Oil

T-shirts

Ten days ago I was helping carry a wooden sunbed up some steps. I was facing forward, holding my end of the bed at my back, thinking this would be a better way to mount the steps. It turns out it wasn’t. I stumbled and dropped the bed on my own calf. It didn’t hurt that much, but since then the flesh of one leg has gradually bruised, like slow-moving oil on water, and has made me uncomfortable, tired and annoyed. All of which meant that at the latest meeting of the anti-oil-and-gas group, at a certain point and rather to my own surprise, and having up to that moment (about two hours in) said nothing, I exclaimed,

‘I just can’t stand all this talking!’

And soon after that I left, safely removed by Husband.

It also means that at the latest demo on the beach, this coming Sunday, I shall not be Sister Anna with the Banner. But I am continuing the good work with T-shirts. A Secret Weapon in LA has designed some great logos for us: the design for the back can be seen below. We’ve had an early batch printed up and they will be worn on the beach on Sunday by the banner-carriers, as well as being on sale in a couple of outlets in Tavira. (All proceeds to the cause, of course.)

And my work can be, and currently is, restorative. I often think what a lucky move it was to have found a means of earning a living that can be achieved in solitude and silence. No blog next week because we will be busy bidding goodbye to guests. And a poor effort this week. No energy to update you on the swallows, who were late out of the nest this morning, perhaps because we’ve just had the first rain since May, or to describe the smudge of brown cloud five days ago, blown over from forest fires in the west – now thankfully out. It’s a time of low ebb.

frack-off

Biscuits on the beach

swallowtail2

swallowtail3

A swallowtail in the bougainvillea

 

It must have taken me a couple of days to notice that the cicadas had fallen silent. They have moved into the next stage of their lifecycle and we won’t hear from them again for another ten months. Swallowtails and Hummingbird Hawkmoths visit our bougainvillea regularly. Our juvenile Red-rumped Swallows go on longer and longer flying trips, but still come home to the nest and demand to be fed, and if we are in the way – leaving our home by the front door, for example – we will experience flying passes at our noses from the parents until we drop out of view.

It was neighbour Maria’s birthday and I wanted to make her something sweet. I settled on madeleines, so easy to make, especially when butter can be creamed within ten minutes of being taken out of the fridge. First time round we got the date wrong. We turned up at their house with madeleines in a makeshift box and were met by puzzlement. Amusement swiftly replaced the puzzlement.

‘Does this look like the face of someone who likes cakes?’ Maria circled a stout finger around the circumference of her broad features as she asked. She has a face that, besides suggesting a love of cake, looks for amusement. I often see her features working themselves up to tell an entertaining story. Husband has to be around to understand the story fully, mind you. I still lag far behind in comprehension.

On the correct birthday, we turned up with another lot of madeleines.

‘Again?’ said Maria, looking pleased enough.

So it seemed like nothing at all that I should offer to make a load of biscuit dough for cooking up at the beach in a solar oven, the dimensions and capacity of which I knew nothing about. It was part of our next planned protest action, something for kids, to show them clean energy alternatives and have fun. (At least we dropped the idea of making human letters in the sand; that took a bit of the load off.)

I say ‘offer’ but it’s the sort of volunteering you do when an idea is proposed, left hanging in the air, and several pairs of wide eyes look at you expectantly.

I decided the best kind of biscuit dough to manipulate in unfavourable, sandy conditions would be the sort you roll into a sausage-shape and then simply slice. I settled upon pinwheel biscuits as an attractive option. I worked out quantities and made lists of ingredients and thought of all the tools I might possibly need at the beach. In short, I was making a meal of everything, all over again.

The capacity of butter to melt at room temperature within minutes began to be less of a bonus as I mixed, then rolled and cut eight mathematically exact oblongs of chocolate and vanilla dough. I made four stacks and rolled each one up, every piece of the equation that wasn’t in immediate use being put straight back in the fridge to firm up again. Next day I packed an insulated bag with rolls of newspaper, as though making a fire, and stashed every ice pack I could find inside. The chilled rolls of biscuit dough went in there. I filled another bag with Opinel knife, baking trays, palette knife, reusable foil, cooling rack, temperature gauge, tea towels . . .

The solar oven turned out to be a marvellous, well-loved piece of kit, like a Victorian display case with an angled, silvered flap hinged to its base. The newspaper-stuffed ice-bag did its job well; the biscuit sausages didn’t descend into the oily, softening mass I had feared. They sliced up perfectly like pieces of jewellery, appropriate for their display case. Then it was just a case of monitoring the temperature – thank goodness for that gauge I brought – while the solar oven’s maker/owner judged the angle of the sun and periodically moved the device around for maximum exposure. Whenever we opened the glass front to extract or insert food, the temperature dropped speedily. It crept back up again only slowly. Altogether at peak heat it reached 99°C, if I remember rightly. The cookies made by A turned out to have been a much better idea. They didn’t look as glamorous as my pinwheel biscuits but they achieved the right texture: soft and chewy. The pinwheel biscuits dried rather more than they cooked; they were edible but lacked crispness.

