Lost in Sanlúcar de Guadiana
I wandered through the strange town, hoping to find somewhere to spend the night. A pink hue echoed from the setting sun and through the white stone of winding streets. My first loop of the town left me homeless for the night and so I began again, this time looking for something to lie on, some scrap of cardboard or plastic bag. Eventually, I settled for a playground on the banks of a river dividing Spain and Portugal.
My day had started out in Huelva, thumb out, under the breathless heat of the Spanish sun. An eavesdropped conversation about a zip-line starting in Spain and finishing in Portugal was the catalyst to the journey which I began that night. I had imagined that the town would be full of zipline-crazed tourists and that hitchhiking there would be easy, but the longer I stood there, the more I worried I might be wrong.
Eventually, a car pulled over and a man who had lived his whole life in the small town of Sanlucar de Guadiana drove me to the town. Turns out it was end of the line, out there on its own. This guy was one of only about 400 people living there.
We said our goodbyes and I stepped, alone, into the quiet empty streets of Sanlucar de Guadiana. The town seemed like part of the mountain cornering it, streets twisting at strange angles and moving up and down at each turn, all eventually falling towards the river flowing at its edge. There was something unsettling about the place. It was mostly empty, no one seemed to be working except for a few people at the only bar in town and the man who steered the boat back and forth from Spain to Portugal for €1 a trip. There were no shops, no cafes; no one walked faster than a stroll.
I swam in the river next to families. Parents waded out, children in arms in a section roped-off to keep them from being swept up in the current. From the top of a mountain, I ziplined across the river, slow enough to take it all in. I wandered around the empty Portuguese streets and listen to the bells of the churches, which faced each other and rang different time zones in unison. As the sun began to lower and lose its heat, I boarded the boat that took me back to Spain and sat there watching groups of friends drinking wine on rowboats. It hit me then that the unsettling feeling building in the pit of my stomach was loneliness. All these people belonged here and I was just an outsider, floating through unnoticed and unaccompanied with no one to share these moments.
Music hummed through the town, still wide-awake, the boats danced with their shadows and the moonlight sparkled on the ripples. I sat on a bench facing the boats, hardly able to keep my eyes open, when a man and his dog walked towards me. The man looked to be in his 60s; he had white hair and a friendly face and I immediately liked him. His dog, named Vincent, was similar to him, apart from a missing left ear. I’m not quite sure what made him stop there in front of me or what made me want to talk to him, but these things happen and we chatted briefly about nothing in particular and then waved and he continued walking his dog along the river under the moon.
My heart sank as he walked away, but just minutes later, I saw him strolling back, a street lamp revealing the new shape next to him to be a woman. She was tall, much taller than him, with short grey hair that had a light purple tint to it and thick black glasses, which magnified her excited eyes.
They invited me up to a small bar for a drink. I sat facing them with the river to their backs. The tables around us hummed quietly with chatting and glass clinking. We talked about everything and nothing and I thought back to my home and how far away it seemed.
She was French and beautifully insane, he was English and unaware of his own insanity. At first, they seemed like an incredible couple. They had both had previous marriages and children and lives and somewhere along the way, that all fell apart and they had put each other back together. They lived on a boat, making money through their leather crafts. They told me about all the corners of the world that they had seen together on their drifting home and about how cold it would get in the winter. They seemed strong, but then the cracks between their broken pieces began showing. She was eccentric and he would condescend her for it and apologise for her. I thought she was wonderful and it killed me to see him squash her.
They had ended up in this town because of some friends of theirs who left each summer and asked them to look after their house and their dog. It was the town’s old post office and they were in love with it. They told me about the garden they had built and all their projects in the house, and the man proudly produced the key from around his neck to show me with a massive grin on his face. It was about the length of his hand and built of old rusting iron. Eventually, they asked where I was spending the night and I pointed to the playground next to us. We finished our drinks and they brought me back to their house.
The door was huge. Years of paint and varnish peeled from every inch of the wood and a string hung just over our heads leading up to a brass bell. The doors opened into a room scattered with pieces of leather and tools and old letters that were never read by those they were written for. The man brought me into a room where he got me to lower a bucket into their well and pull it up to water the plants he was growing inside. There was a comforting smell of fresh herbs, wet wood and leather.
We spent the rest of the night sitting in their garden, smoking their homegrown weed, drinking French wine and reaching above us to pick grapes as we continued talking for hours, the river rushing past just at the edge of the garden. Their stories and their company warmed the loneliness away and I remembered why I was here and why I was doing this. That night I slept in the most comfortable bed I had been in since leaving home.
In the morning, we drank coffee. They then showed me how they worked the leather into belts and bags and made me a bracelet. Across the soft leather, they printed perdido, a word I had feared for so long and but now crave. It means “lost”. I began to realise that without getting lost and without loneliness, we would never connect with people the way that we do and the way that I did with that couple. Eventually, it was time to leave. I thanked them for everything they had given me and stuck my thumb out, alone and lost again, but excited about it.
Cover by Baard Hansen