Oh No, not another sunny day… Living with Global Warming in the Spanish south

I don’t care what El Traam, as they call the American president here in Andalucía, says. Global Warming is a scary fact. Anyone who isn’t living inside an air-conditioned bubble of denial knows so. And this is just the beginning.

When I was a child, I used to love the sun. We all did. Having survived the long Scandinavia winter, we could not wait to peel off our layers of clothing to expose our pale skin to the warming rays. At the time, and I am only talking forty years back, you could stay outside all day without getting burned, without sunscreen, recently arrived on the market. We had never experienced what we today call a heat wave, a phenomenon that has become common even in the northern hemisphere. The rising temperatures means that people in my native Norway can now grow lavender and other Mediterranean plants in their gardens and have olive trees on their terraces. If predictions are right, ‘thanks’ to Global Warming, they will soon be able to produce fine wine, allegedly of the Champagne variety on the British Isles.

People in the north might welcome shorter and milder winters, but what about life here in the south? Living on the southernmost tip of Europe, Global Warming is certainly no joke. This summer alone, red heat-wave alerts have been noted throughout Andalucía, with Jaén reaching a record high 46.9 °C – in the shade! The Mediterranean waters off the Spanish coast has been registered as the hottest ever, at 27 °C, a two and a half degree increase in water temperature in a mere decade. This might be good news to temperate bathers, but it will have catastrophic effects on marine life. Let alone if it escalates, but If this trend continues, imagine when the Mediterranean reaches 37 °C just four decades into the future.

As Andalucía is separated from Africa by a mere narrow straight of water, it is probably only a question of time before the Spanish south will be an extension of the Sahara desert. This year, our tomatoes in our community garden have gotten sunburned on the vine! People who have lived for almost a century in our town will tell you that they have never experienced such heat. Ronda used to be a cold and relatively rainy place. Now we often won’t see precipitation from April to mid November. Not a single drop of rain, other than a few measly dribbles mixed with thick red Sahara sand. Last year, the winter rain did not start until January. The old farmers up our street told us that they had never seen such dry spells. The forest fire crews have never been busier, sharing helicopters between the various Andalucian provinces that are ravaged by almost uncontrollable bush-fires.

The other day my husband and I had to leave our car in an open car park in Jerez de la Frontera. When we came back a couple of hours later, the inside temperature of our car was 47.5°C. After airing the vehicle, we managed to get it down to an almost liveable 41 °C before driving off with the air conditioner blasting. Such temperatures cannot be healthy for anyone. In this type of heat seasoned athletes keel over and die from kidney failure and you get dizzy merely moving your head. We were told that a friend got second degree burns on his legs merely from wearing shorts while working on tarmac, as the reflected heat from the asphalt was even hotter than that coming from above.

Though sun-hungry visitors will lie down to fry at high noon in the Spanish summer heat, most locals will wisely avoid the damaging rays. The best policy for surviving in this climate is to do any physical activity before breakfast or after sunset and complete errands as soon as the stores open, ideally to be back inside by 11 am. From late morning until late evening it is advisable to stay inside, closing windows and doors, stripping off all clothing and placing oneself in front of a fan. As heat goes up, the cellar is the most comfortable place to be, which is why many locals have a second summer bedroom in their basement. I carry a spritzer bottle with me at all times, having one on each floor of our house, while keeping an abanico, or Spanish fan in my handbag like any self respecting Andaluza, using it with abandon. Thankfully, living in the mountains, our nightly temperatures in Ronda are about ten degrees lower than those in Andalucia’s cauldrons, including Sevilla and Cordoba. Yet, you may burn your feet on a stone terrace even several hours after the sun has gone down.