The pinwheel biscuits in the solar oven. (And my cowboy hat in shadow)

The pinwheel biscuits in the solar oven. (And my cowboy hat in shadow)

 

Next to me an ativista was cooking pancakes with great panache on a parabolic solar cooker. The solar cooking attracted so much attention that before long the trestle table on which petitions were signed was moved out of its customary shaded position and into the sun alongside the ‘kitchen’ to maximise the collection of signatures.

The pancake-maker-with-panache showed two boys of nine or ten how they could wave their hands under the pan suspended in the parabola and feel the heat that was magically there. She began to explain to them about clean energies and the need for them.

‘No, don’t talk to me about climate change!’ said one of the boys. ‘It makes me scared. I get goosepimples if I think about it.’

Ah, well, there you have it.

Tuesday’s (today, as I write) Público has an anti-oil piece by prominent Portuguese novelist and writer Lídia Jorge, who comes originally from the Algarve. She writes beautifully. This is my very rough translation of some of her affecting words:

. . . just when the realm of black gold is being shaken by the galloping development of renewable energies, just when everything is heading towards liberation from the dictatorship of crude, [Portugal] has handed its territory over for hydrocarbon exploitation . . . The oil companies are sweeping up the last of the fossil fuels from the backyards of the weakest. The concessions signed with Portugal can only be humiliating, blinkered, a compromise to be borne by the next three generations . . . The population is told that the wealth will be returned to the regions and to the country, but people travel and they talk to each other, and they know that the purse that holds the oil money will be kept far away from the hand that does the work. We are not a dramatic country, we are a lyrical one. Here there will not be blood. Here everything ends in saltwater . . .

Banners at the beach once more

Banners at the beach once more

Feathered and painted friends

Bodies wrapped in black shiny fabric crawled or were pulled out of the sea; yellow and green-painted bodies in torn clothing and gasmasks staggered between people reclining on sunbeds. Ilha de Tavira was the scene of Saturday’s art attack, highlighting the perils to humanity of the proposed extraction of oil and gas from land and sea. For the crowds of holidaying beachgoers this distraction from the work of sunbathing was entertaining, puzzling or, in a few cases, alarming. I’m sure I’d have been horrified if I hadn’t known what was going on, but then I am a cautious type, which was possibly why I landed the role of ‘preparation of the site for the human slogan’. The sensible decision was taken to keep the slogan short, and in English, since the equivalent in Portuguese would have been twice as long. It was to declare: NO OIL NO GAS.

I bore the responsibility for this small task very heavily. First I researched online the making of letters with the human body. The more professional versions not only made athletic demands of the participants but also, for some letters, looked more fitting for the wall of an Indian temple. I found what I thought were the more feasible ones and set about creating a how-to sheet for the gutsy volunteers. My main task, however, was to mark out the site, so I mentally roughed out a size – 2 by 15 metres would do it, I thought – then cut canes into short lengths and tied them together at the right intervals with string.

I was assisted in this by a visiting friend. Some ten weeks earlier she had broken both legs when her large and boisterous dog had miscalculated an affectionate greeting and bowled her over at about 30mph. She was by now in leg braces with a crutch, but still managed the trip from London to the Algarve. Let’s call her the Hobbler.

We took the ferry to the beach. The Hobbler managed to get on and off the wobbly boat. I was carrying the canes, a heavy rope to form a baseline, and a device for smoothing out the sand. At the entrance to the line of cafes and bars we bumped into A, one of the organisers.

‘The beach is crowded. You’ll have to manage the people there,’ she said lightly.

The Hobbler and I made our way slowly to the site of the action. The agreed spot was hard to find. Husband had to be called from his other responsibilities to get me to the right location. It was a blazing afternoon and the sand was difficult to walk on for the Hobbler.

I managed to find an area that, although obstructing many people’s route to the sea, didn’t actually require my asking anyone to move. I set out the canes, driving them in with my palm. The Hobbler helped where she could, moving around the area on her backside. My sand-smoothing device was a children’s plastic toy rake; I hadn’t been capable of carrying anything larger. It soon broke. The heat was intense. Tears of sweat ran into my eyes. Using a piece of cane like a rolling pin, I made out the letters in the sand. Beach-users were puzzled but fairly unimpressed. Both the Hobbler and I were beginning to feel quite wretched, albeit for different reasons.

