"Welcome to the arsehole of the world," says Robert* as we row down the Guadiana River in a little dinghy toward his farm. He's in his late 40s, wearing a faded black wife-beater and dark sunglasses, with graying Elvis sideburns and half a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
I look around and see eucalyptus trees lining the bank of the river, rolling hills surrounding white-wall and orange-roof villages. Portugal on one side, Spain on the other. Blue skies, nearly 100 degrees. It's a pretty nice looking arsehole, really, but it's smack in the middle of nowhere. Just two little villages on either side of the river and a lot of disused land around them.
Robert has had an exciting life so far. He's been through the squat and free party scene in London in the late 1980s, done the rock-n-roll thing with a German punk band, hung with Fela Kuti in the Kalkuta Republic, ran hash from Lebanon into Israeli Kibbitzim, and now he's here in Sanlucar de Guadiana in Andalusia, Spain—population: 500—a haven for British expats.
A patron of the local bar
Spain in general is popular among UK residents looking for an escape. There are an estimated one million British citizens living in the country, mostly centered around Valencia, Malaga, Marbella, Torremolinos—places where you can get Heinz Beans for breakfast and no one bats an eyelid at socks-in-sandals. They buy their villas, sit on the beach, go shopping, and play golf. But the little expat community in Sanlucar is a different scene altogether.
Drift down the river and you'll see them on the banks: topless in straw hats, hunched over veg-plots, herding sheep, or sanding timber, all tending to their fincas—small farms built on disused land. They grow fruit and vegetables, keep livestock, and build their own houses.
An amateur-built house
It might sound simple enough—move onto a piece of land, build a house, farm crops, keep a few animals—but to a useless Digital Age kid like me, raised in an economy where those fundamental human skills are superfluous and long forgotten, these people are courageous.
The finca I stayed on was almost self-sufficient. The residents grow most of their own food, and keep chickens and a few sheep for meat. They generate all their electricity from solar panels and wind generators. A simple irrigation system pumps water up from the river, and everything that drains from the shower or the sink goes to the plants and the fruit trees.
I've been to a few eco-villages in the UK, and none of them have it half as good as these guys. Try to live off the land in the English climate, and you inevitably spend most of the year collecting wood for warmth in the winter, then most of winter cursing the fact that you're sleeping in a shed made of recycled Jewson palettes instead of an electrically-heated and professionally-insulated house. Or you're fighting bailiffs.
Over in Spain they have cheap land, planning permission, and can grow their own weed. They're laughing.
"Back at home, you can't cut down a tree, you can't even paint your house without the authorities and their paperwork," says Peggy. "We're secluded here, we can do what we like."
Peggy arrived in her early 30s. She got on the wrong train by mistake one morning and found herself in Paddington, took it as a sign, and decided there and then to make a run for it. Without looking back, she got on a train to Bristol to pick up a guy she'd once had a fling with, and together they sailed the world until they found this place, where they dug in.
Now they have two kids, two dogs, six sheep, plenty of chickens, and have built a beautiful little cottage by the river. Just like that. No prior farming or house-building experience. They just did it. You have to admire the courage. Building a safe and functional house feels to me as achievable as heart surgery to a dilettante.
Tony and Jan
Tony and Jan are a few fincas downriver. We kayaked around one day and spent an afternoon on their balcony drinking Spanish lager, admiring their bungalow, and bitching about England. They're in their late 60s, and had sailed the world for 42 years before stopping here three years ago to build their house. They lived in a tent while they built a shed, and then lived in that shed until they finished their house.
"If humans can do it, you or I can do it," says Tony, white haired with gappy teeth and a wheezy chuckle. "I never mixed concrete in my life before we started this."
A local farmer taught him how to make dry stone walls, and he hired a professional to tile the floor, but everything else he did himself, floating tons of brick and sand down the river and hauling it up to the building site on a moped. A lot of work for a skinny, white-haired old man with back problems. He had to stop sailing because of his age, but who says you can't build your own house at 70?
There was no chance of them going back to England, of course. "It costs £9 [$14] for a pack of cigarettes, £5 [$8] for a pint, the weather sucks, and nobody talks to each other." Yup.
And if they're not at the fincas Tony and Jan are at the bar in the village along with the rest of the ex-pats, getting wasted on cheap sherry and telling stories. The community is a weird mix of washed-ashore sailors, hippies, and has-beens. There are even a number of ex-army, no-nonsense pragmatists around, for whom sustainability and self-sufficiency are more to do with survivalism. What they all have in common, however, is their glorious return-to-the-land ideal. They all escaped—from the cities, the complicated technology, the unending politics, and overall ball-ache of contemporary living, to come here and live the simple life. Build a house, grow food, get drunk, splash around in the river, and ignore the rest. Beautiful.
Some names have been changed.