Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

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I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

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Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

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Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

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(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

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There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

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I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

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Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x

Paradise Lost and Found

I wish I could tell you I’d read Milton’s poems, from which I’ve shamelessly adopted the title of this post. I haven’t. But even if I had, I doubt a throwaway quote here or there would be necessary. I’m in a place that fills me right up to the top with pure and simple happiness, gives an edge to my writing hand and recharges my well-worn batteries. Paradise has a name and though this one may sound like a cross between a stud and an aviary and smell like a sweet mixture of manure and marshwater, it’s perfection for a country boy like me.

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El Rocío. More correctly known as Aldea del Rocío, as that is exactly what it is: a village. It may be the size of a small town, but looks can be deceiving: over half of the townhouses are empty for the larger part of the year. Once a year in May, El Rocío plays host to one of the largest, loudest and more colourful celebrations of the Iberian peninsula, the Romería deal Rocío. As many as a million Spaniards, dressed to the nines in rustic splendour, descend upon the village from all over the country to pay homage to the Madre de las Marismas, El Rocío’s very own Virgin Mary.

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This is a very big deal. Accommodation in that week is normally booked out months in advance, if not years. To give you some kind of idea, have a look at the price hike in this particular hostel below:


My mental maths isn’t brilliant, but I’d say that’s at least ten times the price I’m paying per night, if not twenty. That gives you an idea as to just how popular the festival is.

Semana Santa, on the other hand, is a minimal affair. A couple of special Masses and a single daytime procession on Holy Friday. So what on earth am I doing here now?

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The answer is all around me. El Rocío is drop-dead gorgeous, but better still is the countryside that surrounds it: the skirts of Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s most beautiful remaining wildernesses. Sandy forests of stone-pines stretching into the infinite. Scrubby heaths awash with colourful spring flowers of yellow and white and powder blue. Shimmering lakes and marshes teeming with flocks of noisy flamingoes and an eternally blue sky that almost always has at least one kite whirling about in the distance, whistling a beautiful trill into the mix of carriage bells, chattering swallows, whirrupping bee-eaters and the incessant oop-oop-oop of a hoopoe. This place is as close to paradise as this world allows. It’s also a place where absolutely everyone wears a cap or riding boots or both, so it suits me down to a T. Especially now, when my hair is a triple-crown disaster of a birds’ nest and in bad need of a cut – and therefore hidden under my very own flat ‘at.

I won’t bore you to death with five hundred words about my birdwatching adventures. It’s not a passion that everybody understands. What I will say about it is that it is deeply rewarding, endlessly unpredictable and that Doñana National Park is the very embodiment of that unpredictability. I swear that it’s different every single year, and I’ve been coming here for the best part of a decade now. In some years it’s half-drowned in rainwater, in others mild after a dry winter. I’ve seen boar, deer and mongooses in one year and never again since. The same goes for the gallinules, herons, pratincoles, harriers and marsh terns; each of them in one good year apiece, but never together. This year’s treasure is the glossy ibis, a Doñana regular that I’ve never been able to get that close to… until now.

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Doñana is one of those places where I can sit and do nothing and watch the world go by without feeling in the least bit guilty. Time just seems to stand still here. That the entire populace of El Rocío seems to prefer the saddle to the driving seat goes a long way to entrenching that romanticism, naturally, but there’s a similarly timeless feeling to be found in sitting in the shade of a stone-pine on the Raya Real and listening to the wind. Every once in a while the blue-winged magpies cease their chattering, the hoopoe calls it a day and all that you can hear is the dry whisper of the wind. It’s spellbinding. Like Merlin to Morgana, I’m ensnared. But it is a very beautiful enchantment.

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At some point I’m going to have to turn my feet back in the direction of town and head for the bus stop (this town’s not big enough for a bus station, especially since they diverted the main road). This morning I was almost keen to move on, in that snug-in-bed-with-a-good-book way – this one’s Shadow of the Moon by my favourite author, M.M. Kaye – but three steps outside and I was entranced once again. Oh, to live here and to spend my days in the saddle! I get romantic notions of owning an Andalusian stallion called Suleiman and riding about the stone-pine woods with the One, whoever and wherever she may be.

That’s quite enough of that. I’ll see you in Seville. BB x

Pilgrim

That’s the first time I’ve ever walked twenty kilometres to get home after a night out. Suffice to say, I also sincerely hope it’s the last. Talk about a walk of shame…

Why did I do it? Because I could? Very possibly. I think it was more the thought of sitting shivering in the dark until the nine thirty bus that made me decide to walk the distance. It certainly wasn’t stinginess on my part; the Almendralejo bus fare is a paltry 1,31€. Perhaps I thought I could beat the earliest bus back to Villafranca on foot. That’s vaguely logical… in a very roundabout-Ben-way-of-thinking. But then, it was five forty-five in the morning. I don’t think I had any real sense of what I was doing. I just remember saying to myself “Alright, let’s do this” before marching off into the darkness like a low-budget Leeroy Jenkins.

