Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Welcome to the Rock

Yesterday would have been more awesome if Sean Connery had been walking around with us all day narrating things like that, but in the lack of his presence, we still had a pretty awesome day. For the first time on Vacation, we set an alarm for something other than a nap, and woke up early in order to catch the bus from Marbella to La Linea, which is the last stop on the land border between Spain and Gibraltar.

As a quick aside, there is a stratification of the general talents of drivers from different countries in Europe. At the top of this pantheon in terms of overall success would have to be the Germans. Like them or hate them, or even belong to a group they once tried to eliminate, you have to admit that had the 3rd Reich succeeded, European driving would probably be a totally different experience. Spanish drivers are not near the top. They are not the Italians, no-one is as bad as Italians, even the blue topped old ladies from back home. They drive everything that has an internal combustion engine as if they are in "The Italian Job," but it should be pointed out that if the Italian Job had really taken place in Italy, nothing would have been stolen because everyone would have crashed in the first 10 minutes. Back to Spanish drivers, they score some points for being insanely courteous to people on bikes or crosswalks, but they seem to lack any sort of smoothness or rhythm to their driving. As evidenced by our bus driver, who would accelerate to slam on his brakes while moving 10 meters at a time through traffic. I don't get motion sick, but by the time we reached la Linea, I wanted to vomit.

Given that wonderful driving experience, the day could go nowhere but up, and as you will read, it literally did. (Have I mentioned my love of the comma, and my resulting abuse of it, it is really, you know, cool.) We were expecting some sort of serious border crossing considering the websites all pretty much say IF YOU DON'T BRING YOUR PASSPORT, YOU WILL DIE BY MONKEYS AND BE THROWN INTO THE STRAIGHTS OF GIBRALTAR!!! DIE DIE DIE!!! I suppose on the standards of border crossings in the now quite open EU, it was rather stringent, considering there was actually a man standing there looking at passports or residence cards. I showed him my blockbuster membership and was waved right through. Not really, but I am sure I could have. Even more bizarre than the border was that immediately afterwards you walk across the airport to get into town. Literally across it, there are signs urging you to walk quickly, and to not drop trash as the next time the plane crashes due to FOD, "IT MAY BE YOUR PLANE!" By now we had discovered that Gibraltar is the land of melodramatic warnings, but it was amazing. You walk through lines of fortifications and can look up at the rock to see the gun galleries. We happened upon the old graveyard where many of the wounded from Trafalgar rest in the sun underneath some quite beautiful trees; but eventually we decided that it was time to summit the Rock of Gibraltar.

Now our impending promotions (1JULY!!) and associated pay raises notwithstanding, we are rather cheap. It was going to cost 25 euro per person for the cable car, or 20 euro per for the taxi tour, so we decided to walk. Can you say 50 pence per person at the park gate for walkers! We win. Now admittedly, there was no air conditioning on our route, and the commentary was provided by ourselves, but it was much cooler. Cooler as in more interesting, as cool it was not; after the first 10 minutes we were literally drenched in sweat. Our fees paid to the rather surprised man at the gate (he obviously didn't get too many folks walking up what is, after all, a huge rock) we followed his recommendation to take the Mediterranean stairs to the top. With the enticement of the word "stairs" and the awesome possibilities implied by the "Jew's Gate" along the route, we could hardly resist. The latter was a let down, as the only reference to any Semantic religions at all was some of our cursing to the heat, but the path itself was amazing. It was not really stairs in the traditional regards, but a bare single track that wound its way along the exposed southern face of Gibraltar. The views of Africa were amazing, but by exposed I really mean 12 inch wide path with 300 foot drop to the ocean below. Despite my well known dislike of heights, it was amazing. We saw the most amazing views and would come upon old fortifications at some intervals which allowed us to ensure that the dastardly Spanish were not trying to sneak any fire ships into the British anchorage under the cover of mid day. Our dues to Hornblower thus satisfied, we returned to the task at hand, which by this latter point in the trail was the scaling of truly vertical faces into which steps had been hammered by Soldiers many years before. To say we were sweaty would be like saying at times Gandhi was a bit peckish. We were soaked, but with our savings in pocket (said savings were rather damp now too) we enjoyed every step of the way. Topping out was amazing, the breeze has seldom if ever felt quite so good. The summit houses a battery of 9.2 inch rifles from the mid 1800s that have the rather impressive ability to throw a shot clear across the Straights. It really brought home the impressive historical strategic value of the land we walked on.

