Spanish political graffiti

Graffiti sprayed on a wall near to the car park of the ruins of the Moorish castillo in the nearby town of Lanjarón welcomes refugees (refugiados bienvenidos). We stop to contemplate its significance.

There’s little far right activity in Spain. That’s not to say that racist attacks don’t happen. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which records hate crimes reported by participating states (the majority of European countries), describes 1,285 such incidents in Spain in 2014. There were 52,853 in the UK that year (and a record increase in the weeks immediately before and after the EU referendum).

Clearly there are differences in reporting criteria between countries, which make such comparisons unreliable. And Spain is not without anti-immigrant and anti-refugee groups. But their visibility is limited and they have no electoral influence.

Acting prime minister Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular has always been supported by the country’s elite class, known for its anti-foreigner attitudes. But while a new, more populist politics has emerged in the shape of Podemos and Ciudadanos [Earthquakes shake Spanish land and politics] to challenge the traditional left-right consensus (and as I write, Spain still has no government, as the parties continue to negotiate their positions, months after a second general election and a third – at Christmas – looks increasingly likely), no far right organisation has emerged to seek representation nationally or locally.

Órgiva is an example of the tolerance the Spanish have for immigrants. One of the most diverse towns in the country, at least 68 different nationalities were registered at the town hall on the last count. People of many colours and races mingle in the cafes and bars, particularly on market day. As I so often explain to people who ask why I moved here, it reminds me of my beloved Camden Town.

There is also a certain irony to that pro-refugee message near the castillo. The Moors were brutally driven out of Spain by Christians. The parish church of Órgiva was built on the site of the mesquita (mosque) at the beginning of the 16th century. And yet the Spanish are immensely proud of their Moorish history. Indeed, that Moorish bloodline is still evident in the faces of many locals.

I’ve blogged before about how, when someone daubed the anti-communist Good Night Left Side graffiti around the streets, it was quickly reduced with white paint to “good night” [Nationalistic referendums here and there]. No one has tried to cover up “Mi sangre es rojo, mi corazon es izquierda” – my blood is red, my heart is left – sprayed on the side of the butchers. This is a town that has many residents who are proudly working class and socialist, for whom the memory of being the frontline against Franco’s rebels as they came over the Lujar mountain to slaughter entire Alpujarrean villages that stood against them is still raw [Unsettled election, unsettled history].

For us, the most offensive words we see here are the anti-immigrant and refugee headlines of the Daily Mail, Sun and Express. Ironic that newsagents, in displaying these tabloids at their doors because some in the British community here buy them are, in effect, pandering to the reactionary attitudes of another type of immigrant. We hope that hate and division does not follow.

Like a bullitt in the Sierra Nevada

In the famous car chase scene of the 1968 classic movie Bullitt, Steve McQueen’s Mustang passes the same green VW Beetle at least four times while he chases the black Dodge. This was of course a continuity error, with the chase scenes being intercut and reused. But on a recent trip to enjoy the Sierra Nevada en verano (in summer), just 1.5 hours drive from Órgiva, we became increasingly convinced that the footage of our own trip was somehow being replayed.

I first noticed the 4×4 as I stood on the balcony of our hotel room shortly after checking in. Glancing up the road to where our car was parked, I saw the smart white vehicle with an unusual red number plate pulling in behind it. But then the driver seemed to change their mind, swinging out suddenly and racing down the road into town.

It should be said that Europe’s most southerly ski resort village of Pradollano, high above Granada, does not have a problem with heavy traffic or a lack of parking at this time of year. Our decision to spend a couple of nights at well over 2,000 metres above sea level was down to cheap deals at one of the few hotels open while the ski station markets itself as a mountain biking and hiking centre, along with a need for cooler temperatures. The advertising is working to an extent, but staff working at restaurants dotted around the almost deserted plaza were clearly relieved to have our business.

Moments after seeing the white car, it returns and repeats its actions, almost parking up before quickly gliding away. Pradollano’s main road comes in from the mountain, goes through the town, out again onto the mountain road and circles back in. Even a formula 1 Ferrari at top speed on the streets of Monaco could not complete a lap that fast.

Puzzled, I stay on the balcony. I call my daughter over, and wait. And there it is again, the shiny 4×4 with the red plates, moving in behind our car, then off again. I share my bewilderment, but somehow she hasn’t seen the vehicle, and I begin to doubt my eyes. Am I being bugged by a metaphorical green Beetle?

Next morning, same story. While I stay on the balcony I spot the car several times. It dawns on me that there must be more than one. It stops briefly directly across the road and I note a number on its rear flank. Does it have a driver? Are they watching me?

