The bristly mustache twitched, as though alive and threatening to jump off the Moroccan man’s face and onto the raggedy bus seat in front of me. Accenting the twitch was a white blob of the man’s breakfast, precariously hanging from the whiskers, gravity working to pull it groundward with each step as he made his way down the aisle.
I noticed the blob of breakfast (was it cream? Or cheese?) was also present on the man’s fingers, which he spread across every head rest he passed. I pressed myself deeper into my own worn seat, hoping the dab of cream or cheese (or heaven forbid, mayonnaise) not jump off with the twitching mustache and into my lap. And then I closed my eyes and braced myself for the trek we were about to embark upon.
After spending two captivating nights in the mountain village of Chefchaouen, Morocco’s Blue Pearl, it was time to continue our journey. With only a vague idea of where we were headed and no idea where we would sleep that night, we landed ourselves on a local bus.
I took a deep breath as the primeval machine lurched forward and immediately regretted it. Packed to overflowing, there was no shortage of interesting smells in the confined space. Underneath my feet crunched peanut shells that were glued to the floor by some unidentified sticky substance, causing me to hug my book bag in my lap.
As we plodded deeper into the Rif Mountains of Northeast Morocco, our tires complained as they hugged cliffside curves, the engine groaned as we climbed precipices, and the brakes dared to give way as they screeched down winding descents. Listening to that tumultuous symphony of cacophonous instruments agitated my nerves and I quickly became thankful that my bag sat in my lap, where it absorbed the brunt of my tension in a death grip. Every so often, I relaxed my white knuckles long enough to dab at the beads of sweat gathered on my brow.
Gabriel sat behind me, as there were no two seats side by side when we boarded. He touched my shoulder reassuringly as a lorry blared its horn ahead, rounded another perilous blind spot in the mountain pass, and headed straight for us. I closed my eyes and felt our bus stagger as it scrambled out of the way, tires running off the road and scattering gravel down the abutting cliffside. I popped another peppermint candy in my mouth to help with nausea, and prayed another prayer for safety.
Three hours later, as my feet touched solid ground and salty air whipped across my face, I felt the sudden urge to call my mother and tell her that I was alive and OK.
But I fought it, because to do so would require me to explain myself. Specifically, why, on a perfectly beautiful Tuesday morning, Gabriel and I had decided to hop on a local Moroccan bus and head north into the unknown.
The “why” was simple: for less than 2 USD per person, we had traversed the entire Rif Mountain from Chefchaouen to Tangier. Deposited (safely, but perhaps a bit traumatized) along the mountainous coastline, I drank in the gentle sun of the port city. After living in our own West African port city for nearly a year, I had failed to realize what an unexpected comfort the familiar smell of salt and fish offered.
A sea of choppy waves taunted us as we entered the port, our toes edging toward the concrete perimeter that separated land from water. We stood there, staring across the deep blue, calculating our next move.
“Gabe, we’ve run out of land. Now what?”
Only the hint of a smile could be seen under his beard as he looked down at me.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but Easter is coming up in a few days. It would be nice to be in a country with churches.”
It sounded nice to me as well. I smiled my answer in response to his unspoken question. Decision made and less than 10 minutes later, we had two tickets for a ferry. And less than 30 minutes after that, we found ourselves on a new continent.
Leaving Morocco behind, we crossed the mouth of the Mediterranean at the Strait of Gibraltar. As we entered deeper waters, a dark shadow appeared on the horizon. But as we came closer, I realized it wasn’t a shadow at all, but a defined water line.
A weight I didn’t know I was carrying—but one I later felt was as defined as the line in the water—lifted as we crossed the strait. While we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Morocco—a journey that started in Casablanca and carried us through Rabat, Chellah, and Chefchaouen—there are times that, as a western woman, I find it difficult to live and travel in Muslim countries.
I reveled in the moment on the ferry when I realized I could take off my jacket and scarf and sit in a tunic tank without feeling indecent. And then again when I noticed men were once more making eye contact with me. In Morocco, it was slightly infuriating to be ignored as men only addressed Gabriel—despite me being the French speaker in our relationship.
Gibraltar, our next destination and piece of land to explore. A place I wouldn’t need to stumble through French. A place where, despite being isolated by Spanish land, boasted of English being its first language.
We knew little of the enclave, save it had switched hands multiple times, creating an intriguing history. Only six square kilometres in size, the Rock of Gibraltar was (and is) guardian to the entrance of the Mediterranean. From its peak, political forces have monitored for centuries both the Spanish and North African coastline, and anything that floats in between.
This prized positioning was fought over by Spain, France and Britain, with the British capturing it during the Spanish Succession in 1704. Over the next century, subsequent sieges by the Spanish took place as the piece of land remained in dispute.
