IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 17 > Córdoba - Algeciras - Tangiers>>Marrakech

Córdoba - Algeciras

I was on schedule this morning to catch my train to Algeciras, until I found a crowd of other early escapees and new arrivals gathering at the reception desk of the hostel. The delay this brought about in finalizing my payment and having my documents returned, left me in a mild panic once more to reach the station on time, and given the infrequency of the bus service on a Sunday I could see failure looming on the horizon. I was newly armed with some proper foot support but the distance I needed to cover would require me to run all the way. Any remote possibility of making a Sunday visit to the Mezquita early in the morning had been ditched in favour of laziness and extra sleep, and I could not deny the truth that like the eventless days preceding, my entire stay in Córdoba had been slightly pointless aside from having a bit of a breather.

I hit lucky with the bus, which was passing just as I approached the first stop on my jogging marathon to the station. As had been the obligation with some other superficially upmarket long distance Spanish train services that I had travelled on, I was again forced to pass my bag through an x-ray scanner before descending to the platform, a requirement which was mainly due to the threat of ETA terrorist attacks. This seemed a somewhat ineffectual measure though, considering that some of the smaller stations along the route appeared to have no such facility or presented less secure platform areas, hence any bomber with a grain of sense might simply board at another stop.

Whilst pacing the platform at Córdoba, I noticed a couple sitting on a bench who I recognized from somewhere. It was obvious that they knew me too as I could see them whispering in each other's ears from the corner of my eye, and peering over at me as they discussed my elusive status. I dredged my mind for all the people I had met over the previous weeks, and after about two minutes of nerve impulses firing inside my head, the requisite information was retrieved from some obscure brain cell which probably hadn't expected to be accessed again during the course of my lifetime.

I remembered them as the German couple who had been sat opposite me on the overnight hell service from Madrid to Lisbon a week earlier, and now here we all were again hundreds of miles away. Such an unlikely occurrence as this second encounter had to be regarded as a simple coincidence, although I couldn't help playing with the idea that they were spies sent to keep watch on me throughout my residence in Spain, which was a more exciting concept and better for satisfying my paranoid tendencies. If so, the best way I could foil their secrecy and force the authorities to brief some new covert agents to take their place, would be to introduce myself.

Eric and Susanne (the girl who had wisely opted to sleep in the luggage compartment that night on the train, presumably so as to radio HQ in private and report on my behaviour) were heading for Algeciras and onwards to Morocco like myself. We were all kept waiting as the train was running over half an hour late, so we started chatting about our differing experiences over previous days. They had also come to Córdoba via the Algarve, but had spent some time in Lagos, highly recommending it as a place to go and while away a few days. This wasn't the first praise I had heard about the town, which I had mistakenly missed out from my schedule in the belief that it was probably just a touristy destination with a beach. Similarly, Barcelona was high on the agenda of many travellers I had met, but I was hopeful that I would stop there during my return journey back up north.

The train eventually trundled in having developed a fault en route, which required us to be diverted through some sidings a short distance down the line whilst engineers made hurried adjustments to the undercarriage. As I looked down at them I could have sworn I saw them changing a wheel Formula 1-style, like we had just entered a locomotive pit lane. Certainly the brief ride so far had felt very bumpy and sounded rough, as though the wheel might have split.

I recalled how bizarre it was to have seen tyres on the wheels of some subway trains in Paris, which were actually a very good idea, not only for the smooth, quiet ride they provided to passengers but also for allowing the trains to negotiate the tight turns in many of the tunnels at higher speed. Here however, any tyres, if employed, would probably melt in the heat. With the lights in my carriage now beginning to flicker, I wasn't instilled with the greatest faith that we would reach the other end of the line in one piece. This was billed as a high quality train service, but the sole justification seemed to be that the conductor came along with a huge bowl of boiled sweets, which he offered around to all the disgruntled passengers.

View from the train of the spectacular scenery on the route from Córdoba to Algeciras Once moving again and with the train functioning properly, things improved, and the scenery was amongst the most picturesque I had seen. The train snaked its way through mountain passes and tunnels, over ravines and across sun-soaked plains (left).

