Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Camino Friendships

It was day #15 on the Camino. The previous two days had delivered a steady bone-chilling rain and I awoke that morning in Hornillos del Camino to a deafening downpour. I wasted two euros trying, without success, to work the coffee machine, and I was homesick. By the time I left the albergue the rain had stopped and I stood in the puddled street trying to hook up to wifi to send Sam a text, as I did each morning. There was no signal, so I posed for a smiling selfie I'd send to him later on. I didn't want to burden Sam with my sadness - it was a gift for me to fly to Europe and walk across Spain. Complaining wasn't a luxury I allowed myself.

A forced early-morning smile on day #15

As I walked out of town the chorus of birds lifted my spirits and soon I was taking photos of wheat fields glowing in the early morning light. 

Early morning light

The dirt track was wet, and in places deep mud made the walking difficult. Flattened wheat suggested that Pilgrims ahead of me had gone off the path into the farmer's fields to avoid the mud, but by now even those newly made paths were muddy so I trudged on.


After an hour and a half of walking totally alone, no others in sight, I stopped to leave a small pile of my dear friend Sue's ashes on a stone wall. Since leaving St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees two weeks earlier I had carefully selected places to leave the ashes, always with a view. At times it was as if Sue was with me and I could hear her laughing as I imagined her delight in my experience. 

I left some of Sue's ashes here

I paused for a few moments of reflection and then took a short video of the view.  As I filmed the trail behind me I spotted an approaching Pilgrim. He was gaining on me quickly; an older gentleman, with a slight limp. When he was near I commented on how quickly he had caught up to me.  Laughing he said, "Well no one has said that to me before."  Our conversation was easy and I welcomed the companionship. 

Trevor walked ahead of me through the muddiest sections and as I slipped and groused behind him he offered steady encouragement, "We're almost through this section. I see dry road ahead." Not always accurate, but the words that I needed to push on through the thick, clinging sludge.

Not my favorite walking

Most days on the Camino I walked alone. I enjoyed the solitude and preferred to respond to my own pace rather than that of someone else. But on this day the Camino provided exactly what I needed, and that was a companion to help get my mind off of myself. Trevor and I walked on to Castrojeriz where we checked into an albergue and met up with Cameron, a millennial from New Zealand with whom Trevor had walked earlier. 

With Cameron and Trevor in Castrojeriz

The next day we added Mary from Boston to our little group and later Jackie and Laura, a mother and daughter from Ireland joined us. We were crossing the Meseta, the high plateau that many consider the most tedious stages to walk. But we were all enjoying the Meseta, and the company of each other. 

The group

Our last day as a group was in León, eight days after Trevor and I first met up. Jackie and Laura were returning to Ireland, and Trevor and Mary stayed an extra day in León to give injuries a rest. Cameron and I walked together off and on for another few days before I went off on the Invierno route by myself.

It has been nearly three years since I walked the Camino and I have remained in touch with several of the people that I bonded with while walking. Linda visited while we were still in Oregon, and Lin stayed with us for a few days soon after we arrived in Spain. 

With Linda in Oregon
With Lin in the Alpujarras

Sam and I enjoyed a fabulous weekend in Porto last May visiting with a group of five Portuguese who embraced me as their friend within minutes of meeting them in a bar near Santiago. 

With the greatest group of Portuguese friends in Porto for my birthday

And yesterday Trevor and his wife Christine came and stayed the night with us. 

Trevor and Christine

There is something special about Camino friendships. Thousands of people walk the Way each year, but each person chooses a particular day to begin, and as you walk you soon recognize many of the people who started on or near the same date. Days or weeks might pass and then you run into someone you shared a meal, or a bunk bed with. 

I met many Pilgrims and offered a "Buen Camino" greeting to hundreds, but something clicked with a handful of people and those became my "Camino family." 

Early Camino Family

Sam has heard the stories and looked at the photos, but there is a special joy for each of us in sharing a bottle of wine and a brilliant sunset with a friend who was a special part of my Camino experience.

