Africa was just across the sea, perhaps a few miles due south. We were in a small village, Alfaix, in Almeria. Sadly, there wasn’t any glimpse of Africa. There were no lights shimmering on the ocean surface, speaking to my inner Africa. Nonetheless, North Africans lived here, in Andalusia, for 700 years, before retreating to Fez and Marrakesh. There is an enduring legacy in place names, for example, Almeria, and of course Alhambra. We are staying in a small settlement in Almeria, and are surrounded by white hilltop villages, white domed buildings, and castellated walls and houses.
There was quite a lot of vegetation, of flora that was familiar to a Nigerian- lantana, hibiscus, lime trees, bougainvillea, and mimosa. But the grey, dun coloured earth, and oleander and rosemary, and the cypress in the far distance, these were unfamiliar. As was the Lebanon cedar. In Nigeria, the earth would be laterite red, vivid, and entrancing. And instead of oleander, there would be frangipani. Where rosemary, sage and thyme proliferate, instead you would have talinum, and bitter leaf (ewuro).
It is remarkable that wherever I am, it is the absent images, the absent objects, the absent artefacts of childhood that define how I receive the world, defining by their absence what it is that is present. All the time revealing how the world ought to be, sometimes traducing and reorientating but always like a fever of the imagination transposing and altering the tenor and tenure of my sensibility.
In Almeria, there were several varieties of palm, including raffia palm that I can’t say I’ve seen outside Nigeria. And Norfolk palm, traveller’s palm, and many more that I did not recognise. Let’s just say that there was that feeling of being slightly dislocated, askew, even off balance, as there was the familiar that was unfamiliar. I suppose that’s what jamais vu is.
We spent one late afternoon at Mojacar beach, the beach a concrete-coloured sandy esplanade. The summer season was just ending, and many shops and restaurants were already closed for the winter. The walk along the beach was lined with bars playing English rock music from the 60s and 70s, with live bands raucous in the dusk air. Several men with grey beards and bald heads, potbellies, and an air of melancholy, huddled together drinking larger and enjoying the music of their youth. And their women in sandals and long hair, in caftans and floral skirts, somehow out of mode, anachronistic, also tapping their feet and swaying to the music. Is this where hippies come to lie down and die?
Another day was at Garrucha, a major fishing port but also the departing port for all the marble from Almeria. There was a millipede unimpeded march of lorries bringing marble to fill the cavernous insides of ships registered in the Martial Islands. The sea rolled in, in that languorous tempo of the Mediterranean, none of the swell and swagger, the pounding of the Atlantic. We strolled along the walkway, past swimmers and older couples lazing in the sun with their grandchildren. The beach was that cement colour, that strange grey that is not the golden sand that you expect. But the sea here was an indescribable aquamarine, with an undertow of green, even purple if you cared to look closely. Sunset was a spectacular display of crimson, fading into lilac, stretched and painted in watercolour across the sky.
On another evening as dusk pressed into night, clouds gathered and surprising lightning lit the sky without any accompanying thunder, followed by what counts as precipitation here, a brief fret of spittle, and that was one of the 24 days of rainfall in Almeria every year done and dusted.
After Jan’s swim we stopped at Rincon de Puerto, a fish restaurant, for dinner. Fried fish and fruits of the sea, prawns, white bait, calamari, baby octopus, probably red snapper and fries. Virgin mojito for me and a small beer for J. Cappuccino with floating whipped cream to finish. Then home in our rented Fiat 500, bouncing along like an empty sardine tin in the dust. We made it.
But then it rained and rained overnight. Not fretting or damping, but a downpour. The air was cleansed by morning, what the Irish call a soft day emerged, and the hard glare of the last two days had disappeared. It was still warm, but more bearable.
The highlight of our journey to Almeria was to witness flamenco. Our dancer was dressed in a white polka dot dress, on a background of intense red matching her lipstick. As she danced, her fingers were doves in flight, and then suddenly a serpent with quivering tongue or an incendiary menacing, two finger threat, of the evil eye that we looked for the hand of Fatima to ward off the evil.
All of her body was at once sinuous and febrile, arched ready to plunge into a deep dark pool of misery. Quivering madness and melancholia, passionate and erotic, and sensual too. She was taut, sometimes clapping and stamping. There was the flick of the head, hands on hips, chest thrust forward, and eyes glazed in that transposition to wilderness, to a faraway zone, a foreign unreachable place. She swung her hips back and forth, her lower back arched inwards.
The backdrop of this performance was the Sierra Nevada and a sky that was turning red and mirroring the undulating escarpment of the mountains. Our dancer swivelled and turned, pirouetted, her dress flaring and gathered. She was
a spinning top, a spinning wheel, and a marvel of imagination. Have hands been this expressive ever before??
As Federico Garcia Lorca said in La Casada Infiel,
The night became as intimate
as a little square […]
and for us, it was time for bed.
Photos by Jan Oyebode