People

Snow in the Algarve, part II

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.’

 

Something to look out for on the roads of the Algarve over the coming week

Martin Hutchinson with his bike at the fire station. (For the record, the building looks nothing like a fire station from the outside)

 

Weather

I’m hoping for rain, not least because our garden watering system isn’t working and I’m clambering over the rocky ground with a heavy watering can sploshing against my leg. I’m concentrating on the citrus trees – lemons, oranges, grapefruit – because those are currently in fruit, and not being true natives they are intolerant of aridity. The water from Eleuterio’s riverside well, which usually fills our garden tank, isn’t reaching us. We’ve replaced bits of the pump, searched the hoses for kinks, put in new junction pieces, all without success. Eleuterio said he found an amphibian in the piping and thought that was the problem, but I guess it’s been removed and yet nothing has changed. The amphibian was identified by an Algarvian name which we couldn’t recognise, and by the way I now know the amphibians and reptiles of Portugal pretty damn well having attended two lectures on the subject in Sagres and made copious notes. (That weekend wasn’t just about birds.) Which also means that my recent claim to know nothing of reptilian reproduction is no longer valid. All the baby lizards and geckos around now are the product of a second breeding cycle – which only happens in advantageous years – and is thanks to a bounty of insects resulting from the rain in May. So there you go. But Eleuterio’s name for the beast-that-hadn’t-anyway-caused-the-blockage eluded us. And rain is eluding us too, though I had hoped the ferocious weather on the other side of the Atlantic might throw a drop or two our way.

What's left of the swimming area, and all that's left of the river hereabouts

What’s left of the swimming area, which is all that’s left of the river hereabouts. Look closely and you’ll see it is full of fish trying to hide in the shadows

 

Although the riverside wells have water, the river itself is almost totally dry. The swimming area is down to the size of a small bathtub, lively with fish. Since we cannot refill our garden tank from the riverside well, we’re going to have to buy in water. (The well on our own land, 150 metres higher than the river, provides enough water only for our household use, and that barely.) Today it’s being delivered. It won’t be any easy drop. The tractor and tanker will have to drive partway up a steep hillside path, park near the little round wooden house and hope the hose is long enough to reach the tank from there. The Algarvians are practical people who can get things done, so I hope it will be all right.

Costa, the ever-practical Renault 4 man, continues to be reachable only by extraordinary and unconventional means. Rolie has been choking and coughing lately, and I wanted to take him in for a service. I called Costa but had no luck in getting through. The next day, Husband and I were driving through Tavira at night in the jeep when we saw a car ahead of us with no lights on. Husband, in his dutiful, slightly overbearing way, beeped at the car a couple of times to alert them to their lack of illumination. The car pulled over instead – and out from the passenger seat leapt Costa. I jumped out too, and we shook hands and discussed arrangements for Rolie, while the two men in the driving seats nodded to each other and Husband politely suggested the other put his lights on. Yesterday I took Rolie to the garage in Olhão that Costa had arranged. Within twenty-four hours, some troublesome part had been replaced and Rolie is now rolling along as smooth as anything. My dear little old polluter. I’ll be very sad when I have to let him go.

No blog next week, because we will be in England for a wedding. Thereafter comes a heavy schedule of activism. I’d imagined a quieter autumn after the summer beach events, but there’s no let-up. More on that to come.

We've stocked up for the winter with a tonelada (metric tonne) of azinheiro (holm oak). It took the delivery man half an hour to unload and stack it

We’ve stocked up ready for the winter with a tonelada (metric tonne) of azinheiro (holm oak). It took the delivery man half an hour to unload and stack it. When it goes into the wood-burner, it will smell heavenly

A couple of details from Tavira: crown in the wall of a beautiful garden, which is the former cemetery of the church of St Francis (Convento de São Francisco)

A couple of details from Tavira: crown in the wall of a beautiful garden, the former cemetery of the church of St Francis (Convento de São Francisco)

Another detail from the same site: the gecko at the foot of a pillar in what appear to be gothic side chapels, open to the elements

Another detail from the same place: the gecko at the foot of a pillar in what appear to be two gothic side chapels, open to the elements