Finally, sitting at a restaurant as the sun begins to set, we all see the car. In fact we see two together, and the nagging fear that I’ve somehow become the Prisoner’s Number Six, imprisoned in a mysterious village, trapped by balloon-like “rovers” that prevent escape, dissipates.

Quite why there should be two, or maybe more, Pradollanoidentical cars continually driving around this empty pueblo remained a puzzle. We think we spotted a Lexus logo, but the red plates, the numbers on the sides and the lack of anything indicating a model were odd.

As we headed home down the mountain we passed a convoy of UK-plated “camouflaged” cars and lorries, the black and white funky swirls disguising shapes and brands. The trucks were huge, and each carried or towed enclosed steel containers. And finally it dawns on us. The Sierra Nevada in summer, when roads are empty and tourists are few, provides the perfect base for automakers to carry out secretive prototype high altitude testing. Several unidentifiable, future models would have been under wraps in those lorry containers.

Or perwhite carhaps they were on their way to pick up a fleet of enigmatic white 4x4s, whose activities, it turned out, were rather more spied upon (by us) than spying.

 

 

Shellibrating local wildlife

Dog walking is increasingly a struggle. One of our dogs, a neurotic, part podenco (Spanish greyhound-type sighthound), part mastin (calm, giant Spanish agricultural beast), has developed a thing about stagnant ponds. While we’ve had a good amount of rain here in recent weeks, isolated pools of water in the Alpujarras are not a common sight. But for a mutt that got the sighthound, but not the sensible livestock defender bit of the genes, oh, they are everywhere.

The dog emerges from her long sojourns covered in stinking black slime. We try alternative walks, but murky waters are still found. We’re puzzled by the attraction. Perhaps it is ducks, or frogs.

And then the begrimed, evil-smelling creature appears from across an apparently dry, grassy field. It’s agitated: white-tipped tail thrashing, long legs digging, and something in its mouth. Lizards? Grasshoppers? It is the season for all sorts of critters to be lurking in clumps of grass and small bushes. The other dog joins it, doesn’t understand the urgency, runs back to me, and stares, vacantly.

And then the hunting-one decides to run with her find. It’s a stone, perhaps. I demand she drops it and, fearfully (for there are some fairly weirdy creatures here), approach it.

It’s a turtle. A European pond turtle to be exact. On its back. And now a long way from water.

While I’ve had contact with many scoundrels over the years, I so wished that my daughter, a lover of all things reptilian, was with me to touch this one. Tentatively I turned the shell over and waited to discover if the creature was still alive.

It was. And, standing alone in that field, I was extremely reticent about picking it up. Spanish tortugas might be poison spitting, disease carrying, and reportable vermin. But then it looked at me.

So I embarked on the trek back across the field, turtle in hand, throwing stones at the canines and sliding into the side of the standing, muddy mess of a terrapin environment. Not so much a good deed, but an action to try to make better the damaging impact of domestic animals on these fragile ecosystems.

You say peseta…

When our elderly Spanish neighbour who, like many native Órgivians, lives in town but keeps land and animals in the campo (and thinks foreigners are loco for wanting to live in old stone animal barns) presented himself at the house of friends with a message for us – that a goatherd with a couple of hundred beasts had offered 12.5 million pesetas for his property, but we could have it if we paid more, we initially fell about laughing, speculating about how many pesetas could be scraped out of the ancient nooks and crannies of our old cortijo.

Spain joined the eurozone in 1999 – one of the first-wave of countries to do so – fourteen years after it joined the European Union. The euro became the official currency on 1 January 2002 and the transitional dual circulation period, when both currencies had legal tender status but the peseta only as “book money” that had to be converted to euros, ended three months later.

It’s not surprising that for our neighbour’s generation, or even the goatherd’s, the euro has never become the acceptable currency. Indeed the Spanish central bank revealed a couple of years ago that some €1.7bn worth of pesetas was still held by Spaniards. Perhaps those brought up in rural communities such as ours are, even now, using them to make black economy transactions. Though if they are they can’t exchange them for euros except with the central bank.

And of course many Spanish blame “el crisis” – Spain’s economic “great recession” – on joining the euro because of the housing bubble that followed and which burst so spectacularly. The collapse of the Spanish banks revealed irresponsible and predatory subprime mortgage lending – still a major cause of misery and suicide as people lose their homes but, unlike in the UK, continue to have to pay off the debt.

Those who still think in pesetas are also pretty canny with their mental currency converters. They know what the conversion rate was fixed at in 1999. The rest of us are grateful that online versions still exist that don’t simply declare the peseta to be obsolete. For when we considered the implications of living next door to 200 smelly cabras, along with their dogs, our neighbour’s offer suddenly became a lot less funny.

