Hands in my pockets I walked towards the border clutching my possessions. The atmosphere of a street market mixed with a fervent desire by natives and foreigners to cross the border encouraged a hostile atmosphere. Accusing eyes stared at me as I gazed back and forth wondering how a place could change so dramatically in a matter of yards. This was Africa.
The overnight trip on the ferry from Almeria on the south coast of Spain had taken the best part of 8 hours and everyone was weary. But as the morning sunlight danced between the port and the jutting cliff-face I remembered why I was here. This was an opportunity to visit a place where two continents sit side by side glaring at each other, because Melilla despite being on the continent of Africa, is a Spanish city.
The afternoon welcomed me with bright sunshine as I began to explore the streets. The heat encouraged a curious mixture of odours to waft through the city and its diverse culture. Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities remain strong and each locality offers up their own variation of gastronomy. Shellfish, molluscs and an array of spices are always on offer to accompany good wines and refreshing local beers.
Meandering through the contrasting neighborhoods, hundreds of buildings capture the attention. Designed by Enrique Nieto who was a staunch follower of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, these buildings are elegant and forceful, the brooding heartbeat of the city. Consequently, Melilla has evolved into a fine example of modernism in Spain, second only to Barcelona. A quick glance across the seafront onto the walls of the city I noticed streams of children gradually climbing the gentle cliff face beneath the fortified walls of the hill castle before gleefully hurling themselves lemming-like into the pool below. The atmosphere was peaceful.
Yet away from the city centre I was met with a distinct change in ambience. Swathes of street vendors began to thrust hand-crafted goods and earthly produce in my direction. Pungent perfumes clashed with the smell of ripe and rotten vegetables. Fish with eyes gouged out, their guts dribbling onto the floor, and unrecognizable meats resting in small pools of translucent blood.
Eventually I approached the border. A metal fence 20 feet high dominated the edge of the city right up to the shoreline and as I approached the checkpoint, the rain began to fall. I was only streets away from the calmness of the seafront but the faces on the passers-by had turned solemn and coarse. Beggars became more frequent and the busy street stalls became distinctly Moroccan in sound and smell. Throngs of people began thrusting goods into my path in the hope of a sale while those in cars were subjected to a similar barrage through their open windows. Aggressive shouting and spitting everywhere I turned, rotting food, feral animals, flashing lights and police. The contrast to my life of 5 minutes previous was stark...and I loved it.