Then the bodies started to arrive by sea and across the sands, and the crowds gathered. Photographers came and people grabbed their mobile phones to record the event. Actor-bodyguards pulled bodies from the waves and assisted the poisoned. As the bodies staggered over towards me, Husband – by now at my side having completed duties elsewhere – whipped away the canes. The bodies threw themselves into their well-rehearsed shapes, a photographic drone moving overhead. They held the letter shapes for a while then arose, gathered banners and formed a chanting semi-circle in the sand. They went on to perform other art attacks on the lagoon side of the beach island, culminating in swimming out to board a solar-powered boat, dismantling a make-believe oil rig on it and covering the deck in banners.

 

Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday

Protest flashmob on the beach on Saturday

 

The ‘bodies’, all those uninhibited members of Tavira em Transição, were amazing. And the protests are gaining ground all the time. After Galp/ENI’s indefinite postponement of their drilling plans came the news this week that Repsol Partex were ‘indefinitely postponing’ their October plans too. They have the concession to drill in the sea off the Tavira/Faro coast.

But they also serve who only kneel in the blistering sand for an hour raking smooth an area of 30 square metres using nothing but a broken piece of plastic little bigger than a human hand. Afterwards I found that I had burnt both knees and taken a patch of skin off my right palm. O, the mortifications of that day.

We needed peace and quiet on Sunday. On the veranda I stooped to pick up a fallen hibiscus flower. Behind it was something mouldy-looking. I got closer. It was a baby bird, grey down waving above its incomplete flight feathers. A baby Red-rumped Swallow, fallen from the nest. Such consternation! Do we leave it, or feed it, or try to get it back in the nest? Swallows aren’t ground-dwelling birds. It wasn’t hopping about at the start of life, its anxious parents hovering nearby. Its parents were nearby but unconcerned. They had other chicks. They might even have chucked this one out as superfluous or inadequate. It did look a bit wonky, but then it had fallen from a height. The parents certainly weren’t wasting any resources over it now.

We dripped water on to its beak from a pipette. We caught insects and tried to get it to feed on them; it kept its mouth closed and shuffled into as inconspicuous position as it could find.

That night we drove out to a restaurant but our bird trials were not over. As we arrived in the almost full car park, I saw a rather odd-looking bird mascot on the grille of a Peugeot. It was quite realistic. No, wait, it was real. It was what was left of a dead bird. No, hang on, it was alive. It was the head and breast of a panting and panicking bird. Hobbler and I got out of the car while Husband went to find a space to park. We poked around in the radiator grille and got pecked at. Nothing wrong with the bird’s neck or beak then. To get it out without being savaged, we needed a tool. Hobbler withdrew a pen from her bag. I pushed the fingers of my left hand into the grille. I located a claw, which found purchase on my hand. I could feel the bird push its leg against me. On the other side, I wormed the pen in along the bird’s back. I gently pulled, the bird pushed, and it burst out of captivity and flew unevenly across the car park. It had managed deftly, ungratefully, to stab me as it escaped. I don’t know if it had a bright future or was going to be an easy meal. Either way, it had to be better than a slow death in the grille of a Peugeot.

Our fallen bird at home was still alive that night, and the following day. It shook barely perceptibly and made feeble noises when it could hear its clutch-mates calling to their parents. It was breaking our hearts.

Monday night was a thunderstorm and heavy rain. In the morning, the bird was gone. It had been assumed* into heaven by some agency, perhaps Little Owl.

*This is for the Catholics.

The doomed baby bird

The doomed baby bird

 

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’.

Oil and gas – good news

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze

Dragonfly in silhouette, its wing bent by the breeze

 

The Algarve is bursting with fairs and festas at this time of year, but I don’t seem to be able to make an appearance unless hanging off a banner. The mountain festival in São Brás de Alportel was one such event, big and well-organised, with much speechifying broadcast over speakers placed around the venue. Our friend Nemesio had organized with the local authority to have a stand collecting signatures against oil and gas prospection. This was specifically to add to the numbers of people objecting to Galp/ENI’s plans while the public consultation period, ending on 3 August, was still under way. It was a huge success. I only managed to appear for a couple of hours, but I found, as I have before, that the process of mustering support is a fascinating one. Most people need just a little encouragement to sign. Other people come up of their own accord, sign with determination, take out their ID and carefully record the digits against their signature, and then, when thanked, say, ‘Thank you.’ Almost nobody bats you away when they realise what you are asking for. There’s no doubt that the fossil fuel industry’s plans for the Algarve – and other parts of Portugal – meet with minuscule or zero support from the people. It’s all about a few corrupt politicians, most of them in the previous administration.

Anti-oil and gas stand at the São Brás fair

The stand at the São Brás fair

 

Two things from last week’s blog have not come about. (Three, if I include the swallows.) This is part of the great fun of writing a blog. One was my confident prediction that I was entering a period of work-free clear blue space. I imagined the hours spent in the glistening water of the pool beneath the glorious azure skies. Then I got a horrible, monstrous flu. This is the first time I’ve written this blog from a sickbed. The sun is blazing away, the pool is glistening, but I’ve been wrapped up in the dark for days. It’s fading away now. (And it’s why there are hardly any pictures this week.)

