Oil and water

River at its peak this week

River at its peak this week

Another view of the swollen river

Another view of the swollen river

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Roman Bridge at Tavira

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode this week

Estrela, in very languid and affectionate mode

 

It carried on raining for a few more days. Our river got higher and browner and swirlier. We went to Tavira on Thursday and the tea-coloured river was brimming. It was freshly poured Assam, with a dash of milk, the surface still moving after having just been stirred.

Then on Sunday it began to turn into the May we expect. The sun shone brightly and the days warmed up. The water in the river reduced and turned clear. We filled our cisterna from the well, which was more full than we’d ever seen it. Crystal water gushed into the cisterna and showed no sign of faltering; after three hours and twenty minutes we decided it was enough. The over-large cisterna – 30,000 litres – that supplies the house was almost at capacity. I continue to filter and boil the water for drinking, then chill it. It’s a chore, but not only does it save a little money, it also avoids acres of plastic waste. Best of all, our water tastes heavenly. It’s the most delicious water ever.

The streaky yellow serin continues to punctuate our days at home with its break-neck song. It sways from side to side, for the broadest possible cast of its notes. It resists my attempts to get near to photograph it.

Prime minister and priest

On Saturday the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, came to Loulé, a nearby town, for a Socialist Party meeting. Naturally enough, the various activist groups gathered at the site to let their feelings known. We were there – Husband, Mother and me – as part of the Tavira em Transicão (TT) group, waving anti-oil banners. I wore my protest hat. My protest hat is not entirely successful. A few months ago Husband and I made ‘protest selfies’, and I adapted a pink trilby for the occasion. I fancied a Mad Hatter look, so I stuck letters around the brim. The hat remained on the hat stand in the hall until my eyes alighted on it as we leaving on Saturday. I thought it might serve the purpose for Loulé so I grabbed it and put it in the car.

When we got there, Mum took a restful position on a concrete bench at the back of the protesters, TT banner aloft. It was in this slightly out-of-the-way spot that she managed to be caught by a TV camera and thus made an appearance on Portuguese television news. The islanders – the people of Culatra and other sand-bank islands who are protesting against the demolitions taking place there – made the biggest splash. All in black t-shirts, marching in a group, they chanted ‘Ilhéus unidos jamais serão vencidos’ as they got into position. The chant was picked up on our side with ‘Ilhéus’ changed to ‘Algarve’, and the islanders joined back in with us.

‘Algarve unidos jamais serão vencidos!’ A united Algarve will never be defeated!

I glanced back at my mum. She was wiping away a tear from her eye. Her first demonstration, and she found it very moving.

PM Costa arrived and, to my surprise, and I imagine others’ too, he went around the ranks of protestors, smiling and talking to people. I waved and grinned as he came in our direction and he made his way towards me. Panic settled on my face at the thought that he might talk to me and catch me out as a non-Portuguese speaker. The letters on my hat had by now rearranged themselves, several slithering down into the hatband, and no longer read ‘FRACK OFF’ but the rather less effective ‘RACK’. My disconcerted features and my ambiguous hat were enough to deter the PM, who moved on to talk to someone else. He then invited a representative group to talk to him within the building. (See Asmaa’s site for an account of this.)

Mass on Sunday capped an emotional weekend. It was Pentecost, the last day of Easter, and my mum was keen to celebrate at a Portuguese church. I’d been told that Mass started around eleven. After coffee and pasteis at the café amid the sound of church bells, we entered the church at ten to eleven and selected prime pews, aisle-side for easy access to Holy Communion. Eleven o’clock came and went. I have still not learned the lesson that the start time means the time the people who are involved start to gather and get ready. Microphones were placed on the altar and two pulpits. A multimedia screen was lowered from the ceiling. A group of children – boy and girl scouts who were to take part in the service, with much obvious stage direction from the priest, and to receive special blessings – were photographed in front of the altar. The image was soon on display via the screen above. Old Portuguese ladies descended on our pew in a pincer action, squeezing us into the middle. The church slowly filled. Plastic chairs were being brought in to supplement the pews. The Mass finally got under way at about quarter to twelve. My mother likes Portuguese time, and is thinking of introducing it to Father John back in Lincolnshire.

Mandai, Senhor, o vosso Espírito e renovai a Terra

was one of the responses during the Mass. ‘Send your spirit, Lord, and renew the earth.’ We could do with some of that, I thought, and found myself wondering if the priest is up to speed with the oil exploration plans for the Algarve.

