Homage to El Ejido

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Almerimar / Alastair Stewart
Almerimar / Alastair Stewart

Ryanair is a miserable means to an end. Adrenaline, however, powered me through that headache induced realisation until 12am when I arrived in Edinburgh from Spain. It was like the end of Inception, minus Hans Zimmer and with the addition of the cold and me wearing shorts in Scottish climes.

Living abroad for ten months, with a ten-day visit home at Christmas, dulls the senses a bit. It’s July now and after so long away and either by necessity or circumstance home becomes an intangible lucid dream in the back of your head: it’s so familiar that when you invoke it you’re there with every detail. When you return to Her Majesty’s shores the same thing can be said of El Ejido, where I work, or Almerimar, where I live. Sandy beaches, beautiful vistas and a deep love for my job teaching English: you get the gist.

The irony of all this is that I was the least likely to ever depart for pastures new in a foreign land. There was a long running joke that I would continually get annoyed by people and their tales of holidays, not because I was bitterly envious but because they kept pestering me to take one myself. I think, to be honest, it was a lack of green in my pocket and a lazy naivety about what travel involved that stopped me. I had never ventured to Europe but for two school trips to Belgium and Germany about 13 years ago and the only memorable part of that was meeting my best friend.

What have I learnt all this time away? In the early weeks, a haircut in Spain was the Devil’s business. I can understand about 70 percent of what I hear but will not be fluent anytime soon. So miming and a series of grunts for yay or nay are a dangerous game for the follicly-challenged  and makes Russian roulette in the Deer Hunter look fun.

Spain is different, but European. There is a safety net there, even if the setting and customs are far removed from your own. That was the thought, and in many ways it is and I still stand by it. But, it was a view tested dramatically in my second month when I first had to go to a doctor. The experience was isolating and lonesome, not only because of the language barrier but because it was, for the first time, so truly different.

I confess it is the only time that I ever felt frustrated with my inability to speak the language. Many speak English or in most occasions, there is simply no need for that linguistic fluidity when you’re doing the mundane like buying a pint.

I went to the equivalent of a GP surgery and you are given a ‘ticket’ in the way you do waiting in an Argos. Doctors do not leave their room to announce your appointment; it’s left to the patients sitting outside of their room to figure out who is next. Take the perennial language problem and throw into the mix feeling like death and you have something of an insufferable mood.

All the doctors wore emblazoned white surgical coats. Gone were the Marks and Spencer blazer and corduroy trousers of the old country. The whole thing, coupled with a huge, hospital like waiting room with rows of connected plastic chairs was very much what the media tells us the 1970s was like in Britain.

The doctors I saw were competent, but my prepared Google translate spiel on what was wrong didn’t take into account that my devices had no Wi-Fi to do the same for their diagnosis. The appointment quickly descended into one of their colleagues being the middle man on a speaker phone in a Charlie’s Angels fashion and a prescription was duly given.

At the end of the appointment the severe address that I ‘should learn Spanish’ was met with an anaemic, dark eye-shadow stare that indicated I said everything I needed to. I walked out of his office and a German woman who wasn’t outside before said in English that I took her appointment.

I was embarrassed and angry at the whole thing, but more annoyed that for someone who generally doesn’t take shit, I literally couldn’t argue back. It was a feeling to be repeated elsewhere, from bank transfers to being asked for bags in supermarkets, but being taciturn is a necessity and coming home made me see it’s induced a patience, a self-sufficiency and a calculating calm I’d never known before.

Ten months teaching and living in Spain and you would be forgiven for thinking I can speak passable Spanish. I speak smatterings now. But the plentitude of occasions where an advanced level is needed is lost on you until you’re in the midst of say, social occasions. How many evenings of sitting around a table silently? Verbosity, storytelling, and anecdotes were replaced with a polite silence and a few nods. Learning as I am, it will be years before I can converse on the same subjects and to the same standard as I can in English. It’s a challenge, rather than a drawback, and time with yourself allows you to focus more on what you want to do rather than the habit of going out every night to see friends as you would at home. Certainly, when you do spend time with other English speakers socially, in town or on the bus, it makes you see that the British habit of rolling your eyes when people who do not speak English are having a full blown foreign exchange is instead something to be tolerated and understood. The hypocrisy of not doing so would have been too much to bear.

