La Granja de Aracena

La Granja de Aracena

A Chapter by Mike

Chapter 9


Occurred - August 2011, Aracena (Spain). 

It’s common for young travelers to have a set destination in mind as their ‘happy place’. Usually, this place represents everything that is in complete opposition to the lifestyle that went before. For the down-and-outs sifting through rubbish bins in broad daylight, dreaming of a toilet made of solid gold would surely leave them speechless. For every farmer’s daughter born in the bush, wearing high heels down the streets of New York would be the best reason anyone has to travel to the United States. For Dean and I, we equated ‘real happiness’ with the idea of slaving in the hot Spanish sun picking corn from a field. The thought of living on a Spanish commune for several years (and maybe getting brainwashed by some decrepit gypsy in a van) was somehow endearing.

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. My solo experiences left me knowing that I needed to find Dean. 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, then move on. That was very much how he was. He’d been left destitute in Spain, lived and worked in a cocktail bar in London, and worked at a mafia tourist bar in Italy. Meanwhile, I’d 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 Dean before I could even think about going to the farm. 

I hopped off the plane with sweat marks the size of a Russian tennis player and spotted him. It was an Andalusian summer, with the heat of Morocco very much still in my blood. We bought three bottles of Tinto de Verano (a 2 litre, 1.50 euro bottle of red wine and lemonade) and slammed them in record speed. I left early the next morning, scraping my mind off a cold hostel dormitory floor.

The granja (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 granja was hidden in amongst a canopy of trees ten kilometres outside of Aracena, at the end of a long potholed track and several 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) to rig it up. Maria and Alfonzo kept cattle and harvested fruit and vegetables, but Maria was always anal about the garden for visitors that never came. I hadn’t a clue four months prior of where in Spain I wanted to visit, but farm work was quite sparse in August. It’s a country that’s 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 speaking Spanish. My dream to work on a granja in the heart of rural Spain was also fuelled by the dream that I could perhaps become a Spaniard. Obviously it wasn’t true and I failed miserably - especially on account of an unshakeable Australian accent. But Maria spoke only in English to me and English in their home. This felt like a bit of a cop out - but 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 was usually two weeks, but some travelers or 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 feeling 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 warrant one (which is most).

Outside my room was a cattle ranch. It was manned by Alfonzo, who rounded up the bulls each night with a piece of wood. He was a bit more of an enigma than Maria - I couldn’t quite figure him out. On the one hand he seemed like the kind of guy who could’ve 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 could keep him working the cattle day-in day-out, maybe for the rest of his life.

The house was a large three-storey cottage, with terracotta bricks, wooden panelling and floor-to-ceiling 1920s windows. It was built this way so 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 to let the cool breeze in. During the day the house was dark and cold.

The first day began at six a.m., fortunately to the backdrop of a glorious Andalusian sunrise. I pruned rose bushes for the next six hours, stopping for fresh bochadillos (sandwiches) and gispacho with Maria and Alfonzo. Life was incredibly relaxed but the monotony of the first day’s tasks left me slightly drained. 

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. He was 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 Spanish 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 means to achieve self-sustainability rather than profit.

Maria was living on an entirely different level. Alfonzo was a sloucher and sleeper, and she was constantly pulling his collar to keep 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. 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 was done in her fashion and to a schedule. Her rules were not only the farm’s rules, but (to her) the rules of Spain. I knew this quite quickly, but every time she smiled it was hard to 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 quickly hurried to the dining table. We ate fresh pasta with a side of tortilla de patata (potato omelette), prosciutto and chorizo, and had homemade honey yogurt for dessert. 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. My facial expression probably looked like I’d just run a marathon and was at the point of collapse, but I was too pride-stricken to admit it.

In my mind I was facing a moral dilemma. I couldn’t decipher my true opinion of Maria. I’d known her just four days, but she was working me like a dog and I couldn’t help but weigh up her motives. On the one hand she was quite sweet. The cabin that I was sleeping in was the old room of her son who had long since moved to the United States; he left some of his literature and photos in there so it was impossible not to know. You could see that every ‘WOOFer’ that came to stay was like a temporary son or daughter to Maria. She may’ve acted like the intolerable Nana who doesn’t stop whining at a restaurant because the waiter hasn’t offered her water, but she had a good heart.

But on the other hand she was the one responsible for making me rise at 5.30am, 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 8am wearing a dressing gown and sipping on a coffee I couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t have permission to chill a bit as well. 

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 lawnmower to keep me company. At first I thought the solitude would be bliss, but in reality a 20-year-old working solo on a farm just didn’t make sense to me. 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’ s**t with Dean 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 with my timing. 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 farm 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 quickly 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 I couldn’t see another way out at the time. 

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’ve fed me grapes and red wine and I still would’ve been deluded into thinking that times could be better. My experience assured me that it just wasn’t realistic to think that a 20-year-old from Melbourne could last six months on a granja, deprived of certain elements of city life that I had 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 a Spanish farmer. But that isn’t to say that the dream is dead - it’s just sitting there waiting for another time. 

© 2018 Mike

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Added on February 10, 2013
Last Updated on September 16, 2018
Tags: WOOFing, farming, Spain, society, self-sustainability



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