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6 Things That I Liked About Living in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain

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Living in a caravan in The Sierra Nevada mountains of Andalucia, Spain afforded me many adventures.  Occasionally, there was also time to relax and watch the blue waters of the Mediterranean from my portable home one thousand meters above the town of Orgiva.  During one such occasion I got out my memo pad and began making a list, as I often do.  I listed my favorite things about my Andalucian adventure thus far.  Today I would like to share some of the things that topped my “favorites list” on that afternoon in Andalucia.  Here are my six favorite things about my brief time spent living in the Sierra Nevada.

#6- Beneficio and the Orgiva Hippies

After a bus ride through the Sierra Nevada Mountains we came upon a town named Orgiva.  I stepped off the bus in Orgiva and took a seat on the bus stop bench.  I watched the people in the sidewalks and the dogs in the street.  I soon noticed that there seemed to be two very different opinions in this town when it came to fashion sense.  Most of the men and women donned clothing that was plain, clean, and pressed.  However, every few minutes someone would walk by, usually with a walking stick and makeshift pack, wearing wild, disheveled layers of multicolored clothing.  When my ride up the mountain arrived he told me that outside of town, in the valley, there is a group of “hippies” living in a commune called Beneficio.  He revealed that he had helped to found Beneficio eighteen years ago.  Over the next two weeks I would hear the stories of the commune and even spend time with its residents as I wandered through the teepees and gardens of Beneficio and the streets of Orgiva.  For some of the stories involving Beneficio and Orgiva check out my “Spain” section.

Beneficio Commune in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Central Beneficio

Why Beneficio and the Orgiva Hippies made the list:

When I would lay in the grass, high up on the mountain, in the afternoon I would look down into Beneficio and see the hippies working hard and being responsible.  Stereotype shattered.  If that is not enough reason for them to be on the list then I could just remind you that for almost twenty years these people have turned this valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains into a community that eats together, lives together, and works together.

#5- Kombucha

My friends in the big mud, cement, log house invited me in often for lunch.  One day, while having avocado salad I noticed a jar. It sat on a shelf near the ceiling.  The liquid inside was blood red and floating at the top was a dark mass.  Within a few minutes of me asking what it was I had the jar in my hand and was tasting the bloody liquid.  It was Kombucha, a Japanese beverage.  The liquid inside was a tea/sugar mixture.  The mass floating at the top was a slimy, gray colony of bacteria and yeast.  The gray chunk turns the liquid into a lightly carbonated sweet beverage when it is finished brewing, which this batch was not.  It was bitter and flat.  Obviously, the kombucha’s delicious flavor and appetizing presentation were not what I liked about this experience.  So what was it that made me add Kombucha to the list…?

Why Kombucha made the list:

As I drank from the vile-looking concoction I realized that I was living a global experience.  I was an American trying a Japanese drink with a British family in Spain.  Nice.

#4- The White Villages of Andalucia

Cáñar and the Sierra Nevada

Small villages consisting of white buildings can be found scattered throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains.  For a few weeks I stayed a fifteen minute hike from one of these traditional villages, Cáñar.  There are a few hundred people that populate the village.  Some days the only street would be populated by more goats than cars.  The two bar/tapas restaurants in the village hold fifteen or twenty people, though I rarely saw  more than a few patrons inside.  The narrow, winding path that weaves through the village ends abruptly in many places.  Suddenly, the mountainside drops off, leaving a 180 degree view of the Sierra Nevada and its white villages.

Why The White Villages of Andalucia made the list:

After a few weeks of near daily trips to one such village I was able to learn a few local phrases and make a few friends while learning about daily life in one Andalucian white village.  Also, just look at them.  From a distance it looks like part of history has traveled through time and landed in present day without a scratch on it.  From up close the scratches and dents of history lend the dignity befitting of such an historical community.

