Monday, September 24, 2012

House sitting in Southern Spain

View north from the town of Rio Gordo

The bus trip from Seville to Malaga on Monday was almost three hours long and mostly passed through very dry mountainous terrain. Hundreds of olive orchards and broad yellow stripes of harvested wheat fields patterned the hillsides. The distant mountains are barren, with a few forests at lower elevations. Summer is dry, the rains start in October.

I sat next to a young woman on her way to Ireland to study English for her last year of college. We had a delightful conversation about the subtleties in the difference between rubbish, trash, junk, and garbage. She told me all about signs, posters, and announcements in Spanish. I hadn’t known that a cartel is a poster, having unfortunately associated the word with drug cartels. Now I’m not sure how that word came to be so roughly used.

The town of Rio Gordo is one of many Pueblos Blancos. It sits on a hill, a tight cluster of white buildings with mostly beige tile roofs. The streets are narrow and one-way, some barely as wide as a donkey cart. Some aren’t streets at all but staircases for several blocks. It’s such a small town anyone but the infirm can just walk to the stores. It has a white church with rich decorations, well kept but small. The town has installed a few lookout points with shade and benches. From there, one can see miles into the distance, to tall dry mountains and large haciendas on olive orchard hillsides. Narrow roads disappear into the lumpy hills following the streams.

I came here specifically to house sit for a woman who advertised on She wanted to go to a big dog show in Gibraltar and needed someone to watch after two horses and some dogs for three days. I came a few days early to learn the ropes. It’s been more like a crash course in animal management.

Rachel is a Brit who lives along the Rio Gordo, south of the town. She has a strong but slender build, blond hair and sparkly blue eyes. Her house is an old stone and stucco building, remodeled a lot since she bought in six years ago. It sits along the edge of the Rio Gordo with a sandy bank sloping from the back patio to the water. The property was once a big orchard, hence it’s name in Spanish: Huerta Grande. There are still many citrus and pomegranate trees flanking the large horse pen.  

The dogs went nuts when the
herd passed the front gate. 
In the last two days I have twice been treated to a symphony of goat bells. The area hasn’t had a drop of moisture since May, so I have no idea where the goats might go for pasture, perhaps to a wide creek bottom further down the canyon. Yesterday the goats led the way for several hundred sheep. The road was a gooey mess after they passed, and dozens of large rocks had been knocked down when they climbed up the embankments. After they’d long passed, I heard a single bell tinkling frantically as one vagabond ran to catch up with the others.

Rachel owns two huskies. One is a very expensive female from a long line of champions, working her way up the competition to become one herself. Dako is an unregistered male twice her size. He is the dominant dog at all times in Rachel’s pack of miscellaneous canines. Her business is boarding dogs for other English people who live nearby.

The bitch, Gracie, is one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever met. She can read!! It’s kind of a trick, but still, she is reading. Rachel has large cards with words on them like BAD DOG, and CATS. She holds up two cards, and asks Gracie a question like “What is Charlie?” Gracie paws the card that says BAD DOG. Then “What do you hate?” And Gracie paws CATS. There is a stack of cards a foot tall, and Rachel can hold up the cards randomly to ask the questions. So in a sense Gracie is reading. She also has a board with big paw-sized letters. Rachel asks Gracie to show her the A or the D and she does!! Apparently there’s another dog in the area, named Lucky, who is even better at this trick. He sometimes beats Gracie in the competitions, but the race is often neck-and-neck between them. On YouTube, there are several Rio Gordo videos featuring Grace and Dako.  GraceTrick

The pack of boarded dogs varies from 2 to 12. Fortunately there will only be 6 when Rachel goes away. In addition there are 2 horses, 3 peacocks and 2 chickens. Fortunately her father lives nearby, and the neighbors have offered to drop by to make sure I am still in one piece. Just keeping track of which dog gets which food and how much, how often and in which bowl (they are very possessive of their bowls!) is a small book’s worth of information. I must take them on a long walk in the morning and not a leisurely walk. It’s a march-along at a good pace, every dog in line, not sniffing up the world, “military general leading the troops” kind of walk.   Then another walk, not quite as long, in the evening. The horses get fed twice a day, food that must be soaked 8 hours in advance, so as one batch of food goes out, another must be prepared. And one horse gets tied up till the other is finished or they get into a teeth nashing, hoof-kicking fight.

One of the dogs that will be here this weekend is Oscar, part dalmation and very head-strong. He and a large part-bull-dog named Charlie (yes, BAD DOG Charlie) run together in the horse field. So neither of them will be coming with me on the walk. They go play for an hour or so and come back exhausted. A cute little Podenko, a Spanish breed that leaps high into the air, named Bonnie, has really taken a liking to me. I think she sees me as the pushover compared to Rachel. She comes to the door of my apartment and whines, hoping I’ll let her in and give her the lick of a bowl. My place upstairs is nice and much cleaner than the rest of the house because dogs aren’t allowed. I have a narrow galley kitchen with a cook-top, refrigerator and plenty of cups and plates. The bathroom is remodeled nicely, with a pedestal sink and shuttered window that opens onto the hillside west of the house.

I got here on Monday, and have been following Rachel around in her whirlwind of contacts planning a country fair for the following weekend. Several times, we’ve gone into Rio Gordo. I’ve made good use of the bar’s Internet. It’s always been full of locals: the English who more or less take over the tables by the window, and several Spanish men, loud and boisterous, who sit at the bar. In the far back by the restrooms an elderly man sits at the same table, drinks a bottle of red wine, and eats a daily plate of cheese and bread, very very slowly.
Nice views from the public overlooks.

The Ayuntamiento, the city offices, is in the center of town, a two story affair with a full service bar inside. Appropriate for a bunch of politicians I should think. Next door and across the street are two grocery stores, plus another up the hill. Up and down nearly every street are tiendas, little stores that were once the front rooms of homes. I bought a package of four fly-swatters, now I know the name of them: paletas para mosqueros.  But back home, as soon as I pick one up, the flies disappear, it’s the most amazing thing.

On Wednesday, Rachel was putting up posters so we drove on to another of the Pueblo Blanco towns, to see a friend of hers who will have a booth at the fair. Sue owns a small shop/restaurant/art studio and served us the best lemon cheesecake I’ve ever eaten. It was home-made in the store’s little kitchen, with fresh lemon juice and a thick graham cracker crust. It appears there are two distinct cultures here, the Spanish and the English. Both seem to support and take care of their own. One of Rachel’s friends, Rose, is a perfect cross-over. She is fluent in both languages and has many friends from both cultures. She graciously lent me an extra cell phone for my stay, so I can call for help when I need it. I think the locals have decided this chubby American is either out of her mind, or in over her head.

Some streets in Rio Gordo
aren't exactly streets!!
Although I’ve not gotten a lot of Spanish practice, this glimpse into the rural life of Spain has been fascinating. It’s no different from country life anywhere else; lots heat, dust, and flies to deal with. Things are constantly breaking or needing repair, like the fence the horses keep pushing through to get to the hay bales, or the gate that was damaged when the river flooded last year and washed down a chunk of the mountain into Rachel’s driveway. I just hope the place holds together reasonably well for the three days that I’ll be here alone. Stay tuned. If there are no followups to this blog post, then I’m either dead or have gotten arrested for dogicide.