Much better, however, is this. The relentless pressure by activists is paying off. On 29 July, Galp/ENI announced the indefinite postponement of their plans to drill exploratory oil wells. Not only that, they did it in a marvellously huffy way. ‘We had everything ready to start operations and we had to stop,’ said chairman Carlos Gomes da Silva, blaming the hard-won extension of the public consultation period for his woes. Another reason is the belated force given to an EU directive requiring enhanced safety measures for such operations. Forcing Galp/ENI to do their work properly was obviously too much to ask of them. The chairman suggested darkly that Portugal was missing its chance to become Norway. The suspension has no recommencement date.

The mayor of Tavira has given a brief interview to the press in which he reiterated his absolute objection to the presence of an oil and gas industry in the Algarve, whether onshore or offshore. This is more progress, because for a long time he was apparently only concerned about what would happen on land. He also confirmed that the mayoral group has filed two injunctions against the activity. We can have oil, or we can have tourism, he said. He knows which side his bread is buttered on.

Earthquakes of 3.4 and 4 on the Richter scale were registered off the coast of the Algarve this week, in the areas identified for exploration; just another reason why offshore drilling is madness.

The Red-rumped Swallows still do not have hatchlings. They are continuing to bring in soft bedding material to the nest. And we’re rather puzzled by the appearance of a third adult; we haven’t been able to establish its sex, or its role in the current set-up. It’s all terribly modern. We continue to wait and see.

 

Human chain (again)

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings, during the day the sun is too powerful. These coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings; during the day the sun is too powerful. These times happily coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

This is Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I'm hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I’m hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio, to collect

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, which filled the kitchen one evening with the smell of vinegar

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, and filling the kitchen with the smell of vinegar

 

Occasionally a tiny piece of heavy machinery will hum past your ear and land on a nearby tree with great firmness as though suctioned into place by a force within the bark. It is a cicada on the move. It is a stout insect with a wide, squared-off head that has a large eye on each corner, and lacy, overlong wings. The males’ collective noise – it is only the males – seems to make the air pulsate. They do it, I have read, by vibrating a membrane on the abdomen. I haven’t been able to get close enough to see this in action, if it is visible at all.

For most of the year we experience silence and birdsong. The months of high heat and slow movement are filled with this plangent, plaintive sound. It is the inescapable sound of summer.

The Red-rumped Swallows do not yet have hatchlings, but they must have eggs, for they are being furtive and shifty. The confident industry of nest-building was a different mode for them. Now, if I look up at their nest as I leave the front door, I might just see a shiny blue crown at the neck of the tunnel, which will quickly withdraw. I wait, then it re-emerges, big round eyes checking me out, then disappears once more into the safety of the nest. If I stay put for a few more seconds, it realises it has to disregard me and fly off anyway. Sometimes in the evenings we hear them in their mudhouse, madly tuning their tiny analogue radio. They still can’t find that elusive channel.

I feel rather like I’m emerging from a tunnel of my own making, out of a mound of manuscripts. Clear blue space awaits me, several weeks without the ping of the email, a staycation here in this beautiful spot, starting at the end of this week.

But the oil and gas threat never goes away. There are reprieves: promises of judicial action to undo the unethical contracts, drilling start dates delayed, government debates that suggest a degree of awareness at least. While I was buried in manuscripts, Husband, when not similarly buried under a mound of bread dough, was out on the anti-oil beat. The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited a nearby town of Loulé and was met by protestors. He shrugged off their concerns with a rather puzzling comparison between finding oil in the Algarve and flying to the moon. It isn’t possible to analyse this gnomic comment with any degree of success, so I’ve given up trying. The facts remain that deep-sea oil drilling – of an ‘exploratory nature’ – is due to start off the western coast of the Algarve on 3 August, while oil company Repsol have been rubbing their hands with glee for several years in the knowledge of a vast gas field containing half a trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coast nearer to us, related to a similar field in the bay of Cádiz.

Last week Portugal’s environment minister came to Tavira to enjoy a sunny afternoon in the company of the town mayor. Together they were to open the new boat departure area for Ilha de Tavira (namely, a concreted-over stretch on the mouth of the river). Neither of them was expecting to be met by an anti-oil protest. It is amazing how effective six people can be when they show up at the right time and position themselves and their banners behind politicians on a photo shoot.

What else is to be done? How about all getting together and holding hands on the beach to form a human chain? Yes! Anything is better than nothing, and this turned out to be very good with hundreds of participants, perhaps a thousand if you include the many beachgoers on the hugely popular Ilha de Tavira who were persuaded to hold hands for a while in between running to the sea and back. A couple of press reports can be seen here and here. Typically of such events, estimates of numbers involved vary widely . . .

