Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance

After weeks of trying to de-green our small swimming pool and to stop it being a holiday haven for the neighbours’ noisy Iberian water frogs by adding municipal swimming pool levels of chlorine, defeat was admitted, the water was emptied onto a grateful garden and the pool surface cleaned and painted.

But now for the challenging bit – refilling it. Agua (water) is a more precious natural resource than gold in Las Alpujarras and the mysteries of acquiring the acequia water which flows past our cortijo at this time of year, as the mountain snow melts, without upsetting our vecinos (neighbours), are only just becoming clear.

The community-operated, Moorish system of irrigation follows strict rules. There is a rota which dictates when residents of our (and every) road can open the sluice gates and divert the water on to their land, and for how long. While it is possible to take agua at other times, it is necessary to understand the somewhat complicated circumstances in which this can be done.

We’ve always known that our turn comes at some ungodly hour of a Friday morning, which is why we’ve never attempted to find out exactly when. But after being gently chastised by our friendly water-man, he who has responsibility for managing the acequia in our road, when we thought we were safe to sneak a quick hour, we resigned ourselves to respecting, not playing the system.

And so it was that at midnight mi esposo (husband) set off in search of our water. On discovering that el vacino across the road was watering his land it was clear that a conversation was necessary. Armed with home-made cinnamon whirls, a smile and far too few appropriate Spanish verbs for the task, esposo made his approach.

Sharing sweet pastries in an orange and olive grove in the early hours of the morning with a Spanish smallholder is perhaps one of the more eccentric acts it has been necessary to perform to extract information about how things work here. But it was effective. Our friendly neighbour explained that our turn for the water was after his, at 2am, for three hours. He rattled our gates to let us know when he’d finished and even insisted on helping with the water diversion.

By 5am our garden was watered, our pool was full, we’d introduced a new type of baked product to the area, and it was time for bed.

The acequia flow is already diminished as the benefits of the heavy rains of early spring in our valley, accompanied by significant snowfall to a relatively low level on the slopes above us, begin to dry up. It won’t be long before watering the garden and filling the pool requires payment. While taking water in the small hours is part of the way of life for those who have always worked the land here, we are inclined to think that buying an hour of water to use at a civilised time of day fits better with ours.

Unsettled election, unsettled history

Andalucian president Susana Diaz continues to try to govern alone after failing to secure a majority in last month’s regional election, in spite of winning the same number of seats as in 2012. Her Socialist party (PSOE) is eight seats short of what it needs to avoid having to negotiate with other parties to pass every piece of legislation.

Anti-austerity, anti-corruption party Podemos, which secured 15 seats, is hardly coalition material for a ruling party that is following an austerity agenda and has three former ministers suspected of involvement in a billion euro fraud case. And the other newcomer to Spanish politics – the right wing Ciudadanos (Citizens), which won nine seats – has also ruled out a formal alliance, even with the conservative Popular Party (PP), which came second but lost 17 seats.

The Spanish media continues to predict that Podemos could hold the balance of power after the general election in November. But given that the Andalucian vote, especially the collapse in the vote of PP (the party of national government), is seen as a strong gauge of the outcome, it is difficult to envisage what sort of coalition Podemos might be a part of.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of voting in Granada province, and particularly in Las Alpujarras, shines a light on the sides taken in our villages and towns during the Spanish civil war.

The people who work the land here do not consider themselves to be anything other than working class – it is uniquely Spanish anarchism. But the terrible experiences of the civil war are, for many people of the Alpujarras, still painfully recent. Here there are estimated to be as many as 25 mass graves containing the remains of Republican or anarchist villagers who tried to resist Franco’s armed rebels who came up to these mountains from the coast. Towns such as Torvizcon were repeatedly attacked and their inhabitants “disappeared”. Órgiva marked a frontline throughout the war and remains proudly anti-Franco.

With a few exceptions, such as the pristine spa town of Lanjarón which narrowly voted PP – perhaps as much because of the relative wealth of its inhabitants through tourism as that it was Nationalist during the war – this remains a staunchly socialist region. PSOE won the majority of Alpujarran municipalities, with Podemos coming second or third in many. And it is unsurprising that while the United Left (IU), which includes the Communist Party of Spain, lost seven seats in the Andalucian parliament, it had a relatively strong showing in many places here.

