The Adventures of BJ and Tony Morris

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Roquetas de Mar, Spain
Gibraltar, United K
November 2011
"National Lampoon's European Family Vacation"

As mentioned in the "Special Delivery" post, my niece, Lauren is doing an internship in Roquetas de Mar, Spain for a few months. My sister Mary Jane and her family wanted to visit Lauren during the Thanksgiving holidays. I decided to tag along since they are not the most experienced travelers.

The trip would be a bit complicated for me because Tony and I would be traveling to Ireland the week before with a group of friends (see "Good Craic" post), so I would have to get from Dublin to Madrid to coincide with my family's arrival there. I did something I almost never do, I bought a FULL FARE ticket (on RyanAir). I am far more nervous traveling full fare than on stand-by. There are so many rules! Cabin baggage restrictions specify that strictly one item of cabin baggage per passenger weighing up to 10kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm* is permitted. I had to convert all of this metric mumbo jumbo into inches and pounds to make sure that I complied.

I had to check-in and print my boarding pass before getting to the airport or be charged a Boarding Card Re-issue Fee of £40/€40. Then at the airport, I was supposed to have my travel documents checked and online boarding pass stamped at the RyanAir Visa/Document Check Desk before going through airport security.

We got a late start leaving the hotel in Dublin on Monday so I almost missed my flight. After getting my boarding pass stamped and getting through security, there was a sign saying that it was an 8-12 minute walk to gate 2 where my flight would leave. I turned it into a 5 minute run to the gate and made it there just in time to board the flight.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family plus my nephew Jared's roommate Nathan had had a relaxing business class ride and were waiting for me at the cafe in the Madrid airport. 

My flight landed about 10 minutes late so they had started to panic. I was sitting in bulkhead on the RyanAir flight in full view of the flight attendants who would not let me turn on my phone until we got all the way to the gate.

At the SIXT Rental Car counter, we asked about upgrading to a larger car and were told that the car we had reserved had 7 seats. This should be fine since there would only be six of us once we picked Lauren up. I signed all of the paperwork and we headed out to the parking garage to slot 45 where we were told our car would be. It was the VW Touran I had reserved. A quick glance showed that it only had 5 seats, so I went over to the kiosk to ask about the 7 seats. While I was discussing this with them (in my best nonexistant Spanish), Jared and Nathan discovered the other two seats folded down in the back of the car.

I inspected the car for any previous damage since I had not opted to take the insurance, then we loaded the car up with all of the luggage and everyone got in. I asked everyone to put on their seatbelts but we couldn't find a belt for the center passenger in the back seat. Again, I went back to the kiosk to ask for help. The agent came out to help us look but she couldn't find it either. Finally, Mary Jane found it on the ceiling of the car. It was a strap with two buckles that buckled on either side of the seat.

Once we were strapped in and ready do go, I got out the GPS and typed in our destination. After adjusting the mirrors and checking the fuel gauge, I attempted to crank the car but the key wouldn't turn. I got out and pushed the lock button on the key fob and the car next to ours beeped!

Great... So we started all over, loading up the car in space 46 with all of our belongings.

The six hour drive to Roquetas de Mar was pretty uneventful. Thankfully I had already adjusted to the time zone so I had no problem staying awake for the drive. Not so for my passengers. There was lots of head lolling and even a little snoring going on. At one point Mary Jane woke with a start and asked if I was awake. I guess she had visions of the scene in National Lampoon's Vacation when Clark falls asleep at the wheel in the Family Truckster.

We found a place to pull over for a beautiful view of the mountains along the road. Jared made us all nervous by climbing over the railing and out over the rocks where he could easily have fallen to his death.

We made a stop at the roadside hotel Santa Lucia for lunch. It was here that we fully realized our lack of the fluency in Spanish. I finally chose 3 bocadillas (sandwiches) for us to split, hoping that there would be something we could eat amongst the three. They turned out to be pretty good. We had ham and cheese, egg and potato, and roast pork. We all had cafe con leche (really strong coffee with milk).

The meal and coffee revived everyone enough so that they could enjoy the scenery for the rest of the trip. We were all intrigued by the miles and miles of olive trees, as well as the many windmill farms.

