After spending 8 days in the cosmopolitan city of Sintra, Portugal we took our traveling circus on the road for a brief 2 day visit to the Algarve region of Portugal before embarking across the wide expanse of Andalucia enroute to what we thought would be our final destination of Valencia on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
First impressions of southern Spain was shock at the complete aridity and starkness of the landscape. We knew it would be dry but people we encountered said that it hadn’t rained in 8 months and it showed in the absolute desertification of the soil. Coming from 3 years in verdantly green Vermont Andalucia looked like a veritable moonscape. We found ourselves wondering how anything could possibly grow in this environment but inherently we knew. Crops, primarily olive trees and orange groves, were grown via chemical fertilizers and groundwater depletion. Unsustainable and incredibly sad to witness.
As we neared the coast, Malaga and especially Almeria, vast greenhouse complexes came to dominate the landscape and horizon. There were stretches of highway where all one could see on both sides were acres and acres of white plastic. Curious about how this complete and utter destruction of the natural countryside came to pass we were informed that the reason for the multitude of plastic was to supply peppers and tomatoes to Northern Europe on demand. Commodification had transformed this part of Andalucia into vast monocultures of olives, oranges, almonds and plastic. Nowhere we looked appeared to remain untouched by this anthropocentric phenomenon. Nothing, it seemed, remained wild.
While researching interesting locations for us to visit and cross referencing my findings on Google maps Andalucia seemed to me to be somewhat open and uncrowded. And while there were stretches in the Sierra Nevada mountain range where this was true it was indeed very shocking to come to any town of moderate size and find ourselves in a maelstrom of traffic and a beehive of activity. The first up close and personal example of this was when we arrived at our first destination of Jerez de la Frontera. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what we found.
The pace of Jerez was somewhat akin to rush hour Manhattan traffic without the benefit of traffic lights or any other traffic control measures. Navigating Spanish roundabouts in a manual transmission rental car via Google maps on a smartphone perched on my knee was like trying to juggle two shih-tzus and a mango while doing tree pose in my wife’s yoga class. Almost impossible, but I have seen it done. When you approach these roundabouts here in Spain you need to be prepared to make split second decisions while maintaining a certain sense of bravado because any hint of hesitation will result in you missing an opportunity to scoot along with the flow of traffic. If you do flinch and miss your turn the result will be a cacophony of horns and a barrage of choice Spanish verbiage unfamiliar to virgin American ears. Nerve wracking but quite entertaining nonetheless. Navigating these roundabouts has a certain underlying rhythm that’s universally understood by the native drivers here but as a foreigner one feels as if they are an Irish step dancer performing amidst a flamenco troupe in the heart of Madrid. Luckily, with practice this rhythm becomes easier to understand and feel which boosts one’s bravado which in turn results in a much smoother flow of traffic and calmer state of mind.
Thanks to these experiences and upon reflection it appears that I finally understand how, as an American, we have certain expectations and understandings of the definition of space. Cuturally we’ve received via our education and understanding of history the inherent belief in manifest destiny. We were taught that there was and always will be a frontier for us to expand to, somewhere we could always escape to. There was and always will be a wilderness and wild space “out there.” In Spain specifically, from what I’ve seen and perceived, this credo doesn’t exist. And that feeling is palpable. Suffice it to say that for me Southern Spain feels very contained, sort of like every square inch has been accounted for and there is no where else to roam. Not even New York City felt that way to me because there was always places like Vermont three hours away where the forests were regenerating and nature reigned supreme. I’m hoping to come to terms with these cultural biases as our journey continues but in the meantime we’ll be heading back to Northern Portugal where the sense of freedom is much more discernible and the roudabouts much easier to navigate.
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