Traveling is easy. It’s stopping at a place like this that can drive you crazy. The plan was to follow up our intensive and somewhat expensive traveling time in Australia and Southeast Asia with a few months in one place, rent free, in exchange for house and pet sitting responsibilities.
Tom and I found just the thing. An ad on TrustedHousesitters.com read:
“Hi I am a single Lady in my late fourties (sic). Recovering from paralysis caused by a spinal tumour. I have 3 gorgeous rescued dogs. I am looking for someone to take care of them walking them twice a day. Also keep my home clean and tidy. I need to go to UK for treatment and will be gone 3 months.”
According to the ad, responsibilities would include:
“Keep the house clean and tidy, do a little gardening, only trimming bushes. Pick up dog mess. You will have use of my car so keep it clean, maintained.”
Huh, not bad. The place was listed as Murcia, Spain, an up-and-coming area we’d read about, with tempting housing deals. Worth a look. So we wrote back. A few weeks later, the homeowner (we’ll call her Patty from Manchester, with name and place changed to protect the dogs) wrote back to us with apologies for the delay. She had just found another dog in very bad shape and was planning on nursing it to health. So she suggested a May start instead of April. She sent pictures of the dogs and herself. We discovered the village was called Mazarrón, and her neighborhood the Mazarrón Country Club. The three dogs looked fine and happy. The fourth was a furless fly-bitten creature curled up on a rug. The street on which Patty was pictured was sunny with stucco walls, iron gates, and matching houses. Not our cup of tea, but ten minutes from the beach. More on Patty later.
We agreed to arrive Saturday, May 14. Patty planned to fly back to Manchester for medical procedures on May 19, after introducing us to the dogs, the house, and the area. But just days before our arrival, when we were in Madrid, Patty contacted us to say that she’d been sick and that the friends who were caring for her had extended their stay, so could we please delay our arrival a few days.
In the same week, we later learned, her wallet was stolen, her computer crashed (right after she sprayed the screen with window cleaner…while the computer was on) and, for several days, she couldn’t use her cell phone because she’d lost the PIN along with her wallet.
Not a problem, we said. I didn’t want the excessive 5-day training time with Patty anyway. I mean, really, how much can you learn about the property and pets until after the homeowner leaves?
Since Patty had no idea where our train station was (“I always drive”) we were advised to make our way to the Murcia airport – about 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside Murcia. She’d be the one in the cowboy hat and the boots, just as she had been in the photo. We met on April 18 around 8 p.m. and arrived at her property after dark. We were in for all sorts of surprises in daylight.
First, we were not only a long way from Murcia, we were a good five miles outside of Mazarrón. Second, we learned this ‘urbanización’ (suburb or planned community) is almost entirely an English/Welsh neighborhood, with a sprinkling of Germans and Dutch thrown in for diversity. Not even Spanglish is spoken here. And third, we discovered the ‘country club’ was never finished. Construction stopped when the developer declared bankruptcy, another casualty of the economic crisis or a scam artist, depending on whom you talk to.
It’s a desert out there. What was to be the golf course are abandoned fields strewn with useless irrigation hoses from the farms, and larger water pipes and construction debris from the development. Some olive and almond trees may or may not define ‘out of bounds.’ Garbage is tossed here and there. A few poppies and desert flowers border the dirt roads, and scrub brush mixed with bits of black plastic sheeting gives it that au natural feeling. The strong hot winds give a nice brown dusty tone to the mountains in the distance.
Patty looks a lot like we expected, only more intense. I told a young woman two villages away that we were working for a woman who looked like Amy Winehouse, and she immediately knew who I meant. I featured her as more of a hippy from our correspondence. But the dyed black hair, the gigantic man-made breasts, the enlarged lips, and the boots (white, over-the-knee FMBs) don’t fit hippiedom. On one hand, she acts all spiritual, signing correspondence with ‘lovelight,’ ‘unicorns,’ and sweet pet names. She has a counter full of homeopathic remedies. She has a thing for Egyptians, Buddhas, and healing rods. But she smokes like a fiend, and whatever her mantra, it’s not calming her down.
By the time we met the dogs, they were ready for their dinner. Personally, I’d never heard of feeding raw chicken parts, bones and all, to the household pets. But it apparently hasn’t killed them yet. Patty is vegetarian, so she uses gloves as she sorts the pieces.
