The Other Side of Paradise

he sky is such a brilliant blue it hurts. I squint my eyes. The top of the very steep road before me is hidden by a bend that leads past rubber stamped villas on one side and arid scrubland on the other to a place beyond – an image I’ve clung to in my mind for a very long time. That image was never one thing, nor was it ever the same. But in whatever form, it provided a mental sanctuary where I could retreat during the long winter nights of gloom when the north becomes ever colder and forbidding and the spirit withers on the vine like a desiccated flower. Then, instead of demons I would dream of that which lies beyond the hill I’m about to ascend.

It’s a long huff up as I’m not used to such rigorous exercise in pancake-flat East Anglia. But my heart pounds not only from exertion, there’s a tingling sense of anticipation as well. Half way along I stop to catch my breath, turn and look back down to where I started. Below the sea is emerald blue compared to the sky that’s blinding white in contrast.

The heat of the day is yet upon us but the brightness bodes ill for those pale of skin or shy of the midday sun. I am both – or was just a week ago. Now that my skin has slightly bronzed, my wide-brimmed hat pulled down snugly over my head, my water supply compressed in a portable container, I can attempt this long awaited foray into the bowels of summer to what beckons beyond – a journey I’ve taken so often in my head and in body those many years before.
When did I first come? 1983 or 84? How long has it been since I last was here? I try to calculate the years – seven, eight, nine? I finally give up – the days, weeks, months have all become a blur. It’s been a while – too long a while. It’s been forever it seems. But it’s all so familiar – so much the same. It could have been yesterday. Yet it’s today. It’s now. It’s then. It’s the past, the present and future rolled up in a bun detached from clocks or the officiousness of a calendar.

I continue my climb along the road that once was dirt and pebbles but now is freshly paved with blackstuff. Last time I came there was a neat dividing line between the newly constructed buildings at the wind-swept peak and the winding road that leads from there to the village of Figueira. The paving of the road followed the steady march of replicant housing. As villa after villa cloned their way up the side of the hill, so did the tarmac. But at the peak of the hill, at the far outpost of the village where I had lost more than one hat in a sudden windy gust, the tarmac stopped abruptly.

That was then. Now the road is covered in a jet black skin as far as the eye can wander, boding ill for things to come. And on either side, narrow walkways for pedestrians even though I’m the only one.

There is a double edge to the paving of the road, of course. In the past, gravel and pot holes made this back door route a less desirable entry into the village nestled precariously below than the main drive leading from the highway – itself a corkscrew of wild curves that gave novice passengers a fright when taking their first kamikaze bus ride down. There were only a limited number of foolhardy souls who took the alternative way in (proving they cared nothing for the undercarriage of their car). For the rare pedestrians who hiked between the gully and the roadbed, the venture was fraught with danger both to limbs, from hurtling rocks, and lungs from waves of dust and sediment coughed up in the wake of relentless vehicles determined to take this ‘shortcut’ to the western edge of Salema. The dust and flying pebbles spat up by passing lorries going way too fast on a road that was never meant for anything but mules and oxen was generated by a desire simply to avoid the perennial traffic jam in the central plaza of this tiny village that expanded in size exponentially in the arid heat of summer when tourists flocked like snow geese swooping down to some salubrious migratory shelter.

Certainly the newly paved road and the adjoining promenades were safer and cleaner and easier to navigate than the old pothole laden byway. But the trade-off was clear: tarmac meant even more villas. Build a road and they will come. Build a better road and they will come with gold and diamonds.

It was all a far cry from the early years when I had stumbled upon this little fishing village before the Algarve had been sold, stock and barrel, to the international moneymen. But even then there was a sense that change was in the air. I remember in the early 80s driving down from Lisbon, picking up a couple of young hitchhikers – university students – who told me the Algarve wasn’t for them as it was far too expensive, while I saw it as a cheap retreat – far cheaper than Holland, France or Germany. But they were convinced their time would come. And for those university educated kids who were willing to buy into the new model Europe, it certainly did.

