I had convinced Erin to take the ferry to Morocco for a change of scenery, in the hope that the money would be waiting for her when we returned.”
“I want to go back,” Erin said.
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe a rest and then we can go for a walk before dinner, see what our options are?” We were sitting on the second-storey balcony of the restaurant where the guide had dumped us, finishing a lunch of fruits and pastries and tea. The backpacks were checked at a large hotel in the old city of Tangier, Morocco, which was cheaper than many of the hostels we had stayed in that fall.
“No, I want to go back to Gibraltar.” Erin lit a cigarette. She tilted her head up to exhale smoke then pulled it back down towards her chest again. “I don’t want to stay here. I want to leave.”
“We just got here,” I said. My stomach heaved thinking of the morning’s ferry crossing. The pastel green and orange pensión we had left in Gibraltar, with its peeling paint and dank smell of rotting fruit and damp bedding, wasn’t much more appealing.
“I know. But I really just wanted to be able to say that I’d been to Africa. Now that I have I want to go back. This is just all,” Erin looked around the cramped inside of the tiny restaurant to one side, then up and down the crowded street below. She sat with her legs crossed, her hands folded into her lap. “This is just all too much,” she said.
Entering Morocco we had been searched by a customs officer. He ran his hands over the outsides of our bags with conspiratorial delight then whispered, “pistolets? pistolets?” Erin looked at me wide-eyed as the officer stamped our passports without waiting for an answer.
An official from the tourist board had walked us into town and taken us on a brief, dizzying tour. His patience was finally borne off by the dusty breeze as we explained to his friend, a local merchant, that No, we weren’t interested in—we couldn’t afford—the ornate carpets in his shop.
Erin and I had been a couple a little more than a year, having met while working full time at a restaurant on Bank Street, in Ottawa. We had conceived our Grand Tour as a final adventure before returning to university to finish our degrees and graduate—before 1990, we vowed. In three months we had looped clockwise around Ireland, Scotland, and England, and then counter-clockwise through France, Spain, and Portugal, before arriving in Gibraltar. We had rarely stayed more than a night in the same place and the constant movement drained our energy and our enthusiasm. And our affection. Now Erin needed her mother to wire the final installment of her savings from her account in Canada to the bank we had chosen in Gibraltar. We had waited for three days. Every morning, after coffee and stale rolls, we walked to the bank, where the kindly woman with flawless, heavily-accented English would tell us that there was no money for Erin. It was the mid-80s, and banks moved slowly.
“These things take time,” she said. I had convinced Erin to take the ferry to Morocco for a change of scenery, in the hope that the money would be waiting for her when we returned.
We paid for lunch and walked back to the ticket office in an open square of the old city close to the water. Pale yellow-orange light from the November sun washed the bright stone buildings. The travel office was an open counter with shutters propped to provide some shade. A crowd several people deep clamoured for service. The clerk had a telephone, a cash box, and faded flyers stapled to the desktop.
But the early-morning ferry ride, the seasickness, the hot and dusty walk through the market and bazaar had worn us out. We surrendered.”
I waded into the crowd but felt like a cork caught in a bubbling pool, bobbing along the surface but not getting anywhere. I moved from one side of the crowd to the other and back, never getting closer to the man at the counter. Twice I went back to express my frustration to Erin before trying again. She sat on the curb, calming her nerves with one cigarette after another. People, somehow, were emerging from the crowd with tickets, but I got nowhere.
“This isn’t going to work,” I said, returning defeated for the third time. “The ferry doesn’t go until morning, anyway. Let’s come back before dinner.”
“Peut-être, est-ce-que je peux vous aider? Can I help you?” A young man in his late twenties approached as I tried to pull Erin up from the curb.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“I am Nassim,” he said, holding his hand to me. “Maybe I can help you.”
“Maybe he can help,” said Erin, letting go of my hand and slumping back to the curb.
“We need ferry tickets back to Gibraltar, but there’s only one guy in that tiny stall and the crowd is crazy. But it’s fine, thanks. We’re going to come back later.” I reached again for Erin as the young man spoke.
“Please,” he said, putting his hand on the arm I had extended towards Erin. “I will help you.”
