Life in the Alpujarra (Spain)

YEGEN-53Since the beginning of February my family and I have been in the Alpujarra; south side of the Sierra Nevada in Spain. We are here to experience the rough side of life: being a farmer in a tough arid land. We are trying to get a glimpse of the other side of the food story and feel what it is like to work the land (mainly by hand labour); and give our brain a bit of a rest. But despite the huge amount of physical work we do each day, the mind doesn’t rest. There is just too much going on here: the shrinking and greying villages, the contrast between coastal and hill-side farmers, the young versus the old, the ‘extranjeros’  vs the locals, fighting bush fires vs keeping a varied landscape, organic farmers selling mainstream to the world market, etc etc… I will start by telling you a bit about the village structure here, in Yegen.

Yegen is a small, typical white Moorish village in the centre of the Alpujarra. It seems just another village, but it is bit more special than all the other white towns. A certain Gerald Brenan (a British self-appointed anthropologist) was already fascinated by the life and customs in this village more than 90 years ago. He experienced Yegen as rather backwards (a way of life that he couldn’t imagine still existed) while at the same time the villagers as being extremely open to new comers. He ended up living in Yegen for about 30 years and produced a very popular book. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to get a hold of a copy but I did discover a 45 minute documentary about Gerald Brenan’s return to the village in 1974 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JAAYPVsQQ4). Interestingly enough, he talks about the huge progress of the village and the change in customs and traditions, whereas to me – born in the late 1970s – it seems to be a pre-War setting. I couldn’t believe it was actually 1974; the streets were huge irregular stones mixed with sand on which only mules were to be seen, the women washed their clothes in a river, no motorised traffic at all. At the same time, I noticed a lot of similarities with today. The strong social ties in the village combined with the openness to outsiders still exists (it is something we have experienced as very pleasant and welcoming); the men go to the bar, the women stay at home or talk in the streets; the women go to the church and stay during the entire mass, the men sit in the back for a little while and then go outside to smoke a cigarette and talk.

While watching the movie, I thought: if a documentary would be shot now, people outside the area probably wouldn’t believe it was actually 2014 (if watched back in 30 years’ time). Yes, there are cars now, many cars indeed, and the roads are paved. But there are so many differences, so many interesting habits to observe. I will try to give you a glimpse of the Yegen way of living.

In the Netherlands, you can get a fine for using your horn inappropriately. Here, that would mean destroying the social fabric of the community. The Alpujarra consists of many small, very compact villages. Everybody lives in the villages, not on the mountains; only crazy foreigners do this (but I’ll come back to that later). The villages are small and the majority of the villagers are old, not able to drive to other villages for shopping. Thus, on a daily basis various ‘shops’  drive by in their cars  and they all have their own specific horn. To me they first all sounded the same, but a trained ear can hear the difference between the baker, the garbage truck, the fish-man, the cheese-man, or the gas-man (and yes, they are all men). As the vast majority of Yegen is above 70 years old, people often stand at the spot where the ‘shops’ drive by, yet again a chance to chat a bit and ask what’s going on – “the usual”, or “it’s time to plant potatoes”, or “it’s a dry and windy winter”. Chatting is a fundamental part of life here, without that you would not be able to survive. In Utrecht (the Dutch city where I ‘normally’ live), I rarely chat with anyone I don’t know; not in the streets and not in the shops. The only communication I have in Utrecht is “pay with card?”. Here, shopping is a social activity, you don’t just run into the shops to quickly get something – by the way, you don’t run anyway. Having small kids is even a better idea to get among the locals. It doesn’t matter if you are young, old, male or female, everybody is fond of kids. Our kids have blond hair which makes them a bit more special for the Yegen villagers, but all kids get a lot of attention. If we are in the shop or in the bar and one of the kids cries (I always thought that crying is part of being a small kid, but well), even if it’s just 2 seconds, immediately they will get something to eat. Nothing fresh, healthy or local, no always a bag of chips. The kids here walk around with a bag of chips like the Dutch kids do with their mobile phone. Sorry, it is actually not that funny; most kids are overweight.

Going back to the idea of shooting a movie of the village now and watching it back in 30 years’ time, I wonder if people would still recognise the life people live now. Considering the aging of Yegen and the abandonment by young people (most of them leave to go study in Granada and then settle there), I doubt if Yegen will be able to function as a village community at all in about 10 years’ time. It is a sad thought, but I am afraid it is a very plausible one. The way people farm now, is not attractive for young people. It is hard work, mainly hand labour in a tough environment. The land around Yegen is all destined natural park, which means restrictions to what you can do with it. The traditional way of farming – mainly beans, tomatoes and potatoes – is not a way forward if looking to earn a living. Simply, because the mountain farmers have to compete with the coastal farmers, and even with the most efficient farmers in the world. The beans they farm are ‘thrown’ onto the world market, just like the Dutch high-tech beans. Okay, you would say: why don’t they try to find a niche market, sell organic or sell local? To start with the latter, there is hardly a local market. It is difficult to sell products that most people produce themselves. Most people in Yegen have a plot of land, either in the village or close to the village. They farm their own basic products, so it is not very smart to try and sell tomatoes that your neighbour grows himself. Furthermore, and maybe even more important, you are not respected in the village if you try to sell your tomatoes locally. You are supposed – or even expected – to give away any surplus. You could call this a barter economy, but it is not even an economy. You are expected to give away your surplus, but won’t necessarily get anything in return immediately. You might get some potatoes next year, or some dried figs in a few months’ time.

Then the other two options – selling organically or finding a niche market. They both are liaised with a lack of entrepreneurship the way we perceive it. People farm and sell, but they are not looking to actively vend. A very striking example is that of two bakers selling from their car in a neighbouring village. Both of them come to this village each day at the same time, selling the exact same products, often even next to each other. The first observation of another foreigner was: “Why doesn’t one of them come half an hour earlier to be able to be the first and sell more? Or offer more varied products?” Yes, that would be a clever idea in terms of earning money. However, it is not about out-competing the other. The bakers are not trying to earn as much money as they can, they want to earn some money but also keep harmony in the village and strengthen their social ties. And the simple white bread is the norm, it has been like that for a long time: why should that be changed? It’s the same with the bars. Most people in Yegen always try to go to all the bars equally. They might have their favourite, but they will still go to all the other bars as well. Spread their social dependence and keep good relationships throughout town. One could say: “They are stuck in their traditions, it hampers them from moving forward”. But when you do so, you totally neglect another part of society that often gets lost when ‘moving forward’: social accountability. Specificity and diversity makes life worthwhile, all ‘moving forward’ as this foreigner suggested, will mean a great loss of certain ways of living. However, I do realise that the current way is not going to keep the variety either. It is a delicate balance between keeping the village alive (i.e. finding ways to make youngsters stay) and keeping the village an Alpujarra specific town.

Ps. Sorry, I forgot to tell about the crazy foreigners; I will do so next time!

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