Thursday, October 23, 2014

McCarthy's Casbah- Part I

This year, as it marked my 40th, I was planning to celebrate my birthday on Hawaii. I had set up an itinerary involving a visit to friends in Oakland and San Francisco and then travelling on to Hawaii. Everything was right on track until an unfortunate and unexpected chain of events at the start of the year derailed my little expedition.
Hawaii would have to wait a bit longer so I now had to come up with an alternative plan.

I have told you before about the joys of Malaga Here and here so when I started peering at a map for ideas, my eyes soon drifted off to Southern Spain. I thought back to my trip there last year and was sold.
But much as I like the place, I couldn't just go to Malaga and sit on the beach for 2 whole weeks. I needed to find a somewhat more taxing itinerary to keep me busy, but a couple of days of relaxing in Malaga at the start and end of the trip would be fine.

So where to next? Malaga is near the Southernmost point of Europe so the next stop down would be Morocco. This would be a great opportunity to mark off another location on my Road to McCarthy project, because the story starts in Tangier.
For those of you who don't know this fantastic book, I urge you to order a copy at once.
You can do that Here
It is one of the best books you will ever read about Ireland, even though only a small part of it is set in Ireland itself.
In the book, Pete McCarthy travels around the world in search of his own clan history and Irish history in general. It is one of my favorite books, and about 2 years ago I decided to relive his journey: wherever Pete goes, I'll go.

I decided to read up on my McCarthy project, and walked to the bedroom to dig up my copy. When I returned to the living room, Sky Sports News were just covering a comical story that informed us that Gibraltar were now officially recognised as a UEFA member nation and would start their qualifying campaign for EURO2016 later in the year.
This made me laugh at first, but I then realised that Gibraltar was featured somewhere in the book as well. I opened up the first chapter and found that the journey in fact starts in Gibraltar. I went back to my map and decided that Malaga-Gibraltar-Tangier- Malaga was a perfectly feasible trip so I decided that this would be my holiday for the summer.

I arrived in Malaga mid-morning, made my way to the outstanding Oasis hostel and remembered that check in is not until 2, so I dropped my bag and happily set off to reacquaint myself with the city. I wandered the sunny squares and streets of the city centre, sat down for a drink here and for a bite to eat there and instantly fell in love with the place
all over again. I spent a happy couple of days drinking cold beer in the Andalusian heat, eating tapas at random intervals, and enjoyed some happy hours drinking in the hostel garden with fellow travellers. I went for a couple of long walks around the city, sat on the beach and took a tour of the local football stadium. I always enjoy stadium tours, even though they're exactly the same everywhere. You get to go in the press room, the presidential box, the away team dressing room and to the side of the pitch. There's always a little museum where you can learn about the history of the team and you can have your picture taken with a trophy, though this part was actually different on the account of Malaga CF not having won any trophies in recent decades. (They did come within about 3 seconds of reaching the semi finals of the Champions League in 2013, before, inevitably, losing to a team from Germany)
In short, it was great to be back in Malaga and I was already looking forward to returning here at the end of my trip when I boarded the bus to Gibraltar.

     Just add trophies

I got off the bus in the border town of La Linea and, for the second time in my life, experienced the joy of crossing a international border on foot. To make it even more interesting, I then crossed the runway of Gibraltar airport by public transport. You see, Gibraltar is so small that they don't have space to put the airport somewhere out of the way, so they just stuck it right next to the border and the only way to create a runway big enough to accommodate Boeings was to basically cut it through the middle of the main road into the country.

Gibraltar is a curious geographical oddity. It is perched on a rocky outcrop of Spain, much closer to Morocco than Madrid or even Seville. It has year round sunshine, a considerable Arab contingent and ferry service to Tangier. And yet, these people consider themselves to be British through and through. I have never, with the possible exception of the East Side of Derry, seen so many Union Flags in one place. They were everywhere: on pubs, shops, apartment buildings, even on the side of The Rock itself was a Union Jack about the size of a tennis court. It was uncanny. I got off the number 4 bus
(why they need several bus lines is a mystery to me as you can comfortably drive around the whole country in half an hour) at the town's main hub, Casemates Square, and went looking for my hostel. As hostels in Britain tend to be located in back alleys, behind tyre centres or other out-of-the-way places, I walked off to the far end of the street it was on. None of the 4 locals I questioned had any idea where it was, or what it was, for that matter.
I had gotten on the bus to Gibraltar with a bit of what you might call a hangover. On my last night in Malaga, I had accidentally met a Dutch girl called Anke who was from a part of the country where I happen to know a lot of people so pretty soon we established that we had a lot of vague half-possible common acquaintances. We went for a bite to eat and after that returned to the hostel, talked in the garden until the early hours with anybody who cared to join and in the process consumed pretty much all the alcohol on the bar, in the fridge and everything else we could get our hands on, so you can imagine that after half an hour of trudging up and down steep inclines in 30+ degree heat, with a heavy bag hanging from my shoulder, I began to look at Gibraltar in a somewhat dim frame of mind.