It is now my turn (the female half of the Miller pair) to describe our next adventure, mainly due to my distaste for monkeys. As Alli can attest, I despise monkeys (all except the little golden tamarinds, but those are truly the ONLY exception). After our sweaty hike to the top of the rock we expected to see just one more interesting creature in this odd habitat: monkeys, specifically Barbary Macaques. We had been really lucky to see fledgling seabirds with the bird parents cheering their bird kids on while taking their first flight from the nest. I don't blame them for being a bit timid though, as these birds were learning to fly on a very sheer cliff. We had also been lucky enough to see a Moorish gecko, other rock lizards, and a Gibraltar Hare. Taking the road less traveled certainly pays off, as I doubt any other bus tours saw any such creatures!

I was certainly happy about getting to play as if I was David Attenborough (at least in my own mind) when Nate and I rounded a corner and were confronted with a large, angry looking monkey. We had seen a couple monkeys from afar, but had yet to see any up close. This one looked a bit mad, and very well fed. I really get creeped out by monkeys (little carney hands, you know?), and this guy wasn't helping. We gave it as much room as you could on a narrow one lane road and kept walking. At this point we saw a stopped tour bus. Wondering what they were so intently starring at, we stopped to look with them. Well, there wasn't just one monkey. There were scores of them. They ranged from young babies clinging to their mothers to teenagers to full grown behemoths. The little babies were somewhat cute, and their mothers, although large, seemed too intent on chowing down on fruit to really be much of a threat. Now the energetic teenage monkeys were quite a different story. We were watching them roughhouse with each other when out of no where, a 20 or so lbs. juvenile monkey decided the best way to get away from the chase was to run up the back of an elderly British man and perch itself on his head. Feeling understandably frightened, he attempted to expel the creature from its roost, while the tour guide was yelling something to the effect of, "Just leave it be, if you make it mad it could get ugly." Yeah, okay, I will let that dirty creature just stay there, leaving my head to be its high ground in a monkey battle. No thanks.

The following conversation went like this:
Nate: Jak, do you want to go to the "Apes Den".
Me: No. Plus they are not apes, they are monkeys, just tailless monkeys.
Nate: I know that, that is just what the place is called. It says on the map that there is the highest concentration of monkeys on Gibraltar here.
Me: Most certainly not.
Nate: Why not?
Nate: Okay. Want to walk into town for a drink and some fries?
Me: Sure....if you promise there will be no more monkeys.

So that abruptly ended our monkey adventure. If one of them hadn't jumped on the old man, I may have stayed a bit longer, but there was no way I was having one of those things on my head!

Jak overreacts to the monkeys. When she says "evil looking monkey" it is like saying "threatening pugilistic penguin," namely that it really wasn't that scary. They are cute if overfed little guys, and the only threat of death by monkey was a sign warning you not to feed the monkeys. This sign was a bit confusing considering at points throughout the park there are pits into which the park places bags of fruit and vegetables for the monkeys to eat. Do as I say, not as I do. We did decide it was high time for some food and quickly descended into town from the Rock. We were required by our own somewhat strange geekdom to stop at the "Lord Nelson" for refreshments, which were quite good. They even had a certified authentic spike from HMS Victory, which was awesome. (I have just taken a short break from writing to find where to buy one of these, and they really are quite reasonable! Jak's birthday here we come) With time running out, we ran the passport control gauntlet in reverse. The bus driver on the way back was actually a good driver, but the bus company made up for that oversight by making sure that the air conditioning wasn't functioning. The only ventilation was the opened emergency exits, and when we stumbled off the bus into the 88 degree heat, it felt like jumping in at a polar bear swim. All in all, it was a great day!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Uphill both ways

