Wednesday, May 25

I spent confinement on a Portuguese island | Algarve

TThe sun is slowly rising over the Atlantic and I stare from the house I have rented overlooking the dunes of the small Portuguese island of Armona. The sound of departing fishing boats marks sunrise, a time known as the blue hour, now a time when many are awake, having shaken the bedding during another haunting pandemic night. I try to meditate and do breathing exercises to calm myself. “Everything will be fine,” I say. And the sun answers it.

Armona Map

I did not intend to go live alone on one island for the second wave of Covid. But I spent the first time in my flat in Spitalfields, London, doing a podcast called On the floor for the BBC about my time as an integrated journalist working for The Guardian during the invasion of Iraq. It was a difficult and traumatic experience, and the isolation made it difficult. But what made it even more difficult was the relentless noise of construction work on my little cobbled street as excavations began to create a basement for what will become British art duo Gilbert and George’s. new gallery.

As September wore on and Nicola Sturgeon announced that we couldn’t go to other people’s houses or get in their cars, I knew that a family Christmas in Scotland would be canceled. I have no ties in middle age. No partner, no kids, just family, friends, and a little godson, and I started to feel like soon I wouldn’t be able to see any of them for a while.

The boardwalk that leads to Armona beach
The boardwalk that leads to Armona beach. Photograph: PTX Garfield / Getty Images

In Glasgow we say “I felt it in my water”, and I did. I knew that I could not lock myself up in my apartment again and so, four days later, I was on a plane to Faro, and from there to a house in Olhão, a fishing village that I have come to love for the last decade. so so. I was there last March, in those sudden and terrifying days when we realized that this disease was really coming, working on a story about the food of the eastern Algarve. The trip was abruptly interrupted and I flew home and locked up.

Last September, we could travel again as long as we isolated ourselves for two weeks once back in the UK, so I stocked up my cupboards for my return, which I thought would be in a couple of months, and bought a one-way trip. ticket.

Audrey painted by Fiona Gray
Audrey painted by Fiona Gray

In Olhão, I stayed with a British painter, Fiona gray, and he spent days writing in his wonderful plant-filled backyard, where he captured an image of me frowning and pursing my lips, as I do, on my laptop. A new tenant had reserved his space for the following month, so I moved into a house that I soon discovered was next to some construction sites, precisely what I had taken refuge from. The grind of a concrete mixer at 7.30 in the morning brought me to the stillness of an off-season vacation island.

Armona is one of the five barrier islands of the Ria Formosa that protect the continent from the full force of the Atlantic. It has no cars, only bicycles and some quads that are used to move construction materials and take away rubbish. Three stores sell essentials and alcohol, and there are six restaurants, a cafe, and a beach bar. In the peak of summer, there are 13 ferries a day, but in winter there are only four.

In high season, the air vibrates with the sounds of the festivities: the fluttering of flip-flops, the cries of children playing, people splashing in the sea, families eating outdoors on the terraces of the little houses and outside. chalets of Orbitur campsite. The concrete path – the treadmill – through the heart of the island it gets crowded in summer with people heading to the wooden boardwalk that leads to the vast beach on the Atlantic side, or back to the ferry.

But in winter there is tranquility. Most of the houses are closed. A small community remains: Portuguese, many of them older, and foreigners who fell in love with the place and decided to stay. Now the Passadeira is spray painted with arrows reminding pedestrians to socially distance themselves.

Tó Luis
Tó Luís present in gift. Photography: Audrey Gillan

When I got to Armona, I stayed in a house on the bay, where the sun shone as it went down. I made friends with my neighbor, António, who brought me 13 fresh sardines when I arrived. I soon learned that this was in exchange for having access to running water and turning my nose away when flushing the toilet bucket with the changing tide.

With white hair in a small ponytail, and long curly nails, António, nicknamed Tó Luís, is one of the people who live in Armona with very little. His hut only has one bed. Years ago, Tó Luís went to jail for three years for stealing 20 escudos, about 10 pence. He fought Armona’s eviction, won the right to sit, and now he manages it. The kindness on the island allows you its fresh fish, a kindness that continued to extend to me.

At the beginning of winter, I would go to Olhão to shop in one of the best markets in Portugal, have lunch with friends and catch the last ferry at 5 in the afternoon. I assured my parents that I had made the right decision: Covid cases in the city were not high and there were none in Armona.

