Features | Article Lighthouse
Mario, the last lighthouse keeper of Mesa Roldan
On the coast of Almeria, a region where piracy and pillage still filled the headlines of the few local newspapers well in to the XIX century, a barren landscape dominated by bush and rough terrain which served as scenario for films like Laurence of Arabia and many Spaghetti westerns, up on the top of a plateau flanked by cliffs that plunge to the sea flanking, the eloquently called Cape of the Dead, stands the lighthouse of Mesa Roldan, guarding a stretch of sea that flows from the village of Carboneras to the next lighthouse in La Polacra cape.
Mario, the lighthouse keeper is one of the few left who has the permanent right to live and occupy the infrastructure. With the automation of the lighthouses since the early 80's, this profession is rapidly disappearing. In France, as an example, there are about 16 lighthouses which are still inhabited due to the difficulties to access them, but none have permanent residents, the lighthouse keepers serve by terms since they are very inhospitable places. In Croatia, one of the few countries where the figure of civil lighthouse keepers still exists, they have about 18 of them active. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada, they still have 37 manned lighthouses, which all but one, and due to territorial disputes with the US, are planed to be completely automatized. In other countries as Italy, Portugal or Russia, the lighthouses depend on their respective armies and are held by military personnel.
At the age of 56, Mario is one of the youngest lighthouse keepers in Spain. A civil servant profession that has lasted since the mid XIX century until it was declared to be extinguished in 1992. Mario is all but the typical lighthouse keeper. Originally from Vallecas, a neighborhood of Madrid, him and his brothers had a well known night club during the 80's cultural boom. “- All started as a joke-” Mario says “- My wife always wanted to live by the coast, and one day looking at the paper, there was an add of an academy that prepared people for the lighthouse exams, so I decided to attend and run for a lighthouse keeper job (…) I told my wife that if I passed the exams, she would end up tired of so much sea.-”.
After passing the exams in 1991, Mario was lucky to be able to choose the lighthouse of Mesa Roldan. A two house building, inaugurated in 1865, with a small light tower that is situated at a altitude of 220m over the sea level, making it the highest inhabited lighthouse of the Mediterranean Sea.
For the first couple of years, he shared living in the lighthouse with another lighthouse keeper assigned to the place and his family, which eventually would accept to be transferred to the Port of Almeria to take care of the maritime signalization.
Obviously living in a lighthouse at the turn of the XX century had little to do with those first lighthouse keepers, who lived isolated from the world, with no more than a mud track to go to the village and get groceries. The predecessors of Mario, had to guard the lamps overnight since they were powered by oil and later on by acetylene. The lack of electricity also made the light turn thanks to a system of weights and pulleys that had to be reseted every few hours and which moved the base of the lamp over a bead of mercury, being a health hazard as Mario says: “-It is very possible that manipulating and breathing the mercury could affect the mental health of the lighthouse keepers and deepen in the sense that they were strange people, in fact, more than one was fired for going literally crazy-”.
Going back to the XXI century, electricity, a paved road, automatic signaling and backup, apparently gave Mario little challenge despite being in charge of two other lighthouses. Used to the hubbub of Madrid, he soon became known in the neighboring village of Carboneras. One of his first “crusades” was against the former Mayor and a macro touristic complex built within the natural park of the Algarobico beach, which, after several trials and much fighting, has been declared illegal. From there on, he likes to call himself a “cultural agitator”, few cultural aspects in Carboneras have nothing to do with Mario. From singing in the Carnival “Chirigotas” (burlesque songs), or as singer in a chorus which performs from Italian traditional music to modern rock; as a writer of local history and fiction, or even as commentator on a regional radio program. His multifaceted interests have made him well known and respected by many in the region.