It’s fair to say that I never thought I’d perfect my sweeping, bed making, dusting and mopping skills while in Southern Spain, but I have. I’ve made a habit out of working with my iPod on and tucked into the pocket of my sweatshirt. At first, I made the mistake of playing a mix of melancholy songs that just made me feel sorry for myself. Odetta, Belle and Sebastian, more Andrew Bird – not good cleaning music. I knew better. I needed pep. I put on Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III and I swear the kitchen sink faucet that I was polishing winked at me. I got in a groove. Now I only play music that I want to dance to while cleaning. It’s helped immensely. Yesterday morning, after Jeannette informed me that we’d be cleaning the other guesthouse in Cutar (just when I thought the cleaning spree was finito), it was Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreaks. Today I salute the iPod genius feature. I listened to songs I forgot I had, which made for a few pleasant surprises and a few skips. Celine Dion came on and almost obliterated the flow. (Yes, I have her greatest hits album. No, I’m not proud of it. But there is that one song with the violin intro that I will vouch for. Might the best sing-in-the-shower song ever.) I also downloaded three “This American Life” podcasts from Max onto my iPod. Amazing. My plan was to stagger them throughout my remaining days on the farm, but I ended up listening to all three in less than two days. I couldn’t help it. They completely transport me. I listened to #359: Life After Death, while stripping cana a couple of days ago. I was standing outside, removing all the outer leaves with a large and very sharp knife, tears rolling down my face. If Jeannette had walked out and seen me, I thought I’d tell her that the cana seemed to have a strange, onion-like effect. Fortunately, I collected myself before I had to explain.
Cleaning in Cutar has actually been interesting. Well, the cleaning hasn’t been interesting at all, but spending a little time in town has been. Jeannette has stayed back at the house with Alicia for the past couple of days, so it’s just been Poli and me cleaning all morning. Yesterday at around 11am, Poli told me to stop cleaning. “Demasiado limpiando.” He mentioned something about how his cell phone doesn’t get great service in Cutar and so he’d turn it off and we’d go get a drink. I followed him down the street to a tiny little store owned by gypsies. Poli bought me a beer and he got a small glass of anise liquor (a very traditional Spanish drink). I tried a sip and it was good. He told me that he likes to have one drink before he eats anything. I think he said it’s “good for his blood” or maybe it “goes straight to his blood”, although I don’t understand half of what Poli says due to my lacking Spanish vocabulary. Anyway, he never drinks at night. Just a little glass of Anis en la manana will do and only when Jeannette is not around. We weren’t there for long before heading back to work, but the break made my day. Turned out that Poli felt exactly the same way I felt, too much cleaning! Nothing a quick trip to the town bar can’t fix.
Today, Poli and I took the same trip to the bar, but a bit earlier than yesterday. I didn’t quite feel like having a beer at 10am, so I got a café and Poli got his Anis. We were sitting at the bar when I heard a man yelling at the top of his lungs and honking his horn. “Pesssaaaaaaoooo! Pessssaaaaaooooo!” If Jeannette hadn’t asked me if I’d heard the fish man, I would have had absolutely no idea what was going on. Cutar is by local admission “muy tranquilo”. The town is home to less than 400 people. There aren’t many cars and the cars that are there never honk. I’d never heard anyone in town yell. Ahhh, so this was the fish man! Turns out he comes to Cutar everyday, after picking up fresh fish on the coast (about 20 kilometers away), and alerts the town of his presence by honking his horn and yelling, “Fiiissshh! Fiiissshhhh!” in Spanish. Like most Southern Spaniards, he doesn’t pronounce half of the letters in the word. So “pescado” sounds like “pesao”. This particular fish man bore a strong resemblance to Will Ferrell, which made me like him even more.
