Lost in Andalucía | Catherine Roberts

Andalucia_photo

La aventura de viajar consiste en ser capaz de vivir como un evento extraordinario la vida cotidiana de otras gentes en parajes lejanos a tu hogar.”

– Javier Reverte, Spanish writer and traveler

The adventure of traveling consists of being able to live other people’s daily life like an extraordinary event, in places far from your home.”1

“Why are you wearing a jumper?” Harper piped up as we entered the woods, pushing an overhanging branch out of our path. “It isn’t bedtime.”

I peered down at my attire, and realized that she was referring to my navy zip-up sweatshirt, emblazoned with the name of my school’s newspaper.

“Oh, this? It’s a sweatshirt,” I replied, not knowing how else to explain. I was wearing clothes I had thought would be the most comfortable for working outdoors, not expecting to be called out on my fashion sense.

“My mum wears those when’s going to sleep.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, in the way of a 9-year-old who thinks she knows everything.

“Oh, right.” I decided it wasn’t worth it to challenge her on this one.

Harper was the young, strawberry blonde daughter of the English ex-pat couple I would be staying with for the next week. It was early May, and I had just finished classes and exams at my study abroad program in Madrid. As the semester neared its end, I had decided that I wanted to get away from Madrid and get a taste of “true” adventure. A friend of a friend had volunteered on a farm in Italy during her spring break through an online network called Help Exchange (or HelpX, for short). I investigated a little and found that HelpX connects owners of organic farms or hostels with people looking to volunteer as an exploratory experience or cultural exchange; in return for their services, “helpers” are provided with food and accommodation by their hosts.

Using the friend’s account, I searched for volunteer opportunities in different rural areas of Spain, ultimately deciding to return to Andalucía, where I had visited as a part of my program’s orientation program. After I had emailed about a half a dozen “hosts,” Jack and Lorrie—Harper’s parents—had responded, affirming that they would be happy to have me. A few weeks later I had found myself on a six-hour-long bus to Andalucía, early on a Monday morning. Jack had picked me up from the bus station in their town, which was located about an hour outside of Granada in Alpujarra, a region at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After retrieving his children—Harper and her younger brother, Jonah—from school, he had driven us all back to their organic olive farm and asked Harper to show me around.

The Wards lived in two trailers, the main one comprising of their primary living and eating space as well as a bedroom for Jack, Lorrie and Harper’s younger brother Jonah. Harper got her own room—a smaller, separate trailer parked right alongside the main one. Both trailers were parked in a lot occupied by other trailers and on the outskirts, some more permanent residences. We toured around them for a few minutes, and then headed towards a wooded walking path that would take us to the farmland, which Harper referred to as simply “the land.”

“Do you want to go pick nísperos?” Harper asked, adding, at my look of confusion, “—they’re fruit. Real good.” I let her take the lead. On the way, we picked up some of the neighbors’ children—Violet, a soft-spoken and slender girl Harper’s age, with a blonde pixie cut, Lexi, another blonde with Pippy Longstocking braids and a sharp attitude, and Connor, Harper’s brown-haired male foil who liked to show off on his road bike.

A few minutes into the woods, everyone stopped at what must have been the wild níspero tree. Sprawling branches hung heavy with small, orange fruit—there had to have been at least a hundred of them. Without hesitation, Harper, Connor and Lexi began to clamber up the branches, their bare feet gripping the bumped, knobby bark. Violet stayed back with me and we both caught the nísperos the others tossed to us. Similar to kumquats, I learned that you were supposed to peel them before eating, as the skins were harder to digest. Soon my hands were sticky with sweet juice—all of ours were. The stickiness felt strangely satisfying.

On our way back to the trailers, I learned about Harper’s family—that her mom, the “nicer” parent, was away in England at a wedding for another two days—and with her introductions, met some of the neighbors—a spattering of foreigners that owned plots of land adjacent to that of the Wards (and some, as Jack would later tell me, that were just squatting). The young girl had a sharp eye and a strong spirit, never pausing to share her opinions or overheard pieces of gossip on the community she lived in. She also took no hesitation in peppering me with a variety of questions—and though she was inquisitive at times, I also knew I had made a fast friend for the week.