The sun was setting as we approached Roquetas. Everything took on a beautiful golden glow.

By the time we got to Roquetas, it was fully dark. We had a little trouble determining the correct exit from the round-about and just like the Griswolds in European Vacation, ended up going around two times and still took the wrong exit, taking us a few miles out of the way.

We were very happy to get to Lauren's apartment and find that she was planning to prepare spaghetti for us.

We made it an early night and agreed to get up at 5AM the next morning so that we could make the 4 hour drive to Gibraltar, our destination for Tuesday.

The first two hours of the winding drive was done in the dark, but then the sun rose on a beautiful day. We passed through a number of tunnels. At each one, Mary Jane commented that she thinks of Princess Diana everytime she goes through a tunnel.

We stopped for cafe con leche to wake us all up.


Before long, we reached a turnout where we had a great view of Gibraltar. After taking about 20 or 30 pictures, we were back on the road.


We arrived at Gibraltar around 11AM, but Mary Jane insisted that we have a photo shoot at several strategic locations on the beach for her Christmas cards before we crossed the border.

We had planned to drive across the border, but after seeing the line of cars, we decided to park and walk across. We found a place on the street a few blocks away, paid for a parking until 6PM and walked to the border. We were waived through passport control with barely a glance at our passport.

Since Gibraltar is a British territory, I had planned to get some pounds so we went looking for an ATM. After asking several people, we were directed to the airport, but all we found there was a currency exchange office. We decided to just spend our Euros since they were accepted there as well.

The gondola to the top of the rock was closed because it was such a windy day so we elected to take a taxi tour with Adrian. 

He was very personable and quite knowledgeable about the history and attractions at the rock. His thick British accent was sometimes a little hard to understand, and he sometimes put off our questions saying that the answers would come later in the tour, but he was an excellent tour guide. The tour was E25 per person and included admission to the caves and castle.

We had to wait for a plane to land before we could start the tour since the road to the rock crosses right over an active runway. The area that is now the runway was a horse racing track in the mid 1700's.

We stopped to take a look at the view of the Strait of Gibraltar where we had a view of both Spain and Africa.

Then we went through St. Michael's cave, part of a vast labyrinth of caverns and passages formed by nature.

Adrian picked us up on the other end and we got a preview of what the monkeys would do. Notice the monkeys on the lower left of this picture trying to get into one of the tour busses. We were warned to leave all of our belongings in the van and shut the door before getting out to interact with the monkeys.

We loved seeing the baby monkeys.  Adrian told us that we would only see the female monkeys because the males were circling the perimeter, protecting their territory.

The tour guides were very good at controlling the monkeys with peanuts. Adrian got this monkey to pose with us for a group picture. Mary Jane should use this one for her Christmas cards!

Adrian let each one of us hold a monkey for a photograph. He warned us against letting the monkey sit on our shoulders lest they should give us a gift of excrement.

My nephew dared to let the monkey sit on his shoulder, but when my sister tried it, the monkey peed on her!

Adrian let each of us feed the monkey a peanut. He had us hold the peanut in our closed hand and then the monkey would open our hand and take the peanut. They have such soft little hands.

Our last stop on the tour was near the top at the Great Siege Tunnels. Adrian offered to drive us back down afterward, but we decided to walk down and stop at some of the other attractions.

Many of the tunnels were created during WWII. They were intended to provide facilities for the garrison to live inside the Rock for up to a year. The tunnels were designed to provide storage for water and food for 16,000 men as well as provide electricity, hospitals, laundry and accommodation. There are 34 miles of tunnels inside the rock. There are more roads inside the rock than outside!

St. George's Hall was constructed at the time of the Great Siege in 1782. It still contains cannon barrels dating from the 1930s. Apparently there was so much smoke and fumes from the cannons that they had to construct a vent in the ceiling.

As we looked out the openings onto the runway, we noticed what we, at first, thought was houses, but then determined was a cemetery.

On the way back down, we encountered the last remaining lime kiln that produced lime for white-washing buildings, painting water cisterns and pouring over the bodies of people who had died from the plague.

