What can you do if your village is slowly dying out? If the young women leave and the men are left behind – unmarried – to take care of the livestock? In Spain you organize a caravan of love.
We’ll treat them to delicious food, give them a guided tour of the surroundings, organize a band with music and who knows, if Cupid does his best…”
Caravan of women
A few weeks later, a coach is waiting in the heart of Madrid to transport 55 women to the province of León: a journey of more than five hours. Manolo Gozalo is standing by the door – he’s the man you hire if you want to organize a caravan of love.
The man who makes sure that women come to the event. He’s wearing a grubby white suit and collects 20 euro: that’s the price of a bus trip to look for Mr Right.
Not too old for love
Laura (27) is one of the women who boards the bus. Black thigh boots, black leather jacket and a white scarf round her neck like a sign of surrender. She is wearing large brown sunglasses, in spite of the lashing rain. Timidly, she takes her place in the middle of the bus. “I was browsing on Internet when I saw the advert. I’m far too shy to go to a disco or anything like that.”
Shortly afterwards, the bus fills up with laughing women. Paula (53) takes a seat next to Laura and explains her motivation for taking part. “I’m a widow. It’s actually pretty difficult to get to know another man. At my age, I’m not about to look for a man in a bar.”
The average age seems to be around 35. At 63 years old, Laura is the gran’ ole lady in the caravan of love. “ You’re never too old for love!”
Just before the bus leaves, the television crew from the Spanish TV channel Antenna 3 appears. The men are greeted with whoops. “Hey you”, says a black woman of about 50 wearing a bright pink suit, while she keeps the young cameraman standing in the aisle. “Do you have a wife? If not, let’s get off the bus together. Save us a long journey!”
Spanish TV channel Antenna 3
The women shriek with laughter and drum their feet on the floor. The tone has been set. It is ten-thirty and there is a party atmosphere on the bus. When the coach leaves Madrid shortly afterwards, the ladies start singing suggestive songs about virgins in damp grottos. Hairbrushes and nail files fly through the bus.
As a phenomenon, the caravan of love has a 25-year history. It all began in 1985, when the film ‘Westward the Women’ was screened in the mountain village of Plan in the Pyrenees. This film, translated into Spanish as ‘Caravana de mujeres’– The Caravan of Women – tells the story of mail-order brides undertaking a journey by covered wagon.
After seeing the film, the villagers decided to organize a caravan of women themselves. The reactions were so overwhelming that a bus had to be chartered to take all the women to the village and it resulted in 40 marriages.
Inspired by this success, Manolo Gozalo, who lives in an almost terminal village himself, decided to organize a caravan of women. Under the slogan ‘love re-population’ he wants to counteract the exodus from villages.
Hunger in the time of Franco, industrialization and shortage of work have led to migration of the Spanish population to the cities. Less than five percent of Spaniards still lives in villages these days. It is primarily the women who move away; men stay behind to work the land.
Whether Cupid, as he calls himself, really does contribute to breathing new life into dying villages, is hard to say. A caravan only leads to marriage once every so often. But that does not take away from the fact that Gozalo receives countless requests from villages every year to organize a caravan. Like this one to Las Médulas, which is the 59th in his career.
Milagros (49) is a dazzling Dominican who has already taken part in the past. The fact that she has not yet met Mr Right is even more reason to go along. “You never know when love will strike,” she grins, “but I also enjoy the fun we women have together.”
A little later, she grabs the microphone and asks God in a short prayer to watch over the women. Shortly afterwards, salsa music is blaring through the bus and she is the first to move her hips and turn the aisle into a dance floor.
But what happens if they find a man? Are these city women really going to live in a rural village? “Why not?” says Astrid (32). I have a job in Madrid because there is work there. If I go out, I only ever come across men who are looking for an evening of fun, not a relationship.
I have no problems at all with a small village.” Laura has obviously thought about it because Las Médulas is not exactly close to Madrid. “If I meet a nice man, I’ll visit the village on my days off for a few months to see if it really is serious and values.”
When asked about the most important characteristic the ideal man from Las Médulas needs to have, good looks or money are not mentioned even once; the key word is sincerity. Constanza (35) says “The great thing about a day like this is that you get to know a man in all his facets.
Does he have table manners? Can he keep a good conversation going? And extremely important.. can he dance? Dancing is the best way to see if he is a decent man with standards and values.”