It may be helpful to rewind a little. For the second semester of my junior year at a small liberal arts college located in New York State, I had chosen, like many of my peers, to study abroad. Hoping to finally put my years of Spanish language study to use, I had chosen to relocate for a semester to Madrid, Spain, where my college ran its own academic program. We would live with host families and take classes (all in Spanish) at my school’s academic center in the northwest corner of the city. It was a type of immersion program, and one that expected previous experience with the language.

While Madrid had definitely pushed me—to think and breathe a foreign language, to learn how to live with a stranger from a new culture, to adjust to a new pace of life—the opportunity to study on my school’s program had also provided me with a strong support system that I had grown to depend on. Remaining under the wing of my very own liberal arts institution, I had never really pried myself out of its protective embrace. Yes, I had explored some. After classes I had traversed the city by day—day-dreamed in the Parque Retiro, admired expressionist art in the Museo Thyssen, and by night—danced with strangers at discotecas after one too many chupitos of tequila, arriving home in the wee morning hours to the shrill barks of my host mother’s aging mutt, Blas. But other than a few weekend trips to other European cities, which had really been more of the same mix of museum-going and partying, I had not really gone out on my own. Stepping out of this metropolitan bubble for a week would allow me to test the true thickness of my own skin, so I thought. That had been the main reason I had decided to venture south, by myself, for a week.

When I had first told them about my plan, my parents had been concerned (“You just found this on the internet??”). But from the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, there wasn’t much they could do to stop me. Surprisingly enough, my new “chaperone” of sorts—my Spanish host mother—had not been too worried, but just confused. When I told 70-year-old Imelda that after exams, I was going to spend a week on a farm but wanted to leave my semester’s worth of things with her while I was gone, this is how our conversation went:

“I’m going to go be a volunteer on a farm,” I told her.

“Why?”

“I just want to do something different before I leave Spain,” I tried to explain. She raised an eyebrow. After four months in Madrid, I didn’t think it was a problem with language. She genuinely didn’t understand what I was doing.

“But what will you do at a farm?” She bellowed a laugh. A strong-willed woman, she never held back her opinions. But it was her thirst for entertainment—exemplified in her telenovela addiction—that I think made her quick to dramatize any situation. “Make friends with the cows?”

“Whatever they need me to do, I guess.”

The HelpX post had advertised potential chores as gardening or taking care of the kids. I hadn’t done a whole lot of gardening before, but back at home I would sometimes help my father out with the yard. And kids were cute, I thought. Getting my hands dirty could only be good for me.

It was Day Two and a pile of dishes sat in the sink, my first task of the morning. Metal plates, bowls and cups—the type I had only ever used camping, not for my daily meals. Before beginning to wash them, I glanced around me to soak in my new surroundings that had been unknown to me just 24 hours before.

I stood in the kitchen area of the Ward’s two-room R.V. An oak counter separated the kitchen space from the dining area, where a half-circular wrap around seating bench surrounded a small, half moon table. At it sat Harper, who nibbled a piece of toast slathered with butter and orange marmalade, the latter a trinket brought back from a recent visit to relatives in England, her father had told me the night before.

“Do you like aubergine?” she asked me from her place at the table, pushing a strand of her strawberry blond hair behind an ear. She stretched out the syllables of the last word, her British accent apparent. “It’s my favorite vegetable.”

I racked my brain for any clues of what this could be, and gave her a quizzical look.

“I don’t believe I know what that is.” I pulled plastic bucket out from under the sink that I planned to use to hold the hot water for washing.

“I can describe it to you! It’s soooo good.” She kind of hopped around as she said this. “It’s long and kind of shaped like a pepper. And when you bake it in the oven with salt and olive oil it’s realllllyyy good!”