Back then the Algarve west of Lagos was still undeveloped. Salema was a working fishing village with a few scattered English ex-pats and a sprinkling of Germans, French and Scandinavians. At the top of the hill was a campsite run by a Dutch family providing a safe haven for the naturists who still found it difficult to parade themselves naked on the beach since the Church frowned on such behaviour as letting one’s genitalia flap unencumbered in the wind. Salema, however, had no church – a fact that immediately endeared this tiny village to me. That, along with the annual festival organised by the communist opposition that survived the Salazar years, made it – in my eyes at least – a sweet little anachronism running delightfully counter to the bureaucratic dictates of a European Union cranking out a boxy, homogenous culture that had little time for peasants who farmed the sea or tilled the soil.

I think of this as I continue my walk downwards, away from the village I had come each summer for so many years. The land is dry but the soil amazingly fertile. Cactus, aloe, olives, almonds and fragrant herbs abound. But the undulant vista reminds me of the Sierra foothills in California, what we called ‘high chaparral’. Here they call it the matos, a scrubland of woody shrubs and scratchy bushes, a mixture of evergreen and dusty browns; wheat-coloured stalks daubed with the brashly bright yellows and reds from impish wild flowers.

Looking out in the distance, I already feel a sense of calm and serenity. For there is nothing to disturb the eye. No intrusive signs of human life – unless one looks closer, that is. The concrete posts at first just seem like limbless trees dotting the scrubby landscape. It takes a while to see the sagging wire that connects them as the brightness of the sun blends everything together into a composite of natural unity. To give purpose and function to shape needs the side of my brain that I am trying to ignore. But to no avail – I am not yet at such a state of serenity. That blessed moment comes later, when I can cease to think and simply become part of all that surrounds me.
However, now I am forced to concede that the awkward shape atop the hill, that line of limbless tress (which suddenly appears to me as hungry concrete soldiers stoically carrying their burden through the thicket of tumbling thistle) leads up to a mast of some sort – most likely there to relay sounds and images from another world.

When I first came to Salema, in the days when it was still a sleepy fishing village, the valley was cut off from electromagnetic signals of the sort that’s used for mobile phones. That alone defined the nature of the place and created a self-selecting community of those who revelled in the idea of disconnection or else, not knowing what they were missing, didn’t really care. The future, though, has a way of catching up with the past and creating an alternative present. Now you find grey-suited men (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course – they wear designer swimming costumes) walking down the beach, endlessly chatting with their office. They do it because they can, not because they want to. There was a wonderful old guy I met years ago who had retired from his New York brokerage and had given up all his fine accoutrements, his plush Manhattan pad, fancy-shmancy car, dinners at overpriced restaurants, for a house on a hill overlooking the sea and a tattered book on Yoga. One day he introduced me to a friend, a young colleague – former colleague, that is – who had come for a brief visit. Nathan, I think his name was. Anyway, I would see Nathan walking up and down the beach in the morning looking like a farmhouse rooster who had overslept and hadn’t seen the foxes. His eyes were bulging, his muscles twitched. He was, as they say in New York, buzzed out. But as the days went on, his body language shifted. His hand – the one that seemed lost without a telephone – had stopped jittering. His shoulders became gently rounded instead of fiercely squared and the muscles of his face had changed to sculpted putty rather than chiselled granite. By the end of the week he looked almost human, albeit with crimson cheeks branded from the hot-iron sun.

The line of concrete soldiers transporting their strange fruit up a lonely hill, the mast which rises like an ugly carbuncle from the ancient soil, preclude that curative power which saved a man like Nathan, if only momentarily. But those hills have seen many things in the millennia of their formation and they will see more than I can ever imagine when our brief time has expired and becomes an invisible dot in the eternal history of water, air, earth and fire.

