There is something compelling about a man with a ham. A giant pig leg with the hoof still on it, slung casually over his shoulder like a banjo. There were hundreds of Ham Men at the MotoGP in Valencia. At the gates, security guards confiscated cans of beer and jars of olives but it was perfectly okay to bring in your giant pig leg and a very large knife for carving it.
On Saturday during the Qualifying, I was torn between watching the bikes or the Ham Man sitting in front of me. Every couple of hours he would haul the ham onto his lap, the little black trotter resting on his shoulder. Then he’d whip out his knife and saw away like a cello, peeling off perfectly thin slices. His mate carved up breadsticks and arranged the ham and plump wedges of tortilla on top of them.
“Well,” said Gareth as they munched away, “Sure beats chips and curry sauce!”
“Why didn’t we bring a pig leg and a big knife?” I whined.
The heat made me cranky as it was, but a severe dose of Ham Envy was pushing me over the edge. Especially when all I had was a shitty cereal bar and a bag of crisps from Tesco.
Somewhere someplace over the last four years I completely lost my tolerance for high temperatures. My body has erased its memory of going to school and baby-sitting sheep and frying chickens at KFC in the middle of harsh Australian summers. Now it whimpers and turns a violent shade of pink when faced with anything over twenty-five degrees.
On Qualifying Day it was well into the mid-thirties. We baked in direct sunlight in an unsheltered grandstand for the six hottest hours of the day. Surely this was grounds for having my Australian passport revoked. I feverishly slapped on more sunscreen and pulled my hat down harder over my brow. And what possessed me to wear jeans? I was frying. Frying! I expected black smoke to rise from my thighs at any second. I chugged down more water but you could almost hear it spit and fizz into nothing as it hit my innards. There was no escape.
Finally it was over and the Ham Men picked up their piggies and we headed for the train station, all 100,000 of us. I was deliriously happy despite being semi-blinded by stray sunscreen, because Valentino Rossi had snatched pole position and Australia’s own Troy Bayliss had qualified second. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, the most exciting MotoGP season evah would be decided and we would be right there! I quite literally began to tremble with what I assumed was anticipation.
It took two hours to fight our way to the station. This is always a bit of an ordeal. It’s not so much a station as a tiny little platform overlooking the orange groves. There’s tens of thousands of people waiting for very infrequent trains that have half a dozen clunky carriages. And it’s only a single track line, so it always seems like forever.
When we finally got onto the platform there must have been 500 people wedged on with us. So many bodies. So many sweaty bodies in garish, polyester Official MotoGP merchandise.
I sipped my now-warm water and watched a bunch of Spanish people sitting on a crate of freshly-picked oranges. They tossed the red string bags around the platform and everyone helped themselves, chattering as they peeled with nimble fingers.
“They’re eating fruit,” I whispered to Gareth, “Look at them all! Fruit! Have you ever seen something passed around a train platform that wasn’t a smoke or a can of Irn-Bru?”
I could feel the temperature climb higher. Where was the train? I stood on tip-toe in an attempt to gulp in some fresh air.
And that’s when I recognised the feeling. A sudden hollowness in my belly. A limpness in my limbs; a tiny rumble as if my blood was about to boil.
Uh oh. That ol’ Radiohead Concert Feeling.
“Are you okay?” asked Gareth.
I nodded silently and linked my arms around his neck. My vision swirled in and out of focus. I pinched my arm hard and growled to myself, You are not going to faint! Especially not in front of these beautiful Spaniards and all their hams and oranges!
But down I went.
Gareth reported that my legs collapsed gently like a folding garden chair but my hands stayed clenched around his neck, so I was balanced on my tiptoes and swaying like an orangutan. Down and out cold in the heat amongst the orange peels.
“Whoa dude!” Gareth yelped, “Steve, give us a hand here!”
Gareth’s mate Steve immediately sprang to action with his precision Army Reserve training. “Excuse me people! Make way!” he yelled.
The crowd shuffled aside obediently as they hauled my limp, red, dehydrated lump of a body to the back of the platform. “Gracias, gracias!”
A nubile young Spanish lass sporting a Nicky Hayden baseball cap leaped forward and furiously fanned me with the paper fan she happened to be holding.
“Thanks!” said Gareth.
“De nada,” she shrugged sweetly.
“A chick did not fan with me a fan,” I scoffed later, when I had returned to consciousness.
“She totally did!” said Gareth, “Lots of the Spanish chicks had fans. You should have seen her fanning you, it was brilliant. It was like an old silent movie or something!”
The first thing I saw when I came round was concrete and the orange peels and the golden feet of Spanish people. “Oh fuck.”
“Are you alright?” asked Gareth.
“I am fine. Just humiliated.”
“I don’t think you’ve had enough to drink and eat today.”
“I told you we should have got a pig leg.”
I sat up slowly and adjusted my hat, pulling it down over my nose and wishing the brim would swallow my red face and my inept, weakling body too.
Mercifully, a train arrived. I sprang to my feet, got my elbows out and began fighting my way through the crowd. I had to get a seat. I knew I would spew if I had to stand for an hour back into Valencia. There were all manner of limbs and orange crates and sun-umbrellas and hams poking into me but I wriggled my way on board and slumped into the last seat. Score!
Gareth and Steve made it on too, and gave me the thumbs up. More pretty Spanish chicks squeezed on too, many of them giving me sympathetic smiles. I felt my face burn redder and redder.
And then the train pulled away. In the wrong direction. So we had to pile off at the next stop and it was another two hours before we finally got back to Valencia.
We stopped at the hostel to change before going out to replenish my energy levels with paella. It was then I noticed my eyebrows. They were completely caked with multiple applications of sunscreen. White and bright like two fuzzy caterpillars.
“Did you know about this?” I pointed accusingly to Gareth.
“No wonder those Spanish chicks were smiling at me! As if I didn’t look stupid enough already, the red and hapless foreigner conked out cold! Why didn’t you tell me!”
“We were busy scraping your lifeless form off the platform, remember?”
“Anyway,” he grinned, “What are we going to do about this growing trend of you passing out at Exciting Events? You’ll have to start a new category for your blog, Places Where I Fainted. First the Radiohead concert, now the MotoGP.”
“I hardly call two faints in three years a growing trend!”
“Yeah, well, you can forget about that trip to the Cream o Galloway ice cream factory. It’s far too dangerous.”
The Scene of the Crime.
I took this pic in 2004 but it’s the same spot, except it was twice as crowded this year! D’oh.