Saturday, April 23, 2011

La segunda finca

As Fadegas

After a long and uncomfortable overnight coach ride north, with a few hours layover spent walking around Madrid, Christopher and I arrived in a small town called Ribadeo on the north coast of Spain. Ribadeo is in Lugo, which is a province within the region of Galicia. This area of the country is known as “Green Spain” because it receives so much rainfall and is very lush and fertile and green.

We were picked up at the bus station by our new host, a brusque older woman named Elia. Once at the farm, As Fadegas (as her husband Vicente later explained was named after a common figure in Celtic mythology), she showed us our room and let us nap after our long trip. Later in the day and feeling immeasurably better and more rested, we began to work with Vicente. They had a large piece of land with several polytunnels (large plastic greenhouses), fields, and animals (chickens, sheep, a horse and donkey). We planted seeds in a polytunnel, which was slightly tedious work, but this was tempered by Vicente's friendliness. He told us about the Celtic and Roman history of the area, which he was very enthusiastic about, explaining the origins of his farm's name and showing us an ancient millstone and mortar and other Roman/Celtic artifacts they had found in the area. It was fascinating, partly because of his excitement about it, and I wished that my Spanish was more proficient so that I could understand him better. Christopher and I began to jokingly call him (among ourselves) Santa Vicente, partly because he was so sweet, and partly because his rotund, bearded jolliness reminded us of Santa Claus.

Unfortunately these benevolent feelings did not last long. Vicente's joy disappeared whenever he was inside or whenever his wife was around, and dinner with the couple and Elia's senile mother was incredibly uncomfortable and depressing. We started to notice the mold and filth of our bedroom and the general dirtiness of the whole house. I tried to have a positive outlook and hope that other aspects would outweigh my disgust at the state of the house and somehow everything would be wonderful. But by the end of our first day there we discussed the possibility of leaving early. We gave it a couple of days to see if things would improve, but eventually we were so uncomfortable and unhappy that we just wanted to get out. We ate bread for breakfast, boiled cabbage soup for lunch, and more boiled cabbage soup for dinner. Every day. We would show up to work in the morning at the time they told us, and then sit and wait for an hour or more until we actually started working. We would work for a couple of hours at most in the morning, and would be ready to work in the afternoon but would never know if Vicente and Elia would actually be there or have any work for us to do. When we did work, it was either planting seedlings or weeding rows of lettuce. It was frustrating and wildly unfulfilling, and the lack of any real work to do left us with even more time to spend in the filthy and miserable house.

Instead we spent most of our plentiful free time outside, walking through the very pretty, green countryside. It's unfortunate that we couldn't stand to be there, because the farm was in an extraordinarily beautiful place. There was a river nearby which ran past adorable old stone farm houses and a literal rain forest on the edge of their property. And everywhere, shockingly green pastures and rolling hills. We walked to the nearby villages that were too tiny to really be called villages at all, which looked antiquated and picturesque from far away but were actually decrepit and all but deserted. Elia and Vicente both grew up on farms in the area, marrying to move only a field away and never leaving the farm. I wonder what these villages looked like when they were young; maybe it was a thriving area with a lively community and successful agriculture. But now it seems that many have left their farms behind, and those who have stayed have definitely seen better days. Even in such a beautiful countryside, the ruins of all of these places and the house at As Fadegas made it feel empty and horrible and depressing.

We emailed our next farm, beseeching them to let us come early. To our immense relief, we got a reply the next day that we could come. So we planned our escape, gave a lame excuse, and fled the next morning.
We took a bus to Oviedo, a nearby city, to stay in a hotel for the night. It was a cheap hotel with a sterile, austere room but still it felt luxurious just to have a clean bed to sleep in: an antiseptic white sanctuary. We spent the afternoon wandering the town, happy to be playing tourists again. We only spent four days at As Fadegas but it seemed like ages, and I felt ridiculously liberated and carefree to be leaving the place behind me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

La primera finca

While in Spain we stayed on three farms, or “fincas.” We started in sunny Andalucia in the south of Spain and then made our way north to two more farms in the northwest province of Galicia.

Cortijo Llamado de la Totovia

Our first farm was outside of a small town called Orgiva, in a valley between the Sierra de Lujar mountains and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It was in a mountainous region called the Alpujarra, which is stunningly beautiful, and the dry, sandy terrain with the occasional cacti and an omnipresent blue sky reminded me of the desert Southwest. “Cortijo” is another word for farm (or farmhouse). The couple who owned the place were Welsh school teachers who decided to make a life change and move to Spain to start an organic farm.

The farm consisted of primarily olive and orange trees and also had a small vegetable garden. The house had a few solar panels on the roof and (with the exception of a gas stove) ran entirely on the energy they produced. We worked from 9 am to 2 pm from Monday to Friday, with a tea break midday, and afternoons and weekends off. We did lots of pruning trees and clearing branches from previously pruned trees, with some more exciting landscaping work in the vegetable garden. At times we were disappointed with our experience there; we had been hoping for something meaningful and life-altering and profound. We wanted to immerse ourselves in this couples' life and farm and learn from them. But we lived in a caravan separate from the house, only joining them in their home for meals, and for the most part worked and lived independently. I had wanted another Sengersbroeklike experience (though of course not expecting as much) and though we tried, no matter how hardworking or inquisitive or charming we were we couldn't really cultivate a meaningful relationship with them. Christopher was especially frustrated by this but eventually I adapted my expectations and goals for our time there, viewing it more as a two-week-long, all expenses paid, relaxing, romantic getaway in the stunning Alpujarra! And though it wasn't exactly what I had hoped for, it was still wonderful. Catherine and Anthony, our Welsh hosts, were very kind even if they weren't terribly interested in getting to know us, and they introduced us to the British broadcasting genius that is “Dr. Who.” It was an unbelievably gorgeous place, sunny and warm even in the beginning of February, and we had lots of free time with which to explore and enjoy the scenery. We spent our afternoons reading and soaking in the sun in the orchard and eating the most juicy, delicious oranges picked right off the trees. We often walked with the couples' two big, fluffy dogs down the so-called Rio Seco that bordered the property and explored the countryside. We took a day trip up into the mountains to visit three tiny and ancient villages (the Alpujarran version of Cinque Terre), the oldest of which was settled in 300something AD! The towns were cute but I really loved the walks between the three towns and the panoramic views they offered; upwards of the snowy Sierra Nevada and down into the valley.

I was excited for the next leg of our journey, and I wasn't sad to leave . But it was a truly lovely time spent in a beautiful place that felt a little bit like paradise.