The City under Siege Exhibition showed a poignant view of what people suffered during the siege. Official statistics show 333 soldiers killed and 138 disabled by wounds, but many more suffered or died from illness and disease.

Strict discipline was enforced to preserve order during the siege. A common form of punishment was flogging with a nine tailed whip. A drummer in the regiment achieved fame as the most flogged man in the British Army. In his first 14 years, he received 30,000 lashes, of which 4000 were administered in a single year.

To escape bombardment, people gradually abandoned their homes, until the whole population had settled south of the city in tents and ramshackle huts made from timber salvaged from their ruined houses.

During the Siege, a cabbage cost the equivalent of two and a half days of a soldier's pay while the head of a sheep sold for more than three weeks wages.

We made our way back down to the castle and took a quick tour.

Lunch was at an Irish Pub called the Venture Inn.

We had a little trouble getting back to the border, but once there, it was another wave through passport control and we were back in Spain.

We had a taste of some black olives from a tree on the way back to the car.

Once again, it was a quiet drive back to Roquetas with lots of napping passengers. 

We made one restroom stop and treated ourselves to a cafe con leche and then it was back on the road.


When we got back to the apartment, my brother-in-law, Robert, and I walked over to the Doner Kebab to get some kebabs to take back to the apartment to split. We tried to order in Spanish, but the English speaking fellow behind the counter recognized us as Americans and spoke to us in English. He knew Lauren - I guess she spends some of her Euros at the Donor Kebab!

Wednesday, the gang wanted to go to the beach so we drove to Agua Dulce in Almeria.

After a stroll on the beach, we visited Lauren's sponsors in their home and then drove back to Roquetas.

We were meeting Lauren's sponsors for Churros and we wanted to treat but we were almost out of Euros so I parked the car, jumped out, locked it and ran across the street to the ATM. I had trouble with the ATM and tried it several times with no luck. I walked down to the churros place to catch up with the others and tell them about the ATM. When I got there, they were pacing and told me that Robert was locked in the car. I hurried back to the car and found that he was, indeed, trapped inside the car. Who would have thought that one wouldn't be able to open the car from the inside once it had been locked with the key fob?

For the afternoon, Lauren had planned for us to have dinner with some African immigrant friends of hers. We walked over to their apartment and were greeted enthusiastically with a kiss on both cheeks from N’deye. She spoke no English but Lauren could communicate with her in Spanish. She had prepared something that looked like beef stew with rice for us. We think it was probably sheep instead of beef though.

We were led into the living area and N'deye turned on the TV. Lauren tells me that it is the custom in an African home to turn the TV on for guests. N'deye's two daughters came home from school and entertained us with some games and songs while we waited for dinner to be served.

As dinner time drew near, a number of African men started to gather in the home. Newspapers were spread out on the dining table and the coffee table. The men gathered around the dining table and the women were instructed to sit at the coffee table.

A large platter of food was placed on each table. We were all given spoons, although Lauren had warned us that the Africans eat with their hands. We were instructed to eat only with our right hand, so we sat on our left hands as a reminder.

During the entire meal, N'deye took bits of food into her hand and smashed them, placing the little bits in front of each of the women to eat. The food was delicious!

The men had animated conversation in broken Spanish at their table. There was some laughter about our group's confusion over how to eat. Some of the guys thought they were supposed to spoon their food onto the newspaper before eating it. The Africans thought this was really funny.

After lunch, tea was served. It was a mint tea with honey. Only two glasses were used. The men guests were served first and when they finished, more tea was poured into the glasses and the women guests were served. Mary Jane was holding her glass and sipping slowly until I told her she had to finish it because they needed to use the glasses again to serve the other people. This was probably the largest meal I had during the trip and either the meal or the tea made me really sleepy!

Robert entertained the children with magic tricks after lunch.

We sat around for a couple of hours and then some of the African men walked over to the grocery store with us to buy some of the African tea.

Mary Jane, Robert and I wanted to get a picture of the sea of greenhouses that Roquetas is famous for. These are the reason why there are so many immigrants in this area looking for work. We dropped Jared, Lauren and Nathan off so they could walk to the mall and then we drove to higher ground to get a better view of the greenhouses. It was starting to get dark so the pictures didn't turn out very well, but the white area in the front of the picture is the greenhouses. There are acres and acres of them.

