Taking the Slow Route Home

By Paul Read

Miguel has sold his car and has decided to buy something much better. This new vehicle gives off no pollution, no emissions whatsoever. In fact it uses a very green sort of fuel that can be recycled for other uses. It transports him, his tools, his packed lunch and his dog to work but he rarely has to use a road. And when the sun sets over the green Vega that snakes up to his village from the Granada coast, his trusty mode of transport gets him safely back home down narrow alleyways that even a Smart Car would think twice before entering. Here he locks it up in a small room under his house in the middle of the village. He pays no road tax, ITV bill, no insurance, petrol, garage bills nor parking fees. And it's the safest vehicle on the road: no one in Miguel’s memory has ever been killed by a hit-and-run mule driver.

The man that time forgot.

I first met Miguel as I awoke one morning to the unusual sound of someone singing to a mule. He was ploughing the land around his olive trees on his large terraces far below my house. His voice carried up the hillside on a gentle breeze that caressed the olive branches outside the bedroom window. Curiosity overcame me, and after a hasty coffee gulped at frantic speed and clutching a slice of toast. I scrambled down to spy on man and beast in conversation.

"A la derecha La Espanola (for that was her name), un poco más, así es, ¡arrímate!" She hauled a large metal plough skilfully between olive roots and tumbling stone terraces. As they reached the end of the terrace, Miguel would conduct a skilful 3-point turn whilst La Española helped herself to an odd thistle emerging from a gap between some rocks. Then they would be off again. Miguel would click his tongue and she would stop, he would click again and she would move a little to the left, a little to the right. All the time he would be praising her as they worked: "that's it my beauty, well done, just a little more and then we’ll turn back, keep going now, keep going".

As I spied from behind a pile of discarded olive logs, I was transported to another era – an era in which Spain was still an agricultural country – the Spain you see on postcards of rural Andalucia. And here was a man for whom time seemed to have stopped altogether. As indeed had La Española, for she had caught a whiff of my slice of toast and was heading towards me. It was time to introduce myself to man and beast.

Miguel, I learnt, lived in the village far below and from time to time would come up to care for his olive grove. A journey that would take 15 minutes by car, took Miguel and mule just under two hours. Miguel was clearly not a man in a hurry. It was there that he told me about selling his car. I was fascinated that in this day and age someone would be embracing "slowness" as a way of life. I asked him why he had got rid of his vehicle and he replied: "What do I need it for? If I came in a 4x4 I would have to pay for a machine to widen the road and then pay to maintain it every year. I’d need to pay for weed killer on the tracks to keep it passable and pay for fuel to keep it going!"

"But why a mule?" I asked. "Aren’t they supposed to be stubborn?"

"Animals just need a bit of affection" he replied, "and of course plenty of food. If you hit or shout at it, it will say '¡Que es esto!' And won't work well. You have to talk to animals and you have to treat them well." He wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, and gave the La Española a tickle behind the ear.

"Why not just use a tractor on the land – wouldn’t it be quicker and less effort?"

Miguel raised a weathered arm and pointed at his neighbour’s land, where not a single plant lived between the olives. The earth was bare, stony and parched. "Over there Ricardo uses a tractor, look what has happened to the old walls. Nothing is left of them – the tractor runs straight through them. And look what his pesticides have done to his soil. His earth is dying"

"You don’t use pesticides?"

Miguel laughed at my displays of ignorance and nodded towards the mule that was finishing off my toast. "Why would I want to kill the grass between the trees when I can feed it to my goats and the mule?. Why would I poison the earth? People today poison everything…..we even poison ourselves" And with that little ecological sermon he was off: "That's it La Española, keep left now, mind that rock…"


Simplicity, pace of life, rural harmony, it all seemed anachronistic in the instant service society we are now living. Miguel later told me he had never visited a big city, the thought even scared him. His life, though busy, yet seemed somehow uncluttered by the trivia of the 21st century. I wondered what he would make of the Internet, emails and micro-wave popcorn. This was a man who turned slowness into a virtue. Perhaps it was? Perhaps faster wasn't always better?

I met him again when he invited my partner and I to eat with his family one Sunday at their cortijo further down the valley, tucked in amongst the fruit hills of the Rio Verde. He fed us a simple, but rich meal of fresh goats cheese, a salad picked from his vegetable plot and coated in his own olive oil. We drank wine from his grapes and feasted on pumpkin and avocado, chirimoya and banana. His land was a veritable Garden of Eden.

Like Miguel, his family had worked from dawn to dusk collecting fruit and although were always busy, seemed to be relaxed at the same time. Surely I was misinterpreting this apparently idyllic rural scene?

"What a long day for you" we suggested. "There always seems so much to do".

Miguel paused before answering, characteristically taking forever to consider a response.

"That's true".

"Isn’t it hard work?"

"You could say that"

I tried another tack. "Wouldn’t you prefer to sell up to some foreigner, Miguel and say goodbye to the campo for a while. Get a nice new flat in town near the shops. You wouldn’t need to work another day in your life! Think of all the free time you would have!"

Miguel looked over his shoulder at his now grown up children stacking the crates of avocados to be taken to the warehouse. They were arguing about football. His wife and daughter-in law could be heard chuckling about something as they emerged form the goat shed carrying two large Fanta bottles of creamy goats milk for us to take home with us.

Miguel scratched his bristly chin and looked at me aghast. La Española, shuffled protectively to his side and scuffed the earth with an impatient hoof. A stray chicken clucked noisily at his feet and pecked a beetle of one off his socks.

"Sell" he whispered looking furtively over his shoulder in case a Remax Agent should be hiding in the chicken coop. "Sell" he repeated. He looked La Española squarely in the eye, and then glanced over to his family.

"What could I possible buy that I don’t already have in abundance?".

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This article ©Paul Read 2005


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