As soon as we arrived at the station in Algeciras, I bought my ferry ticket and made my way down through the quiet streets to the port. With it being a Sunday, the town was quite dead and would only be livened by tourists arriving back in the evening after a weekend spent overseas. I met up with Eric and Susanne again, who had been separated in a different coach on the train, and we were dismayed but unsurprised to find that the earlier delay to our journey had resulted in us just missing the last sailing of the afternoon. The normal frequency of services had been disrupted and the following two ferries had been cancelled, leaving us with a lengthy wait until evening. There were boats departing for the alternative destination of Ceuta, a Spanish enclave lying on the tip of the African continent, but no rail links existed onwards from there and so we all needed to make the longer journey to Tangiers.

My companions were also Interrailers, and were planning to take a fast ferry much later on, followed by a night train from Tangiers to Marrakech. However, I had no desire to wait around in the rather dull terminal any longer than necessary, so I was keen to get on the first boat that sailed. Eventually an extra unscheduled departure was added to the board, so I bid goodbye to my friends and prepared to board a big slow ferry which looked decidedly less snazzy than all those surrounding it in the harbour.

Algeciras - Tangiers

When I began queueing at passport control, I was one of only a few in the line, even minutes before the boat was due to sail. Then a very determined German man gradually pushed his way to the front, hoping nobody would notice his maneouvres. It was totally unnecessary but it clearly meant so much to him that he should be first, and champion of the queueing world. I couldn't look at him with a straight face any longer, since I noticed that he bore a striking resemblance to a cartoon character - that of the dozy, miserable neighbour who would regularly catch Beavis and Butthead 'whacking off' in his shed. In fact he was a living replica, and this titilated me every time I caught sight of him.

Just as the passport officials arrived to take up their positions in the glass boxes, an enormous swell of people began arriving from nowhere, and any sense of a queue was completely lost as hundreds fought their way to the front with an absurd desperation. They had clearly either stepped off a procession of coaches or had been directed to board from another waiting area. The German still stoutly maintained his own pole position, using his stick as a threat to anybody who dared usurp his place. Most people were simply waved through, and then had to negotiate a series of raised walkways, hurriedly charging along as though being chased by a tidal wave. I let them all pass and was demoted to a position dozens down the line in boarding the ship.

Once aboard, people were taking an age to shuffle up a set of staircases and through narrow passages from which there was no escape or alternative route. I was beginning to feel a little claustrophobic, and I couldn't wait to reach the wide open spaces of the lounges. I then spotted a door that was ajar and which led out to the deck, so I left the throngs of single-file shufflers, wondering what was causing such a jam.

Out on deck, the glorious sunshine was tempered by a mild breeze, and I found a perfect position from which to sit and admire the view. We were running very late and large volumes of people were still milling through the walkways to get on board. With the earlier sailings being cancelled, everybody was bursting to board this first ship of the evening. I felt that the German couple I had left behind probably had the right idea in waiting for a later departure, and if my boat didn't leave soon they'd probably be setting off before me. Perhaps they really were spies who, upon realizing that they would lose track of me, had arranged with the port authorities for their ship to sail first, so they could take up their surveillance positions for when I arrived at the other end. Perhaps the heat was getting to me.

I took a stroll around the decks and admired the view of Gibraltar from the opposite side of the boat (right). We eventually left the harbour and sailed past the giant rock before emerging into the far western end of the Mediterranean. Gibraltar rock as seen from the ferry leaving Algeciras

Some announcements were made over the tannoy, but were barely audible from anywhere outside on the decks. I could just about determine that they were being made in Spanish and French, but that was all. It couldn't have been important anyway, since we weren't sinking and there were no icebergs in sight. I slapped on my factor 35 sun cream and basked under the blue sky as my first ever sight of Africa appeared on the horizon. The lotion was so strong as to have a reverse effect of making me more white, but being such a fair-skinned person I couldn't afford to take any risks else I would simply go pink and then burn. The colour brown in any of its gradations was something unfamiliar to me. I experienced just two extremes - a bright white fright or a half dead red. It made for an attractive combination when topped with strawberry blonde hair. As we sailed into the Strait of Gibraltar, I could glance to the right and see Europe, and to the left there was Africa. The ferry cut a path through the water inbetween, passing through the Strait and briefly flirting with the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean.

