An 11-hour bus ride brought me from the cold brown plains of Castilla to the vivid warmth of Andalucia in the south of Spain. My destination was a village perched on a hill 10 miles from the Mediterranean coast.
I stepped off the bus just as shadows were falling in the plaza, turning the whitewashed buildings a creamy beige. A solitary church on the hilltop reflected the sun's last rays. Old men with black berets talked by a small stone fountain. The quiet intimacy of the scene made me wonder if I belonged.
I was an American college student on my first trip to Spain. After studying for six weeks in Salamanca, I was ready for a change of pace. I wanted to know the country people who populate the dusty solitary pueblos I had only glimpsed on trains. I thought that by coming to this southern village, not profiled in any glossy tourist brochure, I might get my chance.
An officious-looking man in well-worn work clothes and a taxi driver's cap came hurrying up to me. "How can I help you?" he asked in the rapid Spanish of the south. I explained my need for lodging, and we introduced ourselves.
This was how I met Rafael, a man who spent his time in the plaza watching the village happenings. Directing cars on market days and finding parking spaces were his ways of earning a modest income. For some reason, he decided to abandon his post, and I became his new responsibility.
Without anywhere else to turn, I followed Rafael down the now-darkening road, my backpack heavy on my shoulders. When he offered his mother's bed for me to share, I declined politely and wondered if he were serious. Next, he proposed a fonda, a Spanish family home with an extra bed to rent. This seemed like the best idea.
When we arrived, we found the family - all three generations - gathered in the inner courtyard. They were happy to have a paying guest, and the teenage son showed me the small second-floor room. Before Rafael turned to leave, he took out his wallet and began to pay. I protested, and fortunately the senora explained that guests pay upon departure. Rafael reluctantly gave in but still insisted that I be fed a hot dinner. I thanked him and he left, mumbling, "nada, nada" (nothing, nothing).
After a hot meal with the family, I retired to my small room, which overlooked a small courtyard adorned with ferns in clay pots.
The next morning I began walking through the center of the village, past the convent, the cafe, and up along the side of a hill. Stark, white angular houses, joined together like Lego blocks and topped with red-tile roofs, bordered my path. The sounds of babies crying, people speaking, and canaries singing came from doorways draped with beads to let in the breezes. Women, buying fresh milk from the goat man with nine goats, smiled at me and called out "Adios."
As I climbed higher, I passed the ruins of a Moorish tower. The smell of olive oil frying drifted up, and I saw fields of gnarled and twisted olive trees growing in stony, red-tinged soil. It was a striking scene, perfect for a postcard, but I felt myself to be at a distance looking on.
At the top of the hill I reached a small whitewashed church with a sign: La Virgen de los Remedios (the Virgin of the Remedy). I stepped into the darkness of an immaculate cool church, and there I met Manuela.
She was a short plump woman with bronzed skin and black hair pulled back into a bun. Her round face was etched with lines, and her inky brown eyes beckoned to me with warmth.
We went outside, and after I explained who I was and where I came from, she asked - for her, the important question - "Have you eaten?" When I answered vaguely about buying some bread and cheese, her kind interest turned to brisk decisiveness. "Venga, hija!" (Come, daughter!) "A comer!" (To eat!)
Manuela, I soon found out, was a Civil War widow with seven grown children, and she lived in some rooms in the back of the church. Her job, she told me with pride, was to keep the church clean and to polish La Virgen (a life-size statue) and the silver bier she was carried on during holy day processions.
I followed Manuela around back, past her garden, and through an open doorway into the church's other space - Manuela's humble home. A table with four chairs filled the small sparse room. Manuela invited me to sit while she called her daughter. Rosa, a spritely senorita in her 20s, lived with her mother and seemed delighted to meet the guest.
While Manuela cooked, Rosa fired off endless questions in the fluid dialect of the south. Where Manuela calmly accepted my unusual presence, Rosa was intent upon improving my local education as well as her understanding of life in the United States. In one breath she asked, "Why did you come here? Do you want to meet my friends? Can you walk and not get tired?" I could see that my solitude was over, my itinerary set.
Meanwhile, Manuela was soon ready with the first of many meals. She cooked large midday dinners of hearty country food - bowls of cabbage soup, mounds of paella (yellow rice with seafood and chicken), stews of goat or mutton, beans, and onions. Her meals were always served with dense Spanish bread, warm from the baker's oven.
For dessert, there was fresh local fruit. Manuela laughed as she showed me how to peel the tough skin of the pomegranate (la granada), and somehow it seemed appropriate to see the fruit glitter like red jewels upon the chipped white plate. I felt like some royal visitor as Manuela stood behind me throughout the meal urging, "Mas! Come mas!" (More! Eat more!) until I thought I'd burst. Only after Rosa and I had left to explore the village would Manuela sit down to eat whatever was left over.
On that first day while we sat there eating, Manuela's oldest son, who lived and worked down in the village, came in for his dinner. Looking up, I was startled to see Rafael. He merely said, "Good. You finally met my mother," and sat down to eat. In that instant, my sense of strangeness left and I began to feel at home.
For the next five days, dinner at Manuela's was the high point of my day. The other time was spent with Rosa. With delight she brought me from one home to another and showed off her new friend.
Most afternoons I had my snack with Paca, a Civil War veteran who liked to reminisce. Out in the fields I rode a burro with a farmer. Sometimes we went to market for Manuela and bought a chicken at the butcher's, some fruit at the fruiteria, bottles of fizzy tonic, or fresh warm bread. But I was never allowed to contribute even a centavo for the food I too would eat.
During those timeless days I crossed into the Spain I had longed to know. "Estas en tu casa" (You are in your house), Manuela told me on that first day. And soon it was as if those improbable rooms behind the church, the winding lanes, and the people I greeted were all familiar.
One late afternoon I sat with Manuela while she washed dishes in the garden. As she rinsed them with a hose, she asked me how far it was to America and if I had come by boat. Seven hours by airplane didn't seem long enough to her. The New World had captured her imagination as a place where great wonders must occur.
When I asked her if she would like to travel there, she immediately said yes. "But, I would always return to my family, my church, the olive groves, and the ocean not too far. I have everything I could ever want." As I looked around, I tried to memorize those images, knowing it would be a lesson throughout my life.
When the time came, it was hard to say goodbye. Rosa insisted I stay just one more day. She cried and said, "We're very emotional in the south. We become attached." I thought of people who knew me better and reacted less intensely when I left.
There was no way to express, even if my Spanish had been better, how privileged I had been to share their lives and have their friendship. I promised to return. Manuela nodded and said, in her slow, emphatic way, "E...s...o" (That's right) like a benediction.
Rafael, revealing with quiet insistence a Spaniard's nobility, succeeded in paying my entire lodging fee and then walked me to the bus door. I got on, poignantly aware that I had spent time, at home, in Spain.
The bus drove on, and as I looked back at the sparkling village, no longer unknown to me, I waved at the people who had received me as their own.