Oil

Cu do mundo (dictionary: vulgar slang)

The Algarve is bursting into flower. It’s wonderful to see the gum rock rose again

 

We put on our protest T-shirts and gathered at the spot in Faro where the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was due to arrive. The police fenced us in, which was handy because it meant the banners could be strapped to the temporary railings and I, for once, didn’t have to be Sister Anna. On a recent visit to the Algarve, met with a similar protest, the president gnomically remarked that there was as much chance of the area being exploited for oil as of him going to the moon. This led to today’s protest being moon-themed, with one poster showing a giant-sized one-way extra-terrestrial ticket and others displaying various exhortations to the president to take himself into orbit. When he turned up, after we’d been hanging around and banging drums for four hours, he showed himself to be the celebrity he is, who can work a room, or indeed a series of railings lined with protestors, with skill. He drove up himself, with no obvious security detail, then left the car with the keys in the ignition – an aide parked it – and came straight over to us, looking for hands to shake and asking who’d like to talk.

One particularly fervent protestor – and friend – bore a stuffed, yellow fabric new-moon toy which she’d splattered with black ink to suggest an oil spill. She waved it at the president until he took it off her hands. It looked rather like a large, overripe banana.

The ease with which it is possible in Portugal to come face to face with politicians at the highest level is one of the great things about this country. It might be a product of its small size or the general openness of its people, or both. But we were disappointed when the president revisited his moon analogy – though you could argue that it was game of him given how much he was being mocked for it. And when he continued to assert that the contracts – or contract, singular, in his estimation – were only for research and not for exploitation, we were more than disappointed. The old ground we’ve been over so many times. There’s no way an oil company would invest millions just to see what’s there, then generously share that information widely and non-commercially. And we know the contracts allow for extraction to follow exploration because we’ve seen them. The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, was filmed last year trying to sell the Portuguese seabed to oil companies in the United States. Then she said in Parliament that there were no contracts for oil production in Portugal, a remark of the ‘alternative fact’ variety.

I peeled off in the middle of the wait for the president. A friend and I went for a sit-down and some coffee and cake in an elegant café in the centre of the old town, where we were served by waiters dressed smartly in black. No one looked twice at me even though I had large black teardrops painted on my face, which I’d forgotten about.

That night Husband made it on to the national news – again.

Back at home

We think of this dirt road leading to the floor of the valley as a romantic setting, the fim do mundo, the paradise at the ‘end of the world’. The locals are more likely to call it the cu do mundo, the ‘arse end of the world’. There are people in the nearby village who’ve never been here and would never bother to come. Maria used the term herself the other day. ‘We always thought of this place as the cu do mundo, but the foreigners seem to find it pretty.’ We were talking to her about our permaculture project, for which she and her husband have slowly developed a muted, guarded interest. As all salt-of-the-earth types worldwide, their response is purely practical. ‘We see what you are trying to do, and if it works, we might be impressed. But it takes time. We’ll see.’

I’m taking a blog holiday again. So many things to do. Many seeds to plant, for example, in our little paradise.

‘Gon out. Bisy. Backson.’

Another fantastic array of bread

Seeds for sharing

Dust

I never even noticed this beautiful carob tree before; it was inaccessible and hidden. Now it invites you to visit it. It is a perfect example of how the permaculture work on the land has opened it up in whole new ways

About to become deluxe accommodation for a sapling

Swales awaiting their protective covering of straw

A mango tree in the ‘tropical swale’, which is lined up to get more water than the other swales

 

A dust cloud from the Sahara landed on us this week, turning everything light brown. It must have met with humidity somewhere because it adhered to everything it touched. Vehicles queued up at car washes for the next couple of days. It took me several hours to clean the garden furniture. The swimming pool’s hitherto white cover is now dark sand but I haven’t tackled that yet. As for all the leaves in the garden, it would be a task for the Queen of Hearts and many obedient decks of cards to restore the colour of those. We need some rain to fall – and it is forecast for the weekend.

The battle of the corks continued all week, with the sparrows, now experts in the task, ousting the twin-cork contraption every night and us replacing it the next day, until a slip of Husband’s hand brought most of the rest of the fragile nest down. What this revealed, before the breeze took them away, was a luxurious lining of soft feathers. Now the swallows will have to rebuild, and the sparrows have nothing left to fight for possession of. The sparrows are not so hard done by. Flocks of them have taken advantage of the seeding of the hill for a feeding frenzy.

