Malaga was the last Andalusian city we visited before leaving Spain. As I entered the port city, I reflected on how Andalusia exceeded my expectations. I suspect part of it is the intersection of cultures and histories that seemed so foreign to me, and the other part is the reflections I had while I was there as the hot sun baked dry the surrounding mountains and coastal towns.
The most accurate way for me to summarize my thinking by the end of Andalusia is from a theme in Gabrial García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, a book I had read years ago. While most of the themes, characters and plots have now escaped my memory, one scene remains stuck deep within me: Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s little gold fish.
Here’s a few excerpts:
“…He [Colonel Aureliano Buendía] declined the lifetime pension offered him after the war and until old age he made his living from the little gold fishes that he manufactured in his workshop in Macondo…His only happy moments, since that remote afternoon when his father had taken him to see ice, had taken place in his silver workshop where he passed the time putting little gold fishes together. He had had to start thirty-two wars and had had to violate all of his pacts with death and wallow like a hog in the dungheap of glory in order to discover the privileges of simplicity almost forty years late…he lit the lamp in order to count the little gold fishes, which he kept in a tin pail. There were seventeen of them. Since he had decided not to sell any, he kept on making two fishes a day and when he finished twenty-five he would melt them down and start all over again…”
“…Trying to waste the most time possible, Amaranta ordered some rough flax and spun the thread herself. She did it so carefully that the work alone took four years. Then she started the sewing. As she got closer to the unavoidable end she began to understand that only a miracle would allow her to prolong the work past Rebecca’s death, but the very concentration gave her the calmness that she needed to accept the idea of frustration. It was then that she understood the vicious circle of Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s little gold fishes.“
The reason I love this recurring theme is that there are half a dozen ways to interpret it: you can see it as labor being meditative, as a calling for simplicity, as a method to deal with trauma, a review of capitalism, and the interpretations go on. How I chose to read this in the context of my reflections in Andalusia, as Garcia Marquez may or may not have meant to describe, is the joyfulness in distraction: a place to focus our energy such as a busy workday, evenings socializing with friends, a list of activities to fill our weekends. It keeps our minds from wandering into the space and silence that creeps when we’re most alone, watching the clock tick by as we edge closer to perhaps the greatest fear and our longest silence, when we ultimately come to test the final question, “Did we do it, did we live the way we wanted to?”
While this joyfulness in work and meditation in busyness can fill our hours with meaning, allow us to engage in society and provides a focus for our wandering minds, we also bare the responsibility to contemplate in quiet and let those dangerous thoughts seep in. It is in those hours – quiet and bored, wandering without direction – that we can truly test whether those moments we have been passing by, busy and working away, have been aligned with what we truly wanted rather than continuing to escape the fears of what we’ll find in the silence of our own minds.
In this way, our obsession with technology is no different than the little gold fishes of Colonel Aureliano Buendía in 100 Years of Solitude: innovation, focus and diligent hours poured into one product, industry or career in order to check off the boxes of the day, create something tangible so that we can avoid the intangible, move forward in some direction when finally, we come full circle to where we started. For example, we love social media so that we can connect to one another, but that connection feels shallow compared to discussions over a home cooked meal; we innovate on self-driving cars so that we can get to nature faster from the busy cities, when instead we could just walk or cycle and be part of our environments for what it really is. We will always need one another just as we will need the quiet peacefulness of the forest, mountains and oceans. These fundamental things are and will remain, irreplaceable regardless of innovations. As someone who works in this tech industry and still believes deeply in the potential of technology, this is worth reckoning with.
For me, in the dry heat of Andalusia and far away from Silicon Valley, I revisited and finessed my core beliefs:
- People are – far and above – the most important. When I look back on the last busy and fulfilling six years of my career, I have made deep connections with the talented people I’ve been lucky enough to work with, and it has enriched my career, my thinking, my skills and my life. When I look back on the last thirty years of my memory, the things I regret – and the things I’m most proud of – always connect back to how I treated a friend, classmate or colleague. All the other things, accomplishments, degrees, promotions and money seem to fade away into a pile of “has been”, like an old shoebox holding medals of forgotten races, behind the faces and laughter of good friends and family.
- We cannot help but innovate and be creative. It is what makes us distinctly human and it is the greatest value of our labors. It’s in our DNA, and to stifle it would be an imprisonment of the mind. But we must do it responsibly when we share it with the world, without arrogance, or else our greatest asset will become our own Achille’s heel.
- Silence is necessary to search for the Good, the Truth. Like in Plato’s Cave Allegory, so many tools and innovations around us today feel like shadows in the cave, attempting to replicate a reality – human connections and friendships; nature – that is only a murky representation of its true object. Unless we question each of these things rigorously, we’ll always live in the illusion that we’ve created something good, that society is better for it, and that our lives are more enriched. When instead, we’ve taken the good farther away, we’ve impoverished society, and our lives are emptier. There has never been a time when we’ve needed philosophers more.
So with those thoughts, I approached Malaga, the final city in this part of the journey and an eclectic puzzle of nature, history, art, and culture.
