Travel Memoir—Gold: The Quest for Duende

by Diane Caldwell

Mortification exploded over my friend’s face when I told her of my decision to visit what I thought was our mutual friend Iris in Andalucia. Eyes wide and ominous as flying saucers, mouth open in a soundless gaping hole of horrorshe looked like a reenactment of “The Scream.”

I was living in Istanbul teaching English. Iris and I had been fellow teachers there. We hadn’t spent much time together but I knew her to be a fearless, flaxen-haired Brit who had lived all over the world. Wanting a less polluted and crowded environ, she had moved to Martos, a small, castle-crowned city one hour north of Granada. An invitation for Christmas was extended and I eagerly jumped at the chance to visit.

Visions of gypsy flamenco consumed me– fantasies of visceral vocals, stamping feet, and “duende,” the mysterious and illusive flame of flamenco that’s sparked on rare occasions when passion, endurance, and discipline ignite in a magic moment of artistry. I had seen Spain’s most technically proficient performers in concert in America. But the “duende” I yearned for was conspicuously absent.

Iris’ welcome was warm when she greeted me at the Estacion des Autobus. My luggage dropped off at her apartment, she led me to her favorite tapas bar.

Cured hams hung like prehistoric relics from dark beams. Salamis swung like crusader’s clubs from rafters.

“My, they sure seem to like their pig parts,” I joked.

“Oh God, don’t tell me you’re a vegetarian,” Iris said, scowling. “There’s nothing I hate so much as someone who travels to another country and then refuses to eat the local cuisine. What idiots!”

Fearing Iris’ scorn and noting that she had a valid point, I decided to return to vegetarianism when we parted company. I sipped my vino tinto, and nibbled at the free pork-laced tapas.

On my second glass of wine I summoned the courage to ask about flamenco.

“It’s Christmas love. There is no flamenco,” Iris said, her voice fragile as a Christmas tree ornament, a forced smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “I asked at the tourist office. There’s nothing.”

“Tourist bureaus won’t know about real flamenco. I had come armed with information recruited from a friend who had studied flamenco dance in Andalucia. “They’ll only know about the Tablaos for tourists.

“I’ve asked my students. I’ve asked everyone.”

“I think if we ask at a Pena,” I said.

Iris’ smile cracked and revealed a gargoyle-like frieze of anger. “I asked at the Pena. I asked everywhere.” Her voice rose. “Don’t you get it? It’s Christmas! It’s family time! There isn’t any flamenco!”

Iris shifted her blazing eyes to a far corner of the room, flipped her flaxen locks, and took a long sip of vino tinto.

Forcing an exhalation, I said, “If we don’t find any flamencono problem. I want to see the mountain villages, Granada and Cordoba.”

It was a lie. My own self-delusion smacked me in the face like an angry lover. I hadn’t come for mountain villages. I hadn’t come to gaze at musty renaissance cathedrals. I hadn’t come to get to know Iris better. I had come for flamenco.

“Are you going to take a shower now?”

The clock read 6 o’clock am. Iris’ shrill voice attacked me as I tried to peel open my eyelids.

“If you want to take a shower, you can go and take one, only I want to get organized and do some wash. But if you want to take a shower. Take one, only could you take it now, so I can do wash. But never mind. Whatever you want, you’re my guest. Are you going to take a shower?”Iris’ cat plucked at the arm of the sofa with its claws.

“God damn it! God damn it!” Iris shrieked, grabbed the offending feline, and hurled it into her bedroom, slamming the door and shrieking at the thing the whole time.

“I know it’s cold in here, but I stay healthy and my circulation is good. I can’t believe the way people complain about the cold but do nothing for their circulation! Are you taking your shower now or not?”

I drew back the covers. A wave of arctic air swept over me. I rose to my feet and Iris immediately flew to my bed and began folding the covers.

“I can make the bed,” I said.

“No, go take your shower.”

“Ok. But leave this and I’ll do it after.”

I sprinted to the icy bathroom where my breath formed mini-clouds with each exhalation.

I thrust the shower lever to full hot, but only a trickle of luke-warm water spit down on me. I washed and dried myself in record-breaking speed, and put on every layer of clothing I had.

The sofa bed was made and the TV tuned to the news when I returned to the living room. Iris translated the weather broadcast.

“It’s the coldest winter in fifty years,” she said. “It snowed in Granada last night, and it never snows in Granada.”

My hair wet from the shower I huddled over the electric heater trying to dry it. Seeing that only one of the two heat switches was turned on, I flicked on the second.

“No!” Iris shouted causing me to jump like a kid caught stealing cookies from the cookie jar. I immediately pressed the opposite side of the switch, turning it off.

“I’m short of funds right now and electricity here is absolutely outrageous,” Iris spat out.