The slope of the hill means the valley where I’m headed still is hidden. It’s a gentle gradient downward and I know from past ventures that soon a wonderful vista will emerge in full glory. But not yet; now I am still nestled in the bosom of this rolling plateau, following the path laid out for me by the ancients who once trod these fields in search of something now forgotten. Stone ruins, just the hint of what was once a shelter or a hut abandoned a thousand years ago or only yesterday, attest to nothing more than people stayed here once, not when or who.

Unlike the asphalt road, the pavement I tread is of a different time even though the stonework was recently completed. It stretches out before me, on either side of the tarmac, like the bright lacy fringe of a dirty black ribbon – curiously bizarre and delightfully unexpected. It follows the road from top to bottom, at least a mile in length, each stone hand selected and hand lain by gristly, underpaid, chain-smoking artisans. And I think to myself, where else in Europe would this happen? Who has the time or the money to construct such an intricate sidewalk that meanders so far and is used by essentially no one?

A bit further along the road I come to a small grove of bamboo, thick and lush, its giant stalks swaying harmoniously in the wind as if transmitting some strange celestial rhythm. Huddled together, this succulent copse is an oasis in the dusty landscape: the pointy leaves moist with verdant dew. I’ve made it a habit to stop here at this shady spot, halfway down, as it’s a good place to cool off and have a drink. But it’s also part of a ritual I’ve enacted over the year. I take out my knife and choosing a stalk for its strength and ram-rod straightness, I cut it down and then methodically peel off green layers of skin till the smooth wood is exposed to the sun where it will very soon become the colour of ‘bamboo’, that mix of ivory and yellowish beige I think of as from the Buddhist Orient. But it’s also part of a special Portuguese Zen, I suspect, and, testing the resilience of my new walking stick, I continue my trek downward.

A final bend in the road and the hillside opens up to a grand vista before me, the valley below and the distant rise beyond. My view is unimpeded now; I can see east, west, north and, if I turn again on my heels, south. In the far distance, on the summit of the neighbouring hills, a row of giant turbines, great propellers churned by the ever present wind, another gift from the gods who bestow their miracles from the blessed sea. Are they ugly? Yes. But better than the upside-down conical shape of a nuclear power station. Are they needed? Only if those splats of housing below keep oozing like cancerous amoebas devouring the valley and the hillsides in a deadly process of metastasis.

From my vantage point I can see the bottom of the road where the backdoor drive I’m on empties into the loop that spins off the highway connecting Lagos to Sagres and Point St. Vincent, the south westerly tip of Europe, which the Germans called ‘the end of the world’. The loop – a little two lane detour that cuts through the edge of Parque de Floresta nature reserve – services the ancient village of Figueira whose narrow, labyrinthine streets are sheltered snugly in the valley below.

At the very foot of the hill, where I’ll reach in a few minutes, there’s an old Moorish villa that has been curiously vacant ever since I first made this trek so long ago. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, both grand and unassuming as only the Moors could accomplish (comfort, grace and harmony being admired as long as such wealth wasn’t flaunted, detracting from the worship of Allah whose teaching forbade the kind of in-your-face opulence conquistadors saw as their rightful due).
Each time I come, I’m sure that this delightful building behind its wall of musical curves will have found itself inhabited and alive, wafting of fragrant herbs and spices, as must once have emanated from its charming domes and chimney pots. But, alas, each year is the same. As I reach the bottom of the road, full of expectation, I am greeted with a frontage of boarded-up windows and doors. Yet it’s not dilapidated; it’s not gone into the throws of decline where what once was grand and beautiful is now a skeleton of its former incarnation – just a painful shadow that will soon be nothing more than a vapid memory in the minds of those who, themselves, exist on borrowed time. No, this place is here in all its former glory despite the boarding up of doors and windows. The façade is freshly painted, the garden well tended with a graceful fountain ready to flow with waters of scented jasmine. Even the tile-work mural adjoining the minaret-like central column depicting two peacocks and a fruit tree, appears to have been scrubbed and polished. And the allotment of fertile red earth on the side, well-tended vegetables and vines lovingly rendered in perfect rows and projecting that sense of perspective the Muslim world bestowed upon the lands of the north, speaks of virtual occupancy. Yet the only sound to be heard from within the whitewashed walls is the wind chimes that clatter like noisy scarecrows.

