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JOSHUA TREE & SALTON SEA

JOSHUA TREE & SALTON SEA

Joshua Tree. A massive terrarium of saguaro cacti, sagebrush and yuccas as far as the eye can see. Stand-alone rock formations resemble giant, hunched orcs; off in the distance, mountains line the horizon like buried Stegosaurus backs. There is nothing quite like the colors of the desert here—a searing, blue-gold palette that immediately washes the mind clean.

We roll through a nearby campground, where people have pitched tents and parked trailers and vans in the convenient shade of giant boulders. Climbers swathed in ropes and carabiners trudge past, enormous crash pads cinched to their backs. Hikers bound from flat-topped boulders and become neon blips in the sagebrush. High on a sunny precipice, a woman in yoga regalia meditates, beaming and cross-legged.

 
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Around the bend, a man stands atop an outcropping. He is wearing a long, black trench coat (an odd choice for the sweltering, eighty-degree weather) and glares down at passersby as he chain-smokes. I am drawn into a grim preoccupation with the man’s strangeness, his unbelonging. Before I can stop myself, I imagine the slim, dark barrel of an AR-15 poking out from beneath his mercenary-style cloak.

I wrinkle my face; send the thought away.

He is most likely doing nothing more than having a smoke as he exercises his right to wear climate-adverse clothes. But my Chicken Little-ish mind has already run ahead, careening into unreality. These times are threaded with panic. The slightest snatch of headline makes my heart stumble over itself in dread.

It irks me that even here, in the heart of nature—a place that I have always found peace—I feel afraid. I’m fed up with this fear. I want the desert sun to draw it out, burn it to chaff, spirit it off on the wind. 

 
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We drive until Joshua Tree peters out and we are bumping along the moonscape of the Mojave Desert.

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When we drop into the Imperial Valley we are met by a dozen aptly-named washes—Smoke Tree Wash, Fried Liver Wash, Sy Wash, Fink Wash, Wister Wash, Sand Wash, Salt Wash, Gravel Wash, Bug Wash, Cat Tail Wash, Marshy Wash, Deep Wash.

The vineyards lining the valley are bookended by colorful crops—groves of oranges and lemons, the ivory lace of almond trees, fields of red and green peppers.

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We pull off by the side of the road and I step beneath a giant date tree. The scent of fresh earth wafts from its trunl like a wave of memory and my senses tunnel into the past—spring days in my Vashon Island garden, the sweet soil after a Midwestern rainstorm, Death Valley in August, when the tiniest wisp of wind is reason to rejoice.

 
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The Salton Sea is a giant lake that was accidentally created in 1905 when irrigation canals were dug between the Colorado River and the Imperial valley. The waters flowed in steadily for two years, finally creating the modern sea.

 
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Today, the Salton Sea is fifteen miles wide and thirty-five miles long. It is the largest lake in California and is fed by the New, White Water and Alamo rivers.

According to Wikipedia, “its salinity is greater than the Pacific Ocean but less than the Great Salt Lake.” The lake’s extremely high salinity started in the 1960’s. From then on, environmental harmony was lost; species began to die. Yet, its visage—a mist-covered plate of cobalt blue ringed by mountains—remains remarkably stunning.

 
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We stop at the State Park and marvel that we are on the edge of a body of water that is two-hundred feet below sea level. I parry odd, nonsensical stabs of panic. How is the ocean not spilling over top of us? Drowning us like cereal in a bowl?

Further south, Bombay Beach sits on the lake’s eastern shore. The name has a bright, exotic lilt. Yet, when we arrive, we find that it is essentially a ramshackle clutch of buildings cordoned inside a rectangle of piled-earth dikes.

 
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We move slowly down the gravel streets, on the lookout for signs of life. The town boasts 295 residents. Where is everyone? In lieu of tumbleweed or crickets, the whole place is shot through with the crumbled shells of houses—many charred and graffitied. Entire lots are filled with rusty trucks, cars with patchwork doors, mobile homes and RV’s that have seen better days. Fat, dry, headless palms edge the streets. And always, there is the come-and-go pinch of rotting fish on the breeze.

