A Decision at a Spanish Port

Sometimes we are at a junction, unsure which way to go, and it’s only many years later that we reflect on how a particular choice of path took us in a direction that changed our life irreversibly.

I was in Spain without a plan, travelling solo, just me and my backpack, taking each day as it came. I had arrived earlier than expected in Algeciras. So it was only early afternoon when I got off the bus and walked to the port to enquire about ferries across to Morocco for the following day. I had a vague notion that I might stay the night in this Spanish port town then take a day trip across the Strait of Gibraltar. The lady at the ticket office was helpful and through the small glass window she told me the times of tomorrow’s ferries. Then she said something that would both wrong foot me and put me on the spot. “But there’s also a ferry to Tangiers this afternoon señor; it leaves in an hour.”

Even though I didn’t have one, this upset my plan. My idea was maybe to go to Morocco for a day trip, just for the hell of it because I hadn’t been there before. But to go in the late afternoon would mean I couldn’t return the same day and would need to find somewhere to stay overnight in that Moroccan port city. I felt nervous. The fearful side of my mind was kicking off. Even the logical side was weighing in with arguments against going: it asked, rhetorically, like a clever barrister who already knows the answer, putting the killer question to a witness: “Does your European travel insurance cover you in Africa?” I was on the edge of Europe and the continent of Africa was so close, but it was a step too far, right now anyway, because I wasn’t ready, I was unprepared. I decided to think about it, to sleep on it here in Spain. Safety was the best option.

Only a few days before I’d taken a cheap flight from Manchester to the holiday airport of Malaga. It was September and I had a week’s holiday from work. I knew that if I didn’t take the opportunity to go somewhere for that week, it would be months before I had another chance because it was going to be a hectic time ahead. It was going to be busy at work in my creative company in Manchester and I was also about to start a part-time university business course. Despite that, I hadn’t organised any kind of holiday. Somehow, there was something holding me back, some hidden force. I had travelled to many countries before, not only for regular holidays but on more adventurous trips, to a range of different cultures and I had dealt with many situations. Yet I was reluctant now to travel, for some reason. Perhaps not scared, but certainly apprehensive. The truth was, I’d never travelled alone before. All those other trips were with friends. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel, travelling solo. Perhaps I’d be lonely? Would there be times I’d need a friend by my side? Surely I could cope alone, but would I be happy? These concerns had been simmering in my head for a couple of weeks but now it was decision time. Finally, on the Friday lunchtime I bought a return ticket from England to the south of Spain, then flew out the following day.

In Malaga I quickly found a simple room for the night in a ‘pension’ then in the warmth of the morning drank coffee with the locals in a side street cafe. Everything was working out fine. Granada seemed like a good place to go to next, so I found my way to the bus station and soon afterwards I was on my way to the city of the magical Alhambra. In the early afternoon I walked alone in the baking Andalucian streets until I found a bar with cold beer. Each beer came with a small saucer of food as a lid, a tapa, so these were my lunch, which left me with a gentle and pleasant dizziness produced by a cocktail of blazing heat and alcohol. In Granada I visited the Alhambra twice: first in the afternoon and then again in the moonlight. The tiled palace with its fountains and cool waters was a quiet haven after dark, now with few visitors. It was an ideal place for contemplation, prayer or meditation.

After Granada I travelled west to the southern tip of Spain, to the port of Algeciras, and to the ferry ticket office where I had to make a decision.

Despite the left side of my brain telling me the logical reasons why I shouldn’t take the afternoon ferry, the emotions and imagination in the right side of my brain were in disagreement. This was the cause of my dilemma, this internal turmoil, the disharmony caused by contrary impulses. For a while I was frozen on the spot while I processed the contradictory signals, my internal programs jammed and frozen. If I were a computer then an hourglass would be turning, or a beachball spinning, while the internal processors hummed. In the end, it wasn’t a calculation that provided the answer but simply one word from a poem called ‘The Explorer’ that I had read as a teenager: “Go!”

On the ferry I spotted two student backpackers reading the broke backpacker blog on their iPad so I asked if I could borrow it for a short while, and they agreed. I was looking for places to stay in Tangiers but by chance I came across an interesting fact that would change the course of my journey, and indeed my life. It said that every night at midnight there is a train from Tangiers to Marrakech. Wow! Without thinking, I knew I had to take that train.

