Slippery Business

In the Mercado de Bailén, in Malaga, a fishmonger gave me the lowdown. If I wanted to see the boats unloading fish, I had to go to Caleta de Velez. In Malaga, only a few boats come in every day. The port of Malaga is too expensive, he told me, so the fishermen go to Caleta, only a short drive up the coast.

By the time I got there, many of the boats were already tied up to the dock and more were coming in; big boats, motors chugging in a throaty diesel rumble as they shifted into reverse, gunned it for a second or two, and glided gently up to the dock with unerring precision.

I took pictures of some of the fishermen as they stacked crates, loaded fish, hosed down the decks, and got ready for the auction. One of them, a young kid, had a freshly bandaged cheek. A run-in with a hook? I wondered. It looked painful, anyway.

I snapped more pictures of other fishermen, trying to be discrete but also knowing that I stuck out from the crowd. A few of them gave me looks that left no doubt whether or not they appreciated the photographic attention. They stared back at me, as if remembering details about my face for when they caught up with me in the parking lot. Can’t say I blame them. They’re hard-working people that didn’t sign up to be tourist attractions. And they certainly looked tough enough that I didn’t want to risk it again, so from then on I concentrated on taking pictures of fish.

Whenever I go to a fishing port, I always see all sorts of fish I’ve never seen before. Creatures that look like something harmful or dangerous in a Star Trek movie. They certainly don’t look like anything that is good to eat. They are obviously for sale, but where? I never miss an opportunity to visit a fish market, and I have been to many, many different markets in Spain, but I’ve never seen these things for sale anywhere. Yet someone is buying them. One day I hope to unlock this mystery.

Inside the warehouse, men stood around with handheld electronic bidding devices, waiting for things to get underway. One man pulled out a stack of 50 Euro notes that was thicker than most books I’ve read. He folded it in half and held it in his fist, his fingers barely able to get around it. Workers wielding S-shaped iron rods dragged buckets of horse mackerel in ice water across the floor, arranging them into lots. Buyers dipped their arms into them to get an idea of how full they were.

The floor was smooth concrete, slick to begin with, but also covered in water and chunks of ice here and there. I almost took a couple of sensational wipeouts. (Turns out my Birkenstock-knockoff sandals were not the most appropriate footwear for a fish auction at the port.)  I was strolling around with an eye open for any possible photo opportunities and then in a split second, I performed the kind of wildly animated arm-and-leg thrust that Olympic floor gymnasts spend years perfecting–while involuntarily shouting out “Whoa!”–and then executed a miraculous, and I mean miraculous, recovery. It must have been richly amusing to everyone there: a tourist in his forties with a camera around his neck, not immediately recognizable as an athlete, shall we say, almost going down like Bambi on ice and then walking on casually, pretending nothing happened.

I wasn’t the only spectator, however. There were some old men there that were neither buyers or sellers. They hung out, watching the auction, chatting with some of the fishermen. Then, after it was all over, they rode off on rusty bicycles with plastic bags of some under-appreciated species of fish that was a by-catch of whatever it was the fishermen were actually after. It’s not allowed, but by the looks of it nobody says anything and, well, so what anyway.