Celebrating friendship

New friends Sam and Trevor

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Simpler Ways of Being

Promise of Spring

I realized this morning that I have not written a blog post in nearly two months. During our first year I posted almost weekly as everything was new and noteworthy; now we are just living our lives and, while we regularly comment on how fortunate we feel to live here, the day-to-day tasks don’t feel quite so remarkable as they once did.

Today I am sitting in my new writing space. We have done some re-working of the stable so that I can have a room of my own; a retreat space with a view, dedicated to writing and reflection. It is not quite finished, but yesterday we carried a chair up so I could test out the ambiance, and now I am wallowing in contentment as I write this post.

The entry to my new space

The almond blossom started about a month ago. On the south facing slopes the pink and white petals are surrendering to the wind and new leaves. But on north-facing hillsides, the trees are in full bloom and we can look across to the Contraviesa, several kilometers away, and see swaths of delicate color, like ribbons of pulled taffy, flowing down the steep slopes. We have taken several hikes on trails that cut through orchards and, once again, my phone is full of photos of these beautiful blossoms. The honey bees are out on the warmer days and the trees almost vibrate with the happy humming of these miraculous creatures.

So much color on the Contraviesa

After a year and a half of pushing his wheelbarrow all over our very steep property, Sam settled on a vehicle to assist with this Sisyphean task. He did lots of research and considered many options before settling on an UTV that is covered and has a roll bar and a bed that tilts. One option was a “dumper,” a very noisy tractor-like vehicle that is used all over the Alpujarras, but several weeks ago a friend-of-a-friend rolled his over and he was crushed beneath it. Safety became even more of a consideration. 

For years I have wanted an Italian Ape; a three wheeled cart/truck that is named for the loud bee-like buzzing sound that it makes.  But again, we were concerned about safety and stability as there are no flat places on our land, and the Ape would have been power-challenged to make it up to our place. 

A "dumper" on top and an Ape below; both good options, for other circumstances

We also wanted something that could get us off the mountain in an emergency. Sections of the road to our cortijo have washed off the side from time to time, leaving the only escape option an even rougher track that goes up behind us and over the top. 

So after considering all those things, including price and availability, this past week the purchase was made. Sam found what he wanted online and we made the three hour drive to Puente Genil to check it out. Vincente greeted us and soon his father, and then his mother and eventually his friend who spoke English came to help with the transaction. The mechanic was sent off on his scooter to purchase a liter of gas so we could test drive the vehicle and before long hands were shook, the credit card was handed over and a delivery date and location negotiated. 

Delivery is always an interesting challenge here. We sort of have an address, but what we actually have are GPS coordinates. Envelopes go to our PO box in a town about 45 minutes away, while parcels are delivered to a business in the same town. Larger packages are delivered either to the BP station, or to the bar or carpenter’s shop in Soportújar. But for this delivery we agreed to meet at the Ermita del Padre Eterno, a small shrine where the tarmac road meets our dirt track. 

Ermita del Padre Eterno - Also meeting place for deliveries and guests

Early on Friday afternoon Vincente arrived with his mother and father and our UTV. Kisses were shared all around, Vincente wanted photos of us with the vehicle and then we bid them hasta luego.  Sam drove the UTV up the mountain and I followed behind. While the neighbor kids were excited to go for a ride, it will basically be a work horse and my hope is that it will give Sam’s back and knees a few more years.

Mom and dad supervise Vincente - the danger sign to the right is for our road.

Last night we went to the Festival of San Antón in nearby Soportújar. This festival typically occurs in January, but the organizer of Soportújar's particulars was very ill in January and so it was cancelled.  After he recovered it was rescheduled, and last night the entire village was out in celebration. There were fireworks, a processional from the church and at 9:00 the bonfires were scheduled to be lit. 

We were right under the fireworks!

Soportújar with the moon over the church

The fires are in two huge low-sided dumpsters, filled with olive wood. A third dumpster serves as an enormous barbecue where chunks of pork are grilled and then distributed in thick slices of bread with glasses of local wine. The fires got going closer to 10:00 and we ate our chunks of meat and bread sometime after 11:00. 