Looking at the Strait of Gibraltar from the ferry, with Europe on the right and Africa invisible but straight ahead

The rest of the long journey was punctuated by two incidents, one in which I was chatted up by a girl of about twelve, which may have provided some comfort and an ego boost for me having recently turned thirty, but offered little hope in terms of a sustained long distance relationship. Shortly afterwards I was making a circuit of the outer deck, when I slipped like a circus act in comedy banana skin style. I happened to be right outside the busy main lounge which was packed with hundreds of travellers. With their limited visibility through the windows, which only enabled them to see me from the waist up, they probably presumed that I had been swept away by a freak wave as my legs went flailing through the air.

A very friendly Moroccan man helped me to my feet, claiming I was just the latest in a string of passengers to have succumbed to the same hazard at that spot. I had wondered why such a large crowd of people were gathered at this particular point on the deck, and I now realized that they were here for the free entertainment. I'd often been intrigued as to why such large sections of the brain's pleasure centres were reserved for laughing at other people's mishaps.

I began chatting for a while with the Moroccan man, about his country and the port of Tangiers in which he had spent all his life. He provided a welcoming introduction to what would undoubtedly be a markedly different land to elsewhere that I had travelled. This was easily the furthest I had ever been from home, and I wondered how much the culture would vary from Europe, the only continent I had ever known. As the sun began to set in the west, there was a magical feeling as this mysterious land came into focus and the port of Tangiers unfolded in front of me (below). I almost had to pinch myself to believe I was really here, after so many dull tedious years in my life; to finally be awarded the chance to explore another world.

Approaching the port of Tangiers at sunset

I would soon be disembarking, and I might normally have been worried about where I was going to stay with dusk falling rapidly. But Eric and Susanne had told me earlier about the sleeper trains running each night, and they said that prices were very reasonable for couchettes, unlike the extortionate rates we had all paid on that fateful journey to Lisbon. So my only real mission was to find the station in Tangiers and book my ticket as early as possible.

Everything I had heard by word of mouth over the years about Tangiers wasn't good, and the suggestion was that it was somewhere best avoided. I wasn't sure exactly why, but the implication was usually that the place was seedy and unlovable. I couldn't yet confirm the truth of these rumours, but with a limited amount of time to spend in the country following various delays earlier in my trip, I felt I should try and head for either Fes or Marrakech, just so as to have travelled even further south if nothing else. If I was going to stand a chance of getting a reservation to either of these destinations, I knew that I would need to be nimble on my feet as soon as I got off the ship.

As the ferry docked in the harbour, I set up my camera to take a photo as a memory of my first trip beyond Europe (below). The only thing which was likely to spoil it was the unsightly figure positioned in the centre, also known as me. I was still exposing my white stick legs under a pair of shorts, and conscious that such uncovered body parts could cause offence in some countries, I thought it best to nip to the loo and change into my trousers. Even if there were no religious objectors, there would surely be plenty who would be repelled by my audacious skinniness.

Standing on deck with my white stick legs shortly before setting foot on African soil for the first time

As the hordes began shuffling off the boat, I simply had no idea what was about to happen. I gradually descended the crowded gangplank, wondering why it should take twenty minutes to go little more than twenty metres. It then became evident that two passport officials were located at the foot of the tunnel and were taking considerable time with their checks. I neared the end and savoured my first footsteps into Africa. I noticed that sat on the dock beside a cat was a man looking decidedly fazed, and I wondered what he was doing there. He looked quite rough and spaced out, and his pleas - in English - to be allowed to go, were turned down by the officious guards. A piece of blatant crass stereotyping was called for, so I decided that he must be a drug runner, and the English fool deserved his treatment for giving the rest of us a bad name. No couscous for him tonight in his cell, ha!

