Tossing aside earlier plans to visit a cathedral in the heart of Albaicin, not knowing exactly what awaits us on the southern coast of Spain, we boarded the bus to Salobreña on a warm June afternoon. Why Salobreña? Because our guide book said that it was small and had beautiful views of the sea, because I wanted to see the Mediterranean after decades of absence.
Without a map (which we had forgotten at home), without a single towel, we were on our way to the Mediterranean. Call it folly; call if spontaneity; it makes no difference. We were determined—to do what? We were not sure, except that we wanted to reach the Mediterranean.
The drive south from Granada is stunning. The flat land suddenly turns mountainous and lush and continues this way for more than an hour, the road winding its way through nature as though in slow motion. By turns lulling us, by turns making us turn back in wonder at a scene which had just vanished, our bus navigated the passage south, bringing us at last into the narrow streets of the town and dropping us off at a street stop.
Which way to the sea? We walked to the center of town—a rotary–and stopped. To our left was beautiful greenery meshed with wire fencing, the suggestion that we could not get to the sea by turning left. To our right, shops all the way down the street, but the sea was nowhere to be seen in the horizon. We made a right turn at the rotary, and then continued down the street lined with palm trees on both sides. We walked fast; we had only three hours. Not sure, we continued. The shops gave way to apartment buildings of the sort you see in resort towns; the smell of the atmosphere turned salty; our skin began to feel moist. In the distance, a young woman in a bikini, her skin glistening with water and suntan lotion, was walking toward us. We were going in the right direction.
We walked for about half an hour, under the searing sun, the gentle wind buoying us along, the glisten of the sea revealing itself in small slits of light here and there. And then, suddenly, there it was, the sea in its three-dimensional unity–a jumbled necklace of small pearls, as it were, tossed in the heart of the universe, and spreading into the horizon as far as our eyes could see. There it was, the Mediterranean, blue and clear and inviting.
The shore was sparsely populated, mostly young people and families with children. We spread Tamar’s large shawl on the sand, and installed ourselves in a nice spot: the undulating waves, the scampering children, the noise of happiness. We watched lovers embrace, parents cover the shivering bodies of their children with towels, and women in topless swim suits run into the sea, their men following a few steps behind, buoyed by desire, and the wind.
Here, in Salobreña, with the sea stretched out before us, with all this human activity and noise, a deep calm had overtaken us—for an hour or so. Nothing is sweeter than a fugitive nap on the sand, nothing is as pleasurable and invigorating. Small joy, for sure, but worth every second of it. A friend once said that he feels most secure when he is close to the sea. He may have said ocean, but it makes no difference. The important thing is the way fluidity gives us a sense of being safe, even grounded, of allowing sleep to ambush us, to take us into its folds, as it did to me.
An hour or so later, I woke up to the paradox of the hour. On these shores, but also in places like Alhambra, what’s most striking is the mesh of water and land, the way in which the two work together— palaces and verdant fountains, cities and canals, forts and irrigation systems. It’s the same in Isfahan and Venice and Paris and Istanbul, even New York. The great ruse is that we, on the shore, think we are the grounded ones, but for the Muslims, for instance, landing on these shores, in these towns, the picture would have been vastly different, as it would certainly have been for those surviving Arabs and Jews who were expelled from Andalusia and thrown to the waters of the Mediterranean.
Why this rush to the Mediterranean? Why so unprepared, almost vulnerable to the elements, to disappointment? I stood up and gathered the shawl around my chest; I strained my eyes to the farthest point in the horizon, the shore line and what lay beyond on the other side of the Mediterranean, to another Mediterranean city–the Beirut of my youth in the 1960s, the city of my education and passage to adulthood, the city of escapes when the civil war began in the 1970s. Like Salobreña, a city of corpses.
And in seeing–no, imagining– Salobreña together with Beirut, its other, the journey seemed to have come into a full circle of geographic solidarity. Why the Mediterranean? Pablo Neruda has said that “he who returns has never left.” Not the eternal return because the one who leaves knows in being’s marrow that there is no return, that rupture is the deck of cards handed out early, often. So why the Mediterranean? Perhaps to mourn the loss, to catch a glimpse, as fleeting as that may be, of the pastness of the past. But more than that, to imagine the other side of the sea, its warm lap but also its strangeness now, with the passage of time.
In the end, isn’t that what travel is? The throwing of oneself into foreigness, and hoping for the best and the worst in the unceasing, restless movement.
Beginnings and ends, here, the sea holding the towns and cities, keeping them alive and vulnerable to invasions and voyages and occupations and re-conquests. Here, in Salobreña: The sea unchanging, the land transient. The sea secure, the land always roiling, wounded, speaking many tongues, worshipping many gods. The sea, the desire to end all desire, at least for now, for this hour.
Picture on top: “Alcazabra At Salobreña, Spain” by David Sawyer