Gaucin, Spain - it must be hard being a cat in Gaucin. Skinny, mad-eyed, the cats vie with overheated dogs for shade under cars or wherever there's respite from the harsh sun of southern Spain. But of all the cat sightings in the small whitewashed mountainside hamlet, the most nightmarish is the small, confused black feline that peers out from behind the chicken wire in the makeshift coop in the house next door. Behind him an insomnia-stricken rooster crows through out the day and well into the night.
My partner and I were enticed into visiting this sleepy village by an article in the Globe and Mail that neglected to mention cats at all. Nor did it mention how visitors are watched with gawking fascination by many of the 1,800 residents. To be fair, it is very beautiful here. Our studio apartment looks out over a masterpiece of nature, where you can make out the mountains of Morocco when the dusty haze clears on the few cooler days.
Slow-moving cows and gangs of mountain goats roam these upper regions on roads so high that your ears pop every time you approach the village gates. And in the distance you can see Gibraltar standing like a giant white middle finger of British imperialism toward Spain.
High above us on a mountain are ruins the Globe article described as a Roman castle "that stands sentinel over the town." The enthusiastic travel writer failed to note the notorious asthmatic tour guide who tells you to take off your hat in the castle's chapel, shows you a lock of hair from John the Baptist and then tries to grope your partner.
The article also described the winding roads leading to the town without telling the hapless explorer that some of these two-way roads are as skinny as a Gaucin cat and more twisted than George Bush's use of the language.
At one harrowing moment, on a particularly treacherous piece of mountain roadway, we find ourselves in a Spanish standoff with a giant cement mixer. Our little car is perched near a sheer drop, while the evil giant metallic monster scrapes the side of the mountain. It's at that moment of frozen time that I begin wondering about health care in Gaucin.
It won't be long before I experience it first-hand.
There are very friendly people in Gaucin who will invite strangers into their homes for conversation. Pilar is one of them. One night her husband, a fabulous American sculptor, pours glass after glass of delicious white wine.
Drunk and happy, I grab some of the snacks put out for us. Seconds later, I feel the telltale tingle of a nut allergy reaction in my throat. Perhaps it's the look of horror on my partner's face, or the rapidly morphing features of mine, combined with a decreasing oxygen flow, that convinces me it's time to seek emergency help.
We drive down the narrow roads to the other side of town, desperately trying to find the clinic. Fortunately, a bar is open. "Urgencia!!! Urgencia!!!" my partner yells at the startled, drunken patrons. The young bartender points down a dark hill, while the two other men in the bar take in the most excitement Gaucin has seen since Franco's Fascists marched in.
Finally, we're at the back door of the clinic. After much knocking, the light goes on and a charming woman let us in. Through rapidly closing eyes I flip through my Spanish/English dictionary. "Alergia con nueza," I say. Confused by my pigeon Spanish, the doctor takes the dictionary away and has me take off my shirt. She quickly sums up the situation, and takes out the biggest syringe I have ever seen. "Cortisone," she says. Dubious, delirious and dying, I let her shove the needle deep into my side.
"So this is how it ends," I think. "Cut down by a Spanish peanut."
A few minutes later, I'm back, sweaty, swollen but breathing. Back in the chair, I offer to pay for my treatment, but it turns out it's all free. The good people of the town pay for the clinic, and it's open to anyone.
The next morning Gaucin looks very different - the people friendlier, the cats plumper, the road less horrifying. Exactly what the Globe and Mail was trying to say.