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Episode 3: "Stuck Between a Rock and a Spain Place"

Gibraltar, UK (Days 5-6)

Exiting the bus at La Linea initiated a five-minute walk to the border between Spain and UK-controlled Gibraltar. On the way, we met three girls who were on their way out and who spoke English! They were from Long Island and called me out when my “New York” answer to the “where are you from” question was challenged by further clarification. As I did now, and over the rest of the trip, I will be arguing my philosophy that Hoboken is not only a great non-Manhattan suburb, but is a better town than Williamsburg and Astoria and should be granted at least honorary New York status if not full annexation!

We exchanged stories about Morocco versus Gibraltar. Recommendations were opposite, so it seemed we were going in the right direction. They briefly explained to us how to get to the top of the rock, but more importantly, showed me and Nate that we could hold solid conversations with other backpackers, get to the point of exchanging emails and exit before it gets awkward.

Nate and I passed through “immigration”, flashing a U.S. passport and instantly entering the UK! A quick stop at the information booth set us on the Number 5 bus to the Number 3 bus to the cable car leading to the top of the rock. The busses took at least ten minutes to get from Point A to Point C, which was an indication, later confirmed, that Gibraltar was larger than anticipated. Not just a large strategic mountain overlooking the straight that bears its name, Gibraltar is a full city of about 30,000 people with schools, a financial district, malls, restaurants and bars, and a full tourism industry, according to a local man we met.

Still carrying our full gear, guitar, send-home-bag and all, we paid the steep price for the ride up to the top of the steep rock to explore the views as well as the caves, World War II tunnels, and indigenous wild Barbary Apes that inhabit the top of the mountain. At the summit, the admission fee was surpassed by its value. I took panoramic pictures of Africa and the Mediterranean to the south, crappy Algeciras to the west and the rest of Spain to the north.

The monkeys (yes, technically they are monkeys) were also interesting to watch in action. They were obviously very used to and comfortable with humans, but still needed their space and respect. There were many postings warning not to feed or touch the animals as they might attack.

Nate and I were under time pressure to catch an 8:50 p.m. bus to Granada, our final stop for the night, and had to choose between heading to the south point of the island to get better views of Africa, or to go north and see the caves and the other exhibits. We chose to go north; the pictures and videos we’d taken from the midpoint were beautiful enough.

BEGIN ADVENTURE….now.

       Our first snag came in finding the right trail that led to the exhibits. After asking a few people (and making a foolish comment to an Irish woman that I’d love to visit the rest of the UK… bad American!), we found out that the way to go to get to the caves on the north side of the rock was to take the trail south where it loops around… how intuitive. The first stage was descending a three-story staircase which led down to the walking trail heading north. After the first few steps, my bad knee kicked in and it became tough for me to continue to attack the stairs in a normal left foot right foot manner. Instead, I had to slowly take each step two feet at a time.

When we reached the landing at the bottom of the staircase, I told Nate to wait up to give me some time to get ahead. He took my camera as I slowly made my way down a second massive flight of stairs. I finally and painfully made it to the landing at the bottom of the second set and took a breather.

       When I turned around to see how far behind me Nate was, he wasn’t. What the fuck… where is he? He was just at the previous landing, and by now should have been close to the bottom of the second set where I was. Did he turn around and go back up? I cupped my hands and called out for him a few times… no answer. Pissed and worried, I had no choice but to walk back up the two sets of stairs to the top to look for him. Angrily muttering to myself and pondering whether I was gonna punch him in the chest or in the face for making me do this, I started to climb. With my pack, guitar and bad knee, it reminded me of my brief stint in the Rutgers ROTC where I was forced to march and run in full army gear; a great workout, but straight torture. I was panting and sweating and had no water since Nate was carrying it. I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath since my bag’s upper straps were compressing my chest and making it difficult to adequately breathe.

       By the time I reached the halfway point between the two sets of stairs, I felt like my legs were going to give out. Then what would I have done? I looked around – over the edges of the staircase (had he fallen?!) and downhill for a bird’s eye view of where I came from. To my left was a wooden fence but it just narrowed into some bushes and looked like a dead end. So I set my sights on the last staircase ahead of me, and prepared for another challenge. Putting mind over matter, I gave myself small goals: “just ten more stairs till a rest… just get to the next landing, then I’ll sit for ten seconds…etc”.