But was it truly British? Spanish-influenced? Its own entity? We spent the rest of the day exploring the giant rock, trying to decide. At times, it felt as though we were on a movie set with awkwardly placed props—red telephone booths, accolades for the Queen, Union Jacks, British pub signs, double decker buses and ads for fish n’ chips on every corner.
To muddle our brains further about just exactly where we were, we exchanged USD for euros (which were accepted at restaurants and souvenir shops), but were given Gibraltar pounds for change at every establishment we visited. By the end of the day, my pockets were jangling with West African CFA, Moroccan dirham, British sterling and Gibraltar pound coins. The British pound sterling and Gibraltar pound sterling held the same value, but with different designs. I felt like a child learning to count money as I tried to make sense of what was in my hand.
Knowing we wanted to climb the Rock of Gibraltar, we gradually made our way on foot across the city and towards the cliffside. There were two options to reach its precipice: climb the Mediterranean Steps (a set of 595 uneven, rocky stairs cut into the cliffside and rising from 180m to 419m above sea level), or take a cable car.
The steep steps were an arduous climb, but promised to carry hikers to various historic points, including Jews’ Gate, O’Hara’s Battery, and a set of caves that are an accredited UNESCO World Heritage site. As the steps increased in elevation, they became switch-backs, a zig-zagging stairway that hugged the cliffside.
Altogether, it was anywhere from a two to four hour climb, depending on how many stops you made along the way.
Meanwhile, the cable car only took a few minutes to haul its cargo up the cliffside (once you got through its line). Oh, and there was an ice cream truck parked beside the entrance for the cable car. Votes on which route we decided to take?
Once packed in the cable car with 20+ other people, I thought I’d rather make the climb as we started our steep ascent and I remembered just how much I hate cable cars. “Death by crashing cable car” is near the top of my list on worst ways to go out, next to “death by grungy Moroccan bus.”
But once a top of the Rock of Gibraltar, I forgot all about the cable car as we spun around, taking in 360º views of the Mediterranean, Spanish coastline, Strait of Gibraltar, and tip of Northern Africa.
Looking down the rock, we were gifted stunning views of the port, along with the small airport that jutted out into the water.
I was pulled out of my revelries by a shrill scream, followed by laughter, followed by another scream. A group of tourists had gotten too close to the resident monkeys who lived on the rock.
I hate monkeys. My best friend Michelle, who grew up in Kenya, always talked about how annoying monkeys could be. I didn’t believe her until we moved to a country also plagued by the African tree rats, as Gabriel calls them.
Pillaging pirates, the lot of them. Posted signs warned visitors of the aggressive barbary macaques, and cautioned them to watch their bags and small children. I wasn't sure which was more terrifying—the illustrations of the apes, or the hefty fine for feeding them.
But some monkey-lovers could not help themselves and had to inch closer to the primates for a selfie, only to discover just how contentious the little gremlins could be. Then there were others, like this poor chap, who simply happened to be walking around a corner at the wrong time, and had a monkey drop from overhead and land squarely on his shoulders.
The mangy furballs were ruthless in their assault. Using the element of surprise to their advantage, they wasted no time in unzipping bags and removing wallets, snacks, and keys. They took what they wanted with them and threw whatever they didn’t off the rock. And they did it before you even knew what was happening.
We stayed on the rock, long enough to enjoy the view and mess up our hair in the blustering wind, but not long enough to get mugged by a gang of barbary macaque thugs.
Ready to make our descent, we decided to take the dizzying scenic route and walk down a portion of the steep steps, instead of taking the cable car—also in case our readers thought we were becoming too soft or losing our adventurous edge.
Nothing screams "adventurous" more than walking along a path with signs warning of snakes. We did not "slow" down, but sped up along this portion of road, back to town.
Knees shaking and threatening to give way by the time we reached the bottom, we were ready to sit down and find some grub. Naturally, we decided it appropriate to order fish n’ chips.
Golden, warm, flaky, buttery, delicious. We also indulged in an English-style ale, to ensure we had experienced the British territory to its fullest.
Sitting back at the end of the meal, we returned to our initial question as we contemplated Gibraltar. What was it? It certainly wasn’t Spanish. So was it British? Or something else entirely?
“I don’t know… with all of the red telephone boxes, double-decker buses, and pubs… it feels very British. But in a…”
“…in a forced kinda way?”
“In a… Hollywood kinda way?”
Hollywood. As much as we fight human nature to compare new places and experiences with the familiar, it was the closest we came to describing that piece of rock. Our discussion continued as we made our way on foot to the Spanish border, where we hopped on another local bus—this one much cleaner and safer and void of peanut shells—and headed west…
Like reading about our life in Africa + travels?
Help us to continue writing about cultures around the world.