Three Odd Episodes in Spain

Adventure #1:
The Case of the Unpopular Rental

My first house in Spain became a rental house, since I wasn’t there often.
I had a local rental agent. It was in the town of Nerja, on the Costa del Sol.

The house was cute—beautiful views of the ocean, and the town was growing. 
But as a rental, it really didn’t seem to be doing well. 

The agent said it wasn’t a popular place to rent.
Every time I told him I was coming down to visit, the place stood empty.
(This was long before the internet or AirBnb.)

One time, without mentioning I was coming, I just flew down from my home in Switzerland for a weekend. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem, since no one ever rented the place anyway. I took my key and opened the door. A shirtless man with a beer in his hand answered.

“Who are you?” he asked, somewhat annoyed.
“Who are YOU?” I asked.

Well, it turns out the place was wildly popular, always full and always rented.
And I never received any of the money.

So much for my first rental experience.

PS: Yes, I did make a fuss. 
Yes, I did get some of the money back, after threatening to tell the story to the local newspaper. 

But - that was the END of renting it!

Adventure #2:
José Sanchez and the Stolen Toilet

During construction of that same small villa in Andalucia, I felt that the downstairs bathroom was awfully cramped. I mentioned it to the builder, José Sanchez, who didn’t seem to pay much attention. 
But my Spanish wasn't very good, so I thought maybe he didn't understand me.

The next day, I went into the house - and the bathroom seemed so much roomier!
- I couldn’t figure out how he had managed it - and so quickly!

Then I looked again.

It was only bigger because the toilet had been stolen.

My Spanish motorino - it worked - sometimes.

Adventure #3:
Impromptu Concert in Granada

We found a small guitar shop in the back streets of Granada.
They made their own guitars—Spanish guitars.

Stan picked one up and played a few notes.
The woman who owned the shop stopped what she was doing and disappeared.
She brought out another guitar, and carefully handed it to Stan.

A special guitar.

Stan played.

Soon, the whole shop was filled with people—other shopkeepers, neighbors, family—and two random Japanese tourists, all listening to Stan play. Some danced, some clapped in time.

Truly appreciating the music. One of those moments in travel when you KNOW- it's magic.

- The Japanese visitors probably thought this happened every day.

The Balcón de Europa in Nerja.

I had that villa in Nerja for about 20 years. 1980 - 2000, more or less.

In the early days, it was all farmland. Tomatoes, mostly. Donkeys carried the sacks to and from the village market. Roosters woke us in the mornings. The fishermen repaired their nets by the side of their painted wooden boats. The old women dressed in black, head to toe. No one spoke English. Life was slow.

Who would have thought that everything would become so popular, so modern, so international?

Everyone keeps telling us that - things change. 
But - we don't really understand it - until it happens to us. 

Haiti Adventures - and Banana Bark Rugs

 Haiti has been in the news recently.
A tropical country with a bit of a dark history. 

But I have a special place in my heart for Haiti. 

In the 1990's - we created a rug factory in Haiti. 
From just - ideas. 

I'd met a couple of Haitians at a trade show in San Francisco. 

My company was known for creating unusual contemporary rugs. 
Rugs made out of jean selvages, leather, cork labels, sisal, recycled silk saris --- we were probably the most innovative rug company in the US - maybe anywhere - at the time. 

So - my partner Wolfgang and I went to Haiti. 

Brainstormed with the Haitians. 

What local material could we find in Haiti - and how could we make rugs out of it? 
How could we create something - special? 

We found it.

We called it "banana bark". 

Which is of course ridiculous, since banana plants don't have bark. 
When one banana plant produces fruit, it dies, and another plant comes out of the ground.

 They're more of a grass than a tree. Technically, they're an herb. 
(Or a berry, depending on who you ask.)

Whatever their classification, Haiti has plenty of them. 
Expired banana plants.

But - you can weave almost anything. 
And you can weave what we called - banana bark.

We found an old textile plant. 
The looms were still in there, unused for years. 

We got permission to refurbish the looms and rent the space. 

We began experimenting with weaving the 'banana bark'. 
It was possible.

Villagers began collecting the old banana plants, mostly in the area around Cap Haitian. 

They were paid - on the spot - by the kilo.  

This was very popular.

Just getting the truck up there was surprisingly difficult.

We began weaving. 

It took a lot of trial and error. 
We were all learning together. 

Everything had to be hand-finished. 

We added a bit of imported New Zealand wool to make it a little more interesting. 

Then, of course, we had to import them into the US.
And warehouse them.

But - they were COOL

Thick, luxurious natural rugs. 
In several styles and sizes.

We called them "KONTIKI". 

All made from - natural waste materials, more or less.
"Biomass", as my neighbor called it. 

They sold like hotcakes. 

Not in the discount stores, either. 
They were a high-end item. 
Our customers were upper-end furniture stores, like Neiman Marcus in New York. 

Soon, they were a success story - and we were supporting over 400 Haitians. 
It also gave us a reason to visit a beautiful - if extremely poor - island.

On one visit, we went to the local church (our 3 Haitian partners, who owned a company called "Universal Hands". All went to the same church.) 

One woman took my hands in hers and said, "Thank you, sister. For what you have done."  
One of those moments - mildly embarrassing and very touching - at the same time. 

A friend of ours, Lawrence Peabody, 
- "of the Boston Peabodys", he told me (?) - 
was one of our designers. 

He also had a home in Haiti. 
A splendid tropical home, filled with art.

One evening, Lawrence invited us to his house for dinner - with the American ambassador at the time, William Swing. Oddly, I knew him. He had also been US Ambassador to Liberia when I lived there in the 1980's. He was brought in just after the Liberian Revolution. (I thought he was probably a good man in difficult countries. Plus he spoke fluent French and German.)

An unlikely and odd coincidence. 

Anyway, the rugs were a success. 

The whole process was intriguing. 

photo by "Happy Man Photography"

Haiti reminded me a bit of Liberia. 
Almost as chaotic. 

In fact, maybe even worse. 

Even after living 4 years in Liberia, West Africa, the amount of disorder in Haiti was impressive. 

Mountains of trash lined the incredibly pot-holed streets. 
The trash collectors were on strike, protesting the government. 

The pavements were so broken they weren't just uncomfortable, they were completely impassable. Traffic was ridiculous. Solid. 

Our partners used shortwave radios and walkie-talkies to communicate with each other - which roads were passable, which weren't. 

It was during the time of the 'handover' from Cédras to Aristide and his party. Public opinion was bitterly divided on it. Voodoo - which is recognized as a religion in Haiti - was a strong factor in the 'return' of Aristide.

Meanwhile, nothing worked.

No phones, sporadic electricity, little power.

If political turmoil wasn't enough, Haiti has frequent hurricanes. 
Plus, in 2010, there was a massive and devastating 7.0 earthquake. 
Then - cholera. And more hurricanes.

And yet - some of the most original art anywhere is found there. Painting, metal sculpture - wood work - Original, colorful - and full of story and life.

Haitian art - painting, sculptures, metalwork - is wonderful.

On the other half of the island - the same island - is the Dominican Republic. 
Two entirely different countries. 
The Dominican Republic is Spanish speaking. 

And much wealthier.  

So - another episode in a special island country. 
Glad I had the opportunity to experience working there.

Wishing them all the best -  - from the bottom of my heart - with their next episode.