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Sunday, July 10, 2011, in Puerto Almerimar, Spain

Hi all. We’re now on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, not far from Malaga. Last week, we were in Gibraltar.

Gibraltar has its own culture which is best described by comparisons to other places. Part of the UK, there are pubs around and places for Indian take-away food. It is, after all, in the midst of Spain, so lots of places to eat have churrasco or a menu del dia. Gibraltar’s main street is filled with tax-free shopping, and reminds me of those “Little Switzerland” stops that are made every day by Caribbean cruise ships. Tiny tax-free shops are stocked with small, expensive items like jewelry and electronics. Many of the workers commute in daily from Spain; it’s too expensive to live in Gibraltar for most people, because you can’t eat cameras. The locals speak a language called llanito that is a mixture of Spanish and English and a bit of slang. They say that it's tradition. I’d call it Spanglish. I don’t know if it’s the same language they speak in Miami, though.

My guidebook quoted a traveler who’d visited Gibraltar in the 1930s. He said it looked as if “it had been towed out from Portsmouth and anchored off-shore still wearing its own grey roof of weather.” After a few days in town, I agreed. Most mornings, there was a grey cloud over the mountain. It often looked as though it was going to rain, but never did. It was cool in the mornings and never got all that hot in the afternoons. It reminded me of about the best day you might get in a British Isles summer. For someone looking for beaches or a suntan, maybe this wouldn’t be your spot. But I think it might be a fine place to live.

After several days in town, we finally began to take a look at the place. On Saturday, we’d missed an opportunity to find a taxi tour guide because nobody works at this holiday town that far into the weekend. The shops were closed, too. On Sunday, we walked through the Botanical Gardens. The weather still wasn’t right for a trip up the famous mountain, and the tourist office – on a reduced weekend timetable and minimal staff – informed us that the museum wasn’t open on Sundays, and the self-guided audio walking tour (self-guided, no workers required) wasn’t available until the next weekday.

The botanical gardens were attractive, and the small wildlife area gave us a preview of the macaques we’d see on a proper mountain tour. Art was delighted to find a sign denoting a plant that we were seeing everywhere, but that he just couldn’t name. (It was oleander.)

After days of simply living in Gibraltar, we finally arranged for a proper tour of the place. We met a small bus at a hotel in town, and the driver regaled us with stories while he drove us up the Rock. The Rock (as everyone calls it) is of limestone, a porous stone. Seawater is now pumped up to the top, where it’s desalinated and collected in reservoirs for the use of the populace. Rainwater finds its way to use as well.

We stopped at a few overlooks on the way, and our first official stop was at a natural grotto called St. Michael’s Cave. It’s 300 meters above sea level, goes down 700 feet (more than 200 meters), and was once believed to be bottomless. It got its name from a similar cave in Italy, where St. Michael was believed to have appeared.

Notwithstanding the saint, this cave is something of a cathedral. The sand-castle drippings of stalactites and stalagmites make you think it was designed by Gaudi. It’s lit dramatically, and the background strains of Pachabel’s Canon remind you that cave acoustics are superb. There’s a large area made into an auditorium. Summer concerts provide a respite in a cool, rainforest atmosphere, and it’s the setting for the Miss Gibraltar beauty pageant.

We exited the cave and found ourselves among the famed Barbary apes. They’re not really apes; they are monkeys that don’t have tails. One legend holds that a secret tunnel between St. Michael’s Cave and Africa allowed these monkeys to migrate to Gibraltar. A more accepted explanation is that they arrived as pets during the Moorish sovereignty of Gibraltar. There’s a superstition that Gibraltar will be British as long as the monkeys are there; until recently, the British army was responsible for their feeding. When their numbers diminished during World War II, Sir Winston Churchill ordered that a minimum of 24 be maintained.

They wander around all over the Rock, climbing, eating fruits from the trees, and rummaging through trash bins and the occasional tour bus. They’re simply adorable, tame but always a little bit dangerous. They’re so acclimated to the tourists that they and the bus drivers recognize each other. They jump on the bus drivers’ shoulders, and I saw a few drivers surreptitiously feeding them peanuts. My driver and one of the apes greeted each other with high fives.

There are two sets of tunnels inside the Rock. The first was to survive an 18th-century siege by the Spanish and the French during the American Revolution. The original tunnels were carved with tools and gunpowder. By World War II, a secret project took place for about three years to build a new set of tunnels with improved techniques, this time with the help of dynamite and Canadian pneumatic drills.

