Why Not?

As I’m starting to put pen to paper, there’s a guy outside blowing a mouth organ. It quickly rises to a high-pitched sound and then slides down the scale to end in a short low tone. It almost sounds as if he’s blowing into some sort of pitch pipes, the gadgets that were used for guitar tuning before the digital age.

The man is walking a bicycle up the road, and every fifteen seconds or so he issues his long, sad notes. His bike is rigged up with a whetsone across the handlebars, which he spins with the pedals.

The "Amola tesouras", image of a bygone era

These guys were regulars in the Portugal of fifty years ago, and I used to hear that same lonesome whistle when I was a little boy. The scissor-sharpener, or amola tesouras, was a man of many talents, and he would draw to him a group of women bearing kitchen knifes, plates, and umbrellas.

Up until a few decades ago, the mismatch between the pricing of labor and materials meant that goods were reused to the greatest extent possible. I believe our environmental footprint was actually much lower than in the present day. The whetstone man applied staples to crockery, binding cracks and allowing plates or tureens to live another day. For some reason, these repairs were called gatos, or cats. The word gato can mean error or mistake, so maybe that’s the root.

In the evening, the men might stroll down to the cafe for an espresso and a cigarette, the obligatory brandy, or the occasional game of billiards. A coffee house before the 1974 revolution was mostly a men’s haunt.

The women gathered in the evening, producing extraordinary tools used for embroidery and knitting. My grandmother had a large wooden egg, handy for darning socks. I was fascinated by the goose-egg sized brown object, the shiny thimbles, and all the other bits and pieces that made life comfortable.

The women would sit together, sow, knit, darn, and talk. In the 1960s, that conversation might well  turn to the wars in Africa, particularly if there were children in the family that were approaching military age. The eighteen year old draftee began with boot camp in Portugal, and then a trip aboard one of the big troop-carriers, sailing south down the African coast to Guinea, just as Bartolomeu Dias and others did in the 1470’s, or further down to Angola.

Some of those ships went further, right around the Cape of Good Hope, and followed Vasco da Gama’s route east against the Agulhas Current, dropping their human cargo off at LM.

Lourenço Marques, the old capital of Mozambique, was one of the most pleasant cities in Africa. In Lisbon, when you ordered a beer in an esplanade, you got a free plate of lupin seeds to peck at. In LM you got a free plate of shrimp. In South Africa, the big tiger prawns were known as LM prawns. Now they come from aquaculture farms in Australia.

The ships didn’t go as far as India, since Portugal had lost Goa and a few other enclaves to Nehru in 1961. The history of Goa is as good a proxy as any for the Portuguese discoveries. It was for centuries a Hindu kingdom, taken over by Islam in the mid-fourteenth century. After the Christian conquest in 1510, it was a possession of Portugal for four hundred and fifty years, surviving Dutch blockades and the British Raj.

Portuguese television in the mid-1960s was dreadful―perhaps the most reliable show was the test pattern. Programming seemed incapable of adhering to a schedule, with shows commonly delayed by quarter of an hour or more. There was a sign that came up regularly, apologizing for the interruption, and assuring us that the program would resume momentarily. It made me think of the level crossings, where the barriers went down ages before the train was due.

Cars and trucks on the single track roads would turn off their engines. People would get out and have a smoke, kids would run around or go take a pee in the bushes. The omnipresent little motorbikes, the 50 cc variety that you can see in rural China today, would invariably catch up with the line of silent traffic. The engines sounded like hair-dryers, and the bikes often carried the family unit, a couple and one or two small kids. If anyone had a helmet, it would be the driver, and the helmet was a small rounded affair resembling a potty with leather flaps.

One of the TV programs consisted of an endless sequence of young soldiers sending a very quick message to their family. Usually their girlfriend, mother, or wife. Each man ended with the words adeus e até ao meu regresso (farewell until I return). When they didn’t return the family got a telegram. On my street they were delivered by women dressed totally in black, who rode 50 cc motorbikes and wore a potty on their head. Sometimes I’d be playing and would spy the woman, or even just hear the bike. Telegrams were bad news, and the flimsy had an ominous diagonal black stripe.

A Portuguese "papo seco", one of the most delicious breads in the world. I was always fascinated by the nipples either side. Many people call it a "bico", which is even worse, because it's also slang for blow job.

My road had so little traffic that I could always hear the baker’s hair-dryer arriving in the morning, with two large paniers either side, full of delicious Portuguese bread stashed under a spotless white cotton cloth.

As the lonesome whistle walks away, the tones ring ever fainter, like a freight train leaving town. It carries with it the memories of my childhood.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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