It is these experiences that flesh out whether you’re on a one-year holiday jaunt or committed to the long haul of improving yourself. Stepping through the looking glass is one thing, but moving beyond the novelty of living abroad and deciding to make your life there is a decision which must be rooted in your ability to be humble, a desire to learn and a willingness and enjoyment of adapting. The voice inside your head will tell you soon enough, probably early on in the morning as it did me.

Moving away in the first instance represented a ridiculous turn around from a spell of bad luck. I’d finished a contract at a public affairs firm and loathed it. It was not for me. After a chance conversation with a friend, I was introduced by email and subsequently interviewed a week later for a TEFL position. I accepted, happy there was nothing to lose and more excited than I’d ever been. Something felt right, despite my nerves about having never taught before and having barely left the country.

Two weeks later and I was putting everything I owned into crate boxes. Packing up my books is a lingering memory: hundreds, strewn and stacked all over the place, falling down like glacial ice into the cold sea below at the slightest tremor. My only deeply missed and coveted material vice was my collection of history texts.

The third and final week was a haze of drinking and au revoirs that quickly turned into a Saturday packing my suitcase.

After goodbyes with my family, a friend collected me from Edinburgh and we drove to Glasgow from where I would fly to Malaga. A final dinner was joyous but tinged with slight solemnity. For a man noted for his complete obfuscation of poetry or volumes of quotes, from nowhere he recited General William T. Sherman to General Grant: “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come – if alive.” It cracked me up laughing, but no better words summed up how I felt about those I was leaving, and indeed how those who I was leaving felt about me.

On the whole, it was a relaxed departure; I recall no ‘oh shit’ moments but for a niggling suspicion that I’d forgotten something as soon as I arrived at Glasgow Airport on Monday morning. Bags. Passport and ticket (in a pocket tapped a hundred times). Plan to grab a commuting bus to the bus station. Scared to turn my phone on for roaming charges. iPad in a bag with photos of routes on my phone too. Altogether, organised. All there.

Like coming home most recently, the shoddiness of Ryanair was largely ignored in favour of better things. It is indescribable the elation and excitement of flying to Malaga during the day. The hypnotic rising and dipping of the plane made, from an aisle seat, the view below of a strange city and a new land look like taunting shark fins appearing and disappearing. The memory, the dawning of what it was that I’d committed to, gradually turned into a shock to the system in the final 45 minutes of the flight. It was the heat, all of a sudden all-encompassing at descending altitude and the turquoise sea below, which started the thought processes. Before I knew it, I was reassuring myself I could come back home at any time. I was nervous, but more excited than anything else and overcome with the feeling that I was doing something that was entirely and absolutely right.

Leaving the airport was strange, I was almost disheartened and frightful that the terminal I arrived into to collect my luggage was a bit dilapidated and worn. I was completely shocked with how hot it was and the 5am start.

I stepped out into the Spanish sun and waited in a queue to get into a taxi to go to Malaga bus station, then onto El Ejido. Meeting the driver, the realisation hit. In all the cautious excitement and hastened planning the great absence became glaring. I forgot to learn, program into my phone, write down or prepare any directions in Spanish. I panicked; I needed to be at the station within 45 minutes to get the afternoon bus and had little idea of how to even get a ticket.

With wild gesticulation anything was possible. But there was a real fear. The music in the car and the rise and fall of the vehicle along the motorways matched with the swirls and twirls of the horizon were all a complete enigma. The apprehension of a miscommunication palatable, I even showed the driver a screenshot picture of the bus station.

My abiding memory of that occasion will stay with me for the rest of my life. It dawned on me then and there that there was no problem that could not be dealt with, it was and would be just me and me alone to rely on my wits. I enjoyed it. There was always a way to win. Or a solid escape plan.

Yet this fish out of water moment, the newness of it all, the sun, smells, architecture and complexion held a single tinge of melancholy. Every country, every culture hence would be held in reference to this virginal moment of pure shock, this first journey to live somewhere new. It would never come again.

