San Justo talks of waves, plural, but also of “the wave”, singular, and “our wave”, possessive. His hometown is renowned for a particular swell pattern that recurs right below us, where the Oka River flows out through the Urdaibai Estuary and into the Bay of Biscay. Current, tide, and prevailing winds converge upon a sand bar just beyond the harbour wall, often forming the kind of barrel wave more common to Indonesian coral islands than gusty North Atlantic shorelines. Surfers call it “the longest left in Europe”, and they can ride it for a good 90 seconds, perhaps 10 of those spent gliding through the “tube” itself.
IT is customary for many citizens of Madrid to get the hell out of town this time of year, to flee the demented heat of August for some breezier redoubt on the coast. But there is an opposing tradition among those who stay put: practically mandatory attendance at a trio of street parties, thrown for a trinity of patron saints, in three adjoining neighbourhoods just south of the city centre.
Last week, ahead of the market’s 40th anniversary in November, I was issued with a visitor pass, a high-vis vest, and a guide named Paloma de la Riva. We walked in well before dawn, the moon a thin yellow hook above the looming hangarlike roof. And behind the briny curtain was something akin to a teeming indoor harbour, its nocturnal community working hard along soaked and crowded streets of wood palettes and styrofoam crates.
Driving his sheep and goats between Mediterranean pines in the backwoods of the park, Garzón said that he esteemed shepherds in general as stewards of the Earth. By his count, he said, “There are two billion of us. One quarter of the global population, conserving 100% of the territory that our animals graze across. Reindeer in Siberia, llamas and alpacas in the Andes, camels in the deserts. There would be no life without shepherds.”
We sit with a village elder she calls King Toto, who is carving a bamboo drum with cracked fingers while smoking powerful ganja. He also brews “rum-rot”, an alcoholic herbal medicine that he claims has “made many babies”, including some of his own. And it seems his kingly perogative to give only the most gnomic answers to questions about his life and worldview. “I put everything in the fire,” he tells me. “I burn everything corrupt.”
THE first bear, or its ghostly heat signature, appears through the thermal binoculars about five minutes after we start looking. Without that expensive piece of kit – worth €6000, I’m told by field guide José García Gonzalez – we would never be able to see it in the dark before dawn, having just pulled up to the crash barrier at the edge of a high and lonely road above the Xunceras river valley. There it is, as rendered by the high-tech lenses: a brown bear showing white against the black of the opposite slope. A spirit animal moving across a near-vertical void.
ALMOST 3000 years ago, Ibiza was believed to be blessed by the ancient god of good things. His name was Bes: enemy of evil spirits, defender of women and children, enthusiastic strangler of venomous serpents. And this island was first named after him – Ibosim – by his Phoenician worshippers, who found the place most hospitably free of snakes. “Bes loved wine, food, music, dancing, and sex!” my guide Martina Greef shouts to me across the choppy water as we kayak out of Port Brut. “And he had a body like yours!”
ELIAS Canetti has been among the dead since 1994. If the underworld is anything like it was envisioned in ancient Greek or Chinese mythology – which Canetti found infinitely more “liberating” than contemporary religion – then it’s easy enough to imagine him standing somewhat apart down there, somewhere between the forgotten multitudes and the abiding titans that he venerated in life: Breughel, Pascal, Stendhal etc.
SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS is commonly declared the enemy of art. The mind catches itself in the lofty act of creation, finds the work-in-progress embarrassing, and complains that it cannot be expected to express itself under this kind of withering scrutiny. David Foster Wallace felt this acutely from an early age, telling a university roommate that he could only write well when he was barely aware of himself and his surroundings: “When I can’t feel my ass in the chair.”
IN the year before the pandemic I got a new gig, a side hustle, guiding tourists around Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts in Madrid. Starting at an ancient tavern and ending at a basement speakeasy, I led a glorified pub crawl across my adopted home town in the wake of a raging alcoholic.