“I’d be happy to contribute something…”

“I wouldn’t think of it. Don’t insult me! You’re my guest. So I think tomorrow we should get up early and go to Granada.”

Morning coughed its greeting like a tubercular consumptive announcing another fiercely cold, steel-gray day. We boarded a bus and rode to Granada.

Iris’ “organization” necessitated a first stop at the Granada Tourist Information Office.

Stepping up to the serious-looking woman behind the counter, I asked: “Is there any real flamenco here?”

With automatic precision she reached across the counter covered with neat piles of tourist brochures. A well-practiced smile of civility gracing her perfectly made-up face, she handed me a glossy pamphlet for Granada’s “Tablaos de Flamenco.”

“No, not the tourist shows,” I said, “Aren’t there any authentic flamenco venues in town?”

“Sure,” she said with an unsuppressed sneer, “Every day we dress up in long ruffled dresses, dance in the streets, and then fight bulls.”

I stared at her. She stared back.

“We’re people just like you. We have jobs. We have families. Flamenco is for tourists!”

I took the brochure and walked away.

“Do you want to go to the flamenco show tonight,” I asked Iris after we had settled into a decent but overpriced pension.

“It’s all you’ve talked about since you got here. We’re here. Why not?”

A mini-bus picked us up at nine and shuttled us to Sacramonte, the area on the hillside formerly occupied by gypsy families who had carved homes into its sides. Herded into an unheated cavernous hall whose walls were etched in mildew, we were told to sit on the meager cane chairs lining its perimeter, and handed glasses of cheap wine. Two sips were too much.

The first act consisted of three teen-aged girls and three young men. One of the men slumped in his seat and bleated like a baby goat taken from its mother. Another curly-haired, overweight young man strummed four guitar chords, and a third young man beat frenetically on the “box” used for percussion. Between the girls it was a contest as to who was the worst dancerall three stomped about with the grace of spastic donkeys. Intermission brought little respite from the pain. Tourists wrapped their coats more tightly around themselves as they sipped their cheap drinks and waited.

The second string featured three women and two men considerably older than their predecessors. In fact, the oldest women, left to dance last, looked like someone’s granny painted in an inch-thick layer of pancake make-up and enough eye-liner to print several additions of a Granada newspaper. Hobbling about the stage like a wounded mule, it was hard to imagine she danced any better in youth.

So much for the dream of flamenco in Granada.

Sitting on our single beds back in our pension, I ached to belch out a litany of despair, but it was Iris who spoke first.

“I’m so sorry. I feel so guilty.” Iris compulsively picked lint off her black mohair sweater. “I was supposed to find you flamenco and I’ve failed. There were fabulous dancers everywhere in the spring and summer. The dancers tonight were horrible! I know I’ve disappointed you.” She turned the sweater over and began attacking the lint on its back side.

Attempting to alleviate the responsibility she had taken on, I explained that she couldn’t be expected to produce something that wasn’t there. But Iris seemed wrapped in a cloak of irrepressible guilt, and I suddenly felt hugely guilty for having laid this burden on her.

Sun attempted to pierce through the next day’s haze with little success. We clumped along with other frozen tourists in a queue snaking from the single ticket booth at the Alhambra up the hillside. Then I entered paradise.

Inside the Palace of the Nazarin I arced my neck backwards, gazing at layer upon layer of intricately carved woodwork that formed an arch to heaven. Swirling in a semi-delirium of ecstasy, I stood riveted to the spot as Iris zoomed through the entire place. Suddenly back beside me she flipped her flaxen hair and said: “There are so many hotels in Morocco nicer than this.”

“Murder” was the impulse that seized me. I wanted to clench Iris’ pearly white throat in my black-gloved hands and squeeze. See her perfectly understated mascared eyes bulge and pop., her well-moisturized face pale with fear.

My God, what was happening to me?

The next week we played tourists, taking buses to the renaissance UNESCO mountain villages of Baeza and Ubeda, sipped café con lechas in their town squares, and finally made our way to Cordoba. Iris decided she had to get back to Martos that night and I took a room in a pension. Strolling through Cordaba, I noticed a slick sign announcing “Flamenco,” and decided to buy a ticket.

The music and dancing was wonderful. Highly proficient trained dancers and musicians put on a highly entertaining show worthy of the price. But I didn’t see anything I hadn’t already seen in performances in the states.

I returned the next day to spend New Years Eve with Iris.

“I’ve sussed it all out and organized everything. The best places to go are down past the cathedral. We can leave around ten, alright?”

We both napped, then dressed in our New Years Eve finery, and went out to find some action.

The streets greeted us with silence. Like a sci-fi film where two people are miraculously spared death while the rest of humanity perishes, we stepped into a hushed world. There was no one in the streets. No moving cars. No sound other than the click click of our heels echoing along the empty street.

