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Portugal, Doing It Alone Is Not Always Wise

Driving an automobile in a country where language is an issue is not always a wise idea. Such was the case when I drove from Portugal’s Algarve Region along the southern coast into Spain. I was without a GPS, but my Rand McNally was up to date. I had no idea what was in store for me.

On the map the drive from Lagos to Algeciras looked as if it would be about four hours. I allowed another hour for border crossing between the two countries, which would put me at the ferry docks in Algeciras by about three o'clock that afternoon. Timing was important, for I was scheduled on a Ferry to Morocco the following day and could not miss it. I made arrangements for hotel accommodations that night in Algeciras, close to the ferry terminal.

I was quite pleased with having made my own arrangements and realized that I really had no need for a tour guide. The roads were good, the weather was sunny and warm and I was on schedule, quite pleased with myself.

The scenery along Portugal’s coast is spectacular. The E1 highway was well maintained and curved along high cliffs, which overlooked the ocean. I continued to glimpse at my map and, as I approached the border, I saw the Guardiana River, which separates the two countries.

At last I was quite close to the border crossing and I noticed several cars pulled to the side of the road. I slowed down, but continued driving, glancing at the parked cars in an attempt to figure out what was wrong. There was nothing to indicate problems and I wondered if they had pulled over because of immigration or customs. It certainly seemed strange to see all these cars lined up along the road for at least a five kilometre stretch.

I made my way closer to the front of the line until at last I saw the border. It was then that I realized the cars were simply lined up to make the crossing. I peered at a small opening between two vehicles and quickly turned the wheel of my small Renault to slide in front of the unsuspecting motorist. I was quite pleased with myself. I was approximately 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

A few car horns sounded and I felt a little embarrassed, but I did after all, have a schedule to keep. A few minutes later one of the border crossing officials came from his office and walked to the car in front of me to speak with the driver. As the two conversed I tried to see past the cars ahead of me. I finally realized what the holdup was. The Guadiana River crossing, which served as the border between Portugal and Spain, had no bridge. Instead a small ferry, capable of carrying eight or nine cars, served as the only transport between the two countries.

Fortunately I was now four cars from the front and would be on the next ferry so I was not concerned. I checked my watch and rolled down my window as the border guard approach my vehicle.

He smiled and commented on the beautiful weather. I agreed and he asked me where I came from. I explained that I had travelled to Portugal and was on my way to Morocco via Spain. He glanced inside the back of my car and asked if I was American. I smiled and proudly explained that I am Canadian. He looked at me and said, “Same horse, different jockey,”

I felt an air of uneasiness when he spoke and decided I had better be as polite as I possibly could. The man smiled and asked me questions about Canada. He explained that he had always wanted to visit and had heard it was a beautiful country. He politely asked for my passport, which he took back into his office. He returned moments later.

He asked me to pull my car ahead and to the side. I was confused when he motioned to the car behind me to continue toward the ferry. I rolled down my window and asked what was wrong. He stared at me and then at my passport. He quietly explained that I had to return to the end of the line, because I could not just pass the cars and sneak in. My heart sank at his words, for now my entire schedule would be thrown off.

He further explained that I could retrieve my passport when I next I returned to this location. Reluctantly I turned the car around and drove in the opposite direction, assuming my spot at the end of the long line of vehicles. There was no need to start the engine for the line move so slow that I could simply put the car in neutral and push it every few minutes or so.

It was exactly four and a half hours later that I again approached the border area. I looked for the official but he was not to be seen. Putting my car in park I walked to the small building and knocked on the door. I asked a uniformed officer for my passport and he told me to return to my car. I obeyed and waited patiently. A few minutes later he returned with my passport and smiled.

I knew if I hurried I could Make Algeciras by three or four in the morning and maybe sleep a few hours before my ferry departure. I was not happy and decided that I would never again tour without the aid of a guide. The only fond memory of the adventure was the spectacular countryside along the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

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