I was at a conference in Sharm el Sheikh when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The only flights out of Cairo were to Tunis, Beirut or Casablanca. Casablanca seemed the least worst option. We touched down shortly before midnight, and I made it to Casa-Voyageurs station just in time for the night train to Tangier, where I met a Moroccan builder heading for Montpellier. He had an appointment with social security; if he missed it, he risked having his benefits cut off.
A testy crowd of several hundred people was waiting at passport control at the port. After more than two hours I finally got through just in time to see my ferry pulling away from the quayside. I had to buy a new ticket with a different shipping company and join the back of another long queue.
When we docked at Tarifa, the relief at reaching Europe was tempered by the misery of arriving in a rainswept town with no taxies, train or bus station. The ferry company had laid on a coach to take us to Algeciras, but as we trickled through Spanish passport control, it was grimly obvious that we were not all going to fit on. When the coach swung into the car park, the crowd surged forward, elbows at the ready. I was one of the luckier (or pushier) ones, ending up with a seat next to a veiled woman who was reciting the Koran.
Getting off the coach at Algeciras I rushed ahead to get to the front of the next queue. It turned out to be for the cash machine, which like everything else was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers. All trains out of town were completo so I went to the bus station: no luck there either. Outside, taxi drivers were offering to take people to Madrid: prices began at 800 euros. I made a ‘London’ sign on the back of my redundant airline ticket and was about to try my luck hitchhiking when I met a Spanish girl who sold me a bus ticket to Madrid she no longer needed.
Dawn in Madrid bus station was freezing. Most of the crowd had evidently been there all night and though the ticket office was still closed, long queues had formed at every window. At six the café opened: I had breakfast with the Moroccan builder I’d last seen in Tangier.
I now faced a critical strategic choice: head north to the coast in the hope of catching a ferry or northeast to France and then Calais? Reckoning that fewer connections meant less could go wrong, I bought a train ticket to Santander. To kill time and warm up I got changed back into my conference suit in a stinking public toilet at the railway station. It reminded me of Glastonbury.
Finally, from Santander I managed to buy a third-class ticket to Portsmouth: it was a 24-hour voyage and I had to sleep on deck, but that didn’t matter. I reached home six days after leaving Egypt, just as European airspace was reopening for business.