It hadn’t rained since late April. The fields were brown sticks and the soil ravaged and bone dry. If we were to believe Antonio, the 85-year-old farmer up the street, and we always do, it would not rain until November. The heat was stifling day as well as night. Occasionally, we would have a few days of wind, which gave the females in the neighbourhood migraines, though to me it was a welcome repose. At least the hot air got blown past one, instead of drowning one in stillness.
One day we woke up to a bizarre sky, as if we were looking at it though unpolished glasses. Something was definitively up. We heard a plop, then another and several more. ”Could it be rain?” we thought. Hurrying to the terrace, I felt something on my skin. Not actual rain drops, but gritty warmish globs of red mud. The ‘rain’ only lasted a few minutes. Then it got dead quiet, leaving a world covered in fine rust-coloured dust everywhere, in every indentation and on every surface. The cars parked on the street had a film of dust and in some places a mini-reef of fine-grained sand. Our neighbour shrugged his shoulders. “It’s lluvia de barro (mud rain) from Sahara.,” he told us, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And apparently it is. Thankfully not a daily occurrence, African mud rain is quite common in the Mediterranean region. However, with the right atmospheric circumstances, Saharan sand has been registered as far away as my own Scandinavia, southern USA and even South East Asia. We are talking thousands of miles! Not shabby for plain old dust….
Sometimes called lluvia de sange (blood rains) because of the dust particles’ particular tone of red, Sahara Rains actually happen all year around, though it is certainly more noticeable here during the dry summer months. Strong winds originating in the Sahara desert get transported beyond the African continent, where later precipitation rinses the dust out of the atmosphere, bringing it down in the form of muddy drops. For the phenomenon to take place it allegedly needs several atmospheric conditions to be present simultaneously. First, it needs a prolonged period of draught in the Sahara region (isn’t it always?), which produces an increased presence of suspended dust. Secondly, it needs the above-mentioned particles to get into the higher layers of the atmosphere, more specifically for us in Spain, with a southern or South Eastern wind. Finally, it needs precipitation in the area of the dust recipients.
One recognizes an incoming cloudburst of Saharan dust by watching the sky, which takes on an unusual muddy colour and dense luminosity. Other than the fact that it obscures the sky, such amounts of airborne smut are obviously not comfortable, nor healthy to inhale or ingest. Especially people with respiratory problems and asthma (popularly called ‘ama’ in Andalucía, for those who may wonder) ought to stay indoors and not engage in anything that may cause physical exertion. Yet, contrary to what this may make one believe, Saharan rain has nothing to do with pollution per se. With acid rain the opposite atmospheric phenomenon occurs, when the absence of wind allows the pollution on the earth’s surface to rise into the atmosphere, not the presence of it.
Once you know what on earth the blood rains are, it is no longer very exciting. In fact it is a royal pain in the you-know-what. The fine sand particles adhere to anything and are virtually impossible to extract. You have to hose down your terraces and walls at least twice, especially if you live in a Pueblo Blanco (white village) like we do. The dust seems particularly attracted to shiny surfaces, so beware that your car will get a good sandblasting. It will appear in the most hidden away places, being brought along by the aid of mysterious, invisible currents. Months later, when you think you have gotten all the traveling dust out of your car, and your life, you will open your trunk and find the rusty particles lining the entire inner door jam system, where seemingly not even air can get to.
Having fiercely vacuumed out the very last particle of the blasted hidden dust and given the car an almost professional detailing in the process, you sense a weather change coming. You look back up at the sky, noticing that it has taken on a curiously red colour…