By Reg Reynolds
It was February 1986 and I was 38 and working for Discover Portimao, an English language tourist magazine based in Portugal’s Algarve. We were only in our third month of operation and I had been assigned to write an article for an excursion company called Festa Tour. The three-day, two-night trip would take myself and a busload of Canadians and Americans to Seville, Algeciras, Gibraltar and Tangier.
I boarded the tour bus at 6am in Praia da Rocha and found that I was by far the youngest passenger. The tour guide was a slim, pleasant Portuguese woman, Rosa Maria, who appeared to be around 30, and the driver was a stocky 40-something Portuguese man. We drove through sunny Seville and cloudy Cadiz before I first laid eyes on the historic Rock of Gibraltar. The coach was high on a hill when I first espied the mighty Rock and the view exceeded my expectations. Just like the descriptions I had read in many a book and brochure it resembled a giant crouching lion. We reached Gibraltar in time for lunch at Ocean Heights Apartments, which at the time had a cafeteria on an upper floor. By now it was bucketing down, but I had promised a couple of English barmaids that I would bring back some Cadbury’s chocolate which wasn’t available in Portugal at the time. So, I ran through the rain and got thoroughly soaked before finding a shop near the plaza where I bought the treats. Back on the bus we were given a quick tour of the Rock and then driven to the Hotel Al-Mar in Algeciras where we were allocated our rooms before gathering for a buffet dinner.
The next morning, during breakfast, Rosa approached me and asked for help. It turned out that most of the Canadians and a couple of Americans were going to Tangier, but the rest of the Americans were being taken to Ceuta. She said she would be traveling with the Ceuta group, and asked, because I was younger and Canadian, if I would look after the Tangier bunch. I had chatted quite a bit with the trusting tourists, and in a charming naivety they had come to believe that I was fluent in Spanish and an expert on all things Iberian. Rosa handed me a thick white envelope full of vouchers and said, “Give this to Mohammed”.
We were bussed to Tarifa where we boarded a hydrofoil to Tangier. As we made our way across the Strait, I wondered how I would recognize Mohammed. I needn’t have worried for as the ferry pulled into the dock one man stood out from the rest. He was a big man in height and girth wearing a charcoal djellaba and with a head of grey hair topped by a red fez. I handed Mohammed the envelope and apparently, he took that to mean I was the tour rep and I was to be rewarded accordingly. I was invited to sit up front with him and the driver and I didn’t pay for any drink or food for the rest of the day.
Just like I had read in many a book it resembled a giant crouching lion.
Our first stop was the Kasbah where we wandered around watching snake charmers and listening to music. We were taken to restaurant Le Detroit for drinks and snacks. Two local men dressed in traditional garb were moving from table to table strumming ukulele-type instruments and chanting in what I thought was Arabic. When they reached my table, I could now understand the chant, and it was quite simple, “Money, money. Money, money. Money, money.” Their instruments had slots carved into them and I duly dropped in a couple of pound coins. After the Kasbah, Mohammed took us to a leather goods shop and then to a carpet store. Both were quite large and well-stocked. As I was sticking close to Mohammed I wasn’t pestered by the sales staff, which was a good thing because I had very little cash and almost all of it was in Portuguese escudos. The indoor sales staff and outdoor peddlers weren’t interested in Moroccan dirhams and foreign currencies were preferred; American dollars, British pounds and Canadian dollars were most welcome, Spanish pesetas were acceptable, but escudos sneered at and only taken as a last resort. I was impressed with the efficiency of the marketing and the fact that the shops would ship the goods, including large carpets, to addresses in the US and Canada.
With shopping finished, Mohammed led us out into the street where we were suddenly swarmed by dozens of aggressive shouting panhandlers hawking all manor of trinkets, souvenirs and housewares, including pots and pans. I had never experienced anything like it. They hassled us aggressively all along the street as we walked to our luncheon destination. One man latched on to me and kept shouting while thrusting a ceremonial knife in front of my face. I tried to discourage him by half-shouting back that I only had escudos, but he persisted for the whole walk. Fortunately, despite the clamoring crowd, it was easy to keep track of Mohammed as he was taller than everyone else and we simply kept an eye on his Fez. Finally, we reached the restaurant and with relief sat down on cushions to be served wine and chicken couscous while being entertained by an enthusiastic but unattractive belly dancer.
We were midway through lunch when Mohammed beckoned me to join him in the hallway. Wondering what this could be all about, I stood with my back to the wall as Mohammed handed me an envelope and said, “Here is your commission”. Shocked, I blurted out, “Commission?”. Mohammed put a large forefinger to his mouth and said, “Sssh, business is business.” I took the envelope, put it in an inside pocket of my jacket and sheepishly joined my fellow Canadians.
It was then that I finally opened the envelope.
After lunch we went on a bus tour. Peddlers on scooters followed us and whenever we stopped for camel rides or at outdoor markets, they persisted with their high-pressure sales pitches. I was surprised at how green some areas were and the high quality of the fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in the markets. By the time we returned to the hydrofoil the sky had gone dark and there was a strong wind. The crossing was a bit rough and at one point the foils were lowered to improve stability. It was then that I finally opened the envelope and was pleasantly surprised but somewhat embarrassed to find cash and cheques adding up to $200 Canadian. I didn’t want the Canadians to know that I had profited off their purchases so kept the windfall to myself. On arrival we boarded the coach but the ferry from Ceuta had been delayed by the bad weather. I felt I earned the money when I took on tour rep responsibilities by reassuring the tourists that everything would be OK and we would be in Seville well before midnight; all the time worrying that Rosa would ask me if Mohammed had given me an envelope.
Rosa never said a word except to thank me for my efforts. Our group spent the night in the Hotel Macarena and the next morning the buffet breakfast was one of the best I have ever experienced in Europe. The sun was out again, and we toured Seville, visiting the Alcazar, the bullring and the beautiful pavilions remaining from the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. We arrived back in the Algarve in time for dinner. I said cheerio to Rosa and my tourist friends and headed for Foley’s Irish bar laden down with Cadbury’s chocolates and $200 richer.