Take the tiny pueblo of Cañar, from where our internet signal is beamed. IU achieved 6.8 per cent of the vote – that’s eight people in a village with a population of just a couple of hundred. If only those eight could get their hands on that broadband transmitter…

Get some sleep, Dolores

The excellent speakingofspain.com blog has published a helpful Athiest Guide to Semana Santa, along with five reasons to get out of town before it starts. Wish I’d read it before things kicked off in Órgiva, and certainly before my last post. For what I now know is that Cristo has very little to do with Semana Santa, other than the supposed sighting of Christ in our town was fortuitously close to it. Jesus hasn’t yet risen – he and Dolores were out again last night, him in a glass coffin. No fireworks, but oh, the bells. And as for the outfits of their “protectors”, I’ve been properly told off for commenting on what they remind me of.

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Why why why Dolores

I left Spain for a flying visit to the UK with ears still ringing from Órgiva’s annual Cristo festival. By 2.30am the previous Saturday our enthusiasm for our town’s seemingly insatiable appetite for fiestas had worn a little thin. As the sound of the last of thousands of euros worth of fireworks ricocheted around our valley, we understood a little better how living in a war zone must be. The “guns”, which had been blasting at intervals for two days, finally fell silent in those early hours.

The last crescendo marked the return of the virgin Dolores (the Virgin Mary when in pain and grief) to her place in Órgiva’s 16th century Baroque church, bringing an end to the annual Processión del Cristo de la Expiración, or Dia del Señor, which marks a “sighting” of the man himself in the town. Gunpowder features heavily in Andalucia’s troubled history and almost 500 kilos of fireworks was estimated to have been spent throughout the 48 hours of Cristo, during which Christ on his cross is taken from the alter and paraded around the town, accompanied by the town band, military drummers, women in black, hoards of locals, displays of emotion and, of course, Dolores. The sometimes terrifying and isolating salvos of rockets with their accompanying white smoke are said to keep the devil away while the pair are off guard.

Who is to say whether the performance is religion, theatre, culture, a boost for local businesses and tourism (the hotels were full), or all of the above. But it was a bit of a disaster for one high street bank a few years ago, when the force of the rockets blew in its windows.

All lit up, with places to go

All lit up, with places to go

This year’s spectacle suffered the misfortune of dramatic Spring storms, which brought hail and rain onto the parade and forced the two effigies to return home a little ahead of schedule. A friend involved in the carrying of Dolores (who, unlike her son, didn’t have the protection of a raincoat) described her remarkable, and comical, turn of foot, velvet robe streaming behind her, as her bearers, some of whom had sneaked a few bar stops during the procession, ran the last leg to the church steps.

The days since Cristo have been but a temporary ceasefire. It’s Semana Santa (Holy week), so the rockets are active again, breaking the peace of a glorious early morning. Dolores held a feast for her followers at her “club” in town last night, and the (by then risen) Christ will be paraded again on Easter Thursday. I bought a box of earplugs at the airport in anticipation.


Farming without land

Stopping the car to retrieve the tapa plana (cloth cap) of an elderly man battling his way through Orgiva town with his burro (ass) in the recent high winds got me thinking about the potential effect of the privatisation of common lands.

The burro was carrying a heavy load of grasses, no doubt food for its owner’s goats, painfully cut from the harsh ground. Several herds of goats and sheep are moved around the various areas of open land here. Goatherds may own a barn to shelter their animals at night, but few own land. They are, literally, farming without land.

In the UK, progressive enclosure of common land since the 12th century, but particularly during the 17th century onwards as a result of the enclosure Acts, deprived the majority of people of access to agricultural land while enriching a few and establishing the model of private property over collective rights.

Capitalism grew from the creation of an industrialised working class, forced from the land to the factories.

A neighbour told us how they had argued with a local goat farmer over the grazing of his herd on land the British man had bought and was cultivating olive and orange trees on. The farmer claimed a right to graze his capra on it. The inevitable outcome of the row was the enclosure of the disputed ground. The goatherd was forced to move his animals elsewhere, but (and I do not blame the owner of the land for building his fences – we all shut our gates when we hear the goat bells), it was a further, possibly inevitable step, towards the loss of common land.

If such lands continue to provide a peasant farming community with a means of survival in 21st century rural Spain, an alternative to the market, then perhaps the sustainability of economies such as these will continue.

And the tourists and long-stayers who come here to escape overcrowded cities, creeping urban sprawl and ordered hedgerows will continue to be charmed. This might sound patronising, but their importance for local business is immeasurable.

The American poet Robert Frost said: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.” Perhaps not putting one up until the consequences are known might be more apt.

