In the caravan park in Olhaõ, we meet Mike and Joan, fellow travellers from Wales, who have a ‘Fifth Wheel’ caravan that hooks onto their 4×4. This caravan, built in Wales, has an extendable side, thus substantially widening the living space inside. Mike and Joan are very friendly, and before leaving, they invite us to come and visit them on their land near Alcoutim.
It is only after they have turned the corner that we see an orphaned pair of Crocs lying on the patch where their caravan stood….so after a few days, the Crocs lead us to a tiny village high up in the northern hills of the Algarve. We enjoy the beauty of the landscape, the very picturesque little towns of Mertola and Alcoutim, and the genuine and very friendly company of Mike and Joan, who take us to Martim Longo for their weekly swim and share not only Mike’s great beanstew but also the next day his fantastic Paella, to which we contributed two of our ‘signature salads’.
In the village, we stock up with local honey from 90 year old Maria and meet the old Shepherd and his ‘student’ Hugo.
We also meet Carla, who drives around in her van selling her own goats cheeses and high quality sausages and other meats.
Carla is keen for us to meet her daughter and converse with her, to help her with her spoken English, so we arrange to meet in the afternoon to take her daughter on a ‘language stroll’ around the village. Her daughter, Emilia, on the one hand interested to meet us, is also quite worried about what her peers might think about her walking around the village with strange looking foreigners. I think she is courageous to spend time with us – she is a shy 14 year old, but she overcomes her shyness (or maybe her mother pushed her sufficiently) and we have some fun time asking questions, miming answers, or looking up words in the dictionary as we find out about her village and her life here.
Carla invites us to come to her house for dinner, and we meet the rest of the family. Both Carla and her husband Manuel studied agro-engineering, but her husband prefers to work with his hands, working in the fields, going hunting, and also making beautiful wood carvings for his family – anything from lamp shades to jewellery. Seeing his work, we are very much reminded of Pepe. Manuel says ‘I like working, and I love the work I do’. Both he and Carla radiate passion for what they are doing, and so does their 21 year old son who is sports mad. Carla feels passionate about her children. She wants them to experience the wider world, and this is why she wanted them to meet us, to broaden their minds, to meet people from another culture, another way of living. She is very open to us, inviting us into her beautiful large house on top of the highest hill in the region, not holding back at all. Yet it’s not an indiscriminate openness – her house has a heavy bar-lock to keep out burglars, and the dogs are the kind one wouldn’t want to meet without their owner being around to control them.
The next day, Carla comes to meet us once more, and this time, she speaks about her dreams, her ambitions, her toils and troubles running about 5 full time jobs at once. She also talks about the state of this region and how difficult it is to make people realize they need to care for the environment, not use indiscriminate amounts of fertilisers and pesticides. Then the conversation turns to how her mother fought for her daughters to be allowed to go to University against their father’s will, and that it was only possible once the father had died (when her older sister was 18). Her brothers had no interest in studies, but the two sisters struck out, one becoming a lawyer and the other an engineer. She talks about how there is no equality between men and women here, and that it is a fight to fulfill one’s dreams as a woman; having to balance a career with raising children, making and selling home produce to supplement income, running a household, looking after parents, etc. She is a very busy and very strong woman, with a lot of passionate ideas and the drive to make many of them come true. And she dreams of one day being able to let go of some of them too, to go travelling like we do, to breathe out and to slow down…
When we part, we all have tears in our eyes – we feel we have touched each other’s lives at the heart.
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From Huelva, we loop our way up north one hour and back into Portugal. The difference between the countries is striking: On the Portuguese side, lots of nooks and crannies, many smallholdings; beehives made from large chunks of cork oak bark, a few sheep here and there, some olive trees, some oranges, mandarins, clementines, lemons, figs and many almond trees, all intermixed and dotted about the landscape.Every tree looks different from the next and some have both oranges and lemons on one tree.
On the Spanish side we come across large industrial buildings and endless monocultures of oranges; rows upon rows, fields upon fields of the same type and size. If there is a building every now and then, it’s a big metal barn with a name like ‘YourFruit’, indicating multinational business. This is the stuff that reaches the shelves of our big supermarkets in tetra packs, I guess….After a while, the land slowly changes to scrub- land for as far as they eye can see. The land looks very tired, worn out – has this been a monoculture area before, now discarded, bereft of any nutrients? Not even weeds grow here anymore. We drive through miles and miles of it, stunned into shocked silence.
In a little town in the middle of nowhere, we stop for fuel. On the other side of the road are half a dozen scraggy horses, and a couple of tarpaulins pitched over some hay bales housing a large family of gypsies. Frank, always eager to make contact, would like to meet them. I’m a little more cautious, having had some fairly sharp interactions with Gypsies before. Anyway, we have a few things that we don’t need, namely cooking utensils from the previous owner of our mobile home, and armed with those plus some home made jam, we approach the group.
Despite me going about 20 paces ahead of Frank, smiling and holding out our gifts, the gypsies first tell us to go away. Then they ask what do we want. When we assure them that we don’t want anything but have some things they might like, they are a little more friendly but still very suspicious. Our gifts are taken and scrutinised, the jam opened and sniffed. Then the tone changes and they want money from us. The children start crying as if on command, and stories of starvation and poverty hail down on us in Spanish, combined with a slightly threatening stance from the two teenage sons who obviously are here to protect the ‘tribe’ while the elders are away working. Within a minute, the tone gets quite aggressive, and we turn to leave, half expecting the boys to throw the jam after us. We are left to go in peace though, thank god. It leaves us a bit shaken, and we continue on our journey, only relaxing once we have crossed back into Portugal.
I wonder afterwards how many taboos we’d crossed by approaching them in this way, without introduction from one of their people, on their territory, and while the men were away.
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