Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Arrival in the Sierra

(After the bus journey from Ubeda it’s about 10 pm when I arrive in Villacarillo. There are no taxis to be found, despite a friendly hotel manager making phone calls for me, to try to find one. So I set out to walk the few kilometers to my destination.)

The night is warm. There’s a thin covering of cloud so I cannot see the stars but this covering means there is no chill in the air and gives a sense of protection. The road slopes downhill which I am glad of for despite all my attempts to travel as lightly as possible, my backpack feels heavy. From time to time, a car sweeps past, and I go from one side of the road to the other depending on which direction it comes from, so that I will be clearly visible. The light vanishes and I am on my own again, but it is never completely dark, I think there must be a moon somewhere up there, shedding its diffuse light for I can see the road quite clearly. I can also see dark shapes on each side of the road, the little olive trees, but their outlines are murky.

Warmed by the cloud wrapped sky, and the rhythmic movement of walking, I feel an immense peace in this darkness and solitude, moving towards my destination, only 8 kilometres away. And I do not feel alone, for apart from the bordering olives and the warm night itself, I am accompanied by the sound of crickets, a soft whistling in the sloping fields on either side. These little insects come out at dusk and turn evenings soft with their liquid flute- like sounds. These sounds, and the delicate sharp scent of the air, a mixture of herbs, olive leaves and the earth itself, along with the feeling of being high above the valley and so, close to the quilted covering of the sky, give the feeling of walking on air, despite the backpack. After a day spent in trains and buses, and waiting hours for the next bus to come that would take me just a little closer to my destination, it is deliciously invigorating to be physically moving, slipping into a rhythm, accompanied by that gentlest of night sounds, the crickets. And to know that I am close and moving closer all the time, to my goal.

I’d gone perhaps two thirds of the way when a car came up behind me but instead of passing me, it stopped. A door opened and the driver asked me where I was going. When I told him, he gestured to me to get in. He had a friend with him, another young man. What luck! They dropped me off in a deserted street on the edge of the village, while I overflowed with muchas gracias and shouldered my backpack.

The air was still, the street was silent, the houses looked old and welcoming. Then a woman appeared, carrying a plastic bag, heading for the refuse bin. She stared at me as if I had dropped out of a parachute, from another time. I seized my chance, greeted her with effusive buenas noches, and asked the way to my street. She gestured down some steps, and to the right, and I picked out the word ponte. Turn right at or after the bridge. So I did. The street did not appear to have a name, but I felt it was the right one. And then, there was the tree, at the side of the building. I got out the key and the small torch, slid the key in the door, turned on the power at the mains. I’d arrived. It was just after midnight. 

Street view from my balcony

I’d been told that A, one of the neighbours, spoke French, and I should go to him if there was anything I needed. And he turns out to be an unfailing source of assistance. He says he has some mail for J, the owner, and I go to collect it from him.

The sloping hall inside the front door leads up to his garden – he has vines, an olive, an orange tree, and one that’s Japanese and its fruit looks like peaches. Another whose name he searches for in French, almendra.......amande, I say, yes, he agrees, amande. He shows me his little hut, where he likes to go pour être seul le matin, pour la tranquillité. He raises the shutters on the little windows and sunlight falls onto the table, where there’s a pile of purple garlic cloves and a heap of garlic skins. Dried peppers, so dark red and purple they are almost black, hang from hooks on the wall. He offers me some, but I decline and say I probably won’t be cooking in the few days I’m here.

View from A's garden

When I go, he asks if I’d like some raisins, and cuts me a big bunch. He makes wine, he says. But the quality – well, it depends on the weather. Last year’s cold weather was not good for the grapes - or for the orange tree. Its leaves shrivelled and there is no sign of any fruit.

Just inside the front door, stands a large sack full of bread. Long baguettes protrude from the top, and the sack is packed tight with smaller, round loaves, not odds and ends, but complete and untouched. Un ami a des moutons, A explains. I wonder if the bakery gives him their unsold loaves from the day before, for these are not the odds and ends and leftover scraps that are found in most households.

A few days later, when we are both on the weekly bus to Villacarillo, he tells me more about his friend, who is a shepherd. He lives outside with his sheep during the summer, though in winter, he has an arrangement with a friend, and sleeps in his house. He moves the sheep to different pastures, when necessary. It seems that Spanish shepherds have long standing rights of way where they can move their flocks from one pasture to another and possibly there are public grazing grounds, although I was so intent on listening to A I forgot to ask him this. Young people nowadays he says, do not want to look after sheep or work in the olive groves. They prefer to go to the cities and find better paid work there - if they can of course, for unemployment is very high. So it’s often migrant workers from Africa who work on the land. And they work hard he says, but they spend very little. They save most of their earnings and send it to their families.