I was back from London in time for the beach protest. As I arrived at the beach site where protestors were gathering, someone from Tavira em Transição spotted me – this is a citizens’ movement I am part of – and asked me to take hold of the bamboo pole supporting one side of a large protest banner so she could run off and do other stuff. Husband and our two Lisbon friends had gone elsewhere in the line. The other side of this banner was held by someone I didn’t know, but who was fabulously vocal in the anti-oil chants and gave good interviews to the press. I held on to my bamboo pole from then on, and didn’t let go until it was time to roll the banner up and put it away at the end. I politely declined to be interviewed when a TV reporter came to me with his red microphone; I put this down to my lack of Portuguese, but it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that I don’t much like talking. Holding on to a banner: it’s a great role for an introvert at a manif. Just shove me in that direction and I’ll be there, hanging on, for as long as it takes.

Mudhouse

Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Friday 1 July

Friday 1 July

Saturday 2 July

Saturday 2 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place

 

Now that it is high summer we live with the plangent sound of cicadas. The Golden Orioles add their whistle, and the Bee-eaters test their collection of recorders as they pass by overhead, like a junior school orchestra getting ready for a concert. Two Short-toed Eagles can be seen gliding silently along the valley. A female Blue Rock Thrush dips and bobs on the corner of the front veranda, within view of my desk. She says chuck-chuck, and looks like a miniature cormorant. I was missing the heartbreak jangle of the serin. I wondered what had happened to him. Then we spotted a nest in the smallest and thinnest of our cypresses, one that we pass within inches of several times a day. All his frantic singing paid off. Tiny grey beaks surrounded by feather-stalk antennae poke waveringly and unsteadily out, glimpsable only with patience and good binoculars.

Very close to home, right outside the front door, the Red-rumped Swallows are hard at work. I stand at the door and poke my long-lensed camera in their direction for two or three minutes a day. They put up with it. Besides, they know that in a few more days the upside-down dome will be complete and we will no longer be able to see them. As their nest grew, they had more to balance on, and less mud landed on the veranda floor. On the other side of the nest, not visible from inside the house, is what will be the tunnel entrance. Access will require them dipping through here and under the original hook, which they infilled with mud like a reinforced internal wall. It’s all well planned and highly skilled. Work only slowed down on Sunday. I imagine this was more because of the ricochet of hunters’ shots than the imposition from on high of a day of rest. We were happy to see them back on Monday.

 

Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building

Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building

Oil

Two weeks ago we were in Lisbon, part of a group to present the government and the DGRN (directorate for natural resources) with thick files of petitions and arguments against oil exploration in the Algarve. We were in the support section. Husband waved the box lid from a set of scales that has become his protest ID. If you look at it from the right angle, it says Rasga O Contrato (‘tear up the contract’). From any other angle, it is simply the box lid from a set of weighing scales. The mayor of Aljezur came up to say hello; he recognised Husband by the box lid. The Mad Hatter letters spelling Frack Off in my trilby, never that effective, came to a damp end on a café floor.

On Friday 1 July the topic came up in Parliament. The drilling off Aljezur had already been postponed from 1 July to 3 August. The session voted for the immediate suspension of the development of oil and gas exploration by means conventional and unconventional. (A suspension only, but still good.) Environmental Impact Assessments are now to be made obligatory from the exploration phases (required by an EU directive but hitherto ignored by the ENMC, the fuel entity). The likely impact of oil development on tourism is to undergo a proper socio-economic study. And the process of the original issuance of the contracts is to be searched for irregularities, which could allow the contracts to be declared null and void.

These achievements have been forced particularly by people on the ground in the Algarve, most but not all Portuguese. As for us two, we’re cheerleaders. We wear our silly hats and wave our box lids, and as such have been caught by press photographers rather more often than I would have thought likely.

I have turned my attention away from the farcical developments in the current madhouse that is my country of origin, where the people most shocked by the Brexit outcome seem to be those who instigated it, who have been passing on responsibility and resigning at shameful rates. At this point, I’d rather look at the birds.

Serin nest, but you probably can't make it out

Serin nest, but you probably can’t make it out

Chains

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

Bougainvillea, bursting with life

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the 'ghost' nest again. We still hope they will rebuild it. Plenty of mud by the river . . .

