Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lost on the Rock

Now in a big, somewhat touristy hotel in Grenada. Good news is that they have free Wi-Fi in the lobby! So (assuming I get motivated) you should hear a bit more from me soon.

I'll whet your appetite with a brief overview of today. After yesterday's combination of Roman ruins, old-town Tarifa, and hiking on a beach, we got up early this morning to hit the road. I first headed back down the street through Tarifa's massive town wall and into the old quarter, where I rounded up breakfast of pastries, apples, bread, Serrano ham, and orange juice from shops scattered througout the narrow cobblestoned streets and the tiny town market.

We ate breakfast in the tiled courtyard of our hotel, and then headed out of town past the massive electricity-generating windmills toward Gibraltar.

After parking our car in a dusty lot in La Linea (the line -- named for the line of fortifications built by the Spanish eager to take back the Rock from the Brits), we then flashed our passports and walked across the international border into the tiny British colony of Gibraltar. We hopped on a bus and were transported across the city's airport. The runway is built on a jetty in the sea and cuts across the only road into town. After arriving in the town center, we hiked past the town hall and down Main Street, past merchants hawking ape souvenirs and fish & chips. At one point the red-coated ceremonial guard marched by on its way off duty, looking like it had just stepped out of a revolutionary war pageant.

We arrived at the base of the cable car station, which transports visitors something like 400 meters up the rock. My parents bought into the spiel of a driver hawking minibus tours, while my brother and I decided to take the cable car up and then explore on our own. We agreed to meet up later in the town square.

The cable car ride up was fun -- but nothing prepared us for what we found when we arrived at the top. To begin with, the famed Barbary Apes of Gibralter were waiting in force at the top. One was perched ready to jump onto the cable car when we arrived, and others quickly stationed themselves nearby as we arrived. Despite the threats of massive fines, people still feed the apes food, and as a result they have lost all fear of humans and instead view visitors as a source of tasty meals. As I walked along the balcony, one actually jumped from above onto my shoulder and began unzipping my backpack! That was nothing compared to what happened to the woman who walked onto the balcony carrying two closed bags of potato chips. An ape came flying at her at lightning speed, launched himself at waist height, and grabbed the bags out of her hands. He then proceeded to open them one by one and eat the chips, while other apes jostled for position nearby to eat the crumbs. The apes have come to associate any plastic bag with food, so another ape managed to score a bag from someone's pack. He threw it away disgustedly when he opened it and found it contained nothing but Kleenex.

When they're not stealing from visitors, the monkeys generally ignore them, climbing around the rock, eating fleas off each other, and generally behaving like monkeys. My parents said that their tour bus driver actually knew them by name, and called one through the window into the bus for a short ride!

All this focus on the apes shouldn't obscure the other incredible thing about the Rock -- the view in all directions. It's easy to see why this has been considered a strategic stronghold for thousands of years. Standing on top of the rock, one could easily rain down artillery on any ship traversing the narrow passage between Europe and Africa. Even with a persistent haze we were able to see for miles.

Our troubles began when we decided to see the other sites on top of the Rock, including the seige tunnels built by the British defenders over the last three centuries. Foolishly believing the maps and guidebooks, we simply walked out of the cable car complex at the top of the Rock and started walking. However, we quickly found a complete lack of signage and a bewildering array of closed roads and stairways scattered among the ruins of abandoned fortifications. We weren't the only ones having problems -- halfway down the massive mountain we ran into a group of Russians who were equally confused, and several other groups confirmed our confusion. My parents said that one of the couples on their bus said they had gotten hopelessly lost on Rock yesterday and decided to try it again today with a guide.

During our explorations, we did discover a bunch of really cool stuff, including a dark tunnel that we explored for 30 feet or so with the aid of a camera flash, a variety of abandoned concrete buildings and fortifications, and even an abandoned 1902 gun battery with the gun intact. The lack of touristic guidance leaves a lot of room for exploration by the adventurous.

My brother and I eventually decided that there was no point in trying to walk back to the top of the mountain to take the cable car down, so we instead slowly wound our way downward in the blistering sun using a combination of roads, trails, and stairways (high in the air with missing railings!). Hours later we emerged (sweaty but victorious) in the town, and met up with our parents, who had already returned from their tour, eaten lunch, and then waited for hours.

After we ate fish and chips at a pub for lunch, we headed back across the line into Spain and hit the road for Grenada. Despite lacking directions to our hotel, we eventually found it and checked in around 9:30. Tomorrow we're touring the Alhambra.

My Spanish

My Spanish is rapidly improving -- while I still often stare blankly when someone lays down a line of machine-gun Espanol, I am usually able to get my point across in basic travel/commercial situation, read signs and menus, and understand the gist of what folks are saying when they slow down and use small words. The two factors that are really helping are:
  • Motivation to learn: I am now motivated to constantly study and improve my Spanish. I was spending maybe 4-5 hours per week on Spanish in Nashville, but now I'm now constantaly pulling out my dictionary to look up words, perusing my verb conjugation crib sheet, etc. You are very motivated to do this when the alternative is looking like an uneducated ugly American. Now I at least look like an uneducated ugly American who is making an effort.
  • Constant reinforcement: It helps tons to have the constant reinforcement of people talking to you in real world situations and being surrounded by a world labeled in Spanish. For example, this morning, I saw a sign for a Peliqueria. Having forgotten this word I simply walked down the street, peered in the door. I saw hairdressers hard at work, and was quickly reminded (in a memorable way) that a Peliqueria is a place to get your hair cut.
All of this means that I think my Spanish should be markedly better by the end of the trip. And it increases my desire to figure out a way to go live/work in a Spanish-speaking country for a few months at some point, since I think that's probably the best way to move toward fluency.

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