Also luxuriously feather-bedded have been the new trees brought home in the black van last week. They have been housed like racehorses. A few months ago, before we had any idea we were about to embark on a permaculture project, a landscape expert told me, ‘Make a hundred-dollar hole for a ten-dollar tree.’ How true. The excavating of the holes was, of course, done by costly machine. Heaven provided the first watering. Compost and manure made the first layers of bedding in the spacious hole, then each tree – healthy-looking but none the less insubstantial saplings every one of them – was introduced to its new home. After that, infilling with more precious stuff, a good watering, a layer of cardboard, another watering, and finishing off with a counterpane of straw. Each tree lives in an advantageous part of a swale, and we have high hopes of them.

I have not been without my protest armour this week. While Husband and visiting friend took on the job of repainting some exterior wood, I went to Lisbon by chartered coach. It meant leaving home at 7 a.m. and getting back after 1 a.m., and it meant standing outside the Assembleia da Républica for some five hours. As usual, I was Sister Anna with the banner. I need only to stand in one place for a few moments for someone to ask me to hold their side of the banner and then to disappear for good – though another kind-hearted protester can always be relied upon to relieve me when it gets too much. At one point someone asked me which group the banner I was supporting represented. I wasn’t sure. ‘I’m just a general banner holder,’ I explained.

The date – 23 February – and the timing were to coincide with the hearing inside the assembleia for ASMAA, a campaigning group seeking to protect the Algarve. The hearing was occasioned by the anti-oil petition with its 42,000 signers – included among them some dear readers of this blog. It had taken a while to get the date for a hearing, and in the meantime the DGRM (the department responsible for natural resources) had authorised a licence for drilling offshore anyway. But ASMAA decided it was worth going ahead with the hearing, not least out of respect for all the signers. Additionally, and rather hopefully, a lawyer has been digging up all the shaky ground around the 1994 law that allows oil-drilling to take place, and has found that the law itself is arguably illegitimate, and therefore so too all the contracts it has given rise to. The whole caravan is a mirage, swathed in desert sand …

The outcome of the hearing was good. Not so much a step in the right direction as a leap, I was told. And what’s more the politicians heard us chanting outside and it disturbed their usual smooth surfaces.

With all this going on, Carnival completely passed us by.

Never give up

Moody weather over the Meditation Hill

Linaria amethystea, Amethyst Toadflax, a tiny jewel amid the abundant greenery

 

The landform engineering is complete. The steepest part of the hill is wreathed in swales. They are large and deep, and within each land-hugging curve is a flatter terrace designed to make the land easier to walk on and – eventually – harvest from. The completion of the digging was met with downpours. Pleasingly, the swales, although they lack the mulching and the plant roots that will make them truly like sponges, channelled and held on to plenty of water.

Before the rain came we sowed the swales with seed – what musical words! – of broad bean and oat to generate green manure for spring-time and roots to train the water down into the earth. I joined in, informing the others as I scattered the seed with a sweep of the arm that this was the origin of the English word ‘broadcast’. This fascinating announcement fell on stony ground. Of much more interest to them – I discovered only when I’d finished – was my technique of scattering. It took me four times as long as anyone else and on completion I was met with indulgent looks. I demand patience from my co-workers, it seems. My desired transition from desk-worker to smallholder is going slowly. I’m still more Margot than Barbara.

It was morning and the sun rising over the opposite hill – the Meditation Hill – had lit up most of the dew drops like diamonds, but some drops, hanging heavily from grass stalks by a broken rock, looked more like copper, gold, amethyst. The broken rock had to be shale, I realised; this shiny film is what the fossil-fuel dinosaurs are interested in. It’s a great relief that the contracts giving one deluded businessman the rights to frack almost half of the landmass of the Algarve were cancelled. All the offshore rights remain in place, however, and one activist with her nose close to the paperwork – Laurinda Seabra – discovered that in January the government had secretly signed the licence for Galp-ENI to start drilling 3,000 metres below the seabed off the Aljezur coast. Not only that, in the small print the oil consortium is exempt both from paying licence fees and a security deposit and from providing proof that they have civil responsibility insurance in place – which can surely only mean that they have no such insurance in place. The government has taken no notice whatsoever of our repeated protests and petitions. Gestures towards public consultation were a weird Trumpian handshake while behind the scenes it was business as usual. So we’ll have to keep protesting. The next demonstration takes place in Lisbon outside the Assembleia da República on 23 February, when a long overdue parliamentary hearing is intended finally to take place to discuss the issues raised during the public consultation process: just to complete the window-dressing on their part, I guess.