The protest trilby

The protest trilby

Husband's walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated bread by carrying in a loaf, wine with a bottle, music by holding aloft a guitar, and love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek to face the congregation

Husband’s delicious walnut levain. The scouts, as part of the Mass, celebrated the riches of life: Bread, by carrying in a loaf, Wine with a wine bottle, Music by holding aloft a guitar, and Love by two girls hugging each other, cheek to cheek so as to face outwards to the congregation

Rain

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

New hibiscus flower, photographed one evening

The same flower the next day, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

The same flower the next morning, the pistil much grown. The daylight colour is more accurate than the evening colour

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the 'undulate margin' of the 'stalkless and hairy' leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

Honey bee in the Cistus crispus, one of the rock roses, with its corbicula full of pollen. This picture also shows clearly the ‘undulate margin’ of the ‘stalkless and hairy’ leaves (Wild Flowers of the Algarve) which made the identification a cert

The river in spate

The river in spate this week

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

Where the turtles normally sun-bathe on the rocks and hardy guests go swimming

The unfordable ford

The unfordable ford

‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’ I didn’t realise this old saying was about the Algarve. A week ago I cast a clout in the form of a thick, winter duvet, replacing it with a light one, and woke up cold the next morning. The sky was dark and a storm was about to discharge itself all over the valley. By midday we had the fire lit and the lights on. The rain came down in sheets all day, and the next day, and one week later it is still raining.

‘We’ll be all right for water in the summer,’ said Eleuterio with a smile.

‘It’s like gold in the bank,’ said an acquaintance in the village.

The river is wide and flowing fast, its colour turned to brown. We can’t ford it in this condition. It even deterred Horse. We got a phone call from his owner to say he’d gone AWOL again and I went down to the river to look for him, but no sign. He returned to his stable later the same day. I think he must have got to the river and been spooked by the swirling torrent, so decided to pass up on his holiday for a while. I do feel sorry for any tourists who picked this week for their dose of sunshine. And much as we love the rain, I hope it eventually eases off for our next guest, my mother, who is arriving on Thursday.

São Brás de Alportel

We attended another open meeting on the prospects for the Algarve if the oil industry arrives here. This one took place in the museum of our local town of São Brás, and was well attended, all seats taken and some people standing. Most of the audience were Portuguese, only a few foreigners were there, one of whom, a disgruntled Scotsman, identified himself very early on. The presentations were given by a solar energy expert and two hardworking members of the PALP group (Plataforma Algarve Livre de Petróleo). The no-brainer energy solution that solar is for the Algarve is clear – a week like this one notwithstanding – and it was the solar engineer who spoke first. It was uncontroversial material for the audience, except for the Scotsman, who, only five minutes into an event that was to last three hours, stood up and declared it was all rubbish, all lies, and he knew what he was talking about because he used to work for the oil industry. He marched out, his stout frame quivering with indignation, and the presentation carried on without a hiccup. If he felt he really had a case, why didn’t he stay to make it?

Many passionate speeches were made by members of the audience. One or two went on longer than seemed to me entirely necessary, but that’s how it goes. I was moved by the man who spoke up for the natural industries of the Algarve: its world-beating cork, its super-carbon-soaking carob trees. And I was impressed by the town mayor who stood up at the end of the presentations and promised to put himself physically in front of any machines that come here with the aim of exploring for oil. That’s going to be harder to do at sea, mind you.

Our solar energy production at home has carried on without any hitch despite the weather. The electricity company (EDP) have been to disconnect their meter, though we are not entirely free of them yet. We have a second meter, put in to supply three-phase electricity for the bread oven; we are going to switch this to a greener provider. As well as being needed for the bread oven, it’s also a back-up for the rest of the house, but we have little recourse to it. Through our photo-voltaic panels and battery storage, we are supplying about 90 per cent of our own energy: free after the cost of installation, renewable and clean. All thanks to the blessed sun, even on cloudy days.

Here's a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. It will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

Here’s a glimpse of the swimming pool, taken last week before rain halted work. The pool will have salt-treated water, a cover to preserve the water from evaporation, a solar-powered pump, and solar-powered heating for cool days

The self-made man – undone?

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda

We have two colours of bougainvillea: this one covering the front veranda . . .

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

. . . and this one, starting to show strongly at last, on a front wall

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium Angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

A close-up of Narrow-leaved Crimson Clover, Trifolium angustifolium. You have to get close to some of the wild plants to see just how lovely they are

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We'd never seen a lizard of this size before. The photo also serves to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

This 40cm lizard appeared on the veranda: an Eyed Lizard, named for the blue spots along its flanks. We’d never seen a lizard of this size before. Its arrival also served to highlight how much the veranda is in need of cleaning and painting

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

I tried for a long time to catch the Carpenter Bee and its violet-blue wings, but it does not stay still for more than a micro-second. Still, this is not a bad shot of the big fat bee

 

When you hear a whistle at your back, a sharp, clear Fee fee-ooo, of course you turn to see who is calling you. It turns out to be the Golden Oriole, whose fluty call is one of the dominant sounds of the valley right now. The bird is about the size of a blackbird; the male is brilliantly yellow with black wings, the female drabber in olive and yellow. Despite the gloss-paint shine of the male bird, he is well concealed in sunlit leafy trees. A couple are often in our back garden and might be nesting there.