The first thing I noticed when arriving in Malaga was the amount of street art. Between murals, strange abstract structures that seemed to be on every block, and the number of modern art museums (I honestly counted about 6 on my walk from the bus station), I was struck by how “hip” Malaga was. I was expecting a cosy beach town like Cadiz, whose visitors all seemed mysteriously of retirement age. But instead, the port city of Malaga was teeming with young professionals, fashionably dressed with hipster haircuts. The architecture had a surreal mix of Renaissance cathedrals, Moorish castles, beach walks and modern city buildings, with of course, the abundance of burning-man like structures.
After stepping off the bus, I brushed off this initial impression and decided to look up some of my favorite things: where to run and what to eat. It was in this discovery of food and good trails where the mystery of why Malaga had so much weird art began, one which I wouldn’t solve until we were standing in the check in line of Malaga’s airport.
If you’ve been following my travels by now, you’d probably pick up on my love for markets. If there’s a good central market in town, I’m there. I usually pick a morning to go and have brunch at the market after scoping out what the local goods are. It helps me understand what’s the best foods of the region and what’s in season (and likely tastier). It’s also a great window for diving straight into the culture.
Malaga’s Mercado Central de Atarazanas was an excellent place to start. When I first walked in, I was surprised by the beautiful stained glass window. It was by far the most artistic market I had ever been to, which was interesting, but I didn’t think too much of it because I was immediately distracted by this:
And this and this:
After walking around it twice, picking out where the best pop-up tapas joints were, we settled for brunch filled with gambas a pil-pil, anchoas in olive oil, and skewered chorizo and salmon.
Being a port city, Malaga is of course famous for its seafood along with a few other distinct exports, such as almonds. A unique experience in Malaga is to go to a beach restaurant and try the wood fired skewered anchovies. A short 10-15 min walk out of the city center can take you along the board walk in either direction, and we settled for Merendero Casa, which had some pretty good seafood but a killer view.
Not pictured above is the champagne we drank from the bottle while we watched the sunset on the beach.
Throughout the walk to the beach for dinner, I kept noticing large sculptures displayed in nearly ever park, intersection and all along the beach. It was impossible to miss them, and they looked vaguely familiar though distinctly modern. I couldn’t put my finger on it. At one point, my Company turned to me and asked, “Do you think people here go to Burning Man?”
“Nah,” I replied, “It’s probably just a hip, young town with a lot of art. I doubt this has anything to do with Burning Man.”
City Life, Tourism, and Modern Art
When you travel to Malaga, you’ll notice that you can find a little bit of everything: beaches, nightlife at the port (pictured below), high end shopping, ferris wheels eerily resembling the London Eye, Dunkin’ Donuts, ancient Roman theaters (pictured below), and even a cereal bar with hundreds of sugary, American brand cereals (pictured below) that are open late next to about three different sex shops (not pictured, that would be weird).
Walking through the center of town, my Company pointed and said, “Oh, there’s a Picasso museum, along with four other modern art museums.” We both shrugged and continued on, driven by our insatiable desire for more tasty almonds and cold gelato.
The port was incredibly festive, a mix between traditional flamenco music but also hip hop, jazz and electronic blasted from the bars. Like Cordoba, the city was quiet during the day and afternoon but came alive at night. If you’re buying into that whole eat-within-10-hours health trend like we had been trying to do, Spain will change that habit. By the end of this trip, we were eating at 10:30pm and siesta-ing between 3pm to 5pm, and the idea of even setting an alarm before 8:30 was unthinkable.
Mixed in between the nightlife and party scenes was a hilly and challenging run up to Castle Gibralfaro with some of the best views of the city (Hey! You can almost see inside the bullfighting ring from up there!). Of course, if there’s a hill in sight, I have to try it out. If you’re feeling up for it, you can do repeats at 20% grade on cobblestones up to Castle Gibralfaro until your heart pops out of your chest and your brain shrives up from lack of oxygen. I only made it up 3 times and it took me about 3 days to recover from it.
Of course, in addition to the highly detailed murals, burning-man-like sculptures, you couldn’t throw a shoe without hitting an art museum. Our Airbnb was next to the Malaga Contemporary Art Gallery, where I spent a hot afternoon slowly ambling through the paintings, installations and photography. My relationship with modern art can best be described as “I’m ignorant”, and what I discovered here was that after spending enough time, I was able to appreciate the experience and ingenuity more rather than just comparing technical abilities.
Me at 25: “I think I could have done this when I was five”,
Me now: “I think if you told me to paint this when I was five, I could do it. But this concept is so interesting! I never would have thought of that!”
At the end of our trip, we had had all the seafood we wanted (including sushi at Oleo, which was excellent quality but at Bay Area prices), had walked around the old city multiple times, ran up a big hill with a panoramic view of the city, drank a bottle of champagne on the beach, and even experienced some art.
At the airport, I turned to my Company and asked, “What’s up with all this Picasso named stuff? That terminal is named ‘Pablo Picasso Terminal'”. As I said this, it dawned on me.
“Quick, look up Picasso’s home town,” I said.
Sure enough, we were in the birth town of Picasso and had failed to see a single painting or sculpture of his, which explained the museums (which we failed to take advantage of), the “burning man art” (which was actually just real modern art), and the highly detailed and well crafted murals. It also explained the good coffee (artists work all the time and don’t sleep, right?).
It just goes to show that even when you think you’re getting good at traveling and tourism, you still can’t quite experience it all.