…the finest Spanish wines, plates of fresh olives just fallen from the tree, accordion players, and beautiful women teaching me the native dances of Ceuta. There would be old men smoking Spanish cigars around the table, telling tales few have heard and somehow a horse would be involved in the story.
UPDATE / CORRECTION, FEBRUARY 19TH, 2019: I woke up on the morning after publishing this article, to the fury of a dozen Spaniards yelling at me on Facebook. My Spanish is far from perfecto, pero I know what the word tonto means, and they were calling me the fool! Uh oh. What had I done???
I soon came to realize I’d made a grave mistake…an error that would cause many Spaniards (especially Ceutans) to not like me very much, despite the fact that I’d just written a very complimentary article about their autonomous city of Ceuta; a territory that most Americans have never even heard of.
The mystery was soon solved, as comments of a similar tone continued to roll in. The people of Spain did not like their beloved Ceuta being called Spanish “Morocco.” To them, that was an insult, and they were quick to educate me why.
As an American, I had absolutely no idea! Every web search I’d performed agreed that both Ceuta and Melilla were indeed part of Spain, but also referred to those areas as Spanish Morocco. Even the esteemed and exclusive Travelers Century Club lists the destination to check off as Spanish Morocco, so I was none the wiser that my friends in Spain took insult to this label. I’d made this mistake before; referring to Somaliland as part of Somalia (even though the rest of the world and every map I’ve seen does too), and dare I even mention the hot topic of those polarizing Israel–Palestine labels. Oy vey.
So for this, I apologize, and certainly never want to offend the hosts of any nation I visit. Thank you for the education, and I hope you will go on to read my article, as you will see how much I enjoyed your city. I can’t wait to come back and see Melilla.
The answer: Well, Spain actually has parts of its nation, across the sea, inside Mother Africa. And I’ve been obsessed with visiting these enclaves, collectively known as Spanish Morocco (not by the Spaniards, though), which include the autonomous territories of Ceuta and Melilla. The more I studied them, the more intrigued I became…part of Spain…in Africa!!! How did I not know about this my whole life???
My trip into Ceuta could not have fit more perfectly into my giant, end of year journey, which included 16 countries in four continents. This was a major trip, checking off a large stack of African nations; by swooping in and making a giant U-shaped voyage down one side and up the other end of the continent. I’d enter through Egypt and see a whopping thirteen countries before heading into Ceuta and then crossing the straight of Gibraltar via boat to Europe.
Africa can be exhausting, even for the privileged American, traveling by jet and staying in nice accommodations. The sheer pace of my travel alone, combined with missing a few of the conveniences from home, weeks of unfamiliar food, and rough roads wore me down. Add the stress level that comes with traveling anywhere–much less, places like Somalia–and I was ready for Spain. And I wouldn’t even have to leave the continent to reach my first European destination of Spain; that was the crazy part.
Ceuta by Sunset
I was absolutely nerding out at the fact that I’d be driving from Morocco to Spain; doing something most weren’t even aware could be done! I’d spent a nice afternoon at the top of Morocco, in Tangier, where I’d found a car to take me to the border of Ceuta after a late lunch. Dris was my driver, and he’d charge me 400 Moroccan Dirham (about USD $40) for the 77 kilometer drive, which would take me along the coast, up into the mountains, and then drop me back down onto the coast, at the border of Ceuta, Spain.
The drive was absolutely stunning, although I was concerned about the lack of seat belts in Dris’s 1982 beige Mercedes. And I was in the front! It’s usually the backseat belts that are missing in cabs, but this one didn’t have a working safety belt in the front seat either. Dris sensed my increasing panic as we barreled down the highway while I executed multiple failed attempts to fasten the non-working belt. Turning to me, in his best English, he did his best to communicate that “Everything’s okay, relax, we’ll be fine.” It did little to comfort me, however I was soon swept away in the beauty of the drive’s majestic and ever changing scenery and soon forgot about the belt, or lack thereof.
