10/31/2005

What's All The Buzz Around Doñana? [OCTOBER 30, 2005]

We stepped out of the boiling car and into the Andalucían wilderness. The thick shrubs that encircled us allowed for a fleeting glimpse of the wetlands beyond. I squinted my eyes and tried to spot some of the national park’s famous flamingoes in their natural habitat.
"Hey, anyone see some flamingoes?" as I batted away a fly that had landed on my neck.
"No... Wait a minute! What’s that?" our friend asked as she swatted in much the same way I had just done.
"No, no, no. That’s a hawk. Or maybe an eagle," her boyfriend answered as he slapped his arm.
We all continue looking and swatting aimlessly when my girlfriend interrupted,"These flies are driving me CRAZY!
"Yeah, this is a bit ridiculous."
"My God, they’re EVERYWHERE!" as I felt something, somethings, landing on my face. "What the... They’re attacking me! Feeding off of my beard!"
"Me too... Can’t... get... rid... of them."
"That’s it!" my girlfriend yelled. "I’m going back to the car!" She walked back to the searing metal box, arms waving maniacally in the air, and opened the door. A cloud of flies emerged from within. "They’re... They’re... Everywhere! In here too!"
"But we JUST got out of the car!" We had parked and left the windows open, hoping that it would alleviate some of the heat in our air-conditionless Opel. Not even five minutes had gone by.
It felt like we were the unwitting victims in some 1960s Zombie flick gone horribly wrong. "Everyone, quick! Back into the car! Let’s get out of here before they take over completely," I yelled.
We all hopped into the scorching four-door hatchback, windows still rolled down, and drove away to another section of the park as a cloud of dust picked up in our wake.

One of the things you miss about living in a city like Cádiz, nearly completely encircled by the sea and thoroughly urbanized through its three thousand years of existence (that’s right, I said Cádiz has been around for 3000 years), is nature. Back in Pennsylvania, where I’m from, you have so many trees, deer and squirrels that you eventually find nothing strange about strange mammals running across your lawn at strange hours of the day. Back home, we don’t use the popular British expression "like a rabbit in the headlamps" but say "like a deer in the headlights." It’s the same with my girlfriend. In fact, she misses the rolling green hills and wooded countryside of her native Czech Republic even more so than I do. Sure, Cádiz’s cobblestone alleys, Renaissance architecture and decaying Roman theater are nice, but sometimes you just need a little stroll through the forest. You need to get some green and fresh air. So, when the opportunity arose last weekend to take a nice afternoon drive with some friends down to Spain’s largest Natural Park and Wildlife Reserve, Doñana Park, we were as anxious as children on Christmas morning.

Doñana is a lovely place with a wide arrange of flora and virgin habitats. It is home to some 250 different species of birds, over half of them migratory, and 28 species of mammals, most of them in danger of extinction such as the lynx and Egyptian mongoose. The park itself is divided into many different sections but, as a whole, consists of nearly 1300 square kilometers of untouched reserve stretching from the Atlantic through the provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cádiz. At least that’s what our guidebook said. What we found when we first got there were those hordes of flies and countless shrubs. Now I know the ecosystem here in Andalucía is different than that of the Northeastern United States and Central Europe, but a park isn’t really a park without trees, now is it? Shrubbery, no matter how large, tall or plentiful, does not a park make. What it does make is shrub-land and, in my opinion, shrub-land is only one step better than the Sahara when deciding where to take a nice Sunday stroll.


Ah, there's nothing like a lovely stroll through the park

But, as I said at the beginning of this article, we quickly left the first place we stopped at in Doñana. We headed off in the Opel with our windows rolled down and the dusty wind blowing in through the windows which, temporarily at least, seemed to keep the vehicle’s flies at bay. We drove through the shrub-land on the bumpy dirt road for a while when we spotted a sign. "Bird Observatory –› 10KM" What the hell? we thought. An official bird observatory might be the perfect place to get a reprieve, no matter how temporary, from the unbearable heat and insects that seemed to be following us everywhere. There would probably be some exhibits and park rangers there to help us enjoy our wildlife experience too. And maybe, just maybe, we’d finally be able to see some flamingoes.


The Bird Observatory must have taken ages to build!

Well, after about fifteen grueling minutes on the crappiest road ever built by man, we made it to the observatory. There were no park rangers, no exhibits, not even a W.C. In fact, there wasn’t even a building. The official park observatory was nothing more than a makeshift bamboo wall with a hole cut out in the center. That was it. It overlooked the shrubs and, if you looked for long enough and far enough, you could make out a bird or two. They didn’t look like flamingoes though.... The closer I looked the more they resembled the seagulls I see in Cádiz every day. After swatting a few more flies away, we decided we had had enough of Doñana. All four of us crawled disappointedly into the Opel and headed back along the same dusty road.