Cabras No

Our sentiment exactly

 

Our water-man confirmed the story. The goatherd intended to build a nave (a warehouse, in the industrial sense of the Spanish word) to house his livestock. The animals would also have the run of the land. “Muy mal” he said, holding his nose and suggesting that we might want to pay the money.

We suddenly felt as though we had woken in a gigantic pool of blood, 200 goat heads placed in our bed as we slept. Our neighbour may not look much like a mafia boss, but it increasingly looked like an offer we could not refuse.

Rapid consultation with other near residents, some of whom have goats overnighting close to them, though not as close as this would be, further convinced us to scupper the goatherd’s plans. Cute as they are, the smell of goats is a taste few people acquire, and what with the horse flies, noise and other delights that would accompany a large herd in small confinement, we might as well abandon our home.

Within hours we learn that our neighbour has rejected the goatherd’s initial offer, it’s been upped by another million pesetas and is about to be accepted. Another consultation with the currency converter reveals he’s pushing close to the official asking price (in euros), albeit a substantially reduced one since the property went on the market two years ago.

We wondered, cynically, having converted pesetas into pounds and it sounding much better, if we might try it in another long-redundant, more over-valued currency to get an even better result. You say peseta, we say Italian lira, perhaps.

And so we find ourselves about to be the owners of nearly 1500 m2 of land with two huge avocado trees, olives, oranges, nisperos (medlar fruit), three chickens, some scabby cats, a trailer (oh what luck, we were planning to buy one of them), a three-roomed casita with no bathroom or kitchen, and an out-building. But even the wise heads of Orgiva’s legal advice and translation service, who helped us in dealing with our neighbour’s determined daughters and the legal paperwork, agreed we had no option.

There are of course bright sides to this predicament. We have learned from this whirlwind process that in Spain, vendors who receive an offer for a rural property which they are inclined to accept are obliged to offer it to their immediate neighbour, especially if the land was once part of the same catastral (piece of land), as ours was. So at the very least, we know our rights have been respected.

And then there’s the strategic benefit of owning land adjacent to ours, given the options it opens up (and closes down), increased water rights at a more sensible time of day than we currently enjoy (see Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance), and finally being shot of a not so easy vecino.

Our daughter, who plays the video strategy game Civilisation, commented that it was a bit like a move where a city state is invaded for tactical reasons to stop someone else having it, and by doing so yet another piece of land is blocked off which could have value to opponents.

And judging from a call we received from the owners of a holiday home the other side of the would-be goat ranch, we might yet be considered local heroes.

Órgiva’s seedy side

How many of the (mainly) men, showing off their chilli eating prowess at Órgiva’s first chilli festival were able to reflect on the significance of what was behind the event, as the heat engulfed them, was doubtful.

But it’s possible that those who were egged-on by onlookers engulfed by a delightful sense of schadenfreude as they witnessed the discomfort of competitors consuming chillis high on the Scoville scale – the measurement of the pungency of chilli peppers – had time to contemplate the following day, as the side effects stayed with them.

For this was about far more than a crowd-pleasing spectacle, a spectacle that prompted mischievous compere Barney to declare that he was ashamed of his gender.

Rare and beautiful

Rare and beautiful

The displays of some of the rarest and beautiful chillis in the world, tenderly nurtured and labelled with love, the chilli sauce contest – judged by a man with a self-confessed “problem with hot sauce”, having become so inured to it over the years – the delightful chilli-laden tapas created by Fran of Bar Venta el Puente, the scene of the day’s debauchery, and music from El Club Del Aguante, JD Meatyard and Absolut Pantz, were intended to raise much needed funds for an Órgiva based seed bank.

Run by a small group of people who are passionate about seed saving in order to build a deposit to help preserve biodiversity and to make seeds accessible to everyone, Semillas Españolas Ecológicas en Depósito (SEEeD) is a non-profit initiative.

SEEeD guardians have so far produced over 200 seed varieties for the vault (well, a fridge). When the guardians submit them, they choose and grow new seeds and so the cycle is self-sustaining – vital in the face of big agri businesses such as Monsanto, which dominates the US food chain with its genetically modified seeds and is ruthless towards farmers and seed dealers suspected of infringing its patents.

The Indian academic and environmental activist Vandana Shiva said of seed freedom and diversity that controlling seed and food “is more powerful than bombs and guns” because it is the best way to control the populations of the world.

SEEeD is one cog in the resistance movement to stop species becoming extinct and “normal” seeds being put out of reach by agrochemical giants. But Rosie, without whom it would not happen, says plans for a second Órgiva chilli festival are already in the works. And I hear that some of the chilli pod munchers are in training, in order to avoid the tears next year. Not a good look.

Check out the pictures and videos from the Órgiva chilli festival

On facebook
On youtube

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.

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.