Finally, we spy movement—an old man walking out his front door. A few houses down, a pair of elderly women chat over a fence. A second man veers toward us cartoonishly on a bike (a singular rig featuring a gigantic banana seat and long, ape-hanger handlebars). As he passes, he slows to stare in at us, head cocked at an angle like a curious dog. I wave. He does not.

We leave oddly unsatisfied; unsure of what, exactly, we expected. We have seen a total of four people, which leaves only 291 Bombay Beach residents unaccounted for. What do they do? Where did they come from? What keeps them here?

Along the highway toward Niland, there is not much in the way of scenery, but there is life. The road is a conga line of long-haul trucks. Small, white egret-ish birds tiptoe across fields as migrant workers toil in rows of leafy greens—kale, romaine, cilantro, and parsley. 

 
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We veer south and encounter increasing numbers of border patrol trucks. 

“What are they doing up here?” We wonder aloud, ogling them as we pass. The men in the trucks look crisp and serious in their olive shirts and dark glasses, radios clipped to their sleeves.

Suddenly, we realize it’s we who are “down there”. We are skirting the limits of the town of Calexico, near the Mexican border. Part of me wants to keep going, to cross over. Go on the lam! Or at least, see the border from this side, from the ground. To envision how ugly and barbaric it would look to have a massive wall running the full length of our countries.

We turn back, find our way north on 86, and head for Kane Springs. Along the way, signs clamor: Salt-Free Water Vendor! Clean Dirt! Adult XXX Shop! Date Shakes! Hand-Delivered Gravel!

It is all the great, dry Southern West one could want, and all the great, dry, dead-end fanfare to go with it.

 
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We reach Desert Shores where the remnants of giant canals still jut from the land. These are from the 1950’s and 60’s, when the lake was a lively haven for So-Cal weekenders. At the height of its popularity, the Salton Sea was the desert’s version of Tahoe. It was where the party started and stayed.

There had been grand plans, once to build it so that more would come. It would be the ultimate utopia of seaside resorts and marinas, a lake full of zipping speed boats and fishing fanatics! But in the end, stagnant waters would not sell. The failure of man-crafted nature and ultimately, the death of the fish, made it all fizzle. 

 
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We roll through what’s left. Down by the water, furniture is strewn around a fire pit. The sun sets, pink and tepid across a rocky lot where cats patrol weedy ditches. Across the way—the busted, concrete facade of “Our Place Saloon” stares out like a bewildered, fist-punched face. 

On the back wall of the still-operating MoneyGram building, however there is a surprise—the black and white mural of a woman entwined with rattlesnakes. Or, perhaps she is the rattlesnake? Whomever is who, whatever it means, it’s a breath-taking piece of art.

 
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We pull away from Desert Shores and I think about how the loneliest, left-behind things are beautiful simply because they exist where other things no longer do. They are the Toughs and Hold-Outs—people and places unconcerned with what the outside world makes of them.

The drive has taken over half a day. As we make our way north, the peach sky washes into a fertile blueness. On the Salton Sea’s western shore, stanchions of palms ripple beneath a pinprick of white moon—a picture postcard of a desert oasis thriving beyond the limits of civilization. Or, the border of a lost kingdom, a disappeared dream.

Hoped for, done and gone.

 
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FIN

TUNNEL OF HOPE

TUNNEL OF HOPE

 

We are far from understanding the War in Bosnia but through our travels, have learned that it spread like a stain across the whole country, devastating cities like Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica and the countryside in between. The citizens of Sarajevo were pinned down by siege for four long years, from 1992 - 1995, when Serbian forces surrounded the city on three sides, entrenching themselves in the hills where they could fire down on anything that moved. During our visit to the Tunel Spasa, aka the "Tunnel of Hope", near the Sarajevo airport, we learned how a hand-dug underground passage served as a lifeline for the people of Sarajevo during the siege and was the only means by which they received food and supplies. 

On the way home from the museum, we drove down "Sniper Alley", the city's main thoroughfare, and observed the many buildings that still bear the scattered sprays of bullet holes and shrapnel, the devastation from the grenades and the (on average) 300 shells that fell on the city each day. Over 11,000 civilians (including over 1000 children) were killed during the Sarajevo siege, their names now listed on white sheets of paper tacked to the wall in the tunnel museum. 

