Our first Spanish assignment was set on windy roads twenty minutes from the nearest large town and ten minutes from a village along a rambla which, I’ve discovered, is not a wide paved road as in Barcelona, but a dusty dried up riverbed used as a road for most of the year unless there is too much rain. This area we are in has a lot of ramblas!
We were met by three very excited dogs barking and racing around as we drove in to meet the homeowners. This Spanish Cortijo stood proudly on its plot of land amidst many hectares of almond groves, rabbit holes and dry stony soil. At first glance, it seemed like a lush oasis, until you realised that the green grass is all artificial. But there are lemon and orange trees laden with fruit, palm trees and roses and a myriad of flowers thriving here and a delightful swimming pool. It’s a very attractive place to be staying. We had met up with our hosts previously when they were in New Zealand touring the country and visiting with another former housesitter from Gisborne, so it was good to meet them again in their own home and be introduced to their furry family.
There were three dogs, which at first I was concerned we may not be able to handle, but out here in the countryside they roam free on our twice daily circuit up the rambla and back along the neighbouring driveways so it was an easy exercise, unless Shoshie ranged too far. He was so funny to watch as he stalked the rabbits that seem to be myriad here. He jumps like a newborn lamb and pounces where he thinks he may get lucky. For him, I think the fun is in the hunt and chase – I’m not sure if he would ever catch one. Sam seemed like a really old boy when we first met him and I was surprised to hear he was about 5 years old. He was a gentle giant who suffered from a bit of arthritis – but before we left his owner arranged an injection to relieve this for him which made a marked improvement in his energy and willingness to go on walks. He was very much a plodder, ambling along at his own pace. Emmy was a tiny energetic Prager Rattler dog, very cute and absolutely spoilt by her mum. Each dog had their own pace – while I tried to walk quickly enough to keep an eye on Shoshie, Chris kept back with Sam, encouraging him to keep going, and poor Emmy ranged between the both of us, but usually hanging back with Chris and Sam. Chris usually found Emmy under his feet and he learned to look for the shadow.
Once the owners had shown us the ropes and left on their holiday, each day had its own routine. Chris was the early riser and took the morning shift of feeding the family. The dogs were very pleased to see him and, as I lay in bed, I would hear the excited deep woofing of Sam and Shoshie and the hyperactive yap of Emmy. (The cat Ludi we only ever saw at mealtimes, generally Ludi was the first to tell us it was time for dinner! ) We both walked them on a morning and then I had the joy of letting the hens out, cleaning their coop and bringing in the freshly laid eggs. Some of the bonuses of this sit included free-range eggs and oranges gathered off the bush each day. Because we were fairly remote, we tended to stay at home more, there was no “must-see” sightseeing nearby. It was good to chill out and just “be”. Also, the early May weather didn’t really cooperate with the first few days being somewhat chilly and then a few thunderstorms mixed in to keep us on our toes. These thunderstorms caused some issues with fuses tripping and needing to be reset, but we managed to get everything working again, with a little assistance via WhatsApp with the owners. Emmy, being the only inside dog made a great effort to get little advantages – after the first couple of nights, she ventured to our bedroom while we watched TV, where we said, “NO! Not on the bed” – that lasted less than 10 minutes and there she was snuggled up on someone’s lap! After that, we were forever finding her snuggled up against the pillows. It took some persuasion to get her off and into her own nest for the nighttime.
The local village had a market where we gathered fresh fruit and vegetables and the larger town surprised us in the most pleasant way with their supermarket prices. Our first comprehensive shop of meats, vegetables and staples cost us €22 which amazed us. I think our most expensive grocery visit cost about €40, and that had a bottle of wine, salmon and other meats. (Mind you we chose the expensive €2.70 bottle of Rose.)
Most of our stay ran relatively smoothly once the weather improved, the animals were lovely and we enjoyed just “being” in this location. Chris relished getting out on his bike every day – there were lots and lots of hills for him but the roads were excellent – smooth and fairly quiet, and one day we took the owners’ mountain bikes for a ride along the rambla about 4km up and then the downhill return. Another day, we travelled over to Mojacar to meet up with the couple that we would housesit for in Vera later in June. It was a great opportunity to meet up and start to get to know them and a bit about their home and pet dog, and clarify that they were not living in/near the naturalist urbanisation… phew!
While here we celebrated our wedding anniversary and tried to find somewhere authentic to go to dinner. Our hosts had suggested the English restaurant in Albox, but we wanted something with a bit more local flavour, and maybe not so far away. We found a place about 10 minutes away and arrived around 7pm – way too early for Spain, but they were open and we were there! It was certainly rustic and the fire that was burning away added to the ambience. As always we ordered fish and then watched as two whole fish were prepared with lemon and salt next to the fireplace and placed on the glowing embers to cook. Our starter of melon and jambon set us off well and once the freshly fried thick (‘hand-cut’ they would proudly tell us in our hometown restaurants) chips were added to the plates of whole fish, the meal was ready. It was truly finger licking good. As we were finishing off, the restaurant filled a little more so we felt comfortable that we were not their only clients that night.