There were 5000 men and 300 women living inside the Rock. The men’s shifts were eight hours of digging, eight hours of sentry, and eight hours of sleep, for months on end. The women were on the same schedule, eight hours of nursing, eight hours of taking water to soldiers, and eight hours of sleep. They created about thirty miles of tunnels, more distance than the length of the roads of Gibraltar. Without exposure to light or weather, the inhabitants had no inkling of clock or season. They made their own power, had their own water system, and had their own hospital. Gibraltar’s citizens had been evacuated to London, but they might have been safer just staying home. Planes were shipped in inside of crates, assembled in Gibraltar, and made their maiden voyages on Gibraltar’s short runway surrounded by ocean.

One view we got from the Rock was over the runway of the airport. Though Gibraltar is scurrying to remedy the situation, the runway is bisected by the road south from the border with Spain. So when a plane arrives, they have to cordon off the traffic from crossing the runway, as if it’s a train crossing. It’s the third-most dangerous airport in the world, according to our guide. There’s ocean at both ends of the short runway, making the landing less like an airport and more like a large aircraft carrier. Furthermore, I worry about driving hazards, but I generally don’t expect to be hit by a plane. The exercise of stopping and restarting traffic takes time and exacerbates the congestion in a tiny country. The road is under construction, being rerouted as a tunnel under the runway along the sea. It’s probably about time.

The border between Gibraltar and Spain has a sort of curve to it, in the shape of the reach of a cannon fired from the mountain. Things haven’t always been all that cordial between the two countries. Franco sealed the border. The town on the Spanish side of the border, La Linea, means “the line” in a military sort of way, and the town beyond that can be translated to “the encampment.” It takes a surprising amount of bureaucracy for a vehicle to depart tax-free Gibraltar, but there’s no Customs problem at all to come in from next door. Who’d want to smuggle in the goods that sell at list price and have already been taxed?

We drove through the border on our way to catch the ferry at Tarifa. Though Gibraltar gets lots of attention as the toehold for Hercules, it isn’t the southernmost part of Europe. Tarifa holds that status, and it was the first port to charge for the use of its docks. There’s debate over whether that’s the source of the concept of a tariff. There’s no debate that this point is very windy, and it’s a haven for windsurfers on vacation. They probably don’t even notice the old fortifications overlooking the harbor, built by the caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III in 960. We didn’t pay much attention, either, actually. We were in town to catch the ferry.

Tarifa is quite close to Tangier, Morocco, and we aren’t planning on sailing to North Africa this season. So a day trip offered by a tour operator in Gibraltar was a good diversion for us. Our group boarded the ferry and we were met on the Tangier side by a man in a plaid caftan and a floppy blue hat. I’d say that this outfit probably embodies urban Morocco, a pleasing blend of mostly Muslim and a bit of Western. More than once, I spotted a woman with a baseball cap holding her head scarf in place.

Not everyone was dressed for Lawrence of Arabia. Younger women often wore camisole tops like the ones I wear every day, though they all wore long slacks. Some wore beautifully sewn gowns. Older women looked like they were in many layers in the heat, and a significant number of men also wore light caftans like the ones favored by the women. Once in a while, I’d pass a woman who’d arranged her head scarf so that only her eyes were visible.

Our guide talked about the countryside as we drove through, in English and Spanish. Our first stop was on a beach and was obviously just a way to provide contact with a handful of camels. For a euro, you could take a little ride on one and take some photos. We opted out, because of a self-imposed lifetime limit of two rides on camels. But I love being close to those animals, at least briefly, because of their comical faces. I also love to watch them stand up and sit down. Their back legs are in three pieces, so they fold in several steps, in tandem with the front legs. The best place to look when a camel is standing up or sitting down is at the face of the first-time rider, who is always shocked at how bumpy a ride it is, even before they start walking around.

Like in Turkey, it’s not clear to me that camels are ever used for anything other than mining bills from tourists’ wallets. But I’m not sure that’s any different from parasailing or mojitos, so I’m not judging.

A day tour doesn’t really give you the opportunity to stop in old castles or visit monuments, but we were just looking for the flavor of Morocco, and we got a literal taste of it with the tagine lunch provided in a restaurant inside the medina, or shopping district in the old town. There were musicians playing a mandolin-looking instrument and a violin (had they just had a banjo, it might have been bluegrass). Instead, there was a drum, and the violinist rested the chinrest of the violin on his lap and played the instrument as though it was a tiny bass cello.

Outside of the restaurant, a snake charmer was willing to wrap his cobra around your neck for a euro, and some in our group thought that was a good idea. I don’t even think snake charmers are a Middle Eastern thing, let alone a Berber one, but tourists want exotic experiences, and there one was.

