Journal reflections: Portugal and the Rota Vicentina

Photo by the Grump. Portugal, March 2017.

Having no travels to go on other than to the dentist or the supermarket, I am occasionally flicking back through the past, jealous of the sunshine that once pinched my skin. I have kept a journal for many years and I vary in what fascinates me enough to be worth writing about. On my walk in Portugal along the Rota Vicentina with the Grump for company, it’s clear that there was one thing on my mind: food.

These extracts are taken from my journal covering March 2017. They begin early into our trip when I still had faith that the Grump knew how to navigate. He’s an excellent walking partner as he’s always willing to carry more than 50% of the weight, is willing to walk at my slow and steady plod and tolerates me even when my feet hurt and I’m blaming him for everything going wrong. He’s also much more organized than I am.

Italics are my commentary.

Breakfast was very enjoyable

… bread, ham, tomato chutney and apricot jam. I presume I didn’t consume the jam and the chutney together. The coffee machine provided a little challenge but a kindly lady provided assistance and I had both an americano and an espresso, making up for the previous day’s lack of coffee. Today I would be more adept at the coffee machine, I have learnt a few tricks over the last four years. I would also be better prepared; how did I get myself into a situation where I didn’t have coffee for a whole day?

It is wonderful to be surrounded by green

We debate the benefits of being out here in the open in contrast to the grey city and its pollution. I bite my tongue and try to say: The environment which surrounds you is your own choice. Sometimes my tongue becomes quite sore. I eye-roll too. With age, you might have thought I’d grow more tolerant of the human tendency to ‘gruntle’ along rather than act. I haven’t.

Walking along the irrigation channels. Don’t fall! Portugal, March 2017.

The evening is recorded in food

Salad, bread, olives, bread, pate. Beef, rice, grilled pineapple, black beans and homemade vegetable crisps. But the account is written as a backwards glance the next day during a breakfast of a croissant and a half, coffee and orange juice. In the village, nobody seems to have realised that it is morning. The shops have not yet opened. Time wanders free, only occasionally called to attention by the chime of the bells in the church tower. Maybe we should have asked for toast. The lady sitting near us has toast and a latte or something similar. Although the croissants were brioche, not pastry. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a proper lunch in Rogil.

Rogil doesn’t fulfil all my desires

… a long, straight and uninspiring street. We bought bread, ham, fruit and a replacement packet of biscuits since I’d almost finished the packet I’d bought in Faro. No doubt this is a true use of the singular pronoun and it was I, not we, who ate all the biscuits. Normally I’m reasonably controlled about my diet, but when I’m walking I tend to simply eat. If pudding is on offer, chances are that I’ll want it.

The way out of Rogil continues along the irrigation channel and so we stepped up from the path into a crop of pine trees and sat ourselves down on a trunk of a fallen (or felled) tree to make and eat our sandwiches. We’d upped the quantity to three each which was probably a good thing seeing as how long it was before we got to the hostel.

Cows. And what’s going on with that cloud? Portugal, March 2017.

From Rogil we walk to Aljezur

You might think that this meant that I ate nothing until I reached the hostel, but no. In Aljezur, I had a sweet potato and coconut roll. Somewhat like a jam roly-poly. And I drink coffee and we visit a supermarket. Then we took a walk up to the castle to admire the view before finally setting off to Arrifana at 4 pm.

At this point, it’s worth pausing because the map and the address for the evening’s accommodation didn’t all add up and things got a little stressful…

Portugal’s stunning coastline. March 2017

Anecdotes and advent calendars

Winter, Yorkshire, 2021

I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.

As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.

His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.

Sometimes though a section sets off a spark

In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.

“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”

The following day, I went to her house.

The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.

“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”

Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River

Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.

I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.

The Midget got married

Wild rose, Asolo, Italy. May 2018.

The Midget got married so she and the Blacksmith may now collectively be known as the Siblings.

And these dear siblings of mine are all adorably in love and what with the house smelling of roses and raspberry and white-chocolate cheesecake, they had a most perfect little wedding. The Siblings have a grin that could swallow the world. The clouds and the rain couldn’t compete. The sun tried its best to, and so summer finally turned up, but nothing could beat the Sibling’s smile.

Understandably I’ve been busy doing hair (the smaller sibling’s) and sewing because the Father wanted a tie to match his new waistcoat and so presented me with the material and made his request and smiled and being a dutiful daughter what could I do but clamber back into the loft, find the machine and learn how to make one. Back into the loft I say because I’d only just put the beast away – so much bunting.

