Tuesday, October 28, 2014

McCarthy's Casbah - Part II

I woke the next morning and, after navigating the other shitty facilities of the hostel, made my way into town in search of breakfast. “When in Rome..” they always say.. and since I was administratively in Britain, I decided to go for a fried English breakfast accompanied by a pint of lager. It was a winning combination: the eggs, bacon and beans went down a treat and I felt much better than when I got up an hour earlier.

Revitalised by salt, cholestorol and alcohol, I went for a walk around town. Because it was so warm, I had opted to wear my Glasgow Celtic jersey as football jerseys tend to handle sweat better than regular t-shirts. I noticed that  quite a lot of people had taken to this strategy with, perhaps surprisingly, Everton leading the jersey charts, just ahead of Manchester United and Barcelona. I planned to go see the monkeys today but I walked around for a while first and about half an hour later I decided that I had pretty much seen the entire town.  Before I was going to go up the Rock though, one more drink couldn’t do any harm, so I walked into a nice looking bar, ordered a beer and studied the map in my guidebook.  A bar girl with a Scottish accent put my pint in front of me and while we had the standard chat that you have in a new bar, a sense of dread started to come over me.

I didn’t know what it was at first, but I started to notice things from the corners of my eyes that just sent bad signals. When the bar girl walked off to the kitchen, I had a proper look around and when I saw a calendar that had a blue football with a red lion on it, I knew that it was what I had feared: I had walked into a Rangers bar.
The whole bar was decorated in scarves, calendars and pictures of the bastards. Some visiting fans had also left a Linfield scarf and a baseball cap of the national team of Northern Ireland.  All of a sudden, the monkeys seemed a good prospect so I drank my pint and headed out the door.

For those of you outside the sphere of influence of European football (a substantial part of my readership is from the USA) this may sound like an overreaction, but let me give you some background. Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers have been at each other’s throat
since the late 19th century. It’s the most fanatical and bitter rivalry in football. The civil war in Ireland that started in the late 1960s did not improve things and drove a divide straight down the middle of Scotland that has not healed since.  Lifelong friends turned their backs on each other, families were divided, marriages have broken up, all over the neverending battle between Irish Celtic  and British Rangers. What has not made it any easier is that Rangers went out of business in 2012, which only further fuelled the anger of their fans who now had no team left to support. It is hard to explain to outsiders how deep these feelings go for the fanatical supporters, but to give it a bit of scale- walking into a Rangers bar in a Celtic jersey is the sporting equivalent of walking into the annual Al Queda staff party dressed in an Uncle Sam suit while singing Living in America and drinking Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle. It would not go down well.

And to get the idea of football violence out of your head, here's a picture of a duckling

So with a sense of relief I exited the Venture Inn and made for the Rock. The road upwards is quite steep to begin with, and if you factor in that it was 35* and I am not exactly a triathlete, it became a serious exercise for me. On the way up, I came past the small Trafalgar cemetary, which was created there to accommodate those who had fallen in the battle of the same name. 
It was strange to walk around in a typically British graveyard that was overgrown with palm trees.  I hoped that maybe some of the monkeys would have made it down here but, despite a sign warning you not to feed them, none were present. It was really quite small, especially if you compare it to Trafalgar Square in London, which is massive. Then again, London is massive, and Gibraltar is tiny so maybe that explains it. No matter what, I had expected such a major historic battle to yield more graves. Maybe a lot of them are buried back home in England.

I trudged further up the hill and walked past a pub called the Picadilly but forced myself to move on. After a while, I reached the lower cable cart station.  This may be a good moment to let you in on the fact that I suffer from vertigo. It basically means that I have a serious fear of heigths that has the additional benefit that it also works the other way around: I get dizzy when I’m up high somewhere and look down but it sometimes also happens when I’m at ground level and look up at something high like a tall building or bridge. It also happens when I’m unexpectedly faced with tv or movie footage of deep gorges or, for example, that deodorant commercial of that guy kicking a football on top of the Pantheon or wherever he is. Or, as now, when I see a cable car going up a steep mountain. 
I couldn’t envision myself going up a quarter of a mile in a shaky cable car. In fact I got dizzy just thinking about it so I walked up further.  After a while, I came to what I perceived to be a botanical garden of some sort. The entrance was guarded by a bust of one General George Eliott and 4 cannons. Beyond the gate was a sort of rest area with benches and flowers in pots and after that the actual botanical gardens started. There were all kinds of plants I had never seen and they looked really cool. One of the coolest things was a row of big cactusses (cacti?) that looked like they were made of blueish rubber. They were taller than me and stood at strange angles at which regular plants would have fallen over. What made the whole thing even stranger was that they were for some reason being used to carve names in, like people would normally do in a tree or rock. A couple of them were full of carvings like ‘Mark heart Mary 92’ and ‘MUFC Rules!’. It didn’t seem to bother the plants though, as they clearly still stood tall while Manchester United have fallen considerably.  I don’t know if Mark and Mary are still together, but I like to think that they are happily living in a cottage somewhere in the Lake District with their children and their own private cactus farm.

I marched further up the hill and after a while reached another rest area. It was sheltered from the murderous sun by a canopy of trees so I took in the views while enjoying a sip of water. While I was taking pictures, I heard a group of people approaching and when I turned around, saw that they were dressed as if going to, or coming back from, a wedding. I’m pretty sure they were coming back from one, because they were talking loudly, their going was unsteady and they smelled of wine. With my peaceful moment among the trees disturbed, I decided to move on. I continued  up the rock and was further from the safe ground below with every step. After a while, I crossed a wooden bridge and noticed that about 12 feet below the bridge there was a small garden that had a pond full of Koi fish. I looked at them for a while and noticed that the garden was full of exotic looking frogs  that were happily hopping around the pond. It looked amazing and I really wanted to get closer to have a good look. The problem was though, how the hell would I get there? I decided to move further up and return to the garden later.