Though sceptics will say that temperatures go up and down and that there has been warming periods in the past as well, the planet has never had more people living on it, nor as much pollution to deal with, so one cannot say that this is something that has happened before. There is no precedent for our present situation. Heat records are broken every year, not only here in Spain, but all over the globe. The standard conditions for measuring temperatures are a meter and a half above the ground in the air, shielded from direct sunlight. The highest confirmed temperature recorded according to these measures was 54 °C, as recorded broken in Kuwait in 2016. The hottest single month ever (based on average monthly temperature) as reliably measured anywhere on Earth since records began in 1911, was 41.80 °C. This record was broken just last month. The location is appropriately called Furnace Creek in the Death Valley, in the United States of America. (They might need more than God Bless America to help them out of this one…)

Finally having fallen asleep last night, in spite of barking dogs, a revolving door of hot flashes and not a whisper of breeze, I was woken abruptly by a screeching mini-chainsaw right in my left ear. Though we rarely have mosquitos in Ronda, one had managed to Houdini her way through an invisible gap in our mosquito netting. It was impossible to fall asleep again, the hot night feeling like a sauna without an exit. I told my husband that come hell or high water, next July and August I will volunteer us some place above the Arctic Circle, polishing icicles, herding reindeer or simply holding back the polar ice. So, if you happen to know someone up north who needs a mitten-ed hand in the summer of 2018, please keep us in mind.

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When tragedy strikes our Andalucian town. Moving beyond the pain

At noon on Monday Ronda went into three days of official mourning. A deafening silence descended upon the town hall square where friends and family of the diseased gathered to show their respect while listening to the toll of the church bells – a deep goooong expiring into silence, followed by a slightly more baritone bell, quivering a tad out of tune, as if it too could not believe the tragedy that had struck our town. A dozen cameras from local and national media were directed towards the sombre faces of the large crowd. Like a funeral march, the bells rang at a disturbingly unhurried pace. The affected families embraced, crying inconsolably on each other’s shoulders, as happens when somebody passes on. But this was no normal passing.

A group of thirteen people had left Ronda a week earlier to visit the sites of an NGO they supported in southern India. Instead of a trip of a lifetime, the journey ended abruptly as an oncoming truck hit their minibus, killing the Indian driver and four of the passengers, injuring another nine, and forever affecting the lives of all involved, including those who know and love them.

A tragedy like this does not make sense. It feels utterly unjust that people who chose to go and help others could be so cruelly taken away. Why them? Why now?, we ask ourselves.

Our friend Vicente was one of the Rondeños who died in the crash. A couple of years back him and I went to give a yoga class to a group of LA movie people, him as the yogi, myself as the translator. On the way there, he told me how he had studied graphic design, but how everything had changed when he first time visited India. He became a life long student, a teacher of yoga, Chi Gong, Pilates, and Thai Chi. Fifteen years ago he opened Centro Baba. In our town where most people measure success in whether one owns a bar or has a dozen flamenco dresses, Vicente was truly different, and very much needed. He taught us about mindfulness and gave us lessons of love. Not only did he bring scholars from all over the world to our small Andalucian town, but he also became a catalyst for change for many of its residents.

Vicente had wisdom far beyond his years, and in retrospect, far beyond this life. Most of his holidays were spent bringing groups of likeminded to India, this last trip to visit the hospitals and women’s centres that Centro Baba was supporting there. Though we are relatively recent Ronda residents, he had become a close friend. We had volunteered with him on several occasions and my husband had been giving classes in meditation at Buddhist philosophy in his yoga studio. Actually, the chair I am sitting on writing this was a gift from him. We were at his wedding just a couple of years before we found ourselves back in the very same room commemorating his death. He was one of the kindest, most mindful people Ronda has known and he will be sorely missed.

As our town mourn these tragic and untimely deaths, I ask myself how we can try to make sense of their passing and somehow move beyond the pain of loosing someone near and dear? Is there a reason why they are no longer with us?

The frequency and severity of traffic accidents in India is a well-known fact. My first white-knuckle drive in India, from Delhi to the Himalayas, included two side-swipes with oncoming cars, a lost side mirror, a snowstorm and nearly ploughing into a wedding party. And that was with an allegedly professional driver in a hired car from a company of some repute. Anyone who has ever been to the country knows that it comes with a certain risk. But aside from the dismal accident statistics, are there reasons and workings beyond our empirical knowledge and understanding to explain such tragedies?