A group of tourists makes the pupils dilate among the men who sell various junk on the narrow streets of the old town. A man comes up to me with an armful of copper-and-silver bangle bracelets. “Five for ten euros!” “Three for seven!” “Marks and Spencer!” These prices got lower as we made our way through the shops and neared the ferry terminal to go back to Europe.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the medina, chaperoned carefully by our guide and a small team of handlers. We were herded into selected large shops which undoubtedly provide commissions for our guide and his team. They handled us, and they did their best to shoo away the local hawkers who had armfuls of cheap souvenirs. Largely, they were quite successful at not losing any of us and unsuccessful at keeping the merchants at bay.

I was thinking about two selling situations I remember from the movies. First, there’s the one in Gigi, when Gigi is taken to a couturier to buy a gown. It’s a sedate occasion, models coming out of the dressing room, and Aunt Alicia pursing her lips to turn down an offer. Then I thought of the movie Casablanca (also in Morocco, of course), when Ingrid Bergman was looking at some fabric and the seller gave her a price.

Vendor: You will not find a treasure like this in all Morocco, Mademoiselle. Only seven hundred francs.

Rick: You’re being cheated….

Vendor: For friends of Rick we have a small discount. Did I say seven hundred francs? You can have it for two hundred.

Rick: I'm sorry I was in no condition to receive you when you called on me last night….

Vendor: Ah, for special friends of Rick's we have a special discount. One hundred francs.

Well, compared to what it’s really like for a tourist in the medina, the treatment Ingrid Bergman got in Casablanca was more like the one in Gigi with the couturier. For us, it was a little like being mobbed.

At one point, we were finished with the presentation at one shop and we all followed a man who was leading us into another shop, a jewelry shop across the way. I assumed that it was part of our “tour”, until I saw the shop, which was tiny and couldn’t possibly have fit all of us. Then I realized that this man we were following wasn’t one of the guys showing us around. He just wanted to lead us into his shop, so he pretended that he was next in line for a visit. We were sheep. Art and I went back into the previous shop simply as a sanctuary against the outdoors.

The official shopping visit took us into one shop to listen to a sales pitch about carpets, and another “spice market” shop where someone was selling eucalyptus to prevent colds, and a spice pack “that we use so that a bad cook can get married”, avocado lotion for your hands, and something for women to buy for their husbands to give them “energy in the bed.”

As far as I’m concerned, these side trips help to subsidize the day’s visit, in the same way that someone might send you to Florida for a weekend if you’ll only sit through the condo sales pitch. So I don’t really mind. But what amazed me are the selling skills of these merchants. In both shops, one man gave us his pitch in English while another pitch in Spanish was taking place across the room. In the spice shop, they were getting laughs on both sides of the room at the same time. The talk was charming and amusing and clearly ridiculous. “Put this cream on your face and your wrinkles will go away.” “Do you have high cholesterol? It will go away if you drink this tea.”

He put some rose cream on a ten-year-old girl in the audience. “Look at her! She looks five years younger!”

Then for the sale. “One for six euros, get two for twelve and the third one is free.” If you’re not sure that a somewhat-overpriced product will work, how smart is it to buy two of them? But we were amazed to see that nearly everyone in our group bought something, and most went for the buy-two-get-a-third-for-free deal.

The men in the street, too, were annoying but successful. That’s why they’re out there. They put their arm, which is bejeweled or be-carpeted or be-wooden-cameled in front of your face. If you flinch or look at something shiny, they begin their serious pitch. Engage them, even to say “no thank you” and the pitch gets longer. Your only hope is to look away.

In the end, some of the people on the trip were spooked by this active commerce. We’re used to it, from other places we’ve been, and probably because we simply aren’t interested in buying anything. To me, these guys have to sell this stuff or they don’t eat. It's hard to fault them for that.

On a more cosmic scale, when I saw the cobra, I was reminded of a National Geographic show I watched just a few weeks ago. It was about dangerous animals in the forest, and a cobra was one of them. National Geographic always gets great footage of the viciousness of the predator, who, after all, is just trying to stay alive. There’s a moment in every case when the predator has the prey in its sights, and his eyes show a mix of strategy, elation, and adrenalin. While I was sitting in the spice shop, the seller asked a woman near me if she was interested in some product he was showing. She said, tentatively, “Maybe.” Then I looked at him and saw that look that I see in the cobra. I turned to Art, “She’s buying. And she did. After all, he’s just trying to stay alive.

I’ll finish here and save the rest for next week. We’re making good progress on the year’s itinerary. Hope you all had a good Fourth. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)