"Like all of our greatest challenges in life, they helped me to become a better person."
On the 28th of February, I arrived into Algeciras train station having spent three beautiful weeks exploring Europe with my Sister, followed by one week passing through the southeast coast of Spain through Sitges, Tarragona, Valencia, and Granada. During that one week down coast of Spain into Andalusia, I was beyond lucky with my timing...
Firstly, I arrived into Sitges at the time of the famous Carnavale, then a few days later it was the mind-blowing Mascletá celebration in Valencia, with over 200,000 packing the city streets to watch the event.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I was shown around the magnificent Granada by my Couchsurfing host, Nico, and spent a full day wandering through the captivating historical site of the Alhambra. When I got off the train in Algericas filled with excitement for the next chapter of my solo journey, I had a reality check I’ll never forget...
My host Nando kindly took my bags as I got off the train, and said hello to me his 'rápido-fire' Andalusian Spanish. I replied with the little Spanish I knew at the time, and after a couple of sentences back which I didn’t understand, I asked Nando, “Tu hablas Inglés?” (Do you speak English?)
His eyes widened and he gave me a nervous smile, before replying with broken English I could tell hadn’t been used in a very long time. For the few weeks prior to my arrival, Nando and I had been in touch via text and email. That was it. Since arriving into Europe, I’d had the luxury of being surrounded by English speakers wherever I went, so if I ran into any trouble (or just got lazy), I had the perfect safety net.
I very quickly discovered that here in Andalusia, rarely do you have that luxury. There was no more safety net. You can imagine what the next few days were like as we went back and forth, understanding each other only about 20% of the time, and having to repeat or change our language virtually every sentence.
Nando did his best to communicate with me in a mixture of Spanish and very broken English, and I did my best to reply back with what I thought he was saying, followed by my speculative answer. It was a very, very interesting process. By the first night we both had dictionaries in hand and our conversations were filled with frequent pauses, where one of us waited whilst the other flipped open their dictionary to find the word they were looking for. After we’d found it, it was back into the conversation having learned a new word.
This was the beginning of a very special type of friendship.
I’d arrived to Andalusia to help Nando with his upcoming Art exhibition, ‘Ciencias Naturales’, or ‘Science and Nature’ in English. About 15 minutes outside of the city, Nando lived on a quiet piece of land with two houses - one in which he lived and the other by the name of ‘El Coleta’, passed down to Nando over three Argüelles generations.
For the next month, my cultural exchange experience was to help Nando prepare El Coleta and the surrounding gardens for the exhibition, as well as assist with the creation of some online promotional content. In return for my help, Nando gave me a room to stay in, all of my meals, and what I can only describe as the ultimate Andalusian experience.
With thanks to some early issues of no internet in the house, damaging the filter of the lawn mower by tipping it on it’s side (whoops), and relentless mind-boggling communication challenges, by the fourth day I'd broken down in tears.
The stress was so great and with no internet I had no one to speak with, so eventually I crashed during our lunch, much to Nando’s surprise. Not knowing how to speak English, Nando did his best to support me through. I assured him everything was OK, it was just a challenge having to adjust to the new environment.
Just when it seemed as if it couldn’t get any worse, I ran into extra communication challenges with natives who went out of their way to make the language barrier more difficult. When particular Andalusian workers came past the house to deliver items and set up for an event at El Coleta on a few occasions, they could tell immediately I was a native-English speaker who was struggling. I asked in Spanish if they could speak slowly so I could better understand them, but no matter how hard I tried, they continued to speak at the same pace and found the situation incredibly amusing.
I have to admit it certainly didn’t help the tough start I was having, but whatever happened I took it as the perfect opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and grow. I continued to remind myself that the time in El Coleta was only going to get better from here, and from that day forward, it did. My stay in Algeciras become a lot more enjoyable when I chose to make the most of these challenges, and because of that, my experience became one of the most life-changing I’ve ever had.
Each day of the four weeks, Nando and I ate our meals together, prepared the garden and house piece-by-piece, and after lunch I enjoyed some time to myself to work on my own project(s).
Because I was only working about 4 hours each day, in my time off I had the opportunity to:
- Enjoy a classic Andalusian lunch party with Nando’s brother and a group of his closest friends. - Visit Tarifa, where Santiago in my favourite book, The Alchemist, set off from Andalusia into the mysterious land of Morocco. - Practice my Spanish with the old dictionary Nando gave me. - Meet some of Nando's family in nearby Sotogrande, and drive with him to the studios of the Andalusian Artists. - Explore Gibraltar, and sit on the famous Rock to watch the sunset over Africa
These are just a few highlights, and all of these experiences were exactly what I desired having come from Australia to Europe. However, in my second week in ‘El Coleta’, I was gifted an extraordinary surprise I could never have imagined...