As the crow flies, it’s just under twenty kilometres from Almendralejo to Villafranca. I had to take a detour to cross the motorway, so I reckon I clocked just over that. At night the distance looks deceptively close; the twinkling orange lights of the polígono merge with those of the hospital in the middle of the two towns, presumably so situated for industrial accidents in the field. Most of it is traced by the Via de la Plata, the pilgrim road to Santiago from Seville, so it wasn’t exactly a challenging hike. It’s also probably the first time I’ve been sincerely grateful for the vast, empty flat of the Tierra de Barros: navigation is as easy as pie when the nearest hills are a good forty kilometres behind your destination. 

The whole walking-at-night bit didn’t bother me in the slightest. I’d put that down to a six a.m. lack of awareness too, but then, it never has. Of all the things that frighten and frighten horribly in this world, I’ve never been afraid of the night. I learned a long time ago to consider night as just another shade of the day. It’s the same world, only somebody turned off the lights. No deep-seated fears of a shadowy assault or mugging either: I do believe that even the dullest criminal mind would have more sense than to be lying in wait in the countryside in the small hours. The countryside is safety. It always has been, in my eyes. In fact the only mildly unsettling thing in the whole walk was the occasional startled growls of the caged dogs in the farmsteads that dotted the early stages of the route. Alsatians, most of them. It’s a popular breed here. I remember saying to myself “Why can’t you people just keep cats?” and not for the first time. 

Besides the dogs, the soundscape of the early morning Tierra de Barros was really quite magical: roosters crowing, ravens croaking, the tinkle of a pipit overhead and, from somewhere far across the plains, the lonely cry of a stone-curlew. All of this as the sun rose dim and yellow into the clouds on the horizon. My feet might be punishing me two days later, but I don’t regret that walk for an instant. I just don’t think I’ll be repeating it all that soon. It’s a bit like that Spain north-to-south adventure of mine a few years back: it was there, it had to be done, and I did it. Now I can move on.

I don’t think I even stopped for one second to consider what I’d do if it started to rain. The forecast for the weekend was set to bucket it down. I guess I forgot all about that. That I will blame on my fatigue. If it had rained, I’d have been well and truly drenched, and in my best clothes, no less. Why is it that I’m always wearing my best clothes when I set out on these ridiculous adventures? At any rate, it did; a royal thunderstorm hit on the following night, sheet rain, lightning and all the works. Luckily by then I was holed up in my apartment with a cola cao and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor on TV. Someone up there likes me.

I’d like to think that it’s due to foolish misadventures like this that I get to see a side of Spain that most modern travelers simply pass over. You could be forgiven for thinking that Spain, like much of Europe, was fully humanised a long time ago: the sweep of olive plantations and vineyards in the Tierra de Barros certainly gives that impression. But all you have to is close your eyes and listen: the world survives on the fringes. The stone-curlews of these tilled fields and the mournful plovers that ply the once-pristine sands of the raped Costa del Sol hark back to an older Spain, one more ancient than even the oldest of the moorish forts that dot the distant hills. It puts me back in touch with that world to hear them again, just as though I were playing a record from a forgotten world.

It’s not a purely avian nostalgia. As I arrived on the fringes of Villafranca I saw another scene from a bygone age: a muddle of tents positioned about a small campfire where a couple of ragged-looking men stood cooking a light breakfast. Spain’s native gypsies (if such a term is not a misnomer) are a heavily romanticized lot and were mostly squeezed out if their old ways by government programs decades ago, but this new generation of travelers – Romanians, mostly – have taken their place. When I say tents I don’t mean the bright canvas of a modern traveler, nor the UNICEF-stamped donations you might encounter in a war-torn country. These ones might have been cut out of a picture book from the 1930s. Situated on the very fringes of the town, hidden from sight by the town’s waterworks, it’s the very definition of a gypsy encampment. And I thought such echoes had long since faded into history.

You don’t see them in Villafranca proper. The only encounters I’ve had with them so far have all been in Dia supermarket, where they are instantly recognizable by their clothes, by their language and by their complexion; a rich, ochre-brown, marbled like the soil. I’d like to get to know them, to know why they’re here, where they came from and what other stories they might have brought with them, but the townsfolk only have dirt to say on their account. And in my propensity for romanticising the underdog, am I really any better?

Seeing the Romanian encampment made me think of home for some reason, but I was really too tired by then to dwell on it for long. It was purely because I was still moving that I didn’t collapse from fatigue; on the two occasions I paused to get my bearings my head began to spin and I very nearly dozed off. It was only later that night, when sorting through my music collection and The Land Before Time‘s Whispering Winds came on, that my thoughts took me home again. I cried. Profusely. I always do when I hear that one. Damn you, Don Bluth, for producing a film that still brings tears to my eyes some twenty years later. Damn your genius.

Many auxiliares use the holidays to go home to be with their families. Some of my closest friends out here have done just that. It’s a very sensible move, but it’s only when I stumble over such memories that I remember how vulnerable and human I really am. Whispering Winds is on my iPod for exactly that reason; 1608 times around I can put my weaknesses aside and soldier on alone, but there’s that 1609th song that’s there to remind me that neither home nor family is ever truly put aside.

