British Airways
The Rock Hotel

GIBRALTAR The Real Monkey Island
em Feature

I approach the front desk “Room 430 please”
”…here you are, Sir” and I get handed a monkey.

This is the beauty of Gibraltar and The Rock Hotel. The whole place is absolutely obsessed with monkeys, and they’re not afraid to show it, going as far – in the case of The Rock Hotel – as to use cuddly monkey toys with pierced ears for key fobs. However, you get the feeling that the locals take all this for granted, especially the hotel staff.

When I checked in and was first handed ‘Monkey 430’ I couldn’t help but get excited:
“Oh wow! Look at this; this is the coolest thing ever!”
“…mmm, yes” was the unimpressed receptionist’s reply, clearly a little annoyed that I’d interrupted her ‘welcome’ speech with my over-excitement at something she clearly now found rather mundane. But she’d just handed me a monkey, and obviously wasn’t aware just how important that was. I’m sure there are some countries where this now meant we were engaged.

But more about that later; for now I’ll just say that I never intended to write an eyemachine feature about this trip, and the decision to take out my notebook and start documenting my journey was just for something to do. So let’s backtrack a good few hours:

Herman’s Train
I’m sat on the Gatwick Express, rapidly speeding away from London and towards, well…Gatwick Airport. Most people around me are wearing suits and discussing different sorts of business – money, politics, whatever; I really couldn’t care less. Business trips are very strange for me. For most, I’m sure they can say they’re going away to strike up some kind of deal, have an important meeting about the future of the company or look into some new product – whatever the reason I’m sure it’s pretty substantial. I, on the other hand, will later be flying out to Gibraltar to take photographs of a building. In a sense I’m a pretty lucky guy.

A man called ‘Herman’ has just wheeled past the refreshments trolley.

So these photos do need to be taken. I mean it’s a pretty interesting building and we have no real library of photography to accompany it at all – the only images on hand are either shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a tourists photo album, or a tacky holiday brochure promising ‘Mediterranean sunsets’, ‘warm hospitality’ and ‘a dazzling nightlife’.

But it’s unusual to think that my employers are willing to invest time and money into sending me – not being a professional photographer – off on a plane somewhere instead of just ‘making do’ with whatever resources are lying around, especially when you consider that they weren’t willing to include a CD-R or even a DVD-ROM in my office computer because of the ‘cost’. However, now I’ve managed to somehow land a free trip abroad. It’s amazing what you can get out of a job sometimes and I swear this is the only way I get to have holidays lately.

"But you’re still in the airport, and you know damn well that these next couple of hours could very well be your last."

I’m not as anxious as I usually am about flying, and this worries me. I don’t know why – maybe I should be. Theres talk of storms in Gibraltar right now – which can make landing on the miniscule runway a bit hazardous, especially when you consider there’s an enormous rock right next to it, and not braking in time will find the plane plopping into the sea. Maybe a nice plane wreck is how I’m going to pay for this freebee, my boss sat back in the office, gleefully rubbing his hands together “Hahaha, so he thinks he’s got a free holiday out of us eh?! We’ll soon see about that! VLAD! Start up… ‘The Storm Machine’! And bring me in a couple of biscuits.”

Chocks Away
I’m pretty certain they make you get to the airport 2 hours early for reasons other than ‘to check in’. If anyone claims that they’re perfectly OK with flying, and aren’t at all worried that their plane, out of the thousands that fly every year, is going to be the one to crash, blow up, or lose both wings in mid-flight, they’re lying. Really, check their pulse as they tell you how calm they are; the only ones that could possibly get away with it are toddlers and those who haven’t seen Final Destination yet.

With nothing to do but sit and wait, and let the montage of plane wreck possibilities weave through your mind, the time between checking in and take off could be fairly nerve-racking. But things aren’t too bad in larger airports these days, and with the multitude of shops, eateries and bars on offer you should be able to convince yourself that you’re having fun. But you’re still in the airport, and looking through the veil of commerce you know damn well that these next couple of hours could very well be your last.

Now I’m on the plane. I’m not sat with any of my colleagues though, which is a bit of a pain as the flight lasts about 2 hours; 2 hours in the company of, well, I don’t know yet, the seat next to mine is still empty. No, someone’s coming…oh, it’s a girl. Well that’s something I suppose. I was imagining some fat, sweaty businessman who would make giraffe noises while he eats.

