‘We shwim with the nature here. If you would like to shwim with the nature too with no clothes on then that is all right by us’. Those rather worrying words were spoken by our host who had just picked us up in his car from the side of a deserted lane and having introduced himself as Willem was driving us to his farm and what was going to be our home for the next two weeks. I didn’t dare look at BF as I felt sure that I would have a fit of the giggles and I didn’t want to offend our host at this early stage of the game.
Earlier that morning we had set out from Lisbon on the intercity coach to Lagos and then caught a local bus to Bensafrim. I can confess now that I was a little worried at this stage as we didn’t have an address for our destination. Apparently rural addresses in Portugal are non-existent and our bus driver had no idea where our stop was either despite it appearing on the timetable. We eventually found ourselves deposited on a grass verge in the middle of nowhere and hoped that we could get a mobile signal for our hosts or we would be stuffed!
Luck was on our side and Willem soon appeared in his car. He was large, loud and Dutch and we clambered into the car to be bounced down dusty tracks to his farm to be introduced to his wife Sol who was quiet, petite and Portuguese.
We had sole occupancy of one of the cottages on their farm which was spacious and cool and whilst it was sparsely furnished, it was perfectly adequate. It had been empty for a while but BF was a darling and swept out the majority of the cobwebs and their occupants before we unpacked.
Willem gave us a tour of his land which consisted of several large fields, a dozen chickens, and a handful of holiday cottages which they rent out to tourists. There was also a swimming pool but this was no ordinary swimming pool. It was an eco-pool which meant that it had no chlorine or chemicals in it and was cleaned by nature i.e. frogs, newts and water lilies. Willem reiterated that guests often like to swim naked in the pool and if we chose to also ‘feel free’ at quiet times that would be fine with them. Their home in the main house was stunning; all high ceilings and beams and windows and light. Sol is a designer and has worked wonders on their home as well as on the other cottages with innovative colour schemes and mosaic tile displays.
The deal was that we should each work 25 hours across seven days in exchange for bed and board. This is the standard as recommended for this sort of scheme with Workaway although they do vary from placement to placement. In our case, Willem and Sol would provide the ingredients for meals which we would prepare ourselves although they would sometimes invite us to eat with them. That first evening we joined them on their terrace to a lovely lamb casserole; the second evening we cooked for ourselves but I was given a plate of freshly grilled sardines hot off the coals. BF dipped out as he doesn’t eat fish and received nothing.
After promptly oversleeping the first morning and hurriedly reporting for work at 11am our first jobs were to weed the large pebbled perimeter path of the pool and to cut down the waist high grasses from the bank. I weeded whilst BF wielded his scythe in a manly fashion, and then we both raked the cuttings down into the field.
Our next task was to clear the algae from the pond. There was very little but it had to come out and it transpired there were well established techniques for dealing with it. It floated hazily where it had been blown down one end of the pool but it was deceiving in its mass. The trick was to insert a finger into the water and gently stir in a circular motion. Like stirring a cloud the translucent substance would wind around your finger and gather there like candy floss and then it could be pulled out of the water. Where it had caught around the stems of the water plants you could carefully comb it out through your fingers. There was the continuous chirripping sound from the frogs that hopped and plopped into the water loudly every few minutes which sounded like birds, not like frogs at all, but very musical and which brought to mind the Paul McCartney song the Frog Chorus.
Day two and we creaked out of bed following all the physical work the previous day. We managed to wake earlier so that we could work in the cooler hours and reported for duty. We were first asked to weed a large flower bed. Sol loved her flowers and colours but hadn’t been able to weed for a while. The wild boar had recently got into the beds and ripped up some of her plants. We weeded for several hours until we disturbed an ants nest and I got several nasty nips on my toes. I was convinced that they were working as a pack and hunting me down as I weeded, chasing me around the garden until I eventually had to concede to their superiority. BF was chuffed to finally establish the difference between a plant and a weed and proudly announced that ‘if it came up easily it was a plant’.
Willem and Sol have three adorable dogs who appear to have adopted us and spend all their time following us around or lazing under the enormous bougainvillea tree on our terrace. There are just seven other guests in at the moment who are also Dutch and there is a small understated bar just fifteen minutes down the hillside in the village. It takes twenty five minutes to haul ourselves back up the hillside after a couple of drinks, but when three pints of the local beer and three VERY large wines cost less than seven euros it would be rude not to wander down. The second time that we went down to the bar the four locals who were sitting on the terrace and watching the world go by shared their bar snacks with us. No idea what they were – sort of like giant salty sweet corn kernels but very nice too and it felt good to be accepted as a part of the gang despite the language barrier.
We spent the third day in the vegetable garden;, weeding between waist high rows of corn, pruning olive trees and preparing a raised bed to plant out lettuce seedlings. I did intend to plant the seedlings out in the cool of the evening but we got home too squiffy to tackle that delicate task!
On the fourth day I planted out those eighty baby lettuce plants and weeded the vegetable garden whilst BF continued to build his muscles sawing at the olive branches. Day five found me double digging over a raised bed in preparation for sweet potatoes and then I beat BF to the task of scrubbing the algae off the cobbles which form the beach area to the pond. That was a hardship – changing into my bikini and sitting in the waist deep water scrubbing in the warm water in the sun. I left BF wielding his scythe in the veg patch.
And then….we had achieved our twenty five hours and could celebrate so we took the rest of the afternoon off, cooked the best steak that I have ever eaten and Sunday morning found us rising just as early as on a work day but rolling down the hill to the bus stop in Bensafrim ready to catch the bus to Lagos for a well deserved break.