"When the miracle of the Bosnian resistance is solved from a historic distance, it will be found - and I am sure of that - that the secret was somewhere in the souls or characters of the people."  —  Alije Izetbegović, first President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Our guide (born in Sarajevo during the siege) gave us a quick schooling on the geography of the war and its players.

My niece, Emily inside the tunnel. Made by local citizens and dug by hand over a period of four months, it is 2400 feet in length and 5 feet high by 3 feet wide. During the war, it connected the Butmir side (free Bosnian zone) to the Dobrinjia side (Sarajevo side under siege). Goods were moved in small carts via tracks laid on the tunnel floor and later on, electricty and permanent lighting were added. The tunnel was rife with danger. Underground waters could flood up to waist-high and the air quality was extremely poor, requiring all who entered to wear masks.

Examples of the types of supplies that would have been highly valued during the siege—tinned foods, soda, chocolate. Smugglers risked their lives traveling 4 to 5 hours through the tunnel then, up to 2 1/2 additional hours dodging Serb bullets in Sniper Alley to deliver goods to loved ones in the old city.

Remnants of a UN desk complete with one of the top wartime commodities: cigarettes. Museum guides (many of whom were children during the conflict) maintain that the UN soldiers were largely unhelpful to the civilan population and more interested in passing the time by partying or engaging in corrupt dealings—such as manipulating tunnel access for personal blackmarket gain.

Museum visitors view the list of 11,000 civilians killed during the siege of Sarajevo.


More Photos of the Tunnel Spasa:

Tour Info: We booked a 2-hour tour through a company in the Old City. They provided roundtrip transport from downtown Sarajevo to the Tunel Spasa, including a spin through Sniper Alley on the way back. Per passenger cost was around €15. More info here.

 

MOSTAR

MOSTAR

Next stop, Bosnia. We drove north from Dubrovnik, through the beautiful scenery along the Croatia coast (even catching a glimpse of the ancient Wall of Ston!), crossing the border into Bosnia at Nova Sela. From there, we traveled on to Kravica Falls, an incredible set of waterfalls and swimming area along the Trebižat River. The park at Kravica is well equipped for tourists and has restrooms, food and drink vendors, even an openair trolley that shuttles less-mobile visitors down the hill to the falls from the parking area. Entry to the falls is 4 KM ($2.50 USD). Kravica's large swimming lake is ringed by massive cascades that thunder down into natural grottos around its edge. The water is clean and cold and constantly moving. It was the perfect road break on a hot, summer day before pushing on to Mostar ...

Na Putu za Mostar  |  The Road to Mostar

The further we drove into Bosnia, the more obnoxiously we gaped. The landscape turned lush and dramatic; sharp mountains stabbed into the clouds behind layers of green hills. Towns perched in verdant folds of farmland, canyons towered, rivers became lakes. Bosnia captured our imaginations early on. Our hearts would not be far behind.

U Starom Gradu |  In the Old City

Mostar's Old Town is a little bubble of magic nestled in a bustling, modern city. It isn't large, but for what it lacks in size it offers in character. The views aren't half bad either—it flanks the historic Stari Most (bridge) and has the winding, cobblestone feel of a fairytale. Shop owners are friendly, anxious to chat (and bargain). Everything is available, from regional jewelry, antiquities and lamps to traditional rugs and locally-made clothes. All this, amid a healthy crop of eateries, bars and riverside coffee shops. The Old City makes for a full half-day (if not more) of exploring and Bosnian Mark-dropping. Tip: it's *cash only* so stop by an ATM before you go. If you're stuck with large bills, stop by the Tourist center (north side of the Stari Most bridge) to exchange them for smaller ones.

Near the entrance to the Old City, we purchased a pair of hand-hammered silver plates ("Tournament", left and "The Hunt", right) in Mostar's old city. The artisan chooses his designs from 11th-century Bosnian grave stones and hammers them into the plates by hand. Before we left, he proudly presented us with souvenira 1000 Yugoslav Dinar note bearing Nikolai Tesla's likeness. It was, as he said, "a keepsake of old money from his country so that we might remember Bosnia". 