The red-rumped swallows have been checking out the ‘ghost’ nest again and, what’s more, carrying mud to it in their beaks. Spots of the mud have fallen to the ground. I guess it takes a while to get the foundations to stick

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

A closer look. You can clearly see the red rump that gives the swallow its name

 

We wake up to birdsong. We get up to find the kitchen covered in thrumming wires of ants. They crisscross the floor and travel up the walls. It doesn’t matter that we leave the kitchen spotless at the end of the day, it only takes a homeopathic trace of something sweet in an overlooked spot to bring them in overnight. Confident in nature’s sustainable surplus, we vacuum them up, the sound of the hoover drowning out the birdsong. This goes on for half an hour as they continue to stream in. Not only are we confident that the species will survive whatever we do to it, we are also confident that our own colony will survive whatever we do to it. Somewhere beneath the soil in the garden is an ant volcano, spewing ants.

After four days, they stopped coming in. The lava flow dried up. The message filtered back to the colony that the house was out of bounds.

Another distinctive note in the house’s soundscape this week has been a snake throwing its body against the garage door. I heard the strange bumping noise before I saw the cause. At the moment our eyes met, it stopped what it was doing and shot off to the other end of the garage wall to disappear around the side. Dark silvery grey on top, pale silver underneath, about 120cm long; I don’t know what kind of snake it is, but I did later discover what it had been trying to do. It had been trying to get back inside the hollow of the garage door.

The snake must have had a few days of calm when we weren’t using the garage. Probably thought it had made a very clever choice, this thoroughly modern dwelling, all angular and metallic. Then the solar engineers arrived and needed to use the garage space, and up and down, up and down went the door, the poor snake’s tail protruding from one side, its home turned into a hideous fairground ride. I think it’s gone somewhere else now. Human beings – we’re not easy to live with, are we?

These speak for themselves

Aljezur protest crosses

Human chain

We travelled east to west, to Aljezur on the other side of the Algarve, to take part in an anti-oil human chain. Aljezur is close to where the first offshore oil drilling is due to take place in July. The meeting time and place was three o’clock outside the town hall. It was quite a long drive but we arrived in good time at about twenty to.

Will we never learn? There was nobody there. Really, not a soul. We went away to drink coffee and came back at five past three, rather guiltily late, and now there were three or four souls there, quite a long way off the amount you’d need for a decent chain. So we hung around, and kicked our heels, and got into a conversation or two, and over the course of the next couple of hours the other links in the chain rolled up. It ended up as a very good solidarity event. Several hundred people, including the local mayor and other dignitaries, and plenty of press too. We made a good display, waving banners and singing and dancing.

It has to be said, it was not a risky chain. We were not surrounding an oil drill or heavy machinery or hostile operators. The only risky part was when two ends of the chain were instructed to move and set off in different directions, and Husband and I and our immediate neighbours somewhere in the middle got stretched out slightly more than was comfortable. The problem was resolved with the help of a loudspeaker, and the chain began moving with more singularity of purpose. We probably need to take chain lessons from ants.

The petition I mentioned last week needed at least 4000 signatures to give rise to a debate at the Assembleia about the west coast drilling plans. It has exceeded its minimum target.

No blog next week because of another kind of overstretch – workload. This means that the next time I write, the results of the UK’s referendum over its EU membership will be known. My postal vote has already been returned to Tower Hamlets in east London. I’ve voted to remain, but in two weeks’ time I might find myself out of sync with my countryfolk, and be typing through a veil of tears.

At Aljezur câmara

At Aljezur câmara

No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies

‘No to the destruction of the Algarve. Yes to the suppression of predatory monopolies’

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

Protest song in Portuguese and English. Set to Mozart

 

Renault 4

A pick-up truck bounced along our track the other day, loaded with big scrolls of cork, which must have come from these trees. You can see they are newly harvested because the trunks are still ochre in colour

A pick-up truck bounced along our track, laden with big scrolls of cork, which must have come from these trees. Their ochre trunks reveal they’ve just been harvested; they will soon blacken

Last of the little apricots, going into a clafoutis

Last of the little apricots, going into a clafoutis

Apricot tree number 2 is about to start giving up its fruit. These are bigger fruit, not quite so divine as the first tree's . . .

Apricot tree number 2 is about to start giving up its fruit. These are bigger, more loosely textured, not quite so heavenly as the first tree’s fruit . . .

Estrela decided that I should not be alone all day. She turned up by herself - which she has never done before, and spent a couple of afternoons in the back garden. There was not a peep from her, just the occasional rustle of the gravel and tinkle of her bell

Estrela turned up by herself – which she has never done before – and spent a couple of afternoons in the back garden. There was not a peep from her, just the occasional rustle of the gravel and tinkle of her bell. I think she knew Husband had gone away and felt that I should not be on my own

Wild flowers are largely over for the year but cultivated flowers are blooming - these are in Tavira

Wild flowers are largely over for the year but cultivated flowers are blooming – these are in Tavira

Rolie in Tavira, behaving himself

Rolie in Tavira, behaving himself

 

Rolie gave up on me this week. I was in the petrol station in our local village and had just added 10 euros’ worth of top-grade fuel to his tank when he decided not to start up again. Not a hint. Barely a click. I pushed him to the side of the forecourt with the help of the pump lady. I phoned Costa but no luck: the answering message said the number was no longer in use. I walked to the workshop in the Cooperativa at the other end of the village where he has been rebuilding an old Mini and asked his portly friend if Costa was there. No, he wasn’t, and the friend wasn’t sure when he’d be there again, maybe the next day or the day after, maybe not.