We joined the kids at the mall. Mary Jane and Lauren did some shopping while the boys and I enjoyed some Tapas.

Just after we had gotten back together, there was a power outage at the mall. We decided it was time to go back to Lauren's apartment.

When we got back, we discovered that Lauren had locked her keys in the apartment. We elected Jared to climb up onto the balcony & break into the apartment. He put his foot on the marble at the top of the garage door, it fell onto the ground and broke. The landlord is not going to be too happy about that.

Thursday, Thanksgiving, we were heading back to Madrid. I wanted to get there before dark because it is difficult to negotiate the city in the dark. We took Lauren over to her sponsor's house for Thanksgiving dinner. On the way, we saw a beautiful rainbow!

Lauren's sponsors had prepared some nice Thanksgiving snacks for us. We had a quick bite and then said our goodbyes. It was hard to leave Lauren, but knowing she would be home in a few weeks made it easier to take.

It drizzled on us most of the way back to Madrid. We stopped at what we thought was a truckstop for lunch, but inside we found a restaurant with tablecloths. We ordered a few tapas and some paella. The food didn't take long, but it took forever to get the check. That little stop set us back about 45 minutes.

By the time we got close to the Madrid airport, it was dark and we had trouble reading the signs but after a bit of circling, we found the rental car return. We caught the shuttle to the Airport Hilton and after checking in, relaxed in the Executive Lounge with a glass of wine and some tapas.

Jared went for a swim in the hotel's heated pool and then the boys enjoyed a lively conversation with the concierge who had spent some time in Chicago. They exchanged email and facebook information.

Friday, we had breakfast at the hotel and then caught the shuttle back to the airport. I was the only one to get a "good" seat on the flight to New York. The rest of the group was seated in "Economy Comfort". I made a few trips back to check on them after enjoying my meal of bleu cheese topped filet mignon.

We landed early in New York, in time to make a sub-minimum connection! We got through passport control, customs and security and headed for the gate. I called Tony and he gave me the bad news that there were over 50 stand-bys for the 30 available seats on the flight. The next two non-stops also had over 50 stand-bys listed. He found a connection through Baltimore that we could make, so I went to the information counter to get the tickets changed. Of course, the Baltimore gate was the farthest one from the information counter so we hurried out there. The flight took a mechanical delay, making us nervous about missing our 50 minute connection in Baltimore, but it finally started boarding only a few minutes late.

It was a small aircraft with no room for roll-aboard luggage so everyone except me and Jared had to gate-check their bag. Jared and I had backpacks so we were allowed to carry ours onboard. Surprisingly, I was given a first class seat, something that almost never happens on a domestic flight. I was just getting settled into my seat when I heard the flight attendant making an announcement. "Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. We will try to get the ack...." and then, "If there is anyone on the flight with medical experience, please identify yourself to the flight crew."

After a few minutes, we were all told to get off of the plane and go back to the gate. I grabbed my backpack, but Jared left his on the plane. Once we got back inside, I discovered that Robert, a former respiratory therapist, was still onboard the flight, trying to revive the very large man who had collapsed in the aisle of the plane. Robert finally got back to the gate (with Jared's backpack) and said the EMTs had arrived. It didn't look like the man was going to survive.

We milled around for a bit, and then I went to ask the gate agent how we could get our gate-checked bags back since we wouldn't make the connection in Baltimore. She sent me to the information counter who sent me back to the gate to ask the agent to radio the bagtag information to someone on the ramp and ask them to get our bags. I had the family wait at the gate for the bags to arrive while I went back to the information counter to get us rebooked on the direct Atlanta flight which left in 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the EMTs had come to the gate to interview Robert. We finally got the bags and started running to the Atlanta gate which was a mile from the Baltimore gate. When we got there, the agent only had two seats available so we elected Jared and Nathan to get on and wait for us in Atlanta. Just before the flight pushed back, the agent called me, Mary Jane and Robert to the gate. There had been some no-shows and he had seats for us too!

I don't think I've ever been happier to get home from a trip!