I booked a 10 day package tour to the coast of Spain because I wanted to swim.
I was a keen swimmer and had been so for most of my life, but I only ever swam in the ocean. I didn’t like pools: all that chlorine.
Ocean swimming was for me a kind of addiction. There was only so long that I could exist without it. After long winter months of living in a small apartment in a big city in Northern Europe, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. So with the first signs of spring, when a cheap, last-minute deal for a package tour to Spain came up, I grabbed it – or rather, clicked on it.
Within seconds, I became another consumer in a multi-billion dollar industry, something as slick and organised as cars rolling off a high-tech production line.
The entire coast of southern Spain is a wide belt of high-rise hotels and apartment blocks. Every summer, millions of people from northern Europe flock to Spain to gain some respite from the climatic tyranny of their own countries: the blanketing grey skies, the rain, the cold, the mists.
In the part of the Spanish coast where I was staying – south of Barcelona – there were endless kilometres of high-rise mega- hotels. I was there at the start of the season when only some of the hotels were open. Others were in the process of getting ready to open. Walking along the empty, shadowed streets between concrete towers was like walking through a graveyard. The season lasted about 6 months; for the rest of the time, the hundreds of mega- hotels stood there like Easter Island statues.
These mega-hotels were controlled by the tour operators. The tour operators were big international corporations based outside of Spain. They controlled the entire package tourism industry. In the age of the computer and internet, the seats on the planes and rooms in the hotels were booked well in advance. A typical package tourist deal was what was known as an ‘all-in’ deal: it included flights, hotel room and meals – all the meals plus snacks and drinks as well. This ‘all-in’ package tourism meant that local bars, restaurants and shops were marginalised by the big tour operators. The only benefits the local economy got were in terms of cleaners and staff in the mega-hotels, and the miniscule taxes paid to the national government. The tour operators dictated the terms of the tourist industry. All-in tourism meant very low profits per tourist, so the only way that the tour operator could make a profit was to bring in as many people as possible; it was like the supermarket industry: the per unit mark-up was pared down in favour of mass volume.
All of this was comprehensible enough. For millions of Europeans who wanted a hassle free holiday all- in tourism was attractive; there was a one down payment and everything else was looked after: jump on the plane and go. And as I discovered, if you tried to book the flights and hotels yourself, never mind the meals, you would end up paying at least twice as much as through a big package deal set-up. That how the economics of it worked and that’s why millions of people went with the system. But besides marginalising local restaurants, bars and shops, all-in package tourism also meant profligate waste. It encouraged people to consume, indeed, to massively over consume. It was the McDonald’s combi-deal transferred to the tourist market, supersize me Spanish style. The hotel where I was staying (500 rooms) was typical. The meals were in a mass dining room and it was a smorgasbord set up. You could eat as much as you liked. The range of food items on offer included soups, salads, fruit (fresh and dried), fish, white and red meats (cooked and cold), pasta, potatoes (boiled, fried, grilled), vegetables (raw and cooked), nuts, yoghurt, four kinds of bread and rolls, cakes, ice creams, pastries, cereals, coffee, tea, soft drinks, fruit juices…on and on…People were encouraged to overeat and that’s what they did. People were encouraged to drink too much and that’s what they did. If you didn’t over indulge you weren’t getting your money’s worth. I fell into that pattern too. It was only logical given the circumstances.
Champagne with breakfast?
No problem, drink as much as you like.
You could eat very healthy food if you wanted to – and you could gorge yourself on junk too.
The logistics concerning the sheer amount of food and alcohol (and water) consumed in the course of a day in a typical Spanish package tourism hotel were, to use that hackneyed expression, mind-boggling. But when you then thought about the amount of food, alcohol and water consumed every summer in the thousands of such hotels lining the entire southern Spanish coast, then the mind was confronted with a hell of lot more than boggling.
Many times, whilst piling up another plate with fish and potatoes and salad and pouring myself another glass of wine (I have no intention of sparing myself here), I thought of the hundreds of thousands of rooms which for 6 months of the year stood empty and the immense amounts of food and water that were consumed during the tourist season – enough to feed ten times that number of people in the underdeveloped world. And that world was not so far away; in fact it lay on the other side of the ocean which I swam in every morning before breakfast.
Seen properly, the Mediterranean was really an oversized lake. On the other side of that lake there was very different kind of human landscape than the one I was lodged in as a package tourist. In Northern Africa there was widespread poverty, political instability and religious extremism; the driver behind these problems was massive over-population. In that part of the world women had more babies than anywhere else. It was a time-bomb ticking away, one which was right at Europe’s doorstep.
Sometimes sitting there behind the hotel dining room window and looking out – and eating huge amounts of food after my early morning swim – I felt guilty being who I was and where I was; but also comfortable and safe and ill inclined to be questioning my ridiculous good fortune at having been born on the right side of the sea.
But the frogs changed all that.
The frogs put things into perspective.
During the day I began going for walks along the coast.
With each day, I walked further and further until I reached a point where there were fewer hotels and often, vacant areas of land between them.
It was here that I saw the frogs.
Actually I heard them first.