One day while biking to work to a film studio in North Vancouver, I was hit by a 10 ton truck. At the time there was neither bike lanes nor sidewalks on the ramp of the bridge crossing to the North Shore. Regardless how tight I tried to stay to the edge, the vehicles blasted by merely inches away. That particular day, a truck came too close and hooked onto my left bike handle. The bike flipped under the endless wall of the vehicle and was instantly pulverized into hundreds of pieces of scrap metal. The same would have happened to me, had my shoulder not hit the side of the truck and shot me some thirty feet away. I remember the utter silence as I sailed through the air. Everything happened very slowly. I was not afraid. I was just surprised.

Imagine ending like this, I thought. I never thought I would die this way…

I landed on my head, without helmet, as I foolishly rode in those days. The truck driver went on without stopping. Who knew if he had even noticed the thud when his 18 or so wheels crushed my bike. Maybe he thought it was just a bump in the road? Miraculously, the bus that came behind him didn’t drive over me either.

I suppose my time hasn’t come yet, I thought.

For Vicente and the others who died in India, I choose to believe believe that their last minutes were equally calm, void of fear, and that everything somehow made sense to them in the last minute of this life. That they simply thought to themselves: Oh, here I go. I suppose my time has come.

But what does it mean, that our time has come? Is it a random lottery or a planned path? I suppose it depends on ones believes and how one sees the so-called after life. Is our life predestined, our cast pre-set, as is our path of reincarnations? Are off to heaven, hell or purgatory? Can we change our karma and create a better birth? Are some of us predestined to great things? Or are we going into a big void of eternal silence and non-being. Regardless of our faith, the knowledge will come to us at the end. And in my humble opinion, we are better off treating our fellow beings kindly while on this earthly path, as after all we are all in this together.

Coming out alive, albeit injured and profoundly affected, from such an accident is bound to leave one with questions. Why did I survive? Why was I given a second chance? If there is a moment when one is fluttering in a state between life and death, one might consciously or not try to plead with some higher force, promising to become a better human should one survive the ordeal. If one comes back to life, it is difficult not to wander what one is supposed to do with the remainder of ones life.

An accident like this will make us intensely aware that we can go at any moment. The couple of times in my life when I have come, shall we call it, back to life, I have promised myself to cherish every breath and every second of every day. Though sad as it is, we humans generally have a very short memory span when it comes to such important promises. I never became a saint, but quickly went back to the old me. I can only hope that the nine survivors of the terrible tragedy in India will do better than myself in this regard, as there is so much they can do and so much they can teach us.

One Christmas, I went to a mass in Vancouver’s Lower East Side. The hall was full of junkies, homeless people and others without much hope. In other words, not an easy crowd to cheer up at the best of times. Yet, the priest said something that day which I will always remember.

We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.

I am pretty sure it wasn’t his original thought. It might have been one of those saying that have been quoted and misquoted time and time again. However, to me that was irrelevant. Suddenly, as if a bulb lit up in my head, everything made sense. With all the joys and pains we have in this life, the body and mind of ours, our vessel for this particular human journey, will age, deteriorate and cease. Yet, there is something that will remain, something that we can sense, but cannot sense. That something which people might become aware of just before they die., that we are not merely human beings, here for the ride, but spiritual beings who have taken up a human journey. There might be other human journeys for us, who knows? But something remains beyond this life. Name it whatever you want.

Vicente, Nieves, Pepa and Paco have ended this particular human journey of theirs. They have gone to another realm, a realm that we will know one day, sooner than we might like. For these four people, their time had come. They have begun a new journey. The accident is a tragedy and a great loss for our little town. We will still cry when we remember them, but we must try to find comfort in that they died in a place where they were doing good. They died helping others, and what better way is there to go, seeing that we all have to go there.

