At the northeastern extreme of Granada, the neighborhood of Sacromonte peers out over the Alhambra fortress. Whitewashed cottages clot the thin veins that link this quarter to the city. Many of the homes have been built up around cave mouths. Their deep-set windows squint in the sunlight. They look as if they would like to be forgotten. Yet demure as they may seem, they command one of the city’s most regal views of the Alhambra.
Perched on a low wall, I study the hilltop fortress. The vista is framed by red-fruited cactus and fraying clouds. Tiled roofs fan out below the palace like the scaly skin of some crusted old dragon who met the wrong bounty hunter.
La Alhambra is a castle in the clouds. She dreams misty dreams that hover above the city, cool and tantalizing and untouchable. Behind her, the mountains are a silk mirage, embroidered in snow. Cold is only a dream here under the magnified glare of the sun.
As I examine the inscription on a fountain, a shaggy nomad walks out of the prickly pear above the village of cave-cottages. He is one of the wanderers who has made a home in the caves above Granada. With their dogs and guitars, they are turning the city into San Francisco circa 1967. A few twisting alleys later, I find a tribe of nomads sitting along the wall at the Mirador San Nicolás, the wide balcony that looks out at the Alhambra. Though I hiked up here for the vista, the anthropologist in me is too nearsighted to look beyond the tribe lounging against the wall. Instead of studying Islamic architecture, I find myself taking notes on nomads.
A man with lion-locks and sun-broiled skin sits with his back to the wall. Prayer beads slipping through his fingers, he dreams into space. His eyes are bleached to the smog-blue haze of the Spanish sky.
A man from Veracruz wears a blue and orange feather in his long hair. He shares out a chocolate bar while other nomads pass around brown glass bottles and cigarettes. A few plait bracelets of reeds or wire, their fingers fluttering through the strands. Only the man with the blue and orange feather seems to feel the music foaming from their boombox. He keeps the beat with his nodding head, but the others seem to have drifted out of time, rafting away on puffs of smoke.
The local children know the nomads. They trot up like stray pups. The man with the feather in his hair whisks a little girl into his arms and twirls her around. They dance for a few measures of boombox-blare. Then he sets her back down so she can finish licking the chocolate icing off her donut.
I can tell who is new to nomad life from their baby-pink cheeks. The man from the Czech Republic hasn’t yet crisped up in the sun. He wears striped harem pants and a lost smile. His shoes grin open at the seams as he leans back against the balcony wall. He has a little crate of last-day fruit: strawberries, kiwi, and oranges. As he peels an orange and eats the crescents one by one, he smiles like a child with a glorious secret.
Nomads who have baked longer under the sun have skin the color of Spanish roof tiles. I watch them swaying on the wall, peeling foil off chocolate bars, and staring out at the Alhambra. I watch a half-naked Jesus slumped over a guitar. He’s so thin I can see his muscles stretched taut as guitar strings under his skin. I stare at him too long—he looks up and smiles so widely it seems he has nothing better to do in all the world but smile. As I grin back, I wonder how long it would take my skin to learn to love the sun.