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Passionate experience junkie. Lover of the arts and architecture. Want to see and share the world, one village at a time.

Living Off-the-Grid. What it Means to Turn on the Water

Before committing to a 6-week house sitting assignment in sunny southern Spain, Conrad and I got the facts about the water situation there. The homeowner Fred explained it in one of our Skype conversations. “Water, which is pretty sparse here,” he told us, “especially in the hot summer months, runs down the mountain in a series of black pipes partially buried underground.”

Hmm, we were intrigued.

The water’s origin is a generous spring in the scrubby mountain. But getting the water is complicated, because other area inhabitants use the pipe system, too. So there’s a mutually agreed upon schedule of when you can “turn on” water to your home. And, Fred assured us, since he is the biggest landowner on the mountain; his allotment of water is more generous than anyone else’s.

House sitting in remote Spain

View outside our front door

Not ones to shy away from a challenge – and an adventure – we took the assignment and arrived at the mountainside off-the-grid home a few months later. The 350 year old adobe home – a former lemon grove plantation – has no address and no name for the winding dirt road approaching it. There are no other homes in sight, only silvery slate-covered hills dotted here and there with low trees and cacti.

The Dry Run

So we set out to learn – on a dry run – the procedure of “turning on the water.” It was a dry run because today wasn’t the actual scheduled day for our water to be turned on. Fred excitedly led us up the treacherously steep hill behind his home, past enormous prickly pear cacti, some of them chewed on by the herds of shy Ibex goats that frequent these hills.

“My land stretches out to that cliff,” Fred said as he pointed. “When I bought the land, the former owner determined the property line by throwing a stone out to that cliff, proclaiming to the authorities that where the stone hit was the edge of her property.”

Remote house sitting off-the-grid in Spain

Old ruin with a caved-in roof

Up and up we scrambled, sometimes on such steep terrain we had to pull ourselves up by grabbing onto low plants. The gravel strewn on the dry cracked land was like marbles beneath our feet. Finally the land leveled off and we followed Fred around an old small ruin. I peeked in the one tiny deep-set window to see the roof completely collapsed with all the big round log rafters slanting diagonally down to the old floor. Fred told me those construction logs are really the stalks of flowers that emerge once every four years from agave plants. Stalks of flowers? Okay, I’ve got an agave as a house plant back home, you know, about 12 inches high? The agaves that grow wild everywhere here in southern Spain are monstrous things, 10 feet high. And when they flower, the stalk is more like a tree growing out of the middle – 9 inches or more in diameter.

This is what I love about travel – feeling like a child learning everything new.

Then we walked past “the” date palm tree – significant because at the base of it lies the first joint in the water pipeline that must be bled as part of the turning-on-the-water-process – plus the palm’s huge fronds and hanging fruit were a good landmark to remember. (This came in real handy later when Conrad and I got lost looking for the water line.)

Immersion travel while house sitting

The date palm under which was a joint in the pipe that needed to be bled.

Finally, after 20 minutes of climbing, we reached our destination – the 15 foot high gnarly carob tree. Stiff branches hung to the ground. Fred showed us how to wiggle our way through the branches laden with prickly stuff and hanging carob pods. Once in our sheltered fort, Fred knelt at the trunk and lifted a big rock there, setting it aside. With his bare hands, he dug into the soft ground where the rock had been. Revealed there six inches down was an orange handle and black pipe below it. We had reached the hidden spot where the water gets turned on. The joint is buried so only the appointed mountain dwellers can access it. On the scheduled day, we were to come back here and turn that orange handle 90 degrees. Fred buried the handle again and we started on our way back down the mountain, stopping at three separate spots in the water line where Fred showed us how to bleed air from the line.

We shared a late dinner outside of thin cured ham slices and Gouda cheese. Fred left for the airport the next morning.

The Big Test

Remote house sitting off-the-grid in Spain

After moving aside the big rock, we had to dig down in the dirt to reach the handle which I am turning 90 degrees.

A week later, settled in at our mountain home, Conrad and I repeated the hike up the mountain on the scheduled day and turned on the water. That’s me in the photo turning the handle 90 degrees. Then I buried the handle again and replaced the big rock. For the next 16 days, we had glorious running water! We celebrated by washing our clothes and hanging them out to dry in the Spanish sun, and taking long showers in view of wild jasmine and Ibex, followed by fresh lemonade made from the trees outside our front door.