So Nate and I have once again embraced the Spanish life style. We wake up late (well, late for us, and my mother can certainly attest, it is not very late), we eat a breakfast of pastries, walk to do our daily shopping, eat lunch (with great local wine, of course), take a siesta, and go for a ride in the mountains, then eat dinner (cue more wine), and go to bed to start it all over again the next day. I have really been appreciating their very laid back life style. Everyone here is just relaxed. We had a fellow who was perfectly happy to drive behind us while we climbed up a mountain pass for a few kilometers, and then waived good naturedly when he finally passed on a more straight section of road. I could stay in Spain forever.

This morning Nate and I woke at the late hour of 0800 and headed out to do the shopping for the day as well as get breakfast and pick up a new cassette with slightly more gentle gearing for me. Being an idiot, I forgot to check my gearing and still had on a cassette that deals well with the rolling hills of Germany, but was killer on the mountains that surround Marbella. The guys at this great shop had a Campy 12-25 cassette that I was looking for, as well as a ton of super high end bikes that I was not. Having satisfied our need for bike things, we satisfied our need for chocolate with three large chocolate pastries. We walked back to our flat, ate some of the night before's "Vlad" pasta (so called as we got it from a Russian specialty store, and it was called "Putini" after Vladimir Putin and read until we fell asleep for Siesta (which, yes, they actually do here!). After waking up from our naps, we got kitted up to head out for a ride.

Nate and I started our ride with a hellish climb out of Marbella, as all of our rides have started. Once out of the city, we climbed into the mountains for what seemed like ages. We were passed by a couple of guys on one of the local teams, who climbed like mountain goats and looked like wonderful tanned Spanish gods. Needless to say we didn't try to keep up. We climbed into picturesque towns, and even found our way into some little caves. All in all it was a great ride, followed by a dip in the pool, and some grilled veggies, aged cheddar, fresh bread, and yes, more wine for dinner. I hope you all have enjoyed my random post, but I have had a hard time concentrating thanks to Nate looking through a Jamie Oliver cook book and exclaiming, "Oooohh that looks so good, we should make that," about every 10 seconds. We will hopefully post again tomorrow. Good-bye for tonight!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bienvenidos A Espana!

After a strenuous 4 days of work, it was time for another vacation! In our defense, this one had been planned for a while and we really did want to have a longer bit of relaxation prior to going to Afghanistan. We rented an apartment in Marbella, Spain as we had been to the Costa del Sol in college and had always wanted to return to relax and ride our bikes. Let me say, that when it comes to travel, Jak and I tend to be rather neurotic, worrying about darn near everything in our quest to make sure everything goes just how we want. This has been the least neurotic start to a vacation ever thanks to the people on the Spanish end. It turns out that the place we are renting belongs to one of the large group of British ex-pats that live in the area. They took care of everything, even finding their friend Garry with a large enough vehicle to pick us and the bikes up at the airport for the drive here late at night so that we wouldn't have to figure out the bus at 1000 at night. The owner even was waiting here to great us, and gave us the grand tour of her wonderfully quirky apartment before saying goodnight. Stress free travel to the max! We were momentarily transfered back to Grafenwoehr when we heard loud explosions last night, but quickly realized that they were in fact a fireworks display, which we sat on the balcony and watched. We appreciate that the locals recognize the truly amazing people who have just arrived, though we hope the Afghanis will not follow their pyrotechnic welcoming techniques. We are looking forward to 10 days of serious relaxation, and will probably update here pretty regularly.
As an aside, before we came here we spent the weekend enjoying Graf's 650th birthday party! It was really cool, with a fest, medieval demonstrations, concerts and general good times by all.