Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 18

6:15 p.m.

One of the first reactions you get from a Spaniard when you mention the town “Cebolla” is a look of incredulity, as if you have just confessed that your uncle, the same one who taught you how to play Texas Hold ‘em, is now a drag queen. Cebolla in Spanish means “onion” and to say that you are going to visit a town called “Onion” provokes laughter because most have never heard of it and don’t believe there is a town with a name that reminds them of green salad and bad breath. They chuckle and say, “¡Anda ya! (Yeah, right!)” figuring I’m American and did not hear the name correctly.

          I don’t see what all the suspicion was all about. After all, there are quirky names for towns all over the globe. In the United States, you can drive into and order coffee in places like Intercourse, Nimrod, Lick Fork, Ding Dong, Coupon, Embarrass, Experiment, Hell, New Erection, and even Chicken (Alaska) where predictably there is a sign on the outskirts touting “I got laid in Chicken”. And let’s not get started with the British towns, where a traveler can visit and even spend the night in communities like Scratchy Bottom, River Piddle, Cockplay, Brown Willy, Nob End, to name just a lewd few. And it’s not only how it’s called, it’s how the Brits say it. I mean, they have that academic accent of theirs that sounds so official (when not officious) as they announce in all seriousness, “I was born in Twatt, but my mom’s from Upper Twatt.” And they expect me not to laugh.

          Spain has its share of witty names too. Places like Guarromán, which sounds like a Spanglish blend for “Dirty Man”, Montamarta (Marta’s a goer), Berga (Cock) or Villapene (Prickville) come to mind. Still, few Spaniards are aware of these amusing toponyms, which is why they just can’t imagine anyone naming their hometown after a bulb.

          Knowing my country’s love for idiosyncrasy, I was sure there would be at least one equivalent in the United States, mainly because there is a name for practically everything there. If you have a Burnt Porcupine (Maine), why on Earth wouldn’t there be an Onion, Kansas, for instance? But to my surprise, there is hardly anything at all. And what little there is leaves a lot to be desired.

          Ironically, the first direct equivalent uses the Spanish name. You could stop in Cebolla, New Mexico, but only if you want to. It’s a community in the north of the state, which possibly got its name from its equal in Spain, but it has never been incorporated and exists thanks to its unassuming population of 91. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. My guess is that it’s probably the second-to-last place on Earth you’d want to be when your car breaks down in the middle of the night.

          Then you have Oniontown, New York, which just might be the first. Oniontown is a village with a fairly unenviable reputation for being a humble district steeped in inbreeding, extreme white trash poverty, and longsuffering drug and alcohol abuse. A veritable trident of disgrace, I tell you. It is located all but 85 miles from one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, New York, which goes to show that the United States continues to be a land of stark contrasts.

          Just like its sister community in New Mexico, Oniontown is not an official township but rather a rundown neighborhood on literally a dead-end street known as Onion Road, located within the limits of a municipality called Dover Plains. About a dozen years ago its derelict and grungy appearance earned dubious international notoriety thanks to a video filmed by a group of moronic college students who ventured into the area to gawk at and make fun of its disheveled residents. They posted their adventures online and it went viral. Many people were equally shocked by both the callousness of the unwanted visitors and the bumpkin lifestyle of the people who lived there, but my guess is that most watched it just to gawk, too. Human nature and such.

          The students probably deserved to have their asses kicked in, but got away with it. Rather than expose the residents’ dire situation to the rest of the world and trigger a call to come to their aid, their offensive behavior mostly just prompted more young and inconsiderate pricks to try and do the same. That’s usually what happens in these cases. Human nature and such. But it seems that the locals wisened up and made sure future intruders left with fewer teeth and a bone or two no longer intact. So I guess some justice was done.

          The residents prefer to keep to themselves and the police department has done its part to warn outsiders to mind their own business and respect others’ privacy. As they should. Oniontown goes about its business without the slightest desire to improve its situation, and I guess that is their prerogative, though I question how fair it is to deprive the coming generations of a chance for a better way of life. In any event, it’s safe to say that the good people of Cebolla, Spain, will not be seeking town-twinning with this community in Dutchess County any time soon.