Soon we will plant trees on the land. Mind you, with all the log fires we’ve been making to drive out the damp and the chill of recent wet days, we must be burning more trees than we could ever replace. Hypocrisy – never far away.

The sparrows refuse to lose interest in our veranda and its mud nest. They managed somehow to dislodge the two corks nailed together with metal U-pins. This contraption must match the body weight of the sparrows, so they really do deserve applause. But they are not getting in on my watch. I’ve replaced the corks. Build your own nest, feathered friends. You have so much space to choose from.

The sparrows don’t give up. The oilmen don’t give up. And we don’t give up. Well, apart from last week when I was scheduled to write a blog as ever, but ran out of juice and didn’t do it. It is a purely self-imposed deadline, an exercise in self-discipline and commitment as much as in communication, but it’s important to me and I didn’t like failing to meet it. I’m glad to be back this week.

This sparrow youngster was fascinated by the phones near the Signal Tree, aka the central post of the veranda with its backdrop of bougainvillea, often strung about with devices as it is one of the best places to have a chance of picking up an incoming call. First it looked at itself in the screen . . .

. . . then, having discovered how cute it was, it played all coy in front of Husband, hiding its face in its wing

Good news

Genuinely good news, at last. The onshore oil-drilling contracts are to be rescinded, and the Attorney General’s Office has declared that the holder – Sousa Cintra – is not eligible for compensation for alleged expenses, in spite (or because) of his ‘increasingly eloquent illegality’. Land-based oil and gas exploration across the Algarve finally looks like it will not happen. Whoever’s been slapping those ‘Fracking’ stickers on the Stop signs around the place can stop it (while being secretly glad that they did it). The sea – and the 14 contracts dished out there – remain a major concern, but this is a real step forward.

Here at home the council are still digging up the riverbed. They used some of the gravel to plug the gullies that had appeared in our dirt road after heavy rain. I’m grateful for that – it was not easy driving Rollie over them – but I have a better solution in mind. Next week we hope to start looking at the prospects for permaculture on our hill. Once we begin to develop the hill, one of the many advantages – as a result of having more trees and small plants, and more mulching – will be that its soil will hold more water and there will be less run-off to carve up the road in the first place.

The weather is chilly and the old men who sit on the bench in the village wear blankets over their knees. Rather touchingly, they had two between five, so two pairs of knees were under a red blanket and three pairs under a beige one. Husband always greets them when he drives past. He’s planning on being able to join them in years to come.

Short but sweet this week. I will leave you with a list of the birds that are keeping us company in and above the garden these days: red-legged partridge, song thrush, jay, blackbird, azure-winged magpie, black redstart, robin, crested lark, stonechat, crag martin, Sardinian warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, goldfinch, serin, meadow pipit, white wagtail, long-tailed tit, great tit, house sparrow, little owl, kestrel.

First grapefruit from the tree, for breakfast

On filling up at our local petrol station and stopping for a galão in the café, which came in this Renault 4 mug

Estrela often stops by our place to get some dry bread to chew on

 

Feliz ano novo com tudo de bom

It can take ages to see something in front of your nose. First our neighbours from Lisbon told us that our house had replaced a rather fine old one, somewhat dilapidated but not a total wreck and in fact the best of the three houses here. The other two were renovated using the existing stone structures; ours was rebuilt from scratch in concrete. Then a neighbour from over the river came to our garden and pointed out that the edges of the lower garden steps are cantarias: the typical stone window and door frames of Portugal. And the reason why one is dated 1941 – I had never been able to answer this question before when guests asked it – is clearly that it came from the original house: it would have topped the main door. I looked again at the steps and at the walls holding up the garden terraces and I finally realised that we are looking at the redistributed remains of the old house. I felt an agony of regret.

When during the recent, extremely heavy rain the hillside sprang leaks, I began to realise why the Sensibles had rebuilt the house, siting it further away from the slope. And when the flowing water routed itself around the house and down to the river, I began to be glad that they had done so, and to appreciate what we have. We made the sensible choice, I must remember, not the romantic one.