Oh well. Time for a coffee and cake, and to check some Portuguese vocabulary using the mobile phone. The walk home from the village is only forty-five minutes, and it’s beautiful. I had done it the day before, both ways. Nightingales sang along the route, and an unidentified plant was expelling its seeds with a tiny hush followed by a tak as the empty, dry seedpod hit the ground. I had been offered a boleia (lift) on the way out but turned it down, explaining I liked to walk. I didn’t mind the prospect of the walk again, except that today I wasn’t properly clad. I was too hot in my jeans, and my new yellow shoes would take a battering in the dust. I had no towel to dry my feet with after going through the river.

In the café an English-speaker with an American accent and a laptop was on Skype to his partner, a woman with an English accent. It was impossible not to overhear so I listened in. It was a discussion about the advantages of living here, with the man trying to persuade the woman. As I got up to go I passed the Skyping man and I figured he wouldn’t mind an interruption. I caught his eye and told him they should definitely move here. He smiled and returned to his conversation: ‘Did you hear that?’

In my head I had practised the Portuguese for ‘Is it OK if I leave the car here? I’ll be back when I can.’ I didn’t know when that would be since I couldn’t get hold of Costa and Husband was away in Germany for a week. I was going to be house-bound at the end of the world, unable to go anywhere unless on foot. I’d miss a few appointments.

I reached the garage again.

‘Is it OK if I leave the car here?’

‘Of course.’

‘—’ I didn’t get any more words out because I heard my own name being called from the other side of the forecourt. I looked across.

It was Costa.

‘Hello, how are you? I saw the Renault. Have you tried to call me? The old number does not work. I have a new one. I give it to you. I’ve been in France. I saw your ’usband the other day. We passed each other on the road. What’s this sticker? [It was my Nem um Furo anti-oil protest sticker.] How is the car? Is there a problem?’

It seems that Costa, in addition to offering the best after-sales service on the planet, can now be reached by thought-wave alone. He talked me through how to restart the car when both car and weather are too hot. He coaxed Rolie back to life, attended to a few things under the bonnet, made sure he started a second time, then a third, and handed the keys back to me.

As I was driving away, I waved to Costa, who looked very pleased. Not half so pleased as I was!

Oil

What’s the future for Rolie? It might be possible to convert him to an electric car, though my hopes are not high. So one day he’ll go for scrap or become a curiosity. I’d like to think the whole of the oil industry was heading the same way and at the same speed, though I fear Rolie will be out the door first.

It sometimes feels as if the oilmen have our warming planet in a stranglehold grip. The only thing to do is to try to prise off each finger one by one. If you get one finger to let go, another tightens, so you just have to keep trying. The grip might be rigor mortis, but it is all the tighter for that.

So far Portugal has been fairly free of the deathly grip, but not for much longer. The Algarve, a place drenched in the free and exploitable – and clean and renewable – energy of the sun, to name but one alternative source, has been handed over to the oil companies to drill and frack. They took us for mugs, but the protests have been loud and strong, and the oilmen have got rattled. One industry response has been for those who hold the concessions off the west coast of the Algarve, Galp/ENI, to keep quiet about drill dates until the last possible minute, reducing the time for consultation and dissent. So it’s been only for a matter of days now that people have known they plan to start offshore drilling as early as 1 July 2016. If 4000 people sign this petition before midnight on 21 June, then the matter will be raised for discussion at the Assembleia de República. (You need a Portuguese fiscal number or a European passport ID number to sign.) Off the southern Algarve coast, the concession holders Repsol-Partex have brought their drill dates forward from October to September. They also requested authorisation to use Loulé municipal helipad as base for their drilling ship’s medevac helicopter. The town mayor, who like the other Algarve mayors has expressed his commitment to stopping the oilmen, showed what he’s made of. He said no.

This is a horned dung beetle - I think. He's an ex-beetle, in fact, and I found him by the garage. He's about 3cm long

This is a horned dung beetle. It’s an ex-beetle, in fact; I found it by the garage. It’s about 3cm long. Its position in this post so soon after the mention of oilmen is not meant to prejudice the beetle in any way

Rolie's proud sticker

Rolie’s proud sticker

Apricots

The river still has water into June. This time last year it was all dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The river still has water into June. This time last year it was dry but for a few pockets of life-sustaining slime

The jacaranda flowers are on full display

The jacaranda flowers are opening

Apricots!

