Mediterranean Border-town Smuggling

Straits of Gibraltar - Africa viewed from Spain

Pic: The Straits of Gibraltar – North Africa viewed from Spain

Ceuta and Melilla – Transit Anomalies

Smuggling is an ancient profession; there are records of this black-market trade occurring as far back as the sixteenth century with goods being smuggled aboard Spain’s Manilla Galleons during its trade with the Far East. Little has changed.

Mostly, this clandestine business is about avoiding government levies, duties or taxes, but there are four types of smuggling which present more serious problems for governments:

  • Arms smuggling, which may offer a threat to a government’s stability and law-enforcement.
  • Drug smuggling, which presents politicians with a political conundrum due to the fact that while unable to legalise it, they are missing out on considerable revenue and profits.
  • Human trafficking – often quasi-legitimate and usually bonding women into prostitution – a business that remains morally abhorrent to most of us.
  • People smuggling. In their fight against these four, governments devote untold resources and allot vast amounts of tax payers’ money.

People smuggling is a relatively new branch of smuggling. The tide of public opinion now finds this abhorrent, too, while many people in a recipient country find the arrival of these smuggled folk inconvenient – to say the least. It, too, presents governments with a political and practical conundrum. Fair play: first-world governments have largely created this problem through their colonialism and, more recently, regime-change policies and are now playing catch-up with the consequences.

And, from my notes in 2001 –

“The bodies of these unfortunates continue to wash up on Spain’s beaches -”

The tax-free Spanish ports of Ceuta and Melilla on Morocco’s northern Mediterranean coast are all that is left of what was Spanish Morocco. Today, just like Gibraltar to the north across the Straits, these enclaves no longer possess the military significance they had in former times – though throughout the ‘sixties’ and ‘seventies’ they did achieve some notoriety due to the large quantities of drugs being smuggled out from their ports and beaches and destined for the European market. Nowadays however, authorities are far more concerned with another black-market phenomenon.

GoogleMap - Straits of Gibraltar

(Map sourced from Google Maps)

From this very stretch of coast between the points of Ceuta and Melilla, impoverished Africans – many of whom are from Sub-Saharan regions – make their leap-of-faith, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers. These smugglers, having received their money, dispatch their clients in the black of night from local beaches, putting them out to sea on rafts and decrepit boats. They then wash their hands of them.

The desperate refugees are trying to reach Spain, a mere 27 kilometres away at its nearest point in the Straits of Gibraltar. Here, in this toe-hold in Europe, they hope and will strive for a better life. Of course it is not that simple. Savage seas, heavy shipping in the straits and the condition of their crafts conspire against them. The bodies of these unfortunates continue to wash up on Spain’s beaches near Tarifa and to the east of Gibraltar, and groups of bodies have been found floating at sea. It is estimated that some 3,000 have perished over the last 5 years, yet still they come. It is a tragic business.

Interestingly, there is a concurrent, highly lucrative trade in tax-free retail goods being smuggled into Morocco through the Duty-free port of Ceuta. While comparatively innocuous, it makes transits through this otherwise sterile town interesting.

To leave Ceuta and enter Morocco proper, you have to pass through Customs, Police and Immigration control. This is set amidst a broad stretch of land with the ocean to one side and a large barren hill, buttressing the space, to the right. Once through, there is a lively open bazaar on the seaward side of the road and rows of taxis and other waiting vehicles on the other. Sharing a taxi with up to five locals is an economical way to get further inland.

On one occasion, while waiting in our taxi for a further three passengers we had the leisure to observe this inbound smuggling. It takes place on a grand scale, and in a unique way.

In spite of the teaming rain hundreds of Moroccans of all ages – men, women and children, all with huge bundles on their backs – were trekking in an endless line over the aforementioned (now muddy) hill to circumvent the border control. We watched in fascination as they staggered and crabbed their way down a rugged track to an area close by us. Here, waiting cars, vans and 4WD’s were loaded to head inland to their buyers – the retailers in the cities. The couriers then trudged back through the frontier to the port to reload and repeat their circuit. Our driver assured us that it would continue until some boat’s hold was emptied.

It was a bizarre scene. Wearily traipsing in each other’s footsteps, these hunched and straining figures with their loads swaying on their backs appeared to be taking part in some monstrous ‘conga line’. It was evocative of scenes of mass exodus one sees from countries suffering famine or war.

Customs and the police turn a blind eye to all of this (quite likely paid off), but carry out random vehicle searches further inland. They also regularly pull over buses to do spot checks on passenger’s goods. This can be entertaining at first, but is ultimately tiresome. On one of our inland journeys a young Moroccan was unceremoniously taken off our bus by the police. They took him out of sight over a ridge at the side of the road and we never saw him again. The bus continued on its way without him, with my imagination running riot.

It’s an old scene. The first time I entered Morocco through Ceuta some fifty years ago, I was on a packed bus that was pulled over by the police. On this occasion, four other westerners and I were ordered off because our hair was too long. One of us had a pair of scissors and a quick hacking job was done, then we simply waited to flag down another one. Further into Morocco however, on another packed bus on the same route, we were stopped and boarded by the police again. A Moroccan woman in the seat directly across the aisle from me was discovered to be hiding some goods (duty-free from Ceuta) in her clothing and was asked to accompany them off the bus. Instead of getting up, she started a loud, continual wail and proceeded to repeatedly smash her head on the rail of the seat in front of her. I was, naturally, appalled. I no longer recall what the outcome was, but that image has stayed with me.