Observing... Making the most out of Doñana's tourist facilities

Thankfully, halfway back to the "Bird Observatory –› 10KM" sign, my friend (who was driving) had to water the shrubs. It turns out he had drunk too much water on the way there. So, we pulled over, he went to take care of business, and the rest of us walked toward the marshy wasteland a few meters to our left. Then we saw them... the flamingoes. They were beautiful. They were gathered in what must have been a group of thirty or forty, leg deep in the marsh-water, feeding on what algae they could find beneath. A few spread their pinkish-hued wings to fly away and we gazed in wide-eyed amazement at the glorious picture of pristine nature which lay before our unsuspecting eyes. The entire day’s troubles had been worth it... or so we thought.


Breathtaking! It was all worth it

On our way back to the civilization we, once again, had to go through that first place we had stopped at in the park. To our surprise, close to one of Doñana’s entry gates, the locals from the bordering village of Algaida (not Al-Qaeda as I first thought) had invaded the park dressed in elaborate flamenco costumes and riding proud horses. They were preparing for the favorite Spanish pastime – fiesta. The colorful sight was so eye-catching that we decided to stop. How lucky, we thought, to be able to witness both flamingo and flamenco in one day. We found out a few minutes later that quick glances from a moving car can often be deceiving. In all the merriment and excitement we had completely forgotten about the evil little flies that lurked in the shrubbery. As we stepped out, they attacked us in full force but this time with reinforcements... giant mosquitos. We slapped and swatted away as the Spaniards, who weren’t bothered in the least by the countless insects buzzing about, continued drinking their wine, eating their tapas and dancing to their guitars. We were soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of pests and, realizing our mistake, jumped back into the Opel more than willing to sacrifice the show. Inside the metal deathtrap there was nothing but boiling and buzzing.


A fiesta in the depths of Insect Inferno - but the Spanish don't mind

"Get the hell outta here!" I shouted to the driver as we all swung our hands in a futile attempt to protect the little skin that had yet to be stung. "They’re... taking... over..."
He inserted the key and turned the ignition. Nothing. We glanced at each other in despair.
"Try again! The battery’s almost new! It’s not possible!" Our fingers crossed, we watched him turn the key once again. Still nothing. "For the love of God... NO!"
The horrible truth suddenly dawned on us. We were stuck in a sweltering car in an insect-infested park with people laughing and dancing flamenco all around. Forget 1960s Zombie flick – We had entered The Twilight Zone.


Don't take it personally Algaida, but we're gettin' the hell outta here!

The desperate situation called for brisk action. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to our friends so they took out the cables and asked some fiesta revelers for a jump start. To our relief, the engine was soon brought to life and we headed out of that hell-hole without looking back, laughing almost hysterically at the thought of what if the stalled engine had happened earlier in the day at the "official park observatory" miles from civilization. But we didn’t laugh for too long. Our happy chitchat was soon silenced when the engine died yet again, only fifteen minutes later. We needed another jump start. A quick glance around and we soon spotted our saviors. "Perdone las molestias..." The engine started once again but this time we set off for Cádiz with ominous apprehension.

Well, to cut a long and embarrassing story short, Spanish people proved to be very patient and helpful. My normally pessimistic girlfriend, for example, was completely taken aback when we stopped at a petrol station and asked the busy attendant inside the rest stop for help. She simply handed us the keys to her car, told us to "do what needed to be done" and continued serving customers at the cash register. Our thanks to all who helped!


"Perdone las molestias, Señor..." but we need another jump

Despite this outpouring of kindness though, we still didn’t make it home. Ten kilometers outside of Cádiz on a narrow expressway overpass and in the rapidly fading daylight, the Opel died its last death. We could do nothing more without a mechanic – Shock treatment just wouldn’t bring it back.

Desperate and stranded, we called for help and received what we should have expected from a Spanish tow service, "What? Today during the weekend? How about we pick it up on Monday?"
"Umm, it’s in the middle of the expressway. On a narrow overpass. Don’t you think it might just be a little dangerous to leave it here overnight?"
"Maybe... But, we can’t pick it up until Monday. Try calling the Municipal Authorities."
"Okay, thanks."
...
"Hello? Municipal Authorities? We need a tow truck because we’re stranded on the expressway and this is rapidly becoming a public hazard."
"What? Today? It’s the weekend! We can come by tomorrow."
"But it’s an emergency..."
"Yeah, well... Try calling a tow service."
You get the picture. Anyone who has spent enough time in Spain knows that, after fiesta, the two other favorite pastimes are pass-the-buck and mañana.

In the end, we called an English friend of ours and he came to the rescue a bit past ten. He helped us tow the war-weary Opel off the dangerous overpass and onto a safe side street were it could be left overnight.

The car is now okay and for those of you who understand automobiles, it was the alternator. For everyone else, two little pieces of advice – Don’t rely on the Spanish authorities and, most importantly, NEVER go to Doñana without repellent!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I’m glad that I stopped by. I am in the process of searching for ideas about debt to add to my site. This stop wasn’t what I was looking for, but still worth the time to see.

Lori said...

I'm glad I know about the parks there....I will stay away from them...If I ever go!!!

Cheers to better days!!!

Roberto Iza Valdes said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Roberto Iza Valdes said...

Happy holidays!