Our home in space

Guy Ottewell

The Pillars of Hercules

On the five o'clock ferry taking Spanish employees home from Gibraltar to Algeciras, nearly everyone carried a bag and occupied the journey by busily taking from it cigarettes, cameras, cognac, to stuff into their shoes, hats, sleeves; the men strapped watches around their arms with elastic (“One for each time-zone!” said one of them, winking at me), also took down their trousers to fix straploads around their waists, and passed the surplus to the women, who had extra capacity in their loose black clothes. Then as we went through customs, officers plucked articles from each man like fruit from a tree and dropped them into cans; leaving enough for a profit.
     Then the ferry from Algeciras across the strait to Tangier. I let myself be led by a tout to a hotel, along with other young travelers to whom the tout had promised hashish and girls. Instead we climbed stairs to a roof on which there were chicken pens — boxes with walls of wire mesh and roofs of corrugated iron, over which rats clattered; we slept on sacks stuffed with straw. I woke with weals on my body that lasted a week, and swollen eyelids that made me look halfwitted, so that as I got on the train to Fez I was gloomy about having to meet the consul, to whom I had a letter of introduction.
     Tangier had been an international zone until a couple of years before, when it was absorbed into Morocco, but it was still a free port and money market and had a tariff on wheat, and the government was trying to suppress the old pesetas and Hassanis in favor of Moroccan francs, so here too there was much scope for smugglers. There was a customs inspection before the train left the station; then it ran slowly along between the road and the beach, on which stood men holding up sacks of wheat; others leaned from the open doorways with arms outstretched to grab the sacks. One kept running into the compartment; sitting opposie to me was a man wearing a sombrero over a turban and reading a newspaper. He impassively lifted his legs as the smuggler stowed a sack under his seat, and I did the same. When all the sacks were on board, the team jumped off into the sand, some of them executing an involuntary somersault or two, and then and only then the train gathered speed and curved away into the interior.