I won’t be seeing home until August. I won’t have time to do so until then, since the third and final leg of my year abroad across the Strait begins almost as soon as I’m done here. Fortunately my parents are coming out to visit me in a couple of weeks, so I don’t have to. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to having a car at my disposal – being in Europe’s bird capital and relying on public transport is nothing less than tortuous – but more than that, I miss my parents. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. There’s only four of us left; my family is precious to me, no matter what impression my aloofness might give.

A lot of things have happened over the past year. Some good, some not so good. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m retreating for a couple of days to the one place in the whole world that makes me truly happy. It’s a place that has answers… of a sort. My rock, my cradle, my very own Shangri-La. BB x

Tractor Beam

Andalucia and Extremadura have plenty in common. They’re both southern, they’re both gorgeously hot and sunny most of the time and the language in both of them borders on the incomprehensible. So you can understand why I applied for both when I got myself into this auxiliar malarkey just over a year ago. My third choice, unmentioned since my very first blog posts back in May, was Cantabria. Land of cows, snow-capped mountains, green hills and tractors. The Iberian Alps, the Spanish Yorkshire. About as far away from the dusky south as you can get. So what in Creation drove me there this weekend – besides a frustratingly slow bus?

I’ll put it like this. You can’t keep a good man down, and you most definitely can’t shut up a wanderer in his house for long.

Besides hopping down to Olvera for Carnaval, I’ve done no traveling since Madrid back in the first week of January. That’s only a couple of months back, granted, but compared to the madness of last term, I’ve been doing a lot of nothing of late. In any case, I got a bad case of itchy feet last week and, watching the weather forecast, I made a spontaneous decision to visit my dear friend Kate in Cantabria – on the other side of the country. She’s working as an auxiliar up there and we’ve got much the same setup, right down to the state/private school split. If you haven’t already been keeping up with her adventures, check them out over at Langlesby Travels. Besides being jolly good fun, it makes for a lot easier reading than most of my biweekly outpourings!

I’d planned on two full days up north, as for the first time since I started trawling the site last year there was a super-convenient BlaBlaCar bound for Santander at midnight on Thursday, meaning I’d be in Cantabria for seven o’clock in the morning. It was just too good to be true…!

And so it proved. After a fourth BlaBlaBlunder where the driver changed his mind and shifted the drive six hours earlier, bang in the middle of my afternoon classes, any hopes of arriving early were dashed, so I resigned myself instead to one day in Cow Country and one whole day on the bus. Thanks, BlaBlaCar. I feel like it’s important to point out that as a system it’s by no means foolproof, as so many headstrong young things would have you think. It’s done me some very good turns and I do believe it really is the way forward, but it’s screwed me over in equal measure. You win some, you lose some. In that sense, perhaps BlaBlaCar is a good metaphor for life.

The journey began, as they so often do, in Mérida, where I found myself on the Roman bridge, scanning the reeds for a ridiculously early little bittern. Villafranca and its endlessly repetitive surroundings lack a viable soul spot, which Mérida offers in the ever-changing Guadiana. Mérida may always seem to be lacking something, but the river has never let me down. There’s something beautifully elemental about rivers. This one in particular is never the same. The first time I saw it, the river was playing host to several families of purple gallinules, frolicking about in the reeds. A month later the whole stretch was clogged with water hyacinth. Three weeks after that, half of it had been siphoned off and the rest was being heaped onto the banks by a team of gumboots. This weekend, the river was barely ankle-deep, with only the deepest stretch in full flow – only to be magically restored to life two days later. Oh Guadiana, you baffle me.

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What gives, Guadiana?

The journey north was fairly uneventful. I spent almost all of it trying to read Cavell’s Moghul, but more often than not staring out of the window at the changing scenery and, before sundown, came to the conclusion that Cáceres province truly is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. If you don’t believe me, visit Plasencia. If Spain has an Eden outside of Doñana, it may be found there.

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Snow on the mountains in Castilla y Leon

Despite reassurances from the driver that we were perfectly on schedule, we still pulled into Torrelavega a full twenty minutes late – which, coincidentally, is the exact amount of time I’d factored on giving myself to get from the bus station to the train station. Sprint as fast as I did – I may not be much of a sportsman, but I consider myself half-decent over a short distance – I arrived at the station just as the last train was leaving. Last year’s BB would have cried in frustration at this oh-so predictable turn of events; this year’s BB shrugged it off and chartered a taxi. It ended up costing me almost as much to go the last few kilometres to Cabezón de la Sal as it did to come all the way from Mérida, and at least three times the train fare, but that’s taxes for you. I’ve told you before… I don’t like taxis. Period.

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The River Tagus in the plains of Caceres

At any rate, I made it to Cabezón de la Sal and, after wandering aimlessly in the dark, lost in the Alpine beauty of the place, Kate finally found me, introduced me to her friend Almu and I had my southern accent swiftly corrected. That can only mean one thing: all those weekends in Olvera are paying off. They’ll make a guiritano out if me yet.

The following day’s adventures require a post in their own right, so I’ll give them that much. Keep your eyes peeled for the second installment! BB x