The midget-sized sibling wanted me to plait her hair and so I did in a thousand plaits with handmade paper roses, long blue ribbons and my mother’s headdress. The one worn many years ago, before I was born, when she and the Father said their vows to each other.

And the Midget was beautiful and ever so elegant and managed to be entirely herself even though I played with her like a doll and she even let me put mascara near her bright blue eyes. She was pandering to me, but it’s not often that I get to play such games. I painted her toenails and promptly stood on her feet. We never mastered this hair and make-up thing like other girls do. I remember watching another bridal prep – one where I took the photos – and there were makeup artists and false lashes and trays of paints and an expertise I couldn’t understand. I did the Midget’s make-up the same as I do my own, and I did my own in the same as I do any other day and she looked like the Midget and I looked like me.

The Little Mermaid said she’d prefer to have lots of beautiful clothes rather than lots of beautiful make-up. I told her I’d rather a plane ticket and good food with friends. A dear friend of the Siblings and I fell into a conversation about ceviche and I told her I’d take her out for dinner the other side of the world and buy her a pisco sour. It’s a good plan.

But even before the bubbles and chinking glasses, the wedding was most definitely an adventure. Planned and re-planned, with risk assessments and hand sanitiser and masks and the Tall Aunty alert system – the fastest pandemic news source on the planet. And yet despite the world being in chaos around them, never knowing what would be in the next call from the registry office, the Siblings seemed to keep it in perspective and whilst the Mother negotiated and renegotiated with the catering, the Midget thought and talked about the adventure that would follow – being married.

So in my mind, the Siblings deserve every milli-second of their joy because they’ve worked out that if you want a relationship to work, you work at it. That love isn’t simply a game of infatuation but an act of warrior like bravery. That it’s an act from the heart of pure and unfaltering courage. That, as a wise man once said to me, the wedding is nice, but it’s the marriage that counts.

The uninvited guest

Salt lagoon near San Pedro de Atacama.
This is the desert.
January 2020

We had a visitor to the house. Honestly, it really wasn’t intentional.

You see, I live in a small bungalow with a large German Shepherd. This works out surprisingly well most of the time. He’s a very good-natured dog, however, the other day, as my housemate and I were eating our lunch, we glanced out the window and saw that next-door’s cat was in our garden.

The dog peered down at it, calmly with an air of curiosity.

Now, you should know that this cat is not the brightest kitten in the litter. The other day it entered the garden and spent a long time mewing before we realised it didn’t know how to get home and dropped it back over the fence into next-door’s yard. Luckily, that time the dog was in the house and fast asleep.

This time we weren’t so lucky. This time we watched as the not-so-intelligent cat took a swipe at the rather-large dog’s maw.

The dog registered the threat as hostile and acted as a large German Shepherd in Chile is supposed to. He gave chase.

But of course, the stupid cat still had no idea how to get out of the garden.

So, the dog chased the cat, my housemate chased the dog and I did the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances: I grabbed the cat.

If I could have, I would have dropped it safely over the fence, but the cat fought against me (I have the scars to prove it) and I dropped the cat before I reached the fence. At which point the cat darted past the dog straight into the house, I followed, slamming the door behind me, putting myself in the house with the cat, leaving the manic dog barking in the garden with my housemate.

Now the cat was under a bed, with no intention of coming out.

The game became one of waiting. I cleaned up my wounds and put plasters where the blood still flowed, then, cursing the cat, we finished our lunch.

Eventually, of course, the cat had to come out, and when it did, I was ready. I pounced. Got it. My housemate rushed to trap the dog elsewhere and I gently deposited the cat, over the fence, into next door’s garden.

So to anyone who’s asking, no, I’m not finding this quarantine boring.

Supermarket shopping and flamingos

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know ( and I’ll put you in contact with my teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

Andean flamingos. Highly relevant to the story I promise.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

When my friend and colleague, the other language assistant in the city, flew back to England, she left me some curry paste. She explained that all I had to do was add coconut milk and I’d have my curry sauce. Which would have been fine, but I had no tins of coconut milk.

Which meant that I was heading out to go to the supermarket

Now I know we are all supposed to go to the supermarket alone, but I took Lady Patricia with me. Virtually. Physically, she was actually a quarter of the way around the world, safely snug in her apartment with a warm cup of tea.