Beach work

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of 'paper' to the nest

Paper Wasps: we have more of these nests than we would really like. One wasp is whirring his wings like a fan, I guess to dry the latest application of ‘paper’ to the nest

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

Our fig tree gave us a second harvest this year, unlike last. The figs of the second harvest are small, purple and intensely sweet

The gin-and-tonic spot

The place to view the meditation hill, and perhaps drink a gin and tonic

washing line

The swallows enjoy the view of the meditation hill too

 

Galpgate has opened, and doesn’t look like closing any time soon. This is the revelation that the oil company Galp – who recently postponed ‘indefinitely’ their drilling plans off the coast of Aljezur in the western Algarve – have been mining Portuguese politicians for human resources to add to their bookable reserves.* A privately chartered aeroplane took, among others, three secretaries of state to France for the Euro2016 games: all expenses covered and tickets to the games supplied, including, in the case of Rocha (‘Rock’) Andrade, secretary of state for fiscal affairs, a seat at the final. That particular Rock was no doubt well worth drilling, since as fiscal boss he is in charge of Galp’s many and large tax debts to the state, which the oil company is refusing to pay. The other two grubby-handed secretaries are Jorge Costa Oliveira and João Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos looks particularly grimy because he is in charge of Galp’s application for public subsidies for the building of an oil refinery.

Once the bright light of publicity shone on them, the three secretaries of state claimed innocence of any unethical behaviour while simultaneously offering to repay some or all of the expenses. No doubt these men still remain highly ‘bookable’ in Galp’s terms.

Here on the ground we keep up our fight against all the oil and gas companies. In preparation for a beach event this coming Saturday, a discussion and rehearsal group gathered one evening on the sands. Saturday’s event is an art attack, requiring creative, devil-may-care, outgoing types, of which we have plenty in the group. Feelings, however, were running high. What is at stake – the health and wellbeing and livelihoods of the many against the destructive greed of a tiny few – would make anyone febrile. Add to that some anxiety about how things will turn out – the human chain event was a huge success, but who can guarantee the same again? – then toss in a few unpredictable aspects of the artistic personality, and fissures start to open up. We ended up with some constructive decisions, plus a whole lot of hurt feelings, and a few people wondering whether they can even participate. The price of activism. It’s worth it, but it’s a difficult journey in so many ways.

Meeting on the beach

Meeting on the beach

sunset

Sunset at the beach (Ilha de Tavira)

 

Against all this, there is such joy and peace to be found at home. We have two new chairs, hand-made by Robert Harris. They are on the front veranda, from where we look out at the meditation hill as the day fades, watching the tree-spotted, straw-blonde earth turn slowly to rich ochre and then eventually to grey. At the other end of the veranda, the swallows are as happy in their home as we are in ours, and sometimes like to sit on the washing line and enjoy the same view that we do. Still no sign of chicks being fed, but so much activity in and out of their mud house that surely it can’t be long. Just as I was about to post this blog, Husband came dashing in. He’s heard the sound of chicks, he says.

* An oil company’s market value is enhanced by being able to lay claim to oil/gas reserves still under the ground – known as ‘bookable reserves’.

Bufo bufo

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins were swimming through the air, sunlight turning them liquid

A sunny morning back at home. House Martins filled the air above, sunlight turning them liquid

River sparkle

River sparkle

Wading through the river in my new wellies

I can wade through the river in my new wellies

 

I arrived back from England wearing a pair of new, knee-length red wellies, which I’d found on sale in my mum’s village. I had worried about arcane airline regulations that prevent the wearing of long rubber footwear – who knows? – but they weren’t confiscated, though I did have to take them off to get through security. They are the Best Thing. The calf-length wellies that landed me in such cold water a couple of weeks ago have been cast aside, and in my knee-length ones I can wade properly through the river. I was happy to see the river hadn’t dried up in our absence, but equally it has never gone into spate like it did last year, when a torrent of brown water came down and filled the wide, shallow river bed from bank to bank.