[Editor's note: Mr. Ramone, on the night described above, consumed nearly all of the alcohol involved, while Ms Van Rooy behaved herself as a grown up and had only 3 or 4 beers]

I decided to have one more look up the street and otherwise I'd break my personal rules and go look for help at the tourist office. I sloughed back towards the main square and finally saw a sign indicating Emile's Hostel. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would be disappointing but I just wanted to get rid of my bag and go in search of a cold drink. Everything about the hostel was below even the most modest of standards but the location was excellent. It was literally 20 yards from Casemates Square so I went across the road and onto the square, where one of the weirdest encounters of my life took place. As I descended on to the square, a girl looked in my direction from across the street, started waving and walked towards me. I assumed she had seen a friend walking behind me, but when I looked over my shoulder to see who it was, the pavement was empty.
"Hi Lennard, how are you?" She exclaimed.
Now it happens to me quite regularly that people know my name and where I'm from and so on even though I have no recollection of ever coming across them before, but this usually happens in Dublin bars where I can write it off to having been drunk the week before and having had some extended conversation with them that had disappeared from my memory the next morning. I don't expect this to happen a 1000 miles from home in a country I've never been in.
After nodding 'yes' and 'sure' for about 30 seconds, it started to dawn on me who she was. Her name was Laura and she had checked me in to the hostel in Malaga the year before and we'd had drinks a couple of times in the evenings. It amazed me that she remembered me. Working in a hostel, she must have met at least 25 new people a day, every day, for the past 14 months or so. After exchanging the usual pleasantries of what we were doing and where we were living these days, she had to get back to work (she now works for the company that runs dolphin spotting tours in Gibraltar) and we went on our ways. I wonder were we may meet next. Hawaii would be cool.

With Laura on her way back to work, I continued on my quest for a cold beer and soon found that Gibraltar has a decent selection of very British pubs. This may not be too surprising, given that it is part of Britain, but I just didn't quite expect to find it HERE. I walked into a place called The Clipper, ordered a Cruzcampo and enjoyed it immensely.

                        The flag of Gibraltar

Gibraltar, as I said, is a weird place. The people consider themselves British, even though it's in Spain, and even the UK government would sort of rather get rid of them. The UK and Spain entered into secret negotiations a couple of years ago to discuss the future of the territory. The idea was to sort of set up a transition plan, like  they had done with Hong Kong, where Gibraltar would remain British for 10 years or so and, after a transitional period, would then transfer to Spain. The Gibraltar government somehow got word of this cunning plan and before the world heard about the Anglo-Spanish plan, declared a national referendum of their own in which the population returned a resounding 93% in favor of remaining part of Britain, which left the people at Downing Street with egg on their face and no other option than to accept "the local sentiment" as they called it.
I set out to further investigate the place and, looking at the map, found to my joy that the area where most of the pubs are is called Irishtown. I decided to put off my second drink a bit and have a look around. This postponed my drink for about 20 minutes which is a good indication of the size of the place. It also gave me a good idea of the Britishness of the place. I walked the length of Main Street and found, among much else, Holland&Barret, Boots, Barclay's Bank, a red phone box, 2 branches of the Norwich Building Society and dozens of pubs, all with names like The Picadilly, Lord Nelson, The 3 Owls and many many more. It was strange. If you had led me in here with a blindfold on,  I probably would have guessed that, apart from the temperature, I was in Portsmouth or Southampton.
All that was missing was the rain and
teenagers in tracksuits. I decided to have dinner at a pub called The Cannon Bar, based on the recommendation that it had the best fish&chips in Gibraltar and it seemed to be a fitting choice in Britain, even though I was really in Spain. I walked in off the sunny street and all of a sudden I realised how spot-on Pete McCarthy had been with his description of Gibraltar as being "one part contemporary Spain versus 2 parts the England of 20 years ago". The interior of the pub was so incredibly early-90s-Manchester that I thought I'd walked onto the set of Coronation Street. The black and white tiled floor was filled with dark wooden tables and padded chairs that were clearly in need of replacement, the bar had the rings of thousands of pints of Tetley's on it, the wall was full of yellow pictures of football teams in their glory days and the pokie machine had a cracked window and buttons with the print worn off. There was a single tv above the door and I almost expected to see footage of Eric Cantona kicking a Crystal Palace supporter.