We headed up the mountains and soon passed the biggest port in Africa, down below us, the Tanger Med. The giant hub is connected to 174 ports worldwide with handling capacities of 9 million containers, exports of 1 million new vehicles, transit of 7 million passengers and 700,000 trucks on an annual basis. Tanger Med constitutes an industrial hub for more than 800 companies in various sectors such as automotive, aeronautics, logistics, textile and trade. (source: Wikipedia). I’ve never been impressed by a shipping port, but this one was sexy, and the massiveness of it alone was just tremendous.
We passed through a couple small towns, and before I knew it, we were descending back down towards the sea, and into a bustling intersection full of people, cars and commotion. This looked somewhat familiar, like I’d been here before. I had. Not this exact place–but I’d traveled enough to know what a border looked like, and we’d definitely arrived at one. Spain was on the other side of that fence.
Take me to the Otherside
Dris and I said our farewells–I really liked him–and then I put my backpack on and headed towards the gate. I’ve always been intrigued by land border crossings: the people, the commerce, the action. Simply the knowledge that many times life could be so vastly different, just 20 feet away on the “other side.”
I’d grown up in Tucson, Arizona and have been living in San Diego, California for the past eight years, so I am no stranger to border towns. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed from Arizona into Nogales, Mexico; I used to host a nightclub every Saturday night in Nogales, for many years…part of the reason I can never run for office. And of course San Diego to Tijuana by foot is a path I’ve traveled many times; also more evidence that would keep me from winning any election. I was surprised at how much crossing from Morocco into Ceuta reminded me of these USA–Mexico crossings, with their high walls, turn styles, fences and even similar protocol. But there was one major difference here, and a difference I adored: the sea. The ocean breeze felt marvelous, and combined with the sounds of seagulls overhead, made the hairs on my arms stand straight up. Maybe I was just in one of my many “moments,” but I thought this little passage was magical.
Adding to my brief spell of cross-border euphoria, was the fact that the immigration officer for Spain was one of the nicest dudes ever. When he found out I was from San Diego, he couldn’t wait to pull out his phone and show me pictures of him in San Diego! He had friends in my city and was excited to share it with me. This was the perfect opportunity for me to practice my Spanish–I did pretty good if I may say so–and we even took a selfie together, which is super rare: border checkpoints are usually one of the biggest no-nos for photography, much less taking an actual photo of an officer. But Armando was friendly, welcoming and just as interested in where I lived than I was in where he lived. What a great first impression of a new territory before I’d even taken five steps. This day was shaping up to be one of my favorite single days of travel I’d ever experienced; lots of nice moments.
Not in Kansas Anymore
After clearing customs and immigration, I jumped into a cab for the short ride to my hotel. My brain tried its best to make sense of things: Wow, I’m in Spain! I’m not in Africa anymore. I mean, actually, I still was in Africa, but man, it didn’t feel like Africa at all. Not one bit.
It was now late afternoon on New Year’s Eve and the whole town was out. I passed mobs of people along the wide, concrete pedestrian walk, on the way to my hotel. The cafés and restaurants were bursting at the seams; looked like everyone was out marking their spot for the evening. The energy was incredible, and I saw all of this just on the 1,000 foot walk from the road to my hotel, whose entrance was situated upon the zona peatonal (pedestrian walkway). I couldn’t wait to get out an explore!
My hotel was in the New Year’s spirit as well; they were ready for the party. The lobby was packed and when I finally received my room key, I raced upstairs to throw my bags down and I was back out the door in a flash. I had less than 90 minutes of sun left and an early boat ride to Gibraltar in the morning. There wasn’t a second to waste staying inside the hotel.
Before leaving I did get an email from Armando. He’d already added me on Facebook and invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with him and his buddies. Amazing! If I could stay up that late, I’d have a real taste of what New Year’s Eve was like in Spain, as a local. I imagined a lot of good food and wine and practicing my Spanish all night, possibly inebriated, who knows. Ceuta was shaping up to be one of my favorite places in the world, quickly!
