In the funny way this blog sometimes has of predicting the future – aka, catching me out – this week it did snow in the Algarve. As well as almond blossom, actual snow appeared for the first time in half a century. It was no more than a few flakes but it caused a flurry of excitement. The birds I see from the study – the robin and the redstart – turned from sleek outlines into powder puffs in their attempts to stay warm. Then, after a few bone-cold days, the weather turned better, which was lucky for one cyclist, newly into a nine-year World Environmental Tour that had brought him to the Algarve. As my activist group were thinner on the ground in January than the snow, and since the cyclist was from Manchester, I was the one who arranged to meet him to talk about local issues. We were to cross paths in Olhão, the fishing town. As part of a firefighter solidarity network, he was staying at the fire station.
I don’t know my way around Olhão, only the sea front, but a fire station should be easy to find. I employed the navigation function on my phone. It took me to the Avenida dos Bombeiros – the Avenue of the Firefighters. I parked in a tucked away car park, made a mental note of a tall tree that would serve as a landmark, and looked for a building with huge gates and red fire engines. None. I asked the receptionist of the driving school there.
‘Oh, it’s a long way from here. You go left here and right there and . . . There is a roundabout with a cube on it.’
I’m still at the stage of being able to formulate a good question in Portuguese but not being able to understand all the answer. I thanked her and set off on foot. Confusion set in after a while. The Cyclist and I were messaging each other. I let him know I’d arrived but was trying to find the fire station. He kept sending me maps I could barely read on the tiny phone screen.
I found a new helper, an elderly lady in winter coat and sunglasses. She began to explain the route.
‘You know the X, and the Y?’
‘No . . .’
‘Ah, you don’t know nada of Olhão?’
‘I don’t know nada.’
‘I will show you the way.’
We walked together for a while. I lost track of the small twists and turns we were taking. Occasionally the narrowness of the cobblestone pavement, or a passing or parked car, forced us on to separate sides of the road. She would call me back to her side with a sound you might use to call a dog and I would return to heel. Eventually we arrived at the point where we would part. She described the rest of the route I was to take alone and kissed me warmly on both cheeks. I set off across a small park and found the other side of it ended in a drop back to the road, which had fallen away below. I contemplated jumping but heard the dog call. My saviour was not far away, indicating I retrace my steps then follow the road around the park wall. I did so, and we waved to each other for the last time.
I was looking for a school now, but didn’t see it. The Cyclist asked me to send a photograph of where I was. With the message function of the phone, I took a picture of the nearest road sign. Typically Portuguese, it was pretty against a white wall, made of decorative tiles with a name longer than the tiny street merited. I pressed send and turned round to discover a man watching me, his legs splayed, his flies open, showing me his erection.
I scarpered. Maybe you are supposed to do something deterrent – jeer? scream? point and laugh? aim a swift kick? – but I was off, not running but walking fast, down several small streets before my instinct towards flight cooled off. I no longer knew where I was, nor where my car was, nor where the Cyclist was. His response to my earlier photo-message pinged through.
‘You’re not far now.’
Too late. I wasn’t going back there, even if I could find it again.
It took me about 20 minutes to locate my car. The landmark tree helped. I messaged the Cyclist, who’d been asking if I was OK.
‘Unnerved by flasher. Going home.’
He encouraged me not to give up. If I could just drive back to the N125, turn right, stop by a roundabout with a big cube on it, he’d meet me there.
It worked. I made it. We finally met to discuss his one-man world-saving trip. Good luck to him. I couldn’t do it. I’d get lost for one thing. And I felt like I’d already encountered an entire world in Olhão in one afternoon. Here he is, Martin Hutchinson Caminante, and now recumbent tricyclist, in his own words:
‘I walked 34,000 kilometres across twenty-one Latin American countries over nine years; I went to 600 schools to give talks and lectures on what we are doing to the environment. Then I left England again last year, on 31 May, my fifty-fifth birthday, to travel on my recumbent tricycle around every European country, and then go to India and Australia. I hope to spend another nine years doing this, or more. The idea again is to film and go to schools to show what is being done to the environment and how we need to change. We need to make some small sacrifices now, because if we don’t there’ll be huge sacrifices to make in the near future, about which we won’t have any choice. We live on the most incredible planet. People just don’t see it any more.’
I disagreed with this point. It seems my view of people is too optimistic.
‘The world cannot supply 7.5 billion people with the lifestyle that everyone expects. Individuals have got to take action, which starts with cutting back. One person can do a lot just by themselves; maybe encourage others to follow their example. We have power. We are only governed by a few. We have to say we want governments to change, corporations to change. We don’t want fossil fuels, they are old-fashioned. We have to say to the corporations: there are solutions, it’s just that you’re not implementing them because you are making loads of money out of the old ways and you don’t care what you are doing to the environment in the meantime.
‘We haven’t got a few years. We need to change things now. Everybody needs to cut back. We don’t need as much stuff. We have become prisoners of our possessions. Cut back, let things go. Get your freedom back.
‘When I was nineteen, I had a nice girlfriend and one day she said, “You’re not going to be anything, are you?” I realised halfway home that that was the end of the relationship, and it was because I wasn’t going to be somebody. Then a few weeks afterwards, I thought, yes, she’s right. Doesn’t mean I can’t have an interesting life though. Never had a buzz like it in my life. I had such a rush of energy. I packed in my job and went off round the world. It’s possible. Everything is there. If you never make a sacrifice, you never gain any experience. I have had such a wonderful life. I say to kids, just get out there, be free and have a life. We live on the most incredible planet. It’s taken 4.5 billion years for the planet to get to this point, and it’s probably the best time that humans have ever lived on it. And what are we doing? Messing it all up.’