Trippin'

Trippin' is a collection of travel stories written by a young Australian writer. They talk of the humor of living a life on the fringe, the frustration of being down and out, and the stories of all the people he met along the way. The journey speaks to anybody who has experienced life on the road, or shares a thirst for the freedom that comes with spontaniety and transient living.

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9. La finca de Aracena

 

Occurred – August 2011, Aracena (Spain).

Every young traveller that has begun to lead a transient lifestyle will always hold a specific location in their mind of where they want to be. Usually, this place represents everything that is in complete opposition to the lifestyle that one used to lead. For the down-and-out's sifting through rubbish bins in broad daylight, dreaming of a toilet made of solid gold would leave them stoked. For every farmer’s daughter born in a derelict shed, wearing high heels and struttin' down the streets of New York would be the best reason anyone has to travel to the United States. For Jake and I it was the idea of slavin' in the hot Spanish sun picking corn from a field full of migrants that somehow equated to 'real happiness'. The thought of living on a Spanish commune for several years, getting brainwashed by some decrepit gypsy in a van and coming out the other side on a whole other wavelength somehow got me pumped for my travels to Europe.

But the road to this dream was a long one. Several set-backs, destitute experiences, without-a-dime stretches, failed farming stories and deceitful Moroccan business owners left me drained. The solo experiences that I had had left me knowing that I needed to find Jake. He was throwing himself around Europe, getting national insurance numbers and jobs in numerous countries. He would work a couple of weeks at each one, and then move on. That was very much how he was. Since he had been left destitute in Spain, lived and worked in a cocktail bar in London, and worked for a tourist bar in Italy, I had been living in Bristol, England. I busted out on a short trip to Morocco to feel the wave again. But I needed another hit from Jake and a moment to be reunited before I could even think about hitting the farm.

I hopped off the plane with sweat marks the size of a Russian tennis player and spotted Jake. It was an Andalusian summer and the heat of Morocco hadn’t even shaken off me yet. We bought 3 bottles of Tinto de Verano (a 2 litre, 1.50 euro bottle of red wine and lemonade) and slammed them in record speed. We laughed and drank hard in the one night we had before I left again, and as it got looser we became more carefree. We urinated on the wall of an apartment owned by an ogre-esk Sevillen man and started a fight with him. He yelled and screamed at us, and we kept repeating ¿Quieres Bronca?’ (Do you want anger?) It eventually ended with the police being called and both of us having to bust while wiping blood off our shirts. It was another low moment, but it all felt surreal and I left early the next morning, scraping my mind off a hostel dormitory floor.

The finca (farm) that I had chosen to work on was in a small town called Aracena. It was one hour from the Portuguese border and harboured small Spanish summer huts and had a large church on a mountain in the middle of the town. You could drive up the circular roads to it and see a panoramic view of the town with other mountains surrounding it. The finca was hidden in amongst a canopy of trees ten kilometres outside of Aracena, at the end of a long potholed track and several fresh water rivers.

An American woman called Maria was hosting me and lived with her short-fused Spanish husband. I used the online farming community WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), which you can subscribe to and organise work for any kind of farm in any country. You can indulge in the art of apiculture or even learn to make cheese. Maria and Alfonzo kept cattle and harvested fruit and vegetables, but Maria was always anal about the garden for the visitors that never visited. I hadn’t a clue four months prior of where in Spain I wanted to visit, but surprisingly enough farm work was quite sparse in August. Spain is a country constantly in some form of drought. Maria’s farm preached a relaxed environment and language exchange, with short stints of labour in-between.

I was desperate to continue to speak Spanish. My dream to work on a finca in the heart of rural Spain was also fuelled by the dream that I could almost become a Spaniard. Obviously it wasn’t true and I failed miserably – especially on account of an Australian accent that I will never be able to shake even if I wanted to. But Maria spoke only in English to me and English in their home. It was a bit of a cop out and I definitely wasn’t confident enough to swap the household language over, so I just patiently obeyed.

I had no conception of how long I was going to live the Spanish farming lifestyle. The minimum stay is usually two weeks, but some stray travellers or even people interested in agriculture had been known to stay months. Maria later told me that she had picked up two hitch-hikers on her way back from the supermarket one summer’s morning and they ended up staying on with her for six months. I was feelin’ confident that I could stick it out or perhaps even learn a thing or two.