I chuckled to myself. Kids. Did I have that much energy when I was younger? I had only known her for a day but I could already see that that Harper never stopped moving, or talking.

“Harper!” Jack’s gravelly voice entered the trailer from somewhere outside. “Finish up with breakfast! Carpool’s about to leave!”

She abruptly dropped her piece of toast and clapped her hands together, dusting the excess crumbs off her fingertips.

“I’ll be back at three!” Harper slipped on her off-brand sneakers and trampled down the makeshift stairs to catch her ride to school. I turned to light the stove to heat hot water for the dishes, just as Jack had shown me the night before. As I pulled out a long match, he popped his head into the trailer.

“I was hoping you could come into town with me to run an errand after you finish with the dishes,” he said, running a hand through his short, graying hair. He wore a white t-shirt with a logo I didn’t recognize, worn blue jeans and plastic yellow flip-flops.

“Sure thing!” I surprised myself with a spurt of enthusiasm, likely the leftover adrenaline from the newness of everything and an effort to prove my worthiness to my new “boss.”

“Great,” he responded. “Let’s plan to leave in an hour or so.”

An hour later, the massive pile of dishes suds-ed, rinsed and returned to the cabinet to dry, I ventured outside the trailer to see Jack loading up what appeared to be bags of trash into an old trailer he had attached to his forest green ’90s Range Rover.

“We need to go drop these bits of rubbish off in town,” he told me. “But seeing as what we’ll be doing is technically illegal, we’ll need to do it quickly, which is why I need your help.”

I nodded, a little red flag going off in the back of my mind in the “things-to-generally-avoid section,” under which “breaking the law” usually fell. But the confidence in his voice strangely reassuring, I decided to trust him.

“Lovely. Do you know how to ride a bike?”

“Yeah.” I nodded again.

“Since I have some other errands to run in town, the last of which will be picking up the kids from school, I think it’d be best if you biked back here after the rubbish drop-off. That way, you can get to doing some picking up around the trailer when you get back and we won’t waste too much time.”

His plan made sense, but silently I grew a little apprehensive. I didn’t admit to Jack my terrible sense of direction, privately wondering if I would be able to find my way back to the settlement, especially considering my unfamiliarity with the roads. I pushed this into the back of my mind, deciding that I would just pay extra close attention to the way we would take on the drive there. We finished loading up and began our drive into town.

As we clanked our way across the dirt path, the bags of trash and scrap wood apparently deemed unusable rattled around in the back. I glanced back every now and then to make sure nothing had fallen, and Jack began to tell me more about how he and his family came to live in Spain.

“Lorrie and I both attended university in the UK,” he started. “After graduating, I spent some time traveling—all over. I spent a good amount of time in the East—Thailand, the Philippines. Lorrie and I were on and off, but eventually decided it was time to settle down somewhere. A friend from England told us about this great place in southern Spain, and at that moment there was a really good offer on some land in the mountains. Real isolated—it’s a fifteen-minute walk to the nearest car park—but breathtakingly beautiful,” he paused as if thinking back to that first big move. “We’ll probably go up there in a few days to grab some things and I can show you the old place.”

The life he described sounded romantic and terrifying at the same time. I quietly wondered if I, given the same opportunity at the same point in my own life, would do the same.

“We lived at our place in the Alpujarras for many years, made a home of it. Lorrie and I homeschooled Harper for the beginning years of her life and sent her older sister—who is now off at university—to the school in town. But all the commuting got tiring, so we eventually started the move down to where the trailer is now, as a temporary place to live. A year ago we found an offer on some land right by where we are now, so we took it. Now we’re just waiting for the right time to move down to our farm for good, eventually build a house like the one we had up in the mountains.” He stopped speaking and reached for a small tin on the dash, pulling out a pre-rolled spliff and a lighter. One hand on the steering wheel, he used the other to put the marijuana cigarette in his mouth and light it.