#3- The Dogs

For anyone who has traveled to the villages of the Sierra Nevada this choice may be a little puzzling.  The dogs in many smaller towns wander in the streets with little fear of the traffic.  They follow anyone with food hoping something falls to the ground.  They are seen as a nuisance.  They are sometimes mistreated and most often believed to be a pest but I disagree.  I think they are great animals.  Most of the ones that I came in contact with were social with the passersby and other dogs.  There is only one thing I would change about them…  I wish they had a home.  In fact, I would like to see that for all the stray dogs out there.  If you are in a position to adopt a dog, stop by your local animal shelter to help save a dog from a life of begging or worse.  If you are in Andalucia and would like to adopt a dog go to http://www.petsinspain.info/index.htm for information on how to help a down and out Andalucian pup like one of these:

Why The Dogs made the list:

The dogs made the list because even though they were a lot of fun in the street I bet they would be even more fun in somebody’s home.

#2- The Views

This choice should not puzzle anyone who has been to The Sierra Nevada mountains.  Whether you are standing in the river looking up the cliffs or gathering firewood at 2,000 meters there is always a vista in Andalucia.  Here are a few of my favorite Sierra Nevada scenes.

Why The Views made the list:

See above

#1- The People

I first experienced Andalucia via the Granada bus station.  I arrived late in the evening and the next bus to Orgiva did not leave until morning.  I arranged my sleeping bag, blanket, and down coat in a fashion that I hoped would prevent a sore neck in the morning.  When morning came I woke up to the sound of the cafe opening.  It was full of excited people standing at the bar, ordering, drinking cafe con leche, and talking.  I hurried to join them.  This was one of my first chances to converse in Spanish while in Spain.  I will not go into details but it was more difficult than I had anticipated.  I did, however, still manage to meet some friendly people and work through a conversation.  These people in the Granada bus station would be the first of many groups of Andalucians I would speak awkward Spanish in front of as I learned the language.  They would also be the first of many groups of people in Andalucia who would show me why this region has a reputation for beauty in both its nature and its people.

Why The People made the list:

For me traveling is a great way to see amazing things.  I am constantly impressed by what people have managed to do here on earth; the monuments they have created and the history they have left behind.  However, none of these things impresses me like the people I get to know as I search for the next site.  They each have a unique story to tell and I always like a good story so the people have to be my favorite.

As you might imagine, there are other ways you could occupy your time in the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains but this is what I did.  Next month I will be posting an adventure from a hike to the far side of the mountains around Orgiva so keep a look out for that.  Until then…

A Spanish Transition

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Hey friends, I have a lot share with you so let me jump right in…

My last night at my temporary home in the mountains of Andalucia was spent at a riotous birthday party.  There was music and mirrorballs (complete with a laser light show), dancing and singing (“Happy Birthday” was sung in both English and Spanish), and feasting on a gargantuan spread of vegetarian dishes (over the last three weeks the members of my host family have turned me partially vegetarian through their non-carnivorous culinary prowess).  Long after I went to bed I could still hear the music reverberating throughout the canyon.

I woke up early the next morning so that I could finish packing for my next adventure.  I stoked the heater in my caravan and finished drying my clothes.  I stuffed and restuffed my backpack until everything fit just right.  As I was tightening the last strap I heard Will, the family patriarch, coming down the trail.  He greeted me with the typical “hi-ya” and told me that everyone had woke up early so that they could send me off.  I hurriedly double checked the caravan to make sure I had everything and headed to the house.

Will, Selma, and Kevin, their younger son, chatted with me over breakfast.  We reminisced about some of our adventures and shared our gratitude with each other.  Then it was about time to leave when I noticed that Tim had still not come out of his room.  This was not unusual because Tim refused to leave his room before ten but I was hoping he would make an exception just this once.  I yelled through his door and told him how much I had appreciated his hard work during our three weeks of tutoring.  I walked outside and the rest of the family followed.  Will put my bags in the car and got in as the rest of the family gave me hugs.  I found this moment to be particularly challenging as I fought to hold back my tears.  Then Tim came out of the house with a big smile.  I took a few minutes to tell him how impressed I was with him and how bright of a future he has.  I finished by telling the rest of the family what appreciated most about each of them.

