Friends shake their heads in bewildered amusement.
And apparently busy Portuguese men in swank SUVs stop to ask “What problem?“
All of the above are common reactions to my frequent flouting of convention.
In my wandering life, I’m fastidiously committed to my fitness. In many places, evidently including the back roads of Portugal, said commitment makes me quite the odd duck. While out on my morning run, I heard the thrum of tires approaching. As usual, I stepped off the road for maximum safety. However, upon noticing me, the passing local driver screeched to a halt, backed up, lowered his window, peered over his Ray Bans, and said something unintelligible to my foreign ears. I informed him brightly that I do not speak Portuguese, to which he replied while gesturing wildly with his hands, “Uhh… Uh… What… uh… problem? What… problem?“
When I finally understood he thought I was under duress – for what other reason would I be out along the road without a vehicle?! – I dusted off my Spanish to inform him I was exercising. He looked at me as though I’d said, “I’m a magical fairy!” Then he laughed and said “Okay, Okay” while motioning like a movie character asking the bad guys not to shoot. Away he drove. On I ran.
His was not the first befuddled glance I’d received in Europe’s California. In the week leading up to my work exchange on a local farm, I’d often been eyed with mixture of naked curiosity and doubtful suspicion.
“Who is this woman gallivanting about, and what is she wearing?“
“What the hell is a pedestrian doing on this road?“
“Did she really just walk away from her bag [at the otherwise deserted train station]?“
Luckily, I eventually found myself in the company of fellow eccentrics via an awesome HelpX posting. The rural property, recently purchased by a Dutch couple who’d originally arrived as caretakers, was full of folks willing to forego custom for the sake of authenticity.
A fire-twirling Russian immediately stole my heart with her simultaneous vehemence and easy-going manner. Her serious Hungarian boyfriend adored the owner’s Jack Russell terrier, named Gucci, and took him along on every excursion. The “better half” of the caretaker/owner couple regularly flew back to the Netherlands to work as a massage therapist. Her saavy and handsome partner in crime, a former negotiator turned farmer, worked capably all day and generously shared red wine all night.
On a few mornings, the first sound I heard was Obama’s voice. Not the U.S. President. The grey tabby cat. Who, by the way, got along famously with “the barking carpet” – a giant, geriatric lady-dog who’d come with the farm.
After a morning wander among the fascinating cork trees, I choose my daily farm tasks from the ready and endless supply. The cooing hoots of doves lasted until the sun began to bake the ground. I welcomed the cool, muddy splashes as I repeatedly swung my hoe to clear out several hundred yards of irrigation ditches.
I found the teepee, where I’d slept on the first night, sorely lacking in the access department. So, I cobbled together a set of stairs from the eucalyptus slabs milled on the property. In Portugal’s dry countryside, the Australian tree flourishes to the detriment of native plants. Land-owners are quick to clear the fast-growing, water-hogging timber.
I also cleaned up prolific olive flowers, dug post holes, sorted half a stack of lumber, built bridges, and did anything I could find that needed doing. The orchard provided ready mid-morning snacks in the form of peaches and oranges.
I learned from my hosts that, regardless of ownership, it’s illegal for any unlicensed person to harvest cork from the cork trees! Absolutely true. Why? Economics. Portugal produces half of the world’s cork, providing work for 16,000 people. Supposedly the penalties for self-harvesting are tough enough to prevent most from trying to circumvent the system.
The trees at various stages of harvest made for a fascinating landscape. Often I imagined a sylvan cocktail party where everyone had forgotten their pants.
I capped off my farm revelry with a hike up a nearby peak. Everything was going swimmingly… until I tried to leave. Stay tuned for the juicy details… ♣