Getting the party started!

This was our second year to attend and we were warmed, not only by the raging fires, but by the kindness that radiated from the townspeople. There was music and dancing and everywhere laughter and happy conversation. 

What impressed us most was the kids. Our friends have two kids who go to the village school and all of their classmates (10 in total) were there. Soon after arriving, the kids were off and we only occasionally saw them during the next three hours. They all watch out for each other and while the ages range from six years old to eleven, and with a gender balance that seems to favor boys - they all are all included in whatever they do. 

Still stunned by the most recent school massacre in the United States, we couldn't help but find joy in the freedom and innocence of these kids, for whom safety is a given and fear is not a constant companion.

Kids free to just be kids.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Alpujarran Experience

A beautiful day in Las Alpujarras
There are some specific characteristics that the people of las Alpujarras share. For example, it is traditional here to use and re-use, and then re-use for a new purpose, any item that is still usable.

Gates are often made from old bed springs and doors can show up in any number of places. We have a large concrete box that contains our water controls, and it is covered with two faded, non-matching, wooden doors that had been inside doors at some point in history. Fences are patched with any number of things - side rails from a child's crib, an old sign, or a rusted out wheel barrow. Bathtubs dot the landscape where they are used as water troughs for sheep or cows.

The history of this area is one of great poverty and the habit of using things for multiple purposes is likely rooted in that history, but it is also challenging to acquire and deliver materials, or to dispose of materials, and so using what you have is a reasonable thing to do. And we have learned that possessing new items, that are used only for the intended purpose, can raise suspicions. After all, only rich foreigners would do that!

Another characteristic, common in the people of las Alpujarras is generosity. This culture, with such a history of poverty, is nevertheless generous and people are willing to share what they do have with anyone who is in need. We have also seen this generosity in the giving and receiving of regalos, or gifts. If you give a gift, or otherwise assist an Alpujarran native, you can expect to receive something in return. 

This year I made two types of sweet nut breads to share for Christmas. I used our walnuts and for one batch I added persimmons and raisins, while the other loaves were made with dried cranberries and orange juice. 

Harvesting Persimmons

Orange season has begun!

The day before Christmas we distributed the breads to our various neighbors. 

One ex-pat couple sent me home with a lovely card and a box of tasty chocolates, another ex-pat family made ginger bread cookies and packaged them with a jar of homemade jam. Manuel invited us in for wine and thin slices of Pata Negra jamón - ham from pure bread Black Iberian pigs reared on the open range on a diet of acorns; a native of the Huelva province, Manuel reminded us that this is truly the best jamón, and we agreed! 

Jésus was somewhere on the mountain with his flock of sheep so we left the bread and a note card on the front seat of his van. Jésus is a native of las Alpujarras and was actually born in the house where we now live. He is our nearest neighbor and we enjoy hearing the sheep and goat bells each morning as he takes the flock out, and again as the sun sets, when he brings them back to the barn.

Yesterday we were working in the yard and Jésus was out with his flock. He climbed down the hillside to our back gate and we went over to greet him. He is patient with our limited Spanish and seems willing to have the same conversation about the weather each time we see him. 

After thanking me for the bread and declaring it muy bueno, he started to talk about pollo. We were not sure what he was saying but it reminded me that I wanted to ask about purchasing chicken eggs from him. He explained that his hens were not laying in the cold weather, and then we realized that he wanted to give us a chicken, as a regalo. We expressed great appreciation at this generous gift and it was determined that he would bring us a chicken mañana.

Then he asked, with gestures, if we knew how to kill it. Sam and I stuttered a bit; we hadn't killed a chicken, but we probably could. If we had to. Maybe. He watched us and then made it clear that he would kill the chicken, but that we would do the plucking and, we assumed, the cleaning. He spoke more about chickens at the supermercado being only 1 month old, but his was 6 months old and much larger. We thought we understood all of that and eventually thanked him again and bid him hasta mañana

Later in the evening I received a text from a neighbor; Jésus had stopped her on the track and asked her to contact me as he did not think I understood what he was telling me. Some of what he had communicated was that I needed to cook the chicken longer than usual because it is an older chicken and therefore a bit tougher than what I am used to from the grocery store. Hmmmm, Ok!