The Stari Most bridge (below) was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. It stood for 427 years before it was destroyed during the Croat-Bosnian War in 1993 and was rebuilt in 2004. A beautiful feat of engineering and an icon of post-war resilience, the bridge connects two sides of Mostar's lively Old Town and is free to walk across. Tip: visit early in the AM (before 8) for a peaceful, crowd-less experience. Stop to linger over a pastry and Bosnian coffee at one of the many pekaras along the way. 

Many of the buildings in Mostar that were devastated during the Croat-Bosnian Conflict have been purposely left in their ruined state as reminders of the war.

My niece, Emily at the table in our apartment in Mostar where we enjoyed a breakfast bounty of local melons, apricots, peaches, grapes, raspberries and pastries from the pekara (bakery) along with homemade fruit spreads from a roadside stand.

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MORELLA

MORELLA

I awake with a start, somehow aware that I am in a masia in the Spanish countryside, but foggy on the details. As my eyes slide around the dimly lit room, I am hit by a sudden wave of fatigue. The kind of brought on by planes, trains and mountain roads, too many early mornings and late nights. The nape of my neck is damp; my limbs ache. I drift off again and am awakened a second time by the clinking of coffee things, the soft splatter of water from a faucet.

Jill appears in the doorway. “How do you feel?” She eyes me hopefully as she sips from a mug.

I know she would like to leave the masia as much as me. It has been a cold few days, the earth and sky as damp and dark as an English moor in winter. We have reveled in the atmospheric haze of the countryside but now crave the sight of new things—the aroma of food, sound of human voices.

I throw off my pallet of blankets and stretch skyward. “We are going to see a castle today," I declare. And march for the shower.

*

Refreshed by a breakfast of oranges and coffee, I pull our car onto the rugged track toward Sierra Engarceran. The fog finally lifts as we approach the outskirts of nearby Benalloch, revealing vineyards, olive fields and frothy meadows dotted with sheep. The flat landscape dives without warning into one ravine after another, finally rising into peaks as torn and ragged as paper. As we creep higher, I take the hairpin turns like an old lady and we exclaim over the nameless hill towns that roll past; each with a church like a sweet, bun-topped grandmother.

When Morella suddenly looms in front of us it as if by magic. The city is wholly vertical in nature—a colorful skirt of buildings winding up the mountainside and culminating in a first-century castle at its pinnacle. We roll silently into the citutat—the city center—where we get out, stretch, pull on weatherproof layers in the wood-fire air.

The town is on the cusp of afternoon siesta, many of the restaurants preparing to close until 8 or 9 PM, when they reopen for the evening meal. Like Sierra Engarcaren, the streets are narrow, large enough only for foot traffic or bikes and lined with shops and eateries. Beneath stone arches, a fire crackles in a brazier. Drawn by its amber glow, we spy a nearby pastisseria—its large glass window showcasing neat rows of croissants, empanadas and buns.

We enter and order coffees. The woman behind the counter smiles patiently as we choose lunch—ham and cheese baguettes and a trio of almond, chocolate and marmalade pastries. It is just the two of us in the café and we devour the warm, buttery sandwiches as if we will not eat again. Outside, a more serious rain begins and we watch the rhythmic blooming of umbrellas in the street. When the last crumbs of pastry have been destroyed, we reemerge to wander more twisting alleys, each leading to another level of the town until we finally reach the cathedral. We stand before its enormous doors of inlaid wood and stare up at stone faced saints who in turn, behold us with weatherbeaten, beatific countenances.

Just around the corner is the castle, its entrance marked by a sandwich board advertising tour fees—€3.50 for one adult. The docent hands us a guide sheet translated into English and motions toward a pair of doors that open onto the castle’s Franciscan abbey. All is quiet in the romantic, pillared courtyard until suddenly—the bells begin. They are more than loud, they are cacophonous and bone-shaking. A quiver blossoms at the back of my neck. It is the call of holiness or, in the very least—the stern rebuke of anything that is not. We leave the ethereal courtyard, feet crunching up a rocky trail marked by a smattering of ruins. The mist thickens, making us feel as if at any moment we might hear the clatter of hooves, rattle of chain metal or thwack of arrows. Squinting upward through the fog, we are entranced by the mammoth walls that seem to appear, then disappear into the clouds. As we walk, Jill reads aloud from the guide sheet:

