Living off grid

Swapping reporting from war zones for a life fighting fires in Portugal’s wildest region

It was the second puncture in a week and the latest in a string of technical challenges and mini-disasters which made me Google “Mercury in retrograde”. Our dark skies teach us more about astronomy than astrology, but I’ve still blamed Mercury when satellite dishes mysteriously don’t send lead TV news stories from frontlines and frozen laptops lose three hours of work.

When you live down a dirt track in a remote part of rural Portugal a reliable car is vital; that’s why we bought Cassiopeia, or Cassie, our pet Toyota 4X4. For two years she’s been a steadfast companion in our little piece of Portugal which we call the Valley of the Stars, or Vale das Estrelas. When a fire started on a distant hill and the wind was coming from Spain, she was there for us.

We’re also downwind of O Rei das Vacas, the local farmer and “King of Cows”, who is guardian of a thousand hectares of land around us. He sent his son with a plough to hurriedly dig some fire breaks around our house while the blaze approached. “De Espanha, nem bom vento nem bom casamento,” the Cow King says with a knowing nod: “from Spain, no good wind and no good marriage.” This is a saying which refers both to fires and centuries of failed attempts to encourage Iberian peace via royal weddings.

As the flames began to cut us off, our car was there for us, our dogs, our valuables and all the weird things you grab when you have no time to think

As the flames began to cut us off, Cassie was there for us, our dogs Simon and Garfunkel, our valuables and all the weird things from your life that you grab when you have no time to think about what to save. Two pairs of lavish high-heeled shoes, a blue Burmese papier-mâché unicorn, a lobster handbag, a raffia lemur and Mr Poodle-head somehow made it onto Cassie’s back seat.

Items rescued from the wildfires in 2022 in Portugal’s Alentejo region

Thankfully it was a near-miss, courtesy of some quick ploughing, and to my annual spring weight-loss programme and law-abiding, undergrowth-strimming to stop fire spread – even though there had been no fire here in living memory. The land was left charred, but the buildings survived and it all greened again in no time. I had a lot less work to do this Spring to cut the grass and clear the land, even if my already erratic strimmer has been messed around by Mercury.

We live off the grid, an expression that means different things to different people

We live off the grid, an expression that means different things to different people. One of them is some iteration of me living barefoot on the land, not washing my long hair and disappearing down disinformation rabbit holes: a modern-day “Turn on, tune in, drop out” counterculture. In reality, the resilience and persistence of Portuguese brambles keep my shoes firmly on my feet and, while I could do with a trim, the Flowing Locks ship sailed long ago. My career as a BBC foreign correspondent inoculated me against the explosion of conspiracy theories on social media and should help ward off the oncoming wave of AI-generated lies. Plus I’m happier wobbling from wine that anything psychedelic. So, our version of “off the grid” is quite straightforward: living as comfortably as we can without being physically connected to any of the services most people take for granted.

We’re responsible for the basics like water and power, heating, treating waste and staying online and connected. We have boreholes and solar panels, a cast-iron wood stove that heats winter water, some treatment tanks and a radio link to internet fibre on a distant mountain top. There are plenty of people nearby whose bare feet repel brambles, don’t have enough hot water to maintain a daily bouffant, and have declined vaccination. But there are also foreigners like us who, after spending nomadic lives, have somehow discovered this random part of Portugal. It’s known as the last wild coast in Europe: a little pocket of seaside towns and villages tucked into southwestern Alentejo. We’re just north of the Algarve and south of Comporta and Melides (where Sharon Stone has followed in the footsteps of the Clooneys, building a lavish home). Alentejo has a lot of land but very few people – rural ruins abandoned when Portuguese sons and daughters went to the cities or moved abroad are now being bought up by outsiders.

Portugal’s Alentejo region

After twenty years on the road, moving from country to country, through the Americas, Africa and Asia, one thing I surely am is an outsider. It’s been in the job description for years: foreign correspondents tell stories as outsiders, that’s the whole point. As media budgets fall and correspondents come home, our news becomes more insular, more citizen-journalist or local-influencer led. In times of changing global order, outsider perspectives are critically undervalued just as they are most in need. I love being the outsider in Portugal: the wonderful layers of history, the stories of tsunamis, lost civilisations, stone monuments that are millennia older than Stonehenge and a language I’m slowly deciphering. In this part of rural Alentejo you’re an outsider unless you were born in a tight orbit of villages – even Lisbon folk “ain’t from round ‘ere”.

Our tribe of wandering journalists, aid workers and diplomats looking to settle after many years abroad can find it hard to eventually return home, wherever home might be.

The people there might have better jobs, bigger houses and grown-up children, but they are the same people we used to know. It’s us who have changed. Yes, we connect from afar through Olympic opening ceremonies, a Jubilee, a funeral, a coronation or any other such occasion involving Sirs Paul McCartney or Elton John. But the things we have seen and done, the countries we have lived in and passed through, have made us outsiders even in the place we’re actually from.

Ours is a rich and thick tapestry, theirs is a much finer weave with a higher thread count.

Fellow nomads drawn home by ailing family or with kids preferring roots to branches are often choosing to discover different towns and cities: new home, new life, old country.

Portugal’s Alentejo region

With a Swedish-Portuguese wife and no close family left in the UK our options widened, and the search for some land and a little ruin to renovate and perhaps retire to suddenly became a second career, based on little more than an amazing view and a special feeling. We knew no one, but now we live in a house on a hill with an endless view and a short drive to the ocean. We have a tourist lodge taking shape, a knowledge of Portugal through wine we hope to sell by telling stories, and a practical understanding of what off-grid means, after a fast learning curve was almost outpaced by an even faster spending curve.

Luckily it was just before the curve when Cassie’s tyre split. The second in a week. R-e-t-r-o-g-r-a-d-e. The tiny jack was rubbish on soft ground, the mobile signal was weak, we had a visitor to pick up, and then Joep and Vera drove past. This Dutch couple switched Switzerland for here to breed Lusitanian horses. Joep just gave up an executive business career to focus on the farm with horse-whispering wife Vera. We met them through our Swedish-Danish off-grid neighbours. Ola used to manage global five-star hotel groups and thought retiring in Sweden would be “boring”. They also introduced us to a Swiss couple who built a boat in a landlocked country and sailed around the world, before settling in Silicon Valley and then moving here to make wine and colour-changing gin, shoot wild boar and transform them into amazing Isan Thai sausages.

Our American neighbour is a travelling eye-laser salesman, German Jorge distils and sells medronho brandy and the locals and foreigners we met when the Cow King invited us to the hunting club are a story in themselves. Joep and Vera set about switching in the spare tyre, just as they helped reconnect our power and water the day after the fire. Our passing neighbour from Lisbon who runs a retreat centre checked all was well, and then a local guy we’d never met before stopped, pulled out a proper jack, did the job in seconds and was away with a smile and a wave.
Community comes in many places and takes many faces – particularly in the land of the outsiders.

Alastair Leithead is a former BBC foreign correspondent who writes the weekly blog Off-Grid and Ignorant in Portugal, and a column and podcast called The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure

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Letter from Elsewhere, Life, May 2023

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