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Pilot Whales: A Close Encounter

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Tarifa, 5th October 2012
Waiting for the Next Trip
Naturally, on my last day there was hardly a breeze blowing. Should I put my backpack into storage and go out again?

No. The hostel was too unwelcoming. Unlike any other I’d stayed in during this trip they didn’t even offer storage. Rather the signs on the walls proclaimed—in no uncertain terms, and in both English and Spanish—that check-out was by 10:30 at the latest: you and your luggage!.

The bus station didn’t have any left-luggage facilities either.

Part of me thought I should try the firmm office, but then I thought better of it. Talk about being unprofessional.

Mistake? To be sure…

But you know me by now, don’t you? I spent another three minutes vacillating, then shouldered my backpack and marched back to the hostel a toda prisa as they say in Spain. Luckily the place was only about 7 minutes from the bus station, on the way into town. The receptionist grudgingly agreed that I could leave my bag, provided I paid 2€ upfront. I kept hopping from foot to foot and popped a Valium while she went on with her cleaning. When I followed her into the courtyard she finally relented and led me to the first floor where she locked the backpack into a shower stall. One thing that can be said about the hostel was that it had a lot of showers.

“Come back soon,” she said and I hurriedly assured her that I would be back around noon.

By now it was almost 9:40 and I marched to the harbour to find the meeting point devoid of people. The first trip would not leave before twelve.

Oh no! My flight wasn’t until the evening, but buses from Tarifa are a rarity. Having missed the 9:30, the next bus would leave at 11:50 and after that times were a little hazy. There was only one thing for it: march straight back to the bus station to check the timetable.

At this time I almost wished that it had been windy and this dilemma would never have arisen. I wished for it even more when I arrived to find the bus station closed. I could see the timetables through the glass door. My binoculars (which turned out to have many surprising uses) brought them tantalisingly close. But they were at an angle and I could not read them.

What now? The station might open again at eleven, but by then the trip might have sold out. I stood—binoculars in hand—pondering what to do next when a man in a green striped COMES shirt and tie stepped up and gave me a strange look.

“I was just having a coffee,” he said.

And I was able to check that—yes—I should be able to make the 15:30 bus to Algeciras and connect with the 16:30 bus to La Linea, hopefully getting to the airport by 17:30, if I did not get get frisked at the border. Failing that, the 16:55 would go directly to La Linea, but that would be cutting it mighty fine.

This was one of those days. If I decided not to go there would be orcas and sperm whales and even migrating finwhales in addition to all the dolphins and long-finned pilot whales that are resident in the strait. The last time I’d seen pilot whales was on my trip to Bilbao, more than seven years ago, and I missed them.

On the other hand, if I stayed the wind might pick up, we’d all get drenched and I’d miss my flight.

But Nina at the firmm reception assured me that conditions would remain calm, so I parted with my last 30€. My multiple-trip discount meant that I received just about enough change for my bus tickets.

It felt like providence.
[read on]

Day of the Dolphins

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Bay of Algeciras, 3rd October 2012
Common Dolphins
I’d been watching the wind forecasts for days, and finally it looked like conditions in the Strait of Gibraltar were calming down. My mind was made up. I left Malaga and made straight for Tarifa where—weeks earlier—a persistent sea state of 3-4 put paid to my plans to go whale watching.

Most of the cetaceans here are concentrated in the middle of the strait where common dolphins, striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales are frequently encountered, as well as orcas (who follow the bluefin tuna and have developed a knack of nicking it straight off the fishing lines, to the chagrin of the Moroccan fishermen in their tiny boats), and also sperm whales and the odd fin whale that might be passing through. So it was with great expectations that we set out. But there are forecasts and then there are actual conditions. Not for nothing is Tarifa known as one of the kite-surfing hotspots in Europe.

The wind picked up steadily and after getting thoroughly drenched without seeing as much as a fin, the good people at firmm (the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals) promised us another outing, this time departing from Algeciras to see the dolphins in the bay (no pilot whales or orcas there, but I remember the wonderful experience I had when I first came to Gibraltar in 1987).

So we set off in convoy, with a kind English-Dutch couple giving me a lift in their car. As we crossed the hills into Algeciras the wind died down and the harbour lay baking in the sun. We boarded the FIRMM Fly Blue and set out into the calm waters of the bay with gentle waves rippling the surface. The sea state was 2—almost perfect.

Sweeping with my binoculars I half expected to see dolphins leaping in the distance, but it wasn’t until we drew level with the tip of Gibraltar that the guide pointed out the first group of common dolphins—and there was no need for the binoculars because we were nearly on top of them! In fact we were on top of them as two to three individuals swam directly underneath the bow, twisting and turning and darting from side-to-side.
Common Dolphins
[read on]

A Lack of Sunshine

Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Gaudi evening

For the past six weeks I have hardly paid any attention to this most unique of cities. In fact at street level Barcelona reminds me of my old home town. I think it’s the scale, and the shops. Barcelona has a far more European feel than any city in the UK and there are none of the chain outlets that disgrace every British high street.

