Our last day in Ronda was the kind of day that feels like three. We had made some logistical decisions the night before, and now the pace was picking up.
Scene One: The luxury hotel. Our heroine tries to send out her weekly newsletter, only to find that her aging laptop has initiated an update. Frustration with “modern” technology and its attendant complications. Packing the backpacks. Doing the perimeter check. Finishing with barely ten minutes to spare. Checking out of the hotel and carrying all our worldly goods on our backs.
Scene Two: The tour van. We’ve hired a guide to take us on a package tour. When I spoke with her on the phone the previous day, we had agreed that she would drop us off at a restaurant for lunch, where we would catch the train back to Ronda. Now we are planning to go to the same station, but in the opposite direction. She accepts the presence of our enormous packs and graciously adjusts to our unannounced change of plans. (A lesson in British tact). It’s a rainy day, and we are glad to be in the van, relying on someone else to navigate.
We chatter all day about life as an expat in Spain, starting a business in a foreign country, and world affairs. Apparently the international perspective on US politics is that they are all bored already, because our election season goes on far too long. (This was April, still a full 7 months before the election). The sorry part is that my husband and I are quite sure “election season” will soon become full-time, with various hopefuls positioning themselves for future candidacy whenever it strikes their fancy. Might as well get their dirty laundry out of the way early on, so people can forget about it sooner.
Scene Three: The Roman ruins of Acinipo. Acinipo was a retirement village for legionnaires. Considering that it was an archaeological site, we were surprised at the relaxed attitude. We were allowed to walk around on the stage and sit on the seats in the amphitheater. (“There must have been cushion vendors.”) Our guide declaimed for us: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and we could hear how clearly the stone amplified her voice. What used to be a little community was now a bunch of rock piles. It looked like a concerted effort had been made to group the rubble of each building into its own pile, like batter in a muffin pan. We looked up the hill as we were leaving, and, even through the lush spring grass, it was still clear that a road had run right up the middle.
Scene Four: The Pileta Cave. We thought Acinipo was old. The paintings in the Pileta Cave had been carbon-dated back to the Cro-Magnons, over 25,000 years ago. When the lantern illuminated the first drawing and I saw the outline of a horse in red pigment, I cried. Put it on the list of Emotions That Have No Name. It wasn’t like a child’s drawing, where you ask what it’s supposed to be and then say, “Good job, honey!” It was ART. A confident human hand drew it in one stroke. It was clearly identifiable as a horse. More than that. If it had been attributed to any master painter, I would have believed it. There’s no way I could produce a horse that fine, even with a light table and tracing paper. Someone went out and found the materials for the red pigment, carried it up an extremely steep hill, brought it back into the depths of this cave, mixed the paint, and intentionally set out to represent a horse. Twenty-five thousand years ago. It’s still here for us to see. The unbroken chain of 25,000 years of humans trying their best to make beautiful things. Why? Because we can. It got worse, of course, because there were also paintings in black and yellow. These Neolithic people not only made paint, they had a palette. Nothing I have seen in my life has astounded or impressed me so much. They made art. They were like us. If we gave them iPads, they’d be able to figure them out.
Being in the cave has a lot to teach about architecture. Everything about the vaulted interior said CATHEDRAL. The dimensions of that space felt correct somehow for the human form. It’s like we’ve spent all our time here as a distinct species trying to replicate the feeling of a cave out of any materials we could find.
Oh, and by the way, they also had: CANDLES.
Scene Five: The descent. Getting up to the cave entrance requires climbing extremely steep stone steps for about ten minutes. They were cut in the 1920s. Like most of the stairs we climbed in Spain, they were uneven. Different depths, different heights, sharp edges, slick and slippery in the rain. The interior of the cave was worse in some ways. Black as pitch, pools of water right off the narrow walkways, no railings, nowhere to sit or take breaks. A strict, preservation-mandated 60-minute time limit. We hadn’t given it much thought until a fellow middle-aged American hailed us on his way up. He wanted to know about the accessibility of the cave, because his sister had just had knee surgery and they wanted to make sure she could handle it. We did our best to explain that HECK NO, this would probably be the worst place imaginable for a recovering surgery patient, other than a roller derby. “The doctor said exercise would be good for her.” As our account was winding up, the sister came into view far below. My heart broke the moment I saw her. She was at least 100 pounds overweight, a classic Obliger doing her best not to inconvenience or disappoint her travel companions, and she was clearly in pain. I bet a tooth none of her doctors ever told her that losing weight would make her life easier. It was so unfair to put her in that position, where she would feel that she was letting everyone down, yet there was no way she was going to make it for an hour-long tour through that dark, slick, narrow cave. They were going to ignore our report and go anyway. American optimism and independence at its finest. Good luck, dear heart.
