Notes on an Old Woman Hiding in Plain Sight
She just sat there, hiding.
There was no other way to describe it. Umbrella-clad tables filled the small plaza while little kids dodged waiters balancing food and beer. Tarifa’s full of them: Plaza San Francisco, Plaza del Angel, Plaza La Paz, each no larger than a front lawn in the suburbs, surrounded by wooden shutters and chalky white concrete with a narrow alley or two leading into another, the living rooms of the medina.
The other old women nursed their cañas and copas around a table, gossiping silently. A few tourists passed by her, noses in maps, guidebooks, and in the air while gawking at the strange beauty of Tarifa’s architecture: a minimalist pueblo blanco, the buildings never rise any higher than two stories, but the intimacy of such small streets and spaces creates the illusion of something much higher. None of them noticed the woman in the rain boots sitting on the pot of wilting plants.
She held her hand to her head, as if to activate some sort of higher thought process by the mere gesture of contemplation.
Looking outward, she must have seen the couple, kissing wildly across their table; the man hanging clothes from his window, overlooking it all, sighing; a chubby kid’s sudden realization–if momentary–of being left out of the game.
Behind her stood a large wooden door, painted robin’s egg blue like those in Chefchaouen just across the Strait of Gibraltar to the south. Tarifa is the closest point in Spain to Morocco–just 19 miles from coast to coast. Dozens pass through daily to take the ferry out of town to Tangier, where the passport stamp of Africa awaits. They return as they came, and take the bus out of Tarifa the back way, they never even notice the old city.
There didn’t seem to be anything behind the door. The only thing you’d notice about it was the number “6” plastered to the right, but who knows when that might have been put there. As I passed by, I saw her, but didn’t think of her; instead I wondered about the person who might be behind the door, about to open it and find a woman resting on her landscaping. Or of the visitor, about to knock, would they ask her to move?
I’d seen plenty of old folks lingering around town before. They’re everywhere in Spain: holding down benches, grazing through mercados, surveying streets from a sidewalk terrace. Lineups of old men in flatcaps with their weight on the top of their cane; benchfuls of women watching youth pass them by in a plaza; the elders of Spain are anything but reclusive, and rarely seeking solitude.
It must be hard getting old in Tarifa.
The town itself is about 700 years young, the last stop on the Costa de la Luz and the upper lip of the mouth of the Mediterranean. With steady winds blowing over 30mph every day, it’s one of the world’s greatest kitesurfing destinations, made evident by the long strip of surf shops that line the only road out of town. Blonde-haired Germans come and go with the sun, and RVs full of kitesurfers make their own town down the shore, a portrait of youth floating in an ancient landscape.
I thought about what my friend, a bodyboarder from Morcco, told me about Tarifa. El viento te vuelve loco, he said. The wind makes you crazy. I didn’t get it at first. Then, around my fifth or sixth time back in the town, trudging through an invisible gale-force gauntlet, it made sense. (Googling it made it clearer.)
I made a lap around the plaza as I withdrew my camera. I’d developed quite a skill for shooting from the hip, hidden shots of locals candidly acting out their roles, filling my memories as I wanted them to. As I started coming closer to her again, I felt the camera slip from my grasp, pulling the wrist stap taut. I instinctively looked down, flustered. I was right in front of her. Since my cover was blown, I squared up, looked right at her (through the viewfinder), and took the picture. I turned and walked, and never saw her again until that night when browsing through the day’s photos.
There she was, quilted jacket, sunglasses, curly hair, behind the bushes, looking out. She probably saw the camera, the backpack, my friends lingering around deciding where to take tapas. But whatever she saw, it wasn’t me. I had spotted her, but she hadn’t moved, never looked away, and for all I know, she is still there, hiding among the flora and fauna of Tarifa.
Originally published November 2011 on Matador Network.