As I reach the bottom of the hill I see the Lagos bus arrive. A few people waiting in the shade of the shelter just a dogleg down the loop climb aboard. No one gets off. Scattered in the shade are rows of pensioners, leathery faces cured brown by blistering skies, cotton caps stained from sweated brows, backs eternally bent from ceaseless labouring, limbs gnarled like ancient boughs. They sit on portable folding chairs waiting and watching with stoic eyes nothing and no one. I greet them like old friends. ‘Ola,’ I say. “Ola,’ they reply and nod their heads.

Next to the bus stop there is a boulder, roughly hewn, with a plaque that commemorates a night – the 4th of May, 1670 – when, according to legend the village was attacked by Moorish pirates. A fierce battle was waged nearby the sea. The Moors were defeated and Figueira was saved from being ransacked. I wonder about this curious monument, a rock, a plaque, a date, a moment in time to be commemorated, and wonder why. For surely in those many centuries the piratical ventures back and forth across the narrow waters were many. Could they be celebrating this date because it was the one time the village was actually saved from being plundered? Or was it the only time the battles were documented? And who lived here in 1670 anyway? I study the gristly faces on the elderly men seated along the edge of the road and wonder how much Moorish blood runs through their veins. On the other side of the Algarve, a twin village in North Africa, old codgers sitting on beat-up folding chairs, staring out into nowhere, must look very much the same.

I don’t enter the village across the road – its narrow streets of cobblestones, its maze of alleyways. Though often I’ve stopped at a nearby café for a cool beer or a hot coffee, this time I am anxious to move on toward my imagined destination.

At the far edge of the bus station, a dirt path leads behind the Moorish villa. On one side of the path an old stone wall, red as the earth it encloses, is crumbling into dust as it has ever since I’d first discovered this enchanted passageway. Opposite, a newish wall is plastered smooth and freshly painted pristine white. Graceful limbs of overhanging trees create an arboreal canopy, casting cool shadows on the ground. As I walk along the corridor between these converse walls merging past and future, I feel a sense of transition, like a child about to unlock a special door to the discovered world of fantasy.

From this tunnel of the mind I emerge into a field of light; I rub my eyes and then rub them again, a second time.

There is something very different here. Or is it me? Has something shifted inside my head? Everything is clear somehow, more vivid. Colours, muted as they are, seem brighter and the air more fragrant and invigorating.

Yet this is arid land I’m on. The fields before me are of straw-like grass that covers the earth like brittle hair. All along the path grows only scrub with an occasional aloe, ripe and succulent, hording its water jealously. But, in the distance, the hills grow green.

I pass a disused well inside of which a tree has taken root, its leafy branches erupting through the wire mesh that caps the top so dogs or children or late night revellers might not fall in. Just past the well, the path turns sharply westward, toward a gentle valley, still hidden from my line of view. At that point in the horizon, where the fields begin evolving into hills, the land dips down to form a bedding of a stream reborn again each winter.

A bit further down the path I can make out the lushness in the distance. The stream now might only be a trickle, but a well-stocked reservoir feeds into a network of irrigation ditches channelling water through tiny allotments that are miraculously transformed from scrubland into miniature Gardens of Eden, courtesy of the EU (whose logo of circular stars fixed in a field of blue is stamped upon a sign reminding even the occasional flies that buzz around whose butter it is that gives them their vigour).

Very soon I reach another turning where the path veers south again. I can see the irrigated valley and, beyond, a forest of bamboo. Some years back, I ventured into those woods, soon losing myself in the dense thicket of Oriental greenery where I imagined giant Pandas feasting on the tender shoots that sprouted from those willowy trees. Feeling like a wayward Hansel, I came upon a little clearing which, rather than the mythic house of gingerbread, had a simple hut chock full of provisions. No one was there but, outside, a table had been laid with plates of olives, bread and cheese.

