First Person, Far Flung: Southern Spain
The sculptures are massive, some standing over 100 feet tall. More than 200 papier-mâché figures, ribald odes to political and cultural leaders, line the Explanada de España and dot the plazas of Alicante. This is Southeast Spain’s Costa Blanca during the Festival of San Juan. When the clock strikes midnight on June 23, I’ll watch as those figures are burned to the ground in pagan effigy. These bonfires, hogueras, protect against evil spirits that are believed to amass as the sun begins its post-solstice southern flex. “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. I’ve taken this to heart.
It’s the afternoon before the festival. I’m reclined on a chaise longue on the Playa del Postiguet, next to an elderly Spanish woman cooling herself against the sun with spritzes of water from a spray bottle of Ajax Cristalino. “Tengo nadie,” I hear her say into her phone. I am alone. In front of us, hordes of children and their families waft on floats in the turquoise waves of the harbor. Behind us, tall seaside apartments painted a sallow yellow burst with life. Travelers of all ages walk the waterfront in search of firecrackers and pop rocks. Lined with palm trees and decorated with extravagant tile, the esplanade runs from Puerta del Mar to Canalejas Park, hugging a white-sand beach. Narrow streets, crowded with people downing sangria and anchoas at outdoor taperías, wind their way up Mount Benacantil to the Castle of Santa Barbara, with its sweeping views of the Mediterranean.
“Hay una bruja sobre la ciudad,” I was warned once, 15 years earlier, by a young psychologist at an orphanage in Granada. There is a spell over this city. I was 23 then, working abroad on my first job out of college, translating a study for the NGO Aldeas Infantiles on the effects of trauma on children. I often wandered the labyrinthine streets of the Albycín in the evening, in search of groceries. One night, an Aussie couple invited me to drinks in the Plaza Mayor. What evolved was the kind of adventure that haunts dreams. A birthday party for a young gypsy woman in the earthen caves overlooking the Alhambra. Groups of expats clustered around wild succulents growing on a wooden terrace above the Darro River. A loosely hewn pact arrived upon in the wee hours by strangers. We’d all meet, we promised, the next day to take a road trip to the beaches of Alicante.
The only other partygoer to arrive the next morning was an American man with whom I’d barely spoken a word the night before. The sun blazed overhead as I squinted to recognize him. The researchers at the Aldea where I worked had gone home for the weekend. I was staring down the prospect of two lonely, landlocked August days in the Granada heat. And so I watched myself slide into the man’s car. The last email I’d sent to family or friends had been several days prior. “No one knows where you’re going,” was my last thought, as I swung the door shut behind me and the car spun south into the barren desert. “What brought you to Spain?” I asked the driver. “I’m running from the war,” he said.
Fifteen years later, I’ve returned to the Costa Blanca. Now a writer in my late 30s, I’m working on a novel about the youthful journey I took with that U.S. Army deserter, a road trip that began in Granada, wound through Alicante, and ended at a tiny, hidden commune in the Sierra Nevada. I’ve come back to recreate that path, to search for a feeling of freedom lost to the years. “Where did he take you?” friends often ask when I recount the story. “I’m not sure,” I say. “I think I’d know it if I ever had the opportunity to go back. It began on a beach with rows of burning pyres.”
On the afternoon of the 23rd, I stand shoulder to shoulder with the locals under the scorching sun. A deafening fireworks display shakes Plaza de los Luceros. The Spanish call this daily festival ritual “las mascletàs.” Perhaps all good novels begin, I think, with a resuscitation of the soul that nearly stops and starts the heart. Women of all ages wave brightly colored fans. A child next to me in a white dress with red pom-poms sips her mother’s clara, a mixture of lemonade and beer. Young girls in white bridal gowns parade five across down Las Ramblas to the esplanade. Along the busy walk, under the shade of waving white cotton, locals and tourists lunch on paella, cooked streetside in large metal drums. Cured meats and dried chilies swing from the rafters of makeshift dining tents. Children’s faces gleam with helado and the chocolate from churros.
