Monthly Archive: January 2017

Snow in the Algarve, part II

In the funny way this blog sometimes has of predicting the future – aka, catching me out – this week it did snow in the Algarve. As well as almond blossom, actual snow appeared for the first time in half a century. It was no more than a few flakes but it caused a flurry of excitement. The birds I see from the study – the robin and the redstart – turned from sleek outlines into powder puffs in their attempts to stay warm. Then, after a few bone-cold days, the weather turned better, which was lucky for one cyclist, newly into a nine-year World Environmental Tour that had brought him to the Algarve. As my activist group were thinner on the ground in January than the snow, and since the cyclist was from Manchester, I was the one who arranged to meet him to talk about local issues. We were to cross paths in Olhão, the fishing town. As part of a firefighter solidarity network, he was staying at the fire station.

I don’t know my way around Olhão, only the sea front, but a fire station should be easy to find. I employed the navigation function on my phone. It took me to the Avenida dos Bombeiros – the Avenue of the Firefighters. I parked in a tucked away car park, made a mental note of a tall tree that would serve as a landmark, and looked for a building with huge gates and red fire engines. None. I asked the receptionist of the driving school there.

‘Oh, it’s a long way from here. You go left here and right there and . . . There is a roundabout with a cube on it.’

I’m still at the stage of being able to formulate a good question in Portuguese but not being able to understand all the answer. I thanked her and set off on foot. Confusion set in after a while. The Cyclist and I were messaging each other. I let him know I’d arrived but was trying to find the fire station. He kept sending me maps I could barely read on the tiny phone screen.

I found a new helper, an elderly lady in winter coat and sunglasses. She began to explain the route.

‘You know the X, and the Y?’

‘No . . .’

‘Ah, you don’t know nada of Olhão?’

‘I don’t know nada.’

‘I will show you the way.’

We walked together for a while. I lost track of the small twists and turns we were taking. Occasionally the narrowness of the cobblestone pavement, or a passing or parked car, forced us on to separate sides of the road. She would call me back to her side with a sound you might use to call a dog and I would return to heel. Eventually we arrived at the point where we would part. She described the rest of the route I was to take alone and kissed me warmly on both cheeks. I set off across a small park and found the other side of it ended in a drop back to the road, which had fallen away below. I contemplated jumping but heard the dog call. My saviour was not far away, indicating I retrace my steps then follow the road around the park wall. I did so, and we waved to each other for the last time.

I was looking for a school now, but didn’t see it. The Cyclist asked me to send a photograph of where I was. With the message function of the phone, I took a picture of the nearest road sign. Typically Portuguese, it was pretty against a white wall, made of decorative tiles with a name longer than the tiny street merited. I pressed send and turned round to discover a man watching me, his legs splayed, his flies open, showing me his erection.

I scarpered. Maybe you are supposed to do something deterrent – jeer? scream? point and laugh? aim a swift kick? – but I was off, not running but walking fast, down several small streets before my instinct towards flight cooled off. I no longer knew where I was, nor where my car was, nor where the Cyclist was. His response to my earlier photo-message pinged through.

‘You’re not far now.’

Too late. I wasn’t going back there, even if I could find it again.

It took me about 20 minutes to locate my car. The landmark tree helped. I messaged the Cyclist, who’d been asking if I was OK.

‘Unnerved by flasher. Going home.’

He encouraged me not to give up. If I could just drive back to the N125, turn right, stop by a roundabout with a big cube on it, he’d meet me there.

It worked. I made it. We finally met to discuss his one-man world-saving trip. Good luck to him. I couldn’t do it. I’d get lost for one thing. And I felt like I’d already encountered an entire world in Olhão in one afternoon. Here he is, Martin Hutchinson Caminante, and now recumbent tricyclist, in his own words:

‘I walked 34,000 kilometres across twenty-one Latin American countries over nine years; I went to 600 schools to give talks and lectures on what we are doing to the environment. Then I left England again last year, on 31 May, my fifty-fifth birthday, to travel on my recumbent tricycle around every European country, and then go to India and Australia. I hope to spend another nine years doing this, or more. The idea again is to film and go to schools to show what is being done to the environment and how we need to change. We need to make some small sacrifices now, because if we don’t there’ll be huge sacrifices to make in the near future, about which we won’t have any choice. We live on the most incredible planet. People just don’t see it any more.’

I disagreed with this point. It seems my view of people is too optimistic.