Sousa Cintra heard a whistle at his back this week. He has finally been stopped from drilling on a site in Perdigão in the western Algarve. Under guise of drilling for water he was covertly, and slightly ludicrously, engaged in oil exploration. Activists had been monitoring the site, where chemical froth was pooling on the land and running into a nearby stream. A geologist employed by Portfuel – Cintra’s hastily put together ‘oil’ company – was found to have been on site for much of the time; a hardly necessary appointment had Cintra simply been drilling for the water. In a joint action of planning and environment agencies, along with the GNR (the national republican guard), Cintra was told on 27 April to suspend the work.

On 28 April, Jorge Moreira da Silva, ex-Minister for the Environment, faced a joint hearing of the parliamentary committees on environment and economy about the onshore oil concessions in the Algarve. He continued to make the mutually-self-cancelling defences that the contracts are for exploration only, and that the people of the Algarve deserve the wealth and the development opportunities that oil will provide. He said that all the fuss about the oil was being kicked up by retired foreigners who wanted to preserve the Algarve as ‘uma terra de índios’: a land of indigenous poor people. As a politician’s view of the people of the Algarve, it’s revealing. Until 1911 when Portugal became a republic, the country was known as ‘the kingdom of Portugal and the Algarve’, and this sense of the Algarve as being ‘other’ seems to prevail.

The money argument is a difficult one. The idea that oil brings wealth is deeply embedded in human culture. However, even if you kick all the environmental arguments into the long grass and pretend that it’s still a good idea to dig up Mother Nature’s fossil fuels, it isn’t going to make Portugal rich. If you compare the planned payments to the public purse of the explorations in Portugal with those of, for example, Norway, the difference is startling. The Portuguese concessions must pay, after all their expenses have been recovered, 3 per cent (to begin with); in Norway it’s 80 per cent. And by the way, why have the payment terms been stipulated when the contracts are ‘only for exploration’?

But we cannot kick the environmental arguments into the long grass. The law which allowed these oil concessions to be awarded is dated 1994, not so long ago in human years, but aeons ago in human consciousness. We emphatically know the risks of global warming now that we only suspected then, and we have dangers now that we’d barely dreamt of then, such as fracking, and its release of methane gas, even worse than carbon dioxide. And we are compelled to act upon this new knowledge. Or we should be, especially if we are the Minister for the Environment. But not so Moreira da Silva.

Then, just to show that he truly is shameless, we learnt that he stood for the post of executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He reached the last two in the competition. He didn’t get the gig; it went to Mexican Patricia Espinosa instead. Small mercies.

The local mayoral organisation, who are vocal in their condemnation of the contracts given to Sousa Cintra to explore for oil onshore, are less vocal about the offshore concessions, which are due to start activities in October this year. That’s a whole other battle.

Robalo and nespera

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão, on a gloomy day

Flamingoes over the salt marshes of Olhão on Saturday

Not far away from the flamingoes, a Black-winged Stilt, whose reflection makes its legs look longer still

Not far away from the flamingoes, a Black-winged Stilt, whose reflection makes its legs look longer still

Common Vetch blazing like a fire in front of the old mill

Common Vetch blazing like a fire in front of the old mill

Down on the ground, away from the glamour of the big blooms, are tiny plants like this Hop Trefoil, whose flowers are 3–4mm long

Down on the ground, away from the glamour of the big blooms, are tiny plants like this Hop Trefoil, whose flowers are 3–4mm long

Another, tiny flower, a few millimetres long: the Lesser Snapdragon

Another tiny flower, a few millimetres long: the Lesser Snapdragon

Nespera (loquat): we do eat them, but we are making little impression on the volume

Nespera (loquat): we are eating them, but making little impression on this great abundance. I cut them in half, slip out the shiny brown seeds, of which there might be one, two, three or four, then peel off the skin, which I find tough. The resulting semi-circle of almost translucent yellow flesh is juicy and tender, with a sweetness that is cut through by a hint of acidity. My taste for them is growing . . .

 

On Saturday we visited the salt marshes at Olhão, before going to the fish market. It was an overcast day. Black-winged Stilts and Flamingoes cast pale shadows on the grey waters. Low-flying House Martins and Barn Swallows knitted the air around us along the path, as though closing us in an invisible net.

In the market we bought stout, firm, shiny robalo (sea bass). They came to 27 euros, and we gave the man forty. ‘Vint’-sete,’ he repeated, holding the money we’d given him back out towards us. We explained we didn’t have anything smaller, but he just looked at us. Puzzled, we abandoned talking and resorted to gesture, a lifting of the chin to encourage him to check again the money we had given him. The penny dropped: he realised we’d given him two twenties. His expression softened, and he drew the forefingers of his raw, red hands in circles around his face to indicate tiredness and confusion. Nor does it look like an easy life, to be a fishmonger. I wouldn’t last thirty minutes with my fingers in crushed ice, guts and scales.

Since the weekend, it has turned warm. There is no longer any need, or excuse, for a fire at night. The wild flowers are still dazzling. It’s been an exceptional year for them, we’re told. Certainly they are more impressive than last year’s. Lordy is given to lying in the meadows, his kohl-rimmed eyes above the flowers, looking even more louche than ever. Alternatively he makes himself comfortable in the road and isn’t in any hurry to move when you drive up. Such a cool character.

