As I write this, it is approaching the end of October and I am sitting at a desk with the late afternoon sun beaming through open patio doors and warming my back. If I look over my shoulder, and through the crisp golden leaves that are falling from the overhead grape vines, I can see a tree laden with ripening oranges and next to that another tree with over ripe persimmons, failing in their attempt to cling to the branches, and plunging to the ground to burst open, becoming food for the wasps.
In the distance I can hear the chimes of the now familiar church bell in the valley below. Apart from that, and the buzzing of the many insects, it is quiet and peaceful, a haven of tranquility.
I am on a Quinta in Central Portugal, enjoying my 3rd house sit with Merry the dog, who I have come to love dearly. This is my final day before the home owners return and I leave to travel on to Competa in Spain where I have, very conveniently two sits back to back, split over the next 3 weeks.
Such is the life of a more or less full time house/pet sitter. When I decided to take the plunge, just over a year ago, and register as a sitter with Trusted House Sitters, I never for a moment imagined this would become my norm!
The Lead Character
I am an over 60, solo, female sitter from Northern Ireland who loves the more rural, remote and quirky sits, not for me the luxury villas with private pools and staff, those are the ones I scroll past when perusing the website and maybe just as well, because there is stiff competition for such sits. However, there are sitters for each and every kind of home, pet, and location; we vary tremendously in our preferences.
It’s not that I only do rural sits, I have successfully completed a wide range of sits in a variety of locations, both rural and urban, but for the purposes of this article I wish to focus on the more isolated and solitary kind.
It’s not a situation that suits everyone and at times the fact that I am a solo sitter has gone against me, with homeowners doubting my capabilities of spending lengthy periods of time alone. Add to that the fact that I travel without a vehicle, and I am often passed over in favour of others. Once, I even had a homeowner offer me a sit and then decide against it and cancel because she thought I would find it too lonely; that was a bitter pill to swallow.
Something to keep in mind however, if you are a homeowner, there are reasons for everything. Some sitters wish to see the world and are avid sightseers, seeking sits that will give them the freedom to be out and about mosts days. Some sitters are digital nomads, seeking a quiet place to work whilst incorporating some adventure. Others may be writers, poets or suchlike seeking solitude to write.
For me, the main reason I began house sitting was to seek out warmer climes during the winter months. Like many people of ‘a certain age’ I find the warmth of the sun and the additional Vitamin D3, so often lacking for those of us from the UK, to be of great benefit to my general health and wellbeing. When a road traffic accident brought my working life to an abrupt end, a couple of years shy of receiving my state pension, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to establish myself as a house sitter. I am able to live extremely economically when house sitting and this is one of the reasons, although not the only one, why I enjoy the more isolated and remote sits. It means I have few temptations to spend money. Once I have my groceries, which I either purchase on the way, or are generously provided by the homeowner, I may spend nothing at all for the duration of the sit.
One thing I really enjoy about areas such as this is, because there are so few people, and because I am obviously a stranger, everyone wants to chat, or at the very least exchange a hearty ‘bom dia’ or ‘boa tarde’. The Portuguese are extremely warm and friendly people and love to engage with you.
It was while I was online with my daughter one day, telling her about the people I have met, that I thought I should write about it, hence this article. Many people comment to me that they could not cope with the isolation of this type of sit but I find there is so much to absorb and enjoy that I rarely feel isolated or lonely. And who could feel lonely with a dog for company!
The Stage Dressing
There are 2 forest tracks on which I walk the dog. The lower track leads to a river where Merry can jump in and splash around for a while. I don’t recall ever meeting anyone along that track, although I can certainly hear people going about the task of cutting down trees, which seems to be a fairly constant task. In spite of the absence of people there is lots to take in, for instance, the scent of eucalyptus trees, especially after the rain; the buzzing and humming of insects; birdsong and birds of prey hovering overhead waiting to swoop on unsuspecting victims; trees rustling in the wind; the bleating of goats; the crowing of roosters; dogs barking; tractors chugging; and then there are all the wild flowers to enjoy. For someone who enjoys photography it is idyllic.
The Supporting Cast
It is along the higher track that I encounter people; a lady herding sheep, who allows me to take a video but then tells me, while wagging her finger, “não Facebook”, darnit; a man and his wife chugging along in a small three-wheeled vehicle, who wind the window down and have a great conversation with me, in spite of the fact that none of us understand much of the conversation; a man, early on a Sunday morning, with a gun over his shoulder and a gun dog by his side, who wishes me a hearty, “bom dia” ; the neighbour who lives next door, out with his huge German Shepherd, who greets me warmly while Merry cowers between my legs.
And then, at the end of this particular track is a tent, the home of an English guy who moved here a year or so ago. He bought one of the burnt out dwellings that was damaged during the fires of 2017 and has been living al fresco whilst cultivating the land. Obviously getting crops planted takes priority over the repairs to the dwelling but he does have an outdoor bath that is fed with water, heated in an oil drum over an open fire, and then flushed away along an irrigation channel to water the newly planted fruit trees. Just imagine lying in a hot bath gazing at the star, absolute heaven.
Coming back to the Quinta, after my walks, I am often greeted by the two sisters, and one of their husbands, who have the allotment on the other side of the fence. They are so full of joy and never stop smiling while they chat about the weather, pointing to the sun or clouds as appropriate. They may not speak any English but I was still able to understand that I was being gently scolded for not wearing a hat in the sun the other day.
From time to time the ‘goat lady’ appears accompanied by her husband. She collects all the windfall apples and other fruit, for her goats, while he prunes the vines. It was he who harvested the grapes earlier in the year to be used for wine making. They both chat enthusiastically, again with no English, but sure what does it matter? When they have finished their work and filled the trailer with the prunings and bags of apples they head off down the hill, the husband driving the tractor and the lady sitting in the trailer on top of the vines.
Some days the ‘goat lady’ is to be found in the field next door, when she lets the goats out for a graze, and although Merry is most indignant that I am speaking to them, and barks incessantly, I enjoy watching their antics in the field as they leap around so full of joy providing me with a great photo opportunity.
The Grand Finale
If I am really craving excitement there are two cafe/bars within easy walking distance where I can purchase a coffee for the princely sum of 70 cents and even buy a few groceries if needed. This makes for an enjoyable hour or so and some social interaction as people ask me have I moved here and where I live. I think I have managed to convey to anyone who has asked that I am staying at a friend’s house, looking after her dog while she walks the Camino de Santiago. No way am I attempting to explain, in rudimentary Portuguse and mime that I am a house sitter!
I also had a couple of hours out one day and went to the nearby town, by taxi, and had lunch; the homeowner very kindly gave me money to cover the cost of a taxi. The town is only just over 5km away so I could have walked in and returned by taxi but, as I was being treated, I enjoyed the luxury of being driven both ways and saved my energy for pottering around exploring the narrow cobblestoned streets.
However, in the town no one engaged with me, I was just another tourist taking photographs. This is normal; in a town or city there may be many more people but I find that there are far less opportunities to interact with the local people. As I reflect on my time here it is the moments spent with the local ‘characters’ that stand out to me; they may have been brief but they were enriching, and for me one of the real positives of being a house sitter.
That and the pets, of course!
First published in House Sitting Magazine December 2019
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