The thing with climbing up a mountain that is so densely covered in trees and plants, is that you don’t quite realise how high up you are. I stopped at another clearing, peeked my head over a low wall and looked about a 150 yards straight down. My vertigo hit me at a 100 miles an hour and I needed to grab on to the wall to prevent myself from falling backwards onto the rocky path I was walking on. That’s the thing with vertigo, it can give you the feeling of being physically unstable at times even if that is not really happening, which makes it all the more dangerous to be somewhere high up without protective fences.

I sat down for a minute and looked up at the Rock. I was about halfway up, and the combination of fatigue, thirst and vertigo made me decide that I had more interest in keeping my physical and mental wellbeing up to scratch than in seeing wild monkeys on the top of a very steep mountain, so I turned around and made my way back down to civilisation. I stopped to look one more time at the Koi pond and tried to figure out a way to get near it. When I finally found a route to it, it turned out to be closed off at the final turn by a big black wrought iron gate with a sign warning me that trespassers would be reported to the police at once so I made my way back to the human world, resigned to the fact that this was not a day for seeing wild animals.

Back at the Picadilly, I sat down in the shade of the trees with a cold pint of San Miguel and again reflected on what a strange place Gibraltar is. Their territory is tiny, only about 3 miles long and a mile wide. Most of this is taken up by the massive lump of granite that I had just tried to climb, a foolish plan in 35 degree heat for someone with the physical fitness of a darts player. Apart from the monkeys and some other assorted wildlife, nobody lives on the Rock so they’re all jammed in together on what little land is left, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. They have their own money that is accepted nowhere else in the world, not even in other parts of Britain, yet they gladly accepted all the Irish pounds I had on me, even though I couldn’t get rid of them in England or Scotland. And then, ofcourse, I keep coming back to football, and how ridiculous it is that they have a national team, but no space for a full size stadium. I got off my chair and walked back into town considering the possibility that the Blasket Islands may declare themselves an overseas territory and start their own national football team.

Back in town, I sat down for another beer, and came to the conclusion that I had pretty much exhausted my entertainment options for Gibraltar and would be forced to spend the rest of my time in pubs. I went around the main square for a couple of drinks and inevitably ended up in Allswell. I had a look around the still empty pub and viewed all the art work on the walls. It all had to do with the history of Gibraltar and it’s position as a strategic stop off for British navy vessels in the time of the empire. It was pretty interesting and gave a bit of an idea what life must have been like here in the old days. I sat in the sun outside reading a local listings magazine and decided to have dinner at a newly opened pizza place that received top ratings from the local reviewer. It was only a 5 minute walk from my perch in the sun, so I decided to have one more beer and then have a bite to eat.

I must say, the pizza was good. Not oh-my-god-watch-out-New-York good but it was a nice pizza.What I didn’t like about the place, and this is something that happens quite often at those modern new pizza places, is that they had a very limited choice in beer and charged an arm and a leg for a small bottle of lager. What further dampened my enthousiasm for the place was the fact that it shared a bathroom with 3 or 4 other restaurants in this street and that it was located about 50 yards away. You had to go get a key from the bar, then walk to the end of the street and into a cluster of toilets like you would expect to find in a railway station. When I got there, I found that all the lights were broken, so I had to make my way to the stalls (and do my business) by the glow of the flashlight in my phone.  Whoever wrote that review must have either been close friends with the owner or received a free meal and a brown enveloppe.

Happy from my fill of pizza, I went back to the square to see what was happening. The answer was: very little. It was close to 10 on a Friday night, but all the bars were empty. These people may consider themselves to be true Britons but they’ll have to work on their drinking habbits if they want to be taken seriously in the rest of the realm. In any pub in Britain, you’ll be hard pressed to find your way to the bar on a Friday night, never mind get a seat anywhere within 2 miles of the city centre. Here, however, all bars were nearly empty. Looking back on it now, I wished it had stayed that way. I had a couple of beers at the Lord Nelson, again the only place that actually had a bit of a crowd and around 11 walked back on to the square. A place that had been closed when I walked past earlier now had the front doors wide open and laser lights coming out onto the street. Loud techno was flying into the square while 14 year old British girls dressed as 19 year old Russian hookers were queuing to get inside.

I decided to retreat to Allswell, knowing that it would be better there, but I was unpleasantly surprised to find it full of wankers who were desperately trying to pick up girls, even though they outnumbered them by about 5 to 1. All the guys were dressed in the same outfit of a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, blue jeans and those silly tiny canvas shoes without socks in them. I stood at the bar, as far away from them as possible, and ordered a drink. Within a minute, two of them had moved up to my end of the bar and were loudly discussing which girl they were really hitting it off with. I thought this sort of behaviour ends when you're about 17, but I guess I was wrong.
After a minute I understood, just before they did themselves, that they were after the same girl, like Ross and Joey in that episode of Friends where they end up shouting at each other before they find out that the girl they were after has left because they were acting like babies. (Monkeylover!!)

One of them went outside to make a call and the other one turned to me and started babbling about how great this pub was. It was, before they put on Euro dance and let him and his mates through the door. It suddenly occurred to me that the impact of a well aimed Doc Martens boot heel on  those canvas baby shoes would probably cause considerable pain but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. I retreated again to the Lord Nelson where I drank beer until closing time so that I could get some sleep in the shitty hostel before leaving Gibraltar. I got  back to the hostel, lay down on my bed and just before I dozed off, another guest entered the room and climbed on the top bunk above mine. I told him to take it easy, lest the beds collapsed. Having to sleep on the floor was the last thing I wanted tonight. In the morning, I was going to Africa.

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