Since it’s August, I wanted to share a chapter from Book 3 in my Andalusian series, Olive Leaf Tea. I hope the readers find it enjoyable.
‘Why is there never any fresh fish on the coast?’ I was huffing and puffing in annoyance.
‘It was supposed to be a fishing village! Where is the fish?’ I was arguing with myself while Robert was treading behind. He had lost his will to live an hour earlier and was now non-responsive.
By that point in time, we had been walking the streets of Mojácar for two hours in search of fresh fish to eat. My private obsession has spoiled many a holiday evening, but when I go on a beach holiday, I insist on eating fresh fish.
‘Where’s the fish?’ I was talking to myself while striding the narrow pavement of the holiday village. ‘I really don’t understand how difficult it is to get up in the morning, go to the harbour, buy some fish from the fishermen, and then cook it in your restaurant.’
My uninformed opinion of how to run a seaside fish restaurant did not seem to interest my husband.
‘Who wants to eat hamburgers and pizza by the sea?’ I was asking rhetorical questions. Robert wasn’t even listening.
Just an hour earlier, already defeated by the hunt for the elusive fresh fish, he suggested we have pizza at a touristy fast-food restaurant instead. Families and couples of various nationalities, mostly European from the languages I could discern, were seated on white plastic chairs in front of wobbly tables covered by red checkered PVC tablecloths. The place was lively and busy, but I refused to go in.
‘No, I didn’t come to the coast to eat frozen pizza from a microwave,’ I was adamant. I gave the establishment’s patrons a dirty look from the sidewalk, and we continued our quest. I was purposefully disparaging the place. I had no idea if the pizza was frozen and reheated in a microwave oven. From what I knew, it could have been the best pizza outside of Florence. But it wasn’t what I was after.
The year before, we had gone with my sister and her family to Calahonda — a small fishing village, now a modest tourist resort, not far from Motril. I chose the place because of the low price of the beach hotel. I noticed that when you travel as seven people, the price is often what dictates your destination. I set up the booking inquiry on the booking website within a price range that allowed us to stay at a beach hotel but also prevented us from returning home with massive debt. Because it was the end of September, the hotel where we stayed was already winding down for the winter, when it would be completely closed to guests. The price was perfect. It included breakfast, and the hotel was right on the beach. One thing that might explain the low price was that, unlike the beaches outside Malaga or Fuengirola, the beach at Calahonda consists of pebbles and stones.
For me, it was an advantage because it meant less sand in the hotel room. But my niece, who was three, and my nephew, who was four, could not comprehend such an abomination. They stood at the entrance to the ‘beach’ with their colourful buckets and spades, ready to make cakes and build sand castles, unable to comprehend what was in front of their eyes. I could empathise with their disappointment. In one of my adolescent hitchhiking escapades through Europe, my two girlfriends and I ended up in Rome. After a day of admiring various feats of architecture and art, we were ready for a day at the beach. We consulted a map, found a place by the sea, and took a train there. Our time on the train flew by in our excitement about a day by the Mediterranean Sea, but all our enthusiasm left us as soon as we saw the black sand that confronted us. It was like a cruel joke set up for three Eastern European girls whose expectations of a beach holiday on the Med were informed by glossy travel brochures. We kept brave faces and made the most of the day, but in all honesty, I did not enjoy myself.
Twenty years later, in Calahonda, I had a more mature perspective on life and calmly accepted the pebbled beach. Because of all the rocks and stones, the snorkelling there was great. Even though it was late September, the water was still warm and crystal clear, and there was a good variety of marine life to observe underwater. In anticipation of how mental I might get in the evening looking for the catch of the day to eat, Robert went out on his own during the day and scouted the nearby restaurants vis-á-vis his requirement — low price for the fish; and mine — that it be fresh from the sea.
As luck would have it, our own hotel had a beach restaurant that served the catch of the day at a non-exorbitant price. To make sure that there was fish ready for us, Robert made a reservation, and all we had to do was walk downstairs from our room into a restaurant decorated with orchids and other tropical flowers and be served perfectly cooked cod with a bottle of wine. It did remind me a lot of Thailand, which might be why I was so fervently searching for the same experience a year later in Mojácar.
But after another hour of walking, I was a broken person too. I wished we had stayed at the touristy pizzeria. At least we wouldn’t have been hungry and exhausted, and we would have had stories to discuss by eavesdropping on the other patrons’ private conversations and judging their misbehaving children. One of the joys of being a childless couple is that on holidays, you can spend hours criticising people’s poor parenting skills with a great sense of superiority. No matter how tempting it was to go back to the pizzeria, I was not going to surrender. We kept on walking. That is the power of holidays. You spoil your current one by trying to replicate the good times you had in the past.