I looked to Erin, who looked away. Nassim jostled me through the crowd at the ticket agent’s booth and presented me ahead of everyone with a few harsh words in Arabic to a couple of men who protested. The transaction took less than a minute. We rejoined Erin, who was wiping sand from her dirty yellow painter pants.
“And now you only have one day left in Morocco. Peut-être, would you like to join me for a short tour? We can look at the old city and some of its loveliest spots. I can take you to the best secret places, the hiding places no one else could show you.”
Nassim was almost six feet tall and very thin. He stood above Erin by almost a foot. His dark black hair was a tousled mess and he had a wispy goatee. He wore a pale blue dress shirt under a thin, moth-eaten crew-neck burgundy wool sweater. His beige wide-wale cords and battered brown leather shoes blended in with the dusty roadway.
We all spoke for a few minutes in English and French, until Nassim realized that Erin’s French was much better than mine and he spoke to her exclusively. He repeated that our little tour would be “très jolie, très jolie.” As he spoke, his liquid black eyes brightened with excitement, as if his energy and enthusiasm were lighting him inside and out. He waved both of his hands to either side, palms open as if he were washing a window, when we explained that we had already had a tour.
“Non, non,” he said. “This will be so much more different than that.”
Over lunch we had read a little more about Tangier, a rough port city. But the early-morning ferry ride, the seasickness, the hot and dusty walk through the market and bazaar had worn us out. We surrendered.
Nassim led them us into the heart of the old city. We walked through the market and bazaar, past tiny, noisy shops and stalls. We moved more slowly this time, less dazed than we had been with the official guide. Nassim answered our questions as we took in the extraordinary sights and sounds, the rich scents and colours. Everywhere we turned, bartering voices in Arabic and French spoke over open bins of spices or stacks of textiles in red, orange, and yellow bright in the sunlight, heavy wooden bins of colourful clothing and food.
Outside the bazaar Erin said, “A monkey!” and the old man holding the leash attached to a small monkey’s collar leapt towards us saying, “Yes, monkey, monkey.” He held a treat in his hand and directed the monkey to perform summersaults before holding out his hand to me. As Erin smiled and clapped, I reached into his pocket for some coins. Nassim touched my arm.
“Cinq santim. Five.”
Higher up above the city, some boys were playing soccer on an arid patch of dirt, their bare feet kicking up swirls of sand as they chased the battered ball. One of them saw the small flag sewn to my shirt and called out “Canada! Canada!” and ran over to us to give Erin a tiny flower from the side of the path. As I dug into my pocket for more coins the boy ran back to his game. When I looked up, Erin and Nassim were already far ahead of me, nattering away in French.
The streets were empty now, and narrowed with twists and turns as we walked single file. Nassim stopped speaking as we went up steps and around corners, along alleys and through passages that were so tight we could touch the houses on either side of us at the same time. My throat was dry and tight, my head turning to either side as I regretted the folly of the tour. I wondered around which corner Nassim’s gang lay in wait. My heart beat faster than the walk justified.
The sun was low in the sky now and the last hundred yards or so we walked almost in darkness, as the houses on either side of the alley had wooden promontories over top of the passage. At last we stepped into a tangled field and walked a few dozen yards along a narrow dirt path through brambles and bushes to a low, one-storey hut. Nassim held the door open.
Erin and I stopped.
“S’il vous plait, please,” said Nassim, with an expressionless face. I held his gaze then walked in, Erin following. The room was so dark that at first I couldn’t see anything. Then several tables and chairs on my left, with middle-aged men in twos and threes talking quietly. A couple of them glanced up before returning to their conversations. Behind the bar on the right an open fire had several small kettles on the boil.
Nassim went over and spoke in Arabic to the man behind the bar. Erin and I stood, dazed, looking at each other in silence. Nassim returned carrying a small wooden tray with three glass jars of mint tea on it. He motioned me to the barman as he and Erin stepped out the far end of the low room. I held out some coins in the palm of his hand. The barman picked a few, returned one, then picked another and waived me away.
I stepped onto a path that curved to the right about thirty feet towards a clearing, walking into the sun through the tunnel of high bushes. Ahead of me I could see Erin and Nassim sitting on a bench. As I entered the clearing beyond the bushes I stood agape for a moment, looking at the view in front of us.