The two dogs hadn’t been to our veranda for a while, so the slices of old bread we keep for them had become rock hard. I couldn’t even snap them into pieces. I gave them to the enquiring dogs this week regardless and they tackled them with the enthusiasm, and the dentition, they have for bones. Husband’s bread is eternal. If exposed to the air, it doesn’t go mouldy, it just slowly desiccates: a sign of very good sourdough bread.

The other visitors to our veranda are a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. They fly in and out all day long. They swim over us while we’re at breakfast, and cut in front of my study window – which looks through the veranda and down the path to the river – all the rest of the day. On the wire, they babble; in flight they call to one another with little bird barks. They fly right up to the mark left behind by the old nest, even seem to bump their faces on the wall. We’ve seen them fill their beaks with mud from the building site of the swimming pool, but it hasn’t been deployed on our veranda yet. They are sleek and shiny in the sunlight, such elegant and beautiful birds.

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread

Lordy chomping through very dry, old bread with gusto

 

One hundred

Backlit poppies

Backlit poppies

Backlit lavender

Backlit lavender

vetch

Common Vetch, uncommonly pretty

hairy lupin

The Hairy Lupin, at seed stage, in the rain

Quaking grass

Tiny lanterns of Quaking Grass which, true to their name, shudder in finely tuned response to the merest movement of air

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended. A second after this picture was taken, it had disappeared into the water below

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended; disappearance is imminent. A second after this picture was taken, it had dropped into the water below. I was surprised it let me get this close

 

Had I continued to keep count of the weeks, this would be number one hundred. I’m quietly celebrating that milestone. I’m celebrating the rain, too. The sky today has been dark grey, with blooms of white cloud and shafts of yellow light. Our dirt track is running with brown streams and the river is the highest I’ve seen it for well over a year. I dropped into Flaviano’s emporium to collect the post – Nada!, always more of a disappointment for Flaviano than for me, it seems – and the round lady greeted me. ‘How’s about this for rain then?’ she said. ‘Yes!’ I replied (my Portuguese still so limited), and we each raised a thumb, simultaneously. Shared pleasure over rain. Since the relationship between rain falling out of the sky, our well filling up and having water to wash in, cook with and drink is so intimate and direct, it’s impossible not to love the rain.

A few days ago at breakfast Little Owl arrived on his perch (a telegraph pole) and gave us a hard stare. I went to grab a camera but was too late, it flew off. Every day its calls rebound around the valley. At night, the Scops Owl adds its unique sound. We lie in bed at night and hear its solemn and restrained sonar beeps, so unlike the shrieks of the Little Owl. I looked the birds up in a book and discovered that the Scops Owl is smaller still than the Little Owl. Two tiny owls filling our days and nights with sound. We wonder if the Scops Owl, so present in our garden at night, is interested in the nest box we placed in a carob tree up the hill, not far from the bank of solar panels. The box is designed for hoopoes and small owls. I crept up for a look this week: no sign of any habitation.

Our little bend-in-the-valley world is filled with melodious nightingales, cisticolas (whose flight pattern and matching call seem to have tightened up: the loops are sharper and the calls more frequent), babbling swallows, whistling orioles and, impossible to ignore, the frantic call of the serin, that tiny, bursting bundle of yellow feathers. I feel for the serin. I hope its energetic song is born of triumph and not desperation.

The effort not to waste lemons continues. The pickled lemons I made a good few weeks back using a Diana Henry recipe, which involved briefly salting the sliced lemons then packing them up in paprika-dusted layers with oil, has been to my satisfaction, but not Husband’s. To appeal to his tastes, I’ve taken a recipe from the Prashad book, which comes from a small, northern English-based Indian restaurant. The first stage is under way: 1 kilo of chopped, pipped lemons – from Maria’s tree – are macerating in a terracotta sludge consisting of turmeric + salt + the juice that came off the chopped lemons. I give the plastic box a good shake every day, and after three weeks they will be ready for the next stage of flavouring.

I have turned my back on the nespera (loquat) tree, whose boughs are weighed to the ground with pink-flushed yellow fruit. There are just too many. The birds can have them. Our fig tree now has full-size, still-green fruit; not for nothing does the oriole (the papafigos, or fig-eater) turn up at this time. I’d like to get the figs before they do, though. They are so exquisite, and last year we had only the first harvest; the weather was too dry for the tree to manage a second fruiting.

We went this week to a day-long discussion session at the University of the Algarve about the ‘economic, social and environmental impact of hydrocarbon exploration in the Algarve in the 21st century’ – a long title for a well-presented but very ill-attended day. More disappointing than the lack of attendance was the presentation from the Portuguese Association for Renewable Energy, who are – it seems to me – failing to promote solar energy, while still spreading the now-discredited theory that natural gas is a halfway house between fossil fuels and renewable energies. We learnt the extraordinary fact that the solar contribution to energy in the UK is twenty-two times greater than it is in Portugal. I don’t need to tell you how much more the sun shines here than it does in the UK – even if this week might have been an exception.