I like listening to A talking in his soft voice, and I like the way he describes events without making judgements, or erecting emotional barricades around any particular argument. A has blue eyes, and they often look out into the distance, where the olive trees are dotted in rows as regular as needlework, draped over the hills, sweeping down the slopes, dark grey-green stitching against a background of pale, dust-coloured earth. And beyond these hills, there’s the mountains, with tree-covered areas of pale and dark green, white and grey rock on the pointed peaks.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Linares to Ubeda

Don’t travel by public transport in Spain on a Sunday (unless you’re going from one big town to another). When I arrived in the small town of Linares, between Madrid and Grenada, I was told that there was only one bus to the next town on my route, Ubeda, although on weekdays there were several.

On the night train, someone had knocked on the door of the compartment, announcing vingti minuti before Madrid. Plenty of time to collect toilet bag, water bottle and notebook from the little pouch beside the bed, rummaging around in the dark, to pack everything away, and visit the wash room before emerging onto the dark platform.

Remembering other European train stations, I’d imagined Madrid Chamartin to be a heaving hub of people but I’d quite forgotten it was Sunday, and the station was almost deserted. It was also very clearly signposted, with an escalator to the salle, where departures were displayed in bright lights. Each platform also has its own entrance from the hall, so there is no – go here for platforms 1-5, go there for platforms 6-10, go downstairs for 11 & 12, the kind of complex information that requires careful scrutiny, that I’m used to in French train stations.

I had over 3 hours to wait at Linares-Baeza, so I walked from the station to a tree-lined avenue, where a café-bar was open and there were some signs of life, and sat down on a bench. The sky was clear blue, the sunlight delicious. Within about five minutes, a car stopped and I was asked for directions. This always happens to me, I must have the kind of face that looks unthreatening. And since I’d noticed the road signs to Ubeda, I was able to tell them, or rather, gesture to them, where to go. Later I walked along this road and tried to hitch-hike but there were very few cars and I soon gave up. Walking back towards the station I discovered a shop that was open, bought some fruit juice and biscottes and when I arrived back at the station, there was a bus standing in front of it so I asked, hopefully, if it went to Ubeda. No, that would come later, as the man in the train station had said. So I sat down on one of the benches in the near deserted square, and pulled out a book from my backpack, Winter in Madrid, by C J Sansom. 
It takes place during WW II, just after the revolution in Spain and is a gripping story that highlights the suffering of the people during the Spanish Civil War, includes espionage and underhand dealings of various kinds, love, imprisonment, and plenty of nail-biting danger. Through its characters it confronts such issues as belief or faith, portrayed by different organisations or factions, such as the Catholic Church or Communism and how far one’s adherence to tenets or dogma can take you away from compassion for other human beings. Set in the 1940s, still, such issues of fervent or fanatical belief and its results, are just as relevant nowadays.

I looked around me at the quiet, sun-struck square, with its benches shaded by leafy palm trees. Someone was sitting on another bench at the far end. A taxi was parked at the side of the pedestrian area, just in front of the station, with its hood up. The man was talking into his cell phone. I’d seen him come out of the taxi and raise the hood. Of course he must be the driver and there was something wrong with his vehicle and he was trying to get a mechanic to have a look at it. There again, this was pure supposition and I had no idea who he was talking to or what he was saying. In the book I was reading, so many people were pretending and playing parts and assuming roles, spying and being spied on – and apart from us, the whole town seemed to be deserted or having Sunday lunch or Sunday siesta ..... A couple of very large and lean stray dogs slunk past (a pack of wild dogs also figures in Winter in Madrid). I began to imagine all kinds of things, including no bus ever turning up to take me away from here. 

The road from the station, Linares

I noticed the taxi driver filling a large container of water from a slender iron pole which I realised must be a fountain. So I went over with my water bottle and pressed what I took to be the right button, but nothing happened. The taxi driver then came over, and showed me that you had to press something on the ground with your foot, to make the water flow. I thanked him for that and returned to my bench. I was to discover that Spanish people, at least in the area I was in, which is off the usual tourist track, have a natural willingness to help, which made me warm to them immediately.

Despite this helpfulness, I decided not to read any more of the novel until I had arrived at my final destination, two or possibly three bus journeys further on, in the safety of the whitewashed walls of the house where I would spend the next few days. Half an hour or so later, a van appeared and pulled up behind the taxi. It was clearly a breakdown van, with Juan Montes written on the side. He peered under the taxi’s hood, talked to the taxi driver, extracted some jump leads from his van, and soon after that, both vehicles left the square. I went for another walk around the block. The sun was now decidedly hot. A brown butterfly landed on the earth around the palm tree bole and instantly disappeared into background. The brittle palm leaves barely rustled in the still air.

Then a background sound got louder and the peace and silence was broken by what sounded like a roaring noise. A bus appeared, like a monstrous visitation from another world. I have a sudden illumination into why Don Quixote charged at windmills. Followed by a feeling of relief, for this snorting mechanical dragon is my saviour, it’s the bus to Ubeda.

en route Linares - Ubeda

At last, I’m going somewhere again, and we travel through a landscape of red earth and olive trees, under a deep blue sky.