Belated description of my surroundings:

The windows from my fourth-floor apartment look out to the southwest of the "Poniente Almeriense": thousands of square kilometers covered with white plastic stretched over sometimes-sophisticated bent metal frames, sometimes-rustic wooden poles. The plastic itself ranges from flimsy, graying cellophane to sturdy, bright white panels. It depends upon the prosperity of the farm. You can't see the ocean from here, but humidity hangs over the southern edge of the horizon in a heavy cloud, as it does just in front of the mountains on the northern side of town, the foothills of the Sierra de Gádor. To the west, the two skyscrapers of El Ejido are visible--one further north, the other further south, rising between blond, cement block apartment buildings, lines of date palms and boulevards sandwiched between giant strips of plastic glinting against the sun. I try to imagine the greenhouses uncovered, as big crop fields like the ones in the American Midwest, and then they don’t seem so strange to the eye.

Immediately in front of my apartment building, which is known locally as "el piso redondo" ('the round flat'), there is a small roundabout flanked by billboards advertising greenhouse plastic and a variety of yellow bell pepper seeds. There is green grass and a few small date palms in the middle of the roundabout. A constant stream of cars, loud motorbikes, and farm trucks go 'round. Occasionally, people on horseback join them, and when there's a wedding, a horse-drawn carriage carries the nuptial couple along while a photographer runs ahead, to turn back and capture the moment on film. If necessary, they make several trips around the roundabout to get the right shot. Once, I saw two small children on the back of a mule, led by an older man on foot. They crossed the road and disappeared around the corner of the buildings on the other side. More than once, I've seen a shepherd grazing his sheep in the empty lots between buildings and greenhouses.

On the road to El Ejido, huge auto dealers occupy both sides of the street: Toyota, Peugot, Kia, Opel, BMW. There's also a bus depot, a bottling distribution center, a gas station, and a marble workshop. Set back from the road, there is an equestrian center that advertises horse-related products as well as riding lessons. Further on, after the sidewalk ends, two eleventh-century Roman tombs lie on a plot about 15 feet across, labeled with metal plaques that no one stops to read, forgotten next to an enormous magnolia tree, between an abandoned house and an empty lot. They are hardly distinguishable from the rocks and rubble in that empty lot. Irrigation canals run behind and alongside the plot upon which they sit. There are several agricultural warehouses and cooperatives, in gigantic buildings with corrugated metal roofs. These organizations and others have prominent signs and compound names: Uniagra, for example. Compound naming is ubiquitous around here.

Just east of my roundabout, there is a crumbling house with a hole six feet across in the side wall. A Roma family lives there. There's a prickly pear cactus just outside the door, they string their laundry across the front entry way, and in the afternoons and evenings, corpulent women sit in fraying lawn chairs on the sidewalk while little kids run about. One evening on my way to a cyber cafe, I saw a little boy in an olive green t-shirt toddling by outside the house. He was barefoot, and his shirt wasn't long enough to cover his uncircumcised pee-pee, hanging unceremoniously just below its hem.

Along the main boulevard in town, there is a string of cyber cafes and little grocery shops. People have come to call these shops according to the nationalities of their owners, so the ones closest to my roundabout are "marroquís" ('Moroccans'), as in, "Ve al marroquí, ahí venden baterías buenas" ('Go to the Moroccan [store], there they sell good batteries.') Further on, and up the hill into the interior of the town, there are two shops owned by Chinese families; these are referred to as "chinos" ('Chinese'), as in, "En el chino vas a encontrar una sombrilla" ('In the Chinese [shop] you'll find an umbrella'). The 'chinos' tend to be homegrown Wal-Mart style affairs. You can find most anything you need there, but the quality is always questionable, too. (I took my new umbrella back twice to the 'chino' where I'd bought it, and the lady sewed the fabric back onto the tips of the ribs where it'd come loose.) I have yet to locate a "rumano" or a "ruso," even though Eastern European immigrants have successfully set up clothing shops and bars, for instance.

There's an avenue that cuts north-south through town and that people refer to as "la calle de los moros." It houses at least three more cyber cafes, a tea house with heavy burgundy curtained windows and a steady Moroccan male clientele, as well as a line of cheaper apartments in three- and four-story buildings with laundry hung to dry on the balconies. (A traditional and more sightly arrangement is that offered by the interior Spanish patio, where people might lean out their windows to hang laundry across lines strung between them. The fact that others have to hang laundry in full view of the street is a token of poverty, a de facto reference to messiness, spilling over in unregimented ways into the public space.) The cyber cafes always include telephone banks and money wiring services. The clientele tends to consist of Moroccan and Eastern Europeans calling and Skyping home, recharging prepaid phone cards (a mere 5 euros is the expected recharge amount), along with boys playing video games. "Qué haces?" ('What are you doing?') I asked a boy I knew, one day when I went to Skype my family. "Matando" ('Killing'), he said, looking intently at the video game figures flashing across his screen.


People tend to be friendly, although the rules for interaction may vary culturally. Any store or business you enter, it's appropriate to say, "Hola" or "Buenas" or "Buenos días" as you go in, and to note your leave-taking with, "Hasta luego" or "Adios." In the bakeries--all Spanish-owned--the baker and his/her family might chat you up if you stop by repeatedly. At a papelería (also all Spanish-owned) where I made a couple hundred photocopies, the proprietor and her brother chatted about the weather (pouring rain, at the time), about how easy it was to know I was a foreigner by the way I spoke Spanish, and about a friend who was also an anthropologist. A fellow customer shared her umbrella with me and walked me all the way to one of the ‘chinos’ to buy my own.


At the 'chinos,' the clerks follow customers closely through the aisles, watching closely to prevent shoplifting. The adults tend to speak fluent but heavily accented Spanish; I haven't met any Chinese students at the high school, so the youngest generation is still up-and-coming. On one of my first visits to one of the two 'chinos' in town, I heard a Moroccan man trying to ask the clerk where the large spoons might be. He was having trouble explaining exactly what he wanted, and she said to him impatiently, "Qué, no hablas español?” (‘What, you don’t speak Spanish?’) The ‘marroquís’ tend to be smaller, with simple store fronts, piles of fresh produce and shelves canned foods around the edges of a single room. Some offer halal meats, as well. The clerks are all men; it is important, as in Morocco, for a woman to avoid undue eye contact with them, although there is one father and son who always offer disarmingly genuine smiles when I stop by. These can also be joint family affairs with nearby cyber cafes, so it seems a single family—or perhaps a group of families—owns a cyber café and a small grocery shop.

On the streets, older Spanish people systematically exchange greetings: “Hola,” “Buenos días” (which always sounds like ‘bueno día’—aspirated ‘s’ all around), or “Buen día.” As people have started recognizing me, they greet me, too. I have started making a point of greeting most everyone I pass on the sidewalk with a simple “Hola.” The only people exempt are men; being here alone means I am always acutely aware of the fact that I am a woman on my own. I don’t spend time outside at night unless I have a specific destination and/or someone to meet. I walk with purpose and try to look like I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. Knowing more and more of the kids at school is a help. They see me and call out, “Hola, Maisa!” I rarely walk a block without seeing or crossing paths with a student; this probably means that more of the town knows who I am than I can even be aware of. It’s a small place, after all. For all its growth, its fledging ethnicized barrios, the sense that there is much to fear, it strikes me that this remains a ‘pueblo’ where “todo el mundo conoce a todo el mundo” (‘everyone knows everyone’), by sight, if not by name.