          Ah, yes, by the way, they also say that the name “Chicago” is the Miami tribe word for “stinky onion”. I’ll make sure my friends from the Windy City are aware of that.

          Paradoxically, the town of Cebolla has nothing to do with the pungent vegetable, nor is the produce particular to those parts. You can find onions just about anywhere in Spain, and I promise you no one travels to this community from afar to purchase a kilo thinking they are taking home with them some of the nation’s finest. The name is actually a deformation of an Arabic word, or at least that’s what the experts think. The most widely accepted theory posits that it comes from “Yavayla”, meaning “hill”, which certainly makes sense since the town was eventually settled on a not-so-shabby plateau that looks out over the low-lying land around the Tajo River. According to this version, the unpronounceable word evolved into something that sounded closer to Spanish, “Zeboila”, and from there “Cebolla”. It’s a fairly common occurrence in languages when it comes to loanwords.

          That Arabic was the source language shouldn’t come as such a shock. After all, the Muslims did control much of La Mancha for hundreds of years and that’s usually enough time to make an indelible mark on some of the place names. The region “La Mancha” itself most likely derives from the same tongue, probably from the word “manxa”, meaning “dry land”, which that pretty much sums up the climate here in a nutshell.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in la Mancha 17

However, just as Spain was enjoying some good press for a job well done, everything changed, and rather dramatically. Starting about 2012, new renewable energy installations both in the wind and solar power departments all but came to a screeching halt. The national government had cut back on subventions in the face of a crippling recession. At least, that was the most obvious culprit. But there was more to it than just a limping economy. Analysts argued Spain had been producing more electricity than it needed and at a very high running cost, which meant sales revenue came in well below the money that went into it. In short, they were losing money; especially the power companies. This lopsided budgeting has been attributed to excessive enthusiasm and poor planning, a dangerous combination in any project.

          In addition to slashing public funding, the government went to other great lengths to make going green about as enticing as defrosting a freezer on a Saturday evening. Whereas other countries’ private producers could both use energy they generated for free and then sell the extra juice to the national grid, in Spain, that was simply not possible. In addition, the administration tacked on absurd duties, like the infamous “sun tax”, which levied a maintenance cost on some of those who self-consumed renewable energy and were connected to the grid, even if they did not use it. As you can imagine, this and other measures were enormously unpopular.

          For the next four years, new clean energy investments and permits fell to near anemic levels, spelling a period of disillusionment, frustration and chaos. This was in direct contrast to what just about every other developed nation was doing during the same period. As a consequence, Spain began to slip in the rankings. The rest of the world had caught up to and, in some cases, even overtaken Spain’s once prestigious position; before you knew it, the country was hardly mentioned in reports and articles touting its bright future of the industry disappeared.

          The numbers say it all. For example, in wind power, Spain was third in this sector in 2006 with 11,630 MW of installed capacity. That shot up to 22,676 MW in the next four years, before the effects of the recession really took hold. Since then, the capacity has continued to ascend, but ever so slowly. Between the years 2012 and 2018, the increase has gone from 22,796 to 23,494, an insignificant +698 MW. By comparison, this is what other countries have done:

COUNTRY 2012 MW 2018 MW Variation MW
GERMANY 31,332 59,331 +27,999
INDIA 18,421 35,129 +18,708
U.K. 8,445 20,170 +11,725
FRANCE 7,196 15,301 +8,105
BRAZIL 2,508 14,707 +12,119
USA 60,007 96,665 +36,658
CANADA 6,200 12,018 +5,818

As we can see, many other nations which were well behind Spain when Modern Family first aired on TV are on its heels.

          Something similar happened to solar power. As we know, it got off to a great start, but then suddenly froze. Now Spain lags sorely behind nations where cloud-cover is a standard backdrop to any given selfie. Here’s a chart on photovoltaic production in megawatts to illustrate my point:

COUNTRY 2011 2016
GERMANY 24,875 41,340
ITALY 12,764 19,274
U.K. 1,014 11,562
FRANCE 2,831 7,165
SPAIN 4,214 4,801

And if you take into account that, in 2014, the output in Spain was at 4,874MW, the findings are even more tragic. Once a role model for many countries, Spain had become one of the few which actually reduced its volume.