Voting for hope in Greece and Spain

Now that the people of Greece have rejected austerity and voted for a party that wants to renegotiate the country’s debt, Podemos (We Can) – Spain’s anti-austerity party founded last year in the wake of the mass “Indignados” or 15-M movement against inequality and corruption – has been bolstered in its belief that the general election here will go the same way.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias tweeted after the Greek election that the result represented hope and finally the Greeks had a Greek government and “not an Angela Merkel delegate”. He said his party would be celebrating the change in Europe, in Spain and in Greece.

His conviction that Spaniards will choose a similarly new path as the people of Greece have done will be tested in Andalucia earlier than expected. Andalucian president Susana Diaz has brought forward the region’s elections to 22 March after the collapse of her Socialist Party (PSOE) alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), which she accuses of moving to the left in response to the growing popularity of Podemos.

IU’s national leader Alberto Garzón has been trying to distance the party from the Socialists and its Andalucian coordinator general Antonio Maíllo has pushed for a referendum among its members on whether to leave the coalition should the PSOE refuse to push through social reforms to try to tackle growing inequality and poverty in Spain’s poorest region. Andalucia has been governed by the Socialists for more than 25 years, but the party’s rightward shift, along with fraud charges brought against two of its previous regional leaders, have damaged it.

Nationally, Podemos’ showing in the polls is strong. A recent voter intention survey carried out for newspaper El Pais showed it to be ahead of the PSOE, with 28.2 per cent support. While the PSOE may well hang on in Andalucia, the democratizing movement that is sweeping Spain looks set to bring an end to the two-party system at the national elections later this year.

Here in Órgiva, campaigning for May’s municipal elections is underway and reflects the same mood which has fuelled the rise of Podemos. A new platform has been launched which is open to anyone interested in strengthening democratic decision-making processes in the Alpujarras.

Ganemos La Alpujarra (Win the Alpujarra) describes its aims (and apologies for the rough translation), as enabling anyone who believes in “political ecology, social equity and democratic regeneration” a chance to participate in the elections and local institutions.

It calls for the disappearance of “clans, cronyism, patronage and other political ills” and the giving way to a “more honest, more just and more effective management” deserved by the people of La Alpujarra.

My continued engagement with British politics has emails from the Labour Party dropping into my inbox on an almost daily basis. I’ll do my best to return to London to pound the streets in Hampstead and Kilburn before the UK’s general election, but Labour, as well as Spain’s PSOE, needs to heed the lessons that the Greek vote and the mood in Spain, including in our beautiful mountains, offer –  not only are there alternatives to austerity and to two-party systems but that if they’re not given, the electorate will find or create them.

Blue Monday? Happy Tuesday (it’s another fiesta)

The so-called saddest day of the year was declared to be Monday (19 January) by those organisations which have identified an opportunity for some calculated marketing around the January blues. Whichever Monday it falls on seems to depend on which pseudoscientist is to be believed. But the Spanish have an inevitable cure for being down in the dumps after the festive season. They throw a fiesta in the name of a saint.

Unlike in the UK, where Christmas and new year are distinctly separate events and the fun ends abruptly on new year’s day, the Spanish keep their festivities going until the 6th – Three Kings Day – with processions and presents and much partying on the night of the 5th. Things go a bit quiet after that. But not for long. Here in the Alpujarras, a neighbouring town Torvizcon soon perks up the collective mood with its annual “fire”. It’s a three-day January weekend fiesta celebrating San Antonio Abad, which seems to involve combining the eating of lovingly raised pigs with the burning of red underwear. If there is more to it than this, and there almost certainly is, then lo siento. But my sources may have consumed a little too much of the local “costa” vino to be able to coherently recall the details.

And so to last night. A procession through Órgiva followed by bells and fireworks ringing out across the town and its campo marked the Alpujarran capital’s own Saint’s day.

Saintsebastiane-online-free-putlocker Sebastian (he of the Derek Jarman film Sebastiane, which established Seb as something of a gay icon) entered the Roman army to assist the martyrs and had a brutal time of doing good. Found out, and having initially survived his body being pierced by arrows, he was eventually beaten to death by clubs. He’s buried in Rome, on the Appian Way (where I once ruined a favourite pair of shoes).

As one local put it, San Sebastian deserves a few rockets and bells. And it’s cheap entertainment for a rural and fairly impoverished community which would, no doubt, be aghast at the UK travel companies and their PR firms’ use of dodgy statistics and cod-psychology to convince us that that we need a holiday. I don’t believe in deities, but if the Spanish devotion to and success at living life to the full and enjoying longer, healthier lives than most in Europe has anything to do with their ability to throw a fiesta at the drop of a saint’s name, then buena suerte to them.