Last night I slept restlessly. When would the tough dead chicken (TDC) arrive? If it was just butchered it would need to be plucked and cleaned immediately. We would need a large bucket of very hot water to dunk the chicken in before plucking it. How would I heat up that much water with my various pots and pans? I dreamt about Jésus and in the dream he spoke fluent English, but he wanted us to practice our Spanish and that is why he pretends to not speak any English...finally it was daylight. 

We didn't know what time to expect the arrival of the TDC. We wanted to be ready and by daybreak had all of our pots full of water and heating on the stove. He said "mañana," but that could mean morning, or afternoon, or tomorrow!  We looked at YouTube to learn how to pluck and clean the chicken. It said not to feed your chicken on its last day, so we figured that must mean it would arrive early in the day. We turned off the boiling pots and busied ourselves in the back yard so we would notice when Jésus arrived. 

Using every pot in the house to heat water

Finally we heard Jésus' two miniature donkeys hee-hawing and then we saw his little white van making its way across the field above us. Gah, it's time!  

I re-lit the burners under the various pots of now-cool water and Sam and I went to the gate to receive our gift. Jésus carried an old feed bag that clearly had the chicken inside; remember, re-use everything! Sam took the bag, we each shook his hand, and thanked him again for the gift, recognizing that this is truly a kind and generous gesture, one that makes us feel very welcomed and accepted.

Sam retrieved an adequately-sized bucket and I carried pot after pot of hot water from the house to fill the bucket. Once filled, Sam dunked our TDC into the bucket, held it there for a few seconds and then placed it into another bucket and started plucking. It was amazing how easily the feathers came off. Next he placed the plucked chicken on top of an over-turned garbage can, in front of the woodpile, as you do, and completed the job of making our TDC look very much like a chicken from the supermercado. 

Ready, set, go!

Almost prepared

After some rinsing and then some additional rinsing, I covered our chicken with a dry brine solution and now it is in the fridge, wrapped securely in plastic wrap where it is brining and waiting to become our New Year's Day dinner. 

We are truly honored that Jésus shared one of his chickens with us. It seems that herding sheep does not result in any excess, and to receive this gift in return for our simple Christmas loaves, means more to us than he can know.

Jésus' donkeys with our Scottish friend

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Sometimes It Rains, and Other Fun

Gathering Clouds Before the Storm

It's raining. Not just a gentle mist, but a steady, heavy, soaking rain. 

Spain is in the midst of a drought and here in the Alpujarras the impact is significant; last week we gave one of the shepherds a ride up the mountain while he talked on and on about climate change and the impact on his flock of 600 sheep. An extended drought could bring an end to the traditional ways that are such a part of the rhythms here.

Snow is falling in the mountains and that is very good news for the animals, plants and people who live here. We are behind where we were at this time last year, but hopes are high for a significant snow pack this winter.

When it rains we are reminded of how much of our life is lived outside. We typically spend much of the day either working in the yard, hiking, or just enjoying the sunshine.

On days like this Sam dashes outside to refill the firewood bucket, or clean the drains which quickly fill with fallen leaves. Images of a cozy wood-heated cortijo are a charming idea, but the reality involves shoveling hot ashes from the wood stove, wiping up muddy footprints and limiting our use of electricity because without sunshine, the solar system is not producing any power.  

Our lifestyle, while dependent on precipitation, thrives on clear, sunny days. But for now, two days into a three day storm, we are grateful; the rain is truly a blessing and we have plenty of wood for heat, a generator for electricity if needed, and a roof that doesn't leak, even in the heaviest downpour. 

Today's View

Last week we celebrated Thanksgiving with a small group of friends. I wanted to have a traditional meal and we shared it with two British families and one Scottish couple. 

I enjoyed preparing dishes that we typically eat at Thanksgiving, but the process was a little more cumbersome. I needed specific ingredients so went to the store with my list, written in English and translated to Spanish, and then I searched until I found what I needed. 