Will and I got in the car and took off down the mountain.  As I looked out over the town of Orgiva, the valley of El Morreon, and the teepees of Beneficio for the last time on this adventure I became engrossed in a conversation with Will.  Apparently, we both have a very deep respect for one another.  He told me how rare it was for him to meet a fellow such as me.  I told him how impressed I was with the community he had helped build over the last eighteen years.  He explained that there were beautiful places all over the world but what makes this one special is the people.  I agree completely.  By the time we reached the bottom of the mountains I was beginning to wonder just what this experience would come to mean to me in the future.  As of yet I still do not know completely but I have a feeling this three weeks has changed me in ways that will improve my life in many ways.

Will parked across the street from the bus stop.  We got out and he got my bags for me.  He helped me strap them on and then we hugged and said our goodbyes.  I was very happy when Will told me that I was welcome back for as long as I want anytime I am looking for a little time in the mountains while I am travelling.  I asked him to thank the rest of the community for me.  I smiled and headed off to the bus stop when one of Will’s friends spotted him and they began chatting.

I waited at the bus stop, watching the stray dogs and hippies wander the sidewalk, for ten minutes before the bus to Granada arrived.  I was last in line and as I was waiting for the driver to get my change I heard a voice from behind me.  It was Will.  He told me that he just wanted to make sure I had a “proper” send off so he waited until I was gone to leave.  While the driver fumbled around trying to make change we exchanged compliments.  I will never forget how Will put his hand over his heart, looked me straight in the eyes, and told me that it was an honor to have met someone like me. I took my seat and waved goodbye as I beamed with pride over his final comments.

As the bus pulled away and we traveled the winding mountain roads that brought me to this place three weeks ago I noticed something.  The cliffs and turns that had previously given me some discomfort were now simply beautiful.  There was no fear.  There was no apprehension of the “what ifs” of this mountain road.  There was just beauty and acceptance.   I wondered if this might be what I learned on this adventure.

A couple hours later I was in Granada.  I secured my bag in a locker and went out to spend my half day in town.  I walked to the grocery store across the street and got some bread and cheese.  I figured that I didn’t have much time in Granada but it would be nice to have a little picnic somewhere nice.  I wandered the sidewalks of Granada for an hour or so before realizing that I would not be able to see most of the town in a few hours.  I resigned myself to be content with my picnic.  I found a public square with a fountain and some benches.  I posted up in the shade and got out my lunch.  The bread and cheese tasted as it always did.  As usual I spent lunch doing some people-watching.  I watched the runners, the walkers, the business people on lunch break, and the bicyclists (some of whom were listening to music and doing little dance moves as they passed).  It was nearing two in the afternoon at that point so most of the city would be closed for a few hours.  I packed away my things and laid down on a bench that was in the sun to partake in the afternoon siesta.  I awoke from my siesta and continued walking around Granada, trying to see as much as I could before leaving.  I saw enough to make me want to come back for a proper visit on a future adventure.  The plain white buildings with orange latticed roofs sprawled out from the city into the nearby snow-capped  mountains.

I went back to the bus station and soon departed for the first leg of my trip to Santiago de Compostela, which would take me as far as Madrid.  We left mountains that were covered with soil resembling a mixture of clay and cement and packed tightly with rows of olive trees and headed for the reputed greenery of the Galician mountains.  I tried, with great futility, to get comfortable.  The guy behind me was coughing and blowing his nose raw so I tried breathing through my blanket in order to avoid getting whatever close relative of the bubonic plague he was afflicted with.  Every hour I woke up to change position due to my legs alternately falling asleep.