One day this week I noticed something sticking out of one of the back doors. I bent down and took a closer look: it was a little skull. I opened the door to find the rest of the skeleton inside the door jamb. It was a small gecko that had been unintentionally garrotted. I detached its tiny skeleton from the door and let it be taken by the breeze, feeling out-of-all-proportion sad about this tiny, accidental death.

grotto

I like a bit of religion. Here’s Mary in her grotto in the church of Santiago, the pilgrim, in Tavira

The self-made man

Morning mist in the valley

Morning mist in the valley

Our dipping pond - until the completion of the swimming pool. The pond is too cold for me, but I hope provides a nice memory for some of those who have visited us and were robust enough to swim

Our dipping pond – until the completion of the swimming pool. The pond is too cold for me, but I hope this provides a nice memory for those who have visited us and been robust enough to swim

Bougainvillea, coming back after heavy pruning

Bougainvillea, coming back after heavy pruning

A Small Tree Mallow that has managed to grow on the drive between us and our neighbours

A Small Tree Mallow that has managed to grow on the drive between us and our neighbours

Borage hides its pretty face

Borage hides its pretty face

The 'bottle-brush tree' in flower

The ‘bottle-brush tree’ in flower

 

The days divide themselves between blazing and blustery. The blustery versions feature short but heavy downpours. I feel sure this spring is wetter than last year, but I have only two to compare. People who have lived here much longer say all the seasons are drier now. Dry or not, the wild flowers continue to display furiously. Tall stands of estevas (Cistus ladanifer or Gum Rock Rose) cover many hillsides, their leaves a dark gleaming green, their many flowers like tissue-paper bowls that appear not so much to have grown on the plant as to have landed on them, the by-product of an inexplicable skyward event. Rows of lavender muscle up against prickly yellow gorse, and pretty red vetches sprawl among clouds of fennel. Along the roadsides for a couple of weeks now Judas trees have been displaying their creamy purple, blackcurrants-stirred-into-yogurt blossom.

Golden orioles have arrived in the valley, bee-eaters are flying above, and swallows once again glide teasingly in and out of our veranda. We are glad we took down the old mud nest, squatted by the sparrows for repeat broods last year. Sparrows may have undergone a decline in the UK in recent years, but worldwide they are a common, even dominant species, so we decided to let them fend for themselves, while the swallows, should they choose to, can always rebuild their own mud nest.

Red-rumped Swallows on the telegraph wire

Red-rumped Swallows on the telegraph wire

 

In the news

‘We’ve just seen you on the television,’ said our neighbours to Husband one day this week. We were having breakfast on the veranda; they were returning from having coffee in the café in the village, where the television is always on. The news was about the anti-oil activism in the Algarve, and the footage was probably of protestors in Faro last December, gathered outside the office where AMAL, the local mayoral association, was meeting with the grinning Paulo Carmona of the ENMC. This week, Carmona was interviewed for a television report that touched on the grimier aspects of the oil business and, in response to a question about accountability and transparency, answered only, ‘And?’, then again, ‘And?’, while wearing a smug ‘And-your-point-is?’ face. I will come back to this.

The current news mostly concerns one Sousa Cintra, self-made millionaire and, I hazard, horribly perfect example of a man who knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’, to use Oscar Wilde’s exquisite words. Now in his seventies, the beer mogul and former football club (Sporting) president has reinvented himself as an oil tycoon. Ten days before the previous administration closed its doors, Sousa Cintra got the signatures on two contracts giving him the licence for onshore drilling across 300,000 hectares of the Algarve, and the rights to any oil and gas found there for the next forty years. The contracts are in the name of a hastily put-together company called Portfuel, an offshoot of a tourism company in the names of his wife and son. A journalist visiting a registered company address found only a cleaner who said, ‘Oh, they aren’t actually based here, but the wife drops by occasionally to check the post.’

The word on the street, and in the newspapers, is that the government is going to investigate the Portfuel contracts. The man who authorised them, Jorge Moreira da Silva, when he was Minister for the Environment in the last government, has leapt to his own defence. He continues with the line – heard often now – that the contracts are for exploration, not extraction. This leaves the matter of Cintra’s forty-year rights to ‘freely dispose of any oil he finds’ (‘A concessionária pode dispor livremente do petróleo por si produzido’; contract shown as part of a TV report) as something to be puzzled over. Moreira da Silva also claims the contracts were signed at the beginning of September and not the end – attempting to refute the newsworthy ‘ten days before the old government left office’ claim. He also remarks, disconcertingly, that Portfuel had said ‘it would sue the State for any administrative delays. So there had to be a decision, and that decision . . . had to be positive.’

