What is reality?
Is it social media (or media of any kind) with its army of amateur experts whose knowledge is fuelled by any Tweets which happen to conveniently fit their view, whether penned by a cyberspace troll, @AnnieOnimouse or, god forbid, a reputable source (whatever the hell that is now)? Normally the more I read the more I learn, and the more I know. When it comes to COVID-19, the more I read, the less clear everything becomes – too many conflicting and contrasting opinions and statistics. It constantly amazes me how people can be unshakeable in their knowledge about what is the true ‘reality’ in a situation where the only thing certain to me is the sea of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
Or is reality this silent, sun-drenched spot on the rooftop of Portugal? ‘Rooftop of Portugal’ might sound rather grand, especially as most houses in traditional parts of Portugal tend to be one-story cottages so ‘rooftop’ isn’t particularly high. In this case it’s around 900m above sea level on a curvaceous hilltop in Peneda-Gerês National Park. From this lofty position (in Portuguese terms) we can see for an eternity in all directions. Despite it being late July, the land looks sated; the bracken and whin bushes which line our path all perky and green – a sharp contrast to the mainly thirsty brown plains and valleys we drove through to reach this wild world on the border with Spain.
In these open hills there are no other people, most folk wouldn’t dream of walking when temperatures are predicted to hit the upper 30s, yet there is an abundance of life. Ignoring us as we sit in the meagre shade of a human-sized cairn are wild Garrano horses. There must be 15 or more, leisurely grazing as they saunter past; they have no knowledge of the crisis which has brought about drastic changes in the human world. Neither do the long-horn Cachena cattle whose gently clanging bells add a calming soundtrack to an already serene scene. In their world everything remains the same as ever. We mentally plug into this air of simplistic normality and devour its recuperative qualities. There’s an odd and intoxicating sensation of having been released from prison. Freedom.
As well as cattle and wild horses, we pass the occasional hoopoe, darting and dipping along the path beside us. Every so often the sharp cry of a buzzard pierces the still air; in these wild lands there are birds of prey aplenty. As we explore an old wolf trap – where there are still bleached bones of various creatures – birds with huge wingspans glide imperceptibly across the sky in lazy circles until they are directly overhead. Circling vultures plus bleached bones plus oppressive heat add up to an ominous cliché. We hope we’ll avoid adding to the pile of bleached bones.
Our path eventually descends to the valley floor where small hamlets cluster around shaded streams. In one, as we pause on the cobbled path to check the route ahead, we hear someone shout “Bom dia” from the shadowy interior of an animal shed next to the path. Except it’s not an animal shed at all, it’s a house. As our eyes adjust to its dim interior we see an old woman sitting on a bed which dominates the tiny edifice. The door to the building is a ragged curtain. Life is simple in these parts. But not so simple that events in the outside world have passed by unnoticed. When an elderly woman, dressed in black and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, sees us approach, she skips briskly away to a safe distance. Strangers are to be feared by some. That’s not exclusive to this remote part of Portugal. It’s ironic that people think the virus only wears a stranger’s mask.
Our base for two nights is a stone cottage in the centre of Soajo, a tiny mountain village. We’re so close to the centre our bedroom window looks over the village’s unusual pillory with its smiling face and, so some claim, bready hat. Interestingly, the village’s restaurants are busier at lunchtimes than they usually are in July. With most people not travelling beyond the country’s borders, staycations in remote locations have become popular. In a cafe we order the first beer we’ve downed outside our home in months. Ordering initially feels awkward – mask on to enter the bar, a dousing of handwash, not sure whether to hand over cash (I haven’t used cash in months) or a card. When I ask the barman which he’d prefer the response is a puzzled look. Only a foreigner/stranger would try to pay for two beers with a card. At the outside tables, widely spaced, I can easily tell visitors from locals. The visitors, like me, tend to look a tad unsure of the drill; the locals sit around a table, chatting and laughing (no masks at any point). The barman, who had put on a mask to serve me, doesn’t bother with one when he mixes with the locals. The easy, relaxed atmosphere, and the beer, eases us out of our institutionalised frame of mind and back into one of relative normality. We realise life outside of our immediate bubble back home might have changed, but not to a point where it is unpleasant and unfamiliar – there’s no grim dystopian society on display in these parts.
This is reinforced further when we swap the hills for the riverside town of Arcos de Valdevez; a place which is buzzing in the sunshine. The River Vez is full of people, cooling down in the shallow water, kayaking, or just messing around as you do when it’s hot and there’s a river to cool down in. It looks and feels like a town enjoying hot summer days. What was I expecting? Blade Runner 2020? Some older people wear masks as they walk the streets, others don’t. Younger residents don’t seem to bother, even when they cluster together in large groups, protected by the immortality of youth no doubt – I can vaguely remember that feeling. But, whatever people choose to do, the overall ambience is relaxed and, apologies if I’m in danger of overusing the word, normal.
It feels like a parallel universe to the one which is painted on various feeds on the black mirror.
I know which one I want to continue to inhabit.