A trip into the Interior

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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