I finally reached the last step on the walkway and handed my passport over. The officer rifled hastily through its largely empty pages, going through for a second time in frustration.
- 'Where's your stamp?' he enquired. My face dropped as I had the sudden realization that I was obviously one of an exceptionally small minority of buffoons who had failed to complete task number one.
- 'Over there!' he demanded, and pointed me in the direction of the drug runner and the cat.

We had to wait until all the other passengers had been offloaded before being sent back onto the ship. I couldn't believe what was happening - surely I wasn't going to have to sail all the way back to Spain this evening? It seemed rather unfair that nobody had ever suggested that I needed to get my passport stamped anywhere, there were no signs in any language to advise of this either on the boat or back at the terminal, and no audible announcements had been made. I presumed the crackly voice I'd heard from the tannoy whilst on deck had been making this point clear, or rather unclear, and I had disregarded it. I realized when returning to the ferry, that the reason people had been queueing and not moving when I boarded was to get their stamp done straight away at the desk.

Having only travelled around Europe before, and in countries where border controls were rarely existent anymore, getting a passport stamped was a long forgotten novelty. I knew this time things might be different, but it had never occurred to me that I would need to sort it out during the actual sailing. I now had to find out what fate awaited me, the terrorist.

Matters weren't helped by the spaced out guy who was extremely rude and arrogant to all the officials, and I tried to distance myself from him else they might lump me in the same category of obnoxious English idiot. Of all the two thousand or so passengers on board this huge vessel, I was one of just three who had to go back on it, the trio being completed by an Asian woman who seemed more shocked than I was. I'm not sure what happened to the cat, it probably bribed an officer and did a runner.

They made us wait for some time whilst the ferry was prepared to set sail in the opposite direction, and I became increasingly concerned that I would be going with it. I felt angry about the lack of any information or warnings to get my passport stamped, but I also felt wounded and a bit shaken up at the prospect of being denied entry into the country, and the possible consequences of arriving back in Spain after midnight and spending a night alone in the streets.

It was in my instinct to lash out like a cat facing a threat from a bigger animal, and I had it in mind to protest about the unsafe condition of the ship, pointing out various faults and defects. I could claim to have photographic evidence and I would expose them to the Spanish media and report them to the police. Indeed I had noticed various dodgy aspects of the craft, including cracked and smashed glass panes hanging over decks which could fall and cut somebody in half, unsafe deck surfaces which caused several people to slip and injure themselves, emergency exits which were locked and filthy toilets swimming an inch deep in dirty water. Unfortunately, reporting this was unlikely to improve my chances of entering the country and would only get me into more trouble. Common sense took over and I decided instead that the best policy was to keep my mouth shut and act like a shy, hapless tourist, perhaps even a bit dimwitted, in order to gain the officials' sympathy. This may have worked to an extent, and we were eventually let off the boat, but it had an undesirable side-effect.

As the crew sent me back down to the passport officials on dockside, they called over for some kind of Ministry of Information guy to escort me out of port. He flashed some form of ID at me, realizing that I was a little reluctant to go walking off with a stranger in a foreign land. He had some connection with the Tangiers Tourism department, and began extolling the virtues of his city, but in a way which bordered on plain nasty. He seemed suspicious and not trusting of me, and kept grabbing hold of my arm quite forcefully, asking me endless questions about who I was, where I had come from, where I was going, what I was doing here and when I would be leaving. I wanted to run off with my arms outstretched shouting 'aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh!' but I knew that any false moves would arouse further suspicions, and that with the port officials having directed him to take charge of me, I would have to stay with him for the time being.

The man said that he was welcoming me to Morocco, and he ranted on about how I must enjoy myself, how I should smile and how I absolutely must not go to Marrakech. I didn't want to listen to him anymore, he was actually making my arrival most unwelcoming and I was hoping that he'd soon leave me alone. Clearly he had a vested interest in me staying in Tangiers, and it took much arguing to persuade him that I would go elsewhere. His English ability wasn't great, and like most Moroccans his second language was French, but I had employed the tactic of pretending to know no French in order to aid my dimwitted impersonation.

