On April 13 2014 it will be ten years since I left the UK. Ten years since I slid off the ferry into the sunrise at Santander in my new (ten-year-old) 4 x 4 Suzuki packed with plants, boxes of teaching files and my computer from Norfolk where I had lived for nine years. Mario drove ahead of me in his old white Ford van loaded with my books (no iPads or Kindles back then) and his tools. We were on an adventure, beginning a new life. I was so excited. That is until the Suzuki blew up near Salamanca and we had no breakdown recovery. We abandoned the plants but stuffed the computer and teaching files into Mario’s van and anxiously held our breath as the bulging Ford puffed up the mountains. Hundreds of Borelli eagles spiralled above.
‘It’s all your stupid books,’ Mario said, looking down at the temperature gauge. The motor groaned as he changed down to second.
‘Oh, and what about all your tools,’ I snapped.
‘We need my tools to build the house.’
‘I need my books.’ I couldn’t think what for.
Not a great start but we arrived. To the rain. Then the fires. Our land had already burned in 2003 but then in that torrid summer of 2004 the parts that hadn’t burned burst into flames before turning to black and grey dust and minimalist black sculptures, the remains of trees. The fire balls and mountain-size balloons of smoke are a sight I’ll never forget.
Then began the long haul of renovating. Two and a half years and bucketfuls of cement, paint, plants and money while still teaching online courses. In the meantime the forests pushed their way back through the black and grey earth, British and German neighbours moved in, music pulsed through the mountains at night at parties, medronho flowed from hip flasks.
‘I love it here,’ I said. It felt to me like the centre of the Western Algarve and a haven for anarchists and artists.
‘It’s too remote,’ Mario said. ‘You can’t even go out for a coffee.’
I have now lived here longer than I have lived here anywhere in my life. Mario finally left me with my books (and most of his tools). I met someone else who loved travelling – and books. Paul and I travelled to Mozambique and Cuba, all over Spain and Portugal. All was well but there was one thing missing: Leo. I had never particularly liked or wanted children so it was as much a surprise to me as to everyone else when I announced I wanted a child.
Now I am lucky enough to have Leo, Chilrão no longer feels like such a centre.
‘I can’t even go out for a coffee,’ I moaned to Paul the other day on the mobile as I pushed Leo along the empty road to the waterfall.
In ten years little has changed but little for the better. Several Portuguese neighbours have died and their houses have been abandoned, many British neighbours spend more time in the UK, others are trying to sell up. Even on the coast cinemas have closed, as have many shops and businesses.
The other day I cycled my electric bike to Moinho de Agua (with Leo in the trailer) which is about 9km away. We were looking for a car but we couldn’t see one. ‘Tra-ta!’ Leo shouted, as we past an old and rusted tractor. We saw and heard no one the whole afternoon. Not even a dog. Only the wind rustled the eucalyptus trees.
Ten years ago I revelled in the absolute peace of the mountains.
‘It is too remote,’ I said to Mario later.
Time to visit England I decide. It’s been a long time for me and it will be the first time for Leo. I’m sure we will find plenty of cars and cafes there. So many that, no doubt, I will soon be glad to leave again. I plan to return to Portugal on April 12 2014, almost ten years to the day. Already I can’t wait to slide off the ferry into Spain – this time with Leo and, if all goes well, in a camper van – with breakdown recovery and this time with only an iPad.