by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
In days of yore, British Gibraltar, Tangier at the northern tip of Morocco, and Algeciras in southern Spain, with only a few kilometres between them, were a sort of Bermuda Triangle of money, featuring an array of unique and unexpected ways of separating you from it, or keeping you separated from it.
___Gibraltar was in the sterling area. The idea was that, inside the sterling area, everything worked properly, and outside it, it didn't. In fact it did, if you happened to be a Spaniard or maybe a Mexican in Algeciras, or a Moroccan or perhaps an Egyptian in Tangier. The real problem was that the three systems didn't talk to each other, because of the Armada maybe, or possibly the Crusades.
___I was supposed to meet a friend in Gibraltar, and then we'd travel south, so before I left London I'd sent some money to a bank in Gibraltar and travelled by ship and rail to Algeciras, which is just across the bay from Gibraltar.
___This wasn't much help, firstly because Algeciras was a hole in the ground, or should have been, and also there was no way of getting to Gibraltar from there. The British and the Spaniards were having a prolonged squabble over who owned Gibraltar and the year before the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco had tried to seize the Rock by laying siege to it. The border had become a cheapo localised version of the Berlin Wall, made of barbed wire instead of concrete, and venturing too near Checkpoint Carlos or whatever it was called meant a tussle with members of the Guardia Civil, fascist police with silly plastic hats, as well as unsilly submachineguns, one of which they tried to shove up my nose.
___They finally let me go after I mustered my newly acquired Spanish and pledged undying comradeship, blessing their mothers and grandmothers in the name of all the saints that mattered, or at least I think it was something like that, I'm still not sure why they thought it was so funny. I'd been taught how to say all this, though with possibly mixed results, by an old man sitting opposite me on the train from Madrid. Or at least he directed the operation.
___The train south from Madrid wasn't like the train to Madrid from the port of Bilbao in the north, where my ship had docked. For one thing the passengers on the train from Madrid were rustic people with baskets of live chickens and ducks and things, which kept getting dislodged from the luggage racks. The old man was such a rustic person. Everyone in the carriage seemed to be, except me.
___As the train pulled off, he and I eyed each other unobtrusively, sizing each other up. I gained a few points by helping the woman behind me stow her chickens on the rack, though more out of self-defence than chivalry -- she'd put them directly above my head. The old man chuckled, took out a bulging leather wineskin, unscrewed the cap, opened his mouth, aimed, and squeezed, and a six-inch-long jet of deep red wine squirted into the back of his throat. He swallowed, had another squirt, and passed me the wineskin.
___I took it, held it as he'd held it, opened my mouth wide, judged carefully, and just as I squeezed I became aware that everyone in sight was watching, expectant smiles on their faces. But the ensuing jet of wine squirted unerringly into the back of my throat as intended, and, feeling smug, I swallowed. But the jet kept on coming, and went from the back of my throat up my nose, emerging with sudden and immense force as a gargantuan sneeze. The audience fell about laughing, but I didn't mind -- it was definitely funny, I'd probably have laughed too if I hadn't been choking half to death at the time.
___They offered lots of technical advice, but I couldn't understand it, and thus began my Spanish lesson, and hence the uncertain results. Each time I got a new word wrong, I had to take a penalty squirt from the wineskin, and so did everyone else, and when I finally got it right we all had a squirt from the wineskin to celebrate.
___It turned out to be a protracted business -- when that train left Madrid Central Station it was setting off into the unknown. The trip should have taken eight hours, but there'd been a derailment somewhere else on the system, so our train was rerouted off the main line onto a series of spectacular minor lines winding through the mountains and stopping at each village on the way so that delighted villagers could hand up through the windows an unending supply of great local food, as well as enough wine to refill the scores of wineskins.
___This was all paid for by a remorseful railway company, who didn't seem at all alive to the increasingly obvious fact that virtually everyone on the train was much too amiable and filled with peace and goodwill for all mankind and so on, not to mention wine, to give much of a damn about where the hell we were or what we were all doing there. Or maybe the locals had it rigged so the train always got rerouted this way and everyone was used to it -- maybe locals of various localities took it in turns to derail a train on a regular basis so they could all have a share, a quaint but charming local custom.
___Anyway the trip took two days and a night, and I guess the night must have come somewhere between the two days, but I couldn't remember it being there. Yet I didn't have a hangover the next morning, I even felt as if I'd had a good night's sleep, which I definitely hadn't had. And when the old man passed me the wineskin just after the second of three breakfasts in a row came through the window, I squirted and swallowed as if I'd been weaned on it. And thanked him in Spanish, complimenting him on the excellent wine (I think). This was the way to travel.
___Finally, though somewhat regretfully, and with a high opinion of Spanish trains, late in the afternoon, I arrived in Algeciras. I checked in at a cheap hotel and asked directions to the market. It turned out to be a good market, inside a big, airy, high-roofed structure with lots of skylights, and stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, clothes, all sorts of things, and, yes, wineskins, one of which I bought, and also a variety of local wine, so I bought some of that too.
___There were also a couple of bars selling beer and wine and coffee. Coffee! The aroma wafted round the market, mingling with all the other marketplace smells -- after nine months in England, a primitive place where they haven't yet discovered coffee, this was not to be resisted. I sat down at a counter and had two small cups of wonderful coffee, accompanied by little dishes of free seafood snacks which just kept on coming as fast as I emptied them. Meanwhile the barman and several other people gave me advice on the best way to fill a wineskin with wine. Then they sat with expectant smiles on their faces while I prepared to christen it: I sent a jet of wine into the back of my throat, swallowing expertly, nonchalantly offering the skin around in the baffled silence that followed my failure to choke on it.
___Later the market closed and we moved to a bar nearby. Much later I went back to the hotel, even finding my way, but I didn't remember much about it.
___The next morning I set off for Gibraltar. Of course that was impossible -- what you did instead was set off for Tangier, on a ferry, and then catch another ferry all the way back to Gibraltar, and that's what I tried to do, but it didn't work out that way.
___Before I left London I'd called the Spanish embassy, who'd told me that, while yes indeed there was a cholera scare in Morocco, as I'd heard, inoculations were not required before travelling to Tangier from Algeciras.
___In Algeciras, however, the local authorities took the opposite view, and wouldn't let me on the ferry without an inoculation certificate that was at least two weeks old, since it took two weeks for the vaccine to incubate. I'd have to spend two whole weeks in Algeciras.
___Far from happy, I went to the state clinic and had my inoculation, failing to persuade the nurse to backdate the stamp by two weeks. She did agree, however, to backdate it by one week. Then, low on funds, I went to a bank. No, it would take at least a month to withdraw money from the bank in Gibraltar. Why so long? It is in the sterling area, very inefficient, not like Spanish banks. Oh, I see, I said, not seeing at all.
___I went to examine the border, ending up admiring the yawning holes in the ends of the Civil Guards' gun barrels. After they let me go I went back to Algeciras, but the entire population had vanished -- siesta time, everyone was asleep.
___I sat alone in the town square, named, like every town square in Spain it seemed, Plaza del Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and figured out how much money I'd need to survive a week in Spain and catch two ferries to Gibraltar. I had enough, only just -- I'd barely manage to keep my wineskin full. What I didn't know was that my official information on ferry prices and travel costs was just as solid and reliable as the London embassy's information on cholera shots. But if I'd known that, I couldn't have afforded the wine.
___I settled down to wait.
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