I promised news of the oil plans for the Algarve. It is not as good news as we activists first thought. Great excitement was generated by a national newspaper headline on 14 December (Diário de Notícias), announcing that the government was halting the exploration of oil in the Algarve. It turned out to be more complicated than that. Sousa Cintra’s compromised contracts for onshore exploitation covering almost half of the Algarve are to be rescinded, not having been correctly awarded in the first place – as is by now well known – and as usual the very next day the man himself threatened a legal fightback and declared everything to have been above board. As for the offshore contracts, the process for stopping those of Repsol-Partex was to be advanced, based on their not having yet done the promised drilling. So the government is sticking to their line about needing the oil companies to do their drilling in order to reveal what the nation’s subsoils contain, and since Repsol-Partex hadn’t done so in the agreed timeframe – and I’d love to think it was the protestors who hindered them – then the government has the excuse to start procedures to annul the contracts. And if I’ve understood this correctly – which is by no means certain – then the government is playing a clever, face-saving game, in which they have the chance to get rid of these irksome contracts without having to back down on the reason they said the contracts were useful to the country in the first place. And what’s more, they should be damn grateful to the activists for their part in it. There has also been news that the ENMC (national fuel entity) is to be broken up, and the grinning villain (my description!) Paulo Carmona is out of job. However, like a zombie he seems to keep popping up.

I went for a walk up the hill and came across one of the red-legged partridges whose territory this is. Mutually startled, we stopped and stared at one another. The bird has – besides its red legs – a red bill and red-ringed eyes, with a dark crescent of feathers running from the base of the bill through each eye to meet at the neck, below which it disperses into an elegant pattern of black and white. The throat is white. It was in the movement of the throat more than anything easily audible that I realised the bird was making a disconcerted sound, a tiny whisper of its usual Chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah! We eventually broke eye contact. The bird ran off and I carried on walking up the hill.

On New Year’s Day we woke up not long after 8 a.m. – despite a well-oiled and hugely enjoyable evening the night before, ending with fireworks in Tavira – and sat in the wooden chairs on the front veranda to watch the sun come up over the Meditation Hill. We have much to be happy and excited about this coming year. Wishing you a happy new year, with all good wishes.

Barril beach on New Year’s Day; many people came to mark the day and left footprints

I am always fascinated by the old anchors once used by tuna-fishers for their net-frames

Rusty close-up

 

Earthquake

On the first of November 1755, on the holiday of All Saints’ Day, one of the world’s most deadly earthquakes had its epicentre in the Atlantic Ocean 200 kilometres south-west of Cabo de São Vicente, at the extreme south-west of Portugal. Modern seismologists estimate its magnitude to have been 8.5–9. Shockwaves were felt throughout Europe and North Africa. A 3-metre-high tsunami is said to have reached Cornwall in south-west England.

The quake, widely known as the Lisbon Earthquake, opened up 5-metre-wide cracks in the centre of the Portuguese capital city and gave rise to a tsunami that engulfed the city’s harbour. Areas of the city that were not shattered or drowned were destroyed by the many fires that broke out, probably caused by the church candles lit for All Saints’ Day. Eighty-five per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands of people died.

Because the earthquake happened on an important church holiday and destroyed so many churches, divine judgement was read into the broken stones and broken bones. At the very least, this was surely evidence that a benevolent deity did not look after the world and its people. Philosophers across Europe were powerfully affected by the earthquake; for some, it shook the foundations of their beliefs. In Germany, in particular, Leibniz’s optimistic, sentimental world view held sway, the idea that human beings – creatures of reason, loved by a beneficent god – lived in a world that was the best it could possibly be. Voltaire’s ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’ and his novel Candide are satires on this world view. (Candide regularly features in lists of the best and most influential books ever written. It’s also very short and very funny and if you haven’t read it yet you can surely find time to squeeze it in. I’m going to include a small extract at the end of this blog post.)

