Sunday, January 22, 2012

Interlude in Andalucia

The cortijo is perched on a hill overlooking the broad valley of La Alpujarra

Last weekend we got back from a nine day visit to our small farm house in Spain. It was a relief to swap the cold grey skies of Copenhagen and replace them with the bright sunny ones of Andalucia, and a welcome tonic to see the almond blossom coming out again, even if it is two months ahead of normal.

Returning to our house always arouses mixed emotions. Like the deck of the Mary Celeste, the house always appears to have been abandoned in haste, with projects left unfinished and half read books on the shelves. In fact it is coming up to four years since we left – at the time I had been offered a job that started the following week and had had to pack whatever I could into our small car and drive non-stop 3000km to Copenhagen. We were only supposed to have been gone for a year to earn some cash...

But the good news this time was that Jose, our resident Mexican house-sitter, has been busily working with our neighbour Antonio to bring the land back under control. It being a hillside farm, with several terraces, there is always the danger of banks collapsing during the rainy season (i.e. winter) from the weight of the olive and almond trees, many of which grow out of the banks between terraces at 45 degree angles. In the past couple of years we have seen two trees come crashing down, bringing a few tons of earth with them. One of our neighbours, a hard-as-nails old Danish woman who lives alone raising horses, had an even worse experience when her entire house was destroyed in a landslip a few years ago. This being Spain, of course, everyone chipped in and helped her rebuild it free of charge.

Being a northern European and a preppy wannabe permaculturist, I have resisted ploughing the land. I thought that doing so would break up the structure, kill the life within it and generally render it less capable of supporting biotic matter. Antonio thought I was nuts. 'Hombre,' he said 'your land is like concrete. Every time it rains it just runs off and floods my land. You need to rotavate the lot.'

And so I agreed. I'm still unsure if it was the right thing to do but at least it looks a lot better. Some friends of mine, who used to live nearby, had been conducting a study into managing the soil in the Alpujarras. The region is threatened with desertification and they turned their farm Semilla Besada into a research station. When I ran my newspaper in the area they were the first people I ever interviewed. David and Aspen had studied the land management theories of Allan Savory, and had concluded that one of the best methods of restoring the severely degraded land of southern Spain was to reintroduce ruminant animals, whose droppings acted as fertilisers. Encouraging drought resistant grass species, some of which have roots going down meters, holds the topsoil in place and the animals prevent a buildup of dry dead material, which is a fire risk in the area. The experiment was producing great results and looking down on their hillside farm from above was like looking down onto a green oasis in the yellow and brown hillside. Tragically, Aspen died of cancer a couple of years ago and David sold the place to some younger people who are still carrying on with the experiments.

So anyhow, I was back to do a bit of work on the land. One thing I wanted to do was plant trees. There are already a couple of hundred trees on the one acre or so of land, and I had thought of getting rid of a few orange trees, which are very thirsty, and planting some others. On my shopping list were a pair of avocado trees, two walnuts, some pears and apples, a cherry tree or two, as well as a quince and another peach, and two chestnut trees. All of those grow extremely well on our hill, Cerro Negro. Indeed, just about everything seems to grow there and Antonio even has some banana trees, alongside his walnuts, in his front garden.

Unfortunately though it hadn't rained for months and, as Antonio pointed out, the ground was like dry and rock hard. If recent weather patterns were anything to go by though, February and March were likely to be very wet, and would be the best time for putting in new trees. He insisted I hand over my shopping list to him and said he'd put the trees in for me before our next visit.

I should probably say a bit more about our neighbour Antonio. He was born and bred on Cerro Negro and even managed to find a wife, Paquita, on it – quite an achievement given that there are only twenty or so families in farms strung out across the hillside to choose from. They'd got married some time in the 1980s and built a house on an inherited piece of land next to the house that would one day be bought by us. The house, Antonio always says proudly, was built in three hard weeks, with every single male relative pitching in. He paid only for the materials, which means next to nothing in Spain, and then settled down into the life of an olive farmer, raising two daughters in the process.

In the late 1990s disaster struck. House prices rocketed in Spain and practically every single family on the hillside sold up to foreigners and moved into town, abandoning the land. Antonio couldn't stand the thought of living in a town and carried on living a life that most of us would view as extreme poverty. A small solar panel powers the single lightbulb in his TV-less house and practically all the food for the family was grown on his own land. Paquita has a cleaning job in Orgiva and together with the miserly sum he earns from selling olives (around 1,000 euros a year for the past several, for, as he puts it, three months of backbreaking work – or around 1.5 euros an hour) they manage to purchase a few of the things that make life more pleasant. He has a good flock of chickens to provide meat and eggs, several milking goats and a few million bees – all of which he can do great impersonations of. Occasionally he'll shoot a wild boar on his land and cure the meat for the tapas he likes to nibble while sipping a glass of (home made, of course) wine as he sets his white doves free every evening and watches the sun go down over the valley – something he's done every evening for decades.

The almond blossom was coming out and was being busily attended to by the bees
He's a friendly and amenable neighbour who speaks not a single word of English but nevertheless listens patiently to me as I mangle up Spanish. He's never been anywhere and doesn't plan to either - as far as he's concerned life outside the hillside may as well be on another planet.