After lunch, the true believers head to the beach to build their own small bonfires and pop-culture effigies. I head to my hotel for siesta. By the time I wake that evening, the streets are awash in bodies. When I arrive at crowded Plaza del Ayuntamiento, I’m shaking with expectation. The Fountain of Desires, a towering sculpture by Pedro Espadero of a coquettish blue female form reaching for the sky, looms before us. Visitors are invited to leave their desires written in paper to burn next to the monument.
The match is struck at midnight. The moment the first flame ignites, silence fills the streets for a mile radius. Thousands of eyes follow as the thin yellow burn travels a wire over the heads of the crowd to the square, where the first sculpture awaits sacrifice. Some believe that burning an item can unlock latent potential. The moment the flame hits the towering paper structure, there is an eruption of kinetic energy I imagine belongs only to scenes of carnage or war. The heat sears my skin. I try to memorize it. To harness it. To put it into words. Once it reaches full intensity, firemen gather to spray the crowd. Long arcs of water evaporate midair. Plumes of black smoke waft skyward as the fire rages, revealing the wooden skeleton beneath the artistry. Eventually, that, too, crumbles. I blink my eyes as sparks fly overhead. One lands on the eyebrow of my neighbor, who brushes it off, christened.
It is the summer of my 10th anniversary with my partner; I stand alone in a crowd of thousands, my thin cotton dress clinging to my body as I’m showered in a mixture of smoke and water. Being a writer often means the willingness to become a lone wolf—even when the timing isn’t right. After a day of picking strawberries at our farm in the Catskills, my fiancé had helped me pack. “Go,” he said, lending me his emergency whistle. “You’re happiest when you travel.” Now I look up as a sea of fireworks explode overhead. I wonder how I will ever translate this to him. “Your 10th anniversary alone?” friends asked when I told them my plans. Now I worry that perhaps they were right. That comfort doesn’t suit me. How do you explain that love does not require settling down but rather trusting that you will always return?
Once the first sculpture has been reduced to ash, we head to the beach. The private sculptures ablaze on the sand make up an epic pop-culture bricolage—across the cove, I spot a cardboard box fashioned into the face of Davros from Dr. Who. Teens, their bodies supple, leap over tall fires on their bicycles as flames nip at their feet. Others wander into the ocean fully clothed. One sandal broken from the enthusiastic stomping of a child dancing next to me, I follow, wading into the sea until my dress floats to my shoulders. Fireworks break above me, crown-like. All I can feel is the gentle pull of the tide and the beating of my heart.
For prophetic dreams, they say, tuck nine flowers under your pillow the night of San Juan. As you drift off, ask the flowers what it is you most want to know about your future. That night, I lay the petals of nine beach roses under my pillow. “Will I have the courage to complete this journey?” I ask gently. Tomorrow I begin my trip south to the commune. I’ve traced the routes online. Recreated the stops as best I can from memory. Tried to understand where the man running from the war had taken me all those years ago and why.
This same night after the Festival of San Juan 15 years ago, my traveling companion had said, “I’ve got a surprise.” “You saved a muñeca [a doll] from sacrifice?” I joked. “No,” he said. “Let’s call it an awakening.” “Where are we going?” I asked. “You’ll recognize it when we get there,” he said. “The last stop is worth it. Trust me.”
An hour off the highway, the road had turned narrow and lush. Under the cover of dusk, the man pivoted the car up a mountain pass, which circled cliffs that dropped off precipitously as the elevation rose. I remember feeling that one gust of wind would blow our little car off the side of the Earth. I watched the narrow macadam wind through groves of olive and citrus. Large swatches of vineyards stretched out in the valley below. The density of the canopy jungle-like. As the road climbed the mountain, the darkness and vegetation thickened. No idea where we were headed or if he planned to return me to Granada unharmed, I’d begun to entertain the grim possibilities. As the car slowed and turned the corner, I’d half expected to see a mass grave.