In the Algarve, many of the coastal towns and villages were affected by the 1755 earthquake and tsunami. Only Faro largely escaped, protected by the barrier islands of the Ria Formosa. To commemorate the date, the town council of Tavira organised two talks around the subject this month: the first was on the geology of the area. When you see on a geological map the fault line that hugs the Algarve coast, you are caused yet again to question the sanity of anyone who wants to drill for oil or frack for gas in this area. Just how much rationality are they capable of ignoring? So of course Husband raised his hand and asked the inevitable question, and the otherwise excellent lecturer did her best to evade it. It’s a rotten job being a geologist; you have to sell your soul to the fossil fuel brigade who are almost certainly paying your salary, directly or indirectly. The second talk was about the extent of the damage as revealed by extant parish records. We learnt that in our local village – quite some kilometres inland – a single death occurred: at the door of the parish church as a stone was dislodged and came tumbling down. At the end of this talk it was the turn of another audience member to raise a provocative question about the area being earthquake-prone. At least it raised a laugh.

Fortunes can change in an instant and human rationality cannot be relied upon. We’ve just seen this in another earthquake: the political one that happened in the US this month.

As the old Greek said: ‘Wise men argue causes; fools decide them.’

 

A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn't get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this. It was a great demonstration: a few hundred people and much enthusiastic support from people on the street. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling

A take on Trump at the manif we were part of in Lisbon this weekend. I was Sister Anna with the Banner as usual and didn’t get the chance for photography, just managed to capture this on my phone. It was a great demonstration: hundreds of people and much enthusiastic support from shoppers and workers out and about in the streets. Songs, slogans, drumming, and lots of good feeling – in spite of it all

 

I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station after our weekend in Lisbon at the time of the moon-rise and so missed the best views - which would have been in our valley

I thought I would add my useless super-moon photograph to the others doing the rounds. We were driving back home from Faro station on Monday evening after our weekend in Lisbon and we missed what would have been the very best view – the moon-rise over the Meditation Hill in our valley

 

From Candide:

Chapter V

Describing tempest, shipwreck, and earthquake, and what happened to Dr Pangloss,
Candide, and James, the Anabaptist

… Candide was in time to see his benefactor reappear above the surface for one moment before being swallowed up for ever. He wanted to throw himself into the sea after the Anabaptist, but the great philosopher, Pangloss, stopped him by proving that Lisbon harbour was made on purpose for this Anabaptist to drown there. Whilst he was proving this from first principles, the ship split in two and all perished except Pangloss, Candide, and the brutal sailor who had been the means of drowning the honest Anabaptist. The villain swam successfully to shore; and Pangloss and Candide, clinging to a plank, were washed up after him.

When they had recovered a little of their strength, they set off towards Lisbon, hoping they had just enough money in their pockets to avoid starvation after escaping the storm.

Scarcely had they reached the town, and were still mourning their benefactor’s death, when they felt the earth tremble beneath them. The sea boiled up in the harbour and broke the ships which lay at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares. Houses came crashing down. Roofs toppled on to their foundations, and the foundations crumbled. Thirty thousand men, women and children were crushed to death under the ruins.

The sailor chucked:

‘There will be something worth picking up here,’ he remarked with an oath.

‘What can be the “sufficient reason” for this phenomenon?’ said Pangloss.

‘The Day of Judgment has come,’ cried Candide.

The sailor rushed straight into the midst of the debris and risked his life searching for money. Having found some, he ran off with it to get drunk; and after sleeping off the effects of the wine, he bought the favours of the first girl of easy virtue he met amongst the ruined houses with the dead and dying all around. Pangloss pulled him by the sleeve and said:

‘This will never do, my friend; you are not obeying the universal rule of Reason; you have misjudged the occasion.’

‘Bloody hell,’ replied the other. ‘I am a sailor … I’m not the man for your Universal Reason!’

 

The bridge

The international bridge over the river Guadiana, from the Spanish side

The international bridge over the river Guadiana, from the Spanish side

Driving over from the Portuguese side

Driving over from the Portuguese side

Banner on a ruin at the protest/picnic site

Strategic banner on a ruin at the protest/picnic site

 

The international bridge over the Guadiana river links Portugal and Spain. The wind frets the cables of the bridge structure in a constant and discordant whine, which you wouldn’t notice as you drive across. For pedestrians the noise is disconcerting, but then there aren’t supposed to be any pedestrians there. It’s a vehicle-only bridge. But we were there on Sunday on foot to wave our protest banners from the bridge as a symbol of Portuguese-Spanish solidarity in the pursuit of a clean-energy future.