“We’re doing this for the kids, you know.” He took a puff. “We’re all university-educated, did the whole “real job” thing for awhile. But Lorrie and I decided—as did some of our friends, Sarah, Beth, Peter—that we wanted our kids to grow up somewhere they could take risks, have adventures, and learn not to be afraid of just being themselves.”

The assertion seemed noble, but I wonder how well it had worked in practice. Harper and Jonah seemed happy enough. Jack passed me the spliff and I took it without much thought (I had flirted with weed in high school, though I didn’t smoke too often anymore). I inhaled the smoke, held it in my lungs for a few seconds, before letting it go. If anything the most jarring part of the situation was not the substance itself, fact that for the first time in my life, it had been given to me so nonchalantly by an authority figure and parent, though not my own. And not to mention while he drove us stick shift across a bumpy country road.

At this point, nearly ten minutes had passed and we reached a fork in the road. Realizing that I had become so immersed in Jack’s story that I had stopped paying close attention to our route, I focused myself in on our direction again. Another five minutes went by in which Jack and I chatted and he explained more about what we were about to do and why.

Despite efforts by the Wards and their neighbors, the town refused to recognize the settlement where the Wards lived now. Jack reasoned that it was because the town government didn’t want to bother to supply it with basic infrastructure—running water, phone lines, electricity and trash collection. This meant that often he and his neighbors had to be creative. Today that translated into bringing their trash to the town’s dumpster, an activity that wasn’t necessarily kosher under the law.

Jack pulled over to the dumpster and we hurriedly began the dumping process, throwing the junk from the campsite, along with a tire we picked up on the way (“We all try to pick up for each other whenever possible”) into the two giant metal bins. When we finished, they were nearly full to the brim. I could see how this could annoy town officials, especially if it happened on a regular basis. On the other hand, I saw how Jack and his family had been left with no choice but to break the law.

Jack drove me back to where the official downtown area met rural farmlands and the dirt road back to their home began. Tossing the bike rather unceremoniously out into the road:

“Follow this road until it forks, and then turn right. Then you just follow that road for another fifteen minutes or so and you’ll reach the car park.”

I smiled, nodded, and waved goodbye. It sounded easy enough. It was a nice day for a ride, too. With the sun on my back, I donned the baseball cap I had made sure to grab before we left, hopped on the black, worn leather seat, and began to pedal.

Alone now, I breathed in fresh Andalusian air and fully took in my surroundings, mind clear despite the hit of weed (it had been small) I had taken twenty minutes before. I passed by up-close versions of the landscape I had observed from far away on my bus ride over—the rows upon rows of stumpy, squat olive trees that had lined the sides of the roads. They had seemed to dot the open plains and rolling hills in the thousands, little bushels of dull, muted green that stuck out against the light brown of the surrounding soil and the brighter greens of pastures. Up close, they had a certain grace to them, but it was hard for me to place exactly how. Though their height was no match to that of the towering New England pines that I grew up with, their shortness brought to them a certain personality. Maybe my knowledge of the importance of the olive tree to Spain—the country is the world’s primary exporter of the crop, which thrives in Andalucía—informed and biased this judgment, but that didn’t nullify their objective, albeit odd, beauty.

I pedaled along and the land around me seemed vaguely familiar, but I also worried because to a certain extent, it had all begun to look the same. When Jack told me to turn right, to which fork had he been referring? The one that I had come upon almost immediately after leaving the town? The road meandered, every few minutes forking ever so slightly, but in these cases I heeded Jack’ instruction to ‘follow the main road,’ staying with the route that seemed to continue more obviously straight. I soon came to a fork where this distinction was less clear, and paused.

The sun had begun to beat down hard—I pulled off my hat to wipe off a bead of sweat. It must have been about noon now, though I had no watch and no real way of knowing this for sure. I decided to follow the road that veered slightly to the left. Remounting the bicycle, I propelled my feet forwards into the pedals and pushed onwards for what seemed like five or ten minutes before I began to second-guess my decision to turn left. Because the trees had begun to clear, leaving me with a spectacular view: as the road and its surrounding plains sloped upwards, I could soon see that they stretched out in front of me for what must have been a mile or so before just ending. The grass and moss turned to rock, which jutted up, out and down into a deep valley below.

