A BRITISH cyclist says he has been left ‘overwhelmed’ by the help he has received after becoming trapped in southern Spain during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
Paul Rhodes, 55, was in Morocco when he boarded the last ferry back to Spain on March 12, unaware of the impending nationwide lockdown.
The Liverpudlian has no fixed abode, and working as a freelance carpenter and volunteer, he spends his days travelling the globe.
But when he arrived in Tarifa on the evening of March 12, there was something in the air.
“The atmosphere was very different,” he told the Olive Press.
“Many people were already wearing masks. In the Ohana hostel where I was staying, rumours were rife and there was a lot of confusion.
“Some people were starting to worry. Then the rumours became fact; the hostel was was going to close in two days. Spain was going into lockdown.”
Rhodes said the next morning saw a ‘mad scramble’ as guests rushed to get home and began checking out en masse, much to the disappointment of ‘friendly’ owner Jesus.
“Poor old Jesus was bewildered,” said Rhodes, “he had just reopened his family’s hostel after a two month renovation, now he was going to be empty.”
With no support network or a home to return to in the UK, Rhodes decided to head to Portugal, where he had some volunteer work lined up.
“On the trip there were fewer and fewer people out and about, the roads were eerily quiet,” he recalls, “Of the few people I did meet, most were afraid..then I met Pepa, a pharmacist in Los Cabezas de San Juan, she was a ray of sunshine brightening up the apocalyptic mood.”
Pepa filled Rhodes’ water bottles and gave him her number in case he fell ill.
“And then there was a young man in Bollullos Par del Condado, I never got his name but there was fear in his eyes,” recounted Rhodes, “yet he still went into his home on a street lined with lemon trees to fetch me some much-needed water.”
Rhodes spent four days cycling to reach Ayamonte in a bid to catch a ferry to Portugal, but missed the last boat by 16 hours.
Exhausted and dirty, he searched the now ‘ghost town’ for supplies, before managing to find a shop that was still open.
“I sat on a bench in the deserted town square eating my sandwiches, wondering what to do next,” Rhodes recounts.
Despite the border closing the night before, he opted to head for Portugal as he could prove he had arranged volunteer work in the country.
Cycling through winds and rain, he eventually reaches the border when he is met by at least a dozen Portuguese police and immigration officers.
“They were somewhat amused to see a cyclist coming towards them at 10.30pm,” said Rhodes.
“If I’d done this in the UK I would have been in trouble, and probably publicly shamed on the Internet. Here, nobody got angry with me, they understood my need to find a place to stay for a while. Yet as nice as they were, the officials had their jobs to do, and said that my volunteer job wasn’t a good enough reason to enter. My passport was copied and 15 minutes later I was on my way back across the border.”
Battling heavy rains, Rhodes was forced to find shelter under a tree next to the N431 before heading back down to Ayamonte. Policia Nacional and the town hall directed him towards the Red Cross but they were unable to help him.
He decided to head north to find friends in Albergue, near Salamanca, but after cycling through the night he was overcome with tiredness and was forced to sleep under another tree next to the N495 motorway.
After cycling another 19km, he stopped at a gas station in Santa Barbara for lunch when Guardia Civil stopped him and told him he could no longer carry on travelling and needed to find somewhere to stay and self-isolate.
The officers drove slowly around the town to help him look for accommodation, but it was in vain. So with the owner of the gas station’s permission, he was allowed to set up his tent behind the forecourt.
“Margarita was great and helped me a lot,” Rhodes said, “With her mask on I don’t even know what she looks like. When the quarantine is over I will drop by and give her a hug.”
The next day a local farm manager named Santiago happened to see Rhodes’ tent and offered him an old room on land belonging to his pal Francisco in Cabezas Rubias, Huelva.
“I have a well for water, a fireplace, wonderful views and Amber, a nine-year-old horse for my neighbour,” Rhodes told this paper, “More importantly I am in a safe place.
“Santiago, Margarita, Francisco; my neighbours; Joaquin and Pepi, Carlos and especially Vanessa have been absolutely wonderful.
“They have given me shelter, bedding and a stove to cook on, given me a big bag of old clothes and even sourced a Spanish sim card.
“Vanessa often passes food over the wall, and Joaquin lets me use an outside shower. To be honest, I’m overwhelmed by their humanity and generosity.
“In this, the time of COVID-19, there are billions of stories to be told, and sadly hundreds of thousands that will never be written.
“Coronavirus heroes are everywhere, and mine are here in Cabezas Rubias and Santa Barbara.
“Muchas gracias mi héroes.”