We planned our day in Gibraltar. The bus to Sevilla left in the afternoon, so we needed to be circumspect in how we used our time. We’d climb the Rock, come down and have lunch, and walk back. If we had time for anything else, great. It was hard to limit our schedule, because my husband is a huge history buff and knows a lot about Gibraltar from several different eras. How do you choose how to focus when an entire landmass is so saturated with fascination and relevance? Serendipity smiled on us again.
To start, though, there was a little problem. I have pictures if you like gross stuff. I got up in the night, slipped into my flip-flops, and realized that my damaged toenail had finally cracked after six months. Bad timing. By the time I got out of the shower the next morning, it was clear that it was going to be causing me problems one way or the other. My husband is an emergency medical responder, and he’s lost toenails himself. He said it was time to cut off the broken part. I wasn’t happy about this, but the loose nail was digging into my skin, and it was a lose-lose situation. When we set off for the day, I was missing a third of the nail on my big toe. Most of it was tender skin, with a little bit of thin, soft new nail. Not great conditions for the remaining six days of a walking vacation, or the start of a serious hike. This is when GRIT comes into play. I have a very low pain threshold, and my stamina is not so great, but nobody can beat me for pure perseverance. I will go until my legs collapse under me, and then I’ll quote Winston Churchill to myself until I can make myself get up again. Gibraltar happens to be a good place for Churchill fans.
We needed somewhere to ditch our backpacks for the day. We could have worn them as we climbed the Rock – we’ve both hiked steeper inclines to higher elevations over a longer stretch of time – but time was of the essence. There was also a question of how sweaty we wanted to be when we stopped for lunch. We took a cab back to the bus station, where getting lockers was a bit of a linguistic and logistical issue. From there, we were easily able to walk to the Spanish/British border.
Stamp fans, they don’t give out passport stamps at Gibraltar anymore due to “abuse.” I have trouble imagining what that might have meant. We were essentially waved through due to our American passports.
Walking into Gibraltar is funny, because the sidewalk crosses the airport runway. It’s very apparent that we’ve crossed from Spanish to British culture, with red phone boxes and English street names everywhere.
The hike up the Rock is paved all the way to the top. The first half goes up stairs and ordinary city streets. At the top is a park with an entrance fee of one euro. For some reason, the WWII tunnels were closed for the day, but we were able to tour the old Moorish Castle. We continued on our quest, steadily gaining elevation. The view and the balmy weather helped to distract me from my sore toe, which was not doing me any favors other than not turning black and falling off.
One thing that is impossible to miss on Gibraltar is the pervasive presence of warning signs about the monkeys. They are tailless Barbary macaques, introduced by the Moors at some point during the medieval period. Their population was deliberately maintained during WWII due to a legend that there would be Brits on Gibraltar as long as there were still macaques. They’re commonly referred to as “apes” because they don’t have tails. The signs show ferocious fanged monkey faces and warn against bites that can require hospitalization. There is a £4000 fine for feeding them. “They can touch you but you can’t touch them.” When we saw our first monkeys, we were thrilled, excited, but wary. We wanted to look at them and take pictures; we didn’t want to be permanently maimed.
There is no facial expression more serious than that of a macaque grooming another macaque. I doubt I look that intense even when I’m working.
As soon as we saw the first pair, they were everywhere, leaping in the shrubbery, walking in the road, climbing around. We continued up the road, where a couple dozen people were watching the monkeys at their feeding station. Then we saw a man helping tourists hold a juvenile macaque and pose for photos. It was clearly a highly habituated animal. It looked like it was bonded to the man (a cab driver/tour guide) and that it was literally working for peanuts. My husband stepped up to ask if he could pay for me to hold the monkey, but the guide ignored anyone who was not a part of his tour group. Made sense. The group ascended a staircase to look at the view, and the little monkey ran after them, scrambled up the stair rail, and jumped on the man’s shoulder.
I’m pretty good with animals. This involves one part observation, two parts sensitivity, and three parts protocol. Every creature down to a single-celled amoeba reacts to stimuli either through Attack, Approach, or Avoid. AVOID is a great strategy. It can be harder to differentiate between Attack and Approach. Is this creature trying to make friends, scare me out of its territory, rebuke me for infringing on the appropriate etiquette, pass by me as it happens to travel in my direction, attempt to mate, or perhaps eat me for lunch? APPROACH is the least likely outcome. In this case, I had sized up the situation and seen a habituated individual who seemed to appreciate human contact.
Monkeys spend almost all their time in physical proximity with one another. They are constantly, constantly touching each other, grooming and embracing. The young are carried everywhere. A reptile will generally find touch stressful and annoying, in the same way that my dog likes to be rubbed but not hugged, and my parrot likes her head touched but not her belly or her feet. A primate is biologically wired for snuggles – and also face-biting. We saw a couple gnashing their teeth a tenth of an inch away from each other’s snouts, and it’s very scary and dangerous. Just like us, monkeys are equally capable of rending, tearing, blood-dripping physical violence, as well as exquisite tenderness. Which was it going to be?
