A Hold Up!


The first few months we drove around Algarve in our smart, powerful pale gold BMW. It wasn?t a new one but it was impressive to see and we were completely unaware that local people took this as a symbol of wealth.

Coming, as we did from a reasonably well-off background, begging came as something of a culture shock. This was a side of Algarve I think we would have preferred not to see. But we witnessed many scenes of poverty during our years there. Hub and I, together with our young son Jamie, were settling down in our adopted country and starting to feel at home.

One day we decided to take a different route home from the workshops. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were in a good mood as we passed through the open countryside. On one wide dusty lane we saw what looked like a woman sitting in the middle of the road leaning against an overturned handcart. Hub slowed down but the woman didn?t move. So he stopped. The old lady looked up and raised her arms in a desperate plea for help. She must have been near 80 years old and was dressed in scruffy, dark, mud-stained clothes. She was propped up by the wheel of the cart, making soft whimpering noises -obvious signs of distress. I ran forward to help her, taking hold of her by the arms and easing her gently to her feet.

Hub went to set the cart back on its wheels. As he did so, two figures -a young man and a girl -emerged from the rear of the cart where they had been hiding. The young man stood watching us but the teenage girl rushed threateningly toward me, her hands thrust out palm upwards. In a demanding voice, she said "Money! Money! Money!"
It was suddenly clear that this was nothing more than a set-up. We had been deliberately conned by the "infirm" old lady who was suddenly a very agile old lady as she demonstrated by climbing nimbly back into her cart!

Hub put his hands in his pockets and pulled out their empty linings. "Skint!" he said, loudly and clearly, shrugging his shoulders.
We all climbed back into the car and drove away. Looking back, I saw the old lady, once again cursed with infirmity, climbing back out of the cart. The young couple turned the cart on its side and the elder beggar again sat in the dirt and dust, leaning against the cartwheel.
Later that evening, we related our tale to some of our newfound friends who had lived in Portugal for almost six years. They appeared to be absolutely astonished, saying that had never experienced anything like that themselves; nor had they ever heard of such a thing from anyone else.

We often wondered if 'there are none so blind as those that cannot see' because we saw abundant poverty in our town of Lagoa: people living in dilapidated houses with rain leaking through holes in the roof; children who could only bathe weekly in outside yards. No warm soapy water for them, just a cold water hose down. The same kids ran around the street below our apartment in ragged clothing or nightclothes, more often than not, with bare feet. Yet somehow, it didn?t seem to prevent them being happy. They had their freedom and the cosy comforts that we always took for granted were something they never experienced, so never missed. They roamed the streets until midnight or beyond on hot summer nights and they did so in complete safety; something that children in the UK couldn?t do then, and even less so today.

Now and then I did have children come up to me when I was out walking alone. Sometimes their little faces would have dust on them (I subsequently found out the dust was applied by their parents to make them look poorer) and they would hold out their hands for money. I could never refuse thinking it awful that anyone especially innocent children had to be used in this way. To them, in their circumstances we must have seemed "well-off" indeed. Id liked to have done so much more.

One morning the buzzer went on our intercom. When Hub answered a Portuguese voice said in fractured English "Can you come down please!"
The voice was urgent and we ran down the three flights and out into the street. A man from across the way was standing pointing at our car. On looking, Hub found he had left the window open and the man had spotted it. We gratefully thanked him but was completely surprised on inspecting the inside of the car to find nothing was missing-yet the window had been open all night -Hubs collection of small change he kept by driving seat was still there as well as other personal stuff!

These were just small episodes of our new life in Portugal yet, like many others, it constantly demonstrated the differences between our respective cultures: a new learning curve full of surprises but not always pleasant ones.