Trip Reports

In A Little Spanish Town (14-Oct-2002-20-00):
8:00 PM local time, Monday, October 14 (1800 Oct. 14 UTC) 36 09 N 005 21 W. Temp. 75, Humidity 68%, Cloud Cover 0%. At a berth in Gibraltar.

As the train in Spain rolled gamely through the rain, which, as a matter of fact, does not fall mainly on the plain, I reflected that in fact I had never been to Spain, but I have of course been to Oklahoma, and arguably have spent somewhat more of my life than was strictly prudent, living on Tulsa time. But nevertheless I had left Maverick in Mr. Shrode's care and I had set out to visit Granada and Seville by rail.

From Gibraltar I walked across the border to Spain and then took a bus to the train station. Granada was about five hours away. For the first couple of hours the landscape was little different from our oak woodlands in California. Out the window familiar trees rushed by, including eucalyptus, live oak, alder, cottonwood, cypress, poplar, acacia, and what could have been tanoak. There was also agave, prickly pear cactus, sword fern, and perhaps some sage. But there were some less familiar plants. I observed the cork oak, (Quercus suber), like we saw in Sardinia. Cork is obtained by stripping the bark from the lowest twelve feet or so of the trunk, which can be done repeatedly without killing the tree. I also saw a curious palm shrub, consisting of numerous fronds growing in a clump no more than four feet high but up to fifteen feet in diameter. The other noteworthy thing was the amount of land given over to the cultivation of olive trees, which must be hundreds of square miles.

As the journey continued we passed into some topography much like the more arable parts of northern Utah and headed into the mountains. Grenada is located in a setting similar to that of Auburn, in the foothills of mountains someone had the nerve to name the "Sierra Nevada." I took a big liking to this place, which has endless cobblestone streets and feels somewhat less modern than other European cities its size although it really isn't. There's a bazaar that is much more like a hippie market than that place in Formentera. Noticing a strong smell of incense, we glimpse mysterious, furtive characters, dark tea-houses, and exotic and elaborately ornate bags, lamps, clothes, and jewelry, inspired by Arabic designs. The main tourist attraction is an Arabic palace which is a located in a complex of fortifications and buildings called the Alhambra, like the dragstrip they advertised when I was a kid in southern California. The palace has a lot of intricate carvings, do-dads, and thing-a-ma-jigs (Arabic dhu-dha'adz and jjing-'ahmed-jhiggz). I didn't really get much from it. You can do just fine without going through the bother of getting a ticket for this place, in my opinion.

After a day an a half I took another train on to Seville. It's a larger city, less quaint, and located in a less picturesque setting. There is a gothic cathedral that is massive and ornate but to my eye was a ham-fisted, clunky mess. There is an Arabic palace that I found no more fascinating than the one in Granada. The first night I was there I found myself at a Flamenco performance. I hadn't intended on going to one. All that stomping and clomping, those severe looks and knitted brows. But there was a show right around the corner from the cheap pensione where I was installed.

Is it better when we know nothing of the art we experience? It's been twenty years at least since I could watch a band play without picking it to pieces, whereas when I was a kid almost any band was a source of fascination and wonder. If it were just hormones, I suppose I would expect to have a reduced emotional response to anything sensual, like the narrator of Wordsworth's Ode to the Intimations of Immortality, but I don't think this is the case, exactly. It seems it has more to do with familiarity. Perhaps something's lost, but something's gained, or perhaps something's not lost, or something's not gained, or perhaps things are about the same, or maybe they're different. How should I know?

The performance was held in the courtyard of a traditional Spanish house, and it was sold out. The troup consisted of just a guitar player and a singer, both male, and a female dancer. The guitarist looked about 25 and was an astonishing virtuoso. There were solo guitar pieces, songs by the vocalist with guitar accompaniment, and dances. Unaccountably, and more or less uncontrollably, almost from the moment they began until the end of the hour, I wept.

The next afternoon I attended a bullfight. I wasn't going to go, as the idea has always struck me as abhorrent. Theresa had seen one in Mexico City and reported that the only gratifying moment was seeing the matador get gored. Yet, there was the Plaza de Toros, one of the oldest such arenas in the world, and there was I. I inquired about seats and found they weren't cheap, with the most expensive about $94. I bought one for $25.

The bull enters the ring ready to rumble. I don't know what they do to him just before they let him in there, but he isn't doing zen meditation or getting a nice massage. The banderilleros, who are sort of assistant matadors, taunt him and get him to run across the entire ring, giving him a bit of aerobic exercise. One of these will also take a few passes with the bull, tiring him further and giving the matador a chance to do some reconnaissance, seeing whether he favors attacking from left or right. Then the fight progresses in three stages, as 1. A man (a picador) on the back of a blindfolded and padded horse goads the bull into attacking the poor horse and then stabs him with a lance, further weakening him; 2. Another man sticks three pairs of banderillas in the bull's back; and then 3. The matador kills the bull by sticking a sword in his back up to the hilt. I'll say this for it, there are no special effects, not even an announcer, just that familiar sound of the bullring music. The bull really is trying to kill someone, the men are really in danger (one was gored in the leg on the day I was there), and they have a practiced and steady courage in the face of it, which is the point.

After only two or three minutes into the bullfight, the bull shows signs of tiring and is probably dimly aware that all of his might and ferocity are having little effect on his opponents. By the time the banderillas are in his back, he is in a lot of pain, is spent, panting, and confused. What he cannot know is that the man he now faces is a professional, exquisitely skilled killer who has dispatched hundreds like him. He has spent most of the days of his life since childhood learning and rehearsing the subtle moves necessary to make a fool of the bull while he poses gracefully and ever so slightly out of range of the deadly horns, in a ballet costume. It is easier to cry than to laugh at the bull's inability to see that it is the man he must fight, not the cape. After a particularly impotent set of charges by the bull, the matador will flick the sword in his direction in an arrogant dismissal, turn his back on him and strut away in an outrageously disdainful manner that for some reason no one in the arena, including the bull, finds laughable. By contrast, even in all of his agony, the bull is unbowed and dignified. He never turns his back on the fight, never seems to consider running away, and pretends to no coy displays with which to charm an audience.

The moment before the matador attempts to pierce the bull with his sword, he holds it towards him as if aiming, but perhaps it is a salute, or a prayer. The man, aided by his assistants (another unfairness, isn't it?), has used an ancient cunning to trump the bull's power and speed, and yet he remains unafraid. Even now, when the sword is plunged home, the bull strikes out with what's left of his strength, enraged. The banderilleros immediately run out with their pink capes and engage him, turning him from one attack to the other. The apparent reason for this is to make sure that his proud but lacerated heart will pump its last blood at a high enough rate that his blood pressure will quickly drop, and he will faint. We don't want to keep the customers waiting. Down on his belly, he still holds his head up and offers his horns to anyone who steps near. Finally someone does, and with a deft move as the animal's consciousness dims, he takes a small knife and severs his spinal chord.

Two guys woke up the other day, looked up at the blue sky, felt the sun on their backs, maybe had something to eat. They both made their way to the arena, where one was tortured mentally, and physically, and then ritually killed, never losing his courage; the other paid a price to relax on a stone bench and sip a cold beverage, while he observed the whole scene as if it were an entertainment. Honestly, I'd just as soon have been neither of those guys. ADDENDUM Apologies to professor Turner for butchering the French language in quoting him, something he would never have done.

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