Dispatch from Portugal: An expat’s Algarvian dilemma

Curtains have been drawn, schools emptied, events cancelled and travel plans waylaid. 

Locked downtowns and villages resemble sepia-toned frontier settlements from wild west movies. All that’s missing to complete the desolate scene is tumbleweed and a few vultures swirling overhead.

People would rather cross the road than risk passing someone on the footpath and the produce market, which is usually humming with Portuguese matriarchs and gawking tourists, is empty save a handful of regulars. 

There’s a burly looking bloke, who despite wearing a ripped tee and child-size trackies, appears authoritative as he waits out the front, ready to dispense hand sanitiser as you enter.

The bar in my village, which is infamous for only closing up at night when the owner has had his fill of aguardente and his scowling wife must take over, hasn’t been open for going on two weeks. 

Though I’m not ruling out the possibility that she finally did him in.

Carparks that are ordinarily chock full of van-lifers now host only a couple of stranded campers. The stray dogs that rely on them for leftovers are looking increasingly desperate. 

I read in the paper that the cops detained a guy the other day for running around and coughing on people while screaming “I have coronavirus”. 

Welcome to the southwest coast of southern Portugal during the covid-19 outbreak – a place that not too long ago was considered a paradise on the Iberian Peninsula for dreadlocked itinerants, learn to surf hopefuls and Instagram influencers.

I don’t need to elaborate on how it got to be like this. The spread of the coronavirus is well documented. 

From a wet market in the middle of China to over 170 countries around the world and counting. It’s surreal to think that the entire globe has collapsed on its knees in only a matter of weeks.

Here, most of the old and vulnerable aren’t taking any risks. The young and young at heart are still divided on what they should believe. 

Are we to ignore the warnings, compartmentalise our worries and continue going about life as usual? Or is self-isolation the only way to weather a shitstorm that’s wreaking havoc on both a micro and macro scale?

The answer depends on where you live and who you talk to. 

For those of us based in this part of the Algarve, the chance of infection is relatively low. 

This, coupled with the fact that the government’s attention is currently trained on the cities of Lisbon and Porto, means that surfers are yet to feel the jackboot of local authorities, although that will change soon enough.

The Gendarmerie are already whistling people in from dreamy a-frame peaks in Hossegor and Spanish policia are handing out 1,000-euro fines just across the border.

As an Australian surfer currently stationed in a village of less than 300 permanent residents in the middle of a national park, I’m somewhat conflicted about paddling out. 

On one hand, I can see why they’re coming down on surfers and advising them to stay out of the water. 

To say that the ocean is still open for business would no doubt send people flocking to the beaches, gathering in car parks and eschewing any concept of social distancing.

As an expat, I’m also apprehensive about pissing off the local surfers who are firmly behind the ‘Stay the Fuck Home’ movement, to the point that I’d rather be fined in my wetsuit by the police than have to justify myself to one of the crew. 

Plus, you can put money on it that if surfers in Spain or France hear that it’s possible to surf in Portugal, there’s not much to stop them descending on our coast.

So nah, the Portuguese government aren’t keen on keeping the beaches open, and I can kinda see why. 

On the other hand, there are some discussions as to whether these restrictions should even apply to such a sparsely populated area. 

For instance, I could go a whole week in my village without coming into direct contact with another person. 

As for the waves? Well, I’m unlucky if I have to share the lineup with a couple of other souls over the cooler months. Although truth be told it’s not as if the waves are world-class.

Most of these discussions take place on social media, where they often turn ugly. 

Over the last few days, there have been regular blow-ups between surfers and everyone else, with plenty of cursing in Portuguese, German and a variety of other European tongues.

The words irresponsible, dangerous and selfish are being thrown around a heap.  

Indignation reigns, common sense and restraint ain’t so common.

I’m yet to hear of any physical confrontations, but there’s palpable tension between surfers who follow the rules and those who question them.

Of course, the most vitriolic expressions of keyboard rage are reserved for those caught paddling out on any of the many surf cams that dot the Portuguese coast. 

Instead of being used as intended, they’ve become surveillance devices for those with nothing better to do than to make sure everyone is suffering as much as they are. 

A skewering in broken English is almost guaranteed if you are A) are caught suiting up, or B) loiter in the car park for a little bit too long after a surf.

In other parts of the country, the majority of the Portuguese population are pretty fucking chill about the whole thing. 

I guess when you’ve lived through or felt the effects of colonial wars, a dictatorship, World Wars, crippling recessions and other far deadlier pandemics, this isn’t as alarming. 

They’re certainly not throwing down in supermarket aisles over the last pack of 4-ply.

But for an expat living in a foreign country, I can feel the flames of frustration getting stronger and stronger. 

For now, the appropriate course of action is to lay low and hopefully wait it out. 

Easy to say when the forecast indicates onshore slop for the next little while. 

Let’s see how quickly I crumble when greeted with clean overhead lines, a light offshore breeze and a lineup void of people.



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