       Finally, I reached the top but Nate was still nowhere to be found. I asked around but nobody had seen the black haired man with glasses wearing khaki cargo shorts, an orange shirt and a large green bag. There was a van waiting to carry some old people down to the bottom of the mountain. I told the driver what had happened and asked if he could take me down to the base where Nate might have gone. We had planned to have a beer at a specific British pub after the hike… maybe he was there. Or maybe he went back to the border since we’d have to end up there at some point anyway. Either way, I needed to get off this mountain. The driver said the van was full.

       I asked everyone I passed by. Finally, I found some mountain ranger “cops” and told them what had happened. I asked them for a ride to the bottom and they told me to get in their car. Two minutes later, one of them turned around and said that I was full of shit and just wanted a free ride down to the bottom.

       “Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. “Look at this.” I showed him two cable car tickets. “Why would I buy two?” They still didn’t believe me, and said they’d send out a radio about it (they didn’t), and then literally kicked me out at the lowest spot that I had reached on the stairs, essentially only wiping clean my walk back up. Complete douche bags. From there, I had no option but to walk the rest of the way down the mountain by myself. I was parched and weighted, and asked everyone along the way if they had seen him. Various thoughts ran through my head: Is he okay? When I find him do I punch him or hug him? The one hour descent was ripe with hills, steps, unpaved rocky paths, and choices of directions to go. At one odd fork, the right road sloped uphill while the left sloped downwards. I had a strange intuition to take the right path, but two men who knew I was trying to reach the bottom told me to take the left route… down is down, right?

Finally, I arrived at a small shop toward the bottom of the hill and used most of my last few Euro cents to buy a small thing of water which I immediately chugged. Walking through a quaint British street at the bottom that would have been a pleasant place to end our mountain experience, I hustled through it on the way to the bus stop to take a ride back to the border.

       When he wasn’t there either, I thought that maybe he would have gone to the bus station since that would be our ultimate destination. But when immigration asked for my passport and all I had was a photocopy since the real one was also with Nate in the money pouch that he was carrying, they wouldn’t let me out. Instead, they referred me to the real police. I found one, a British bobby that spoke English, and he really didn’t have any advice for me besides to wait by the border for him to show up. He radioed in but nobody had heard about any missing persons and he told me that he couldn’t write up a report unless Nate was missing for over 24 hours.

       So that was that. I was out of options and forced to sit and wait in the heat by the border hoping that Nate might show up at some point. I sat there in a tense fear and anger as people leisurely walked in and out of Gibraltar, so I decided to occupy my mind and use the time to write a song. The first thing that came to mind was the title: “Stuck Between a Rock and a Spain Place.” I got four chords in when Nate walked up.

REWIND…

When we reached the landing at the bottom of the staircase, Joshua told me to wait up to give him some time to get ahead. I asked for the camera as he continued to walk towards the exhibits. I waited at the landing and took a few more panoramic shots to make the best use of my buffer time, and finally decided to catch up to him. To my right, there was a path hugging a wooden fence. There were no posts marking the way to the exhibits, but it seemed the natural way to go. With my backpack on, I had to squeeze through a few bushes to where the path continued on the other side. I didn’t see Joshua and assumed that he had pushed on faster than he had expected.

       After a few minutes, I still hadn’t caught up to him so I kept walking, figuring that I would catch up with him soon enough. A few days ago, Joshua had given me shit about me walking too slowly for him. He’s probably proving a point and rushing ahead… dick. But seriously, how is he that far ahead? I cupped my hands and called out for him a few times… no answer. When I hit a fork in the road, the left side sloped downwards while the right went uphill towards the north. The obvious choice was to go right to get to the exhibits.

       Even with my backpack on, I hustled for a solid 15-20 minutes to hit the checkpoint to the tunnels. I stopped occasionally to sip the water I had, and considered that Joshua had none and was most likely feeling the effects. At the tunnels, I still hadn’t found him. If he wasn’t ahead of me, maybe I had missed him along the way? Strangely, a customs security officer flagged me down and with a smirk told me that they ran into Joshua and he was looking for me.