"The Castle of Morella is actually a mountain with a castle built into it. Geologically it is considered a hanging synclinal, meaning water filtered through the calcareous stone and clay have made natural caves. These caves have been in use since prehistoric ages. Due to the caves' great capacity for natural water storage, the castle could easily withstand lengthy sieges in Medieval times. According to historians, the castle has endured Roman, Muslim and Christian rule. Because of its equidistance from major hubs of civilization—Sargassa, Valence, Palma and Barcelone, it was the only castle under crown rule (neighboring territories were ruled militarily by the Knights of the Templar, Calatrava, Hospitaller, Montesa). In its early days, the legendary Spanish warrior, El Cid attempted to wrest the castle from the Iberians but was unable to take it. The castle became a National Monument in 1931 and since then, massive, ongoing restorations have been implemented."

The higher we go, the more we are battered by rain and wind—unforgiving gusts that finally force us to descend the ninety-eight steps from the parade ground, all sodden skin and chattering teeth. We cinch our hoods and step sideways through the gale to glimpse ruins of the castle’s ancient moat, then continue down—past the guard towers, the graveyard, stables, soldier’s quarters and artillery, the bakery, Governor’s Palace and the gigantic stone cistern. Finally, we exit through the imposing Main Gate. 

When we look up again, the fog has cleared and the massive castle—a marvel of both nature and human engineering—reveals itself. Man-made angles jut sharply from mossy, dark earth. Plant life drips from crevices beneath stone-hewn watchtowers. All along the ramparts there are ripples of grass and flowering vines. In many places, it is difficult to tell where the castle begins and the mighty mountain ends.

FIN


More Photos of Morella

SIERRA ENGARCERAN

SIERRA ENGARCERAN

From Sitges, Jill and I drive south to Valencia. Our destination is the tiny village of Sierra Engarceran in the province of Castellón. We arrive late in the day, our Smart Car rolling through the narrow, shuttered streets like a marble in a maze. Slowly, people begin to appear—an old man with his matted, brown dog, boys unloading a truck, a cluster of women chatting on a side street.

I park in the plaza and phone Rob, our host. He arrives moments later, unfolding himself from a blue Citroen as his dog peers out from the back window. His hands and jeans are dusty with clay as he kisses us gruffly on both cheeks. He is an artist, an almond farmer, a joyful transplant. We follow him on the serpentine road out of town and are rendered speechless by the late afternoon light that folds down across the hills like giant, gold wings.

*

We stand in the stone piazza outside his masia—his farmhouse—and gaze at the craggy peak at its back, the steep incline bursting with herbs.

“Remember, you are in rural Spain," Rob says, in his gentle British lilt, when we ask about Wi-Fi and the nearest amenities. His nonchalant shrug signals that we will be far from pretty much everything for the next week. Life will move at a snail's pace; there will be mist and fog and drizzle and possibly—storms.

Each detail of his property seems plucked from a novel: the tidy terraces of almond trees, green, sunken pool in the garden, the living room’s snug, stone fireplace. In the kitchen, we linger beneath low-slung beams and admire the postcard view of the village framed by a large window. Rob’s dog, Idgie weaves between us excitedly, her black body sleek as a raven’s wing.

Rob begins to list off possible points of interest—we could hike to the saddle of Tossal de l’Om (the mountain behind the masia and the site of a 14th Century Muslim encampment only recently unearthed by archaeologists). Or, we might drive to the nearby towns of Ares and Morella—ancient, walled cities topped by medieval castles. As Rob talks, I fat-finger notes into my phone and finally—after building a fire in the living room and showing us a stash of leftover wine—he departs, Idgie trotting at his heels. 

Left to our own devices, we realize that we are in need of supplies. We return to town and following my muddled notes, drive in circles until we finally locate the carnisseria. Entering, we dodge the swish of beaded curtains, and are greeted by Ima, the shop owner. She is aproned and curvaceous with an inquisitive face framed by brown curls. Briskly, she beckons us inside.

“Qué te gustaría?” She asks, feet and hands spread wide. What would you like?

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Words leave my mouth in a slow stream and her tiny counter begins to fill: oranges, avocados, bananas, broccoli, apricots, tomatoes, thick slices of ham, cream, mayo, eggs, cheese, a loaf of bread and three bottles of wine—two tinto, one rosa.