But whenever I look up—that is once I stop running for the traffic lights and am forced to pause—I realise with a sudden jolt that I am somewhere else. Somewhere unique and decidedly Mediterranean. Not that I could tell from the weather. When the sun comes out there is no doubt about it: John says that in the UK we get winter days even in the summer, but in Barcelona we get summer days even in the winter. But, true to form, the sun disappeared once the pressure was off and it takes the odd near-collision with a palm tree to remind myself where I am.

The palm trees give me another jolt every time I see them. The current weather makes this place seem like an odd, twisted version of home—it’s as if I’m walking through a dream.

In an attempt to get to grips with reality—and to realise why I’m hard at work learning Spanish even though I’m speaking English all day at school—I’m going to spend the next week exploring Barcelona. I’m going to walk down the length of Las Ramblas, criss-cross the Barri Gòtic, revisit Park Güell and take a tour around Montjuïc.

Today I started with the university but it was closed and the area was oddly impersonal and devoid of students. I was reminded of melancholic weekends at Oxford. It’s been a while since I’ve contrasted weekends and work days and found the former boring. Maybe it’s time to start writing another novel.

Or to resume blogging.

Tasca i Vin

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

It’s all over, but during the past two weeks we’ve barely had time to eat. So on this last day I went back to our old haunt: Tasca i Vins near the school where you can get a 3-course lunch with water, wine and bread for € 7.60.

My course mates weren’t there, but that didn’t matter. It’s common to lunch on your own on weekdays in Barca and I had my trusty dictionary in my pocket.

For starters I decided on something light. baby courgettes stuffed with Bacalhau perhaps?
Stuffed courgettes with Bacalhau

If these were ‘baby’ cougettes, I don’t know what they consider the adult version to be. Full-grown marrows perhaps. They arrived in a pool of guey white sauce, crusted with cheese.

Now you have to eat up, or the kitchen staff will be offended!

To follow, I had decided on something richer, namely Ossobuco—marrow bone and all.

This had to be followed by a postre, the lightest of which were pears in red wine. Seeing that I’d already had a quarter litre of red table wine with my lunch, I decided on an icecream which was swimming in a puddle of whisky 😉

I hope I can meet some of my friends there next week in a final attempt to re-live past times, but a lot of them have already left. Suddenly I find myself alone in Barcelona, at the start of a new career (or not, as it may be).

It is daunting and my ties to London remain strong. I must find a way to go back.

On TEFL-ing

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Damnit, it’s a lot of work.

But here is what I like;

You’re supposed to crib.

Indefinite Leave

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

They taught us a heap of Spanish vocabulary yesterday night. The class was adequately titled ‘Survival Spanish’.

The daily rhythm is different here. Night is the same as morning, mid-day lasts until four and ‘tarde’ encompasses both the afternoon and most of the evening. I don’t think there is any time left for sleep in this schedule:

Mañana: 24h-12h,
Mediodía: 12h-16h,
Tarde: 16h-20/21h,
Noche: 20/21h-24h.

There are 14 of us on the course—including a painter, a Mexican-Californian who speaks fluent university-level German and a Kenyan who works as an IT instructor in Oxford and knows several famous Reggae musicians. A good half of them left before the optional evening class because they already speak enough Spanish.

Me llamo Denni. Soy de Londres. Vivo en Barcelona.”

Adrian hesitated when it was his turn. “Soy de Oxford. Vivo en…

En Barcelona ,” our instructor said firmly. “You have lived in Oxford, but where are you now? You are in Barcelona. So? ”

Vivo en… Barcelona.

Some of my course mates already have flats lined up Some are wondering what to do next summer: hit the local beach or take the ferry to Ibiza? It’s becoming apparent–very quickly–that my stay in Barcelona may be indefinite.

Monday, January 10th, 2011


I’ve left tourist-fantasy land behind and moved into the residential areas. Eight floors up to be precise, and it wasn’t until I got all the way to the top (with my backpack, my daypack and my books) that I found out that the lift works after all as my host pushed open the doors. You don’t slide them, and they are sticky.

“It’s 35 minutes to walk to the school,” my host said. No worries, I thought, I walk fast.

I had to walk faster, arriving out of breath and a little puffy-faced on this incongruously warm January morning. At least I made it to the class on time,otherwise I might get a reputation. I passed a stationer’s on the way and bought a notebook the title page of which just jumped out at me:

‘You’ve got to fight
for your right
to paaarty!’

It brings back memories of my student days, but the pairing with my red and black Totally Wicked pen with the smoking devil face might just give the wrong impression.

Anyway, the honeymoon will soon be over. On Wednesday (the day after tomorrow) I will be standing in front of a class to teach. College will be from 10:00-18:00 with 3-odd hours of lesson planning and journal writing on top of that.

I only hope that my new friends won’t knacker me out over the weekend!

Barcelona: First Impressions

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

I didn’t want to go. I had to drag myself away from London kicking and screaming, quite literally. But fuck me if Barcelona doesn’t just quietly take over your heart.

It does so quite without pretence. Yesterday we met in a park for a picnic. Parrots flew overhead (yeah, I know they are a pest here). And Gaudí is all over this town.

