The Ecphorizer

A Nether World
James Almblad

Issue #62 (January 1987)


The hot and dirty ride in the antique steam locomotive traveling from Madrid took 16 hours for the 400 mile trek to Algeciras, the last stop in Spain before boarding the ferry for the 22-mile crossing to North Africa. The train was stifling with passengers. Unbathed bodies clothed in camel blankets lay head to feet on the floor in the aisles. A few young soldiers, in baggy uniforms, lingered in the doorways with rifles dangling from their shoulders. Peasants filled all the seats, and had either a chicken or a child in their lap. And the 90 degree weather didn't help the stench in the overcrowded train.

I traveled with two Germans I had met at the depot while standing in line for train tickets. They were high school buddies and had just graduated, and, like me, were on their first trip to Africa with limited funds. When we boarded the train, we couldn't [quoteright'/>even find standing room. Finally, we found an empty space between the cars, a 4'X4' cubicle. The three of us, saddled with our knapsacks and sleeping bags, felt like we were crammed into a dirty oven set on broil. With our knees tucked under our chins, we tried to get some sleep. Any rest was impossible with the cube constantly shifting, creaking, squeaking and grinding. But occasionally we managed to muster up a little humor about our unusual accommodations, especially when we came to a hill; first class passengers stayed on the train, second class got out and walked, and third class got out and pushed. We were third class. We also tried to think of some songs all of us might know. I asked them if they knew the words to "Deutschland Über Alles." They said they weren't allowed to sing that song. It was verboten by the American Government.

We were the first ones to jump off the train in Algeciras. After bidding each other luck, we went our own ways. I wanted to catch the ferry that afternoon. I had an Arab friend I had known at the University of Colorado whom I could stay with in Tangier. But, when I arrived at the huge domed terminal with benches lined up row after row, it was almost empty. Only a couple of old men were pushing brooms. The last ferry had departed long ago.

Outside the building, I met a couple of young British travelers who were using their pocket knives to cut off the Union Jacks sewn on their rack sacks. They told me of the political troubles on the neighboring peninsula of Gibraltar. Spain wanted the territory back, but the British weren't about to give it up. So Spain closed the border. The two thousand Spaniards and Arabs who lived in Algeciras and worked in Gibraltar were now out of work and idly roamed the streets. The political tension was high and Union Jacks had become a target of harassment. I wished I had an American flag for my pack. But I didn't worry too much. My more immediate concern was to find a place to sleep for the night.

The 25-cent-a-night room I found reeked of sailors from Istanbul to Havana. The cell was just long enough for the cot, and wide enough to set my pack next to the cot. I could only lock the flimsy door from the inside with a simple hasp. With that kind of setup, I couldn't leave my gear unattended. If anyone stole all my earthly possessions, I'd be destitute. I didn't even want to think about it. But it was four hours till sundown and I didn't want to stay in that smelly room.

Then I remembered seeing lockers with keys at the terminal. I went there and stashed my stuff. With peace of mind, I spent the rest of the day sightseeing on foot in the suburbs. In America, they are called ghettos.

When the sun began to set, I picked up my belongings at the depot and returned to the hotel. It was bedtime for me. Carefully, I laid out my sleeping bag on the cot. I didn't want to disturb too many bugs. Sleep came quickly.

In the darkness of the sultry night, the door to my room smashed open and banged against the adjoining wall. Immediately, I sat up, bewildered. I looked eye to eye with an Arab in a flowing white gown with a three-foot saber drawn over his head. We stared at each other for a few seconds. Suddenly he dropped his arm, turned, and fled. Maybe he thought I was British? I didn't know what to think.

I got out of the sleeping bag and leaned over to close the door. I didn't want to step on the floor in my bare feet. Who knows  what creatures lurked on the floor at night? The hasp was ripped from the rotting wood. The door wouldn't stay shut. I didn't let it bother me. I was exhausted from pushing the train. I went back to sleep.

When I awoke in the morning, I saw people in the hall gawking in my open doorway. I looked down at the floor, didn't see anything crawling, so I got out of bed and wedged my knapsack against the door to hold it shut while I got dressed. I looked at the broken hasp... it wasn't a dream. I wondered if those people out there knew something I didn't know. Were they looking for blood-soaked sheets?

With my knapsack and sleeping bag secured to my back, I headed for the terminal. As the sun peeked over Gibraltar in the east, the streets bustled with vendors peddling fresh fish, vegetables and clothing. I kept an eye open for the vendors I had become familiar with over the months. I sniffed the air with hopes of locating one of the men who pushed the smorgasbords on wheels. Although I detested Spanish bread, I enjoyed the spicy delicacies sauteed in olive oil. Everything was cooked in olive oil.

At the onset of my travels, I neither spoke nor read any Spanish and would merely point to items on the menu. After eating numerous 'surprise' meals, I quickly learned to read menus. Most of these foods, if I had known what they were, I would never have ordered. But, because of my ignorance, I learned to enjoy a slice of cow brain and a few baby squid with a cup of cafe con leche — espresso coffee with milk.

I arrived at the now busy terminal with long lines of people who were destined for various points along the North African coast. I looked for the sign that said, "Tangier." As I waited in line, I thought about Morocco. I knew the Arabs spoke French, which was familiar to me. Knowing the language made life simple. I could ask for a bar of soap without a half-hour pantomime.

Soon I was on the ferry, the Virgin de Africa, sitting on a wooden bench with my arms hanging over the side trying to catch a little spray of the water churned up by the big boat. As I gazed out over the azure blue Mediterranean Sea, Hollywood versions of Africa filled my head. Would Casablanca look the same as it did in the movies? What kind of excitement would I encounter? Would I meet interesting and exotic people?

1 thought I was thoroughly prepared for the unexpected. But no one warned me not to go into dark places with innocent-looking shoeshine boys. 

Contributor Profile

James Almblad

Backpack traveler JAMES ALMBLAD lives in Portland, OR, where he is into futurism and solar energy.




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