Apricots!

 

The kitchen smells of fresh apricots. They are falling from the tree unless we catch them first. A nice but not especially productive afternoon would be to sit between the pool and the apricot tree catching the fruit as it drops. Life does not yet allow for such indulgences, so the other way to harvest the fruit at its ripest is to glide your hand as gently as possible under the soft warm bottoms along the length of each branch, see which ripe, speckled apricots detach themselves unresistingly into your palm, then eat them immediately. Overnight, unseen, about two dozen will fall and have to be sought out in the morning from among the bedding of Hottentot fig below the tree; these go into jam.

I turned to the cookbooks on my shelves for recipes for apricot jam and chose the one that rather pleasingly involved the use of a mallet. The tender, yielding apricots are easy to prepare: halve them with a knife and remove the seeds, which takes about 3 seconds per fruit. The seeds you wrap in an old tea towel, and this is where the mallet comes in. You bash the seeds to shatter the shells and extract the soft kernels. This is a recipe from the highly rated Australian food writer Stephanie Alexander. I found a similar recipe from equally highly rated Irish food writer Darina Allen, but she failed to specify how you get the kernels out of the shells. You cook the fruit down (I used 1.5kg for my first batch of jam) with a little lemon juice, add an almost equal amount of warmed sugar and a small handful of the kernels you have managed to extricate from the shards. Cook on a high heat until a sugar thermometer reads 104°C, which takes about 15 minutes. Pour into super-clean jars. It helps a lot if you have a funnel, and of course a thermometer, both cheap items.

The first jar of jam was opened the very next day, and is delicious. It must be one of the easiest things I’ve ever made. Cookbooks are generally resistant to recommending the use of thermometers – I know, since I’ve copy-edited hundreds of them – and it’s because you don’t want to make a recipe unusable to someone who doesn’t have a particular piece of kit, and because you don’t want to turn a kitchen into a lab. But actually thermometers are great and well worth having, at least until you have the experience that enables you to tell when ingredients are ready by sight and sound and smell alone.

Then I got curious about the apricot kernels and wondered whether they were added for flavour – they have an intense almondy scent – or because they aided setting. So I asked Mrs Google, and quickly found myself in a world of furious argument over whether or not apricot seeds cure cancer. It seems that some people sell/buy the seed kernels alone and eat them medicinally. I quickly turned away again, happy to rely on the sensible and practised recipes of cooks.

Hoovering

The swimming pool engineer came round to explain how to run the pool and how to clean it. He is Portuguese with good English, which he was kind enough to use for my benefit. I’ve become very fond of Portuguese English. (Or it might be Algarvian English, I’m not sure.) I love the use of ‘imagine’, which is part of any instruction. ‘Imagine you want to clean the pool, then you . . .’ etc. I also love the cadence, which rises and rises, then ends on a two-note rise+fall.

‘Imagine you want to use the hoover,’ he said.

I never imagined the use of a hoover in a swimming pool. Wouldn’t you have to empty it first? I looked at him blankly.

‘You hoover the dust when it falls to the bottom,’ he explained.

‘With the water still in it?’

‘Of course.’ (Imagine – imagine! – this being said with a rise then fall, opposite to the English rhythm.)

And so you do. There is a hoover attachment which sucks up the particles that settle on the bottom of the pool and miraculously doesn’t suck up all the water as well. Not for the first time I realise that I don’t have a brain for engineering.

Oil

The vox pop vote after last week’s TV debate ran for 24 hours after the show was broadcast and the vote against oil exploration in the Algarve crept up, so that in the end it was 72 per cent against and 28 per cent for. Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-minister for the environment and one of the grinning villains of the oil saga, took up (or paid for?) an opinion piece in a national newspaper on 23 May to declare himself the victim of a campaign soaked in lies. He listed his rather feeble green credentials and went on to say that the oil contracts were fine and were really only for mapping resources for the benefit of the Portuguese state – this is a lie, or at best an obfuscation. One of the contracts has been shown on television and we know it allows for subsequent exploitation of resources. He also posed a couple of rhetorical questions: should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of the Portuguese state learning about its resources? Should a member of the government allow his own environmental convictions stand in the way of a law applied since 1994? (A law that allows the Portuguese state and environment to be ripped off for the benefit of business.) How the poor man must suffer for his beliefs! To be capable of such contorted arguments as this, you would expect him to have good debating skills. Yet he refused the invitation to appear on the television programme. The other grinning villain, Paulo Carmona, was there, and made a holy show of himself.

After hoovering, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

After hoovering, and several more days of filtration, the pool has gone from eau-de-nil to pale turquoise, which I think I like even better

Let's just have another look at those apricots

Let’s just have another look at those apricots

%d bloggers like this: