Out of Spain: Dicing with death on highway to sex 'n' drugs 'n' discos

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MADRID - This is a tale of sex, drugs and bakalao. Forget that bakalao is a type of cod. This story has nothing to do with fish. Bakalao is the name of the music. Music in the loosest sense of the word. Perhaps it is better described as a beat, insistent and played at a volume that assails not just the ears but the entire body. The kids don't have to dance. They vibrate anyway.

The 'Bakalao Route' is where the sounds are played, makeshift discos not dissimilar to 'rave houses' that have sprung up in warehouses and industrial estates alongside the nation's main highways.

Spain's N3 National Highway hardly has the ring of Route 66 but the Madrid-Valencia road is where Spain's young rockers first started getting their kicks. They still do, but the 'Bakalao Route' has multiplied, joined by the aptly-named 'Destroyer Routes'. They are weekend excursions that lead from most big Spanish cities after school or campus on Friday, take in the roadside discos, continue during in-car parties and feature casual sex, usually de pie (standing up) in car parks, Ecstasy, and speed in both senses of the word. Sleep is not part of the scene. Food is forgotten. The idea is to stay awake, dance, pop pills, sniff a few rayitas (lines of cocaine), reach the beach and be back in class on Monday morning in the hope of catnapping through the day. Some refer to the weekend odyssey as La Marcha and it is a long one.

Not surprisingly, they don't all make it to see the sun come up in Valencia or elsewhere. The deaths of 15 young people in three separate car crashes this month finally brought the dangers of the bakalao phenomenon home to the nation's parents, not to mention the police and Guardia Civil. Two of the cars were packed with six youths each and both went off highways at high speed after dawn. They had, it seems, been partying all night, travelling puestos (stoned) and were speeding to their next port of call. Around 1,500 young people between the ages of 17 and 25 are killed in car accidents in Spain each year, more than half, it is believed, caused by alcohol or other drugs.

The phenomenon has taken over from the kamikazes of the late eighties. Those were youths who engaged in motorway races on the wrong carriageway to see who could make it fastest and farthest.

The bakaleros are usually middle- class kids, sometimes wealthier, and most have their own cars. Mum and Dad are told they are spending the weekend studying at a friend's place. In the packed car parks outside the cajas, girls as young as 16, dubbed pimpinas, offer sexual favours in return for 'un par de Equis' (a couple of Ecstasy pills). Inside cars, bodies can be seen locked in passionate embrace, the apparent result of ingesting Ecstasy, the 'love drug', sold more or less openly in and around most of the discos at between 3,500 and 5,000 pesetas ( pounds 17.50 and pounds 25) a pill.

After the recent car crashes, the Spanish Interior Ministry launched a crackdown on the Bakalao and Destroyer Routes. More than 500 people were arrested last weekend alone for possessing or dealing in designer drugs.

The Mayor of Madrid closed down the most famed starting- point on the original Bakalao Route, the Consulado discotheque, several months ago. It used to open at 3am at weekends and was going strong, windowless and under strobe lights, at noon. It was replaced by others outside the capital where the ravers stock up on falopa (slang for cocaine), anfetas, amphetamines, Ecstasy (often referred to as X) and bottles of mineral water before hitting the road.

In the roadside discos themselves, many of them illegal and with emergency exit measures leaving much to be desired, toilet taps are often sealed to force the kids to buy mineral water at 800 pesetas a bottle. Water is favoured by those on pills. Alcohol, they say, cancels out the effect.

An industrial estate outside the historic university town of Alcala de Henares, half an hour's drive from Madrid, has become a favourite starting-point, where cajas (boxes, the aptly-chosen slang for discos) such as the Radikal and the Laberinto blare out bakalao music far from the rest of sleeping civilisation. The music is not strong on lyrics. 'Exta si, exta no, exta me la como yo' (I eat Ecstasy) appears to be the entire textual content of one.

The favourite route from there is south to Ciudad Real and east to Albacete and Valencia.

There, the beach and rising sun are ignored as the bakaleros assemble in and around Spook, the blackened-out disco that is their mecca. A few more pills, perhaps a line, a last gyration on the dance-floor and it's back to school and 'Hi, Mum, what's for dinner? I'm famished.'