The bus station was close, but it didn’t change this from being the single most daunting cab ride of my life. Was I being scammed? It seemed much further than my maps had said. I said barely anything and the driver barely spoke English. A certain Police song that was playing on the car radio was quite appropriate and made me smile.

A small fortune later and three stone lighter from sweating, I stood in the bus queue for ASLA to get my ticket. I remember being quite proud that I’d figured that out. Some dodgy pronunciation later and I had my ticket (I still think it’s better to slur your words than grossly mispronouncing a foreign word). Looking back on it, you will never hear me say I was embarrassed about calling Jose ‘Hose’ or El Ejido ‘El Ejeedo’. I stood at the bus stop in the station, tired but strangely proud that I’d made it as far as I’d ever gone on my own.

The bus journey was about four hours. It remains one of the most beautiful spectacles I’ve ever seen; I took in the southern Spanish coast of rolling hills of tanned strangeness; rooftops of half-remembered clichés. Many of the classic Westerns had been filmed in this landscape, and it was easy to see why. The roads curved around hill after hill, a clear sky without a cloud in sight with the sea below a pearl blue. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for it was turning polite scepticism into barely contained enthusiasm for the destination.

The pit stop in Motril is the subject for another piece. Suffice it to say that it is where I thought a cheeky pint was in order and was presented with marinated anchovies and crisps to accompany it. I couldn’t figure out if it was free or not and when it was time to go I left awaiting a cry of foul play. That might have been the first moment of embarrassment, looking back!

The bus arrived at about 5pm, a good twelve hours after the departure and it was beginning to take its toll with a raging headache. I was collected and taken to my apartment that was lavishly splendid in its view of yellow hills and a nature reserve, all to the sound of the Alboran Sea two minutes away. It was overwhelming and by that stage, I didn’t know if I was awake or not, but glee remained. After a trip to the equivalent of Tesco, called Mercadona, we saw Almerimar. To stand at the marina and watch the red sun descend in a purple sky behind a vista of mountains was a crowning end to a neophyte day. The vision is normally seen in movies or on screensavers. Mere weeks before the days seemed to be a twilight of opportunity only to all of a sudden be replaced by a sunrise in another part of the world.

There was never a Napoleon in exile or Gatsby’s dream feeling to my journey. I never forgot the capricious good fortune of it all and how it made things feel so alive.

Coming home at Christmas was a delightful flash in the pan return, but it was not enough time to process the change that had been made. It was wonderful seeing family and friends and we delighted in a catch-up. As El Ejido and Almerimar are more sparsely populated, seeing the busy streets again was odd, not least of all for Christmas shopping where everything seemed to affront the senses; mothers with prams seemed to move like Panzer tanks roaming through a French town.

I’ve enjoyed Spain more than I’ve enjoyed anything. It stirred in me and allowed me to appreciate not only a new opportunity but showed me the career I love. If I had come back home anything other than absolutely exhausted I do not think I’d truly have put my all into my work and own projects (including a certain website you might know). Knowing that I am going back, and can do what I love where I love, is a happy feeling.

For these two months, I am back in Scotland. It’s even stranger and difficult to put into words just how much time has gone. It’s like Interstellar and relativity: Earth ages and moves on, but Cooper in spaceship doesn’t. The measure of a good life is what trivialities you remember. Big events might contribute to who we are, but it’s the little things and details, habits of family and friends that can help you tell the difference between a dream and living. Being in love with two places helps you remember the best from each.

You get used to it. Like all things, it’s about processing time; before you know it, you’ve never known anything different. Time is merely perception in the mind, filtered through your own memories, placing yourself in the context of your own life. Like extrapolating a ship’s position based on celestial navigation.

The excitement, the thought of new horizons is a feeling I thought would fade with time, but it’s actually only just begun. To borrow from a man who’s travelled a bit: “It’s taken me so many years, so many lifetimes, but at last I know where I’m going. Where I’ve always been going. Home. The long way round.”

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About Alastair Stewart 208 Articles
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He was previously a press officer in the Scottish Parliament and worked in public affairs. He graduated from Edinburgh University with an MA in International Relations and writes regularly on politics and the arts in the Spanish and British press.

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