          The recent change to a more eco-friendly administration has rekindled hope, as it should. Since its tenuous arrival in June of 2018, the Socialist Party run government has passed legislation that appears to return the country to its original ecological path. Parliament has scrapped the sun tax, streamlined the paperwork necessary to start self-consumption, and made plans to scale back and eventually eliminate coal-based power plants. The goal has been set for 2050 as the target year for becoming 100% renewable energy reliant. It’s nice to know that windmills, in their own way, have managed to survive the march of time and proven themselves even more valuable than ever. Just quite possibly the once considered impossible dream will come true.

          Back in my own private Idaho, I was in the middle of a very personal debate. The issue at hand was just where to place the waistline of my bathing suit so as to reduce the waist of my body. The low cut felt better but allowed for a little bit too much “lippage”, as I like to call it. The overhang gave me an aura of something lethargic, something often in search of food. I tugged it higher up to around belly button level, solving one problem but creating another. Now I gave the distinct impression that I pumped gas for a living. 

          Laura was already in the water and calling me to come out.

          “I’ll be there in a second. I’m checking out my girth.”

          “Excuse me?”

          Fernando intervened. “Spend any more time in there and I’m going to start thinking you’re up to no good.”

          “I’m coming!” I emerged to the brightness of the evening sun.

          Laura was already floating in the water and looking like she was born to swim. This is one of those occasions where you want to say, “you look like seal,” in reference to how natural and happy she looks in the icy water, but as a rule, women don’t like to be compared to polar marine mammals, regardless of one’s good intentions.

          “Come on in!” she cried.

          This time I adopted a radical and highly suicidal approach and jumped in without further thought. After hyperventilating for a minute, I said it felt great just to be nice, paddled wildly to the side of the pool, dragged myself from the water on to the Earth’s landmass with the gracefulness of the world’s first amphibian and let the sun’s renewable energy toast my skin until the shivering subsided. Then I plopped down on a lounge chair and talked to Fernando about Cebolla, because a couple of subjects piqued my curiosity. 

          “To begin with,” I asked. “Just how the hell did it get its name? ‘Cause I don’t see anyone selling onions around here.” 


Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 16

The designated pool house was in the far corner of the pool area and had none of the characteristics of your typical pre-fab shed, with a couple of wobbly plastic chairs and a spare sack of peat moss stashed inexplicably inside. Instead, this one looked like it had been assaulted in a previous life by a lance belonging to Don Quixote. It was, in effect, a down-sized version of a windmill and it made total sense.

          The windmill is, along with the errant knight and his portly sidekick, Sancho Panza, the quintessential Manchego landmark. And rightly so. Miguel de Cervantes’ work, which is set mainly in La Mancha (hence its appearance in the title), is widely considered to be the greatest narrative contribution to universal literature…ever. That’s not just me or King Felipe VI of Spain saying that; the opinion was seconded by half of the world’s most highly regarded writers in a survey conducted several years ago. In other words, the people who knew a thing or two about these matters. This near unaminous acclaim also explains why any combination of the threesome can be seen and found and stumbled upon all over the region: in restaurants, hotels, stores, town signs, parks, gas stations, museums, government buildings, restrooms, logos and products, courtyards, living room tables and, now, even backyard shacks. They are omnipresent, there is no doubt. And Cebolla, though nowhere on the radar of the Quixote saga, had no plans on being left out. Near the main square stands a statue of the awkwardly iron-clad cavalier next to the familiar conic shape of a white windmill. Who else and what else would have been there?