An empty beach in Armona, bathed by a calm sea.
An empty beach in Armona, bathed by a calm sea. Photography: Audrey Gillan

I recorded the sounds of the island and sent a series of audio postcards to a very dear old friend who was sick with Covid and in intensive care, trying to take him to the world for a few moments. I know I am lucky to be living. The waves crashing, the wheels of the shopping carts as people came and went from the ferry, the good day, good afternoon or good evening – Good morning, good afternoon or good night – he shouted by way of greeting according to the time of day. The few planes that go in and out of the nearby Faro airport. Birdsong at dusk as hundreds of sparrows gather in the eucalyptus trees. I whispered to him, sometimes through tears. And he felt guilty. As I do now, stand here and write this.

On Christmas Eve (which, as in most of Europe, is more important here than Christmas Day), Tó Luís gave me a kind of Christmas tree: an old coffee pot filled with sand and pine branches and yellow flowers. , and decorated with milk. -Cotton bottle and snow caps. I cried. On Christmas Day, I briefly jumped into the sea and had a Belgian stew with fries on the terrace of Lanacosta restaurant, overlooking the dunes and the sea.

On December 31st, I moved back into a new house at the end of the walkway, a glorious place with large floor-to-ceiling doors that bring in so much light.

Sardines abound in the surrounding sea.
Sardines abound in the surrounding sea. Photography: Audrey Gillan

The clack, clack, clack of the dominoes hitting the Formica table and the smooth movement of the mixing tiles, the laughter and jokes of the group of men who met every night to play on the Harmony 4 The bar and grill would soon be silenced. During Christmas, Portugal joined in what President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa later called “laxism.” Restrictions were lifted and families came together, just as the British variant emerged here.

It was catastrophic and Covid emerged. In January, Portugal’s deaths totaled 5,576, which was, at the time, almost half of the country’s total so far in the pandemic. A state of emergency was declared and all services, except essential ones, closed on January 14. The flights were canceled and the UK put Portugal on the red list, which meant that anyone who landed would be immediately put into hotel quarantine at a cost of £ 1,750. My “watter” and my wallet decided to quit. My “watter” was right: Portugal was removed from the red list on March 19, but there are no flights to the UK.

Pam and Zé Pardo
Pam and Zé Pardo. Photography: Audrey Gillan

I embraced winter, the coldest the Algarve has experienced in 10 years. The storms dumped a lot of plastic, some masks, even a television on the beach, and this brought another kind of sadness. But I learned about the tides and bought conquests – sweet little bivalves that are better than any clam you’ve ever eaten – straight from the men who scoop them out of the sand when the sea is gone – backbreaking work. I loved the spring emerging, watching the glorious yellow mimosa bloom all over the island and cutting flowers to stick in the jars I have collected.

I’ve been alone for months, but now I have friends here. Feathers, the gray and red parrot that hisses at me when I pass. Pam and Zé Pardo, who own Armona 4 next to the ferry dock and organized a little lunch for me on my birthday in February, where Zé took out his guitar and we sang You’ve Got a Friend by Carole King. Pam is now my “island mom”. There is Gil, who greets me every time he passes my house on his quad, and Leonor, who with her green cart, sweeps the walkway and empties the buckets and always greets me happily and asks me how I’m doing.

And then there is Ulrike who, due to Covid, had to leave India and the charity she founded to change the lives of the poor children of the village by building a skateboard park, which is called Janwaar Castle. Ulrike and I take long walks together. I like to cook for her. And every day he says, “Life is good.” Which is incredibly encouraging. We know we are lucky. To be here and to be here still.

Sunset in Armona
Armona awaits the return of better days. Photography: Daniel Boavida / Alamy

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday Easter. Another viscerally important moment for families to reunite in Portugal. But, having learned from the Christmas laxism, and with the strict lockdown seeing cases plummeting as fast as they rose, the government practically banned the move as of March 26 and told people to stay home for 10 days .

But on Easter Monday things will start to get better. Restaurants can open if they have an outside terrace, and tables will be limited to four people. In Armona, where everyone knows that a single case would devastate the island, there is a feeling of hope. The paint cans are out. The restaurants are refreshing and updated. A new ice cream parlor has been created next to Armona 4, which has renovated its roof terrace; and the once dimly lit ‘big’ shop has new owners, who have cut out new windows, stocked up more stock, and put a fancy sign above the door: O Cantinho da Ria (roughly translated as Estuary Corner).

Tomorrow there will be more than a few prayers. That this will mark the end of the confinement, that the visitors will return to the island, that the flights will begin again. And eventually I will have to go home.

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