They departed were too young to die, statistically speaking. But as they say, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years. As far as our friend Vicente was concerned, he had filled an incredible amount of life into his half a century. He might have lived past ninety like his parents, both of whom passed on in the last year. But maybe there was another plan for him. Hurtful as it might be to us who remain, maybe his work here was done. Maybe he had taught us what he could, wanted, or saw necessary, knowing we were ready to go on without him? Maybe he was more needed in another place, in another dimension, in another human journey? Vicente dedicated his life to create peace, harmony and love. This is how he spoke about life:

Obviously, we are not going to be here forever, but with the time we have, we can be the best possible. We have been given this marvellous opportunity that we call life, so that we can experiment, so we can experience and so we can enjoy. So we must enjoy. Enjoy with conscience…

So, Vicente, our dear friend, we are grateful to have had the privilege of knowing you. May you not rest in peace, but live on in peace, wherever you are, and may Ronda grow kinder and wiser for having known you.

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Bringing Spain to the far north – a fjord-swim adventure

“Are you going into that? Now?”

My Mexican-born husband looked at me in disbelief as I headed for the fjord on the very first morning of our holiday.  To him, swimming in the North Sea, a slightly southern neighbour to the Arctic Ocean, certainly when one like me went straight from bed to the water, was nothing but pure lunacy.

“Absolutely!”, I said.

Looking for an opening between a couple of jellyfish, I plunged in Norwegian style without checking the thermometer. At these latitudes some things are better left unseen, certainly until after one has safely exited the water. At nearly 14 degrees, summer had certainly arrived in southern Norway.  I reasoned that my difficulties in breathing while swimming was due to the fact that we now live in Andalucía on Europe’s southernmost tip, so I was out of practice when it came to ice bathing.

A morning dip or a morgenbad as we call it in Norway is a time-honoured tradition, probably practiced as long as people have lived on our rocky shores. One does not have to go far back in history to find a time when washing one’s body was a seasonal or biannual event, certainly for the masses. Therefore, seawater, like snow, must have been the common man and woman’s alternative, free and abundant for all to partake in. When it came to delousing and ridding oneself of other bodily pests, a fresh swim in near sub zero water would have killed nearly everything as a further bonus. (Actually, some men claim it even kills their reproductive capabilities.)

But why swim in the morning, you may ask? Would it not be better to do it later in the day when one has woken up properly, when the weather is a bit more temperate and when one have had time to psyche oneself up for the daring act? Are we a nation of masochists?

Though the Scandinavians also indulge in ritualistic night swims (nattbad in Norwegian) and other unnamed swims in between dawn and dusk, the morning dip is the most commonly practiced and the most widely cherished.

Take my own family for instance, where my paternal grandfather took to the sea at the family summer residence every morning rain or shine, allegedly even after having his leg amputated. He also started his day with a big slug of seawater, not gurgled down unintentionally while crawling back ashore, but ingested intentionally as his sworn cure-all health remedy. Since he had an abundance of ailments in his latter years, I am not sure how efficient this particular resolve was. However, the tradition of morning dip in the sea was brought down the family line, so that when I now come to Norway I feel that I simply have to jump in the waters first thing or I would let down a veritable mob of sea loving ancestors. Particularly in honour of my aunt Else and uncle Hasse who now have passed on, I feel I must swim out to the weather-beaten pole, cemented into the ocean floor about three-dozen strokes out from the pier. To me, as to most of my ancestors, a Norwegian summer without swimming around the old pole is simply unfathomable.

Generally, the slightly pagan ritual of the morning swim is something we like to do alone, preferably naked and with the sea as our sole companion. From an early age, we the late spawns of the Vikings are trained to brave the Nordic waters, and like any early childhood indoctrination, it often becomes a life-long obsession. There are groups of morning swimmers, such as the unofficial sea dunking society called the Bathing Boys of Oslo (Badeguttene), which name sounds more like a band or a sauna of questionable repute if you ask me. Anyhow, the group, including my 22 year-old son, dive into the Oslo fjord all year around, ice flakes notwithstanding. But the morning dip does not end with the young. Just beneath my mother’s fjord-side flat in the coastal town of Sandefjord, at least half a dozen merry widows also meet every day for a morning swim.