“The man at the tourist center said New Years Eve is mainly a family time, but there will be some places open down town. Of course, he’s absolutely worthless.”

Through the fog-still streets our heels beat a lonely percussion. Everything was shut tight. Every restaurant, café, and bar slumbered behind their locked metal gates. Dauntless, we walked to the far end of town hopeful that Martos’ biggest hotel would have life in its lounge. The doorman informed us it was closed for the holiday.

Trudging homeward, a neon light beckoned. Martos’s one and only Chinese restaurant declared itself “Open.”

One family and one couple occupied the large space. Stalagmites hung from the ceiling and we wondered if they were a Spanish or Chinese accent. We ate bad Chinese food to a background of eighties R & B music, but somehow conversation flourished and Iris and I managed to talk about ourselves and our lives and laugh long and hard before making our way home.

Iris began tidying when we returned. I sifted through my stack of brochures, rediscovering the flyer for New Years Day flamenco in Ubeda.

“Iris, if there’s a bus to Ubeda tomorrow, I’m going to catch the flamenco concert and stay the night.”

Iris begged out of the venture, claiming a need to get “organized” over the next two days, and New Years Day claimed a bus to Ubeda at three o’clock.

For only three euros I had little to lose. Elderly, conservative couples poured into the 15th century church that was slightly warmer inside than out. I found a third row seat next to what looked like a geriatric gathering, and waited.

Seven empty wooden chairs sat on the stage. The auditorium lights faded. The stage lights came on. Seven memorably unimpressive performers took the stage. They looked like local amateurs coming to entertain at the old-folks home.

A father and son sat stage left holding guitars. The father’s belly hung over his belt buckle, and I wondered how such fat fingers could pick out separate strings. Dressed in work jeans and a plaid polyester shirt, he looked more like a pig farmer than a musician.

Next to the father and son sat three women, two of whom had microphones before them. Their black skirts had the sheen of over-worn fabric. Their black tops rode up on their plump bellies, and they had to periodically pull them down. Two men sat on the far right. One wore glasses and had a terrible tichis eyes and cheeks spastically lurching about his face. Next to him a mountain was planted in a chair. Maybe six foot three, built like a giant pear, with soft ringlets cascading around his clean-shaven cherubic faceI feared this was not my night to witness great flamenco.

Then the miracle happened.

The thinner of the two miked women stepped up to the center stage microphone, closed her eyes and emitted a sound like the primal wail of all humanitya pain torment ecstasy of cascading quarter notes traveling across the travail of eternity. Tears poured from my eyes like an erupting geyser. The man next to me pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to stem the flood of tears streaming down his cheeks. Two songs later, the second woman replaced the first and a voice like electricity broke from her lipscrackling and alive with sizzling currenta live wire sparking, firing, and spitting. Never had I heard a voice like it. More the sound of an element than human, and yet, carrying more humanity than I had ever heard. Plump and round, she stomped her feet and twirled her hands during musical breaks, while the pig farmer played a torrent of fantastic guitar. Following her song, the twitching man in brown took center stage. He opened his mouth and the tic vanished. Like an excited two-year-old he clutched the edges of his corduroy jacket and hitched them up to his waist while firing out a repetitive lyric that grew in intensitya machine gun ravaging his audience. At the musical breaks his hands circled the air as if capturing invisible butterflies and his feet pounded the stage, dust flying. Then the mountain came forward. A singing dancing sputtering Diego Riverahis mouth circling around his face forming roaming ovals like an elastic-mouthed cartoon characterhis voice as elastic as his mouth, bending and stretching notes to the furthest reaches of human possibility, scraping his large feet backwards and forwards across the stage in currents of slick slides during the musical accompaniment. He was a melodic mountain in motion.

There was only one woman left. I had almost forgotten her sitting inconspicuously between the son and the other women, wearing a plain black ankle-length dress with large grayed polka dots, and a faded pink shawl. She finally rose, walked to the center-stage mike, and moved it behind the chairs. The others began to clap a palmas beat and at once her body arced and tensed like a famished wild animal suddenly aware of prey. Her rib cage extenuated, her back arched, her arms twisted and writhed as if they were the broken wings of a raven being willed to flight. A sob broke from my chest as I witnessed the life and death dance of mankind before me. Then she turned, faced the audiencewith every palmas her body growing more tense, more taughtlike the string of a bow pulled to its maximum tautness, brows contorted in a gaze that challenged, “Can you? Can you witness this? Can you bear this with me?” And there she remained longer than it was possible and then the string was let loose and she exploded in movement that redefined ‘passion’ while the man next to me mopped his tears and I convulsed in silent spasms.

Duende. Duende. Duende.


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