First we Portuguese groups gathered on our side of the river, then were waved across the bridge in vehicle convoy by traffic police. Over in Spain we joined with the Spanish groups, then, after some directing and misdirecting by the police – it looked deliberate but it turned out to be to avoid a big group of Sunday runners, for whom roads had been closed – we all parked and got out of our vehicles. We unfurled the banners and clambered up the hillside and gathered on the deck of the bridge beneath the whining cables, using what must have been a walkway for maintenance workers.

Bodies and banners on the bridge

Bodies and banners on the bridge

Skyward view

Skyward view

I don’t know why I worried about the event, other than that I simply do worry about these things: would anybody show up, was the bridge a dangerous setting, was there anything no one had thought of (an unknown unknown), was it genuinely a useful thing to do? Well, some three hundred people came, from both countries. The press were there too. The timing coincided with the Paris Climate Change Agreement coming into force, which in its simplest terms has to mean no new fossil fuel projects anywhere in the world because the delicate system of the planet can no longer sustain them. The science is so overwhelming and so convincing and yet still we have to wave banners from bridges. At the very least – or should I say at the very best – it was a meeting of minds as the participating groups gathered under the bridge after the demonstration to eat and talk and share experiences.

I highly recommend having Spanish colleagues at a protest picnic: fabulous paella

I highly recommend having Spanish colleagues at a protest/picnic: fabulous paella. Husband took a tray of focaccia around, which went like hot cakes

 

Black Redstart

Our small hibiscus tree has managed never to be without a flower in the months since we got it

Our potted hibiscus tree has managed never once to be without a flower in the months since we got it

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill

The cork oak I see at the end of my walk up the hill (‘9’ on the trunk means it was last harvested of cork in 2009)

It has been remarked that I don't show Husband's bread any more. I guess I've just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery

It has been remarked that I don’t show Husband’s bread any more. I guess I’ve just got too accustomed to the trays of delicious loaves arriving out of the bakery; here are the latest

Lemon in the early morning

Lemon in the early morning

 

The Little Owl and the Black Redstart were the very first birds that came into our lives when we moved into our house in the valley almost two years ago. The Little Owl has stayed around ever since. The Black Redstart left in our first spring and didn’t return for the winter; I missed it. But now it’s back, having skipped a year. It clicks and flicks and dips around the veranda and the roofs of our house and our neighbours’. It has taken a great liking to the swallows’ balcony. When the Red-rumped Swallows built their mud nest around a hook in the veranda ceiling this year, they began with a small extension facing outwards, which looked like it would be the entrance tunnel. They then turned their backs on the extension and grew the nest instead towards our front door, with the bottle-neck entrance facing just where we emerge from the house. The rear extension was perhaps a mistake, or a practice run. It stayed unused all summer – but no longer. The returning Black Redstart has found it to be the perfect perch and vantage point.

The clocks have gone forward. It’s now easier for a lie-abed like me to get up and walk up the hill before sunrise (currently around 7 a.m.). The valley in the damp morning is fragrant: woody, spicy and herbaceous, and ambery, too, from the sticky leaves of Cistus ladanifer. The earth is also greening by the day. By midday the sun is warm and the season feels more like spring than autumn. We have made a cabbage patch and a lettuce patch with small plants we bought at Santa Catarina’s monthly market: 15 seedlings for 1 euro from a friendly farmer; we bought two lots of cabbages and one of lettuce. When the spring-like day comes to an end it feels chilly and damp again, so we’ve started lighting the fire: a treat.

I’ve finally done something I should have done two years ago, and joined the Portuguese language classes held in the town of São Bras. I was told about them at the start of our time here but I was terrified of driving then. Now me and Rolie are best mates and like nothing better than an outing. So we rolled up to a class where I found a charming and expressive elderly teacher, who places great emphasis on pronunciation – very important – and, even better, at the end of the class bumped me up to a higher level. Still beginners, mind you, but a little confidence boost is a good thing. Thursday will see how I get on at level II.