Portfuel has begun putting down messy bore holes in the Alzejur region, has already been fined for causing environmental damage there, and is rumoured to be about to start in the Tavira region. The call has gone out over social media for people to look for suspicious activity. It’s as though an unqualified man-in-a-suit turned up at a blood donation centre, threw on a white coat and started jabbing needles in people’s arms, and the only immediate course of action available is for the people awaiting their tea and biscuits to try to challenge him. At least Sousa Cintra seems rattled: in a recent letter to one of the mayors of the Algarve he complained about local activism. What? These people won’t let me bleed them to death? What’s the matter with them!

The good news is that this business is dirty enough that it really might be possible to make a case against the issuance of the contracts. Two grounds are that Portfuel is too young a company to have the clean three-year technical and financial record that the contract terms demand, and that it lacks adequate insurance. The bad news is that the ENMC, with its head the grinning villain Paulo Carmona, is the regulator in charge of oversight. Indeed, it was probably Carmona’s signature on the contracts, the contracts that he should now investigate. Additionally, the former Chief of Staff of the Ministry of the Environment is now with the ENMC, appointed by Moreira da Silva before leaving office. It was in answer to questions about this appointment that Carmona put on his ‘And your point is?’ face.

When the heart is full . . .

. . . the tongue is empty. This is a saying from the Philippines, or at least how I remember it after many years. This week my heart is so full – with visits from friends, trips to places new and old, the extraordinary, ever-increasing spectacle of spring flowers – that my fingers are silent on the keyboard and pictures can tell the story instead.

At home:

lizard

Lizard. Photograph taken on front veranda by Joseph Karg

lavender2

Lavender

cistus

Rock rose: Cistus crispus

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Rock rose: Cistus monspeliensis

Asphodel

Asphodel

Meadow

Meadow with shadow

Going back to Culatra:

Man on jetty

Man on jetty

Man on boat

Man on boat

Child on boat

Child on boat

Throwing rope

Throwing the rope

Century cross

Century cross

Worn umbrella

Worn umbrella

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Stranded

Man in Olhão

Man in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Smoker in Olhão

Thank you for your support

Thank you for your support

 

Easter

Our second visit to Culatra; we took friends from Berlin with us

Our second-ever visit to Culatra; we took friends from Berlin with us

Farol lighthouse

Farol lighthouse

Hottentot fig: these were all over the island

Hottentot fig: these were all over the island

Birds in Olhão: gulls

Returning to Olhão from Culatra: gulls by the ferry point

Birds in Olhão: gulls with backdrop of masts

Birds in Olhão: gulls with backdrop of masts

Birds in Olhão: swallows on the wire

Birds in Olhão: swallows on the wire

Figs are ripening; seen in Olhão

Figs are ripening; seen in Olhão

A close-up of Paronychia argentea, a ground-hugging plant that grows by the river and that I find quite beautiful

Back at home: a close-up of Paronychia argentea, a ground-hugging plant that grows by our river. I’ve just noticed how exquisitely beautiful it is; you need to get close to it to appreciate it

Silky spelt dough

Silky spelt dough

Spelt bread, wonderful with melting butter and drizzled honey

Spelt bread, wonderful with melting butter and drizzled honey

 

We had little time this week to witness the many offerings of Holy Week, but we did manage to go to the procession on the evening of Good Friday in Tavira. It began around nine. We waited patiently with many others until a sermon was broadcast over a loudspeaker, then the streetlights went out and the candlelit procession arrived. One of the most charming moments was the priest himself, in his purple sash, who’d clearly been told a very good joke and was having trouble displaying the necessary degree of solemnity. Because of the eeriness of the event, and not because of the laughing priest, Husband said he felt like he was in a Fellini film. I felt differently. I like a bit of religion. I grew up under benign Catholicism. This meant three things: for big worries, the good Lord would take care of them; for little worries, one had one’s very own guardian angel to take care of them; and for oneself the main requirement was to be ‘good’, which could be achieved through careful examination of one’s own conscience. But the thought did drop unbidden into my mind, standing here in the crowd in Tavira, that it would be rather better if this procession was all about praising the vastly intelligent natural system of which we humans are just a part, rather than a god we invented for ourselves and in our own image. And that if we humans hadn’t somehow decided that the Earth was all about us, and for our benefit, we perhaps wouldn’t be making such a mess of it, extracting every last, non-renewable, one-time-only resource from it and allowing a tiny few to get rich in the process. (Writer Arundhati Roy calls this resource extraction ‘a dream come true for businessmen – to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.’)

And I realised my transition into a tree-hugging hippie was almost complete.

Good Friday procession

Good Friday procession. Candlelight is hard to photograph, and has given one woman a halo

Letters to the president

I kept my promise to myself to participate in the Tavira Câmara’s ten-year policy review. I used the participation forms and followed the instructions to deliver comments in a three-part format: Framework, Consequences and Proposal. I shared with the president (aka the mayor) my thoughts on organic agriculture, the market hall in Tavira, tourism, oil/gas extraction, plastic greenhouses, and plastic waste. I did all this in very bad Portuguese, like an earnest but dull schoolgirl. I’m glad I bothered to take part, but I don’t think I’ve changed the world.