As she deftly taps numbers into a calculator, she unleashes a barrage of Spanish. Where are we from? Are we staying at Rob’s masia? Is fair-haired Jill Rob’s daughter? The last question makes us laugh. Aside from the fact that they are both Caucasian, Jill and Rob look nothing alike.

In a flurry, Ima bags our purchases. The entire haul will feed us for a week and costs nineteen euros, wine included. Before we leave, she imparts snippets of local information—the bakery is open from six-thirty to two most days, never on Sundays and on Saturday, hours vary. The farmacia is around the corner and Bar Salvador sells wine, beer, cigarettes and occasionally, food.

“Entiendes?” She looks at me pointedly. Do you understand?

I nod. "Your words come so fast. Como un viento.” Like a wind.

She laughs and with the cadence of an approving mother, tells me that it’s good that I speak Spanish.

“Lo intento,” I reply.  I try. 

I will always try.

*

Back in the masia’s cozy kitchen, Jill chops piles of vegetables next to a roiling pot—heaps of broccoli, garlic and tomato. She tests the pasta, dumps the vegetables in. Fragrant steam fills the air. Splashes of cream, butter, a pinch of salt. Her elbow lifts and points as she stirs industriously with a wooden spoon. She moves with the grace of a dancer, happier than I have ever seen her.

We draw chairs up to the rough-hewn table and slurp noodles topped with fresh cheese, every so often refilling our squat, clay glasses with wine from a label-less bottle of tinto. A local map is spread out and our eyes rove the topography of Sierra Engarceran. As night shrouds the farmhouse, we become full and sated. Warmly tipsy. The iPhones come out and we play our favorite songs, loud as we please, singing along in the glow of the kitchen.

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The next day, we hike. Fog moves in a winged froth, chasing us up the rocky embankment behind the masia. Higher and higher we climb, pink-cheeked, shivering; flanked by hillside troves of hyacinth, thyme, wild lavender and mint. At the pinnacle, Jill buries her face in a feast of purple rosemary while somewhere below, dogs in the valley bark and whine. Seated on a pair of large, flat boulders, we munch sandwiches until a thickening mist sends us down through the shrubs and rock fields. Our steps, careful and precise, as if we are brittle and small and not people at all—but figurines made of glass.

*

We return late to the village one evening, sapped by the desperate, indecisive hunger of strangers in a strange land. Squinting out the car windows, we search for signs of life—a cluster of voices or the furtive glow of lamplight. But darkness has settled over the village like a solemn prayer. All is quiet.

"Bar Salvador?" Jill asks as we slow to a stop near the only place that appears to be open.

We glance at each other and shrug.

Inside, heads swivel as we enter. The dim room is lined with men watching sports, drinking beer, smoking. Murmurs trail us as we walk past.

The proprietor is tall and lanky, somehow younger than we expected in his tracksuit and dark-rimmed glasses. "Bienvenidos," he greets us.

We order wine and I ask if there is food available. He waggles his head for a moment and raises a finger as if to say, I don't usually do this but

"Mama!" He calls loudly. 

A slice of silence and then, the curtain behind the bar ruptures and a woman steps through. Like Ima, she is aproned and rotund with a benevolent face. He speaks to her in a flash of Catalan but the meaning is clear. She nods at us, smiles; disappears behind the rippling cloth.

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We pull up chairs at a nearby table and sip our wine. Moments later, the bartender brings us two of the largest baguettes we have ever seen—mighty, hinged planks of crusty, soft bread layered with tomatoes, ham, cheese and olive oil. It is comfort food of the highest order. We devour the simple, savory flavors in rough mouthfuls, scarcely stopping to speak. Or breathe.

Blurry with fullness, we settle our bill, pantomiming our satisfaction with exaggerated gestures.

"Fuen perfecto," I say. "Y gracias a tu mama, tambien!" Thanks to your mother, also.

"De nada, de nada." The bartender dips his head with a smile. "I will tell to her!"

The curtain behind him darts and flutters, but does not open.

FIN


More Photos of Sierra Engarcaren

FESTIVA

FESTIVA

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One afternoon, Kata, Antje's red cat comes calling. We play—me tugging his stuffed, pink dinosaur so that he will bat and fight it, legs wrapped like a wrestler around the faded, plush body. I pet him and he purrs loudly then, falls asleep on the striped patio bed.