Visions of a small grass field, loaded with unwanted cars buried in mud, slowly took shape in the twilight. My driver quieted the engine. I scanned the area for signs of life. All was still, save for the eucalyptus trees blowing in the thin breeze. The man loaded dry goods from the car into his pack. “Follow me,” he said. What emerged remains etched in my mind to this day: a pool dug into the side of the mountain in which people were swimming, scantily clothed families cooking sausages over spits, an old man under a large brimmed hat descending the trailhead. “Welcome home,” he said.
I can’t shake these visions as I prepare to go back. I am a fan of Joan Didion’s invitation to check in now and again on the selves we once were. And yet, somehow, I worry that doing so will open the floodgates to the anxiety and desire I’d felt all those years ago.
The next morning, I head south, into the arid brown desert. Road signs shift from Spanish to Arabic. Morocco is nearly visible off the coast. As I climb the Sierra Nevada, the countryside drops off into the olive and citrus groves of my memory. I remember the quality of the air and my growing fear all those years ago, as my driver recklessly shouted through the breeze of the coming night: “I’ve left all my belongings behind, including my identity. No driver’s license. No home. No credit cards. I’m free now.” I have a name for this now—la mascletà—an explosion that stops and starts the heart. It was a certain freedom, surely, that he sought on the journey to that mountain colony, hidden near the town of Órgiva. That same freedom I’m seeking now. Where is “home,” I wonder. How can getting lost actually mean getting found?
At a gas station near Órgiva, a young Scandinavian woman who has agreed to keep my belongings at her casita waves for me to follow her blue van down a narrow dirt road. I follow her to a one-lane bridge, where we’re forced to wait for a crossing herd of goats. A man in worn clothes walks amid the woolen throng, carrying two ewes in his arms. Our cars bounce over boulders. One of my tires goes flat.
That evening, we dine on my host’s porch, beneath silver olive branches, the crunch of almonds underfoot. She tells me she brought her young family to Órgiva after the death of a parent. “Lots of people come here looking for paradise, looking to be found,” she says. “But there’s a dark energy that doesn’t allow you to hide. Locals call it ‘the eye of Órgiva.’ You’ll feel it on the third day of your visit. I call it the Alpujarra test. The energy of the mountain is so strong that it pulls out anything that needs to be seen.”
I pass the next two days in cleansing rituals. I take the waters in the neighboring village of Lanjarón, where chalybeate baths wash flip-flopped bodies of every stripe, watching as my old constrained self passes down the drain. I take the hairpin roads up to the Buddhist retreat center of O Sel Ling, high in the Alpujarra mountains. Tibetan sculptures and prayer flags are strung up over succulents and dried yellow grasses. As I look across the receding valley, dotted with the white walls of towns and churches, where dry scrub brush shifts into verdant green mountains, I think of James Baldwin: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
At last, on the afternoon of the third day, I toss my tent into the back of the car and find the dusty road to the commune. I park at the trailhead and begin the descent alone. The land here is dry. Dust gathers over my feet. I think of the woman in Alicante: Tengo nadie. No cell service, nothing between me and the sky. I realize what I’ve come for all along. This sense of certainty. This challenge to go it alone.
The carpark emerges in the dusk just as I remember it—a sanctuary of broken bicycles, scattered lawn chairs, rusted Peugeots in faded blues and yellows, tires half-buried in mud. A few tricycles are parked next to a weathered green van at the far end of the lot, where a family stands around a gas burner cooking vegetables on skewers. A sign simply says: “Bread.” A couple, no older than 30, laughs over canteens of coffee, refereeing three naked children who squeal at the opportunity to get underfoot.
As I approach, a long-haired young man in cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat appears at the foot of the trailhead. As he nears the family’s fire, I begin to make out his body—tanned and lean, as though his skin is composed of the mountain soil. He pauses to greet me. For a moment, I think of turning back, but before I can, he takes my hand and begins chatting about the day’s drama. “Welcome home,” he says.