We arrived back still in daylight to a raucous welcome from our three charges. It was nice to have such an exuberant greeting. Chris wandered inside, while I went to get a couple of treats for them and just as I came back out I saw Sam, who had just finished a large drink, give a shudder and basically just collapse. The other dogs weren’t too interested, but seeing that he was making no attempt to get up I went to find out what had happened – just as dear Sam gave his last breath. Chris and I were in a state of disbelief – one moment we had been welcomed home by this gentle giant and now he was gone. Then, the realisation that we had to let the homeowners know this awful news. We immediately sent off a text message and WhatsApp asking them to phone us, and, hearing nothing, tried phoning them. We knew they had a number of family events and didn’t want to disturb their time, but we tried several ways of contacting them and left messages asking for a phone call back. Chris called the local Vet but at this stage, we knew there was nothing he could do. By now dusk was falling and we knew we needed to move poor Sam’s body as we couldn’t leave it in the open overnight. Sam was a big lump of a dog, I’m guessing somewhere between 40 and 60kg, and we needed to move him at least 200 metres to a shed. We found a hammock lying on a chair and tried to gently position him on this but then realised that gentle was neither necessary or useful. Finally, we got him onto it and then we had to try and get him across the driveway (we didn’t want to drag the hammock) … it took quite some time, with lots of rest stops, but we managed to store him away safely for the night.
At last, we had contact from the homeowners – deep breath, they knew something was amiss, but nothing like this. There was silence and you could almost feel the shock of our news sinking in. We gave as much information as we thought necessary and then gave our homeowners time to ponder on next steps for the following day. It was important we kept our other charges happy – they knew something was not right, but both of them kept right away as we moved Sam. It was a long disrupted night as I’m sure both of us had interesting thoughts and dreams. Next morning we heard again from our homeowners that their neighbour would bring his tractor to dig a hole for Sam – that had been a bit of a nightmare scenario for us too – the ground here is very dry and very stony, so a tractor with a digger made an easier job of it. We let both the other dogs out so they could sniff “goodbye” and then the deed was done. We were still reeling a bit from the suddenness of everything but knew there was nothing we could have done.
The day proceeded with our usual routine, walking the dogs, collecting the eggs from the chickens, preparing dinner and our evening walk. Then we noticed that Schoshie seemed quite distressed. His head was down and he was panting, I gave him a once over rub and he seemed very unhappy, snapping at me which was most unlike him – oh no! We called the Vet immediately and, although the clinic had closed for the evening, he agreed to be there if we could make it in to him in 20 minutes. We bundled the dog into the car; I sat in the back seat, trying to comfort him as he sounded not great at all, and Chris drove as quickly as possible the windy roads back into town. Every time the dog stopped panting, Chris would semi-panic – was he still alive? We were beside ourselves after the events of the previous night we didn’t want to make that phone call again. We made it to the clinic in record time and got this sad dog inside where he looked very sorry for himself. After checking Shoshie out, the vet said it would be an overnight stay. His first thoughts were that the dog may have eaten something on the campo so he would give treatment for that. We drove away, trying to contact our homeowners again… we knew that they had an event that night so we knew it may not be possible to get in touch. We left a text message explaining that Shoshie was overnighting at the vets, and for him to call the vet for an update in the morning. Another semi-sleepless night ensued and we prayed that nothing else would happen especially to Emmy, the spoilt baby of the family and the only inside dog. Our walk the next morning was a lonely affair – only tiny Emmy accompanied us but, as we returned, the homeowner called with news we were pleased to hear. Shoshie had an injury from (probably) jumping too far and falling when out chasing rabbits, and would be fine. We were to pick him up from the vet that evening. Oh! The relief to hear… We were pleased to pick him up that evening, looking very sad with his collar on to stop him pulling out his staples. For the next couple of days, we kept him on a lead while walking, but he certainly didn’t slow down. Chris was left laughing as I got pulled along at a merry stride for his first walk back. He got the idea soon that he should walk a bit more sedately but I literally got run off my feet and almost had my arms pulled off at first.
It was a relief to continue with this housesit, be we were shocked as to how things can change so suddenly for the worse. It gave us an insight into some of the things we need to discuss with any homeowner prior to a sit… you never expect the worst, but now we know we need to be prepared for anything and raise potential scenarios before saying goodbye to the homeowners. Once our homeowners returned about five days later, things were back to an almost normal routine, but still lurking at the back of our minds was what happens next? How will they be? Was there anything else we could have done?
Thankfully everything was really good. We were very pleased to see them home and so were Emmy and Shoshie. We had a number of conversations about what had happened and they got to see where Sam was laid and how we had marked the site. The house was returned to them in clean and working order and more conversations were had, including being invited back for a Christmas sit. We needed some time away to consider this offer, so when we are in Vera, we will meet up again and give them our answer. It was certainly an encouragement to know we would be welcomed back and we know that the house and pets will be “relatively” easy to manage.
It was a sad farewell the next day to our friends – human and canine, as we drove off for another road trip exploring a bit more of the Spanish countryside away from the tourist areas.
PS: We heard two days later that Shoshie and Emmy had a new brother Bruno, found at the local rescue centre. We hope we will get to meet this lucky dog one day.