Suddenly a feeling of intense helplessness overtook me.

Where am I?

I lacked any form of telling time, navigating or communicating with the outside world, let alone the Wards. All I had were the clothes on my back, this antiquated bike and a pair of old work gloves Jack had lent me. My dry mouth itched for water. A sense of urgency to return to the camp before my whereabouts came into question also tugged at me inwardly, adding to a growing sense of panic. If I had been thinking rationally, I could have just turned back to retrace my steps, but at that point I began to second guess all of the turns I had made thus far—what if this wasn’t the only wrong one I had made?

A second later, I saw in the distance moving white blobs which I soon realized to be a herd of sheep. Among them traipsed an old man, whom I took must be an Andalusian sheepherder. Yes! Human contact! I can finally put my Spanish to good use and ask him for directions! But with a sinking feeling I realized there was a flaw in this plan. I could ask for directions…but directions to where? The Ward’s plot of land had no address, as far as I knew, and I was pretty sure their settlement had no formal name. I knew that where they used to live was called Cáñar, but that piece of information would be no help to me here. I knew their full names and that they were English. That was all.

The sheepherder and herd drifted closer and I could more easily make out their features. A two-inch beard covered the bottom half of the man’s face, and he squinted towards me, maybe as a result of the bright sun, or just as likely because he was confused by my presence. I approached him earnestly to express my predicament.

“Buenos días,” I began, going on to explain that I was lost. “Creo que estoy perdida. ¿Conoce usted una comunidad de ingleses que viva cerca de aquí?” A community of English people—that was the best I could come up with. I kicked myself for this pathetically vague way of phrasing things, and the sheepherder continued to squint, prodding a nearby rock with his wooden walking stick.

“No hay nadie vivendo por acá.” His thick Andalusian accent masked the hard consonants as he spoke. My heart sunk a little, though I had known that my surroundings seemed off. All that was left was to turn around and work my way back. I gave the man a wave of thanks and farewell, and continued my journey.

Going back to where I thought I had made the “wrong” turn, I headed on the other way and followed the road. The way started to look vaguely familiar again, and I wound through pastures, passing by the place where we had stopped to pick up the tire, and then a distinctive looking hippie van that I had remembered passing in the Range Rover. Though I had to ask for directions a few more times, I finally made it back to the car park about 20 to 30 minutes later. With nobody around, and my brief sojourn across the valley went completely unnoted.

The next few days passed by with little event, though I was definitely never bored. On Wednesday Harper’s mother returned from her trip to England. It was nice to have someone else around to help with the household chores, though I had gotten into a routine with Jack. Wake up around nine, after the kids had gone to school, do the dishes and some cleanup around the trailer, and then help him with whatever errand he had to run at the time. One day we went into town to the farmer’s market, each returning with a large “rucksack” packed with fresh veggies. Another day I helped him move some belongings from their old place higher up in the mountains. We had crossed a rather treacherous footpath in the rain, me carrying two rucksacks full of tools and toys that the kids had requested, and Jack and one of his friends carrying a large oak table. The drive down we had spent laughing and celebrating with a “victory” spliff.

Some afternoons I spent with Harper and the neighbors’ kids. I didn’t really feel like their babysitter—more like an older sibling or adult friend. We choreographed dances to Abba tunes at an old stage near the trailer in the carpark. Harper and I hung out in her room, which was decked out with an assortment of toys, books, a boombox, a pink princess bedspread—items many a nine-year-old girl would find delight in. At night I read her bedtime stories, with the exception of my last night—a Friday—on which we, after much pleading to Jack by Harper, watched an early Dakota Fanning classic, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, on Jack’s netbook. Jack had gone out into town to meet friends, and Lorrie was over at a neighbor’s, so it was just Harper, Jonah and I curled up on the wraparound seating in front of the small computer screen that we had set on the table. The movie, which chronicles a young Fanning nursing an injured racehorse back to health, had some gag-worthy Hollywood moments, but the kids were fascinated.

