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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…

In a Bubble

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From my notes of Day 41: 2/20/2012

I have been staying with Julia and her family for about a week now.  Everyday discussions about gardening, the new Rhodesian Ridgeback pup, and past travel destinations have become comfortable and revealing.  Julia has good ideas, with a proven past, on how to build a community.  She started a weekly yoga class in the one room stone house above the driveway.  There were a dozen or so attendants every week.  After the class was finished there was a social time with baked goods and tea in the house.  Everyone was invited.  There were always a few more people at the social hour than at the class.  I was one of those people.

While the group was working on their chakra I was out on the property working on a garden.   Near the middle of the winding driveway there was a path that led to a few rectangular gardens.  One of them was bisected by an olive tree.  The broad beans that had sprung up under the olive branches weeks earlier were now in danger of dwindling.  Weeds had grown up around them.  The shade of the olive branches deprived them of the sun.  I could not move the olive branches but I could move the weeds and beans.  I have been working on this area when I have had a chance for a couple of days and today I noticed new leaves sprouting on the weeded beans.

Usually when I was working on that garden Rupert would come over and tell me how much better it looked than the last time he saw it.  He would come over and work with me until he was needed somewhere else.  He was always telling me to take breaks when I got bored.  He could never understand how I did not mind working alone.  Today, though, he didn’t come over to that garden.  I was watching a prickly white caterpillar that I had found when I heard him down in the driveway.  I looked over the cliff.  He was on the phone, pacing in short circles.

I could not tell what was wrong.  I went down to the house to see if there was anything I could do.  The class had just finished.  As everyone walked into the house Rupert waited silently.  He explained that Fernando, a member of their community and one of the most experienced construction men around, had been injured in town.  While he was driving in the narrow streets of a nearby village he had clipped the mirror of a parked car.  He knew who the car belonged to and decided it would be best for him to leave with his newborn baby in the back seat before anyone saw him there.

Before Fernando reached the corner the man came out of the carneceria shouting.  He saw Fernando speeding off towards the bend so he got in his car and chased after him.  The mirrorless man and his accompanying convoy encircled Fernando outside of town.  Fernando stopped and tried to talk to the man as they approached his car.  Then a brick pierced his rear window and landed in the seat next to his infant son.  Fernando hit the gas and when he hit the car in front of him he kept the pedal to the floor, trying to push the truck out of the way.  Then his car died.  A gang of men pulled him out of his car, kicking him and beating him with their motorcycle helmets.  They left him in the dirt with his unharmed baby boy in the back seat of the car.  After he regained some strength he drove back to a friend’s house and then went to the hospital.  It sounded like he had a painful, but promising, recovery ahead of him.

I went into the sun room that opens out over the mountain valley.  Wim was in there playing table tennis with someone’s smart young son.  The kid always had an answer for Wim’s seemingly impossible questions.  He was clever but could he play table tennis?  I called the winner.  The speed of Wim’s next backhanded smash across the table froze the youngster.  That was the end of the game.  I was the next challenger.

We never kept score.  We played until we were finished talking about History, Mathematics, and Science.  Some days we only talked about History.  Today we talked about going for a hike around the village.  The game ended soon after with Wim winning.   We grabbed Bubba the Ridgeback and headed up the mountain to the village of Cañar.

Wim attended the school near the top of the mountain when he was younger.  He said there were only about thirty students at the school when he was there.  There are still about thirty students attending the Cañar school.  We passed the “fascist bar” and the Farmacia.  We went into the tapas place in the village and watched a replay of the Valencia V. Madrid soccer match.  We ate different cheeses, olives, and fish along with biscuits and breads.

On our way down the mountain I watched the sun as it neared the horizon.  Wim and Bubba were ahead of me but I was in no hurry.  I was in no hurry, that is, until I remembered that I had not gathered any wood for my burner tonight.  I grimaced with the memory of the last bitter night I had spent without a fire.  I hurried down the decaying mud-board steps.  Wim was almost inside the house.  I told him I would be in shortly.  He did not respond.

After gathering my firewood I went into the house.  Julia was the only one out in the living area.  I sat at the counter with her.  We discussed the usual gardening stuff and Bubba’s escapades.  Then we talked about what had happened to Fernando today.  Then I asked Julia what she thought about politics in Spain.  She told me that she felt the same way about politics in Spain as she did about politics in the rest of the world.  The political systems of the world occur inside a bubble.  She chooses to be outside that bubble.

Rupert joined us and we talked about the books of Tolkien and educational techniques.  Many hours later I stepped out into the darkness of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at night.  It was a short walk to my caravan.  The wolves howled and a dog cried from across the valley.  I started a fire and laid down on my bed.  The cool wind came in gusts through the open door.  Soon the smoke would be clear and I could shut the door.  Instead, I left the door open and let the fresh air in.

This is part of the roof of the yoga house. The other half is not visible from the exterior because it goes into the mountain.

What Bubba does not know is that he is about to go on an adventure.

The white caterpillar I was looking at when I first heard Rupert distressed

The flower-lined path that leads to the mud-board stairs

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…