Thursday, January 12, 2012

whose homeland is this anyway?

Hey, are you awake?
Now I am. Why?
It’s 5:45.
Okay... The bus leaves at 9.
Do you want to take the earlier one?

Well there’s a temptation. The Internet died overnight. Can’t work, can’t post. Can’t sleep now either.
Okay, I’m up.
Quick showers and we’re out, walking in total darkness toward the bus station for the 6:30 to Algeciras.

We ride with morning workers. Mostly men, scarved and buttoned tightly against the cool winds of the night hours.

In Algeciras we switch buses and now we’re on the 7 a.m. out to La Linea.

If you look out from the Mediterranean Sea toward the land, the cities of Algeciras, then San Roque, then La Linea sort of blend into one large port. But La Linea’s identity is somewhat singular. It was born in the years (early 18th century) following the British control over its immediate neighbor to the southeast. Cross an airport runway from La Linea and you’re in Gibraltar. La Linea – the line that separates Spain from the British territory that is so often colloquially called The Rock.

These days, things are less tense here. But go back a few decades, to the Franco years in Spain and you have a different story. Then, movement between Spain and Gibraltar was cut off. And still, Gibraltar stayed firmly British. When put to a vote, the people of Gibraltar resolutely and overwhelmingly voted to remain with Great Britain.

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Who are the people of Gibraltar? Many who work here, especially at service jobs, are Spaniards from La Linea and San Roque. In fact, our morning bus is full of them. And so are the people of Gibraltar all of British descent? They say that they are a mix of everything, to the point that they speak actually three languages – Spanish, English and their own dialect. We heard it in a heated argument over work duties up in the Nature Reserve. Words flew in all languages, mixed into one hardly comprehensible whole.


But are these Gibraltarians really native to this area? In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the locals were nearly all chased out. The saying in San Roque remains today -- "Donde reside la de Gibraltar" ("where Gibraltar's population lives").

It’s complicated.

We are going to La Linea to see Gibraltar. Ed’s done this once, alone, as a high school kid spending time in the south on an exchange program. He thought it might be interesting to come again, this time with me. He’s right. This is one mighty fascinating piece of land. [My association with Gibraltar has been the American life insurance company that uses the Rock as its logo. You know the image – a sheer cliff. Solid rock. It’s good to get beyond these images.]

So now here we are, in predawn darkness, out of the bus, heading with others across the airport runway (they shut down this one road into Gibraltar when a plane flies in or out) into the still shuttered for the night territory of Gibraltar.

But I can see the faint contours already. Here, my first image of the Rock of Gibraltar, from the airport runway.


The stream of people coming in to work here moves without a fuss. But the police stop the two of us. Clearly we stand out. Twice, we have to show passports.

And now it’s 8 in the morning, still dark. Everything’s closed at least until 9.

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We find a British café (which simply means that the coffee is going to be weak and it is) and I ask for an order of eggs on toast (which means that it’s going to be without much flavor and it is). Ed dozes. I listen to the telly give the figures of the New Hampshire primary.


It takes us a while to find the tourist office, but finally, equipped with maps and having transnavigated most of this town three times and back again already...

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... we’re anxious to start the climb.

The top of the Rock is, in fact, a Nature Reserve and let me tell you, on this day in early January, with the exception of the moments passing by the café that’s halfway up, we have the place 100% to ourselves.

Visitors don’t really climb the Rock. There is a funicular and there are cabs happy to take you there and back again. But we like the hike. The peaks (there are really two) are each just short of 1500 feet, so even though it’s steep, it’s not terribly so.

And of course, as you go up, through lush green vegetation...

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...up steps, along stretches of empty road, you get the views.


Most are to Algeciras and San Roque – this is where the paths are. The other side – facing the southeast (the Spanish Mediterranean coast and Africa) has the sheer drop. No paths there.

In the summer, I understand that Gibraltar is a tourist draw. You can see why. There are the views, yes, I mentioned those already (and please note that after weeks of sunshine, we step on British territory and immediately we get the clouds and the threat of rain). And, too, there are the monkeys. Gibraltar is home to the Barbary Macaque – it is the only place in Europe where you’ll still find monkeys in the wild.

And we find them now. They are not shy – used to the presence of the human hand that butters their bread (they may forage for food, but the park also throws them oranges and cabbage; they earn their keep by not running away when a strange visitors stops by with the hope that she can get a photo...)


..or two


or more...

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As we get closer to one of the peaks here, I get my usual bout of vertigo. Ed gets to hear a lot of “I can’t go any further” type statements, usually just short of a wail and with emphatic insistence. And usually he can coax me to continue.


Once past the sheer exposed drop stretch, I’m okay and we sit on top of the Rock, alone, looking this way and that...


...commemorating the moment. Me victorious...


Ed, amused.


And then we walk down – a five hour hike total, with plenty of pauses for monkeys and views.

Gibraltar, the town doesn’t have great appeal to either of us. Oh, it’s very British and therefore quaint here on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

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And, too, it has lovely Botanical Gardens.

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Beyond this, we don’t linger. We walk across the airport field once again...


...and catch the 3 pm out of La Linea, connecting in Algeciras to Tarifa. Quiet, gentle Tarifa, where the winds blow and the sun is still trying to shine its way to a warm-ish afternoon.

Dinner – back at our first night seafood place. This time our paella has large shrimp and wild mushrooms. A warm wonderful memory of Tarifa.


Thursday at noon we’ll be leaving. We’ll take the boat and cross the Straits to Gibraltar to Africa.