“AHH, I can’t watch this part!” Harper cried as Fanning’s father got ready to put the horse to sleep at the beginning of the film, burying her face in my shoulder. “Tell me when it’s over.”

I grinned bemusedly and stroked her hair. “Okay.”

That night when I tucked her into bed, we said our goodbyes, just in case I didn’t see her in the morning before Jack drove me into town to get the bus back to Madrid.

“I’m glad you came to help us,” Harper said. “You’re really—” she paused to let out a big yawn that stretched out her freckly cheeks “—nice.” Before she crawled into bed, she opened a small pink jewelry box and pulled out a little wrapped package the size of my fingernail. “This is for you,” she said. “I give them to all of the helpers. But don’t open it until you leave.”

I dropped it into my jacket pocket as she lay down. “Thanks! You know, I really appreciated you showing me around and everything too.” She smiled, but I could tell she was already on her way to sleep, so I pulled the covers up over her resting form, and switched off her light before stepping out into the cool night. “Goodnight, Harper.”

The synth beats of Swedish House Mafia blasted through the tower of speakers stacked atop the stage of Joy Eslava, a dance club located in the city center of Madrid. It was Saturday night, and just a few hours before I had returned from Andalucía. I had decided to spend my last weekend night out in Madrid here with a high school friend, Nate, who had also spent the semester studying in the city on a different program. Joy had been my first club experience at the beginning of the semester, so it seemed appropriate to spend my last night there.

Huddled in a circle of friends near the stage, I had a nice buzz going, but decided that I wanted another drink. Nobody else needed anything at the moment, so I worked my way through the sweaty crowd by myself to get to the bar.

“Un gin y tonic, por favor,” I shouted to the attractive, dark-haired female bartender, once I had finally made it to the front of the bar. She nodded to communicate that she had heard me over the blasting music. I waited for what seemed like nearly ten minutes while she served other customers and got what looked like an order for bottle service ready, likely for someone sitting at a VIP table. Just when I thought she had forgotten about me, she came over to the side of the bar where I was standing and handed me a tall glass filled with ice and a clear liquid.

“Ocho,” She held up eight fingers, and I tried not to cringe as I thought about the conversion to dollars and how much money I had spent on overpriced drinks this semester. I dug into my jacket pocket, grabbing a handful of Euro coins. As I dumped them into my hand to count them out, I saw the miniature wrapped package among them. I stopped for a moment, smiled.

I thought about my time in Andalucía, where I had just the day before roamed a Spanish farm (not actually run by Spaniards) with kids a decade younger than me. There, I had spent two nights sleeping in the cab of a truck. To my initial dismay, I washed lots of dishes. I had also learned how to hand-peel the outer layer off of wild mushrooms and the indigestible skins off níspero fruit. I illegally dumped trash in the town dumpster, got lost biking through the mountains and had to ask directions from an Andalusian sheepherder. I infiltrated a life that was completely not my own and in some ways very different from it. But in the process I was wholeheartedly welcomed—given a place to stay, treated like a member of the family—in exchange for my help. I still didn’t exactly know what to make of my experience, or of the Wards, but I felt warm when I thought of it all. Then again, that may have partly been the effect of the alcohol.

The bartender waited expectantly. Shit, I still needed to pay her.

“Sorry,” I told her in Spanish, handing her the coins. “I…got distracted.”

1 Translation original.

Catherine Roberts is a student at a small liberal arts college in New York State. Though she considers journalism her main writing outlet, she recently decided to delve into the world of creative nonfiction. Currently an intern at her college’s alumni magazine, she hopes to continue her writing upon her graduation this spring. She seeks to chronicle her experiences with the world by use of her pen and viola bow. 

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