More recently at the frontier – this time coming from Morocco back into Ceuta – we found ourselves being jostled and pushed amongst a large, panic-stricken crowd of locals. All were laden with heavy bundles on their backs. This lot, another gang of couriers ready to trek over that aforementioned hill, must have just received notice of an imminent police check because they were hurriedly reversing direction and heading to a fence over a culvert on the seaward side. Here they hurled their bundles over, then clambered up-and-over to recover them. They then struggled onward along the seashore in order to by-pass the border control. So this was an alternative inward smuggling route – their ‘Plan B’, perhaps. And in charge of this young, motley crew was a little old lady shouting at them, pushing, prodding and abusing them: urging haste. The scene was right out of Dickens; she, a female ‘Fagan’ character directing her charge of ‘scurrying young thieves’. It had us spell-bound.

Here’s an interesting video link on current developments in Ceuta . . .


Food Glorious Food

One of the key ingredients in our travels is – food. This daily pleasure inspires us when we are travelling.

Tapa in Granada Spain

Well,” you may ask, “what’s so special about food? We eat every day, anyway. What’s so interesting about food when travelling?”

O.K. And where do I start?

I was raised and grew up in New Zealand and Australia, two former British colonies. There, food was treated more generally as fuel – a necessary disruption to the business of work, sport and play rather than something to be taken leisurely and actually savoured. A generalisation? Arguably, yes.

And possibly, no. But then, while travelling overseas it becomes clearly noticeable that besides the obvious differences in cuisines there is a distinctly different attitude toward food. Oh, today in our lands Down Under there are gorgeously decorative cook books galore on bookshop shelves, Reality TV ‘Chef’ programs for the activity-challenged and innumerable restaurants touting more than they are able to deliver and usually at exorbitant prices. Pretentiousness abounds: so-called ‘Chefs’ are anointed with celebrity status – the term ‘Cook’ almost a derogatory appellation – and over-simplified recipes are ladled out to the (apparently starving and culinary-challenged) TV media’s masses. But food is still largely seen as fuel.

In contrast, cuisine we have encountered in our travels has far less celebrity, less glamour, less media-commerciality. Indeed, on a daily basis food is often treated almost reverentially: the experience of eating certainly not hurried and the food consumed being the subject of much contemplation, discussion and even debate.

We all recognise that eating is pleasurable – the receptors in our palate ensure that. But to our shame many of us eat hurriedly and with fleeting thought as to what we consume: What are the ingredients? How and where were the ingredients harvested? How were the constituents prepared, melded together, constructed, aged? And is the resulting dish pleasing to the palate? All this may sound like obsessive gourmandising but those I refer to, those who we encounter on our travels, are neither gourmets nor gourmands. They are just enthusiastic folk who have been taught from birth that food is to be deliberated over and savoured as one of life’s few pleasures.

Oh, there are true gourmands in many of these countries, to be sure. They often form clubs based around certain foodstuffs, or just to enthuse and critique their own (often male only) efforts like Bilbao’s ‘Txokos’, or perhaps Britain’s ‘Tripe Clubs’. But these only serve to highlight the distinction between these ‘other’ countries and my own (though the Tripe Clubs have travelled to the colonies).

Many nationalities and/or religious sects are convinced that certain foods are detrimental to our health and longevity and they may eschew meats and/or dairy products for example, but in this, most are dedicated to passionately concocting and enjoying their food. Where we reside this is sometimes the case with individuals, but rarely does such dedication become available to the public at large.

Though I suspect that our great coloniser – Great Britain – began its disinterest in food-as-pleasure with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the debasement of food to that of fuel cannot be attributed solely to the increasingly hectic lifestyles that this started (and which many of us have continued to take on): there are cultural factors at play, too. I would hazard that climate also plays a part in the interest or disinterest in food. It appears that in warmer climates life is determinedly lived at a more leisurely pace and this naturally translates into a more leisurely construction and consumption of food.

But it is the sheer, noticeable availability of food in these countries that we find so markedly different, too. It is in the streets (and sometimes on the streets – drying), on trolleys, in stalls, restaurants, bars, food-halls, markets, fishing boat harbours, etc. In fact, in some places it is hard to avoid it – and all for one’s delectation. I think I’ll try this tasty morsel. Ooh, and this, and perhaps that? Food for pleasure. “Och weeel, I guess ye’ll naw be wantin’ yer dinner the noo!” Self-restraint is often called for.

The association of alcohol with consumption of food (not encouraged in some Muslim countries) makes for an interesting comparison, too. Where I was brought-up the only food to be found in a bar would be highly-salted peanuts with the clear intention of getting you to drink more. Staggeringly, in many Down Under hotel bars this is still the case today (with the addition of salted potato crisps in packets and Biltong – beef jerky), with not a skerrick of food on the bar itself. The countries we travel to encourage you to eat if you are choosing to drink alcohol. The bars are often laden with tempting, tasty and affordable titbits, while part or full meals are readily available if it is your intention to dine.

The general bastardisation of our food into ‘convenience products’ and ‘processed foods’ and their damaging health impact has been well written about so I won’t go there, but do take time with that next morsel as it touches your tongue, that next slither as you slowly chew it. Feel the texture, experience the magic as its juices circulate around your mouth arousing and stimulating the senses while titillating your palate. Ponder a while on how it was made and from what . . . Mmmmm.

Tagine – Assilah, Morocco
Fish tagine in Assilah Morocco

Paella – Algeciras, Spain
Paella in Algeciras Spain

Barbequed Tuna –Bilbao, Spain
Barbeque Fish Portugalete

Smoked Pork Sausage – Evora, Portugal
Smoked Pork Sausage - Evora Portugal