Until the Arabs came, this was the end of the world. Everything to the west was monsters and mystery; everything to the south was sultry, secretive and uncivilised. To the Syrians and their Berber hordes it became a new frontier, and a potential route to the domination of Europe, but until that moment, for the people they were about to conquer, it was the edge of the known. For some it still is of course – Europeans are in plentiful supply who would willingly go no further.
Sitting on a bus and looking at the back of someone’s head can be a bracing business; we never see the back of our own heads and it’s probably just as well – this evening’s guy has hair cropped short with salt and pepper flecks and a line of imperfections along the rim of his ear (spots or old wounds of some sort) that he continually rubs and picks at. He has a way of sneezing that makes me wince even though he’s doing it in the opposite direction: a series of near silent convulsions after which he checks his hands, his jacket and the window for mucous. My hand’s been resting on the miserly ledge at the bottom of my window and just behind his seat; I pull it back a little and breath as shallowly as I can, impatient to get off and suddenly conscious that a blemish at the back of my own ear may be disgusting someone at this very moment, grey hairs involuntarily counted, greasy collar disapproved of.
But it isn’t a journey I would willingly cut short. For one thing, it’s the way home and I’d like to get there. For another, the daily drive gives me time to look and think. I’ve written about the circuits I take on foot around Tarifa and how they have become externalised thought processes for me. This is the wheeled version – the spectacular bus ride from home to work and work to home which I’ve taken so many times now it has to be hard-wired in me – a permanent impression, retinal and synaptic, that formats my thought.
And what a format. Although the N340 from Algeciras to Tarifa begins by winding close to the Mediterranean coast – the Rock of Gibraltar and its African counterpart, Jebel Musa, in full view – the country here is distinctly Atlantic. “Looks like Wicklow” is a running and presumably, for K, rather tiresome joke of mine. I say it whenever we lay eyes on some wild wonder. I said it in the Cares Gorge and, believe me, the Cares Gorge looks nothing like Wicklow. We’ve never visited the Grand Canyon but I’m pretty sure that if we did, I would turn to her and observe that it looked like Wicklow.
This place really does look like Wicklow though. Not even the high summer of southern Spain can bleach the green out of it. We never see the parched browns and charred, near black burn of Extremadura to the north or more easterly parts of Andalucia. It is wet and verdant and, particularly as the road rises through the village of Pelayo, misty. The continent tapers to an end in a series of streams and rivulets and the valleys they have carved out like ripples on the earth, tectonic folds in a ruffled green sheet.
At this time of year in particular the Wicklow comparison is apt – the slopes above and below the road are ablaze with swathes of the same yellow flowering gorse that lines the country roads of that county. It looks like some benevolent bushfire sweeping across the hills and valleys. Like coast roads everywhere, this one curves and dips, as does the land around it – up to the wind turbines that turn on the ridge and down to the wild shore, a good distance away from the elevated highway.
On the other side of the gleaming water the craggier outcrops and mountains of Morocco, almost black save for the wrinkles of Jebel Musa, which blush in the soft light of the setting sun. Cargo ships like bootless skates as they slip and slide along the Strait; some of them will turn left when they hit the open water, some right. The little old fincas that predate the road they can be seen from, snug in their long occupied spots like crumbs that have rolled and come to a stop where the fabric folds. The horned red cattle on the hillsides and the odd meadow speckled with snowy white wild flowers. The well-maintained little tracks that curl and thread their way on the seaward side, connecting the compounds and homesteads like draped ribbons.
As if I needed further reminder of my origins, the weather the following day, on my way back in the opposite direction is thoroughly Gaelic – which is to say mixed, and wet. Every fifty metres, in every direction, the light changes. I can see rain falling from nearby clouds in vertical shafts of dirty grey, curtains of water under a veiled sun. The clouds above me are a study in difference – difference in colour, in altitude, in shape and in speed.
The yellow gorse, the spots of rain and light, the windy bluster – a study in similarity, and in evoking the place where I started out in life, it underlines the circuitous route by which I have ended up here. As the road nears Tarifa in the evening, it gently descends and reveals the open Atlantic, the sun pinkening above it and the vast water gleaming. I have likened the view here (of two seas and two continents) before to a page in the atlas and, if I say so myself, it’s a good analogy. Quite apart from any journeys I may have undertaken, this little town at the end of the world has been on its own: gateway of the Arab empire, the key to Spain, Muslim outpost, Christian stronghold, backwater, fishing village, kitesurf resort. It has come a long way.
At the entrance to the town the bus passes a down-at-heel barrio of drab, shabby apartment blocks that have just this week been partially transformed. The first three blocks now sport spectacularly ornate artwork on their sidewalls. The four story spaces are filled with ornate Arab calligraphy and portraits of Muslim women. Cranes were brought in to assist the artists to complete their work. It is shocking and delightful, especially in such a hard-up neighbourhood, and was funded by something called the Foundation of the Three Cultures which is based in Cordoba and is dedicated to Spain’s Christian, Jewish and Muslim past.
Even now, more than thirteen hundred years since Tarif Ibn Malik landed here with his advance party, the culture he brought with him has the vitality left in it to contribute to the place. To the community. To brighten up a neighbourhood. Tarifa has indeed come a long way, but the ties remain. And so do mine. Life isn’t made of departures, or arrivals. It’s made of the ways that wind and turn (and twist and surprise) between them. And there is no point in subscribing to “always look ahead” or “stay true to your roots” simplifications – the traffic flows both ways.