I ordered fish and chips and sat down at a table outside with a local newspaper and a pint of Carling. The sun was burning my skin, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, a sign up the street had clear instructions not to feed the wild monkeys and a pair of women in traditional Arab dress walked by across the street. Still, I could not shake the feeling that I was in England. I let this thought pass and had a read through the local paper. The main news story dealt with a music festival that was organised to celebrate Gibraltar Day, unfortunately on the day I was leaving, with some Big Name acts in the national stadium up the road and some smaller acts scattered across town, which explained why stages were being erected all over the place.
Another story that commanded headlines was a proposed real estate development on the Southside of the Rock, which contained, ofcourse, high-end appartments, some beachfront promenade with restaurants and a second ferry port. For a special touch, and because the plan had been developed by people from Dubai, they had come up with the idea of drilling a tunnel straight through the Rock to allow for easy acces to the town centre by train.
It was this latest addition that didn’t sit well with most residents and, by the look of it, the local politicians couldn’t quite decide whether to listen to the people or to cash in by drilling a hole in their country.
The last item I read was an analysis of the chances of the National Football Team, who were about to play their first ever international qualifier since their promotion to being an actual country. This also tagged back in to the real estate story, as the only stadium in Gibraltar does not meet the standards set by UEFA for international matches. Because of the strained relationship with Spain, they also couldn’t just hop across the border and play their games in Malaga or Seville, which has led to the strange situation that Gibraltar now play their home games in Portugal. The emiratis had offered to include a state of the art football stadium in the disputed development but this too was opposed by some locals for reasons I did not read into any further because my dinner was served. I must say it was excellent and well worth the 8 pounds I paid for it. After dinner I walked around for an hour or so, trying to decide what to do with the rest of the night. I could do with some sleep, but the thought of going to sleep while being almost sober in the shitty hostel did not appeal to me. I went back to the hostel to see if anybody was up for a party, but the crowd was as dull as the hostel itself. The common room, normally the place where people gather and make plans, was as lively as a cemetery. There were 5 people there. 2 of them were what is generally referred to as ‘computer people’. They can always be found in the common room, staring at the screen of their laptop or iPad. They rarely talk to other people there and never leave the hostel. Why they are there is unclear. The other 3 people were young African guys who had been there that afternoon. As far as I could tell, they hadn’t even moved. They weren’t talking either, not even with each other. They just seemed to be waiting for.. I really don’t know. Maybe until it was bedtime. As there were no takers for a pub crawl, I decided to instigate one on my own as I am perfectly capable of having a party without company.

I walked to my room to get something and found that there was now a second lodger, a guy from Malaysia who, by the look of it, was in his mid 50s. We had a chat about travelling and where we were heading and then he went back to sleep. Or perhaps to his prayers because I noticed to my alarm that there was a book called “Understanding God” on the chair next to his bed. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against people enjoying their religion, whether it is Christianity, Islam or the Great Cult of The Purple Banana, but the problem is that people who take their religion seriously are usually convinced that you should too. Fortunately, he never bothered me with it so maybe he was a relaxed disciple. Or maybe he didn’t quite Understand God just yet. In any case, he left the next morning before he could finish his book. 
I walked back onto the main square and to my surprise saw a huge logo of the Football Association of Ireland on the big screen that was hanging over the north side of the square. They were advertising the upcoming EURO2016 qualifier games and trying to drum up as much support as possible for their new national team. The FAI logo was followed by logos of the Scottish, German and Polish football associations, which reminded me what an interesting qualifying group this could become. I walked into a pub called Allswell on the account that it looked nice and ordered a pint of San Miguel. I looked around and noticed that, apart from a guy in the corner, I was the only customer. Well, I was the only customer IN the pub, the rest of the clientele was sitting at the tables outside so I decided to join them. The obvious upside to life on the Mediterranean is that the weather is always nice and you can sit outside in shorts and flip flops until well past midnight but the downside is, ofcourse, that there’s no one in the pubs. I drank my pint and then realised that this pub had those annoying wicker chairs where the seat slopes up slightly towards the back of your knees, making it uncomfortable to sit. I made for a bar at the end of the square called the Lord Nelson (how very British!) and found that this place did have a bit of a crowd inside. They also had a rock band (Which explained the crowd inside) that was just about to start. The first song they played was.. Ride On, a song from Christy Moore (how very un-British!).
The band was okay, as far as those guitar-bass-3piecedrumkit pub bands go so I decided to stay a bit longer.  One of the things I had noticed earlier, while walking around the town, was the abundance of liquor stores and their unbelievable prices.  A litre of Jagermeister could be had for 8 pounds while vodka went for around 7. It wasn’t even the paintstripper brands either, this was all big brand, top shelf stuff and it cost next to nothing. Had I known in advance how the alcohol sourcing situation was in Morocco, I might well have stocked up on whiskey.

Cheap as the booze was in shops though, it was quite expensive in the pubs. At most places I paid £3,20 to £3,50 for a pint. It’s not quite London prices just yet,  but it was more expensive than any pint I bought in Scotland. (And believe me, I bought A LOT of pints in Scotland).
So with my 3,20 pint of San Miguel, I turned my attention back to the band, who were now playing a cover of what is arguably the biggest Dutch song ever, Radar Love by Golden Earring.  What was more apparent to most people though, was the addition to the band of a local woman, who was dancing extravagantly in front of the band. This ‘look at me!  I’m so digging this!!’ attitude annoys me at the best of times, but it’s even worse when the perpetrator, as in this case, is completely out of sync with the music.  She was dancing slowly, as if to some tribal dance ritual, while the band were playing 80s rock’n roll songs. It all looked very weird  but most of the locals seemed unfazed. I guess that’s what a lifetime of duty free gin does to you. 
Apart from that, I had a good night at the bar, drinking and occasionally talking to the Gibraltarians(is that a word?).  I stayed out until the place closed and then went back to Allswell where it still wasn’t busy but at least they were open and serving so I stayed until closing time in order to get drunk enough to facilitate going to sleep in that shithole hostel.
I had to get some solid sleep. The Rock was waiting for me.

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