On the first day of October 2019, I sat on a train that I almost missed, not writing in the notebook open in front of me, not thinking about trading in my traveling-writer lifestyle for the office back in England the next day, just quietly granting myself space to be. The morning train charged through the south of Spain, and the Andalusian landscape felt too plentiful to take in — yet somehow too barren and unjungle-like to daydream through.
Only two days earlier, before the blurred hillside colours out the train window, and before my hasty morning run along the platform seconds before departure, I arrived in Córdoba to read poetry at my first-ever literary festival. I went alone, with little time to assess how brave this all was and how much of it I had manifested. I filled the days being welcomed, double-kissed, escorted from one side of the sun-lit, beige city to the other, conjugating verbs as fast as I could, listening, and taking pictures of the things I wanted to keep with me. Things I wanted to archive in memory. Of those things, the warm feeling followed me, rising from gut to mind, urging me to be here without explanation.
I hadn’t given myself permission to be excited about the trip so I didn’t research much about Córdoba before arriving. I’ll be too busy for wandering, I thought. I just wanted to arrive, do my best poetry, and prove I had earned it so I could add “international poet” to my bio and get back to normality, accomplished.
Getting to the festival felt different, though.
The few golden hours that I spent wandering around the streets of Córdoba before my set left me confused. I found myself alone in the south of Spain, in a terracotta plaza with overhung trees offering their plentiful shade. I’d coaxed the festival staff into letting me have that unhurried afternoon stroll despite my reading in a matter of hours. I was at peace, despite feeling like I hadn’t yet earned it. I found no eyes questioning me, as a poet (a young one), or as a black woman, traveling alone. I stopped to photograph the moment because there are no plazas where I live, and no time to take pictures of them. Nor free time for afternoon wanderings during the siesta I can never quite take. I let myself be distracted by the places that had nothing to do with me.
Navigating myself only by choosing the roads that seemed prettiest, I stopped outside a repair shop that seemed, ironically or defiantly, untended to itself. An old man stood upright, leaning his weight heavily on one foot, staring at everyone, admiring no one in particular. There was too long a silence as I walked past so I greeted him and he greeted me back from behind his tinted sunglasses. We exchanged words about how the day was going. Beyond this, I was entirely unprepared, because I wasn’t expecting to meet or speak to anyone in the silent afternoon. I trailed off a sentence that was too ambitious for my language skills, and we laughed it out of existence together. I let him know that I planned on improving my Spanish one day. He raised his hands to throw my wish out into the warm air, “poco a poco” he said, nodding, almost before I finished. Little by little. I say it to myself.
After filling the hours and my memory card in Córdoba’s back roads and plazas, I made my way back to the hotel with enough time to have a late lunch with poets from the festival. We sat in the hotel bar that was slowly filling with sunset hues, and discussed our favorite translated poems, and Cuba, and Mexico and its magic realism, and I learned what Córdoba means to Spaniards. While waiting for the food, ordered entirely based on recommendations, I was once again able to simply… be. I sat listening to the poets who wrote new books every year, the titles of new works coming to them and being flung into ink even as we spoke. I also enjoyed the company of other poets who spent no less than ten years with a collection before sending it out into the world.
Then, there were those who devoted their attention almost exclusively to poems interesting enough for translation from Greek, or from English to Arabic, French to Spanish, or whichever way. The question had made its way around to my side of the table. All eyes rested on me as I spoke, at first hesitating, and then openly, of all the surreal, spiritual and Caribbean livelihoods that make up my writing, detailing things I’d never before had time to articulate about my poetry.
As the meals arrived, I learned the importance of a well-meaning “buen provecho” before the first bite and I sat, unconcerned that I was here, and forgetting that, at one stage in my imagination, I wasn’t meant to be present at all. Afterwards, I headed to my room to FaceTime my sister, leaning out of the window while the afternoon traffic gently rose and muted and roared again. Uninterrupted by the usual intrusive thoughts, I flicked through my camera roll and read over my poems once more, before I imperfectly painted my nails burning orange, put on a yellow dress, and headed to the Sala Orive to do the thing I love most. Unprepared but also, ready.
The festival was full of all the moments I’ve never said aloud that I wanted. I tested out some of my best poems in English and Spanish, and shared the stage with the genius of Berta García Faet. I was gifted books, and bought books, and promised to write a book, and true to my word, signed and sent it once it was done. I took pictures, pretended to understand thick Sevillan accents, and found myself very much present. I moved through the evening, unsure of what was coming for me next, but knowing that I would welcome it. Immediately after my set, I detangled myself from the wired microphones with the tech guys’ help, and saw a couple who were nodding and smiling all the way through my set walk up to me.
I prepared for some manageable conversations in Spanish about the poems, and instead found that they spoke English and were British. The couple were traveling for their anniversary, and noticed from the billboards and posters in the city that a British poet would be performing, so they came to listen. During my reading I shared poems about my grandad, who was born in Sheffield and is Indian and Jamaican by heritage. It turned out that the wife’s grandad was also Jamaican, and she and her husband were from Sheffield. We spoke for some time about the odds, our grandfathers, and the UK poetry scene. I confessed how little I knew about Sheffield and how much I felt the need to visit. We took pictures and swapped contacts, and they went on their way, the whole meeting magical — if only because we were all exactly where we were supposed to be.
The thing about impostor syndrome is that I never admitted I ever had it, only worked hard to shake it from me. I think Córdoba taught me that. I left with the awareness that if I want to, I can belong to things yet to be pronounced, living life slowly and openly as though it is already mine. I choose this rather than to live as though I snuck in and so can’t stop to take pictures, receive small wisdoms outside repair shops, and find similarities with people whose histories align so delicately with my own.
I had spent my entire life institutionally and systematically proving why I should be here, or let in. Now, I have simply arrived. Without warning and probably a little late. Though since there is no one left to remind me that I shouldn’t be here, I will stay. Besides, I’m too busy detailing the difference between Virgos and Libras on walks home with new friends in Spanish cities, comparing notes on telenovelas, and promising to visit soon. This is how I’m supposed to be: figuring it out without pressure of perfection, sharing final advice and goodbyes in hotel elevators before early morning trains and planes back to wherever.So, to answer the question unasked, yes I am supposed to be here and no, I do not yet know exactly where here is but I know that I must be present — always, taking up my space, braving heels on cobbled pavements, and almost missing trains until I arrive.
Amara Amaryah is a travel writer and poet of Jamaican descent. Her travel writing shares the perspective of a black woman solo traveler. Amara’s travel stories have been commissioned for The Black Explorer and featured in Trust and Travel’s The Journal. Her debut collection The Opposite Of An Exodus was published in March 2021 by Bad Betty Press.