I unpacked my bags in a small cabin next to the house and set up my temporary home. I sprawled out my five shirts and two pairs of ragged jean shorts, swapping what I didn’t want for more appealing clothes in a bin that Maria kept for her workers. I took a mustard coloured turtle-neck sweater that I ended up wearing months later in situations that definitely didn’t work in upping my street credit – but at the time I hadn’t a care. I essentially had nothing but a backpack of possessions to define me, and aside from my notebook I probably could have binned everything and still been happy.

Outside my room was a cattle ranch, manned by Alfonzo who rounded up the bulls each night with a piece of wood. Maria was inside making homemade yogurt and I lay down and felt completely spun out but also on a high. She reminded me of a young Grandma who just dug having her own paradise. Alfonzo was a bit more of an enigma, but later I realised that his life probably wasn’t any mystery to anybody, aside from the fact that he just never said or shared much, even with Maria. He seemed like the kind of guy who could have left everything he had in a heartbeat, throwing away Maria and his dog Goapie for any kind of new thrill. But it also looked as if his stubbornness kept him working the cattle day-in day-out, and Maria’s incessant nagging stopped him from packing his bags and hitching a ride up north.   

The house was a three story kind of ‘villa’, with terracotta bricks, wooden panelling and 1920s-style windows. It was built in this way so that it could be closed up and kept cold during the day and opened up at night. At around six or seven in the evening Maria would open up every window and both doors to let in a cool breeze. During the day the house was dark and enigmatic on account of not knowing where you exactly were.

The first day began at six a.m. I was aching after the fight two nights earlier and was thinking that my nose may have actually been broken. But with an Andalucian sunrise it was hard to keep your mind on it. It was like nothing I had ever seen. I pruned rose bushes for six hours, stopping for fresh bochadillos (sandwiches) and Gispacho with Maria and Alfonzo. Everybody came together not only just for lunch but for chill-outs and meetings before a siesta. Life was almost too relaxed, and after pruning the bushes and learning about energy medicine I hit the sack hard.

On my second morning their nephew Javier came to visit and work for a few days. He spoke no English besides a few Americanised phrases - the kind of kid you would expect to see in a daytime Spanish television show directed at teenagers. Throughout the day I learnt a load of new words in the Spanish language and bummed around with Javier and Alfonzo by the river. Alfonzo had lived in pueblos all of his life, using his cattle and vegetables as a way of self-sustainability rather than for profit. Unless he was skinnin’ his cows in a shed that I was unaware of, he never took any meat and simply just kept them as pets.

Maria was living on an entirely different level. Alfonzo was a sloucher and sleeper, with Maria constantly pulling his collar into keeping the farm looking beautiful. He was the classic Spaniard who had accepted that his country is downright boiling and unbearable, and drinks and sleeps to embrace it. He’s probably just one of thousands of Spaniards who have realised this and no doubt contributed to the cavalier attitude that has put Spain at the arse-end of the European economy. But who could really argue when you were glazed over in the sun with a bottle of wine in your hand?

But Maria was a regimented worker. Every small job of pruning even one rose would be done in her fashion and to a schedule. Her rules were not only the fincas rules, but to her the rules of Spain. I knew this quite quickly, but every time she smiled I couldn’t even feel rage.

Later that evening we indulged in a complete Spanish banquet. Maria had been cooking on a tight schedule all afternoon, so after riding home in the back of the Alfonzos’ van from the river we hurried to the dining table. We ate fresh pasta with a side of tortilla de patata (potato omelettes), prosciutto and chorizo, and had homemade honey yogurt for dessert. The dinner naturally opened with a prayer. I was seriously stuffed and was appreciating the hospitality after some Moroccan hosts one week earlier had essentially made me feel like a criminal.

The next morning I had to mow the huerta (orchard) which was inconveniently placed on a steep hill. I sweated in the forty-five degree heat to finish the job and Maria visited me several times to see if I was struggling. I was two hours past my deadline but I still denied that I was - my look probably representing the facial expression somebody would have before a stroke.

But in my mind I was facing a moral dilemma. I couldn’t decipher my true opinion of Maria – mainly because I had known her just four days, but also because she was working me like a dog and I couldn’t help but weigh up her motives. She was sweet on the one hand and I could see straight through her. The cabin that I was sleeping in was the old room of her son who had moved to the United States. He left some of his literature and photos in there so it was impossible not to know. But you could see that every ‘WOOFer’ that came to stay was like a temporary son or daughter to her. She may have acted like the intolerable Nana who wouldn’t stop whining at the restaurant table because the waiter didn’t offer her water, but she had a good heart.