I spent the next two hours wandering the absolutely gorgeous autonomous city of Ceuta. No map, just my intuition. I first trotted down a staircase to reach the sea and had a nice half-mile walk down a beach path along the water. The sand, the sea and the curving coastline were beautiful, and I had them all to myself. It was one of those great walks, alone, with stunning views, where you can just breathe in the amazing air and reflect on everything. I was really enjoying myself. I soon came to a set of stairs which led me back up and into town. The sun was setting quickly.
The streets of Ceuta were beautiful, clean, and full of so many things to look at. From the tremendous architecture, to peaceful parks, old churches, fountains and monuments–Ceuta was all things Spain without the gobs of tourists you’d have to fight for space with, in places like Madrid and Barcelona. In general, tourists (at least Americans) don’t go to Ceuta…why not? Well for starters, you can’t visit a place you don’t know exists!
I’m Lovin’ It
There exists small group of travelers who are fanatical about eating at a McDonald’s in every country they visit. I’m not necessarily one of those people, however lately I have been pretty intrigued by all the special country-specific items you can find on McDonald’s menus in other nations; it’s pretty neat and you see some pretty bizarre McDonald’s creations you couldn’t even imagine existed. (Check out this awesome blog featuring “The Craziest McDonald’s Menu Items from Around the World.”) So when I stumbled across the Ceuta Micky D’s, a McDonald’s in Africa…but also in Spain…I just had to check it out. I ended up ordering the McCroquettes, which were fried cheese balls with peppers and they were indeed worth every calorie. The free WiFi at McDonald’s there was a treat, too. So yes, I did eat my New Year’s dinner in Spain at a freakin’ McDonald’s, and I didn’t care!
The Stroke of Midnight
Here’s the part of my story that should have been much more exciting. This is the paragraph where I should be writing about this insane party at Armando’s house. The one that included the finest Spanish wines, plates of fresh olives just fallen from the tree, accordion players, and beautiful women teaching me the native dances of Ceuta. There would be old men smoking Spanish cigars around the table, telling tales few have heard and somehow a horse would be involved in the story. But the invite to this epic fiesta soon dissolved, as Armando was called upon to work overtime on New Year’s Eve: border patrol would be placed on high-alert, as a significant amount of Africans were expected to attempt to jump the fence that night. That’s another story for another time, but you may find it fascinating that Africans seeking asylum in Spain (or the European Union for that matter) need not risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean on rickety wooden boats. They would simply need to make it to the Spanish territories of Ceuta or Melilla by foot and they’d be protected by all the laws of asylum that they would receive in “regular” Spain, without having to leave the continent. More on that specific subject HERE, if you’re interested. This is all so fascinating to me, although it would spoil my New Year’s Eve plans this time.
Party Like it’s 1999
So this is the part where you’re wondering how I’d salvage the night, yes? Which nightclub, bar or restaurant I’d end up bringing in the New Year at? Believe it or not, I instead opted for a good night’s sleep, missing the entire stroke of midnight and the giant party leading up to it. I was asleep in my hotel by 10PM and was only jostled awake at midnight by all the cheering and a little friendly gunfire. I soon drifted back to sleep and didn’t wake until 6AM. I’d cross continents the next morning and have only a partial day in Gibraltar, and I really wanted to be awake and alert enough to enjoy it. Maybe I would’ve had a grand time staying up and bringing in the New Year with strangers in Ceuta, this I’ll never know. I did find it amazing that revelers were still in the streets at 7AM, as I walked towards the Ceuta ferry terminal. I’d like to visit Spanish Morocco again; maybe stop in Melilla next time and head back through Ceuta to finally party with Armando and his horse. Armando, if you’re reading this, I’ve set the bar high.
And Now…the REST of the (Insta)Story:
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