I can’t explain what made me think that Mojácar was a small fishing village. It might have been the fact that it was our first time on the coast of Almeria — one of the favourite summer destinations for Spaniards from inland Andalusia. My neighbour, Rafa, had told me stories of the incredible beauty of Cabo de Gata, a wild nature reserve on the coast between Almeria city and Mojácar. Based on these stories, I imagined the whole Almeria coast to be untouched by tourism and consumerism. I expected the villages near the pristine nature reserve to be genuine and unspoilt. But it was quite the opposite.
Instead of an idyllic fishing village, Mojácar — at least the part of the village that is located by the sea, not the other side which is in the mountains and looks very much like Montefrio or any other white village with a castle stuck on top of it — turned out to be full of hideous tourist resorts. I was struck by the endless rows of identical balconies, one on top of the other facing the sea. On our very long hike through the village, we saw hundreds of them — or at least it felt like it. They were cramped little spaces where one would have neighbours all around and be forced to listen to their inane conversations from neighbouring balconies; because when people partake in a seaside holiday, they often fail to modulate the volume of their voice. It must be the constant susurrus of the waves that prompts people to yell at each other all day long.
I knew this type of resort holiday all too well. I had been there before, searching for the elusive Mediterranean holiday experience with sandy beaches, palm trees, and cocktails. As soon as you unpack your suitcase after a long flight and decide to sit down on the terrace with a crime novel and a glass of wine, you are confronted by your neighbours. On the right, a bargain-loving Brit in the sun — stuck for hours in her deckchair, drinking conspicuously transparent sparkling drinks, and doing sudokus. On the left, a couple of German sun-worshippers, now the colour of overcooked caramel, are lying on their sun loungers as if mummified and developing third-degree skin burns. You sigh at the company and go inside your room to get a fresh drink. There, you discover that right above your bedroom, there is a family with two or more kids; it’s difficult to estimate from the level of noise they make. They all seem to have been in some terrible accident at some stage in their lives because their wooden prosthetic legs hammer against the ceiling above you all day and late into the night.
‘Never mind. I’ll sit on the terrace anyway,’ you try to convince yourself that the thumping does not bother you at all.
That’s when you hear the emerging ruckus underneath your terrace. There, oblivious to everyone in the world and enjoying the communal pool as if it were part of a private villa, you find the staple of any Spanish coastal resort, the stag or hen party. During the course of the day, you learn a lot about the individual members of the gang because they shout joking insults to each other from the swimming pool on the ground floor to the terrace of their holiday apartment on the fourth. This way, everyone in that wing of the hotel is kept up to date on their comings and goings. You are regularly informed about their physical and mental well-being: who is wasted, who is about to pass out, and who is taking the mickey. It’s enchanting.
‘At least we’re not staying in one of these places,’ I pointed to Robert as we passed yet another resort hotel.
It was true. Ours was a small hotel run by a Spanish family. I booked it because the primary photo they used to advertise it featured a view of the sea with the beach framed by lush pink bougainvillaea. There are but a few things in life that won’t sell if you put a pink bougainvillaea next to them. As soon as I saw the delicate flowers against the backdrop of the blue sky, I was hooked and lured in. Living a thousand meters above sea level and surrounded by hills and mountains, I needed a change of scenery. Especially because the Andalusian countryside can look quite desolate in the summer — the landscape takes on various shades of yellow ochre. The once colourful wildflowers and tall green grasses become desiccated and serve as a reminder of how dry it is.
From the photo provided to me on the booking site, I imagined us walking out of the hotel directly onto the beach. And indeed, I could walk from the hotel to the beach. But to do so, I had to become a human Pac-Man to cross a very busy main road and then walk down a narrow street for another two hundred meters. How the photographer had managed to capture the tiny sliver of the beach seen from the hotel car park was a mystery that I set out to solve as soon as we had finished checking in. I poured myself a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from our portable fridge and went outside to investigate. Like a female Columbo, I walked between cars and motorbikes for half an hour, bending over, kneeling and squinting my eyes, trying to find the exact angle from which the misleading photo was taken.
‘I think they photoshopped it,’ I informed Robert of my findings as I stepped on top of our portable fridge to access my side of the bed where my mobile phone was charging on a miniature bedside table.
The room itself was another triumph of photo editing. I had stayed in my share of tiny rooms, but this one was made for dolls. Once we had placed our luggage on the floor, there was no more space to walk inside the room. If someone were watching us from outside — which would have been impossible because the only window in the room faced a brick wall two feet away — they might have thought we were playing the floor is lava. The room was perfectly designed for this game.
I could easily retrieve my clothes from the wardrobe without getting out of bed. From there, I could hop on one of the suitcases and step directly onto the bathroom mat. From the bathroom, I was but a step away from leaving the room entirely and finding myself in the hotel lobby, which was carpeted. I’m obviously lying when I say I could take my clothes out of the wardrobe without getting out of bed since the suitcases on the floor prevented the dinky wardrobe’s doors from opening.