Wild flower meadows

A Red-legged Partridge in our back garden. Its 'chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah' woke us up. I just had time to grab the camera before it flew off

A Red-legged Partridge in our back garden. Its ‘chuck-chuck-chuckah-chuckaaah’ woke us up. I just had time to grab the camera before it flew off

I finally have a potted hibiscus on the veranda; this is its first flower (für meine Schwiegermutter: alles Gute zum Geburtstag!)

I finally have a potted hibiscus on the veranda; this is its first flower (für meine Schwiegermutter: Alles Gute zum Geburtstag)

Wild gladiolus

Wild gladiolus

I love the Gum Rock Rose: it's all over the hillsides where we live right now

I love the Gum Rock Rose: it’s all over the hillsides where we live right now

Every now and then a Gum Rock Rose with paler spots appears

Every now and then a Gum Rock Rose with paler spots appears

This has to be the Annual Rock Rose, though a tiny version of it (anyone know better?)

This has to be the Annual Rock Rose, though a tiny version of it (unless anyone knows better)

A house in the Algarve: but not ours. Meadow in front; last Sunday's black clouds behind

A house in the Algarve: but not ours. Meadow in front; the black clouds of last Sunday behind

 

Wild flower meadows are all around now. The eye focuses on the spots of colour: blues, reds and purples in particular, while the soothing green background is lulled out. To the camera, however, the flowers recede and the green dominates. The only way to appreciate a wild flower meadow is to be right in it, so I can’t share it with you easily. We went for a walk on Sunday with friends and picnicked amid wild gladiolus and lavender. The next day, in Tavira, we saw that the bridge and the churches had been strewn with lavender in lieu of palm. Even after a day of being rained on and trodden on, the sprigs were still fragrant.

Last Friday the biggest lorry I’ve ever seen in our valley arrived and wedged itself – remarkably, without any harm done to walls – between our house and the neighbours in front. A vast arm extended itself over the carob tree – again, without damage to a leaf – and the pouring of the concrete into the framework for the pool began. I was a little horrified. I’ve begun to feel slightly uncomfortable about the pool. It seems rather indulgent. And then all the noise and mess involved in building it. Well, I decided to cross the river and visit the two houses on the other side: to explain what was going on, and to apologise for the noise in case it was amplified over there. This is not the first time ‘sorry’ has been on my lips, but I chose to go for a new phrase I found on Google translate, just in case it was better/politer/nicer. However, on the way across the river two of the consonants switched themselves around in my head. The first conversation, with a Portuguese old lady in a hat, fit as fiddle by all appearances, went something like this.

‘I agolopise for the noise.’

‘Eh?’

‘I agolopise for the noise.’

‘I’ve got no idea what you’re on about. Do you live across the river?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you English?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m the only Portuguese left here now. Everyone’s English. I’m only here to feed the cats.’ At this point she took a stick to an orange tree. ‘I get the oranges as my reward.’ She stooped to the floor and filled a bag with the fallen oranges, then left the house and went away up the path, reminding me – in a cheerful and only slightly disgruntled way – that she was the only Portuguese left.

The other house is indeed occupied by English, so communication was easier. The inhabitant of the first house, they told me, was very old and ill in hospital and unlikely ever to come home. The old lady I met, Silvina, looked after the house; she lived further up the lane. And along this particular lane, which goes from the right bank of the river down to the nearest village, Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, the exit of the old Portuguese population does now seem to be entire, Silvina excepted. Thankfully it’s not so on our side of the river. Portuguese still outnumber foreigners in our little community, but rural evacuation is nothing new, and the Câmara (the town/county council) wants to do something about it. I know because I’ve been reading, slowly and painfully, their policy documents ahead of a public consultation. It seems to me they seem to fail in one of the most obvious things they could do: raise the status – and value – of local food. Make it easier for people to bring their produce to market by reducing the paperwork involved, so that oranges, pomegranates, quince, cactus fruit and so on have a value in the marketplace and don’t get to fall neglected to the ground here in the serra, while supermarkets sell imported fruit in sealed plastic (including, irony of ironies, imported cactus fruit, marketed as ‘exotic’, when in a matter of weeks we’ll be knee-deep in the prickly things right here). So I’ve got to find a way of saying that in Portuguese, in writing, as my contribution to the debate.

While I try to poke about in the Câmara’s business, they’ve been poking about in ours. No sooner had the building of our pool begun than a Battleaxe from the Câmara turned up unannounced. Unannounced apart from the phone call five minutes up the lane wanting to know where on earth we were exactly. The Battleaxe, and her more pleasant sidekick, got out their measuring tapes and stomped about the building site in a rather officious way. The thing is, the pool is totally legal. We have a building licence, the pool is being built according to plan, we’re even taking up the back terrace to reduce our built area, all exactly as we’re supposed to. It’s only a little pool, for Heaven’s sake. The Battleaxe couldn’t find anything wrong but she warned us she’d be keeping a close eye on the whole process and we’d better do it right or we’d be fined. Of course, if we were Portfuel, and wanted to lay waste to the entire serra with a hydraulic fracking operation, that, apparently, would be absolutely fine.