Assembleia da República

I have been to England again, this time to attend my uncle’s funeral, and missed last Wednesday’s trip to Lisbon for the debates in the Assembleia, the response to the petitions delivered by anti-oil group PALP. Three buses, filled by many schoolchildren and a few dozen adults, left from the Algarve. Husband was among them. When he called me that evening he sounded annoyed, even a little shaken, by the experience the adults had undergone. The schoolchildren and a small group of petitioners with prior clearance gained relatively easy access. For the remainder to get into Portugal’s proud ‘house of national democracy’ to witness an open debate proved almost impossible. Armed uniformed men took them in groups of three, having first demanded they deposit all their belongings into plastic bags that were sealed and locked away. Once through, Husband had his sweatshirt yanked up to reveal his ‘Don’t Spoil the Algarve’ T-shirt, which he was then ordered to remove. He was made to go out, add the T-shirt to the bag – which had to be opened, sealed again and put back in the locker – and return. The treatment was peremptory and intended to be intimidating. Everyone was given a text to read, available in Portuguese, French, German and English, which threatened a prison term of three years if any expression of opinion was made in any form once they were inside. When they finally got in, the debate was under way, but the petitions had been moved on to the bottom of the queue; in the end, most of the issues relevant to us were neither debated nor voted on. It felt like a day of democratic failure.

The bridge

Our next planned action is for Sunday, a joint demonstration with the Spanish to take place on and around the Guadiana International Bridge that spans the river border between the southern Algarve and Spain. As always, I’m anxious about it, but I’ll try to do my bit.

who-did-this

Sagres birdwatching festival

Yellow-browed Warbler, a surprise vagrant from Siberia. (Or, as Husband had it, his birthday present from Putin)

Yellow-browed Warbler, a surprise vagrant from Siberia. (Or, as Husband had it, his birthday present from Putin)

Whitethroat

Whitethroat

Female Blackcap (close)

Female Blackcap (close)

birds-in-bags

A row of small white cloth bags hung from hooks next to a VW camper van. The suspended bags shifted and wriggled a little. Inside each was a bird, caught in a net earlier that morning and about to be ringed. We were in Sagres for a weekend of birdwatching, timed to coincide with the peak period of southward migration, and the ringing session was a fascinating event. It enabled you to get close to birds you never normally see more than a fleeting glimpse of, and to learn about them. As many were on migration but hadn’t yet travelled far, they were nicely fat. The ornithologists blew on each bird’s belly to separate the feathers so we could see the white spots of fat dotting the red muscle where the bird had been successful in feeding itself up. The audience of observers had the opportunity to release the birds once they’d been examined, measured, weighed and ringed. Husband held a Sardinian Warbler with infinite care then gently let it free. (I’m typing this in the garden and there’s a Sardinian Warbler in a bush just a few metres away.) My bird, a Whitethroat, got the better of me and was off like a shot before I’d barely registered its few grams of weight in my palm. I must have been too tentative in my hold. Now that I know the technique – even if not yet mastered – I’d have made a better job of freeing that small bird from the grille of the Peugeot a few weeks back. Or at least, in holding the neck gently between two fingers, I would have been able to avoid being stabbed by its ungrateful beak.

We missed the planned release of two eagles, however. They were being kept back for the visit of the Minister for the Environment, a fairly useless fellow, it seems to me, and a waste of good eagles. He paid a visit to Tavira several weeks ago, and Husband and others were there to wave anti-oil flags in his face. When asked by a journalist what he had to say about the plans to turn the Algarve into an oil and gas producer, he said that, well, it didn’t have anything to do with him . . .

Sagres is in Vila do Bispo district, the Cornwall of Portugal. The light there is brilliant. I thought we were spoiled for sunlight here in the eastern Algarve, but there’s an extra quality to the light in the far south-western corner of the land. It’s still the Algarve, only one and a half hours’ away, but so different, with cliffs and surf and a wind that burnishes the skin.

We wore our protest T-shirts, of course. We also wore white wristbands as attendees of the birding event. The combination of matching T-shirts and white plastic wristbands made me wonder if we looked like we’d escaped from somewhere. We none the less got into a number of conversations with other visitors to the town, mostly Germans, who referred to facing similar threats from aggressive fossil-fuel extraction back at home. I don’t know why more British people don’t connect in the same way.

On the morning that we had left home to drive to Sagres, we saw our swallows leave their nest. They were down to three. (I will probably never know if the fourth’s early departure was for Africa or the great hereafter.) The third and last bird is one of life’s cautious types (I sympathise); it edged forward then back, forward then back, its big round eyes and small face framed by the mud of the narrow entrance it didn’t dare to leave. I had to turn my back on it in the end so it could fly off and catch up with the other two. We weren’t surprised when we returned home on the evening of the third day to find the nest silent and empty. We hope they fare well on their journey to West Africa.