At least there was enough water for the toads (Common Toad, Bufo bufo), who came into the water to mate. It was last week, just before we left for England. I saw something moving in the river: a squat and immobile thing, which pulled its head underwater on the approach of a human being but didn’t swim off like a turtle does. It turned out to be one of about half a dozen toads, each the size of a fat fist, waiting around for something to happen. The something was happening in one spot only, as you can see from the picture below. Whether there was only one female – the large one underneath is the female – and the others were males waiting their turn with her, I don’t know. I was disconcerted that they’d chosen one of the fording routes as their mating site and hoped they survived. Mind you, there is only about a car a day – usually ours.

Mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Underwater mating Common Toads (Bufo bufo), seen before we left for England

Bufo bufo waiting and hoping

Waiting and hoping

 

So when I returned from England in my wellies I went to see how the toads had got on. Clearly, mating had gone well. They must have all returned to their dry land sites because they were nowhere to be seen, but their translucent tubes of black eggs were left carelessly all over the place. The tubes often lay in pairs, looking like traffic-heavy dual-carriageways, following straight routes until forced to loop around rock obstructions, or piling up into occasional spaghetti junctions. This is Nature’s sustainable surplus at work. If all these eggs resulted in toads, the hillsides would be carpeted with them. As it is, only a tiny few of this vast number will survive. I had a go at working out how many eggs there might be; I quickly gave up. Even estimating the total length of tube wasn’t easy: certainly dozens of metres, maybe even a hundred. With so many eggs, and so few toads needed to sustain a stable population, the parents can afford to abandon them to fate – including the chance of being run over.

Toad egg roads - found on our return

Toad egg roads all through the river at the ford – found on our return

Toad eggs: Nature's miraculous abundance

Toad eggs: Nature’s miraculous abundance

 

Lemons

The lemon trees around here are doing a good job of sustainable surplus too. We had a picnic with friends among sobreiros (Quercus suber; cork oak trees) just before we left for England. It was a perfect day for walking and sunny enough for picnicking. On our way there, driving up the two-kilometre dirt track that is the high street of our local community, we passed Maria and pulled up for a chat. I had a Bulgarian cheese pie cooling on my lap – my contribution to the picnic. ‘She makes nice things,’ said Maria to Husband. (When your Portuguese isn’t that good, you get talked about more than to. I’m happy with that – I can listen in, like a child, trying to learn.) Husband said it was for a picnic, and then Maria insisted we take armfuls of their oranges to add to the spread. Theirs are the sweetest, juiciest oranges, so we were happy to. She also exhorted us to help ourselves to the abundant lemons. As we reached into the trees, gently twisting the fruit to see which were ready to fall into our hands, Maria said how much she liked a chocolate cake I’d made recently. It had been too much cake for us – the mood to bake a cake had arrived but without enough mouths at home to eat it – so when Eleuterio appeared on his tractor I had offered him a quarter to take away. It was very well received. ‘I like to bake cakes,’ I explained to Maria, in a sudden burst of Portuguese. ‘And I like to eat them,’ she replied, grinning broadly. She was less impressed, however, with my plans to preserve the excess of lemons with salt. Sweetness rules the day.

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

When lemons are so abundant, and grow most of the year round, it seems hardly worth the effort of preserving them. On the other hand, it is very difficult to let them go to waste, and preserving them adds new flavour notes. On the left: lemon slices layered with paprika; on the right, salted lemons

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Finished. The pickled lemons have been topped up with oil, the salted ones with lemon juice, along with bay leaves, cinnamon, peppercorns and coriander seeds. Just a few weeks to wait now until they are ready

Week 74: Rolie

For some weeks now, my Renault 4 has been misbehaving. This has entailed many meet-ups with Costa, my multi-tasking, extrovert R4 man, a Portuguese with a French accent and an outsider’s view of his own country. We meet at the Cooperativa, where he has a workspace arrangement with a mechanic, the same one who sorted out the R4 when I pranged the back end on the millstone outside our house (Weeks 49 and 50). The car issue at the beginning of this week – indicators that stopped working – was resolved in a matter of moments by Costa, his head under the steering-wheel column, a spanner in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. While fixing the lights, he delivered a non-stop commentary on the job in hand, on procrastination in sunny, southern countries (‘They say “Monday”, but you should ask, “Which Monday?”!’) and on some age-related concerns with his back that were hindering his positioning half in and half out of the car, all the while taking calls on the mobile, and grinning whenever his face was angled outwards so as to be visible.