And then a couple more minor details. The fourth rescued dog is not just any ol’ dog, but a 9-month old terrier commonly regarded as a Pit Bull. You can say Staffordshire terrier all you want, but the neighbors are afraid of this dog. It’s big and strong and has huge jaws…and it’s a PUPPY! Watch me! I’m playing! The terrier gets medicine twice a day for life for ‘leashmania,’ whatever that is. The rest of the family includes brothers Messi and Ronaldo, reliable Spanish hunting dogs, and Goddess, a Mastín, or Spanish Mastiff.
During our first walk with the four dogs out into the campo the next morning, Patty mentioned she’d re-booked her flight back to the UK on May 2. What? May 2? Two weeks from now? And her boyfriend was going to come visit for five days. What? Had we known that, we’d have certainly gone elsewhere for a couple weeks first. As it was, we were out at least 125 Euro just getting here for the false start.
So far, Patty has three strikes against her keeping previously arranged dates. We couldn’t really settle into the house (and be rid of the cigarette smoke) until she left. So we decided to make a run for it and return May 1.
It took us a couple days before we got ourselves on a bus. We got to know the house and Patty a little better as she told us the things she wanted to repair or prepare for us before she left. We would understand that she fell behind when she was sick and her purse was stolen and her computer broke and she couldn’t use her phone. Sure. Or we could come to the conclusion this woman was a walking disaster, and her house the Disaster Palace. She is, however, walking, and once she was not. I’ll give her that. And she saved four dogs. And she is a complete, huge-hearted sweetheart.
Blame the home’s condition on crappy construction, a bankrupt developer, lack of upkeep, dog chewing, or any combination. Patty purchased it about 10 years ago. It was completed about seven years ago. So it’s new. But had Patty written notes for us they might have included this information.
- Turn the shower on, then run outside to start the water heater, and then go back in to shower.
- The kitchen tap will shoot water sideways, so just use the filtered water faucet that is duct taped to the main faucet.
- Ignore the sewer smell. The bathrooms were never properly ventilated. That’s why the window is always open.
- Keep the door to the back hall shut, because it will blow shut with a slam, because the bathroom window is open.
- The lift knob for the shower has come off the faucet upstairs, so use pliers.
- We have no pliers
- If you sit outside in front, be sure you have a key or another open door. The front door locks when it shuts and the sliding glass doors have no exterior handle. Oops, that sliding door sure slides closed easily.
- The front door, back door, gate door, and door to the back yard are on four separate keys.
- The door to the back yard (where the washing machine and utility sink are, and where the dogs are fed) won’t latch, so just unlock and lock it every time you use it.
- Are all these lights burned out or is there no switch for them? Here are some lightbulbs. You figure it out.
- No outdoor outlets.
- Something was wrong, but what?
When we got back to the house on May 1, the promised repairs hadn’t happened, but that was no big deal. One dog had stitches closing up a dog bite, and the pup had had his balls removed.
For 24 hours, we lived with Patty and her boyfriend, Jim, also English, who is just finishing a 56’ catamaran on which he plans to live. It was fun to hear another perspective on this property. Jim filled us in on a few details that Patty had not, such as how to operate the finicky electronic stove top, and where to find gas and battery back-ups for the water heater.
And, oh, one more thing, Jim pointed out casually. Patty was assaulted recently by two ‘Moroccans’ while walking the dogs. (What did she do, check their papers? Half of Spain looks Moroccan. Hell, I will by the time I leave here.) And, they revised the dog-walking route to avoid a couple nasty sets of dogs. So now I’m supposed to watch out for a green van, strange people, and other dogs. The dogs will watch for live rabbits and dead chickens.
On our first day alone, we ventured out for our walk with the dogs. Not so bad. Nice dogs, right up to the point where three went missing. We came back with one (damn, it’s hard to lose that puppy) out of four. I went out later to do more hunting and calling, to no avail. Later in the afternoon, the three came back to the gate and barked. Good dogs; they know their way home. Bad dogs; they’d swum in the sewage system of some nearby farm…or country club.
Two sets of baths later, things started to improve. The car repair appointment left us stranded the same day the Internet was disconnected due to non-payment. But we got through that. The neighbors were generally in an outrage, so we did our best to keep the dogs from barking and ourselves out of sight. The house was maintained, if not repaired, and the dogs were happy in their dusty but smoke-free environment. Tom and I, unbelievably, are looking for other house-sitting opportunities – with dogs. After all, they saved their mistress, and they were our happiest distraction in the desert.
Note: Our guide to house sitting, including how to get started and what to expect, can be found on our blog, Travel Past 50. Click here to read “The Pros and Cons of House Sitting.”