Atlantic Highway Blues

After a month in Baleal it feels like autumn is closing in. We decide it is time to head south. The purpose of this year isn’t to live comfortably in a modern condo for months on end, it is to find adventure dammit. We are getting fat.

We spend a couple of nights in Azen Cool House, a chic guesthouse parked incongruously in the middle of a paintball and treetop climbing course. We lie by the pool while rifle shots and the screams of the wounded echo over the matting fence. I catch Arthur and Matilda sneaking onto the range in a commando crawl like a little pair of feral war orphans looting the battlefield. They are on a mission to collect intact paintballs which they will later fire at various (inappropriate) targets with Arthur’s catapult.

Arthur is below the minimum height to go climbing, but there is a slack line, archery and a giant basement rumpus room where he expends some of his considerable energy on the punch bag. I get the gloves on and spar with him for a while. He is getting worryingly strong now, all muscle and sinew, and I am feeling old today. My injured shoulder snags when I threw a left hook. I manage to land a couple of good blows anyway to give him a message then I slink off, feeling like the old grey alpha wolf who knows that his days at the top are numbered.

We eat a Sunday fish lunch in a quiet restaurant on the cliffs by Praia Magoito. I don’t have cash to pay the bill so the proprietor gives me a lift up the hill to the nearest bank. As we drive he tells me a sad tale of empty tables and rising costs; of fine sea bream thrown away uneaten. This place would have been packed on any Sunday last year he says, indicating the empty square. All his family members are working free shifts now to get the restaurant through the crisis. I think of all the melancholy restauranteurs up and down Europe at this very moment, standing in empty dining rooms, polishing glasses perhaps or twisting napkins in their hands as they look out on silent streets and forlorn town squares. Johnny Cash growls a soundtrack to my reverie: There’s nothing short of dying, that’s half as lonesome as the sound, of the sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning coming down…

Next day we move on to Costa Caparica and stay in a graffiti covered hostel where local kids come to smoke weed and play banging Detroit techno in the garage. It is in the sketchy end of town and we are advised to completely empty our car, which is a total ball-ache, particularly as we are only staying for one night.

We take our skateboards down to the boardwalk. It is a public holiday (Republic day!) and sunny. The world is out on promenade. There are Lego apartment blocks that loom over the esplanade and in the distance we can see the misty silhouette of abandoned fairground machinery. There are bars and restaurants made from shipping containers placed up and down the seafront, so we mooch for a couple of hours then try to get dinner, but everything mysteriously shuts down around seven. There is only one place left open and the waitress there is so incompetent that we give up and walk out after half an hour of trying to catch her attention. We find ourselves some dinner eventually and then get the kids hot churros as a treat. We go back to our shared room in the hostel and watch Twins, getting slightly stoned on recycled marijuana smoke.

At three in the morning Menna’s godfather dies after a long illness. For perhaps an hour she paces around our room, whispering to family members in the darkness. She spends most of the morning in tears.

Arthur and I go for a surf before breakfast and I have two collisions with the same girl. The first time I go left on an indifferent wave and she takes a right, so we meet in the middle. No harm is done but ten minutes later I am paddling out through the set and she wipes out right in front of me, gets rolled in the barrel and her board (a rather elegant wooden single-fin) comes flying at me. I roll to avoid it and it smashes down just where my head had been, and the fin sinks deep into my deck. She has about a second to make an apology before we both get hit by the next wave and then a few more after that. I am left with an ugly axe wound right in the centre of my brand new surfboard and have to grumpily paddle back to shore.

Menna is sad, I am grumpy and the kids take the brunt of it. I grill Arthur mercilessly on syntax in a café-based homeschool session and Menna and Matilda both end their lesson sobbing. We head back to the hostel to pack, parking our car outside on the narrow street so I can load it. Occasionally other cars arrive and they mount up onto the pavement to inch past, until the driver of a Citroen Picasso decides he doesn’t want to do this, and instead honks me to move. I haven’t got the surfboards strapped down yet and I gesture for him to squeeze past, but no, he really doesn’t fancy it. I point again and offer to direct. He refuses. We argue and I call him a shit driver. I hop in the car and reverse up in order to tuck in further and I end up hitting him. ‘Now who is the shit driver?’ he asks me as he rings his insurance company. He possesses a far better command of English than I had credited him for.

We catch up with an old friend in Melides for lunch. This means we have to put our calamities behind us and crank up the smiles.  Joe has a beautiful little house up in the hills and a brand new kitten that a local bartender left on his doorstep last night.  He plans to open up a yoga retreat soon on his land, or a standup-paddle rental bar in the local town. Or both. Once the bank comes through with the funding that is. Joe is an entrepreneurial type but it’s a tough time to be launching a small business in this environment. I remember that ghostly cohort of sad restauranteurs and wish him luck.

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