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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…

Back By Demand (Popular or Otherwise)

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Hey friends, it has been a while since you have heard from Action Jack. I will put your worries to rest right now by telling you that it was not due to a lack of adventures. I have spent the last three weeks living with a family 1,000 meters up a mountain in southern Spain. When I walk out of my caravan in the morning I see the Mediterranean to the south just past a series of four smaller mountains. On the other side of the Med is the faint outline of the mountains of northern Africa. On clear mornings they glow a dull, distant red. In the valley below my caravan is an organic community, often referred to as the “Orgiva hippies.” I have been living, working, and adventuring alongside a family in the communities that thrive in the mountains around Orgiva, Spain. This family includes people from just above us on the mountain to the commune of Beneficio and down to the valley near the river, El Morreon. They may not be blood related but they are, for all purposes, a family. I have recorded my many adventures in one form or another and I will put them up as I can in the future. In the meantime I would like to share a little adventure I took down to El Morreon for Sunday lunch yesterday.

I started the morning by having an apple from the Orgiva weekly market on Thursday. Then I went out and started working on a project I had started the day before. There was leftover construction material and loose wood for burning above the garden nearest to the house. While I was throwing rocks into the trail that goes across the property another American who was helping the family came out to help. While I was pushing the wheelbarrow to the concrete depository Selma told me she was going to try to wake up her oldest son, Tim. He always stayed up very late and was difficult to roust in the morning. She said that I could get ready with anything I needed for Tim’s lesson.

So I went to my caravan and got the flash drive with the worksheet I made over the discussion I had planned for today. Tim has told me that he knows very little about recent history. I planned a few days of lessons that give him an overview of some of the major events in modern history. We went out in to the sunroom outside the main part of the house to begin our lesson. By the time the lesson was over it was almost time to head down to El Morreon for Sunday lunch.

Sunday lunch in El Morreon is a weekly tradition for Selma and the whole extended family. During my visit I was lucky enough to be an honorary member of this family. Last weekend Selma guided us through the trek that descends the mountain into the valley commune of Beneficio, eventually passing by the caravan lot in El Morreon where we had Sunday lunch. This weekend I decided to take the hike to El Morreon alone to meet everyone.

Most of the trail is shaded by thick trees, weeds, and vines. The rain yesterday left some of the trail damp and the streams engorged. Still, I was not thinking about the dangers of slipping on the mucky trail and tumbling down on the rocks. What I was thinking about was the legend of Tina’s dogs. On the path down to Beneficio I pass about twenty homesteads. Many of them have dogs. These dogs are never on leashes. Some of the dogs come over and sniff around my boots. Some even let me pet them. There are a majority of them, though, that like to stand ten feet from me as I walk by and bark as loud as they can until I am out of earshot. It doesn’t bother me that the dogs aren’t on leads. I don’t mind the ones that sniff the trail around me and I like the ones that are social. I don’t even have apprehensions about the ones that sound of like an alarm the entire time they are reminded of my existence (This was not always the case but I will explain that later). The only dogs I fear on this mountain are the two dogs owned by Tina. There is only one property on the trail that has a gate across the trail. This is Tina’s home. On the gate is a sign that says “If you have a dog then you should put him on a lead or take the other trail. Otherwise, my dog might attack him.” The first time I passed this sign I was with Selma and the kids. Selma waited for us until we were all gathered in front of the gate. Tim asked what was going on. Selma told Tim that we had to go by Tina’s dogs and it would be best if we went as a group so they would be intimidated, especially since we had the mixed breed Rhodesian Ridgeback pup, Bubba. As we entered the property, which I now knew had at least one unstable attack dog, Cam announced that the dogs weren’t out.

Fast forward one week and here I am standing at that same gate about to enter Tina’s property by myself. I had not thought about this when I decided to walk to El Morreon. I opened the gate and immediately slipped on the mud that had gathered inside due to a lack of foot traffic down that particular path. I heard the gate clack back closed as I slid down the trail on my heels with my arms in the air like a skier on the verge of wiping out going down a snowy mountain. When the trail leveled out suddenly I was thrown forward in front of the house where the mythical mutts of Tina serve as protectorate. I snapped back to a relatively vertical position and surveyed the area for the beasts above Beneficio. There was silence. Then I heard something from the trail in front of me. The stream was wooshing along next to the mudded path. I breathed with relief and watched the stream for a minute before thinking that I should move on so as not to press my luck with these carnivorous canines any further.

When I reached an elevation about 200 meters above the center of Beneficio I cleared a spot and watched the happenings in the valley commune. In the center of the commune is a large garden. There are a few men digging and turning over the soil in the garden. A few kids are riding bikes around them. One boy tries to pop a wheelie and gets thrown over the handle bars when the trick goes wrong. He is fine and gets back on the bike. I got out my notebook and a pen and drew a crude map of Beneficio proper.