But together we walked through my very quiet suburb, there was nobody about except a police car with two chaps, and an army truck with six soldiers (not-wearing masks, not 1.5 metres apart), but otherwise barely anyone. Luckily nobody seemed in a shooting mood at 9 am on a sunny Saturday morning so all was well.*

As we neared the supermarket though I noticed a long queue

There was also a long line of cars.

“So, Lady Patricia,” I explained. “There’s a long line of people here, some in masks, some with gloves, some really not seemingly with no idea of appropriate distancing, some risking getting run over in their enthusiasm to stay apart. Everyone looks rather serious.”

And my fellow shoppers did look rather serious. They looked almost panicked. I was aware that my grinning face and occasional spurts of laughter were a little out of place. Not to mention the fact that I was talking loudly and joyfully in a language that most people here do not understand.

I gleefully announced to Lady Patricia that we were being led in

I was going to be allowed to touch a trolley. I thanked the security guard who seemed entirely taken aback by the gesture. His face contorted like he wasn’t quite sure if he had permission to smile back. I think he was trying not to lose count of ho many shoppers her had allowed in.

Lady Patricia mistakenly thought we were in the supermarket. I explained no. The queue before had been to enter the supermarket grounds. This was the second queue: the queue for re-education and actual entry into the supermarket.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

I explained that there was a man with a megaphone

He was playing a special coronavirus recording to different parts of the queue. Lady Patricia said she could hear it but she only caught the end of the reel. That, I said, was the number to call if you have any problems. The bit she missed was on handwashing, the symptoms of the virus and the correct way to behave in the supermarket, how we must remain 1.5 metres apart from one another.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

Other men, dressed in black, wandered up and down the line flapping their hands at us making us all space ourselves out to the allocated social distancing standard. Sometimes it’s 2 metres. Sometimes in the foreign press, its 6ft. In the supermarket, it’s a trolley length and a bit.

Then we waited

I explained how I felt reassured by the multitude of security guards. Lady Patricia thought I meant because nobody was likely to violently loot the supermarket. I said no. And explained that security men in jobs are men in jobs which is helpful because it means that they are people getting paid. My greatest fear is the number of very desperate people there are going to be here in Chile as the economic situation worsens.

We waited to sanitise our hands and enter the supermarket

And I explained the requirements for our shopping trip. First that we were going to buy coconut milk, second lactose-free milk (because it’s always a good idea to stock up on milk), third, chicken for the curry, and fourth knickers.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

We said a happy ‘Gracias’ to the woman guarding the hand sanitiser. Her face did that same contorting thing. And then headed to the clothes department. I admitted to Lady Patricia that all this lining up and being counted made me want to rebel and go charging down the aisles with my trolley. I didn’t. I refrained. But I wanted to.

Normally I wouldn’t buy my clothes from the supermarket, but since the mall was closed and Chile is a bit behind on the whole online shopping idea, I didn’t have much of a choice.

A Chilean flamingo.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

You see, when I packed for Valparaiso, I had lots of knickers

In Peru I had plenty. In Torres del Paine I hand-washed the same few pairs, and I didn’t have to worry when I was in the countryside near Santiago because there too, I seemed to have enough. However, on moving back into my room in March I discovered that a number of items of underwear and all my trainer socks had somewhere, in some country, disappeared. Now we were in a crisis situation.

The shop’s offering wasn’t exactly exciting, but the more I explained the different designs to Lady Patricia, the more we giggled. The shop assistants huddled together and avoided looking.

After much deliberation, I chose six pairs of not very exciting knickers, except for Lady Patricia’s top choice: a pair covered in pictures of pink flamingos.

Just to prove I also saw flamingos…
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020

I wheeled my shopping through to the checkout, loaded my knickers and my coconut milk onto the revolving counter. The lady manning the checkout re-sanitised her hands.

I said, “Gracias.”

And to my great delight, she smiled back, contortion free!

*It was probably entirely a coincidence that I saw both the police and the army within 5 minutes of each other. When I ran along the beach Sunday evening as the sun was setting in the most beautiful orange glow, there were no officials around to reprimand the few gathering groups…

“Catherine, the cow is in the garden.”

Some well-behaved calves between Malham Cove and Malham Tarn. Keep scrolling to see ‘the cow’.
North Yorkshire, July 2019.