Of course there were no displays of Ocean Spray cranberries, but I found dried arándanos at the weekly market in Órgiva, and was able to make a delicious cranberry sauce. Growing up in Pennsylvania, stuffing was made from bags of Pepperidge Farm seasoned breadcrumbs, but this year I made cornbread stuffing and discovered I prefer that. 

I cracked some of our walnuts and then used my mother's recipe to make an appetizer of spiced nuts, and I made creamed mushrooms with chestnuts that we gathered on a recent walk. Cutting the stumps from the fresh mushrooms reminded me of time spent at my father's mushroom farm; it is curious how a smell can take us across years and miles to a distant moment in time.

Sweet potatoes, salads, roasted potatoes and nut bread rounded out the meal and a British friend made her first pumpkin pie while another brought an apple crumble; both perfect finishes to the meal.

Traditional Dishes - Stuffing and Sweet Potatoes

The turkey was Sam's responsibility. One of our neighbors raised three turkeys this year and together they butchered the one we called "Thanksgiving." The process was completed as kindly as these things can be, and several hours later Sam returned home with an enormous bird. It weighed over 15 kilograms, so nearly 35 pounds. 

Our initial plan of roasting the bird in our oven clearly needed to be revised. Not only was the turkey larger than any pan we had, but it was also too big for the oven. In the end we roasted the turkey in our barbecue. The bird hung over the ends of the pan, and it cooked more quickly than anticipated, but it was delicious and provided enough meat for weeks to come.

The day after Thanksgiving we drove high above Capileira and then took a short hike to a mirador, or scenic overlook. It was a stunning day and we were able to see all the way to Africa and the mountains of Morocco that are over 200 kilometers away. We passed only two other hikers on the mountain that day. 

Looking to the Mediterranean and Beyond

Wild Horses on the Mountain

How can it be that a place so beautiful and peaceful and rugged and wild and amazing, exists only for us? We are thankful that we so often have this all to ourselves, but it is unbelievable too.

Nothing Makes Me Happier

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Autumn Tales

We usually try to wait until about 5:00 PM to light the fire.  During the day bright sunshine streams in our south-facing windows warming our cortijo. But as the sun slides behind the hill to our west, the temperature drops suddenly and it is time to close the shutters and light the fire. Some days, like today, I light the fire early. 

The sun is now popping over the mountain to the east around 8:15 AM. The temperatures overnight are dropping to five degrees celsius, yet once the sun appears, it warms into the teens in no time. 

We start our day outside most mornings, bundled in our fleece jackets; by the time we finish our mugs of café con leche, we have shed the outer layers as the morning sun combines with the hot liquid to warm us inside and out.

With the shorter days I need to get the laundry washed and hung out in order to capture enough sunlight to dry the load. This morning I started the laundry before my morning coffee and had it on the line by 8:30. Shadows come early to the place where I hang the wash, so soon Sam will put in posts for a winter clothes line, in a location that gets the maximum sun.

Early morning laundry

Today clouded up un-expectantly. The forecast was for poco nuboso, but it was actually mucho nublado as low clouds covered the mountains and hill tops around us. And so today I lit the fire at 3:00. 

Early fire

We are enjoying beautiful autumn weather. With the exception of one very impressive rain storm, we have had endless dry and warmer-than-usual days. We try to hike at least twice a week and our routes have included walks along the acequia through oak forests, returning to our favorite standby hike around the villages of La Taha, and up to the fire lookout high above our house.

La Taha walk

Hiking with neighbors who are now good friends

On our way to the fire lookout

Through the oaks

A hidden waterfall

Last week we went to Órgiva for the weekly market. We typically avoid going to town on Thursday because it is so busy on market day, but sometimes it is fun to participate in the weekly event. There is a vibrant energy in town on market day as people of all ages and varied backgrounds wander among the stalls considering fruit and veggies, clothing and housewares.

We parked at the edge of town and as we strolled towards the market I took photos of the numerous flowers that color the walls and walkways this time of year. 

