So there I was, trying to make some progress on the Chicken Palace while Geoff was out for the day, a fresh batch of mortar mixed and ready to go, when one of the local Elderly Spanish Gentlemen beckoned me over.
“Do you want to irrigate your land?”
“Well, yes, it must be nearly time…” I trailed off, wondering if I had understood his question and whether my response made any sense at all.
We had noticed the acequia had been flowing very strongly for several days, but a chap we had found in the garden a few days before had simply said he was watering his lemon trees when I asked him why there was so much water going past the house. Maybe this conversation would clarify things a little.
The ESG chattered on about irrigating and how Juan had irrigated yesterday, how he was just doing some down the bottom end and did I want to irrigate after them.
I did my best to follow what he was talking about and gathered that the water that had been flowing through the acequia all over the weekend was not from the usual source. It seemed the old boys were part of a scheme that was getting free water diverted from the river, which is uncharacteristically still flowing.
“I’ll tell you when I am going to shut my sluice and you can open yours, OK?”
I thanked him very much and hurried to finish what I had been intending to do.
Now, usually it has been Geoff who has dealt with the sluices, digging channels on the land and directing the water about, so I did not have a very clear idea of where he had made channels and I had never actually operated the sluice system. The grass, weeds and wild flowers (is there a difference?) have grown so much that it was very difficult to see what was going on at ground level: all I could see was a waist high mass of foliage and flowers. I thought I had better go and clear the mud and stones that are piled in front of our sluice to stop water leaking through it when we are not supposed to be irrigating. This involved fighting through thigh high grass and weeds and trying to straddle the water channel. Unfortunately, what I thought was a part of the far bank was just a patch of weeds covering a hole. My foot disappeared, I dropped the spade and nearly went face first into the water channel. Not a good start.
I extricated myself clumsily and hurried to pull out the marble sluice gate and shovel out the mud. I had hardly cleared half of it when the water started gushing through. I leaped back and narrowly avoided being soaked to the knees. The channel that runs down the side of our land is a mud tributary off the main concrete acequia that runs down the valley. Normally, our water comes from the other direction, so we had never had to block the acequia for this direction of flow. I cast about me for inspiration. I knew where Geoff normally closed things off, but that was no good to me now. The marble sluice was made to fit our channel, but was too narrow to block the acequia. In desperation, I turned the sluice on its side and wedged it across to block the water as best I could. Shovelling some dirt around it seemed to help, but there was still quite a lot leaking through. I decided it hardly mattered when there was so much pouring past me.
As I turned away, I realized that the old boy had come to check on my progress. I was slightly embarrassed that I had not conducted myself with any great panache, but he showed no sign of having expected anything other than ineptitude, so all was well.
His mobile rang – I still find it odd that these elderly, rural Spanish men are more comfortable with them than I am – and he had a rapid conversation that sounded like a cloak and dagger operation was being conducted:
“Yes, Juan has finished. Yes, it’s all done. Mutter, mutter, the package will be in the agreed place mutter mutter you know what to do.” (I made the last bit up, but the general tone was one of conspiracy to irrigate.)
He pocketed his phone and turned to me.
“Bueno. I’m off home now. Remember, it’s free, but don’t say anything to anyone, OK?”
I thanked him very much, still unclear why the water was free, why I should not say anything and whether I had completely misunderstood what was going on.
I did not have time to ponder the matter very deeply. Water was gushing through the channel far more quickly than it usually does, filling it to overflowing. The break in the bank that allows the dog pound to be flooded should have been blocked sufficiently to keep them dry, but there was so much water that it had easily washed through it and the dogs were splashing and galumphing about happily in a fast-growing patch of swamp.
There was no way I could see to block it properly, so I decided to try to clear the way for the water to flow more easily down to the olives at the bottom of the land. Maybe if it had a path of less resistance it would take that. It was a forlorn hope, but I decided to try it.
I had not been down to the bottom of the land for a week or so, and the weeds had grown densely across the path I normally take, making it treacherous underfoot. I was also very aware that there are scorpions and scolopendras on our land, both of which can give a very nasty, painful bite. I chose to ignore the idea of the snakes and wild boar. I just smashed the spade about noisily in front of me, hoping that most beasties would prefer to avoid a confrontation.
There followed a couple of hours of trying to find and clear out channels Geoff had dug to direct the water to all of the olive trees on the bottom level. Most of them were hidden in thick, weedy undergrowth and the wild boar had dug out huge craters that looked like bombs had been detonated among the trees. Often, it was a case of watching carefully for signs of water glimmering under the weeds and then deepening the shallow grooves it had found for itself. It was hard work in tricky circumstances on a very hot day. I kept losing my shoes in the mud and almost falling into patches of prickly weeds.
While I sweated and fretted and tried my best to keep up with the water, the sun shone and the birds sang. Tiny insects glinted and danced around me, probably taking bites out of whatever bits of skin they could find. Around every corner there was another patch of poppies, yellow, purple and blue wildflowers, daisy-type plants and calendulas, speedwells, pimpernels and tiny pea-shaped flowers. It was all incredibly lovely with the blue sky above and the burble and chatter of the water jumping over the dry stone walls from level to level. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I found my heart singing as I laboured, but after a couple of hours, I could tell I was running out of steam and that my body would soon stop functioning well enough to do anything even remotely useful.
I staggered back up to the house, grabbed the camera, hobbled around taking a few pictures and clearing weeds and mud out of channels I had already cleared once and then dragged myself back up to drink a couple of long drinks of tonic water to fend off the cramp I often get.
There was only one thing for it: I needed to get Geoff back to take over. I was greatly relieved when his mobile did not go to voicemail! Fortunately, he was able to come home fairly soon, so I waited until I had plonked the straw hat on his head and waved him off in the direction of the olive trees and then collapsed for an hour or so in the hammock.
By the time the water had been flowing for seven hours, all the levels of olives had been watered right to the furthest trees, and both levels of oranges had been completely reached. The dog pound begged to be renamed Swan Lake, Paco’s neglected strip of land and the veg patch were also ankle deep.
Geoff was exhausted, as was I. We decided to let the water continue flowing overnight and reassess the situation in the morning. Geoff closed the sluice after twenty-one hours of fast flowing water had poured onto our land. We now have proof that you can indeed have too much of a good thing.
We still do not really understand why so much water was available, but we are guessing that the reservoirs for irrigating are probably already full, so they have directed the water into the acequias. We do not know if the cloak and dagger conversation was because our neighbours were being generous to us but did not want everyone else asking them for a favour. It could be that there is some dodgy dealing going on, but our Spanish is not good enough to understand, even if someone did explain.
What we do know is that our land had probably rarely had such a fantastically thorough watering. We are very grateful to have had the opportunity and will try not to waste any time trying to figure out the whys and wherefores.
Once again, we have to smile, shrug and repeat the mantra: This is Spain.