House sitting in Spain

Wild Jasmine

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14 Responses to “Living Off-the-Grid. What it Means to Turn on the Water”

  1. What an interesting experience. We often take the ease with which we have water for granted. I’m glad you were able to get the water turned on.
    Donna Janke recently posted..Arizona Wine TourMy Profile

    April 8, 2015 at 11:38 pm Reply
    • Hi Donna,
      So true — ever since then I think of that experience every time I flip on the faucet. We are so spoiled in our everyday lives!

      April 9, 2015 at 7:54 am Reply
  2. Wow, that’s a challenge! How long was the water off after 16 days of being on?
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru recently posted..Litchfield National Park: Bush Bashing in the NTMy Profile

    April 9, 2015 at 5:59 am Reply
    • Hi Betsy,
      During the 16 days of having free-running water, we filled two 1,400 liter holding tanks. Then for the remainder of the month when the water was turned off, we used what was in the holding tanks. Conrad used an algebraic equation — volume of a cylinder — to determine how much water we could use each day. It was not a lot — especially when we learned one of the holding tanks had a leak. The precious water ran out down the hillside. It was very humbling, but a wonderful challenge all-in-all. We would do it again!
      Thanks for your insightful question!

      April 9, 2015 at 8:00 am Reply
  3. Wow Josie, I think you both were really brave to choose that experience. It would probably be beneficial for everyone to go through something like this, as you come to appreciate how much water we waste on a daily basis. How in the world did you ever come up with the formula? That was key to making your entire stay successful.
    alison abbott recently posted..Meatless Monday Sesame Noodle TofuMy Profile

    April 9, 2015 at 4:48 pm Reply
    • Hi Alison — and Welcome,
      Thanks for your kind comment, and the experience MADE us brave. Beforehand we were blissfully ignorant!
      And in terms of the algebra, Conrad is my walking,talking encyclopedia of all knowledge in the world, so the equation was floating around in there.
      He told the water-tank story to his math-teacher niece and she relayed it to her class, prefacing the story with, “For those of you who ask, ‘What will I ever use algebra for?’ here is the answer!” And she told them how it saved our hides to know how much water we could use each day to survive.
      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you!

      April 9, 2015 at 9:20 pm Reply
  4. Good for you both for not being put off the assignment by the water arrangement. California and the American Southwest should probably be doing the same thing with their water resources, but I’m not sure you could ever get the natives to “share” so elegantly.
    Suzanne Fluhr recently posted..A Visit to Masada – Israel’s Alamo*?My Profile

    April 9, 2015 at 11:42 pm Reply
    • Hi Suzanne,
      I can always count on you to bring the alternate viewpoint — and a good one! Yes, the drought in California and beyond could be minimized greatly with a change in attitude. It’s so hard to make that change!
      Thanks for an insightful comment!

      April 11, 2015 at 8:28 am Reply
  5. Wow! How spoiled I am! Perhaps, this will be the next “big thing” in California given the drought conditions:-)
    Irene S. Levine recently posted..Hotel Review: China World Hotel, a Shangri-La HotelMy Profile

    April 12, 2015 at 3:36 pm Reply
    • Hi Irene,
      Conrad and I say this all the time — “We’re so spoiled!” Yes, it’s true. And on the one hand I’m grateful and fortunate to be able to say that, but on the other hand, I know we’re so very wasteful with this beautiful planet’s resources.
      Not only will California need to learn how to conserve, but everyone everywhere.
      Thanks for chiming in!

      April 12, 2015 at 4:20 pm Reply
  6. Sounds like you had a great experience none the less. We house sat an off the grid property last year and returning this year. There’s nothing quite like knowing you’re self sufficient.

    April 12, 2015 at 6:02 pm Reply
    • Hi Nat,
      You said it — there’s nothing quite like knowing you’re self-sufficient! So true, so true. We both really loved that aspect of living off the grid, and gained an appreciation for folks back in the day who lived off the land.
      Wishing you safe and happy travels,

      April 12, 2015 at 6:45 pm Reply
  7. Love your story! To paraphrase something you said, “This is what I love about reading travel blogs – feeling like a child learning everything new.” And I loved the story about the lady throwing a rock to determine property lines. Is quite different where Ilive. We are so closely packed, that people get aggressive about 2 inches.
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers recently posted..Sights to See: Dead Sea, IsraelMy Profile

    April 12, 2015 at 6:27 pm Reply
    • Hi Carole,
      Thanks for your kind words! Travel does indeed make me feel like a child — seeing everything with new eyes!
      Take care,

      April 12, 2015 at 6:47 pm Reply

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