From the top of a hill we could see all the way across to the Balearics. It’s sunny in January. People sit outdoors and have wine with their lunch.

Barcelona View

But that would not have been enough.

FC Barcelona is fan-owned and the players display UNICEF logos on their kit. The club doesn’t get paid for it, it donates. And it is sticking it to its richest rivals.

The place is crawling with tourists, but the locals don’t mind. The Catalan language and sense of identity are strong here, yet Barcelona is international. Closer to Europe than to Spain, closer to the Continent than to London it has the heart of a world city.

Barcelona: The Money Maze

Sunday, January 9th, 2011


I’ve said before that Cash is King and I stick by it in as far as it’s got to be better than going with the exchange rate offered by UK banks, or even airport bureaux de change (€1.08 to the sterling on Friday) on top of which you’ve got to pay commission. Commission and other hidden fees soon add up. A lot of people don’t seem to understand percentages, but basically they want anything up to 3 quid for every hundred quid you change and when it comes to paying a month’s rent these figures cease to look trivial. It is all in the percentages.

Basically nothing beats a good pre-paid cashcard (and I’m talking either FairFX or Caxton here), but you’ve got to remember to top it up. I hit a snag with the thing and in either case I couldn’t take out more than 150 € a day, which is how I like it.

So, armed with a bulging moneybelt, I went in search of exchange facilities as soon as I stepped off the plane. If you work in a bank you should consider learning a European language and relocating to the continent. Not only is there no Saturday opening, but working hours are from around 8 am to 2 pm most weekdays and the rest of the time is your glorious own.

But no fear: a few minutes of Googling told me that there is an exchange office which offers good rates in the basement of El Corte Inglés, the imposing department store that looms fortress-like over the Playa Catalunya.

El Corte Inglés

So on Saturday morning, the second day of the sale (‘50% rebajas!’), I spent a few surreal hours weaving zombie-like through the crowds that filled the cavernous mazes of one of the world’s biggest department stores. I looked everywhere, from underground supermarkets and drug stores to upper-level designer outlets, and—after consulting the big table next to the lifts—patrolled the third floor where the mysterious ‘foreign money’ was allegedly located. For all its formidable size I felt oddly reminded of my home-town’s shabby department store with its worn fixtures. I’ve never seen the point of sales (I’m a discerning Oxfam shopper with a sideline in Marie Curie).

Eventually I asked a shop assistant in tentative Spanglish and, from what understood, ‘foreign money’ could only be used for buying, not for exchange. There was nothing left but hitting the nearby tourist runway of Las Ramblas.

The first place I passed displayed a rate of around 1.16, almost as much as the Caxton card. But the interbank rate had been nudging 1.20, so I decided to investigate, thinking that I could do better. —And came down to Earth with a bump.

If I understand the small print, they were going to hit me with 18 cents ‘tax’ for every Euro I bought. Some places were overtly quoting rates of less than an Euro per Pound Sterling, a drop of more than 20 percent from what I’d got on my card.

Once again it would seem that I have to pay for the vainglorious British sense of head-up-arsedness. And all the money that I’ve put up over the years so as to uphold the currency of the realm does not pay for hospitals and schools or even for Olympic show-off projects designed to swell national pride, but goes straight into the pockets of the money-changers.

However, it pays to do the footwork (if only a little). Ria Change offered a rate of 1.1045, a good 4% above their nearest competitors. But if you can wait (and I couldn’t) it will be well worth to check out the rates offered by the banks. And if your home-bank is as greedy as mine, dynamic currency exchange may not be something to be sniffed at after all. One ATM offered 1.16 and 2.5% commission, which is miles better than the Bank of Scotland (who would presumably get to charge the £1.50 overseas ATM fee but not also the conversion fee and commission on top of their shitty rates).

Getting Lost in Barcelona

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Scenic Squat

I started my TEFL adventure in tried & tired fashion…by getting lost.

At least it gave me an introduction to the Barcelona metro system (oddly bijou) and to speaking Spanish.

I addressed some women waiting on the platform. “Perdone. ¿Es este el trein para Catalunya?” (A subway station.)

Thank you, Paul Nobel!

Of course they didn’t understand me so I said “para Catalunya?” and they nodded. For once I was moving in the right direction.

They don’t speak Spanish here but Catalan, so I think I’ll end up with some sort of Spanish/English/French pidgin, or ‘Fraspanglish’ as Alexandria calls it.

The metro would be a relative bargain, at about 16 € per ten 2-zone rides*, were it not that I end up paying double for everything. It began when I inadvertently bought a return ticket from the airport. Then I got to the station at 01:40 yesterday night (I know, my new friends are tiring me out) to see that the next train was 40 minutes away. So instead I chose to get lost on my way home. This morning I went into the wrong entrance and had to enter through the gates again.

But I made it to our picnic and we enjoyed some spectacular views and a sunny afternoon. Short sleeves in January!

Early night today. My friends have succeeded in tiring me out.

* Still paying double here: the whole of Barcelona is in zone 1!