Five hours later, when the bus is slowly struggling up the mountain leading to Las Médulas, it falls silent in the bus. The women nervously try to rub viewing holes in the steamed-up windows.
Of course the men will have to take them as they find them, but Libia (48) has already changed clothes twice just to be on the safe side and Astrid is re-touching her make-up for the umpteenth time.
With its red hills, Las Médulas is reminiscent of the West of the United States but the women do not even notice the landscape. They are focused on just one thing: the men with umbrellas standing waiting for them in front of the hotel.
Inside the hotel, the women are offered an aperitif and escorted to the restaurant. The tables are set with white damask linen and sparkling wine glasses. It is crowded, but the number of men is disappointing. Joya (36) notices that as well.
Arsenal of weapons
“There are twice as many women as men”, she observes while she looks round the room. Men who participate in the caravan of women pay 40 euro. That money is used to pay for the lunch, the dinner and the dancing. During the meal, relations between the women seem to be cooling.
While they were in the bus they were still friendly, but now they seem to have realized that they are not here to make female friends. Their arsenal of weapons is placed in position: pushed-up bosoms and wide open necklines.
Men can be assessed during the dancing, but it is already clear at lunch time which men are bad-mannered. Some of them belch or splutter and when one of the men calls out that he is there for the sex, a painful silence ensues.
From outside the restaurant, two men peer into the room. “We only came to see the phenomenon of the caravan of women”, one says hurriedly. “The men sitting there at table are pigs. Either they have a wife already, or they don’t deserve one”, he explains.
Laughing stock of the village
“Even worse, the men who really would like a wife don’t dare to join in, because they are afraid of being the laughing stock of the village”, says the other man.
In spite of the disappointing number of men, Marleen (57) has managed to get a man at her side in the small space of time between arrival and lunch. The man, who has clearly had too much to drink, is rejected again even before dessert.
And not just because of the smell of alcohol on his breath. “Married, divorced, married, divorced” summarizes Marleen. “That’s no use to me. I want a steady man.”
Village’s patron San Simon
On the village’s central square there is a large beer tent where music is playing after lunch. It is the annual festival of the village’s patron saint San Simon. And it is the saint himself who throws a spanner in the works. The Médulas Caravan of Women Foundation, of which Avelino is chairman, decided not to organize a dinner-dance in the hotel, as they usually do for a caravan of women.
“We are here to get to know each other and there is no finer way than at our own village festival in the tent”, according to Avelino. But this decision is not appreciated by some of the women. Extremely bad weather has turned the village into a quagmire and the floor of the tent is muddy as well.
Back to Madrid
In their dresses and high heels , they are absolutely not dressed for a beer tent. It leads to a split within the group. Some women, including Astrid, want to go home right away and demand haughtily that Manolo have the bus brought round to the front to return to Madrid.
But Manolo is nowhere to be seen and so the furious women allow themselves to be directed to dinner. Around 11 p.m., after the last brandies have been enjoyed with dessert, the angry group sinks into sofas in the lobby to wait until the bus leaves at daybreak.
Constanza, who can assess a man’s standards and values from the way he dances, stays at the hotel. “We were promised a ball and we got a beer tent.” Milagros doesn’t let herself be upset by a tent and steals the show half an hour later with her dancing.
Avelino is satisfied. “We have put our village on the map. The women are clearly enjoying themselves”, he says, pointing to the women whirling round the tent in the arms of villagers. “This is a farming village, you have to be able to put up with a bit of mud, anyway.”
At 3:30 a.m., the caravan of women begins to move again. Only a handful of men comes to wave it off. For a moment, it looks as if Libia has stayed behind, but it turns out she was locked in the ladies’ room. It is quiet and dark on the return journey.
No respect for women
The women are lying hidden beneath their coats because of the cold. Their voices sound subdued. Astrid looks angry and the older Laura is not happy either: “It was badly organized. The men in that village have no respect for women.”
Joya didn’t go dancing, but she has met a nice man. She’s not sure yet if there will be a follow-up. “We’ll see”, she says sleepily from her seat. Young Laura is sitting in her chair with flushed cheeks. She spent the whole evening dancing with an aircraft engineer. “Who says you have to look for a farmer?”
Text: Anneke de Bundel – Images: Nicole Franken
Translation: Christine Gardner
This story has been published in the Dutch newspaper NRC.Next