In general, nothing we’ve seen in Europe is labeled in a way that would make clear to an American audience just how physically grueling access can be. (Because for the average European, it’s business as usual). There is no ADA. Okay, there are accessible restroom stalls, but that’s about it. There aren’t really any wheelchair ramps. Elevators are rare. Everything, and I mean freaking EVERYTHING, is up a million narrow stairs that are not up to any kind of code. If it’s not up a flight of stairs it’s on cobblestones. There usually aren’t safety rails and there also aren’t signs indicating DANGER or all the other stick-figures-in-peril signs to which we are accustomed. I felt oddly sad the first few days in Spain, when I noticed there were more people walking on crutches than I tend to see at home. It took over a week before I realized that what I wasn’t seeing were wheelchairs. In over five weeks of European travel, I’ve seen exactly four motorized wheelchairs, and only one of the occupants was even slightly overweight. This is probably because it would cost trillions of dollars to modernize the European cityscape to accommodate American-style mobility devices in any practical way. It couldn’t be done at all in any of the historic sites we like to tour. I haven’t been everywhere; maybe there are European cities with proper ramps and wide hallways, and I haven’t seen them yet. It’s something to consider, though.
If I’d gone in my fibromyalgia years, a single day touring any European city would have laid me out flat.
Scene Six: Cueva del Gato. This cave used to be navigable, but the immense jet of white water spewing out its mouth told a different story. All we could do was to hike through some underbrush and look at it. Thinking about being inside gave me the shivers. I hadn’t thought about it earlier in the day, but every single place we had been all day required stamina, agility, and the ability to climb steep hills.
Scene Seven: The restaurant. Our guide dropped us off at a fine foodie restaurant run by another British expat couple. In both cases, the couple had been on holiday in Spain and asked themselves, Why not stay? So they did. It’s just that simple and it happens all the time. They also shared the story that, while starting a business and getting through the bureaucratic red tape was very challenging, it was equally as difficult for native Spanish people. The food was devastating, at the level that makes most restaurants seem pointless. If I could cook like that, I would get up in the morning and stay in the kitchen all day.
As we were finishing our fine meal, another American couple came up to say hello. They had noticed my husband’s t-shirt, which favors a particular presidential candidate, and they were fellow supporters. We traded traveler’s tales. We’ve learned not to be impressed with ourselves for backpacking around a few cities, because we continue to meet retirees who could walk us into the dirt. This particular couple were walking to Ronda FROM EGYPT. Yeah. Just as they were departing, the gentleman dropped that they were 65. I would have guessed early 50s. They were both visibly more muscular than we were and they could technically have been our parents.
Scene Eight: The train station. There happened to be a train station about a three-minute walk from the restaurant. We walked over there and sat on a bench to wait for the train. Some swallows had built nests in the rafters, and we watched them. One of the males called to his mate, a distinct tune of nearly a dozen notes. Then he repeated it. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn he used a sort of grammatical marker, and that this particular tune represented a message or query. Actually I think I’m onto something. I did a study on why ducks quack in Animal Behavior back in college, and it’s clear for anyone to hear that birds make distinct vocalizations in distinct situations. I just don’t happen to speak Passerine.
Scene Nine: The train. We boarded and took our seats, and eventually the conductor came along and sold us tickets. We rode southwest to Algeciras. This train had vending machines, something I’d never seen before. We saw several pairs of hikers with backpacks and walking sticks. I saw my first stork nests, complete with storks.
Scene Ten: Algeciras. Gritty, kinda sketchy, ancient Algeciras. We planned to take a ferry tour to Tangier the next morning, so we were just going to get a hotel for the night and hit the road. There was a camping, but the bus that served it only ran for two months of the year. Due to our tight schedule, we simply stayed at the Marriott, a screaming bargain at $68 for the two of us. Breakfast included. We found a Lebanese place where the cook told us he served plant-based people every day. After our falafel, we booked our tour and figured out where the Port was.
We’d covered so much ground, met so many people, and seen so many sights that we were reeling. Next we’d venture to a new continent for the first time. Where would we eat? Where would we sleep? Our schedule was tentative and we had no idea. Back to the place of uncertainty, this time moving so quickly that we couldn’t really pause to contemplate it.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.