eyes shine a bit brighter when she looks at them. She has a golden garden, on the tarmac stretch, in front of her tiny house. A diamond in the coal. Poetry is sometimes obvious, rebellious, and optimistic where nothing helps. Simple and yet…
From Lisboa to Badajoz
After three days on the road, I felt a loneliness I hadn’t felt l for a long time. Maybe it was the grey days taking their toll, or the fearful horse left on a rope bordering the dusty track; maybe it was the headwinds and the poor makeshift gypsy villages. It seemed there was desolation everywhere I l0oked. Maybe I was tired. I live in a beautiful and colorful country where the sun paints over the pains of poverty. But sometimes it gets grey and bleak and you pass through an area that reminds you that Portugal—for all its sun and color—is also a very poor country and some areas can’t hide it anymore.
The border sits between two beautiful cities, Elvas in Portugal with its gorgeous aqueduct, and Badajoz built around the wild Guadiana river. In the middle there and right on the dotted line sits a strange, ghostly village. It has this bunch of large houses that used to be where all the border control staff lived. It looks abandoned now. The border makes no sense anymore and there isn’t the same amount of work on offer.
Houses are regained by nature, invaded by plants, and menaced by bamboo trees. Garbage bins on the streets seem somehow way too large. Everything looks sad and desolate. I passed this place a few times already and had no idea that these houses were actually still occupied. I realized this time as I stopped to take pictures. Silhouettes began to emerge—curious but not only—maybe disturbed, and annoyed, by the ridiculous tourist on his bike. The level of poverty is beyond. Dogs tethered to chains but protecting what? No one knows. A blanket of dust seems to linger over everything. Shadows keep moving in the corner of my eye.
It used to be different. Smuggling was a big thing here—fish and coffee mostly—because the Portuguese fish came much faster and fresher than the Spanish ones, the sea is a mere 200km away on the Portuguese side, and fish has to travel more than twice that on the Spanish side. So if you were on the Spanish side, you’d be more tempted to get your fish across the border. And the coffee was better in Portugal, too. But the inverse holds true with ham, you can’t beat Spanish “jamon”!
Smugglers probably worked hand in hand with the border staff and that meant a parallel economy at the time when both sides were ruled by dictators. That probably made for some sort of balance, in a way. People struggled but managed with the hustle. The houses are big, you can easily imagine they were gorgeous at the time, full of life and flowers, you can almost hear the music and laughter there must have been some years ago. The children’s park makes for the saddest slide; the slide is a naked rusting structure. There haven’t been kids playing here for years.
The Ecovia is mostly gorgeous though. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good parts, don’t be too influenced by the my melancholy mood. Most of it is easy gravel or skinny roads. There is about 200km of gravel plus 100km of trivial commuting: the area around Lisboa’s region is straight, dull tarmac and heavy traffic, or deep sand tracks, lounging train tracks, and bordering gypsy villages with pit bulls running free (I certainly pushed a bit harder on the pedals than I’d have thought I was able to at that point!). If I had one piece of advice for anyone starting the route from Lisboa it would be to keep faith or jump on a train and skip the part all the way to Coruche. Once you pass Coruche, the route is wonderful. Storks and many other birds I couldn’t name. I even met a crayfish on that track once!
When I returned to Lisboa I got fed up with the traffic, the dull bits, and the straight lines. Come to think about it now, what a privilege to get bored on a bike ride, to get tired of riding the bike, what blissful luck to ride in peace and boredom! Still, I was in for a gut punch later with the news that was about to come up. (I finished this ride in mid-February 2022…)
I planned my next ride with that refreshed knowledge that Peace is a gift we receive every day and forget to celebrate.