Friday, January 5, 2007

Ruminations on a Tangerine or Two

Alas I am back.

In a rather apparent & possibly sophomoric attempt to bridge one of my final postings of 2006 (the modest Clementine) with my inaugural blog of 2007, I offer you a not very brief dissertation on the tangerine. Or more accurately The Tangerine, for I have washed my hands of citrus fruit for the time being and wish to consider the man rather than the mandarine.

But first, a minor digression ...

I have returned from my winter solstice peregrinations and, although I have accumulated a few anecdotes here and there (remind me later to mention the lunatic and the chicken), I'd like to start the year and the blog ass-backwards by beginning with the end. For some reason, my
return journeys always seem to negate any restorative value that holidays are supposed to produce. Go figure.

Once again, Mr. Cat in
Rabat & I are in Spain awaiting a ferry to Tangier. We have just missed not one but two fast ferries in the last 10 minutes, and are now resigned to crossing Gibraltar on their velocity-challenged sister, the Ibn Battuta, which leaves in about 45 minutes. This is eminently doable. We buy our tickets, pass through the check-in area, and take a seat. The ferry leaves in 30 minutes, and oddly, security has not shown up to scan our luggage for any incendiary devices. Through the window we see the ferry, but we see no security. This is a little frustrating. I cannot but help feeling that the ferry is taunting us.

There are only 6 of us in the waiting area. We feel neglected, if not altogether forgotten. We watch as a woman enters the hall labouring heavily with an inordinately large suitcase and a bigger-than-life goofah-bag, as overstuffed and on the verge of bursting as a week-old corpse. I have a hate-on for these plastic eyesores. They are the suitcase of choice for much of the world’s Great Unwashed and as such, often travel as I do: by bus, train, ferry and on various crap-hole budget airlines. They are ubiquitous. If my co-travellers are not lugging
goofahs then they are hauling humongous acrylic bedspreads and comforters ensconced in plastic carrying bags. I have never travelled into Morocco without counting at least 12 comforters making the journey with me. I have tripped over my share of bedspreads and goofahs over the years as I have brazenly asserted my right to walk down an aisle; I have nearly lost 5 eyes to them; I have had one fall on my head during a Sudan Air flight; and I have heard chickens clucking from the dark recesses of them (the goofahs not the bedspreads) on bus trips throughout Egypt. Goofahs are treated terribly by their owners: they are packed beyond capacity, dragged & scraped along the ground, “mended” with string and duct tape, and not retired after an appropriate period of time. If a goofah were an animal, it would be a donkey.

Although tempted to predict Goofah-lady’s actions or provide a running commentary, we refrain because her course of action is too obvious. She presents no challenge. She will (and does) kick her prodigious baggage to the side of the check-in counter, effectively skirting the 4 people who have been waiting patiently in line, and, amidst much sighing and repositioning of her veil, attain her boarding pass ahead of everyone else. She will then (and does) lug her bags to the police area, depositing them in front of the bags that are already holding their owners' places in line, motions to me to keep an eye on them, and heads off to the loo. No one bothers to say anything. We're practically back in
Morocco, so what's the point? I watch as her suitcase falls over. It must have been Allah’s will. (Okay, Mr. Cat in Rabat does reposition it – we’re not completely evil).

A few minutes before the ferry leaves, an employee of the ferry terminal happens to notice that we are not on the ferry and sends a security officer to scan our luggage. Clearly confused about his job description, he opens the gate and waves us through, and Mr. Cat in
Rabat & I file pass the x-ray machine as well as the goofah-woman who has lost her position because of her bags. This is not the first time in my travels that the x-ray machine has not been used in the Algeciras ferry terminal: why terrorists haven’t targeted the ferries that ply the Straits of Gibraltar eludes me. Moments later we are on the outside boarding ramp but still there is no employee to take our boarding passes and let us on. It is well after 11:00 and it seems to me an inauspicious sign that the ticket office is still issuing tickets to passengers. Finally we see people in uniform. Perhaps they will let us on the ferry – but no! – they appear to be escorting 3 Moroccans to the front of our line, two of whom are handcuffed together and holding between them a plastic garbage bag that presumably contains their few possessions. I should feel sympathy for them (I assume that they are being deported) but only feel relief that they aren’t carrying a goofah-bag. The woman demurely keeps her handcuffed hands under her robes; she may or may not have a goofah bag concealed beneath their voluminous folds.

Watching them proves far less taxing than counting the dozens of new arrivals joining us on the ramp.

Finally, ferry personnel arrive! Yeah! We board the Ibn Battuta and find, much to our disgust, what a hulking piece of poo it is. We change our seats three times in the – as it turns out – quite futile hopes of finding a seat that is not ripped, stained, struggling to confine its nomadic springs & coils within the fabric, and/or not ripped out of something that died a horrible death crossing the Black Sea during the Stalin-era. Mr. CinR quickly surmises that the bar is open (even though we have not left port) and goes off in search of beer. I head towards the ladies’ room to wash up, only to find that of its four stalls, only one has a toilet paper dispenser. It is also blessed with a toilet that can cause spontaneous long-term constipation on sight so I move along. There is a sign on the wall indicating that we are not to discard our paper in the toilet but to use the receptacle provided. There is no receptacle provided. A tetanus-bearing ash can has been wedged in the doorway of the washroom in which clearly used toilet paper has been deposited. By deposited, I mean heaped. In defiance of Maritime Law, I flush away all evidence of my urinatory proceedings. I go to wash my hands and in the transparent soap dispenser take note of the dead cockroach floating tits-up in its green viscous soap.

Mr. Cat in Rabat and I are very disappointed. We had expectations. As our stinking hulk slowly chugs out of Algeciras (only 45 minutes late) we consider the namesake of our ferry. Ibn Battuta was one of the greatest travellers of the medieval world. A native of Tangier, the scholar-lawyer headed east one day and the next thing he knew he had travelled 120,000 kilometres (effectively leaving Marco Polo in the dust), passed through what are now 44 countries, including Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Ethiopia, India, and Zanzibar (to name but a few), and fallen in and out of royal favour a few times. He is the world’s most celebrated Tangerine – not least of all by himself, as Ibn Battuta penned his own travel memoires, or Rihla. So influential was he that over 6 centuries after his death a shopping mall was named after him in Dubai. I bet he would have been impressed by the 21 screens of its Cineplex.

Our ferry does not do Ibn Battuta justice. Our rusting scow is filthy with its greasy windows, battered and multicoloured (not in a nice way) carpets and overflowing ash cans; it is in a chronic state of disrepair and disarray. Never before have I been tempted to count the number of lifeboats. And I do. As well as the lifesavers (see above photo). I feel a little embarrassed for him – or at least as much as can be expected for someone who’s been dead for half of eternity, had a pretty nice life, and who travelled in far less seaworthy vessels.

Our reverie is broken by a ferry official who announces that the Moroccan police are now collecting landing cards and stamping passports. I go ahead only to find that the office is quite empty. I will have to wait another 20 minutes until someone shows up. I briefly consider asking the officer if he has somehow missed the announcement that the rest of the ferry heard but think better of it. I consider instead the ferry’s eponymous Travelling Tangerine and his misadventures with the border police of his day, all the while keeping my ears and eyes open for the goofa-lugging gate-crasher.

I don't have to wait long.

Addendum: As a writer who won't find fame for another couple of hundred years, I have a very soft spot in my heart for Ibn Battuta. If you can lay your hands on a copy of Ian Mackintosh-Smith’s Travels with a Tangerine (excellent) and the next (but not last) in the series The Hall of a Thousand Columns (could have been more excellent), do so.

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