I’ve got a window seat which is also good. Goddamit why can’t I find something to complain about?! Oh well, I suppose it’s rather difficult for me to get out. Well, not difficult as such, more of an inconvenience for these two poor bastards sat next to me.

I now have some loud, frantic child sat in front of me; maybe I could bribe the stewardess into slipping some Ritalin in his in-flight apple juice? Hmm, he’s now just closed his window blind and I’m pretty sure is complaining that he can’t see out. It’s turned into a beautiful, warm, hazy afternoon though. Not your usual February weather, but who’s complaining? Christ I wish this kid would shut up.

And They’re Off
I must confess to both loving and hating flying at the same time. I get such a rush from speed (no, not the drug) and just generally going extremely fast – which is probably why my only run in with the police to date ended with a speeding ticket. That launch down the runway to take off is fantastic though, why can’t we just do that all day? But then we have to pull into the air, and that’s when my paranoia kicks in. Anyone who’s seen Beavis & Butt-Head Do America, and the scene where they take off and Beavis runs up and down the aisle screaming “We’re all gonna die!” will understand. That’s exactly what everyone wants to do, but know that it’d be impolite.

It doesn’t help this time round that I’m right next to the engine and can hear it’s every buzz. Nor does it help that the engine sounds like it was ripped out of a Vespa scooter. I love the view though. I’m just watching the land slowly begin to drift away when the engine drops speed and I shit myself. The plane starts to bank heavily and I break out in a sweat and grip the armrest…

We’re in the air now and I’ve started to calm down. I wish this bloody kid would too.

Well this girl started talking to me, which was nice at first, but then you soon discover the fear people have of getting into a conversation with people they don’t know – especially in a situation where there is no walking away, like this one.

Firstly, as Armando Ianucchi pointed out, you’re afraid you’ll end up rambling on about complete nonsense. The other, which I’ve just found out, is that the other person just won’t shut up. I’m pretty sure there’s an invisible time limit to these things, but there’s no escape – apart from feigning sleep. And when the conversation does lapse, and even though you want it to end, you decide to spark it back up again just to feel comfortable.

At present I’m trapped in this conversation with this chick who just can’t stop talking. How am I writing this then you may ask? Well the poor American guy sat the other side of her has mistakenly decided he wants a piece of the pie and thrown in his two-penneth worth. I think he got a little jealous…well that’ll teach him. It’s getting pretty dark now, although we should be landing soon.

"No matter how much Leila reassured me things were OK, I swear I was waiting for the oxygen masks to drop."

At least we should have been landing soon. We start our descent and then out go the lights. Now I’ve been on night flights in the past but this has never happened to me before and my eyes start to dart around the cabin wondering what the hell is going on, but everyone else seems nonplussed by this supposed power cut, and the girl next to me is still talking…”Jesus Christ, woman! Can’t you see we’re going to DIE?!”

The captain comes over the PA telling us the reason, but of course this girl is still jabbering away so he could have said anything from “We’re cutting the internal lights so we can land in the dark” to “Monkeys have sabotaged the electrical systems and taken over the plane! Mayday! Mayday! We’re all going to d…Ook! Ook!” No matter how much Leila reassured me things were OK, I swear I was waiting for the oxygen masks to drop.

Then if that wasn’t worrying enough, as we were in the middle of the landing process - actually lined up and aiming for the runway, only a couple of hundred feet above the water - the Vespa engines kick in and we start to pull back up again! Now, at last, people start to freak out a little, or at least start to wonder what’s going on. I, on the other hand, in an ironic turning of the tables, am not too bothered and find it quite exciting.

The Gibraltan runway, you see, was sort of slapped on at the last minute. Clearly pushed for space as to where it could go, it overlaps the main road in and out of Spain. When planes land or take off they have to close the road for a while – similar to railway crossings. As we were about to land however, someone noticed that some rubble had been dropped earlier, thus causing an obstruction and a clear danger for the next plane to land, namely us. You can see the road/runway combo in the picture below.

So we circled around the rock again and landed safely. They never did tell us what the ‘rubble’ was though – although I suspect it was a large quantity of banana skins. Those crafty monkeys!

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david twomey

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