Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Witnessing the End of a Thousand Years Life

Out of a strange mix of resentment, fascination and admiration, I often read obscure books written by foreign authors about Spain. Although this may be an odd cocktail of sentiments, my confused attraction to the published accounts is undoubtedly due to the fact that the eccentric writers in question always manage to live the most authentic Iberian experiences that others can only dream of matching. However that said, sometimes just when you least expect it you accidentally stumble upon the path of the privileged few as was recently the case for me in the Southern province of Almeria.

While hiking and camping in the coastal Sierras I came across the most unexpected and unusual sight of a Shepherd with his flock of goats. Up until that point the closest I had ever come to such a type was watching Heidi’s annoying friend, Peter, who was dubbed over by a girls voice on Saturday morning television in the 1980s. Understandably fascinated I therefore couldn’t resist approaching and attempting some form of conversation with the novel stranger, who to my pleasant surprise was delighted with the unannounced company and enthusiastically chatted back while his heat exhausted dog lethargically kept order on the 300 indifferent grazers.

Brandishing a moustachioed smile and leaning on a staff, the Shepherd wore a once upon a time red lumberjack shirt that spoke of a thousand mountain siestas and revealed an upper torso that belied its owners sixty years. Black leather boots and grey baggy trousers were encrusted with dust from the scorched yellow landscape, while a large plastic bottle of water hung by his waist from a string running over a shoulder and across his barrel chest.

Maintaining a conversation with my new friend was however at times quite difficult. Even so, he insisted that he loved to chat though he didn’t understand too well the accents of those who were not from the surrounding villages. This was partly due to his being deaf in one ear and also no doubt due in this instance to my odd outsiders accent.

The shepherd Manuel Jorge was born in 1945 in a nearby village that has been abandoned for over thirty years. The location that was already known to me is neatly hidden in a cove and cut off from the surrounding world by sea on one side and mountains on the others. Ignored by pro-European road engineers it can therefore even now only be accessed by boat or by a strenuous 12km hike. Of course the village of his birth that at one stage boasted a population of almost three hundred was in no way any different to the surrounding villages, as roads had not yet reached the region. However Manuel explained that his people were in general poorer and that over the years many left for Germany and Switzerland. As a consequence the local population slowly dwindled with the remainder eventually moving to the nearest village on the other side of the mountain where fishing and cereal farming were also the principle forms of livelihood. This exodus eventually became a formality when the neighbouring village was to be soon graced with a road connecting it to the other Almeria villages and markets.

His brother, father and grandfather before him were all shepherds. He also has a sister who is his only surviving family member but who has spent almost all her life in France. Manuel entered the profession at the age of eight without ever having received even what he would term a rudimentary education. However that sort of thing was never of any interest to him as all he ever wanted to do was to accompany his brother and father into the mountains. Every now and then he would interrupt his talk with the oddest of sounds, which he produced with the roof of his mouth, teeth and tongue, and to which the goats immediately responded by changing direction or refraining from wandering away from the pack. Once the horns fell back in line Manuel returned to human speech and the subject on hand. As he told all, often without me even asking, I was shocked to calculate in my head that this man has been a shepherd for over half a century.

If on a summer’s day the goats have quietened down, the shepherd takes advantage of the situation and steals a siesta in the shade. While I presumed that the winter would in general be tougher, he commented that the immense summer heat means that there is never an easy season with each bringing distinct challenges. Furthermore, all the while explaining his life to me, he never withdrew his smile even during his sadder anecdotes. Manuel also lamented that it was a job that the young people were no longer interested in without making any reference to the New Spain and modern farming methods. I deduced that as far as he was concerned it was just a question of the number of easier options open to the Almeria youth, nothing more.

Finally, Manuel Jorge explained a few good routes for exploration as well as some wind-sheltered locations for my tent. He then firmly shook my hand and invited me to join him again, quickly detailing where he would be later in the evening and the following day. I smiled to myself as at the very same hour the previous day, I was being seen off by an arrogant stumpy MadrileƱo bus driver and next thing I know I am receiving a smile and wave goodbye from a man who watched me resume my hike and disturb his grazing goats.

Perhaps there was nothing at all extraordinary about this encounter but for me it was a glimpse of a Spain that will not be around in a few years to come. I was witnessing the very end of the last generation to be born in a time when Africa really did begin at the Pyrenees. I was witnessing the end of a thousand years life.

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