This is what happened. It happened in ten seconds. I looked up the stairs at the little monkey and wondered, will it come down to me if I stand by the rail? It’s looking for attention and everyone up there is distracted. I strode a few steps to the bottom of the stair rail. INSTANTLY the macaque clambered down the rail, LEAPT onto my shoulder, and put its arm around my head.
Whatever I had done with my body language and my facial expression, the macaque had taken a reading of my subconscious signals and chosen APPROACH.
I was frozen. I can’t see you. I can’t see your face. What are you doing? Is this okay for you? I was expecting a primate interaction to be scratchy and smelly. Instead, I found that the little macaque was unimaginably soft, cuddly, and clean, like a teddy bear that can actually love you back. It had the gentlest touch. If a human ever touched me as softly as a macaque, I would not just melt but weep. It was so far from the terrifying image on the warning signs that it was like portraying a koala as a carnivorous predator, except that I hear koalas have coarse fur.
I was astute enough to take off my sunglasses, but I hadn’t thought ahead far enough. I was wearing my new Moroccan earrings from the day before. Like any young lady, the little macaque thought they were pretty and wanted a closer look. She tugged and tugged at my earring. That was pretty sore. I wanted to remove it without offending her or scaring her by moving my hand. I gingerly reached up, took out my earring, and held it out on my palm so she could see it. She reached for it and almost grabbed it, but my hand slipped and it hit the ground. If she’d taken it, that would probably have been the end of my nice new earrings. Now, instead, they are Earrings of Legend, representing both our first trip to Africa and my first contact with A WILD FREAKING MONKEY THAT JUMPED ON ME.
Now, I’m “good with animals,” but my husband is a real Dr. Doolittle. It’s uncanny. Remind me some time to tell you the story of the Skunk Whisperer. He had been standing there taking pictures of my macaque encounter, and it was clear that the gregarious little creature would be open to more contact. I simply leaned over to him while he held his forearm in front of him, the way we’d seen the cab driver instruct the other tourists. She went to him right away. Then she pulled his collar aside and solemnly looked down his shirt. “You’re hairy like me.” She cuddled up and looked like she would be perfectly content to chillax with him all day. While I smiled nervously throughout my encounter, because I couldn’t see the monkey wrapped around my head and playing with my hair, my husband maintained a complete poker face. “Smiling” looks aggressive to primates, who show their teeth when they want to intimidate and warn others away. A flat, serious expression is a relaxed expression for monkeys.
“How do I get rid of you?” As much fun as it would be to sit in a monkey cuddle pile for the rest of the night, or maybe our lives, we did have an agenda. Another tourist was standing hopefully nearby, waiting for a chance to hold the macaque. My husband passed her to him, where she stayed politely for just a moment and then tactfully bounded to the feeding area and picked up a carrot. “Oh, it’s not you, I was just totally hungry.” It really seems like using language to communicate is going backward; if we were more like the macaques, we’d probably have more friends and better relationships. Excluding the face-biting part.
We took the funicular down the hill, which was ludicrously expensive, but walking down would have taken at least an hour and been tough on my toe. We stopped for lunch at a tiny veggie Indian place that had been highly rated in TripAdvisor. I told the owner, “a man left a rating that he wanted to stay in Gibraltar an extra day just so he could eat here again.” You know what is the cutest thing in the world after a baby macaque? A grown man blushing.
We had just enough time to meander down Main Street and through Casemates Square. Then we passed back through the border checkpoint and headed to the bus station. When we got there, it turned out they took only cash, and we didn’t have enough! I watched our packs while my husband sprinted a couple of blocks to a tourist agency, making it back with moments to spare. We got our bus to Sevilla.
We arrived late at night. Barcelona is alluring, Valencia is fantastically pretty, but Sevilla… Sevilla is captivating. Sevilla is one of those “if I could only live in one city the rest of my life” kinds of places. We were hooked in two minutes. We walked down the street from the bus station, gaping at all the gorgeous buildings, and had barely made it a few yards before we found ourselves eating a vast Lebanese meal at an outdoor table. We watched all the university traffic going by: people on foot, people on bikes, people with strollers, people walking dogs, people laughing and chattering and talking on their phones. Every city in the world should send an envoy to Sevilla to take notes and pictures, and then try to replicate a bit of that energy back home.
After dinner, we were back in the place of uncertainty, needing to figure out where to sleep and how to get there. There was a Starbucks up the street that was still open, even though it was nearly 10 PM. We found the camping in the next town, we found the bus schedule, but we failed to find the bus stop. It turned out we weren’t distinguishing between the city bus and the regional bus, and we were one street off. We caught a cab. The camping gate was shut, but someone opened it as soon as we pulled up, and we got registered. We found a spot, we quietly began pitching our tent, and a querulous older German lady came out of her RV and lectured us, although the official quiet hours had not begun. (If we’re really being too loud, don’t add to the noise and thus annoy others who might otherwise have slept through it). We were now sleeping in the fourth new location in four nights, or the fifth in six nights. The last couple of days had gone really well, Sevilla had captured our hearts, and we were settling in for a few days of fun and relaxation.
Or… were we?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.