Considering ourselves fully-grown hoteliers by now, we decided to while away the rest of the afternoon by reading the hotel’s reviews online. If you’re staying at a miserable place, like we were, perusing the reviews of fellow sufferers will quickly cheer you up. Nothing makes me feel better than reading other people’s righteous indignation. Skimming through negative hotel reviews is even better if you’re staying at a lovely place where you can’t fault anything. I highly recommend going online and reading their bad reviews. You will be provided with hours of free entertainment and might even gain some insight into the petty side of humanity.
Once we finished reading all the negative comments about our hotel, we felt better and almost vindicated. We were not the only ones who had been duped by the photo of the beach and the spacious-looking rooms with sea views. We then began to compare our own guest rooms to the one where we were staying.
‘We’re charging too little for our rooms,’ Robert stated the obvious after seeing the prices of other tiny rooms advertised online in Mojácar.
‘Yes, but we don’t have a beach on our doorstep,’ I explained.
‘We could photoshop it.’
‘Mhm…we could also photoshop the Niagara Falls in the background whilst we were at it and the Taj Mahal in the front garden.’
After we had exchanged several more creative ideas on how to make the location of our guesthouse more appealing to international tourists, it was time to set off to find a place to eat. We never did manage to find a fish restaurant that satisfied both of our expectations. We ended up eating nuts and chips and drinking wine on the beach. We both felt satisfied with the meal — me with the fact that we were not sitting in a fast-food eatery, and Robert was happy to be saving money by not eating horribly overpriced fresh fish in the only place we found that served it. The restaurant in question provided white tablecloths but charged a small fortune for a bottle of wine that usually costs two euros fifty. The next day, we went to Mini Hollywood, which was only an hour’s drive from the coast and the main reason we had come to this part of Almeria.
Consider the feeling of déjà vu and the feeling of being trapped inside a simulacrum. At Mini Hollywood, we experienced both such states of mind. While most of us have a déjà vu now and again, being immersed within a simulacrum is a common enough event but may be challenging to spot. This is the case because the idea of a simulacrum is not easy to comprehend, or at least it took me a few years to do so. If you’re a student of literature or art, you would have learnt of simulacra and the roles they play. A simulacrum can be succinctly defined as ‘bad imitation’. But this definition does not capture the full extent of the fantastic effect simulacra may have on the observer. A simulacrum is a copy that does not claim to be sourced from the original that we might believe it’s putatively imitating. It’s better than the original. It’s more polished, prettier, and redesigned so that everyone can enjoy it without thinking of the reality it transcends.
Mini Hollywood was built in the 1960s as a set for Spaghetti Western movies, called such because most of the actors and film crews were Italian. Their voices were dubbed into English for American audiences. As we drove across the desert and the dry mountains of Almeria, it was clear why Sergio Leone had chosen this area to film. We could have been in Arizona or Colorado. Because we knew it from the Westerns we had seen as children, the landscape seemed strangely familiar. The odd giant cactus, strange rock formations, dry river beds — they all made us feel at home.
Once inside the theme park, the feeling of familiarity did not leave us. Wherever we looked, we felt as if we had been there before: inside the cold, dusty prison cell, behind the sheriff’s desk, in an old pharmacy, by the gallows in the main square, and inside the saloon. A shootout broke out at midday, and we watched it as if it was a completely normal thing to happen. A common-day occurrence. Jesse James and some other bandits jumped off second-floor balconies onto conveniently placed hay bales. Once on the ground, they stole the sheriff’s horses and disappeared in the cloud of dust with their revolvers raucously shooting bullets into the air. Everyone was mesmerised by the show.
‘Let’s go to the saloon,’ I suggested once the dust had settled down and it was evident that the actors had gone off on their lunch break.
The saloon was complete with a swing door, flowery red wallpaper, plush curtains, chandeliers, a piano, and a row of can-can dancers. Sitting at a table and drinking beer, I could observe the balustrade of the second floor where the ‘girls’ would live and ‘work’. I loved every minute inside this strange, unreal world. It was better than the real Wild West. To start with, I was confident it was cleaner, and it even had presentable toilets and running water. As a woman, I could sit comfortably in the saloon, drink cold beer and not worry about the possibility of getting raped or shot, or both. No orphans or poor children were begging outside the grocer’s or doing physical labour for a loaf of bread. The kids ran around with plastic pistols and pretended to be shooting each other. Unlike their antecedents from the previous centuries, they had no care in the world.
The world is a better place now than ever before, I thought to myself while enjoying this nostalgic rendition of the good old Wild West.
‘I’d definitely come back,’ I told Robert. ‘There’s so much more to see here.’