‘The world cannot supply 7.5 billion people with the lifestyle that everyone expects. Individuals have got to take action, which starts with cutting back. One person can do a lot just by themselves; maybe encourage others to follow their example. We have power. We are only governed by a few. We have to say we want governments to change, corporations to change. We don’t want fossil fuels, they are old-fashioned. We have to say to the corporations: there are solutions, it’s just that you’re not implementing them because you are making loads of money out of the old ways and you don’t care what you are doing to the environment in the meantime.

‘We haven’t got a few years. We need to change things now. Everybody needs to cut back. We don’t need as much stuff. We have become prisoners of our possessions. Cut back, let things go. Get your freedom back.

‘When I was nineteen, I had a nice girlfriend and one day she said, “You’re not going to be anything, are you?” I realised halfway home that that was the end of the relationship, and it was because I wasn’t going to be somebody. Then a few weeks afterwards, I thought, yes, she’s right. Doesn’t mean I can’t have an interesting life though. Never had a buzz like it in my life. I had such a rush of energy. I packed in my job and went off round the world. It’s possible. Everything is there. If you never make a sacrifice, you never gain any experience. I have had such a wonderful life. I say to kids, just get out there, be free and have a life. We live on the most incredible planet. It’s taken 4.5 billion years for the planet to get to this point, and it’s probably the best time that humans have ever lived on it. And what are we doing? Messing it all up.’


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

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


Snow in the Algarve

Carpenter bee in the bougainvillea

The snow of the Algarve: the almond trees are in blossom


While our swallows are far away in West Africa, the sparrows have tried again to take over the nest. The same old story. So we nailed two corks together, side by side, using heavy U-shaped pins, and slotted them into the entrance to the mud house. We went away for a couple of nights and came back to find the corks had done the job: the sparrows hadn’t been able to remove them. What they had done instead, however, was to start to peck away at the mud gobbets placed by our indefatigable swallows in order to get in behind the obstruction. They hadn’t removed enough to gain access so we pushed the corks further in to block them. The only sure-fire way to protect the nest is to hang around on the front veranda for ever. The sparrows don’t like us near. The feeling is mutual.

Our permaculture journey is about to begin. Behind the house, the neglected hillside is to be ‘engineered’ into water-retaining swales and terraces and planted with a variety of young trees. We will slowly sow seeds and plants between the trees, as well as allowing pioneer seeds to take root for themselves. From here, the biotope will do its own thing. The health of the soil will gradually be enhanced and it will increasingly sequester carbon and hold water. In the few weeks since our eyes were opened to this possibility, I have tried to teach myself about permaculture and developing a food forest. Some of the things I have learned:

  1. Diversity is key.
  2. The soil is queen.
  3. Mulch is king. All kinds of things, not just plant material, can be mulch: old clothes and cardboard, for example.
  4. No such thing as garden ‘rubbish’. It’s all useful biomass.
  5. The biotope is a natural, self-sufficient energy system. Nothing in, nothing out – except for food produce.
  6. Weeds are good, not least for soil cover.
  7. Don’t be purist. What works, works.
  8. It isn’t always pretty in the short term. In the long term, it will be beautiful.
  9. It is an agricultural system for humans (and animals) to live in.
  10. Small-scale farmers feed the majority of the world – some say 80 per cent – while having access to less than a quarter of all farmland.

Another journey, begun long ago, has reached a new destination. When my grandparents ran away from County Offaly in Ireland to Liverpool to get married – in the face of parental disapproval – they didn’t know they were extending a lifeline to a future granddaughter that would allow her to keep her treasured European citizenship. I applied to register at the Irish embassy in Lisbon as an Irish citizen of ‘foreign birth’, then, once that had been confirmed with a certificate, I applied for a passport, which a few weeks later arrived from Dublin, via Lisbon. It was straightforward and I dealt with nice human beings all along the way. Across the pages of my new passport run lilting lines of prose, among which are: ‘The Irish nation treasures its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’

Lordy visiting us

Lordy with his breakfast bread

Bony fig tree, soon to come into leaf

Bread: two spelt and seven alfarroba loaves. The alfarroba (carob in English, Johannisbrot in German) was a successful experiment. Almost half the bread’s flour comes from the alfarroba, the rest is rye, spelt and wheat; the crumb is firm and dark and mildly sweet, the crust has a hint of caramelisation. It slices well and keeps well. Not for nothing does the German name of the tree and its fruit translate into English as St John’s bread

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


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