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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Returning Home After a Visit "Home"

We returned to our mountain home a week ago and already we are settling back into our simple life.

A flowery welcome home

Our trip to the States was full and we were overwhelmed by the generosity of friends, and the joy of spending time with each of our kids and welcoming our new granddaughter. 

Our first grandchild

We were fed and housed by friends and family from Seattle to San Diego, and many locales in between, and from Las Vegas to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We enjoyed spending time with friends who have visited us here in Spain, and with others we haven't seen in over 40 years. 

But our minds were never far from our home in Las Alpujarras and as the countdown neared our return, we found ourselves longing for the peacefulness of our life here, while experiencing heartache knowing we would, once again, be so far from our loved ones.

We returned to welcomes from our friends and neighbors on the mountain. Gracious neighbor picked us up at the Malaga airport and when we arrived home we discovered a lovely spread of veggies, and fresh cornbread and homemade jam, and other groceries, complete with Welcome Home cards from his family. Jésus, the shepherd greeted us warmly the next morning, and Manuel brought around a box of peppers and tomatoes and aubergines (eggplant) and a large bag of almonds from his trees. 

In the past I have asked ex-pat friends after returning to their new home, following the first visit back to the States, "Did you feel as if you were coming home?" Answers varied, but I can report that we definitely feel as if we are back home. And that is a comfort to discover.

Throughout the summer we enjoyed sharing stories of our new life with friends and acquaintances, and one question that was asked over and over was, What is a typical day like for you? We tried to explain that our days here unfold and we rarely have a plan for the day when we get up. I thought of that today and realized that today is very typical of our daily life here.

We woke up when the light came in our window, sometime between 7:45 and 8:00. Sam made the coffee and I set up chairs at our patio table where we spent the next half hour drinking coffee while enjoying the view. We heard the bus that makes an early trip up towards Mulhacén to drop day hikers, and we watched as it switched back and forth up the mountainside across the valley from us. The sun popped over the mountain just after 9:00 and we shed our fleece layers. 

The day begins

After breakfast Sam went out to gather piles of weeds he has been pulling since arriving home a week ago and I started a load of laundry. While the clothes washed I cooked some of Manuel's tomatoes and removed the skins in preparation for making tomato sauce. Tomorrow we are going to a gathering with friends and I will take Melanzane alla parmigiana (Eggplant parmesan) to share.

After hanging out the laundry, we went for a walk to the barranco and back. This is our typical "neighborhood" walk, on days when we don't go elsewhere for a longer hike. On the return I stopped to gather walnuts scattered across the track under an enormous walnut tree. We have a lovely walnut tree of our own and I've been harvesting them since we returned home, but it is hard to resist freshly-fallen wild nuts. We will have a good crop to crack and eat throughout the winter.

Back at home we had a snack and then Sam went back out to water the garden and move some plants around. I got the tomato sauce made and it has now been simmering for several hours. 

Making sauce

I decided to make salad and farinata for lunch. Farinata is a flat bread made with Garbanzo bean flour and it takes about 90 minutes to make. It is a luxury to have the time to make such a treat in the middle of the day. 

We ate lunch at 2:00 and then Sam picked strawberries while I cleaned up the kitchen. It is clouding up now and I need to get the laundry off the line. The house smells of tomato sauce while the outside air is perfumed with the mint that Sam pruned earlier. After blogging I'll rest in the hammock and then we will probably take another walk to the barranco later this evening; or not, we'll just see what unfolds.

So that is our typical day. There are variations and some days are nothing like any previous day, but the point is, there is no schedule. We can go many days without driving the car, and we never feel like we need to rush off to something. 

We are living life at our own pace and we do it to a natural soundtrack of birds and bugs, and at night to nearly total silence. Occasionally we hear a helicopter and rush out to see what's going on, or we hear the early morning bus to Mulhacén, or dogs barking in the distance, but the gentle sounds of nature and the heavy silence of nighttime heal our mind and spirit, and that is what we missed the most while we were away from home.

The peaceful backdrop for our life here

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Quiet on the Mountain

It appears that things have calmed down among our small group of neighbors and it has been five days since we have had any water issues. We like it that way.

Beautiful color on a recent walk to check on the water source

Spain is in the midst of a heatwave and we have learned to embrace the long afternoon siesta time. Most days it is ill-advised to be outside between 1:00 pm and 6:00 pm. 

Temps this past week on the Iberian Peninsula

The loveliest time is after 9:00 when the sun has dipped below the hillside to our West but the sky stays light for another hour. We enjoy sitting outside in the cool dusk playing cards and listening to the sounds of nature closing down another day.

Cards at dusk

This is my last post from Spain for a few months. At the end of June we will return to the States to visit family and friends, to welcome our first grandchild, and to distribute many of the items we currently have in storage. We will also sell the car that we've kept there, now that it is clear that our home is in Spain.

In one sense this trip is a trip "back home," however, without our own house in the States, it doesn't really feel like going home. We look forward to visiting with friends and family, but it isn't a vacation either as we throw ourselves on the generosity of others while we accomplish a long list of must-dos.

With the on-going political disaster in the States and the daily reports of violence, injustices and gun deaths, from a distance it seems as if we are about to fly into the eye of a hurricane. Our love for friends and family draws us towards what would otherwise be a situation we would make an effort to avoid.

We are leaving just as the apricots and peaches are ripening. Chestnut trees are in full bloom and the pomegranates are starting to form. We have enjoyed generous crops of strawberries, cherries and mulberries; all from our own land.

Each night I talk to the peaches encouraging them to ripen before we leave

Looking forward to gathering chestnuts in autumn

Anticipating pomegranates in November

Today my blog has reached 6000 views. This astounds me as my intent originally was to share our lives with the few people "back home" who might find it interesting. 

I've discovered that the viewers do not include our children. I joked recently about all the attention we showered on the kids and how each piece of kindergarten artwork, every report card, found a place of honor on the refrigerator door, but they can't find time to read through a weekly write-up about our life in Spain. I suppose it shows their independence and lack of concern for us, and that is no-doubt a positive thing. Right?!

I am thankful for those of you who have found your way to the blog. I suspect that many readers come because of my announcement on Facebook of each new post, but I have readers from places where I do not have any acquaintances: the Philippines, Russia, Belgium, South Africa, Turkmenistan, and beyond. I appreciate all of you who have taken the time to read a post or two, and I welcome you into this window on our lives.

I will post once or twice from the United States to share our observations after a year away. Until then, thank you for the support and encouragement that I get from sharing our story with you.

Paz y hasta pronto.

One of the last remaining poppies of 2017

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Bitter With the Better

We have entered the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer here on the mountain although the "lazy" part hasn't really started. Sam has spent nearly two weeks using his strimmer (weed eater) to cut the grass and weeds on our two hectares (five acres). I'm certain that most will wonder why he doesn't mow it, but the land is quite uneven, and very steep in places with many rocks, and a mower would not work. In addition, after June 1st it is forbidden to use a blade to cut anything, due to the fire risk. 

Sam strimming a hillside

And so he strims, or strimms? When he refills the tank or changes the strimming cords, I offer up food and water, but otherwise he is out working for 5-8 hours a day. This isn't really what we imagined when we moved from our high-maintenance yard in Oregon, and next year it will be managed differently. We don't yet know what that will look like, but this isn't sustainable.

A freshly strimmed section

The days are long with the sun coming over the mountains to the east by 7:30 each morning and darkness settling sometime after 10:00 pm. This week the moon is bright and shines in our window as we fall asleep around midnight. The days have been hot, but the evenings are pleasant and often we are still outside enjoying the cool dusk at 9:30.

Just before sunrise

The nearly full moon as seen through the netting over our bed

There is tension in our little community. The details are not completely clear and it is probably best not to share them in a public setting anyhow, but while we were on our little trip to Portugal and Galicia in May, a conflict erupted here at home. The immediate result was that an angry neighbor disassembled, and later removed, the water collection tank that Sam had installed at the fuente several months ago. The impact was that three houses, including ours, were no longer receiving any water from the fuente. We rely on this water source for all of our household water.

While we were on our vacation we received numerous texts and phone calls from various neighbors about the situation. Perceptions and accusations were shared and hurt feelings and resentments were aroused. Needless to say, this greatly impacted our ability to enjoy our long-anticipated excursion. 

By the time we returned home, one affected neighbor had stuck the pipe back into the stream and, although the tank has not yet been reinstalled, we are all getting water again.

Just a pipe with some screen stuck in the stream where the collection tank once sat

Unfortunately imaginary lines have been drawn and we've been assigned a side by one set of neighbors. Actually, at this point, we have all been assigned to that side by these particular neighbors. It is unnecessary and unfortunate, but we can't control how others maneuver through this life. 

Sam and I came to this part of the world because we want to live quietly. We have raised four wonderful kids and we embraced all of the challenges and sacrifices that involved. But now we want to relax. We want the time and space to be still and to breathe deeply, and to enjoy each other without the distractions of a faster-paced life. 

We have been pleasantly surprised by the friendship of several good neighbors and we are content to smile and wave to those with whom we will never be close. But we did not come here for drama. And so we have stepped back from the current situation, waiting to see how the dust settles.

When I started this blog I promised to share the good, the bad and the ugly. Fortunately it has been very nearly all good. And it will continue to be, but real life occurs everywhere, even in paradise, and I wanted to let you know.

A poppy just because....