It was sunny day and a strong wind was blowing. The sea was a pattern of breaking waves, pure white dots on an immensity of dark blue. Even with the wind and the sound of the waves, I could hear the frogs quite audibly. It was a strange sound, like a high-pitched wailing, and quite different to the deep croaking I normally associated with frogs.
At first I couldn’t work out what the sound was – birds maybe? – or where it was coming from. I looked around and then walked towards where the beach ended and the land began. I found a pool of water on a vacant area of land wedged between two hotels and surrounded by thin, wispy trees. Closer perusal revealed that once, that pool had been at the mouth of a small creek. About five meters away, inland, the creek had been levelled flat by bulldozers to make way for the future construction of yet another high-rise hotel.
There they were in that precarious body of water: big green frogs, dozens of them, swimming in between fine gossamer clouds of algae.
It was a sight to be savoured.
Some Spanish joggers stopped and joined me.
Those frogs were a tribute to the tenacity of life.
Yet in their incredible, high-pitched, bird-like croaking, I feared, was also the swan song of a doomed species.
In this modern world of ours, frogs were struggling to survive (like so many other creatures). Some species of frogs were already extinct. Many others were on the endangered list. There had been a lot of research done into the global decline of frogs. Amongst the reasons cited for their decline were: global climate change and pollution – frogs and tadpoles were very sensitive to any kind of change in their environment, whether it be stronger UV rays or pollutants. Another factor was loss of habitat – creeks and ponds for example were vanishing as suburbs and cities expanded. Spain was drying out too, with average rainfalls declining markedly. Old stone bridges built to span swirling rivers now stood above wide plains of gravel and weeds. In other words, the water I was looking at was unlikely and as remarkable as the frogs swimming around in it.
After seeing those frogs on that wind-swept Sunday morning, the sheer size of some of the contradictions of our modern world loomed large in my mind: contradictions of which I was a well and truly a part.
On one side of the Mediterranean, that oversized lake, human beings were too rich and on the other side, too numerous. On one side of the lake the human beings were consuming too much and on the other side, they were having way too many children.
On either side of the lake, the triumph of the human race, measured in such different ways, threatened to wipe out every trace of the animal kingdom.
What hope did frogs have against these odds?
The fate of frogs was symbolic of a world recklessly out of kilter.
Swimming is a form of meditation.
The main action involved is breathing. The in- and out- take of air is synchronised with the movement of the arms and legs.
In the silence of the water, the sounds of air moving in and out of the lungs becomes like a mantra. The normal process of thinking on land is replaced by an amphibious dream- like state.
On the morning after I saw the frogs, a scene appeared before me during my swim: it was from my childhood when my family was living at what was then the edge of suburbia in Adelaide, South Australia. Behind our house was bush and hills. One of my hobbies was collecting tadpoles. I’d go to a nearby creek and net tadpoles from the pools of water and take them home in a jar and put them into an old bath tub sunk into the ground and filled with water and rocks. I’d feed the tadpoles with leaves of lettuce or cabbage and in the following weeks watch in wonder as the tadpoles got bigger, grew little legs (at the same that they also had tails) and then miraculously metamorphosed into frogs. The frogs would often escape and hide under rocks in the backyard. That was ok, their croaking could be heard at nights and it was a sound I liked (a view not shared by my parents).
On that morning in the cold Spanish sea, I found myself sitting next to a childhood creek. I could hear the tinkling sound of the water on rocks, the croaks of frogs, the clattering of gum leaves in the breeze, the lyrical fluting sound of magpies. I could see clear pools of water and tadpoles swimming back and forth. I could see the first ancient fish which left the water and began crawling on land, evolved into dinosaurs and later, mammals. In the metamorphosis of a tadpole into frog I could see the spawning of the human race. At the same time, whilst these images were appearing before me, I felt like I was being transformed into a human version of a frog, as if I was travelling an evolutionary trail backwards. Out there, above the water, on either side of the big lake called the Mediterranean, frogs were rapidly disappearing but inside my mind they were safe, their tadpoles grew into frogs, the creeks had water and there were no bulldozers and no mega hotels. It was their last safe place.
The idyll of that childhood scene cost me a lot of body warmth. Lost in a trance-like state, I stayed in the water too long.
Suddenly the childhood idyll vanished and I realised how cold I was.
Heading to shore, life looked pretty simple: get out the water, get back to the hotel room, take a hot shower, put some clothes on, get warm – and then head to the dining room.
A half hour later, looking out the window of the dining room, surrounded by the milling sounds of people talking and cutlery and plates, I thought about the kind of world which would be safe for frogs.
What would need to happen to ensure their survival?
We needed to live on a planet where the rich consumed less, the poor had less children and our collective carbon footprint decreased. We needed to live on a planet where technology was used to benefit us all instead of convincing some of us to eat and shop ourselves stupid. We needed to…..
Yeah, yeah, dream on.
It wasn’t going to happen.
Just forget about the frogs – and all the other creatures which were vanishing.
Until we became a part of the collateral of course.
Every day, during the remaining days at the hotel, I walked along the coast to look at the frogs and listen to them.
What else could I do?