       “He’s at the top of the mountain and should be coming down in a bit,” they said. So I waited for more than 30 minutes for him to come down as they said. When he didn’t, I asked another security guard who assured me that there was only a single path down the mountain, so we would have to cross paths eventually.

       People kept walking by me, and random strangers stopped me to tell me, “your brother was looking for you”. A foreign couple said, “Josh went left (at the fork when I went right and uphill) towards the bottom of the mountain.” I realized that Josh wouldn’t be coming through the checkpoint after all and that I had been waiting in vain all this time. I frantically began to weigh my options for how best to get down the remainder of the mountain and to somehow intercept Joshua. In a stroke of luck, I was able to convince the security guard, with whom I had become friendly with at this point, to give me a ride down the mountain. After half-begrudgingly taking me as far as he would, I started to trek across town to the cable cars. He must be there waiting.

       He wasn’t; this was getting serious. In a second stroke of luck, a friendly pedestrian I had stopped to ask directions offered to give me a ride on the back of his scooter to the police station, where I reported my situation. The “police report” was most likely a mere formality since I’m pretty sure that they didn’t put out any word about a missing person. Either way, one of the cops gave me a ride to the border. Realistically, I had the passports so he couldn’t be at the bus station back in Spain. If he was anywhere, he was at the border. As I walked up to the customs checkpoint, there he was, sitting and playing guitar.

       “What the fuck, man?” Joshua asked as Nate cut him off, saying,

       “Dude, I’m just as pissed as you are.”

       We continued through immigration into Spain with our reunited passports and their supporting identities, but figured that we still had time for that beer we wanted. Almost just to say we did, we crossed an international border for the third time in 24 hours and reentered the UK for a beer. We decided not to talk along the way… not until we were sitting at a bar.

       On the way, walking through Casemates Square, we saw a stage being erected and tents set up for some festivities tonight. It looked like something not to be missed, or at least something definitely more fun than leaving immediately, so we decided to stay in Gibraltar for the night, even if it meant forfeiting our hostel deposit in Granada. Since that was a non-ideal situation, we stopped at a red British phone booth to try to call the Oasis Granada Hostel. After the initial trouble of finding someone who would convert a few Euros to British (or Gibraltar) Pounds to use at the pay phone, I got through to the receptionist and told her that we had missed our bus to Granada and wouldn’t be able to make the reservation tonight. The receptionist said that they have a strict 24 hour cancellation policy, but after promising to play her a song, and asking the manager, they agreed to postpone my reservation for a night. Things were already beginning to look up.

Nate scouted out the local hostels and found one a few blocks off the main square which was pretty reasonable, so we walked over and checked in, finally able to put down our bags and shower. It felt good to be clean and free of our weight, and better to be wearing jeans and a polo… our “nice” clothing for the trip.

       “Clippers” was recommended to us by both Lonely Planet and a British dude on the rock as an authentic British pub, so that’s where we started our night. We drank pints of flat warm beer, I ate a burger with bacon and a fried egg, and Nate got fish and chips. I tried a bite, but it made me nauseated. I still can’t get the smell of my fishy bag out of my mind and worse, the bag itself. Uch…

Dehydrated, we had a second beer, then a shot of Irish whiskey, but the food kept the effects to a minimum. By the time we left the bar to go to the square, the fireworks had already begun. Crowds of people were gathered watching the light show which was encased by green lasers surrounding the fireworks in the sky.

It was mostly a family event, and after the fireworks ended, swarms of kids got on the stage and were dancing to standard Bar Mitzvah songs like “YMCA”. It was a little strange… the whole street party scene with so many kids around. To try to act a little more “our age”, we went to the bars. Nate and I tried to be social and had a few conversations with random people, even going into some clubs (one had a Madonna themed night and was playing only her and related 80s' female pop songs), but by the end of the night, we couldn’t find anyone worth sticking with.

On our way back to the hostel, we passed by the tents surrounding the square that we had seen earlier. They had been serving food from around the world and were now trying to get rid of their remainders. So we munched on international treats on our walk home, and for the second night in a row I fell asleep while trying to write on my computer.

