Still full on breakfast schnitzel from Poland, I touched down in the south of Spain and waited for a bus heading further south. Three hours later I was in a cab to the very bottom of the country, the last little southern tip of Europe. From there I hopped out and walked through a plain cement building, and arrived in Great Britain on the other side.
Walking into the one man stand that is the Gibraltar border stop is a trip. When the door behind you closes, a lively Spanish town of street peddlers and paella disappears from view. When the one in front opens, you are greeted by a classic red telephone booth, Give Way signs on the street and proper English tea. Surrounded by British pounds and English accents, it's easy to forget that over to the left is North Africa, to the right is Europe, and you're standing in Gibraltar, the tiny country and member of the United Kingdom, sandwiched on a rock in between.
I was in town for the Gibraltar Open, seeded first in qualifying with the expectation, or at least the hope, that I would get through two rounds and into the main draw. I knew nothing about accomodations, which made for a shake of disbelief when my taxi pulled up to La Coleta hotel on one side of the rock and I pulled back the curtains in my room to see only blue in every direction.
The country of around 30,000 people is truly one big rock, and winding up toward the top gets you to the Gibraltar Squash Club, home to a handful of refurbished courts and a nice bar in a remodeled building that an Englishman named Barry Brindle pioneered several years back. His pride and joy is the Gibraltar Open, and each year the squash team of the British Army come down to compete in qualifying. For my first match I slipped past an older Army veteran of many combat tours in the Middle East under his belt. After taking out a top local in the next round, I was into the main draw against one of the top seeds, Jan Koukal of the Czech Republic.
I threw whatever I could come up with against the longtime Czech #1 and a true veteran of the tour: fifteen years of playing in every corner of the world as he reached as high as the top 40 in the rankings, a guy who I watched once play a pro event in my hometown as a kid. It was a bit of an honor, a rite of passage, to compete against Koukal and while I lost, I was proud that I didn't make it so easy.
That night I met some local players who invited me to the beach the next day - what that meant was packing a camping bag and driving away from the rock, an hour car ride with two new friends and their terrier, cruising over an ancient Roman bridge along the water until arriving at something altogether unreal: the beaches belonging to the fishing town of Tarifa, in the region of Andalusia, the southernmost point in Spain. The point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, Morocco staring at you from the distance, eight miles off the land.
Pulling up to the distant beats of a DJ, the scene was something else: an all day Spanish-style fiesta in the sun, groups of windsurfers, beach goers and bachelorette parties, best friends and some families, drinking mojitos from the pop up bar and jumping in the salty mix of oceans- considered to be the wind and surfing capital of the world. I met a couple windsurfers, one from Oregon the other a Penn grad living in Morocco, both web developers working remotely from the beach. Not bad. My squash friends took me to the mud pits where we decked ourselves out in what apparently is magic skin cleanser, then had a few more mojitos.
When it was over we pitched a couple tents in a nearby set of trees, used the communal showers to get off the last of the mud, headed into the small Spanish town and wove around its cobblestone streets for a late dinner, and one more mojito. The sun was long gone by the time I was back in the tent. Couple hours later and I was out, catching a taxi to a bus to a plane out of town. The rock, new friends, and Andalusia resting behind in the darkness.