The Salt

The peoples of the Iberian peninsula are going through a tough time—a recent article in a Spanish newspaper tells us that the gradual improvement in living conditions since the great recession of 2008 was blindsided by the pandemic.

Over three million Spaniards are suffering “severe material hardships”—this kind of language is common in Latin nations and doesn’t provide much transparency… what does severe mean? What kind of hardships?

Well, one third of the population of fifty million people cannot afford to take a one-week vacation per year. Eleven percent can’t adequately heat their home. Over five percent can’t eat meat or fish once every two days. Is that severe enough?

Southern Spain has a number of towns where drug smuggling is big business—a reflection of the proximity of Africa and Europe. Places like La Linea or Sanlucar, where you can dine in upmarket restaurants and see a table full of young men wearing the trappings of wealth—expensive clothes, costly jewelry, and beautiful women.

But for every opulent table where the gamba blanca, lobsters, and Cristal champagne flow, there’s an army of poverty and desgracia—the mules who carry the dope for a pittance, the boys who unload the gomas as they put into dark coves or wend their way into the saltmarshes of the Guadalquivir.

Five hundred bucks a night to unload bales of Moroccan hashish from the rubber boats, or to take gas and food out to the boats sitting offshore. These days, after the 2018 law banning RIBs, the rigid inflatables sit just outside the twelve mile limit, waiting to come in.

The boys charge around on scooters, the men are unemployed, jailed, or dead, the mothers and grandmothers live hand to mouth.

This is the coast that saw Columbus and Magellan sail, a part of the world notorious for adventurers, destitutes, opportunists, and scrabblers—part Spanish, part Moorish, part Gypsy, part Jewish—itinerant folk who seem part of a previous century.

A hundred miles west lies the Ria Formosa, a set of barrier islands on the Portuguese side of the border. Small communities exist on the islands themselves—villages perched in the sand, whose people depend on what the ocean provides.

There’s a joyful lawlessness to these communities—shacks along the beach sell fish and shellfish that will never see a health certificate or pay a penny to the taxman. The houses are makeshift, and people scramble for a living as best they can—tourists in summer, many of whom are themselves poor, the kind of folks who can just about manage that one-week vacation.

In winter, anything goes.

As August ushers in the fall, these places return to their limits of subsistence, just as tourists return to their quarantines and colds. The locals count their pennies and take stock of the season that just was—a pandemic puzzle of permissions, PCRs, and perplexities.

The people I’m talking about live on the wire, always hoping for an opportunity that will change it all—but the change stubbornly refuses to come.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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