But on the other hand she was the one responsible for making me rise at half-five in the morning, far before anybody else was even conscious enough to think about waking up. I was a fiery person at this time, even in the best of situations. I always felt like something was owed to me, and when Maria would rise at eight in the morning wearing a dressing gown and sipping on a coffee I couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t have permission to chill.

Considering the previous month had essentially consisted of me spending all my time with foreigners short of English finesse, I craved to be back with somebody I could speak to without restraint. I had too many thoughts in my head to be slaving in the sun eight hours a day with nothing but a derelict lawn-mower to keep me company. At first I thought the solitude would be bliss, but in reality a twenty year old working solo on a farm in the 21st century just doesn’t make sense. It’s not in keeping with the times where we all need constant attention and stimulation or else we fade away. It was a sad reality but a clear one, and I knew my days were numbered for a dream of talkin’ shit with Jake for as many hours as we could before our mouths dropped off.  

After working all day in the sun it was time for another siesta. I was really getting used to sleeping two times per day. It felt like I was in pre-school with the only difference being that grown adults from any age were psyched to crash out.

I woke up to Alfonzo walking around naked through the house and Maria yelling at him. She was scared that I would somehow get the wrong idea about Spanish lifestyle, even if I was more inclined to favour whatever Alfonzo had to say. His relaxed nature was something that I could agree with more than Maria’s go-go attitude, and in the end I couldn’t help but snap.

The next day I rose at five to get an early start on more of a carpentry based job. Maria and Alfonzo’s 1920’s style windows were starting to chip and decay and Maria thought it would be a good idea for me to restore them. I had no problem with this, but Alfonzo insisted that it was useless work and that of course they were going to be destroyed if they were made almost one hundred years ago. I gave Alfonzo a mental high-five for this one, but continued on working away nonetheless.

About six hours later I had completed roughly four windows. God knows how many there actually were, but considering that each window had to be taken off, sanded with one of those full-blown electric sanders, and then repainted with two coats of paint I was pretty stoked. But apparently Maria had other ideas. She stopped me mid-sand and sat down beside me.

‘Mike, you must work faster. We have another four sets of windows to complete and we need them finished by this evening.’

‘Look, what do you want me to do?’ I said hastily. ‘I’m not a carpenter – I’m just a city kid who somehow found himself here. I’m trying my best.’

Clearly my best wasn’t good enough, but with two fiery personalities we reached a stalemate. I apologised and let her know that I felt she was working me too hard. Who knows in reality if this was actually the case, but there is only so long I can go without speaking my mind.

I finished the windows early the next day and then began unpacking the attic with Alfonzo. Maria stood around delegating tasks for both of us, all the while still wearing her dressing gown and looking relaxed. I still felt a little enraged, but Alfonzo took care of everything. He was furious with Maria’s ideas of what constituted essential ‘work’, and snapped on behalf of both of us but with the look that he had twenty years of rage inside him and couldn’t wait to let it out.

‘You are always behind everyone, watching,’ he exclaimed. ‘Nobody wants that – that’s why everyone is pissed with you.’

Maria left the finca for the rest of the afternoon and Alfonzo was left to make lunch. It appeared that he was clearly incapable of looking after himself, and I watched on as I equated him to the Hispanic version of Kirk Van Houten in ‘The Simpsons.’ He looked like an infant that had been left to defend for himself, but Maria returned soon after and everything soon blew over.

On my last night Alfonzo, Javier and I went out for dinner. Regrettably, I had told another lie to get myself out of working in Aracena any longer, and took the liberty of seeing the town before I left. It may not have been the noblest decision, but in times where one could either run or fight I always tended to take the easy way out.

My departure didn’t exactly leave me sad that I had abandoned my personal version of a conceived ‘paradise’. It did more to make me think about why I just couldn’t hack the solitude. If anything, Maria looked after me like I was her child, but she could have fed me grapes and red wine and I still would have been deluded into thinking that times could be better. My experience assured me that it just wasn’t realistic to think that a twenty year old from Melbourne could last six months on a finca, deprived of certain elements of city life that I have become accustomed to. Late night bars, large circles of friends and the freedom to be where I wanted at any moment would continue to reign over me. I had no say in anything besides knowing that I needed to reconnect with myself as being just another city dude, rather than some farfetched notion of becoming a Spanish farmer. But that isn’t to say that the dream is dead – it’s just sitting there waiting for another time.   

    

 

 

 

   

 

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