I moved on down the trail and reached the north end of Beneficio a few minutes later. Further north there are tents and teepees on the tiny cliffs that overlook the valley but the path heads south along the stream towards the town of Orgiva. As I passed the teepees, domes, and huts that make up Beneficio I was greeted by many friendly faces, some of whom have become quite familiar. In the center the three men were still working on the main garden. Each living structure was accompanied by a smaller garden. The gardens had a variety of cabbage, squash, potatoes, carrots, broad beans, lettuce, and other vegetables that are all eaten as a community. They eat three times a day in The Lodge. The Lodge is a teepee that dwarves all surrounding structures. Meals are announced via four blows of a conk shell, which resonates up the mountains. The Lodge is also the social center of Beneficio. The fiesta begins early and never really stops. However, as Tim once pointed out to me, “at around four, things start to get a bit weird.” Tim knows a lot about the area because he lived in Beneficio until he was about twelve, at which point he and the family moved 1,000 meters up the mountain and constructed a clay dome with windows for shelter. This is where he has lived most of his life since then.

I moved through the gardens and cherry blossoms in central Beneficio as I headed for The Car Park. The car park is a parking lot with nearly 100 VW buses, vans, and pop up campers that acts as a sort of purgatory for many Beneficio hopefuls. It also acts as a short term residence for some and longer-than-expected residence for others. Beneficio shares their food with The Car Park. Some of the parkers will help with the gardening or other general labor. To move into Beneficio proper you must find an open plot of land, set up your shelter and garden on it, and be accepted by your neighbors. Beneficio is a mostly sovereign community. They do not have a police force. Instead, they utilize what is most commonly described as “vigilante” justice by the community. However, the violence usually connected with the term “vigilante” is not present in Beneficio. After a particularly brutal crime committed by a resident of Beneficio the entire community formed a circle around the offender. They proceeded to meditate in silence around him until, hours later, he began crying. The offender apologized to everyone he had hurt by committing the heinous act. Upon this admission he was banished from Beneficio forever.

After leaving The Car Park I was faced with a decision: Do I take the high road or the low road? I could not remember this part of the trail from last weekend’s walk. I took the low road. I passed a house I recognized and headed into the sprawling olive orchard. Then there was another fork, and another. I thought about what I was doing while we were walking through this field. It only took a minute for me to remember that I had grabbed an olive branch off of the ground and spent most of this part of the trip alternately chasing and being chased by Bubba while Selma navigated the orchard. I took enough wrong turns to feel like I really worked for it when I finally recognized the stream that goes over the road near El Morreon.

Now that I was only minutes from the caravan lot after a long hike I was looking forward to lunch and spending my Sunday afternoon with everyone in the valley. When I arrived I heard everyone in the house. The house is a one room building with a kitchen at one end, some common space in the middle, and a music/dj setup at the other end. The table and bench in the kitchen were full when I walked in. Everyone said “Hi-ya,” which is the standard greeting around here. Will said they had already started but they made sure to set aside a dish for me. Rupert’s best friend, Stan, handed me the dish. It was loaded with some of what everyone had brought (which in a group of about twenty people who cook with fresh ingredients and decades of experience with the local vegetation that means the meal is always a complete success). I recognized Selma’s roasted Crown Prince Squash. I complimented it later and she offered me some tips on cooking any kind of squash. In addition to the squash, which I hope to someday recreate, there was an offering of a dozen other vegetables, soups, tofu, and baked goods. I tried it all and felt energized after lunch.

I took this energy and asked around to see if anybody needed a hand. I made myself useful by helping to pack away the lighting equipment and the deconstruct the domes that were constructed over the dance floor for the party last night. The party is its own story so I will not spend anytime on that here. Will and Stan helped with the lights. To take apart the dome, which was made up of a couple hundred cleaned up tree branches with metal fasteners that connect them, we called over some more help. This is the dome that has been used at the El Morreon parties for over five years now so most of the crew knew the routine already. The work was done quickly and we chatted until the sun started to set.

When we got back to our perch up the mountain it was nearly dark. The guys at the house decided to go for a sauna. We chopped up the wood and started a fire in the heatbox. The sauna is underneath the pool behind the house. To enter the sauna you go through a small gym set up under the pool. We all waited for the sauna to heat up in the gym. After seeing how many of the weights I could lift on one of the machines the sauna was up to 50 degrees Celsius. We grabbed our pitcher of water and cups and headed into the sauna. The sauna seats eight or nine people but we only had three. When the room reached 70 degrees we threw a mixture of mint oil, eucalyptus oil, and water onto the heatbox. The room filled with the fresh smell of the essential oils and steam. The temperature spiked to 80 degrees in seconds. Over the next half hour we each took a break to get out and cool off. The temperature peaked at 95 degrees. The water in my cup was too hot to be refreshing. The reason I didn’t drink it, though, was because the cup was so hot that I couldn’t hold on to it. We passed the time telling stories and jokes until it was agreed that we had been in the sauna for long enough to consider it a “proper sweat.”

After a quick shower and a couple games of pool I was feeling the effects of another adventure-filled day. I took the short walk to my caravan and got a fire started in the wood burner. As the chill of the night departed from my little camper I laid down to read a few more pages out of Voltaire’s Candide. However, I did not read more than a few words before resigning myself to a full night of sleep.

Well, I woke up this morning and thought that before I begin my continuing projects I would try to share an adventure with you so that you have some idea of what has been going on and what kind of stories to expect when I get a chance to post them for you. I look forward to a few more days here before leaving for the north of Spain. Until our next adventure…