Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gibraltar: One of the strangest places in the world

Surely, there is no place in the vast expanse of human civilization so puzzling as Gibraltar. 

In early 1999, as Sister Mia and I were journeying through Iberia, we spent a day there --in Gibraltar.  The previous four or five days saw us traveling through Spain, starting in Madrid and working our way through Grenada and Torre Molinos.  Even though we were traveling at a hectic pace, the laid-back Spanish attitude was beginning to take hold. (It is irresistible, that attitude.  Ask anyone who has been to Spain!)

Gibraltar jolted me out of it.   

Once we had gone through the extensive immigration and customs that separates Gibraltar from Spain, I was struck by the change in culture. 

Gibraltar is a peninsula on the south coast of Iberia, dominated by a limestone rock that towers 1400' above the Mediterranean Sea
Gibraltar is inhabited by some 30,000 souls who proudly call themselves Britons (Gibraltar is a British territory) and speak the King's English, but with a unique rhythm and accent.  Imagine English with a Spanish cadence.  I found Gibraltarians to be less reserved and less formal, generally, than Spaniards, and certainly less lofty.  (I love those Spaniards, but they take themselves very seriously.)

Ethnically, Gibraltarians are a hybrid of many peoples, including Britons, Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese (all of which are hybrids, themselves).  No surprise there, of course.  Gibraltar sits at a natural crossroads of humanity.  To the east is the Mediterranean Sea, where mankind cut its sea-faring teeth.  To the south is the Dark Continent of Africa, humanity's birthplace.  The vast Atlantic, highway to the Americas, lies to the west.  To the north, is Europe, the center of so much of Western Civilization.

Ancient home of a lost people
Mia and I and our traveling companions were there for only a day, so we used it fully.  We joined a tour to take us through the limestone caves that riddle the mighty Rock.  Gibraltar was one of the last hold-outs for Neanderthal in his hopeless retreat before Cro-Magnon.  The caves hold evidence of Neanderthal from over 100,000 years ago.  But he has been gone for at least 20,000 years. We, the victors, Cro-Magnon, wandered through his ancient dwelling.  

Our tour culminated with a trip up to the top of the Rock to see the famous Apes of Gibraltar.  Two of our travel companions were Sarah, a young woman from Colorado, and her mother, Carol.  The four of us talked as our cab wound up the narrow, rain-slick road on the flanks of the Rock.

"Mom doesn't want to get out of the cab when we get to the apes," Sarah told us.

"Why not?" I asked.  We passed a sign by the road with the ominous warning:  Apes may bite!

"Animals don't like me," Carol informed us.

"It's true!" Sarah said, laughing.  "When we were in Yellowstone, she got attacked by a squirrel."

We had a good laugh at that and then each urged Carol not to worry.  It would be a shame to miss the Apes of Gibraltar.  She seemed to waver, but still looked unsure.

We came to a place where there were many cabs parked along the roadside.  The road was cut into the western face of the Rock, and there was a wide space with a stone wall from which you could look out on the harbor below.  We got out.

Except for Carol.  She stayed in the cab.

The apes were there.  They sat on the roofs of the cabs, or on top of the stone parapet.  They were quite regal in their appearance.  They had no fear of the many humans that snapped photos and pointed and gawked.  They took peanuts offered by some of the braver observers.

I wasn't one of those --the brave ones.  The apes were big --bigger than raccoons --and they had big teeth.  Fangs, more like.  And I couldn't forget the sign:  Apes may bite!

"I wonder if it's a good idea to feed them like that?" I said, nervously.  Mia and I timidly approached a pair of apes, a mother and her baby, sitting on the stones.  We stayed a good distance behind them.  I was ready to light out at the first quick movement.  "Sarah, get a picture of us, will you?"

Apes may bite!
She did and we moved away quickly.  I relaxed a bit and took a look around at all of them.  There were, perhaps, two dozen apes of various sizes.  Across the road, I saw Carol.  Apparently, she had overcome her fear and decided to come have a look.  As I watched, she turned back toward the cab.

Then I saw one of the apes, a smaller one, but not a baby, start to lope across the road toward her.  "What the fu--" I stammered.

The ape leaped into the air, hands and feet before it like grappling hooks.  It landed on Carol's back, hands clamped on her shoulders.  Carol let out a scream that I swear took a year off my life.  "Get it off!" she screamed.  I stood there, paralyzed.  In my mind, a bright-light strobe blinked the alarm:  Apes may bite!  Apes may bite!  Apes may bite!

Several of the cabbies came to Carol's rescue.  "Relax!" they told her, laughing.  They shooed the ape away, but as it leaped off Carol's back, it took her purse.  The cabbies offered chase and the ape reluctantly dropped the purse and loped away.

"I told you!" Carol admonished her daughter.  "Animals don't like me."

Still up there... those apes
The day ended with all of us going back down the Rock and getting English fish and chips in a pub. In Iberia. At the feet of a gigantic limestone rock.  Below the ancient home of the last of the Neanderthals.  Where live the apes.  At a vast human crossroads.

Gibraltar, I tell ya... strange place.


Marcella said...

I love reading your blog, Dade - very entertaining at times and thought-provoking at others.  Bless you.

mc said...

I love this story! I laugh out loud when ever I think about that day. Thanks for the reminder. mc

Tommy Finlayson said...

I live in Gibraltar. Did you really did visit us? lol

When did you come, was it 1947? That is the last time anyone drove on the left here. We drive on the right just like the rest of Europe!

There is no military security to go through, only Custom and Immigration officials.

The feeding of wild monkeys (they are not Apes) is actually prohibited and large fines may be payable if caught and for good reason too as your experiences revealed.

Indeed if you exagerate to make your blog sound more sensational I couldthen possibly start to understand how you can describe Gibraltar as strange!
Gibraltar Dude is unique.