Saturday, June 4, 2011

BALAGUER (and a bit of Girona)

I was in Balaguer from March 30 – April 5.

This blog took me a long time to start writing because there was sooo much to tell. i didn't write it till the first week of May...

Remember you can see pictures at Go to sub albums on the side, and all the albums are clearly labeled.

I went from Toulouse to Balaguer successfully the second time around (after my failed first attempt). Following the plan plan, I stopped in Girona for a few hours on the way. Girona is a beautiful little Catalonian city, with a river, and winding stone streets, and a walkable old city wall surrounding half of it.

Catalonia is the most east region of Spain, which is where Barcelona is located. It's home to many famous individualistic artists, such as Dali and Gaudi. To this day the art there is more modern than many places.

When I got off the train, it was such a welcome feeling to know the language I was hearing around me again! I'd been in France for just about a month, and still don't know any French. Suddenly, I was able to read the street signs! And to be able to communicate the questions I needed to ask at the station! I missed Spanish quite a lot when I was in France. I guess that's just the way my brain works – I needed to get away from Spanish in order to appreciate it and how much of it I've learned. After a few months in Spain, I sort of was daunted by learning it, and wasn't sure if I liked the language that much. Now I love it. Now I'm more dedicated to learning more Spanish than I've maybe ever been. And it's so much easier to travel in a country when you can ask for directions, and where the nearest lockers are, tourist office, etc. In fact, I spent the first hour of my three hours in Girona trying to figure out the best way to get to Balaguer from there, and finding a place to lock up my things since the train station didn't have lockers. Finally I succeeded, (after buying a bus ticket, returning a bus ticket, and buying two train tickets). but it would have taken longer, and I would have spent more money if I hadn't know the language. Then I spent the next two hours wandering, and enjoying the beautiful city, and the beautiful Spanish weather.

After my short but lovely stop in Girona. I got on another train towards Barcelona, then another train to Llerida, then hada twenty minute walk (luggage in tow) to the Llerida bus station, then took a relatively short bus ride to Balaguer – a very normal Catalonian town full of real Catalonians, not tourists. One such of these life long Catalonians was to be my host for the next few days. His name is Jordi, and he picked me up at the bus station right on time as promised.

Jordi is a very interesting, inspirational man. Consequently I've been telling pretty much everyone about him since I met him. He is an organic farmer, born and raised in Balaguer Catalonia Spain. He speaks Spanish, Catalan, French, and English, and his house is full or relics making it reminiscent of a museum. But these things aren't what makes him unique. What does make him so special is his philosophies on farming, living, and how he shares these philosophies to the travelers that come to spend time with him.

First I will tell you a bit about Jordi's philosophies, and the way he lives his life. He believes in living a simple, but more sustainable way of life, helping and giving to the community you call home. He owns many acres of farm land, where he grows a variety of fruits, olives, wheat, almonds, and vegetables. He even cultivates honey from his own makeshift beehives. About 90% of the food he consumes comes from his own land and labors. He's also very very interested and knowledgeable about medicinal plants, and is always telling you great facts, such as how rosemary is a natural stimulant, stronger than caffeine, or how eating mint can cure a headache. His favorite medicinal plant loves are stevia (which is becoming a more an more popular way to treat diabetes, and is linked to helping with cancer) and aloe vera (which is good for like everything, but particularly has great skin healing properties. Jordi has huge aloe vera plants in his house which he waters and cares for daily. He calls them his pets). It's really fascinating how many plants are out there that have healing qualities that can better help the body and mind than all these over the counter remedies that we use. We just don't know about them!

In his community, Jordi is an active member of a co-op in Balaguer, promoting the slow food movement, as well as organic, local, and fairtrade farming. This co-op has a time incentive program. You can pay for workshops and produce there with money, but it's more desired that you pay with donating your time, or with your trade, or produce, or leading a workshop (since many farmers are part of the union). Jordi is also a teacher. He'll teach for a year, and then take a sabatical, living, farming and hosting off of the year's earnings for as long as he can (usually another year or two, occasionally substitute teaching for extra income). He also started a program in the schools around Balaguer that teaches children about farming, and where the food they buy actually comes from. For this, he and fellow teachers will help children grow their own gardens, learn sustainable techniques, and make things out of their own produce. He'll also show them the process behind the foods we think we can only buy. For example, he'll make cottage cheese with his students, and they all can't believe that what they have made is the same thing they buy in the supermarket.

Jordi believes in a simple life. He says he has an older car, older clothes, an older apartment that many people he knows would have upgraded years ago. But to him, that doesn't make sense when all of it functions, and he'd rather use his time and resources on his farms and communities. Things shouldn't make people happy he says. His friends bought new cars, new apartments, and then when the economic crisis hit, they got hurt. He thinks the crisis in this way is a good thing because it is connecting people back to community and people - the things that matter more. People can't afford to be attached to the materialistic things they thought mattered so much. In his apartment, which feels like it's still in the 70's, the furniture, plates, and utensils, pretty much all don't match, and you get the feeling that all the glass and plastic jars he uses have been used many a time. And why not? Also, not only does he recycle, and compost, he even has two composts – one for nut shells and seed pits and anything else that he can later burn for fuel (to make his own bread). Resourcefulness is the word to use for Jordi's home, farm, and garden.