For many years, I considered cows to be kind of docile, boring creatures. They lacked the elegance of horses. They were scarier to meet in a field than sheep. However, I consider myself educated. According to the radio the other day, they like opera. According to a nature-loving friend, they also exhibit a great deal of curiosity.

So long as you don’t spook them.

The cow on the mind of everyone here is called Lionel

This is not what his owner calls him, but it’s the name I have given him, now we have become close-acquaintances. He’s a beautiful cow (although you could argue he’s not a cow at all, being as he’s a boy). He has a strong, muscular build and satin-like shiny black fur.

For one reason or another, the electric fence, which keeps Lionel and his buddies in the field opposite our house, stopped functioning. I blame Lionel. The father says it’s because one of the posts has snapped.

Whatever the cause, the wire no longer curbs Lionel’s curiosity, and as such, the other day he discovered himself free to adventure.

First, he investigated the river at the bottom of his field

It’s a shallow stream. Part of the river is where Lionel and his mates drink. They appear at the top of the hill and gallop down with such heavy footing I’m forced to take on a new respect for the strength of their legs. It’s a steep hill, the cows descend without fear, throwing their entire bulk forward. To my eyes, it looks as impossible that they will make it to the bottom of the hill without snapping a foreleg as it looks reasonable for a plane to fly.

Lionel leads the troops.

So, although it was a new section of the river to investigate, it wasn’t enough to sate his curiosity.

At this point, he climbed up the other side of the bank

He did not understand the Mother owns this land and he is not welcome.

The Mother said, “Catherine, there’s a cow by our fence.”

I said, “Dear cow, you are not welcome here, this is my Mother’s garden, please go away.”

Lionel scratched his head against a small bush, taking out the bush. Once the bush had been destroyed though, he did decide to return to his field.

Being naive, I said, “Let’s call him Lionel.”

I took his photo and sent it to the Father and considered it all quite jolly.

The next morning, I was waking up when the Mother shouted at me

“Catherine, the cow is in the garden.”

Now I wasn’t a witness to the incident

Lionel had made yet another excursion to our side of the river and somehow moved through the fence into our garden. I cannot quite work out how this occurred, as enough of the fence was left standing that Lionel now found himself trapped in our garden.
Not one to leave the Mother being distressed without immediate assistance, I ran outside in my dressing-gown. A couple of friends who were staying the weekend were prancing around talking to Lionel. Someone closed the gate to the road.

The fence was going to prove a problem

My parents are fans of doing a proper quality job when they do something and the fence, I believe, is supposed to outlast them. It wasn’t designed to be taken apart by me in my dressing-gown on a Friday morning.

As we were trying to create an escape route for Lionel, ward him away from the fruit trees and gooseberry bushes and keep him well clear of the greenhouse, he started getting a bit agitated. I didn’t fancy our chances against a distressed cow. The Mother called every possible place we could think of to get help with a cow problem, but nowhere had a phone line open before 9 am.
Nine o’clock seemed a long way away.

Lionel started to experience his first travel woes

And his pals, like all good friends, wanted to provide support. Before we knew it more cows were crossing the river and climbing the steep and dangerous bank to get to Lionel.

They didn’t want to climb the precarious bank but, out of loyalty, they would. These cows couldn’t, however, navigate through a fence.

My visitors and Lionel continued to prance around the garden, the Mother shut herself in the house and I got dressed.

Somehow, the fence was broken

It took a long time and left us with a further problem. We had to let Lionel out of the garden without inviting his gang in. I went through the fence and asked the cows to leave. There were a thud and a splash and, for a second, I thought a foreleg must have snapped as a large lump of cow plummeted into the stream. It didn’t.

Lionel hopped up from the drive onto the lawn and moved, with hesitation, towards the opened fence. One of my friends jolted forward and Lionel turned in panic. Adrenaline must have been flowing through the blood of both men.

“Slow down,” I said, talking to cow and man

Lionel looked at me with distrust and turned back towards the opened fence. The moment he was through another friend swung the remains of the fence back in place. From here Lionel could find his way down to the river and reconnect with his fellow cows.
Determined not to have any further cow incursions, we barricaded the fence shut with some logs and went inside for breakfast. After some time splashing around in the stream, the cows returned up the hill for theirs.

The Mother was still fuming; she is not a fan of Lionel

But I have respect for him. Curiosity is a precious skill. It’s an ability many people don’t think about strengthening. They repeat themselves in the same safe loops. They stay in their fields only heading into the river when someone else has gone there first.

Lionel, July 2019.