I haven’t mentioned much about lunch. It’s always the biggest meal of the day and without fail, Jeannette cooks a big pot of something savory and warm – lots of lentils, sometimes a vegetable or chicken curry, or a tomato and meat sauce – with either rice or pasta on the side, and a salad. I always eat at least two big bowls and it almost tides me over until bedtime. For lunch today, Jeannette made a traditional Andalusian soup made with bacalao (salted cod). Poli said that it’s soup for poor peasants but it’s also one of his favorite dishes. I tend to love any food that “poor people” eat – beans, rice, soups of any kind, root vegetables, corn – so I was excited to give it a try. The salted cod is cooked in water along with a few potatoes, pimientos, garlic and onion. Then a few eggs are cracked into the broth. The bottom of the soup bowl is lined with stale bread and the soup is ladled on top. Then homemade mayonnaise is dolloped on top of the soup, everything is mixed together, and you end up with this warm bowl of goodness. I appreciated that I could monitor the mayo factor. It sounds odd to put mayo in soup, but the broth was so light without it, it needed something to bulk up. The soup tasted rustic and of the sea in the best way possible. It was unlike anything I’ve had and completely delicious.
Life on the farm is hard work. More than anything, I am fortunate for the time I’ve spent here. Fortunate that I landed in a place with a family who has opened their home to me, but also fortunate for my freedom. This will be my life for 10 days, and then I will pack up and move on. It is Poli and Jeannette’s life always. Their well-being depends on their mango trees and guesthouse rentals. It hasn’t been glamorous. My dream of plucking ripe fruit off the tree will not come to pass here. Both the orange and avocado seasons are over, aside from whatever we pick for personal grazing. The lemon trees bear fruit and flowers simultaneously and are always in season. The grapes and mangoes aren’t yet ready to be harvested. But, there are many tasks to accomplish every day and I’ve helped them. The long mornings spent cleaning were not a highlight, but I’m happy I could help. My afternoon work has proved more interesting. Today Poli and I planted about 30 squash between the mango trees and set up the irrigation system so the little green sprouts will grow into bulbous, colorful gourds come the fall.
Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to moving from the guesthouse, but it’s turned out to be a good thing. I’ve gone from solo traveler to being (a very temporary) part of a farming family. Jeannette and I have had some really interesting conversations over our afternoon tea. She knows so much about the land and farming. She moved to Malaga province from Berlin when she was 21 and has been here ever since. For her first eleven years, she lived mostly off of her own land outside Benamargosa, the next town down the hillside, in a house without running water or electricity. Because Jeannette speaks English with me (and Spanish with Poli and German to Alicia), I’m able to ask her questions I couldn’t otherwise ask in Spanish. Poli’s mom brought a two-liter jug of local extra virgin olive oil over to the house the other day. It is the best olive oil I’ve ever had. It’s a cloudy light green and tastes like young olives. I think I’ve consumed a good ½ liter all by myself. I pour it on a plate, sprinkle a little salt and sop up the goodness with lots of bread. Heaven. Anyway, because I am obsessed with this oil, I started asking Jeannette about olive harvesting. Turns out, they own olive trees but never pick the olives because they’re not worth the effort. Olives are relatively labor intensive and worth almost nothing off the tree. The olive pickers in the area make about 20 euros for 100 kilos of olives, and 100 kilos of olives will produce just 14 kilos of olive oil. Candida, Poli’s mom, bought the two-liter jug for five euros. So, the olive picker got about 40 centavos from the sale. 40 centavos! Why would anyone pick olives at that price? Turns out olive pickers are a dying breed, and rightly so. Unfortunately, Jeannette tells me, farmers (in general, not only olive farmers) get swindled all the time and they’re used to it. But, things must change or else eventually no one will be willing to work the fields.
Jeannette’s mom and sister will arrive in a few days from Berlin, so it’s time for me to make my exit. I pack up tomorrow morning and head to another farm near Coin, about 65 miles west. I wasn’t planning on farm hopping, but it’s Semana Santa this week and all of Southern Spain is packed with swarms of Catholics looking for a good fiesta. I didn’t want to pay 50 euros for a dorm room in Sevilla, so off I go on another farming adventure.