Whilst cutting some giant vines out of the garden to clear some space, I pulled one out and threw it on the grass next to me. As I looked again, I noticed the vine was about 6 metres long and was the exact shape of a snake! Immediately an idea came to me, “Let’s carve a head and put some paint on it!"
For the next two weeks, in my spare time I used some of Nando’s tools and paints to create my very first sculpture. The initial step was to carve a snake head from a piece of wood, and once that was finished I worked late into the nights painting virtually the entire body. Coming from Australia, I felt the inspiration to paint the snake Aboriginal style: black and white, with the colours orange, yellow, and red.
I set myself a huge challenge, and with time running out before the 25th of March there were some nights I was up until 4a.m., concentrating on putting each dot of paint in just the right spot. I’d never experienced anything like it before, and when the energy swept over my body, mind and soul, I refused to stop until I got the piece finished. It was a powerful process, and when that force of energy enters your body you don’t ask questions, you keep on creating!
On the morning of the 25th of March, right before the 'Ciencias Naturales’ exhibition, my sculpture ‘La Serpienta’ was finished. Nando and I installed the piece around a tree nearby the house, where guests could walk around and see the work amongst some of the others. As I stood back and looked at the artwork, first given to me as a gift from nature, I felt overwhelming gratitude for the surprises life had continued to give me on this journey.
I was thankful, not only for the vine and the idea to create the sculpture, but for the intense amounts of energy and concentration to finish the work in such a short space of time. This is the power of inspiration.
During the Ciencias Naturales exhibition, I had my camera in hand and enjoyed valuable time wandering around capturing the essence of the Andalusian gathering. There were smiles everywhere, and a warmth of energy as friends and family came together to share in the creative gifts and dedication of the Artists.
When it came time to eat, I chose to take my meal off to the side and let the whole experience sink in. Here I was, only three weeks after breaking down in tears from overwhelm, now enjoying an Andalusian Art exhibition; conversing with guests in Spanish; and capturing special moments and memories I’ll cherish forever and at the end of the day, Nando and I shared a drink with each other and laughed as we celebrated the results of our hard work.
Three days after the Ciencias Naturales exhibition was finished, it was time for me to begin the next chapter of the journey. I had a train booked to visit Madrid for three days before moving on to my next cultural exchange project in the mountains of Castellterçol, 90 minutes west of Barcelona. Before I left ‘El Coleta’ however, there was still one more thing I had left to do...
The day before leaving Algeciras, I sat down with Nando and interviewed him about ‘El Coleta’ and the ‘Ciencias Naturales’ exhibition. With him on the couch, and all of the captivating artworks sitting in the gallery behind him, I asked Nando some questions about the history of El Coleta and the ‘familial’ vibe I sensed whilst walking around the exhibition a few days before.
I could see from Nando’s body language he was filled with passion, and throughout the entire month I noticed this special type of joy emanating from him. Nando wasn’t just about the artworks and events, he was about the creativity, expression and connection that art brought to the people he loved and cared for the most. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the interview process for me was that I only understood Nando’s answers completely about one month later, after a Spanish friend kindly translated them for me.
When I put the video footage of the exhibition together, with the interview and some of my favourite music, I read the translation whilst playing the final cut and it brought tears to my eyes. Only then, four weeks later, did I hear the full history of ‘El Coleta’.
My intuition and senses had picked up on the energy the whole month whilst I was preparing El Coleta with Nando, but a month later and over 1000 km’s away, my mind had the opportunity to catch up with the details of where I'd just been.
My time in Algeciras proved to me the genuine value of cultural exchange, because despite the fact I couldn’t understand the words being spoken, I could feel the language that goes beneath them. This is the language I believe connects all human beings together, and can only be experienced by venturing out of one’s comfort zone and into the unknown.
I am forever grateful for my time with Nando and his ‘family’ in Andalusia. The ups and downs of being an Australian in this foreign land gave me the golden opportunity to experience both ends of the emotional spectrum, and like all of our greatest challenges in life, they helped me to become a better person.
During the darkest and most lonely moments of all, I only had to look into the eyes of Nando and his family, who supported me not just with their words but with their presence. When these special people helped me to bounce back and make the most of my experience, I finally learnt what it really meant to connect at a level beyond any I had before.
I know I’ll be back to Andalusia one day, and when I do I’ll be able to speak and understand the language. The truth is though, beneath all of the words will be the original foundation created from something much deeper than that, and anyone else who’s broken through their own barriers will know exactly what I’m talking about.
Nando y los Artistas, gracias por todo los experiencias.