Northern Wheatear. Photographed in Sagres but also seen on our own hill. It is passing through

Northern Wheatear. Photographed in Sagres but also seen on our own hill. It is passing through

Stopping in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way home, and admiring all their protests

Stopping in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way home and admiring their protest signs (and having so far forgotten to remove the wristband)

Fabulous protest artwork in Vila do Bispo

Fabulous protest artwork in Vila do Bispo, showing a percebes (shellfish) collector getting spattered by an oil-filled sea

 

Red-rumped Swallows

One of our swallows on the wire

One of our swallows on the wire, looking at me

Another view

Turning away

And flying off

Its companion flying off

Every sunset, four young swallows return to their nest on our veranda. They arrive one by one, not always in close succession. Each swoops under the veranda roof, executes a 180-degree turn in the tight space between front door and tunnel opening, tucks back its wings and delivers itself into the nest. There will be some twittering between the first and second, and by the time the third and fourth arrive there will be a full radio-tuning session, no doubt as they negotiate turning around and aligning themselves in the tight space inside.

If we get close enough to watch them, they show some hesitancy, pull off a few dummy runs, then pour themselves into the nest all the same. They don’t dive for our noses any more; they must have chilled.

The next day, some five to ten minutes before sunrise, they leave, one by one. If it has rained or is cloudy – which has happened a couple of times – they are later getting up and we have a better chance of catching sight, or at least sound, of them. We are as sure as we can be that these four are the offspring, and that the adults spend their nights elsewhere. During the day we have seen all six together in the valley, feeding and flying.

One day soon they will be gone. We’ll miss them, and be keen for their return next year.

Father Christmas has gone, finally. A big and still ongoing tidy-up at Flaviano’s means that Father Christmas, the life-size, Coca-cola Santa with an American accent (yes, it sings), has finally been stashed away in a side room and no longer greets the grocery-shoppers and beer-drinkers. The round lady has been busy with orange paint on the cupboards beneath the counters; I think she is the force behind these improvements. She might also be the force behind the new pet: a tiny, bug-eyed, wobbly legged dog called Lassie. Lassie licked my fingers furiously, spindly legs going every which way, when I bent down to greet her on her blanket. Then I stroked her ribcage and she seemed to hover with delight, all mad shaking suddenly stilled.

Our bread sales go up all the time. The protest T-shirts are selling well too – all proceeds to the cause, of course. Oh, but these are not happy days. Every step forward gets rolled back. Among the latest is that the contracts assigning drilling and fracking rights across some 40 per cent of the Algarve’s land area to Sousa Cintra’s Portfuel have mysteriously been declared legal by the attorney general, even though they did not meet the legal requirements for such contracts. That seemed one of the easiest cases to win, so how come it lost?

And we attended a summer university session in Olhão, as part of a ‘citizens’ legislative initiative’ (funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation – oil money, don’tcha know), about amending the decree law of 1994 which lays Portugal open for oil business. Husband, speaking good Portuguese, stood up to say that seeking to amend this law for the benefit of the environment was like trying to turn the Manual for the Inquisition into a Human Rights Charter. He got a round of applause, but it’s all to no avail. We’re trying to mop up a titanic oil spill with cottonbuds. The law needs to be scrapped, is all.

PS The spectacular bruising on my leg has abated, and the calf muscle is nearly fully repaired. Thanks for asking. How amazing the human body can be at fixing itself.

I know nothing of reptile reproduction, but it seems to be hatching time. First we found a tiny gecko running around the kitchen floor, its head out of all proportion to its body, its tail damp and curled as though it had just come out of the shell. Then Husband rescued this baby lizard from a precarious position by the pool, and released it into the wild garden behind

I know nothing of reptile reproductive cycles, but it seems to be hatching time. First we found a minuscule gecko running around the kitchen floor, its head out of all proportion to its body, its tail damp and curled as though it had just come out of the shell. Then Husband rescued this baby lizard from a precarious position by the pool and released it into the wild garden behind. I believe it’s a male Large Psammodromus; I failed to capture the full length of its tail in the photograph

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