And yet, Antionio, for all his financial hardships, seems far better off that a lot of my foreign friends who still live in nearby Orgiva and seems now to be existing by scratching around for odd job in the way that Antonio's chickens look for insects beneath the olive trees. The first great shakeout occurred in 2007 – 2008, when the housing market froze solid and then leaped off a cliff. In those heady days there were about 10 estate agents in Orgiva (now only two remain). It was easy enough to see how this would affect those foreigners who made their living from buying and selling houses, but what most people hadn't realised was really how much it would affect almost every other foreigner.

Before the great housing bubble which, at its most inflated was seeing 1-2 million uneccessary houses and apartments being built around the country's coasts, the only type of people who moved to Spain were retirees who could rely on a nice monthly pay cheque in the form of a pension. By the 1990's, however, Spain's housing bubble was dwarfed by the bubbles in northern Europe and, egged on by the earnest propaganda of property programmes on TV and lubricated by the sudden availability of cheap flights, millions reasoned that they could swap their humdrum lives in Birmingham or Glasgow for a sun-soaked one where everything from property and beer was dirt cheap. It was a heady time of optimism and I'd be a hypocrite if I claimed not to have joined in the stampede – even if my dream was to build up an organic small holding and protect my kids from the crass excesses of materialism that seemed not to have taken very deep roots in proud, tradition-rich Andalucia.

When the bubble popped practically everyone either found themselves without a job or economically inconvenienced to some extent. Businesses went broke or hit the skids – including my newspaper when advertisers suddenly stopped coughing up money - and it hit some harder than others, with people losing their life savings almost overnight. Many people ended up stranded, with literally nowhere to go and no funds to get back home. It suddenly became abundantly clear that the foreign economy – which was often loudly proclaimed to be 'propping up' the Spanish economy - was in actual fact just a tiny bubble within a bubble, equivalent in money terms to a mid sized English town.

Most middle class types with capital were able to make a sharpish exit, possessing the means to offload their Spanish houses before the crash really hit. Plenty more though – especially in La Alpujarra – were in it for the long term and had no plans to go back to where they had come from. My friends are among these and it was interesting to see how they were faring because they have basically learned how to be poor and still, in most cases, make the best of it.

Not many of them possess cars any longer, or if they do, they are not driven very much (one friend has bought a donkey which, as he optimistically points out, means he can now drink and drive without fear of crashing or being arrested). The Guardia Civil, also hit by money concerns, long ago learned that the quickest way to raise money is to target foreigners who don't know how to defend themselves. The region's multitude of hippies still manage to drive their battered trucks and camper vans without fear of harassment because the Guardia know they are stony broke, and also find it disagreeable to house them in the cells at their HQ in town.

And so people are driving less, meaning that the nearest supermarket, some distance away on the coast is off limits. In any case, people are learning to avoid supermarkets because of the temptation factor and now plan out their meals a week at time and shop at the local market which comes round every Thursday. Going too are the mobile phones. First the monthly contract turns into a pay-as-you-go one. Then everyone finds themselves with no credit to return calls or texts. When the battery finally dies, it seems, some people are not bothering to replace them. The local internet café is doing a roaring trade with its Skype booths, where you can make a cheap call to anywhere you want.

People, of course, complain and gripe about their situation. The biggest problem, it would seem, is that everyone seems to have some money-earning plan or other, but nobody can get anything off the ground because of the paralysing effect of having no access to funds. People are frozen like statues in a party game where the music stopped and nobody has turned it on again. Some of them are worried, very worried – especially those with young families who relied on the sole breadwinner, usually a builder, to bring in funds. No house sales and no credit means few building jobs in an area saturated with builders. What few jobs come up are fought over like scraps tossed to dogs and some builders will even take them on for next to nothing in the hope of more work being offered by the same customer in the future. The rosy new life most imagined it certainly isn't, and many people have effectively burned their bridges in moving down to Spain.

One puzzling aspect of this whole 'crisis' though is how invisible it is. Orgiva has never been cleaner and new shops have sprung up wherever you look. New roads have gone in and a swimming pool and football pitch have been built. The place, on appearance only, seems to be thriving. Crisis, what crisis? Even the legions of unemployed young people we are told about every day on the news would seem to be something out of an economist's bad dream. Spain, and other southern European countries, has a very efficient system for dealing with unemployment: it's called family. Indeed Antonio's daughter Rocio is one of those unemployed twenty-somethings. She's just finished a degree in pedagogy at Granada University and so far, hasn't been able to find a job.

Instead she's back at home, helping to raise her baby nephew and earning her keep harvesting olives, making soap with her mother and lazing around by their irrigation pond (read swimming pool) reading books. She doesn't seem to be all that distraught by the prospect of long term unemployment and just shrugged and said 'we'll see' when I asked her if she expected to find a job.
My neighbour Antonio showing his baby goats to my daughters

And so, after a week of being there, pruning the pomegranate trees and digging out rocks from the driveway, it was time to return to the alternative reality of Denmark where people go on shopping trips to New York for the weekend and imagine that Spain is a giant gold course with cheap sangria.

I can feel the sirens calling again for us to stay and take over the farm again. A man did come and view it while we were there and I could be forgiven if I seemed unenthusiastic to sell it. I have to be realistic however. If it sells it sells and we move on with the next stage of our lives, but if it doesn't, well, let's just say there are worse things than joining Antonio of an evening to watch his doves wheel and circle in the valley below while we discuss irrigation systems and the pros and cons of soil rotavation as the fiery Spanish sun sets over the distant mountains.

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