All plans are subject to change. I can hear my grandmother saying it to me, time and time again. I took it as more of a cute Jayne-ism sing-song phrase than a way of living, but this summer, it has been my mantra.
If you read my last post, you can see that my summer plans involved (respectively): Paris, three and a half weeks at a farm in Marbella, a few days in Belgium, a couple days in New York City, a wedding in Colorado, a final hoorah in Paris, then Kuwait. Each step of the journey made sense and I was pleased with the agenda I had created. However, yes, all plans are subject to change. I’ve been in Europe for two weeks, and this is shorthand for the way my summer has been: Paris; four days at a farm near Marbella; two days of vacation in the lovely beach town of Marbella; three days in Tangiers (Morocco); two days in a city I fell in love with, Granada, Spain, and I have been staying with a 71 year old Spanish man on his farm in the province of Toledo for five days. I plan on staying here for about three more weeks before spending a night in Madrid, then flying from Madrid to Paris, then out of Paris to Kuwait. Some of the changes in my plans I had nothing to do with, so I’m not going to go into detail about those. Instead, I’m going to explain the modifications that I decided to make and discuss why I think life is better lived with the philosophy of living in the present, feeling things out as you go, and not being a slave to ideas you had in the past about what would make you happy now.
Everything was going according to plan until I met somewhat of a catalyst at farm #1: Leah. After two fabulous days in Paris (well, fabulous minus the violating experience of getting pick-pocketed in Notre Dame), I flew to Malaga, took a bus to Marbella, and met the WWOOF host with whom I had exchanged emails with for months, Maria Jesus. Standing at about five feet tall and weighing in around 115 pounds, Maria is the epitome of the phrase “dynamite comes in small packages.” I waited for Maria at the Marbella bus station, chomping on Spanish-grown almonds that had come out of a put-in-a-quarter-turn-the-wheel-vending machine, wearing a fire-engine red dress I had bought in a Parisian boutique the day before (while I still had my wallet) and enough makeup to try and hide the fact that I had been awake since 4:15 am. After watching each woman exit her car and walk toward where I was standing, wondering if she would be the host destiny had in store for me, she appeared. We hugged and began the journey to her farm. Although I had been happy to discover that my relatively stagnant usage of Spanish for the last year had not meant that I had forgotten everything- after all, it had come back to me pretty effortlessly in conversations I had with people in Malaga- Maria Jesus made me feel like I barely spoke any Spanish. She chatted away while I tried to keep up, which was difficult because of her speed and how distracted I was by the beauty of Southern Spain.
When we reached her farm, which seemed to be about as far away from modern civilization as one could get, in a valley tucked inside surrounding mountains, I saw the other volunteers and immediately felt ridiculous in my scarlet dress and lipstick. Leah’s long blonde hair was piled on top of her head into a bun, a folded bandana keeping her bangs back. She wore a filthy white cut-off t-shirt, denim shorts, long socks, and work boots. Her light skin was coated with dirt. Ziggy, the other volunteer, was technically German but had been WWOOFING in Southern Spain on and off for seven years, so he rarely spoke his native tongue and had the complexion of a Mexican farmer. His 16-year old dreadlocks were wrapped up in a turban-sort of scarf, and his bright blue eyes pierced whoever he looked at, contrasting his caramel colored skin. Ziggy and Leah had clearly been living and working in a world I wasn’t used to, the world of WWOOF.
It didn’t take long for me to understand what WWOOFing with Maria Jesus entailed. After having spent a couple of nights in the highly sophisticated city of Paris, the farm was a serious culture shock. For starters, I slept outside in a cot about two yards from the river where we bathed. There was no running water, so I got pretty good at squatting… Our drinking water came from a fountain outside of the nearby town of Guaro, untreated, clean, pure river water. Maria Jesus lived the most eco-friendly lifestyle I think anyone could ever hope to live. Absolutely nothing went to waste, and no decision seemed to be made without the consideration of how it would affect the beautiful environment. After spending a school year in one of the most uninhabitable places on earth, where things as simple as maintaining a 75 degree temperature in the apartment and drinking tap water signify an ongoing battle with the earth, this symbiotic style of living was both difficult and refreshing.
I immediately got along well with Ziggy and Leah and really loved the way that I was literally outside all the time. However, like in my last host family arrangement, the problem I had was with the host. Maria had told me that I would work mornings, and then have time off after lunch. I hoped to dedicate my free time to doing school work. However, in reality, there was work to be done all day long from about 8 am to 10 pm, with just a two-hour siesta break (I mean, it’s Spain- no siesta break would be criminal). It wasn’t only the long working hours that made me worry about committing to spending a month there; I quickly realized that Maria was not an easy person to live with or work for. Maria had paired me off with Leah, because she’s also American, so it made sense that she show me the ropes. Leah had been surrounded by Spanish speakers up until this point, so being able to verbalize the spoken and unspoken expectations at the farm (most of them were unspoken) in her native tongue made both she and I notice that something was very wrong. In short, Maria was expecting far more of her volunteers than we were receiving from her, which made the environment less than ideal. She was also extremely opinionated and had some rather out-there beliefs that we all just had to listen to and nod along, which got tiring. We also ate like rabbits, and wasted absolutely nothing (“Eat the orange seeds!”) Before arriving at Maria’s farm, Leah had spent one month at a farm in Toledo. During the four days that we got to know one another, she talked endlessly about her time there. It was clear that her experience there had been wonderful.