After buying my train ticket I still had time to look around Tangiers in the early evening. It was crowded as I walked through the narrow streets with my rucsac. It was here that I suffered an attack, which you could describe as being mugged, or robbed. A old man thrust his hand into my pocket and pulled out everything, but most of it dropped to the floor, a collection of tickets, some bank notes and other bits of paper I’d been carrying. It was a clumsy and foolish attempt at pickpocketing and I wasn’t harmed. The man ran away and people in the crowd shouted at him as he escaped. I picked up the various things he’d dropped and moved on. I was shaken and decided to lie low, so found a quiet cafe and sat in one of its dark corners, licking my psychological wounds while keeping a watch out for further danger. Most of my money was in the other pocket: he’d been unlucky as well as cack-handed. I decided to put my cash even further out of reach and shoved it inside my jeans and down into my underwear. I passed the time here as the clock ticked slowly towards midnight.

It was only a short walk from the cafe to the central train station of ONCF (Office National des Chemins de Fer du Maroc – the National Office of the Railroads of Morrocco), its name an indication of Morocco’s history as a French colony. Here I found my train and carriage, and at midnight a whistle was blown on the platform and the train started to move on its long journey south. After a while I slept. Perhaps it was the squealing of the brakes, or the juddering halt that woke me in the half light just before dawn. I peered sleepily out of the window to see where we were and saw immediately a sign on the station platform stating clearly “Casablanca”. Casablanca!! A major city in Morocco of course, but my immediate thoughts were of the classic romantic film of the same name, set in this very city, in the black and white days of the second world war. That was all I saw of Casablanca, just its station platform (until many years later, though that’s a different story).

A Norwegian nurse on the train, who now lived in Morocco, gave me his advice about what not to eat and drink to ensure that I didn’t get what he diplomatically described as a “loose stomach”. I definitely didn’t want one of those, particularly when travelling alone, and especially when it was doubtful that I had any valid insurance for medical treatment.

In Marrakech I explored the souks, getting happily lost in the covered alleyways, dodging the narrow traffic of donkeys and mopeds, swerving occasionally to avoid shopkeepers who were keen to grab you by the arm and pull you into their store to give you “a good price, my friend” for a carpet or some other local product. I was getting hungrier by the hour but unsure about what I could safely eat and chose the discomfort of an empty stomach to the inconvenience of a loose one. Then, by chance, I found a cafe that was making banana milkshakes from sealed ingredients: I watched as cartons of fresh milk were whisked with freshly peeled bananas. A few of these were my food for the day and I fell in love with the taste, hunger helping of course, so that even when back home I would combine these two ingredients to give myself both a quick snack and an instant memory of Marrakech.

I stayed that night in a hostel and slept late into the morning, wondering why I was still so tired, then realised that I must have walked countless miles in the hours I spent exploring the endless alleyways of yesterday. Because, being alone for the first time, I was able to do exactly what I wanted, without compromise, without anyone to suggest resting. In contrast, but similarly selfishly, the next day I sat in a cafe for unclocked hours, just watching the world go by, oblivious to any obligations to anybody or to any deadline.

It was here in Marrakech that I had an overwhelming feeling of adventurous travel that I had never had before, and only rarely since: the feeling that I could just keep going and going, that I was independent and unaccountable, compact and agile, footloose and a free spirit, healthy and capable, and that nothing could stop me: and that the rest of the world, anywhere and everywhere, was ahead of me and open to me; that the only thing that could stop me was myself. And now, having made the breakthrough of travelling alone, then daring to hop from one continent to the other, those internal barriers had been demolished forever. There was no stopping me now!

Now, many years later, having travelled extensively, often alone, sometimes with a suit and suitcase, but still frequently with the same lightness and agility of just me and my backpack, I remember my journey to Marrakech wistfully, with the fond affection of a first love. To fly alone to Malaga was a key decision; the midnight train to Marrakech was a rite of passage; and the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar was a turning point in my life. I didn’t realise back then how much it would be so, as is often the case with crucial decisions we make in the course of a lifetime.

I reflect how my life would certainly have been different, in ways I can never know, if I had made a different decision that September day at the ticket office in that Spanish port.


Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
First published 28 September 2018.


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