We Scandinavians know that this straight out of bed cold-water immersion is not everyone’s cup of tea. We do not expect foreigner visitors to understand, nor to partake in this rather barbaric tradition. Therefore, when we went to the airport to pick up a couple of Spanish friends who had come for their first Scandinavian holiday, I never in my wildest dream thought I would see them in the water.

Our friend Antonio, a tall and lanky surgeon originally from Madrid, had just celebrated his 66th birthday and kept saying

In all my 66 years and 3 days I have never eaten shrimps like these”, or “In all my 66 years and 4 days, never have I used a two-seater outhouse before.”

His wife Juncal, a spa owner originally from Lerida also had many first time experiences, such as stepping into a perfect replica of a Viking ship, which to their surprise sat moored and completely unguarded on a pier in the town of Tønsberg. In spite of what many Spaniards think, Norway in the summer is not freezing, nor covered in snow. In fact with global warming, it is rather temperate. Yet, our friends enjoyed the repose from the near 40-degree high heat in Ronda where we all reside. They admired the pristinely clear coastal water and were genuinely surprised at seeing streets and parks without garbage thrown everywhere. They were amused by the fact that almost everybody seemed to follow the traffic rules and stay under the speed limit. Their jaws dropped at the sight of the fresh seafood in the local fish store, and they concurred that the taste of the local fruit and vegetables were second to none, especially the Norwegian strawberries, which the locals of course claim are the best in the world. As expected, they were shocked at the prices, having to pay 5 euros for a coffee or a greasy spoon hotdog. Another first for our Spanish friends happened when we as responsible more-than-mature adults were refused to buy a couple of beers at a supermarket on a Sunday and then the following day were refused to buy the same beverages because it was 5 minutes past 8 pm, which we were told was the deadline for alcohol sales on Mondays. Even this clean law abiding north had its drawbacks, but it was one more item for Antonio’s “Never in my 66 years…” list.

After an excursion to yet another picturesque little fjord town, Juncal said that she would join me for a swim. I would not have believed her, were it not for the fact that her mother was Catalan and her father was Basque, thus she has fiercely independent thinking genes on both sides, in addition to a pinch of feisty Gypsy blood from her great grandma. So, on day three of the Spanish visit my Catalana friend came into the North Sea with me, while the husbands claimed to be on the lookout for jellyfish.

On the very last day of their holiday Juncal told Antonio that if he wanted to swim in Norway, it was now or never. Being late July, the water had now reached a balmy 18 degrees. The Madrilleño could not ignore such a challenge and though he has less body fat than any of us and other things to loose, he came down to the water, embalmed in my mom’s spare bathrobe that we all used on rotation.

“Is it cold?”, he asked me, as I already had done my compulsory tack out to the pole.

“Cold? Heaven’s no!”, I said, “It is lovely!”

At this point it is only fair to come with a small admission. You see, if you ask any bathing Norwegian how the water is, regardless of the temperature we will never, ever say that it is cold. We will use expressions such as refreshing, invigorating, fresh, or maravilloso if you happen to speak to a Spaniard. And temperature notwithstanding, it does feel all the above, particularly after you have gotten out of the water so you can feel your fingers and toes again. It is at this post-bath moment when the real magic begins, as silvery drops of seawater run down your skin, making every cell tingle, saying Yes, I am alive!

Barefoot and disrobed, Antonio drifted carefully out onto the pier and started inching himself down the wooden ladder. Ignoring Juncal’s calls or trusting my long time proven advice to just jump in to save himself a lot of agony, he entered painfully slow. Finally, with a few soundless gasps Antonio was under the water. And as us sea-bathers know, once you are in, it gets better and better. The Madrilleno even joined Juncal and myself in rounding the pole, which for a Spaniard must be the equivalent of swimming across the North West Passage.

With the biggest grin ever, Antonio gave us a new version of his holiday refrain:

En todo mis 66 años …

In all my 66 years and 9 days, I have never before swum in the North Sea!

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