critical part of my father’s job in Spain was to promote tourism using the many contacts he had accumulated in decades of newspaper and magazine work.
But this effort also had a symbolic side, one, I decided (reverting back to truancy days) to object to in the most strenuous way possible, in my case working on engineering and maintaining a face so dour I looked midway between constipation and ennui. This I considered an art, and Paco, among others, would ask me, “What’s wrong with you?”
What was wrong was that we’d be spending our summer holidays at a hotel near Valencia on the Costa del Sol and not returning to America, where we could go to my favorite beach and I could prowl the boardwalk while gorging myself on salt water taffy and cotton candy while pumping nickels into pinball machines.
Symbolism would not allow this, my father explained, and as a result we’d be at the Hotel Bayren in Gandia, both of which I decided to loathe sight unseen.
The Costa del Sol, south of Valencia, was much less popular than the now-booming Costa Brava, discovered by English and German tourists in the late 1950s and lined with girls wearing impossibly tiny bikinis even before bikinis were the rage. Paco had told me of chicas con bikinis but I’d thought he’d perhaps slipped into slang, maybe telling me it was time to stop running because his mother and aunt were coming.
My father’s mission wasn’t exactly to push the bikinis northward, but to help show the Costa Blanca potential for nice hotels and pretty girls.
For two summers, we boarded an Iberia Martin 404, a relic of the slow two-prop era, flew to Valencia, and were driven — we, the three Americans — to Gandia and the Bayren.
This is when a very strange thing happened. Though there was no cotton candy, no boardwalk, and being outside the jewel-encased resort, were poor coastal towns, I fell for the place. Madly.
It was in all ways a new world, the hotel brand new, literally, but the surroundings strange and surreal because of the difference between what the hotel was intended to stand for: middle class, affluent tourism, and the still-dinosaur-age land and people around it. The gulf between these two realities, which liberals might pity, I found like coexistence of two worlds at once, one side Inca, the other side Park Avenue.
True, I spent much time at the pool, playing pranks on girls mostly (none wore bikinis) but mainly I wandered around Gandia and prowled among its shacks, befriending stray dogs and stray humans, including a very, very old man (at least seventy) who played flamenco guitar in the afternoon. I fell in love also with this music and he took me to his ancient, 78 RPM gramophone and played recordings of famous flamenco practitioners. I got to tell stories about being from America, which might have been Venus, and promised to one day send those I befriended postcards, though most could not read.
In essence, the Bayren was the beginning of a coastal project that would eventually number many hotels and tourist venues as it does today. In those days, however, the Bayren was a lonely Oz in a beachside wasteland.
I secretly went out to sea (not far) in small fishing boats and reveled in listening to the fishermen shout and laugh in dialect I could not understand. I also took to the paths and trails that began at the back of the hotel and led into near jungle-like hinterlands.
There I found shacks and people living in them without light or water, befriending them as well, behaving like an alien visitor. They’d all try to feed me but I’d move on, for whatever reason convinced that if I walked far enough I’d reach a volcano and perhaps meet a tribe of pygmies who could lead me to a brood of dinosaurs that had survived the holocaust and taken up residence in the wilds of the Costa del Sol.
If I came back to my father with tales of such a find, the coast would become the envy of the world and no one would ever speak of a bikini or a girl ever again, something I imagined as a sacred accomplishment.
But I did not find the pygmies or my reptiles, just more thickets and more small pockets of people living in a kind of pure prehistory that Mr. Mostest, the general of all generals, Francisco Franco, would surely not like advertised in London.
I learned, suddenly, that the world was flat, and from some parts you could in fact venture to spots that fell off from the known, poverty so pure its inhabitants smiled and laughed, a mirth I grew to like so much I’d walk out to them in their jungle to soak in more of this carefreeness.
I suppose, later, that a wise sociologist would tell me it was misery, not mirth that made them laugh, as in laughing to keep from crying. But I sensed none of this. Just as the man with the flamenco guitar did not complain about the run-down state of his home but made me listen to the music instead.
Once, I had discovered America, and movies and taffy and pinball machines. Now I had discovered people from another time, who without need or knowledge of pinball machines, invented entertainment of their own, and included me, boy alien, in their adventures.
By then my sour Madrid face had vanished. I was among my people, strangers in a strange land, a loner with occasional friends, which is, I thought, how life should be lived.
And no one ever came to know of these excursions, nor did I write about them, not until now, because the twilight of being has a way of picking out what’s sweetest about the past — in this case the search for pygmies and dinosaurs stands out.