Now, I’m being slightly unfair here. The Câmara don’t want this any more than we do. It is the imposition of the previous national government, and the current one isn’t doing anything to stop the oil companies. Now the combined mayors of the Câmaras of the Algarve are looking into a legal route to try to stop the madness. I hope they succeed.

Rolie playing his part in the anti-oil protests (stickers from Asmaa)

Rolie playing his part in the anti-oil protests (stickers from Asmaa)

Back to the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Another heart-shaped stone in the river

Poppies (für meine Schwiegermutter); from a meadow by the river

Poppies from a meadow by the riverbank

Yellow lupin

Yellow lupin (Lupinus luteus), from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender, common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

The rather odd green lavender (Lavandula viridis), common in cork oak forests: this one from the riverbank

I pulled my first garlic from the ground - a little early, but it tasted heavenly

I pulled my first garlic from the ground – a little early, but it tasted heavenly

The apricot tree in blossom

The apricot tree in blossom: this is the one that fruits first

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called them Green Linnets

Greenfinch pair in our conifer: poets such as Wordsworth and John Clare called the birds Green Linnets

 

A blushing Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) sang on our wire this week: such a pretty song. I don’t think I’ve heard it before. No wonder ‘me old cock linnet’ was once such a popular caged bird, enough to have appeared in music-hall song. The little streaked yellow Serin continues to fill the air with its manic, high-speed, glass-beads-shattering-on-a-stone-floor song, and the Zitting Cisticola dzips as he rises and dips on his looping flight. A pair of greenfinches is considering the conifer at the front of the house as a possible nesting site, obviously not put off by the nearby posturing of Mr Cock-of-the-Walk Sparrow. All these little bundles of feathers bursting with life and song: it seems miraculous.

I’ve had time to go back to the river this week. The cold water slides slowly over the rocks with their streamers of weed. That the water is cold I can feel through my wellies. The toad spawn is largely gone: dispersed or eaten. I hope a few eggs have found their way under rocks to develop into toadlets (or are they called tadpoles, like frogs?). I can testify to the irresistible deliciousness of the eggs, however. Not personally, exactly, but by the fact that we got our first ever good look at the mystery wading bird thanks to the toad eggs. We were about to drive over the ford and there was the bird, quite unable to fly off into the distance in its usual way, with a flash of long white rump and a complaining kyew, because it couldn’t stop dipping for toad eggs. We grabbed the chance for a close inspection – binoculars thankfully in the car – then carried on our journey and left it alone.

It’s one of a pair now, though usually we see a solitary bird. We see it often; it can’t be migratory. It’s like a Greenshank, but smaller, with a distinctly straight beak. We haven’t settled on what it is, though it’s got to be something obvious; it always is. Therefore, it cannot be a Marsh Sandpiper, even though that’s the only bird in the book that fits the bill (or beak).

Water, fire and oil

The well was almost full and we ran the crystal water into the cisterna under the front veranda for two and a half hours. That’ll do us for a good while. And I have finally faced up to something that has been on my conscience: all that bottled water we drink, most of it in plastic. We had our well water tested and were advised not to drink it: it was pure of every contamination except, possibly, bacterial. We cook with it and clean our teeth, but were drinking from bottles. We recycled them afterwards, of course, but recycling plastic barely limits the damage. Then it clicked, at last. Good heavens: just boil our own water using our solar-powered electricity, cool it and keep it in the fridge. It tastes wonderful, and this is a big weight off my mind.

The days are warm under the sun but the wind has been chilly. We still light a fire in the evenings. The metric tonne of firewood we had delivered at the start of winter ran out and, rather than get a new delivery so late in the season, we’ve been scavenging. The old woody branches of Gum Cistus, the plant that grows in such richly scented, resinous profusion all over the hills, was once a common fuel, I read, so we went collecting uprooted or fallen branches of that.

On return we took a shortcut back to the house, straight down the hill, unwieldy branches in hand. It’s steep, but the horizontal plough lines make reasonable steps, and you just need to watch where you place your foot among the stones. But the driver of a JCB had been watching us. That was dangerous, he told us when we reached the house. I don’t think I mind that the driver of a JCB in our garden is excessively safety-conscious. And, should you wonder what he’s doing there: he is completing the rectangular hole for the swimming pool.

A last word, for this week, on oil. At the tourism trade fair in Lisbon last week, the mayor of Tavira gave a speech – the Algarve being the featured region of the fair. He nodded to us in the audience and said, in Portuguese, ‘Nice T-shirts.’ Afterwards he told us it was good we were there, good to keep up the pressure, but that he had it all in hand. On 9 March we read that the Assembleia Municipal of the Tavira district had passed a motion by the Socialist Party, with 24 in favour and only 2 against, to reject and condemn the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the area, both on- and offshore. This is, of course, wonderful. But is it enough? I wish I could believe it was.

photobomb2

Yours truly photobombing the Algarve stand in my protest T-shirt (this photo, of course, was taken by Husband)

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