All of a sudden, it is four o’clock and I am due at Antje’s shop. We are going to the neighboring town of Puntagorda to visit the local mercado (the market) and attend the African culture festival. I lock the door to my little cabin and bound down the trail to the town square. When I arrive, there are a surprising number of people in the plaza. Usually, it feels forgotten by time—just a few old men drinking wine at a plastic table in the corner.

Inside Antje’s shop there is a German couple that I passed on the Camino Real de la Costa earlier in the day. We exchange niceties and as they leave, Antje introduces me to another man. She nods at him with a smile and asks, “Can we take this one to Puntagorda, also?” He is slender with brown, curly hair, a scruffy beard. A shoulder bag is slung across his chest and he wears faded, brown cords and sandals; his cap sits at an angle. It’s Che Guevara, I think.

“No problem,” I say. 

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Before we can leave for Puntagorda, we must wait for Antje to close her shop. Che Guevara turns to me with a smile and says, “May I invite you for a drink?” 

I accept and Antje shoos us out of the store. We walk next door to the local watering hole.

“You would like coffee—or wine, perhaps?” he asks, as we enter.

“Coffee, por favor,” I reply.

He says his name is Manolo and asks mine. I tell him. The bartender, Petra is from the Czech Republic. She deftly whips up a caffe sola and I carry it to the table. Monolo also has a coffee but tries to talk me into a shot of Jägermeister. 

I make a face. “En serio?” Really?

“Oh yes,” he enthuses. “It’s the best. Es un digestivo!”

I shake my head. No, gracias.

Petra rolls her eyes and we share a look. She pulls out her iPhone.  “Jägermeister es malo,” she states with an air of authority. “The best drink is from my country, from Czech Republic—Berenchova.” She shows us a Google photo of a fancy blue bottle of liquor.

Manolo waves her away with a laugh. Luckily, he drops the idea of Jäger shots. We talk instead of Garafia and La Palma. He works for the tourism office as a guide. It is one of the rare non-agro or shop jobs in Garafia.

“La Palma is not Spanish,” he says decisively. “Es todo. It’s everything.” There is a diverse mix of cultures here—Portuguese, French, Spanish, German, African, Eastern European. He pauses and brings out a worn, leather pouch of tobacco and rolling papers and begins to prepare a cigarette. “Regarding La Palma,” he continues. “Trust me, I am an expert here. Whatever you wish to know, I can tell you.” 

Behind the counter, Petra arches a delicate brow and bites back a smirk.

*

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When Antje is finally ready, she pulls an empty suitcase behind her out of the shop. It’s for the handicrafts she will buy at the mercado, she explains. As we stand in the plaza, her son, Pablo suddenly appears. Where he has been, I couldn’t say. He is quiet, shy and industrious. I often see him around his mother's property—toting grasses to cover compost, digging, raking, planting. Yesterday, we sat in the sun outside the kitchen house surrounded by a tribe of cats, me—bumping along in stilted Spanish as he patiently corrected me. I learned that he likes chess and hiking, speaks German and Spanish and teaches futbol to kids at the grade school. bumped along in stilted Spanish as he patiently corrected me. I learned that he likes chess and hiking, speaks German and Spanish and teaches futbol to kids at the grade school. 

“Pablo, kommst du mit uns?” Antje asks him teasingly in German. Will you come with us?

He shakes his head and with a faint blush, nods toward the bar. It seems to be the place where the entire town goes when work is done. Pablo is a homebody, his mother has told me, and will always choose the familiar.

Behind us, Manolo’s voice suddenly crescendos. He has been on a diatribe for some time but I stopped listening after we left the bar. Now, he is ranting about something a German tourist did; a thing of no real consequence, other than it gives him something to shout passionately about.

“Ay de mi!” he roars, suddenly. Inexplicably. His voice echoes across the plaza and a table of tourists looks up curiously from their plates.

Tranquillo, tranquillo,” Antje whispers, tugging at his sleeve. 

We pile into the car. Before we leave town, Manolo asks to use the bank. I park across the street and we wait for him, windows down so that the sea air blows through. He stands at the ATM, legs apart, as if he is facing off against an enemy. After a few moments, he bangs both hands down on the machine. 