After a short wait at the Madrid bus station I was on the final leg of the journey to Santiago.  It was much the same as the first half of the trip, only longer.  At 6 AM I woke up and saw signs that signaled my arrival in Galicia.  The rumors were true, partially.  The mountains were much greener and the trees much bigger.  One thing that was not true, however, was what I had heard about the weather.  Whenever I told someone in Andalucia that I was going to Galicia they would say “Oh, it’s going to be cold up there.”  That turned out not to be the case.  The weather was sunny and comfortable even at 6 in the morning.  The sun was rising to the east but the moon had not yet set.  I watched the moon disappear an then watched the end of an old Buster Keaton film on the on-bus entertainment system.  I was looking forward to stretching out taking in some sites and some sun.

Well, I definitely did that and more on my first day in Santiago de Compostela.  I planned to write the rest of the day’s adventure here but I noticed that this post is getting a bit long already.  I also have some photos and video to work on before I put up Day 1 in Galicia (which, just for fun, is Day 59 of this trip).  It is now getting late here and I am already in for the night.  I will probably put up my next post in a few hours because there is not much to do in the middle of the night when you are living in a bus station.  Until next time here are a few fun pics from my time in Andalucia…

  These are the rocks we jumped across when we toured the other side of the river.

  A dilapidated dwelling deep in the valley near the Guadalafea River.

 A sheep that I took a picture of from the other side of a gate.  He was very upset that I was passing through.  Later, I was trying to get back down the mountain and I was on the same side of the gate as him.  I took the long way home.

Andalucian Adventure Begins

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Written 2/18/2012

Let me start by saying that if you believe this right away after reading it, I will question your judgment. It happened to me and I am still having trouble believing it.

This adventure begins with me leaving the Panda Hostel for the last time this year. I was headed for the train station and had to drop off some mail on my way out. I hit the post box and went to buy my bilety (ticket). To get around our language barrier she held out a timetable for me to choose from. I learned then that Krakow has two airports. I was pretty sure Krakow Balice was the same as John Paul II Airport. I took the underground passage around to my platform. I got there ten minutes before the train left. However, my ticket was for the next bus. I had noticed on the way to the platform but I was pretty sure it didn’t matter. Now, I’m pretty sure it did.

So, I wasn’t getting on that train. It was all explained to me. I wish I knew more Polish.  I caught a cab and was there in twenty minutes. My flight was delayed by twenty five minutes for heavy snow. It lightened up and two hours later I was in Madrid. I took of my stuffed coat and put on my hoodie in front of this:

I hopped on the airport express bus that dropped me off in this plaza, upon which I immediately swore out loud on accident. But what do you say when you get off a bus and see this?

As I exited the bus driver pointed me towards the Estacion de Sur. Now that I knew pretty much where I had to be to catch the bus to Granada I had just a little over five hours to see what I could of central Madrid. It was kind of a blur. I circled the massive academy and strolled down the paseos and around the fountain-filled plazas. More than anything what I took away from my experience in Madrid is that I want to spend at least a few days in Madrid.

I left the Spanish capital on a bus bound for Granada. I arrived at the Granada bus station at around midnight. The next bus for Orgiva, which is where I was to meet a family that would be hosting me for the next few weeks, left at 8:30 in the morning. I set up a little camp on one of the benches in the bus station and tried to get some sleep. The benches had immobile armrests between each seat (probably so as not to encourage people to sleep on them and if that was the case it worked. I am very unenthused about the prospect of another night in the Granada bus depot.).

By nine the next morning I was entering the heart of Andalucia. As my bus sped through the mountains my ears began to pop from the pressure changes. My stomach dropped as we rounded corners on the edge of the mountain cliffs. As I looked out the window, all I could see were mountains and lakes with small villages dotting the landscape. After almost two hours of winding back into the the forest covered mountains we were in the town of Orgiva. The town had a market and a few shops on one main street. I used the town’s payphone to call my hosts and let them know I had arrived.