          Besides Holland, I can think of no other country on Earth where the windmill is so inextricably linked to the natural setting. These structures were probably first built in Spain in the 14th or 15th centuries when returning crusaders, who had discovered them during their warring adventures in the Holy Land, brought the technology with them to their homeland. The newfangled mechanism caught on rather quickly and became an obligatory sight in many towns, not unlike the ubiquitous water tower in the U.S. Midwest. There aren’t many old examples around these days. Probably the most famous examples are the beautiful whitewashed ones located in the town of Molinos de Consuegra on the other side of the province of Toledo. There, twelve structures proudly sit perched up on a ridge overlooking the pretty village. It’s a visit worth the effort.

          Windmills are deceptively simple looking on the outside. A stout snowy tube with a thatched roof and propeller as a nose. That’s about all there is to it on the surface. But in their interior they display far more intricate machinery than you would think. Once the wind gets the wings turning, a network of wooden cogs and screws clap and creak away as the wheels go round in circles in order to get a huge millstone up and spinning furiously. It’s an impressive feat of engineering. All the same, an obvious question came to my mind when I first laid eyes on one from up close: what happens if the wind rushes in from another direction? Do they have to starve until the elements are more favorable? Or can the miller download an application on his iPhone and adjust it wirelessly? Though they look stocky and static and not of much use most of the time, the designers back then had an answer to that problem. On the outside, there is a pole that acts as a kind of rudder. It is attached to the movable cap at the top of the building, which, in turn, supports the sails. This can be rotated so that it makes the most of the wind no matter what direction it comes from. Ingenious.

          Every once in a while, you read about an individual serving people who nostalgically want their flour made and bagged the traditional way, but for the most part they are a rare breed. A dying species. The molinos’ role as flour producers has long since been replaced by powerful factories which pump out a thousand-fold more powdered grain in a fraction of time and for a hell of a lot cheaper. That’s the way it is. Modern times. So, their role these days is mainly touristic, but their allure rather limited. Basically, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

          Despite their utter obsoleteness in the baking industry, the principle behind how windmills work has taken them to a different sector today altogether and made them more valuable than ever. Spain has not forgotten the enormous benefits of wind power and has transitioned its usefulness enthusiastically into the wonderment of generating electricity; thanks to these efforts, the country is one of the foremost users of this breezy renewable source of energy. It currently ranks 5th in the world in capacity and 3rd in production. 20% of the country’s total output comes from tapping into the earth’s atmospheric currents, with Castilla-La Mancha contributing 17% of the overall production. 141 wind farms are spread out throughout the region. The massive turbines populate vast stretches of the land in La Mancha, both on the plains and atop some of the hills, but their presence isn’t always welcome by ecologists who question their impact on the environment. Tourist boards also gripe about their unsightliness, since they interrupt the harmony of this country’s natural settings. This is now known as visual pollution, and they do have a point. You’re cruising along a beautiful country road enjoying the humbling effects of being engulfed in that vast openness that so characterizes La Mancha when –Bam!— three hundred turbines obliterate your perfect view of the great expanse. I get it; I really do. Not the best, but I guess they beat the sight of a cozy nuclear plant on the banks of the town reservoir. Plus, that was the direction the whole world was going in. Was Spain going to sit back and watch the others save the planet?

          Not a chance. Since 2000, Spain has proven itself to be highly pro-active in renewable energy as a whole, not just wind. Take solar power, a logical choice since sunlight is a dominant climatic feature here. Madrid, for example, routinely outshines most European cities in this respect as its residents are exposed to approximately 2,800 hours of bursting sunniness every year. Anyone who has ever lived here year round can vouch for it.

But would it work? I had my doubts. Our solar system’s star doesn’t appear capable of heating something as manageable as a private swimming pool to my liking, how was it going to power an entire town? 20 years ago, solar energy was taking some heat, if you’ll excuse the pun, for not providing the efficiency needed to make it worth the investment. But experts claimed that if there was one country that could make it work, with more advanced technology, Spain was it. With the proper technology, its effectiveness could be increase.

With this advice in mind, the government invested €8.1 billion in subsidies, research and development. In 2005 Spain became the first nation in Europe to require installing solar panels on the roofs of all new buildings, and by the end of the decade, specialists in the field regarded it as a kind of leader in the crusade to make the planet a cleaner and fossil-fuel free place. It was a distinction this country could really be proud of.