Antje and I turn to watch him. She was in the middle of telling me that this ATM once had a small opening beneath the machine for trash—receipts and such—and that people (tourists, mainly), thinking it was the card slot, kept accidentally throwing their cards in the garbage. We know that this is not the case with Monolo, the local. The Expert on All Things La Palma. He begins cursing loudly in Spanish then, turns back towards us, his hands to the sky and yells: “It say—I am not enough!”

“Fondos insuficiente,” chuckles Antje. As in: no dinero. We stifle our laughter, make sympathetic gestures through the open window. He turns back to the machine and after more cursing and banging, finally trots back to the car. By some magic he has procured a fistful of Euros. 

“Vamanos!” He exclaims, a triumphant gleam in his eye. “To the festiva!”

*

As we drive, Manolo leans forward between the front seats and expounds in Spanish about La Palma’s incredible natural features—its abundance of caves, mountains, lush forests, beaches, the diverse flora and fauna. There is even a giant caldera—a collapsed volcano—at its heart (Caldera de Taburiente). It's clear that Manolo wants all visitors to love the island as much as he. I’m not a hard sell, however and tell him that La Palma is definitely a place that everyone should see once in their life, if they are able. As he rattles on, I focus on hugging the road's snaking curves and then—Antje abruptly tells him to stop talking. 

I would like to speak to Richele, por favor, since she is gone tomorrow,” she says.  

Claro, claro,” he replies and leans back, placidly rolling another cigarette. I glance at him in the rearview mirror as he stares out the window with a gauzy expression on his face, his thoughts already floating elsewhere.

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Antje begins to talk. She was a young mother when she first came to Garafia. Pablo was two. When she arrived, she had three boys and soon after, gave birth to a fourth. Her sons thrived on the island; the older two are now back in Germany, one a museum curator and the other, an outdoor educator for children. Her youngest sons—Pablo and his little brother—split their time between Berlin and Santo Domingo.

Before Antje came to Garafia, she lived a bohemian life. She made art and handicrafts and became a self-taught photographer. Once, she had a job driving trucks through the Andorran mountains. These days, life is simpler. Antje is content to run her shop selling artisan goods on La Palma but still travels as much as possible. An addiction of sorts, she admits. What she loves most is going to Africa by boat from Grand Canarias. She has visited Gambia and Senegal several times and loves both countries. She even tried to adopt an eight-year-old boy—a Gambian orphan she came to know on her visits; who called her “Mama” and begged her to take him with her as tears rolled down his cheeks. The paperwork went on for years, she says. She prepared her house, applied for the requisite approvals. But it never happened. She found the boy a good school in Gambia and paid for him to go there until he graduated. He has since grown up and has a daughter of his own. 

"And the cycle of poverty repeats," she sighs. We talk more about this as we sit, sipping Cokes at the café outside the mercado in Puntagorda. Youssour N’Dour is blaring from the loud speakers as the stage is readied for the main act—a Senegalese band. 

Later, we wander through the masses of dancers, drum circles and artists and finally, stroll the farmer’s market where, I buy a slab of rosemary goat cheese, some chocolate and a packet of anise crackers. The air is thick with colliding smells—the sweet haze of pastries and tang of cheeses, the keen pinch of spices. Outside, Antje steers me toward a stand where a woman is selling Gambian curry. In exchange for three euros she hands us plates laden with saffron rice and tender chicken swimming in a froth of coconut milk, dates, currants and cumin. 

*

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Later that evening, after we we have returned from Puntagorda, Antje comes to my little cabin bearing a steaming pot of Lemongrass tea. She is glad, I think, that I am so happy here. That I find it to be the kind of place I might return. When we were at the café earlier, she took a deep draw off her little pipe and said, “We should meet in Fuerte Ventura next year. There is a nice place on the beach to stay and there will be music and art and handicrafts. And dancing.”

It sounds like magic. And as she says the words, I would like nothing more. Yet, I suddenly realize: there is no such thing as ‘all the time in the world’. We can only see as much of the world as our brief time on earth will allow.  

Both relief and desperation settle over me as I ponder this.

 

FIN

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