The alarm went off at 9 a.m., but we slept until 10, almost missing breakfast. The best one so far, it consisted of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, toast, OJ, and coffee.

       After breakfast, we repacked our bags again. Even my sleeping bag smells like fish. FUCKING FISH!!! WHY WAS HE CARRYING FISH JUICE??? I’ll never know, but I hope he gets eaten by a shark, or dies of a smell related death. SERIOUSLY, it has overpowered most of my days since then. I feel like I have really been downplaying how much this has constantly sucked since it happened back in Morocco.

We were able to leave our bags at reception after checking out so that we could finally see the sights around Gibraltar, but first we left on a mission: It was time to rid ourselves of our surplus supplies. Post office ahoy!

       After finding one, our first challenge arose – we had to find a box in which to ship our stuff to the States. We wandered around the back alleys and convenient stores asking if they had refuse boxes that they needed to get rid of. We finally found the perfect one, and began to pack it. Most of the stuff that we had grouped back in Salé was ready to go, but there were a few wildcards. First off, I wanted to keep my melodica, but the case was excessively bulky. Decision: keep the instrument, ship the case. Second, my art supplies (an artist’s notebook and a pack of pastels). Did I really need these? Would I ever have time to use them? Was I even good enough to justify carrying them around? I quickly sketched the alley that we were sitting in with our garbage box, and then drew a random beach scene. Whether it was that I don’t like the timbre (for lack of a better word) of the pastel crayons or if I’m really just not as talented an artist as I thought I was slash used to be, I decided that they could go home and added them to our State-bound-box.

On our way back to the post office, we needed to exchange some Euros for Pounds since they did not accept Euros, dollars or credit.

       On the way, we got distracted by a sporting goods store! Finally, I bought a new bag, and can now begin the slow process of destinkifying my stuff before making the transfer to the new bag. Until then, I will carry around both bags (nothing even remotely fishy can enter my new virgin bag). In the long run, that cab ride to Khemisset ended up costing me about US$85 (plus a bottle of Febreze and the dry cleaning that I would need to do). But that’s just how these trips go, and now I am refreshed.

       We finally made it back to the post office, five minutes before it closed. The postal officials, much like their American counterparts, weren't happy to stay late to help us, but we got the job done and sent the package out. Hopefully it makes it to New Jersey, otherwise a bunch of random crap will be returned to Gibraltar where it will be unclaimed and rubbishified.

With our main mission complete, Nate and I wanted to finally see Gibraltar, including its 100-pound gun, as well as the Trinity Lighthouse at Europa Point, the furthest southern point on the peninsula. First, however, I wanted to confirm our bus to Granada for tonight, and needed to find some Wi-Fi to do so. Nate and I stopped at a pizza place for some two-bird action, but with terrible connection, pizza, service and price, it was a full-on failure.

       Instead, we went back to Clippers, where the hostess from last night remembered us and allowed us to use their Wi-Fi, which told us an extremely valuable piece of information: the 8:50 bus that we were counting on, was 8:50a.m.. Otherwise, it would have said 20:50. So our “lie” yesterday to the Granada hostel about missing our bus was actually accurate, and worse, we had made the same mistake today!

       No time for sights... we had only one option to get to Granada tonight. A rush to the bus terminal (back to Spain) to catch the last train to Málaga would put us on schedule for a transfer to a Granada-bound train that would arrive early enough to check in to our hostel tonight.

       We made it within ten minutes of the bus’ departure, and over the next several hours, were treated to one of the most gorgeous scenic rides I’ve ever been on. The bus hugged a coastal road so closely that at times we were less than a meter from the Atlantic.

       After reading up on Málaga, Nate commented on how cool it was that a random series of events caused us to be on our way there where we’ll see Picasso’s birthplace and museum. He was excited by the characteristics of this type of travel. To me, often they’re hassles. Like when you walk through Times Square twice a day on the way to work and think more about the annoyance of all the tourists blocking your walk than on the magnificence of this world attraction, to me, the excitement is just frustrating... or at least, “just is”.

       Unfortunately, our stopover in Málaga was not long enough for a beach outing to take advantage of another sun-drenched day or even for a quick trip into town to see the Picasso stuff... an ironic twist on Nate’s realization... So we continued on to Granada.

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