Some of the flowers and fruits of autumn

The citrus trees are loaded and the fruit is turning from green to brilliant yellow and orange. I think it is perfect that as the days get shorter and the nights get colder, the oranges and lemons ripen bringing cheerful colors and the promise of fresh juice to each day.

There has been some turnover in our small community. One couple has moved out, going their separate ways and leaving a cortijo for sale. And a bit down the road another couple has arrived, moving here from Australia. 

Friendships develop quickly and with ease; probably a product of necessity. Years ago when I moved to Oregon from the East coast of the US I was struck by the openness of the people I met. In the East it seemed that people stayed close to family and lifelong friends, but outsiders were always going to be outsiders. I surmised that the openness in Oregon came from the time of the pioneers arriving by wagon train, each leaving family and everything familiar behind to start over in the foreign, fertile NW territory. 

Our experience here is similar. Each ex-pat has chosen to leave the ease of familiarity behind. And in our new lives we find quick acceptance and commonality, enjoying the trust and companionship that comes from genuine kindness and openness. 

Those who have been here the longest have not forgotten what it was like when they first arrived and because of that, when someone reaches out, there is always a hand to assist and an encouraging word of assurance that seemingly large obstacles are actually quite manageable. It is those relationships, both with ex-pats, and with some of our Spanish neighbors, that have made this all so pleasantly possible for us, and it is a pleasure to now offer our friendship and encouragement to the newest arrivals.

Not the colors of New England, but stunning just the same

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

First Snow of the Season and Other Adventures

Sitting down to write, I look out on a grey, wet, chilly landscape.  For the first storm of the season, there was no timidity in its arrival; we have experienced wind, thunder and lightening, and periods of heavy rainfall. We lost a limb off the walnut tree, and Sam braved the elements to quickly clear several drainage ditches, blocked by fallen leaves and the dust of a long summer. 

But when there was a break in the rain and the clouds lifted for a brief period, we discovered fresh snow on the mountains.  Hopefully this will be the beginning of what will build to a good base of lasting snowpack. We have had a year of drought conditions, and the water and future snow melt are much needed.

Snow on the mountains!

Our house holds the warmth of the summer sun; the thick stone walls retain the heat until the chill becomes too powerful, and then we will light the wood stove and settle in for the winter ahead. Fortunately Sam had all of the wood chopped and stacked before he injured his shoulder back in April.  Now while he recovers from rotator cuff surgery, I need only to carry in each day's wood from the adequate supply. 

Pleased that we arrived back home in time to bask in a warmer-than-usual, and very sunny autumn, we have enjoyed exploring some of the varied terrains and landscapes of our region.

We hiked high above the villages with views down the valley to our property and beyond to the Mediterranean. 

Looking towards home and beyond

Another day we drove to the top of the Contraviesa, where, standing on the long ridge, the view south drops to the Mediterranean below and the view north reveals the expanse of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There we hiked through a cork oak forest which had been recently harvested. Cork oaks are harvested every nine years and when they are harvested a deep, pink bark is revealed. Soon the color will revert back to grey as the cork replenishes on each tree. 

Walking in the recently harvested cork oak forest

Beautiful bark

We joined Spanish Highs Mountain Guides for a hike in the Tabernas Desert near Almeria. This unique area is also the home of "Little Hollywood," and the location for numerous films including Lawrence of Arabia, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and other spaghetti westerns.  As we walked, our guide pointed out where various scenes had been filmed. 

The setting for a scene in The Good the Bad and the Ugly

The cinematic history is interesting, but the landscape is stunning; we especially enjoyed the spectacular Marlstone deposits formed by lime-rich mud and calcium carbonate.

Back at home we continue our near-daily walks to the barranco. It remains a dry stream bed, but hopefully today's rain will provide some flowing water again. Yesterday we took a plastic bag and stopped to gather chestnuts from one of several large trees along the track. 

Steamed and ready to peel

We have been home for nearly a month and are settled back into the slow flow of life on the mountain. Today I have a pot of soup bubbling on the stove and we are happy for a quiet, cozy day in our comfortable cortijo.

Soup simmering