His philosophy, Jordi explains, is to live the way he thinks people should live, and share that example. He can't change others, but hopefully his example will influence others and spread. For this reason (and because he's a traveler at heart) Jordi is a member of many travel sites - WWOOF, couchsurfers, servas, and helpxchange. He himself doesn't and hasn't traveled much outside of Catalonia. But he doesn't need to; the world comes to him. Yearly he has hundreds of travelers that come from all over the world to spend time with him, sometimes a few days, sometimes a few weeks. The rooms of his 4 room apartment are filled with beds and could easily sleep ten people. There's a map on his wall with push pins in it showing where all his visitors have come from (I was the first from Hawaii! And got to put a pin in it!) He also loves languages, so one wall has a huge chart showing the basics of numerous languages that he's had his guests (native speakers) fill out - from Chinese, to Swajili, to Arabic, to Samoan. He seemed a bit disappointed when I couldn't tell him many basics of Hawaiian language. I left him a list of the many words we use in everyday speaking, such as “keiki – children” or “mahalo – thank you,” but I couldn't tell him basic phrases such as “how are you?” It did make me want to learn more about Hawaiian language and culture so I could share it better (not the first time I've had this feeling while traveling about, and it won't be the last either).

While you are there, you follow Jordi and help him with his daily life. If he is going to his orchards and trimming trees, you are going to go as well and help gather up the tree trimmings. If he's going to the co-op to drop something off, you are going with him. If he's going to his garden and picking some vegetables for dinner, then, yup, you are too. All the while he shows his way of doing things to his guests, identifies different plants and properties to them, and teaches them about the land and the reasonings behind doing things certain ways.

You also eat what he eats. Mealtimes with Jordi are always simple, plentiful, and healthy. He cooks and provides every meal for his guests, no matter how little you've actually worked that day, and he wouldn't think of asking anything in return. As I said before, about 90% of all things Jordi consumes he produced himself. The honey on the table came from his beehives, the olives and oil from his olive trees, the nuts and fruits from his orchard (there was always a big plate of nuts and fruit on his table available for snacking at any time). The jams and jelly compotes were produced by him using the fruits he grew himself. Even the bread was made from wheat that he grew and then milled himself (using a small milling machine). It was so cool! Such a different way to eat, and how strange that such a natural way to eat is such a novelty in this day and age?

But, perhaps consequently, mealtimes with Jordi are also a bit bizarre. He's less concerned with taste and consistency than he is with the healthy properties of the food, and literally their edibility. There were many a strange porridge and conglomerations of vegetables. It all tasted pretty good, and was unquestionably healthy, just questionable sometimes as to what was in it. For example, there would always be a huge salad containing a variety of greens, onions, fruits, whatever. Some of the greens were what we usually consider weeds, others were rather fuzzy feeling in the mouth. It was a bit of a science experiment at times. More than twice he would say something about how I should be careful how much I ate of something because it may have a laxitive affect (said as if he knew from experience). I don't mean to be critical, it was plentiful, tasty and I was grateful, but It did leave my mouth tasting strongly of onion, and my mind wondering what great things a chef could do with the products and knowledge that Jordi has.

And then there was the incident with the almonds. As I said, there were always nuts on the table. Of these, there was a plate of almonds, and a jar of strangly shaped almonds. Trying to be helpful, one time I refilled the plate of almonds from the jar of almonds right before we sat down to lunch. I grabbed a few, ate them, and thought they tasted a bit strange.. they made my mouth feel a little numb, but I thought nothing really of it. An almond is an almond, and I like almonds, so I kept eating them. It wasn't until after lunch that I found out that the almonds I'd been eating were “bitter almonds” - very good for your health, but also poisonous. They shouldn't be eaten more than 5 at a time. If you eat 15 or 20, you will die.... I think I'd eaten anywhere between 9 and 16 at the point of learning this. I survived, thankfully, the effects of the almonds even felt sort of good – they make your heartbeat speed up. Still I was a bit freaked out by the whole thing. After that, I never assumed anything about the foods in Jordi's house.

Overall, Jordi is a fascinating man and a laid back and understanding host. I think he would have to be this type of person to host and meet as many people as he has over the years. He would show you how he wanted things to be done, made it clear that it was what he preferred, but also made it clear that he understood that it wasn't the only way of doing things. It was definitely a fascinating way to spend a few days. (I was only there for two full days... which was enough.. I felt a little awkward communicating with him at times; I felt I wasn't very eloquent and couldn't tell if this was the language barrier, or age barrier, or perhaps I was just being anxious. Nevertheless it was very very insightful conversation). I think Jordi is very successful in his mission of sharing his different, more healthier ways of consuming and living within a community within the world. He hopes that these ideas will influence and be shared with others all over the world, or at least make people rethink the ways we are told to consume and be more aware of other alternatives. I really do think his example makes impacts and influences the people that come and stay with him, at least slightly. It did with me.

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