Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Claudia Scholler, 52, is the proprietor of Cortijo El Saltador, a large traditional Andalucian farmhouse in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Alhamilla in the far southeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Claudia found her way to this patch of the spectacular and magical Tabernas desert from Hamburg Germany by way of the North Frisian Islands, Morocco, and Majorca, among other points, and through a career in catering and hospitality. In the sparsely-populated wilderness of the sun-baked province of Almeria, Claudia came across the ruins of an ancient family homestead close to the picturesque village of Lucainena de las Torres. With the help of old friends, and the energy and the enthusiasm of volunteers from all over the world, the farmhouse was reconstructed between 2001 and 2003. The house uses its own well water and electricity is supplied by a big solar system. I visited Claudia and Cortijo El Saltador on assignment and was awed by the silence and sparse beauty of the setting. I was also enthralled with the lessons of Claudia’s many sojourns, chief among them the courage required to step out of life in the fast lane and learn to listen to and be with yourself. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Claudia.
Meg: Tell me a little bit about your background.
Claudia: The start is Hamburg. I’m really a proper city girl, born and raised in the center of a big, big city with no nature at all. I had parents who were not so happy with their marriage, so there were years and years of getting divorced. Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. I didn’t have brothers and sisters who could help me as a child coping with that.
When I was 11, we went on holiday to the North Frisian Islands, which are very close to Denmark. Next to the little hotel, there was an Icelandic horse-riding farm, where I was allowed to go on rides.
Back in Hamburg, it got more and more complicated with my parents, so they agreed that I would go on a holiday the following spring. I was 12 and I was going by myself. I guess a big part of my courage is because I was brought up so strangely, which you don’t realize as a child. But for me it was normal that at 12, I took my suitcase, took the bus to the train, took the train to the ferry, walked on the ferry. And then walking off the ferry, there was nobody to pick me up. I arrived on the island, and nobody expected me because they had forgotten about the booking. Because it’s a tiny island, I was brought to the riding farm. There was only one boy looking after the horses and a cleaning woman that came every three days. I didn’t tell anybody at home what was happening and stayed ten days on my own. Those ten days were probably the luckiest days I remember in that period.
Then the two brothers who owned the riding farm came back from Morocco where they had been travelling, and they couldn’t believe what they had done. So they sort of adopted me.
From then on I went to the riding farm every single holiday, working for free as a helper. When I finished school in Hamburg, I moved immediately to the North Frisian Islands, not really knowing what to do with my life. I knew I didn’t want to study, but I didn’t know much more.
By coincidence, somebody on the island offered me an education at a hotel—two years of practical learning, working in each section of the hotel, restaurant, bar, kitchen, room service, and so forth. So I thought, ‘I like languages, I like travel. Maybe it’s not a bad idea.’
We had to work the whole summer season non—stop, 18 hour days, seven days a week. But the hotel closed down in January and February. That January, 1978, we took an old VW hippie bus and drove all the way from North Germany to South Morocco. I was with three guys, three friends. I was 18. I was thinking I was the princess of that journey, but I was so chaotic. I was the one who always lost things. We all got points in the beginning, which we could lose only three, and my three points were already gone in South Germany.
I must say, when we reached Southern Spain, we weren’t the best buddies at that point because it was all very squeezy and small. In Seville we just jumped out of the car and didn’t even make an appointment when we would meet again. Then in Morocco it got slowly better. We drove through the whole of Morocco and reached the Ouled Berhill and there’s a road which takes you to the coast. Because the snow in the Atlas Mountains was melting, there was water flooding the streets, and we slowly drove through. Then with the dawn, unfortunately, we got stuck. The lorry drivers who came after us tried to pull us, and they broke the connection between the wheels. So it was decided that I had to be saved first. I got sucked underneath the van because it was a really, really strong current.
A lorry took us, and we had our passports, our money, a guitar and a bottle of Pernod. There was an old police station, and they gave us lodging. It started raining. And it rained and rained and rained. The policeman drank our Pernod and got really drunk. The next morning when it got light again, nobody was very relaxed. There was no street. It was all water. And so we walked back to the river, and the bus had just dropped into the river and was upside down. It floated a bit and then sank.
Monsieur Larby was the boss of the area, and he invited us to his clay house. They were a big, big family. They really had nothing. Water came from the river. No electricity. Eating was with the hands. The children were miserable. We, as hippies, with our three t-shirts, we were so rich. We gave away all our clothes. But that immediately led to us being given extra food.
The woman all had to be in the kitchen. I was the only woman allowed to eat with the men. The woman took me to the river. I had to wash the clothes for all the three guys.
They all spoke only Arabic, not even French. In the evening, in the dark with two, three candles, we sat around and they told us Arabian words, and we told them German words, and we laughed our heads off.
When the river went down after three days, somebody got sent on a donkey, and the donkey man brought the only person with a tractor. We pulled the bus out, and then the repairs started.
If we needed a screw or some part we had to go to the next village, where there was a young mechanic who was a genius. Sometimes he was in the mountains and so we sat on the main road for hours and days playing backgammon, waiting for him to come on his motorbike. I was there three weeks.
The scariest thing was when we said we have to go, on our last day Monsieur Larby decided he’d take us out to town. We knocked on a door, and then there was this big discussion, because they didn’t want to let me in because I was a woman. Then they took us to a courtyard, which was a restaurant. They had these tagines, made of clay, and you put it on an open fire and then inside it cooks. It took hours, and when it came, he opened it, inside was all testicles and eyes. It was the cheapest food that could be bought no doubt, but still Monsieur Larby, for sure, spent money he should have never spent on us. It was horrible, and we all looked at each other and said, okay, go for it. You had to take again and again. The good thing was the bread they always made fresh was really, really good. We couldn’t escape without many servings, but it was such an honor.
It was very interesting because we were just stuck there. Before we were arguing and now this was a good time between us because there was absolute acceptance, this is the situation. From Hamburg, from the hotel business, and then into nowhere. I’m very grateful for that trip but it also has made me a difficult travelling companion, because I’m never upset about anything.
The whole situation was so extreme that I was never ever scared, whatever happened. Not about hygienic circumstances, delays, strange situations—it was a very, very deep, interesting experience.