As I trudged through northern Spain in May, the cafes overflowed with idle men, the words 'se vende' (for sale) marked the walls of countless dilapidated dwellings whose caved roofs gave way to the trees growing inside, and the deserted shells of unfinished construction sites haunted the cities. This is not a situation unique to the country's north. The unemployment rate in Spain has soared to 21%, youth unemployment is at a staggering 44%, and a record 4.9 million are jobless.
The economic crisis is central to the protests that have been taking place throughout Spain since mid-May, and have continued to spread across Europe. The demonstrators, which have been compared by the former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González to those staged in Arab countries, have gathered to defend their basic rights against immoral politicians and bankers whose lack of conscience is epitomized by the fallout from the financial crisis.
At the beginning of June, long after the sun had set, I found myself in front of the City Council building of Ourense, 100 km's southeast of Santiago De Compostela. There sat a few lonely tents, and on it's stairs and scattered before it's entrance were mattresses, blankets, tables, chairs, overflowing bookshelves, and painted cardboard signs spouting slogans like "we don't have enough bread for so many sausages" - referring to the countries politicians. I mingled with the camping demonstrators who called themselves 'los indignados' (the outraged), who'd offered me a place to sleep.
"What are you fighting for?" I inquired, sitting between a handful of people getting steadily drunk and stoned. The pension privileges of Spain's politicians were mentioned - as was the routine corruption and nepotism. But, after they'd decided they'd said enough, attention quickly returned to the oversized bottle of beer.
A drunken man stumbled past stopping to hurl a few words of abuse. A downcast Spanish demonstrator with tangled hair translated for me: "He said that we are homeless and to stop using demands for change as an excuse to camp on the street",. His name was Santi, and he'd travelled as a representative from Santiago to connect with those protesting in Ourense. "Nothing can be achieved this way - by smoking and drinking" he sighed.
It was clear that in Ourense there was no real struggle for change, just a handful of people using the demonstrations as an opportunity to party in the towns historic square and sleep under the stars - ready to resume their normal lives at any moment. He begged me to return with him to Santiago to experience for myself the movement that had spread throughout the country, a movement he was sure could pressure change. I would spend the next four days with Santi in his world, in Praze De Obradoiro (The Workplace) - Santiago's main plaza in the shadow of the cathedral reputed as the resting place of St. James - and would become known warmly as 'guris' (the foreigner).
We arrived in the square just before sunset, in time for dinner. Hundreds lined up in front of a long trestle table, including the local homeless, weighed down by big pots of steaming food, as the voluntary cooks happily served the meals they'd prepared on site by food donated by local inhabitants. Later we washed our dishes together in big buckets of hot water, before sitting down in the square beneath warm blankets lent to us.
The protesters sat together eating, and later played memory games in a circle, laughing loudly as they tried to remember each others names and individual gestures. Santi explained the need for games, to build relationships with one-another and release the tension of the looming prospect of forceful eviction by the national police - with their helmets lowered and batons raised - as happened in Madrid and Barcelona.
The tent community consisted of around a hundred people sleeping there every night - that number doubling or tripling in the day. Makeshift buildings had been constructed from wood, cardboard, and plastic sheet, and it was more a small village than a camp.
Apart from the roughly 100 tents organized towards the sides of the square, there was an information commission building at the front where anyone could receive information in a array of languages. At the camp's rear, in front of the police erected barricades, stood the main building whose makeshift rooms housed an audio visual commission, a legislation commission; a medical commission, a cultural commission and a nutrition commission that served three meals a day as well as coffee and biscuits (even had it's own little vegetable patch with a sign reading 'farm for freedom'). An infrastructure commission stood behind these and ceaseless drilling sounded from it's depths.
A young man with short dreadlocks patrolled the camp with a broad smile offering hugs, calling himself the 'rolling commission'. He was responsible for keeping everyone in good spirits, and mediating between those with differences of opinion. It appeared that nothing was overlooked. The work was never ending, and everyone present lent a hand. There were new buildings to be constructed and extended, leaflets to be made and distributed, rallies and assemblies to be organized, and social and cultural institutions to approach and build relationships with.
Praise flowed from locals and tourists alike, interested or wanting to contribute to the cause. After all, the demonstrators were demanding change, not only for themselves, but for every Spaniard - to use the movement's mantra - 'because we aren't products in the hands of politicians and bankers'.