The combination of Maria’s unfair treatment of us and how sure we were that a better farm was out there made us decide to ditch our plans and forge a better path. I know four days may not seem like enough time to really evaluate a person or a job, and I also know that there is something to be said for seeing a commitment through, but considering how short my time in Spain was and how highly Leah talked about the characters and ambiance of the Toledo farm, I knew that quitting was going to be the best thing I could do.
We informed Maria Jesus of our decision Monday morning and she kindly escorted us into Marbella that afternoon. We decided to make the most of our in-between-farms period and do a little bit of traveling. We stayed in sunny Marbella for two days (I’m still peeling from the carefree beach time).
From the white sands of Marbella, we could see the far-off outline of our southern continental neighbor, Africa. It was that close. So, on Wednesday, we took a bus to the port town of Tarifa, then a 45-minute ferry to Africa (specifically, Morocco). We spent two nights in Ramadan-ing Tangiers, which I found fascinating after having lived in Kuwait. Leah and I even decided to fast for one day (no food or beverages from sunrise to sunset) in order to feel more in tune with the rhythm of Moroccans, and because I wanted to have one day of solidarity with all of my Muslim friends. I really enjoyed being able to teach Leah a few basic Arabic words, introduce her to schwarma and good shisha, and explain to her what I know about Islam. Tangiers itself is pretty run down and if I return to Morocco, I will definitely visit other places, but I enjoyed our time there because of the kind Moroccans, and because it gave me another perspective on Arab people.
Our next destination was a city where I can easily see myself living one day, Granada. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, blanketed in trees, set against the backdrop of the Alhambra, Granada has all of the natural beauty that Kuwait lacks.
Culturally, it meets my needs in many ways. For starters, because the Moors ruled the region for hundreds of years, Granada is the perfect blend of Spanish and Arab architecture and design, giving the city an aesthetically pleasing combination that is hard to beat. It’s small enough to be walkable and homey, big enough to be entertaining. Leah and I reached Granada after the longest travel day I’ve had in quite some time (due to inconsistency in the Tangiers ferry schedule which I will not go into!). We were too tired to go out on the town, so we sat on the roof of our hostel and chatted in the fresh, star-speckled air. As if the view of the Spanish rooftops and forested hills wasn’t enough to make me feel happy, a violin started playing in the distance. We held our breaths and listened in silence to the music soaring from some street corner, or perhaps even inside someone’s apartment, onto this rooftop. I knew from that moment that I would love Granada, and over the two days we spent there, I fell hard for it.
Finally, we met our new (well, new for me, old for Leah) hosts in Toledo. When she was officially WWOOFing, she had worked for a young half-Lebanese, half-Spanish hippie sort of farmer, Nael. She had bonded with his older neighbors, though, and they were the ones that begged her to come back and see them. We are currently staying with Antonio, one of the neighboring farmers, but also see Honorio, the other old farmboy neighbor (68 years old) all the time. Since we are no longer exactly WWOOFing, my job description has become: provide the wonderful old Spanish geezers with some young female companionship, help wash dishes (I don’t do any cooking because my food would pale in comparison with chef Antonio’s), be willing to help with any work that needs to be done on the farm (which they never ask for Leah and I to do, because they say that work isn’t for princesses like us), water the flowers every night, assist with Antonio’s developmentally challenged adult son by escorting him to the pool in town every day (sounds like a rough life, right?), and soak up all the culture and language that I can. Both gentlemen are hilarious and entertaining in their own very distinct ways and are teaching me a lot. While I no longer sleep outside (which I did enjoy, but these guys won’t allow me to), we are still living in a very ecological way. Antonio uses a solar power for electricity, he has rigged up his pipes so that he doesn’t pay for water, and almost everything we eat comes from his garden or his hunting. This experience is far superior to the one I would be having at Maria Jesus’ farm, which was much more defined by a culture of strict environmentalism than by Spanish culture. I plan on staying here until I head back to Kuwait, for about three more weeks. In that time, I should have plenty of time to improve my Spanish, listen to Antonio’s ridiculous stories, eat and drink more than my fair share, and prepare for the upcoming school year.
Like another wonderful elder has told me countless times, all plans are subject to change. Isn’t that great? Without living in a flexible way, without being free to listen to your heart in the present and make changes in routines and plans, life would be too predictable and boring. Because I did something I rarely do by breaking a commitment, I saw new places, met tons of kind and like-minded strangers, and am now very happy with where I am and who I’m with. If you don’t hear much more from me this summer, it’s because I can’t charge my computer at Antonio’s little farm house, and going into town for internet is a bit of a bother. Know that I’m doing well. And if there’s anything that’s not awesome in your life, as Maria Jesus always said, “Hay que cambiar algo en tu vida.” Translation: you need to make a change. Hasta luego.