My decision to act quiet and dumb was not paying dividends, and I had to become quite aggressive to fend off his overpowering demands. He insisted that I take a taxi to the train station, as he claimed it was many miles away. This sounded like it could be hogwash, but at least I had him on my side now in convincing him of my need to go to Marrakech. Many times over he explained that the normal taxis would rip me off, and that I should take one of the small green cabs which he pointed out. They would only charge me 5 Euros - half the fare, to reach the station. However, after all his rambling he was unable to flag down one of the cheap cabs and instead forced me into one of the expensive ones. I was concerned about being overcharged, but glad to finally be out of his sight.


It was now dark and Tangiers was bustling with nightlife, although after such a long day I was quite perplexed to find that it was still only half past eight in the evening. It had been necessary to put my watch back two hours because Morocco rested in Greenwich Mean Time all year round, and this meant that for the first time on my trip, and probably in my life, I was behind the time back home in England, which was currently advanced by one hour to British Summer Time.

I figured therefore that should anything serious happen to me, my next of kin would already have been informed before the incident occurred. I should have brought a mobile phone with me, because they could then ring my brother in Japan, and he could call me back to warn of the impending danger several hours in advance. With this logic I would one day take over the world. Although such a statement held its own contradiction, because where I conquered the planet one day was somewhere else's tomorrow or yesterday, thereby rendering any such plan for world domination in a day impossible. When Lewis Carroll wrote, The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today, he clearly hadn't thought things through enough. Or through the looking glass enough.

The ride through the city streets was like nothing else I had experienced, or that I would ever want to experience again. Whatever bad reputation the people in Paris, Brussels or indeed Lisbon might have gained for their driving, it was surpassed here by a long chalk. I sat back in my seat in fright as the driver took me on a hair-raising journey, careering down the boulevards heading out of the city at high speed, and swerving violently around pedestrians on death wishes who just walked straight out in front of the traffic, sometimes even with prams. Motorbikes weaved in and out hazardously causing other traffic to almost pile up, and cars entering the flow from adjoining side roads just drove straight out without looking.

I remembered the film I had viewed in the simulator cinema at Futuroscope during my first week of travelling, in which the unstoppable car hurtled along the streets of the Vienne region upturning dustbins and sending pedestrians scurrying for cover. It was just like that, these things happened for real. Cars spilled out in front of one another, causing countless minor crashes evident from the dents on almost every vehicle. Show-offs on scooters out on the town for the night whizzed past and everyone continually beeped everybody else.

The junctions were a real treat. If there were any roundabouts or traffic lights here nobody took a blind bit of notice, instead just driving straight out into the middle and becoming stuck in a cluster of traffic facing in several different directions. At one such place I spotted a gendarme standing right in the middle and struggling to direct the traffic. I wondered if he'd still be alive when I came back in a couple of days.

The Minister of Information man had been right after all, the station was bloody miles away, and located in a shed in the middle of nowhere. And he was right about another thing, the taxi driver did try to charge me the double rate of 10 Euros. Any attempt at haggling seemed a little fruitless as I found all I had on me was a 20 Euro note, and his thinking would surely be that with this much money I could easily afford to satisfy his demands. This was the point where I fell for an obvious con.

The currency used in the country was dirhams, but government policy dictated these couldn't be changed outside Morocco, so I had been unable to obtain any dirhams thus far. The exchange rate with Euros was approximately ten to one, but I was yet to find this out, so when the driver said that he couldn't pay my change in Euros and could only offer me the equivalent of 50 dirhams, I didn't argue. In the end, he stuffed me for 15 Euros, but I was happy to be getting out of the car and on my own again at last. At least that's what I thought, until I spotted Eric and Susanne sitting outside the station looking almost equally as perturbed as myself.

They had reached Tangiers before me as their fast ferry had overtaken my big boat on the way. They were a welcome sight, and I was relieved to feel like I was in a state of some normality again for a while. We were almost comforting each other in equal proportions as neither of our first experiences in the country had been quite as anticipated. Eric and Susanne had also been ripped off a couple of times, and escorted through the port in similar fashion. It certainly wasn't the welcome to Africa that I had hoped for, and what didn't help was that up until this point, everywhere I had been in Morocco smelt of sewage.

