The time is the early sixties, I am in my mid teens, and already I have realised that I am one of nature's wanderers. There is something not just exciting but essential in not knowing where you will sleep tomorrow. School has become intolerable, and I have got bored with sleeping under the bridges of Paris. One day I decided to get on a train and go as far south as I could. Twice I got thrown off a train for travelling without a ticket, but eventually I managed to get to Barcelona, and within a day I realised I had found an alternative home. But all that meant was that I now had a base from which to do more travelling.
It's time I went to Andalucia, I told myself. I've done Barcelona. I've done Madrid. Now I need to go and see that strange place in the south. I'd read Gerald Brenan's book, South From Granada. I knew the Lorca poems. Now was the time to see this weird and wonderful world for myself.
However, I must have gone seriously wrong somewhere. I was headed for Cordoba. The odd thing was, somehow it didn't matter which way I tried to get to the place, I always ended up somewhere else. The first man who gave me a lift wanted me to come and see his family. "It's not far," he lied. They lived in a rather nice little place, and they had a spare room.
A few days later I am once again heading for Cordoba, but a man stops his car, and starts a long, and very loud conversation. I tell him where I am bound, but he drives off in the opposite direction, takes me into a bar, and introduces me to the barman as a long lost friend, and insists he put me up for the night.
On my way back to Cordoba I reached a place called Cabra. I was busy trying to re-translate the Sonambular Balled of Lorca. This is about a smuggler who is supposedly doing some smuggling up in the mountains of Cabra. Quite what sort of smuggling one does up in the mountains I couldn't work out. When I asked about smugglers in the bar the men laughed. "Yes, there are bandits in the mountains."
"But not smugglers?"
"Bandits, smugglers, it is the same. They stop the lorries and steal. They capture cars, and shoot the drivers, and take their things."
Should I translate the Spanish word for smugglers as highwaymen? At the next stop I get out my notes.
The beginning of the poem is no good for a start: Green, how I want you green.
That's what the Spanish literally means, and that's how everyone else translates the line, but it doesn't catch the wonderful lilt and alliteration of the original: Verde, que te quiero verde.
Suddenly, I can hear a better line: Green, lo I love you green.
That's much better, but not the line I'd meant to change. I read further down: Friend, I come bleeding from the passes of Cabra
So, what was he doing? There aren't any passes at Cabra. The mountains are to the south.
"The passes are to the south-east," said an old man, "on the Malaga road."
"Ah, I get it." At last I see the connection. "He is bringing the contraband up from the coast over the mountains."
The old man eyes me curiously. I quote the first four lines of the poem. He smiles. "Yes, he is bringing the brandy."
"A long way to come with brandy. Do you not get it by lorry?"
"Brandy? We get no brandy here. And when that song was written we had no lorries." He gets up and walks off down the road. I've touched upon another sore point. But what is the issue this time? What are all these people hiding? Everywhere in Spain people are suppressing so much. Is this something about the civil war?
I have changed my mind. Instead of going to Cordoba I will go over the mountains to Malaga.
Once again I get side-tracked. I accept a lift to Antequera. The town is quite small and looks utterly dead and falling to pieces, but the bus station is lively. There is a market. I can catch a bus to anywhere I want. There are buses to Malaga, buses to Granada, buses to Cordoba, buses to Sevilla. There is even a bus going to Madrid. Why are there all these buses when the town scarcely exists?
"Malaga is a great port, and this is the only road over the mountains," says an old man sitting under a tree.
"So the contrabandistas would use this road?”
"Contrabandistas?" He looks away, and is silent.
"Are there still bandits in the hills?" I ask.
"The road is not safe." He turns away again, then gets up and, without another word, walks away.
Why do so many people not want to talk to me? What is all this about bandits? Why go silent when the subject is mentioned?
I decide to get a bus over the mountains. The fare is pennies. There is a small ancient bus which I am told is ready to go when the army detachment arrives.
"Army detachment? What army detachment?"
The ticket man looks very grave. "We cannot send the bus out without the army detachment."
"Señor, there are many bandits in the mountains. They stop the coaches and rob the passengers. We must have an armed guard on the bus."
Gosh. Things are hotting up. Still, no-one can pinch much from me. I have virtually no money, and my bag contains only a change of clothes and a couple of pens, and a sheaf of papers.
Eventually the army detachment arrives. It consists of two very frightened looking boys with rifles. They sit at the back of the bus, one on each side. They are probably only seventeen or eighteen, and they look as if this may be their first round of duty.
The passengers don't look perturbed at all. They shout and laugh and swear as the bus bumps its way over the mountain range, dodging, and more often than not, not dodging, massive great fissures in the road. It takes us two hours to reach the village of Villanueva. I feel as if we have come half way across the country, but it is only thirty miles all the way to Malaga. Naturally there is no sign of any bandits.
It takes us another two hours to struggle all the way to Almogia. The road twists and turns. The valleys are steep and deep. At every bend the soldiers expect to see a road block. They are nervously fingering their rifles, but there is no-one. We pass a couple of cars going the other way, but otherwise the road is deserted.
At Almogia we all get out and head for the bar for something to eat and drink. "How long does the bus wait here?" I ask. The man next to me shrugs. "It goes when we have eaten."
There is bread and wine on the tables. The travellers are enjoying themselves, and there is much shouting and laughter, but there are no bustling waitresses. The food is brought from the kitchen by the cooks, and left on a long trestle table from where we help ourselves to dishes of small roasted birds, and various types of cheese. There are no roistering songs at the end of the meal.
I finish eating and wander down the road to a bend and look out over a deep ravine. The ribs of the mountains tack every which way, and the pine trees crowd down to the road. Up here nature is strangely silent. The occasional raptor curls around high above me, otherwise nothing moves, and there is no sound at all.
I walk back to the restaurant. People are getting back on the bus. Soon we are twisting and turning, twisting and turning, until we start to follow a river into an ever widening valley. There is a cluster of villages. We are stopping every ten minutes. The soldiers are smiling now. They have stopped fidgeting with their rifles. We are out of danger, and we can see the sea. The straggle of Malaga is in front of us. There were no bandits today.
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