Now, thinking back to that moment so long ago, I wonder once more how this little story would have played out had I stayed around to meet my ghostly benefactor. But, alas, I wandered off through the woodsy labyrinth before the itinerant farmer whose feast had been laid before me came back from whatever it was that called him from his dinner. I can only imagine how he looked, his toothless grin, his bottle of vinho verdi, a glass of which he would have graciously offered me. I can even taste the cigarette we would have shared after our simple meal.

But then again, most likely, he would have squinted his weathered eyes and looked at me with annoyance and suspicion. For maybe he wasn’t a farmer at all, but a smuggler who’d set up camp in this dense grove where, chances are, he would have remained hidden except for some curious trekker who’d lost his way and simply bumbled upon him.

Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that these dried-up riverbeds were used as secret highways for part-time brigands running goods bound for the black market of Salazar’s impoverished Portugal. Everyone did it then. In those days it was essential foodstuffs being carted from clandestine coves through the hills beyond. Nowadays it’s drugs run not by gangs of local peasants but foreign mafias echoing the brutal dissolution of empires to the east.

I’ve come to the point where the path runs adjacent to the creek bed. As the path narrows, gently descending into the slender valley, I see before me twin mounds, two gentle hills that beckon like Mother Earth’s welcoming bosom, and where they join at the v, a blue crest as luscious as a cool drink in the parching heat of August.

The path continues on through a wild jungle of bushes and shrubs. To my right, a small allotment is in full bloom, fed by a rusty water wheel, churning out its vital essence in squeaky turns. Where water breathes life into this fertile soil there springs a virtual cornucopia. Giant lettuces burst from the ground in uneven rows begging to be harvested; tomatoes rosy and red and erotically ripe promise an orgiastic heaven; ornate flowerings of obscenely large squash abound, all ready to be plucked, roasted and devoured; and trees heavy of limb, aching with passionate fruit, sassy as summertime, temptingly dangle their produce. I want to stick in my hand and pull out a plum but the chain link fence that surrounds this paradisical garden precludes it. So I satisfy myself picking wild blackberries from the prickly bushes that grow free and let them linger in my mouth under a shady olive tree.

Now I am truly here in body and soul. Nothing else exists. The entry into Paradise is a very personal moment. When it happens, it’s like bathing in the River Styx - one drink and all memories are obliterated. The waters of the Styx hold special powers. They can cure, empower, renew or transport someone to hellfire and damnation. When Achilles’ mother submerged him there to make her child invincible, she held him by the heels and thus created the most fabled of parental blunders, confirming down the ages how fine a line there is between strength and vulnerability.
For the Ancient Greeks, the idea of heaven and hell – and thus of Paradise – was a very complex notion. On the far side of the Styx lies Hades. But the Styx, itself, is neither Eden nor Inferno. It’s simply a miraculous passageway between two adjacent and changeable worlds that sometimes was confusing even for the gods let alone ordinary mortals.

But, beyond those abstract words and convoluted notions, what I feel is something equidistant between calm and excitement with qualities of both and qualities of neither. Even though it’s still out of sight, I know that I am just moments from the spot that has resided in my heart for all these years like a secret garden, protected from the vagaries of life, where one can retreat when all else has withered. But secret gardens are only secret when they’re secret. And nothing’s secret that is real. Gardens of the mind can be clandestine simply because they are surreal.

My passageway is a narrow path that leads to a place I have taken to calling ‘Persephone’s Décolletage’. It is there, in that exotic valley where the path and the trickle of a stream merge and you need to remove your shoes to cross over - where the rocky soil transforms into golden sand, and the soles of your feet burn hot in the fierceness of the sun.

And suddenly I’m there. I’m here. Even though the sand is searing my feet, I stand transfixed once more in awe. Before me is the sea, a wondrous blue, captured in the most amazing cove I have ever known. On either side are ancient cliffs of copper hue with footprints of the dinosaurs. But before me there is nothing, absolutely nothing to inhibit my view that goes on and on and on. Forever.