We could see out over the Atlantic Ocean, across to the southern tip of Spain, and through the Strait of Gibraltar—an arc of more than 180 degrees of sea. The water was choppy from the wind that we could feel high up on the cliff top, but we saw the silent sea at a dreamy distance. The few birds and boats below appeared to be moving in slow motion, and the late afternoon sun and the hot, soothing mint tea after the long, dusty walk made the vision seem the product of some teahouse phantasmagoria. I looked out over the water in silence, content.
Erin had sat on one side of the weather-beaten bench and Nassim in the middle, so I settled on the far side from my girlfriend. Later, Erin told me that she and Nassim had talked about their families and their home lives. About the trip Erin and I were on, our schooling and future plans, whether Nassim would ever travel. While we sat on the bench I didn’t bother trying to follow their conversation, instead basking in the sunshine and relief, enjoying the view.
We were silent on the long walk back to the hotel. Erin stayed behind Nassim when we walked single file through the narrow passageways, but at his side otherwise, while I kept watch from behind. After a small, wordless dinner in our hotel, we went to the front hallway to find Nassim waiting for us. We walked through the markets and bazaars in the cooler air of the night, every space crammed with loud, jostling groups of people young and old. Again Erin walked beside Nassim, talking and laughing as I guarded from the rear.
Before saying goodnight we went to a tiny, crowded restaurant for coffee, where I changed my mind after ordering, deciding to have a beer.
“Yes, of course. Of course,” said Nassim, taking on the role of host. He called over the waiter, who had to check with both the bartender and the manager before they would serve me.
“Andy, do you really need a beer that badly?” Erin asked, appalled by the commotion.
“It’s just a beer,” I said.
Nassim gestured, “Et voilà,” and smiled as the waiter brought me an eight-ounce can of Heineken. It was gone in moments. I shifted on the stiff-backed wooden bench while Erin and Nassim drank their steaming black coffee, sip by tiny sip.
At the hotel, I asked Nassim to wait outside.
“How much should we tip him?” I asked Erin.
“Tip him?” Erin’s eyes widened.
“He’s been following us around most of the day. He’s expecting money.”
“He’s been guiding us. And I don’t think he’s been spending time with us just for money.”
“Oh? No?” I disliked the tone of my voice.
“How much do you think we should give him?”
“I thought maybe ten American dollars?” I said.
“I thought you were going to say fifty,” she said.
“Fifty is outrageous. I’ll give him twenty American.” I stepped outside to hand Nassim the money.
“Mais, merci! Merci bien, merci!”
I resented both his gratitude and the apparent genuineness of his surprise.
Nassim stopped speaking as we went up steps and around corners, along alleys and through passages that were so tight we could touch the houses on either side of us at the same time.”
Finally the ape rocked his paw forward and back, punching me in the chest over and over with his hand buried in my shirt pocket.”
Back in Gibraltar that afternoon, we checked on Erin’s money.“I’m sure it won’t be too long now. Any day, yes? When did you say it was wired from Canada?”
We walked outside and stood on the sidewalk. Erin slumped slowly to the ground, her back against the front wall of the bank.
“Let’s go see the apes,” I said. Erin planned to finish her undergrad in Abnormal Psych and her worldview was starkly pragmatic. But her encounters with the Barbary Apes in the first days in Gibraltar had brought to her a childlike joy I hadn’t seen in her in weeks.
“We’ve already seen them.”
“Come on,” I said. “The apes, with their little paws, reaching to take a peanut from you, while you look at their soft furry fur.”
I mimicked the cry of the street vendor in Tangier, “Monkey, monkey!” before pulling Erin up and pushing her towards the cable car at the base of the rock.
We walked down the ramp from the cable car station to the switchback road halfway up the rock, picking up a few bags of peanuts that the British soldier on duty that day had tossed about. A couple of the smaller apes ventured towards us for a quick snack and then gamboled back on all fours to their parents. The light brown fur on the arms and legs of the adolescent apes looked fresh from a salon blow dryer, and they appeared to be wearing pantaloons and fluffy-sleeved shirts that tapered into tight-fitting dark brown leather gloves on all four paws. When they weren’t walking over to tourists to wait for snacks or roughhousing in the trees they spent most of their time in pairs, heavy shoulders hunched up close to their ears, picking nits out of each other’s fur and devouring them.