I had been prepared for something of a culture shock, but the events of the evening had thrown my head into confusion and I wasn't thinking properly. I was advised to go and buy my sleeper train ticket, which was relatively cheap at around 170 dirhams (17 Euros). I strode confidently into the booking office and was laughed out of the building when I offered to pay with a credit card. This was not good news, I had no money on me and I was miles from anywhere that might offer a cashpoint. Normally I would never have let such a situation develop, but having been escorted from the boat and shoved straight into a taxi, I hadn't been given a chance to think.

I hadn't a clue what I was going to do, and I contemplated putting the bad experience of the country thus far behind me and just boarding the next ship back to Spain, except that I couldn't even make it to the port. It would be a great shame to have to resign at this point, but by the time I could get some cash from somewhere and return to the station, the only train of the night might have departed. Being able to see clearly the worry etched upon my face, my German companions were very kind in offering to lend me the money for my ticket, but then I had some good fortune when I suddenly discovered an extra 20 Euro note hidden in my wallet. It was all systems go once more, and I charged back into the office freshly invigorated.

Once again I was directed out of the building by the bullish clerk, who this time was angry with me for suggesting Euros as a valid currency.
- 'Dirhams, only dirhams!' he boomed.
Eric and Susanne had suffered the same treatment and had been forced to rely on one of many dodgy money dealers lingering outside the station. They advised me not to make the same mistake, as they had received a bad deal, but they told me that the station staff would point me in the direction of an official dealer. When I went to enquire, the angry man didn't even want to listen to whatever barmy goods I was going to offer him this time, simply shouting 'No, dirhams!' as soon as I entered the office. I tempered him and asked where I should make my exchange, and he waved his finger out to the street where a small hut was located.

With several seedy people loitering in the dark, I reluctantly crossed the road and went to investigate. What masqueraded as some kind of Mars Bar-selling unit clearly never sold anything of the kind, and was just an unofficial currency trading point preying on fools like myself. Nevertheless, they offered me a fair deal at the standard ten to one rate and I was happy. I steamed back into the ticket office and gave the man a bit of his own medicine, thrusting my dirhams down on the counter with a sarcastic pout.
- 'Right, we're in business!' he said, and my suspicion that he was actually quite an amiable bloke behind the miserable exterior was confirmed.

At last my hassles were over for the day, and I could relax in the knowledge that I had a bed for the night and would wake up revived in Marrakech the following morning. There were only around four departures daily from this shed, and each one served just about all the rail stations there were in Morocco, with Marrakech being the final and most southerly stop. I had been keen to go to Fes, but this required changing trains in the middle of the night and arriving very early in the morning, which wasn't suitable.

The three of us boarded our first class carriages and were directed to our cabins. The couchette was more than acceptable, and at around half the price of the nasty seat on the Madrid to Lisbon sleeper service, it was a very good deal. Although I had some doubts about the safety of a heavy diesel train ploughing through the pitch black countryside of this relatively poor nation, I was very tired, and being rocked to sleep as the train clattered over points was a novel experience. It was strange to be laying sideways whilst bombing along through the desert at night, but also surprisingly soothing, and the inconveniences of the previous day were soon put out of my mind as I drifted into my dreams.

HOSTEL REPORT: Tangiers-Marrakech overnight sleeper train
The couchette compartments on board this service each had four beds split over two bunks, which were generally clean and tidy. The conductor assistant was friendly and the price was very reasonable, being no different to the average cost of spending a night in a youth hostel. The train was maintained in reasonable condition, or at least the sleeper carriages that I saw were, with the only issues being the lack of water in the toilet and the non-functional alarm call buttons in each cabin. Although basic, it offered comfortable accommodation for the night and was definitely worth experiencing. The only downside would be the probability of missing the scenery along the route, and one could of course end up with somebody unpleasant sharing the compartment. The station at Tangiers was located far enough from the city centre to merit taking a taxi, and I wouldn't have envied anybody making the journey on foot. Moroccan railways had received a fair amount of investment, and the service was nowhere near as bad as might have been expected. Score: 8/10

<< back to day 16 | forward to day 18 >>

return to index