Alone together in Tarifa
If Spain were a big, worrisomely lumpy breast, then Tarifa would be the downward-sagging nipple, poking across the Strait of Gibraltar at my goal for the day: Morocco. But Tarifa was also the home of the wind, and the first two ferries were already cancelled when I arrived at the harbor in the whiskey-colored lamplight before dawn.
Hours of unrelenting wind cancelled ferry after ferry, until my last chance was the 5:00, four hours away. Tired of hard plastic chairs and neon lights, I wandered down to the beach below rotting cliffs, where the stone ribs of the Mediterranean stuck up on shore in a ragged shirt of dying drying seaweed.
Down among the fallen rock and discarded shoes stood a line of forgotten fortifications, broken walls with nothing much to do, but makeshift doors and the barking of barely contained dogs testified that somebody was doing something here.
The King of the Shattered was a circular bastion, gun slot barricaded with broken beer bottles and spent cigarettes. It seemed almost whole, though the roof was gone. It’s always the roofs that are the most mortal. Evicted from the beach by a rising tide, I turned to see the door of the bastion now open, framing a man in olive (canvas) pants and a camo jacket with the East German flag on the left shoulder.
We nodded our greetings in passing, but then he sent some Spanish mumbling and crumbling my way. Most of it caught in the wind and landed somewhere in Cyprus, but he added a machine-gun gesture. A wind-scoured moment passed before I realized he was telling me the history of the building. Why not, I got no place else to be. Pleased by my interest, he became an eager tour guide, albeit uninformed and unintelligible.
His steel hair didn’t speak comb, and he had the watery eyes of someone who had spent long hours in conversation with alcohol, but their sadness was harmless. I looked down at my own olive (canvas) jacket, felt the wind in my overgrown hair, and wondered how the eyes of a traveler who’d spent too many weeks alone might look to him.
I asked to take a look inside and he gestured me forward with a shy smile of a few broken teeth, and the sweep of a quaking hand. In a mess of more broken bricks and crumbled mortar I found his treasure: five underweight chickens of missing feathers and hideous feet.
When I took out my camera, my host disappeared in a hunt-and-peck of words about someone finding out he was there. I wondered who? I put the camera away and he reappeared, now with a few small eggs decorated with feather fluff and chicken shit, which he carefully slid into a plastic bag. Was he going to give them to me?
We hung there for a still moment, two men and five chickens, a bag of eggs awkward between us, while the wind raged just outside. The thought that he was my future was too heavy, too possible, and I drifted out the door. We dispatched a few last words at each other, with customary incomprehension, and parted as friends.
As I pushed through air that didn’t want me there wet sand scraping inside my socks on my way to a barren room for one, my brain deciphered his last words:
“Perhaps you will come back, and next time take my picture.”
This man, alone in this place, as I was lonely on my road, had wanted me to take his photo. Something in our contact had reached him. Maybe he wanted someone else to see him. To recognize him, and hold a camera up to prove it. I knew how that felt.
I considered staying another day to see if the wind would relent. Perhaps go back down to that broken beach and look for him. Maybe take his picture. But that moment was gone, so I caught a bus to Granada, early the next whiskey-colored morning.
(If you are in the San Francisco area and bored tonight, I’ll be reading this piece, or something like it, at Book Passage tonight, around 7:00.)