It’s mid-March when I land in Malaga, the gateway to Andalusia. John is picking me up and together we set off for Cartajima, a tiny village in the Ronda-mountain range of Andalusia. This will be my home for the next two weeks; the place I chose to start my first experience of volunteering abroad: helping out in a hotel!
I am going to help John and Di running “Los Castaños”, a small boutique hotel. My main tasks are setting up the breakfast and dinner table, cleaning dishes and changing the rooms in exchange for accommodation and food. It’s not hard work and rarely very busy. Most of the day I am free to explore the village and its surroundings. John and Di are a nice British couple, but somehow we don’t really connect. The standard of the boutique hotel is really high and me being more of a backpacker-type, I’m not sure that this type of volunteering is really what I’m looking for…
But apart from that, I have a hell of a time in The “Alto Genal Valley” the name of the area I am staying in. I have plenty of time to explore the five villages and meet the locals. These are the moments I cherish the most:
1. Meeting the inhabitants of Cartajima. Cartajima is a white-washed village at an altitude of 846m that consists of a few streets and offers a nice view on the Alto Genal region. Sitting on a bench, taking in the view from the “Mirador”, I meet Concha, an old, toothless and very curious lady: “What brings you here?” “Do you like the village?” “How old are you?” are only a few of the questions she’s firing at me. I’m determined to practise my Spanish, but it’s not always easy, cause apart from being toothless, Concha also appears to be nearly deaf! The next day at the hotel I meet Silvia, the cleaner. She turns out to be Concha’s daughter. (I told you the village was tiny!) Silvia is very much involved in the local community and she explains me that, in a few weeks, I am invited for the “Semana Santa” (Holy week) celebrations in the village. She enlightens me on the principle of “Las Cortesias” in which the town re-enacts an encounter of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. After that, a puppet of Judas is set on fire. It looks like a great piece of local folklore in which I’ll be truly honoured to assist! (read how that went here) There’s only one bar in the village and it seems to be closed all the time, but near the end of my stay I finally find “Casa Amalia” open! “Bar” might be an overstatement, it’s basically a guy that opens his garage door, puts a few benches in and serves some beer J As usual in Spain, football’s on! Together with the barman and a few villagers tucked underneath a blanket, I watch Barcelona-Mallorca, while discussing Belgium, football and the economic crisis in Spain. They are telling me to come over for the “Semana Santa” to find me a local boyfriend. Mmmm, yeah, we’ll see!
2. Júzcar It’s a 45 minute stroll through the woods before arriving at Júzcar, another one of those white villages that seem to be completely disconnected from the outside world! It’s probably my favourite village of all five! Not that there’s an awful lot to see or do, but that’s the charm of it: I pass time strolling through the little streets and enjoy a picnic admiring the beautiful view over the valley. Since it is only a 45min walk, I return quite often. My main stop is “Bar Torrichelli” where I enjoy some nice tapas and a beer while watching the Real Madrid-Sporting Gijon game or simply have a chat with Antonio, the friendly barman. The television is on maximum volume and there’s a lot of shouting, swearing and smoking going on during the football; that’s the Spain I love!
3. A free “weird” trip to Parauta. I was actually on my way walking to another village when a jeep from a small tour agency stopped and told me they had a free space left. I could join them if I wanted! Why not? Always up for some adventure, especially if it’s free! J So there I was, with Antonio and Paul, our tour guides, and a bunch of Spanish, English and Finnish tourists. It turned out to be a pretty weird trip. First we stopped by the side of the road to watch a guy throw stones with a cord, apparently that’s how they used to re-group sheep and goats in the old days… We continued our trip for a visit to a cemetery, to give us an insight on how Andalusian cemetaries are constructed… Weird… The meal in Parauta was exquisite (wildboar with chestnut sauce) but after that I I needed to go back to Cartajima, so was unable to join them all the way to Ronda. They dropped me off on the main road where I decided to hitch back to Cartajima. Ten minutes later a nice family stopped and dropped me of at “Los Castaños”. I had a fantastic day!
4. Encounters in Igualeja. I’m barely sitting down on a bench when a guy named Antonio (yes, that’s what they all seem to be called around here!) starts chatting to me about the beauty of the region and Andalusia in general. I’m thinking of Di’s wise word telling me about the men here who all seem to think that tourists are an easy “target”! And indeed, after a few minutes I get an invite for a drink and lunch. I politely refuse, telling him I prefer to walk on my own for a while. During my afternoon walk I suddenly hear somebody calling my name. There’s only one person who knows my name in Igualeja…right: it’s Antonio! I’m caught in the moment and can’t really come up with an excuse, so I accept the offer to have a drink. For some reason he absolutely insists that I listen to some songs on his Ipod. When he asks me for my phone number, I decide it’s probably time to make my way back to Cartajima!
5. From village to village in a tricky car. The Alto Genal consists of five different villages. Some of them are reachable on foot, but others are quite a distance away. I really appreciate the fact that John and Di borrow me their car on several occasions, although the car is an adventure on itself! The door of the driver doesn’t open or close properly, so you have to get in via the passenger seat most of the time and it makes all kinds of weird noises you prefer not to hear when driving on your own in the middle of the mountains! Driving around narrow bends in a mountain range is not something I’m used to! But after a few days I get the hang of it and I might even have been spotted driving more than 50km/h at some point!
Your turn now! Have you ever done any volunteering? Would love to hear your experiences!