Above us, two coaches of British tourists had emptied onto the switchback. I walked over to one of the apes sitting on a small outcropping of rocks about three feet off the ground. The ape was grooming himself and he eyed me warily, but he accepted peanuts from me. When a small crowd of tourists had gathered by us, I showed the ape a peanut, then put it in my shirt pocket and waited. I sat and turned to my audience as the ape reached for my pocket.
“Oh look,” I heard a tourist say to another. “That’s a clever one.”
Retrieving the peanut, however, was taking the ape longer than I expected. When I’d seen this done by the showy Cockney bus drivers on earlier visits, they had placed the peanut into the front pocket of their crisp navy blue blazers. I had on the ratty green shirt that I had worn every other day for the previous three months. It had been washed a handful of times. The bottom of the pocket, I discovered later, held a tangle of loose threads trapping the lint of various western European hostels and bars, trains and buses. The peanut was lost.
The ape, however, had seen it go in, and he was determined to see it come out. He searched with increasing confusion and frustration. His paw moved with shocking speed around the bottom of my shirt pocket like the beater of an electric mixer battering my chest as he began to chatter and turn towards a couple of his friends on the switchback wall.
I looked around to see Erin laughing on one side of me; in the other direction, I now had gathered a crowd. Finally the ape rocked his paw forward and back, punching me in the chest over and over with his hand buried in my shirt pocket. Just as I worried that the paw was stuck, the ape pulled it back, empty, behind his head, a look of exaggerated shock and astonishment on his face.
My relief lasted a fraction of a second. In a sweeping roundhouse movement of his arm the ape slapped me across the face with his open paw. He scampered off to his friends who were chattering and snickering at the scene, the British tourists joining in in delight.
I shuffled over to Erin, who tried to compose herself through her laughter. “That was hysterical,” she said. She put her hand to my shoulder. “Really, that was very funny.” We shared a smile.
A little later, one of the drivers called, “Kentwood Tours departing in fifteen minutes, please. Fifteen minutes and you must be on your coach, please.” I approached a pair of larger apes sitting on the switchback wall above me, close to one of the coaches, and reached out my open hand to feed them several peanuts. I turned and put my left shoulder towards one of the apes and held a peanut out above my right. After a moment’s hesitation, the ape climbed onto my shoulders and sat there as I raised peanuts up to him one at a time.
Erin ran over, laughing.
“I bet you got nits!” a tourist called out, as I stood, hunched over slightly with the ape above me, smiling awkwardly as Erin took pictures. I turned back to face the tourists, hamming it up, a good fifteen feet back now of the ledge the ape had climbed from. Reaching down into the bag, I realized I had run out of peanuts.
“I need more peanuts,” I said. I walked back to the switchback wall and leaned as far as I could over to one side in a ridiculous attempt to tilt the ape off my shoulders. The ape stayed put. I had never bothered to see how the showman bus drivers had disengaged the animals when they were done with their performances.
The tourists were laughing now too and I wondered whether I could walk the length of the road, about fifty yards, with this creature atop me, to ask the soldier at the storage hut for help. I only made it a few strides before the screech—a loud, Barbary Ape screech followed by the ape going bananas on top of me. All four of the animal’s paws gripped my shoulders as he hopped up and down. In a furious gesture of anger at being made a monkey of, the ape opened its mouth wide in another high-pitched screech before biting the top of my head, leaping off my shoulders, and running back to his seat on the wall. He sat chattering and pointing at me while his friends chimed in in support.
The tourists began to applaud. I reached my hand up to my scalp and discovered that I hadn’t even been scratched: the screeching and baring of teeth, the bite of my head were all an act.
I walked over to Erin, lying on the ground and shaking with laughter, and reached out to pull her up to her feet. After rising a few inches off the ground, she let her hand slip momentarily before tightening it again, pulling me off balance. I tumbled down onto the ground with her, a tangle of arms and legs and laughter.