The preceding problem had been an electrical one that caused the car to cut out. It would usually start again after a few moments, but this wasn’t much fun on the road in traffic. On my way to the Cooperativa that time Rolie had given up the ghost and I had been forced to leave him on the side of the road and walk the rest of the way. Costa came with me back to the car, laughing while perorating on the fact that he eats too much, that I give directions just like someone from the Alentejo (‘Oh, it’s just around the corner, no, not this corner, the next one …’), and that my ‘baby’ – babee, with the accent on the second syllable – was ‘a bad baby’. He got the engine going again and drove off. It took a substantial rewiring to sort out that problem, and it was the fixing thereof that had knocked out the indicator function. There had also been the rattling gear stick – now cushioned by a new rubber washer – and a flat tyre, a slow release caused by a tiny stone between the rubber and the rim.

The Cooperativa, with its huge, under-used (or unused) concrete silos and its Social Realist signage featuring a man and a woman in stout boots and with raised fists marching off into the future carrying a sheaf of wheat, offers space for many activities. While Costa fixes the indicators, a forklift truck manoeuvres sacks of sweetly pungent, freshly dried figs into a store-room. Wine barrels bob in water-filled plastic boxes under the water tank. The mechanic, a bear of a man – whose lateness caused the discourse on southern procrastination, though in the end he wasn’t really that late at all – arrives cleaning his sunglasses on his T-shirt, casually exposing his considerable belly, and joins in the conversation with the man under the steering wheel. Other people, to whom my car must be pretty familiar by now, come and go. Strange agricultural smells assail the nose. Mysteries unfold there. I don’t know the half of it.

Rain

Rain

Wet dog. Estrela, who so often comes to visit

Wet dog. Estrela, who so often comes to visit

These will be our first oranges of the year. I don't know what kind they are; they are an interesting drop shape

These will be our first oranges of the year. I don’t know what kind they are; they are an interesting drop shape

We will have many mandarins this year

We will have many mandarins this year

Grapefruit: the right colour already, but they need to grow a lot bigger

Grapefruit: the right colour already, but they need to grow a lot bigger

Rain

The real story this week has been rain. For days now it has done nothing but pour. Columns of rain have marched up and down the valley, thundering on the roof and hanging in sheets from the gutters. Surely the river will be back earlier this year. We expect it almost any day now.

Each time the noise of the rain stops, birds start up. Small birds are passing through in flocks and singly: wagtails, buntings and warblers; other birds are returning for winter. I opened the garage-type door to our ‘spare’ house one day this week for a yoga session, only for a bird to startle and fly straight into a window then land, stunned, on the floor. Thirty seconds later, it recovered itself and flew out of the still-open door. It was the redstart, my winter companion of last year when we had newly arrived in the valley at the end of the world. I’m so happy to see it back.

As I write I am deafened by the latest downpour and yet, incredibly, the internet is still functioning, allowing me to make this post. Equally incredibly, one day this week was hot and sunny enough for sunbathing at the beach. Our favoured beach at the height of summer is no longer easily reachable since the boat has stopped running, so we returned to our beach of autumn and winter: Barril, where the anchor graveyard is.

Taken on a hot, sunny day at the beach this week

Taken on a hot, sunny day at the beach this week

The anchor graveyard at Barril. At first, I didn't know whether this was an art installation or a dumping ground. It turns out to be neither. The anchors were for holding net frames for tuna capture and slaughter. They were stacked up here at the end of each season, ready for the next year. But then, in the mid-1960s, the next year didn't come - the decades of abundant, cascading tuna fish were over. Since then dunes have grown up around the anchors. All this is a story for another time

The anchor graveyard at Barril. At first, I didn’t know whether this was an art installation or a dumping ground. It turns out to be neither. The anchors were for holding net frames for tuna capture and slaughter. They were stacked up here at the end of each season, ready for the next year. But then, in the mid-1960s, the next year didn’t come – the decades of abundant, cascading tuna fish were over. Since then dunes have grown up around the anchors. All this is a story for another time

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