My Life As A Caveman

Chitu had dug out most of the cave himself.  Carved into the mountain like a big doughnut, the front door led into a bright, beautiful family room and kitchen. A short tunnel of white plaster led out of the kitchen through two bedrooms, a huge walk-through closet, a bathroom, even a laundry area, all with electricity and running water, and back around again into the family room. It was nothing like what I imagined when I heard the word “cave.” If the door had been round, I could have mistaken it for the entrance to Bilbo’s hobbit hole.

Most of the other caves set into the side of the hill called San Miguel, in Granada, Spain, looked far more basic and utilitarian, with blue-plastic tarps hung for shade and rusty tricycles ornamenting front yards. But Chitu had skill and talent, and perhaps a bit more money than his neighbors. His courtyard terrace was full of herbs, flowers and birds. An arbor with flowering vines provided shade. What he and his neighbors did share was a spectacular view over the Alhambra and Granada’s Albaicin, the walled, medieval city over which the Moorish battlements and San Miguel stood watch.

View over the Alhambra from the caves of San Miguel

Chitu, who was one of the thousands of Gitanos—Gypsies—who live in and around Granada, was 58 years and spoke no English at all, though his forty-something girlfriend, Lili, spoke it very well. Chitu’s grandmother had lived in the cave before him and there may have been generations before that—no one knows anymore. But Chitu’s abuela didn’t have our amenities; at the top of the hill there is a 17th-century church called La Ermita de San Miguel Alto, and it has a fountain. She had to climb up there every day to get water from the fountain and carry it down.

View from the Alhambra over the Albaicin to the hillside of San Miguel, with the church of La Ermita de San Miguel Alto just left of center

This was the same hillside that Anthony Bourdain jokingly imagined to be populated by “feral hippies” in a piece he did about Granada a few years ago on Parts Unknown. But Chitu and many of his neighbors are Gitano, Gypsy, in a place where the label isn’t pejorative, but rather something they are proud of. The Romani people, as they are officially called, have a long history and a rich culture dating back 1500 years to Northern India, including music and dance that was the forerunner to flamenco.

Flamenco dancer Luis de Luis in the throes of duende

I was in Granada for a writing workshop called In Search of Duende. Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and playright for whom Granada’s airport is named, wrote extensively about flamenco, the related music called cante jondo, and bullfighting as expressions of duende. You can read all about duende in a collection of Lorca’s work which, by extraordinary coincidence, is also called In Search of Duende. There is an excellent and free translation here.

Duende is intrinsic to much of Gypsy and Spanish artistic expression, but nowhere is it more intrinsic than in Granada. The idea of the workshop was to find our own experience of it so that we could use it to add more depth to our writing. And I did, but that’s a different story which you’ll have to wait to read, because I want to get it published elsewhere first.

For six nights, I lived in another cave just above Chitu’s, fronted by another gorgeous terrace. It was a five-minute walk, down steep, muddy footpaths through a verdant, waist-high meadow exploding with yellow mustard blooms, to get to the stairs that led to the cobblestoned streets of the Albaicin.

The path to the Albaicin

My cave was owned by a 60-year-old man named Paco, who spoke only un poquito Ingles but was fluent in the use of Google Translate. Slightly dank in wet weather and always lacking daylight, my cave was a hard place to spend time when it was raining—and though you wouldn’t know it from my photos, we had nearly non-stop rain the entire week that continued in torrents when I left. But it was extremely quiet, because my apartment was excavated like a long tunnel and the bedroom was at the back. The only sound at night was Paco’s occasional snoring, gently drifting in from the far-distant foyer where his apartment connected to mine. Chitu had helped Paco design his cave also. It featured foot-wide faux-marble columns and was cluttered with antiques like a set of wooden African-American jazz musicians that he’d bought in Chicago once upon a time.

Paco always turned his eyes away when I took his photo. It wasn’t that he didn’t want his picture taken. Every time, he would sit perfectly still like this until I was done. I didn’t know how to tell him to look at me.

Paco had a round table in his dining area covered by a heavy blanket that reached to the floor, and under the table was an electric heater. In what Paco claimed was traditional fashion, I had breakfast at that table with the blankets pulled up over my lap, soaking in the heat while dressed in all of my layers and a wool ski cap.

There was also a small group of West African immigrants, young men, who lived on that hillside, a bit away from the longer-term residents. Some of them were basically camping, not even in a cave. One of them, named Mohammed, came around Paco’s place a lot and helped out. Paco told me that Mohammed was his adopted son but I never did figure out what he actually meant.

Stacey, one of my workshop-mates, was in another cave right next to Chitu’s. Unlike my cave, hers was beautifully laid out and bright. But it was next door to Chitu’s chicken coop where a rooster reminded her 24 hours a day of his presence.

The other 4 workshop participants were in standard hotel rooms and you’d think I would have envied their modern rooms and central heating, but I didn’t. I loved living in our troglodyte community. I would have missed the authenticity of it all. After a couple of days of eying me suspiciously, the neighbors began to wave and smile as I passed, and children said buenos días! as they trudged to school in the mornings.

Chitu shows off his favorite sweater

Sometimes on my walk up the hill in the afternoon, I’d pass Chitu in his courtyard and we’d exchange greetings. He’d offer me a beer and we’d sit down to chat in a collage of English, Spanish and a lot of gesturing. Once, I complimented him on his knitted, olive-green sweater, which reminded me of one I own. Telling me in Spanish that he thought it would fit, he handed it over for me to try on. Then, he wouldn’t take it back—it was a gift, he said, and he seemed offended that I wouldn’t accept it. Fortunately, Lili was there to help me explain that I already owned one just like it.

Yvonne and I are talking about going back so I can show her around Granada. When we do, I’m bringing my olive-green sweater along so Chitu can try it on. It should fit him perfectly.