The patriarch arrived to pick me up after I made a quick stop in the market to get a snack for breakfast. As we rode out to his home we talked about how I ended up out in a remote part of Andalucia and how he ended up out here. He told me the story of the area surrounding what would be my home for the next few weeks. Almost twenty years ago he and a group of people he described as “hippies” started a settlement in the nearby valley. He lived there for about a decade before moving higher up on the mountain and building a home for he and his two children. Now he and his family live on the many plants they grow, including olive trees for producing some of the best I’ve ever had, and use solar panels for electricity. The amount of electricity produced is quite amazing. He powers the lights, two computers, a water heater, and all the other basic electronics with these panels and has never had a shortage of electricity. After we rolled to a stop in his driveway I got out and looked down over the cliff. He pointed out hundreds of tents, domes, and mudhuts that house the estimated four or five hundred remaining “hippies,” which he says are quite different than when he lived there. He recommended that I go down and walk through the village at least once and I am not going to pass up the opportunity after hearing some stories about the residents in the valley.

I still did not know what I would be doing here in… well I don’t think it has a name exactly so I guess the best description is the mountains of Andalucia near the Sierra Nevada Park.  After meeting his wife and two children it became a little more clear what my “job” would be. My daily work would consist of helping out with some light cleaning, help around the house, pruning trees, chopping wood, and doing small renovation jobs “if I feel like it,” as they always remind me. To start, the matriarch asked if I would like to go for a walk. I jumped at the chance to see more of this amazing area. She grabbed the three month old puppy, Bubba, and we headed up the trails. We wound around for a while before hitting a road. The road led to a tiny pueblo village called Caña (Kah-nya). She went to drop in on a friend and I went for the village. Every building is made of white and there are tiny streets not wide enough for a car that lead to the humble homes of the residents of the village. This town has been in these remote mountains for hundreds of years and has a history of having been conquered and reconquered by invaders, some of which were the Spanish led by Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. That’s when I realized that I am walking around in the setting to Hemmingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  I even the terrifying story from the some of the elders in Caña where Franco pulled seven people out of their homes and shot them in front of everyone.  This rings frighteningly true to the scene in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” where this same thing happens.

After leaving the village I climbed up towards the mountaintop. As my lack of sleep began to catch up to me I realized that I was not going to make it to the top today. I sat for a drink of water and as I tried to take a picture a thunderous snort came from just behind my ear. I jumped and if I had not had my camera strapped to my wrist I would have thrown it right of the cliff. It was a horse that was just out for a wander like me.  On my return down the mountain I would see many more horses roaming and grazing, probably in no small part to the fact that I got lost for about an hour.

When I got back to the house I thought I should set up my caravan. I grabbed my bags and the lady of the house showed me out back. On the way to my camper she showed me a workshop and the other small edifices on their property. I entered my temporary home and took stock. I had electricity from the solar panels on the house, a table, some chairs, a bed filled with blankets and comforters, closets, a radio, and a wood-fired stove for heating the place. I made my bed and sat for a moment considering my luck. This has got to be the most amazing plot of nature I have ever seen. I have my own camper. Most of my time, as I soon found out, would be spent playing pool and ping pong while talking history with her son (and of course adventuring out into the terrain every chance I got).

After a lunch of fresh sandwiches with all fresh vegetables, including my favorite, avocados, I continued on with my duties (if you want to to call them that, which I really don’t) of entertaining/tutoring her son and talking with the family. The parents invited me to go with them to a party that was being thrown for a friend’s birthday. They said it would just be a small gathering but I was more than welcome to come along. I politely declined on the grounds that I did not see myself being up for a “late night,” as they described it, after the last thirty six hours had left me pretty much drained. I wasted away the night playing pool, listening to music, playing the guitar, and talking with her son and a friend of his overlooking the mountains and valleys of Andalucia. After dark I headed out to my caravan, built a fire in the wood stove to heat it up, and settled in for the first good night’s sleep I’d had in a while. I woke up this morning and it took a few minutes for me to believe that all of this was true again. Now, I am going to head up to the house and see if I can make myself of use. I have a few adventures that happened during this story but they may have to be saved for another time, as I am running long. I am sure I have many more adventures coming up. I may not post as frequently as I have in the past (there is just too much to do) but I will catch you all up before it is all said and done. Until then here are just a few pics I took…