Morocco, Spain, and Gibraltar are, when you're on a ferry boat crossing from Tangier to Algeciras, within fifty miles of one another. You can see the coasts of both Spain and Morocco during most of your two and a half hour ferry journey aboard the Bishmillah, the selfsame boat which first hauled me into Tangier ten years ago. For the last hour of the northbound trip you can see the Rock of Gibraltar, undoubtedly a thing of beauty.
Steven Ryan (who used to sing with a superb Dublin band, The Stars of Heaven) grew up on the south coast of Spain with his family. His mother Sammy Sheridan was a great short story writer under the pen-name, F.D. Sheridan. Steven's song, The Lights of Tetouan, which he wrote for The Stars of Heaven, is a dreamy recollection of seeing the Moroccan town of Tetouan from his Spanish childhood home. The tune was subsequently covered by Everything But The Girl.
I'd holed up in Tangier for the night, having travelled up from Marrakesh by train the previous day. Crosby Stills and Nash must've taken some particularly good acid to come up with Marrakesh Express. Stopping at every two bit desert town south of Casablanca, it's a ten hour saga of a journey.
Before heading for Tangier port I did some early morning shopping in the market. Sea salt, almonds, olive oil-based soap, garlic, sesame seeds, Ceylonese tea. Then I passed a stoned leisurely lunchtime at the Caf?© de Paris before going to the boat. My plane was due to leave Gibraltar at 7.30pm.
Three hours after I arrived in the port (two hours late), Bishmillah cruised out of the harbour and I left Tangier behind for the umpteenth time. It was a hot and breezy mid afternoon; my thoughts were partially with my pal Nou. I was now convinced that he was locked up in Tangier Prison. I will always remember exactly what he once said about his previous visit to what the town's petty criminals call Hotel de Tangier. He said, "Hell. Hell." And he didn't say a whole lot more. I knew that the vast concrete complex was particularly bad in the hot weather, when its inhabitants are left to stew in the sun. At night, in the cells, they have to take turns lying down on the floor to sleep. There are so many people in each cell that the majority have to stand up most of the time. I was out in the fabulous sun listening to Sizzla on my walkman, drinking cool spring water, watching out for dolphins, trying to forget about Nou.
What with the Bishmillah stalling in port until mid-afternoon, with the journey taking the bones of three hours, with me miscalculating the different time zones between Gibraltar and Morocco due to some particularly good hash, I missed the plane. I crossed the border from Spain into Gib to see my British Airways plane mount the sky. It was now 7.45pm. I made my way, reasonably calmly, to the BA desk where a friendly queen booked me onto the next flight to London, due to depart early the next morning. This was really good of the queen because my ticket was the cheapest known to man, strictly non-refundable or changeable.
I know that neck of the woods pretty well, Gib on one side of the border and the small Spanish costal town on La Linea on the other. I dumped my travel bag in the airport Left Luggage and went to a coin box. I know all the cheap hotels in Gib; there are only three because Gib is a reactionary rich folks spot governed by living breathing 1950s English Home Counties values transferred to the Mediterranean, The cops arrest you if you try to sleep on the beaches at night.
Three phonecalls later I knew that all three places were booked out so I walked back into Spain and went from one cheap La Linea hostelry to the next. These were full too. I could've gone to one of the pricier joints but I'm tight with money and was running low on funds anyway. The hash played some part in the next decision I made - to pass the night on the dusty streets of La Linea. The sun was baking the town's lovely boulevards, and it was particularly good hash.
The evening passed happily enough. I walked into Gib where I ate good in the town's only decent restaurant, a sort of right wing health food place run by this retired military guy who'd obviously gotten the health food bug after his first coronary. I'd eaten there before and enjoyed the buxom brassy waitresses who, in another universe, could've won starting roles in afternoon soaps.
Mindful of the ban on beach sleeping in Gib and of the colony's vaguely police state attitude, I crossed back into Spain as the sun set, making my way to a beachfront picnic area where I hung around listening to music until it got so late that the local yokel skate kids were giving me the suspicious eye
La Linea is a small place without much by way of nightclubs or late night dives so my next port of call was the waiting room of the local A&E. Being a small place, the town didn't seem to have much to offer by way of drive-by shootings, stabbings, or crashes. Back in the big city, A&E is always a good place to go hang out and hide, especially at the weekends until about 5am. There were three cases in front of me in La Linea; a fat old guy, a Hassidic Jew, who looked like he'd had a heart attack, an accident victim with her prosperous looking boyfriend or husband, and a dude in his mid thirties, in the company of two cops, who looked like he'd taken a bit of a beating. I was able to lurk there until after 2 but, eventually, I attracted attention there too.
So I took off for a beach I'd never previously been to, way off on the other side of town. Life was winding down but I passed some sort of football team clubhouse in front of which fast cars, full of twehtysomething jocks and their babes, pulled up, moved off, revved and roared.
I found a shut up California-style beach bar with beach furniture strewn every which way out front. Having made myself comfortable I noted how desperately cold it'd suddenly become and I noticed a tractor-type beach vehicle, complete with yellow flashing lights and a penetrating siren, combing the beach methodically sifting out and collecting the day's rubbish. It took the clean-up team half an hour to get from one end of the beach to the other. They passed by me five times during the next three hours. While they worked I listened to Live in Hyde Park by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, No Other Love by Chuck Prophet, We're Outta Here by The Ramones, and Wildwood Flower by June Carter Cash. At least Chuck and the Chilli Peppers are still alive.
That was a tough period. I railed against myself for being such a stingy, crazy, motherfucker. I looked at my watch ever five minutes and, every time I checked, only five minutes had passed since the last look. All I wanted at this stage was to go book into a nice comfortable hotel bedroom no matter what the price. I was cold, bored, and frayed. It was too late to go looking for a room in smalltown Spain and, anyway, before I knew it, it was 5.30am.
Any boho (or hobo) worth his salt knows that bus stations open up early all over the world.
It wasn't too bad after that. La Linea bus station is a good spot if you ever find yourself homeless, with nice prints of old La Linea on its walls, clean rest rooms with loads of hot water in the taps, and a coffee shop that sells coffee that'd wake the dead. I lingered 'til life kicked off in Gib. At 8.30 I had a good breakfast on Casemates Square while the Mediterranean sun work me up. I was joined, over coffee, by the wife of a British Army guy who was on her way to do her first Tupperwear party of the day. I got chatted up by the Tupperwear Lady.
I didn't miss my plane the second time. Daylight come and me wanna go home.
Joe Ambrose has written 12 books, the most recent being Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. He is currently writing a book about the Spanish Civil War.