Three years ago on my birthday, I called my mom at midnight to lament, in a panic, the loss of my teenage years. This year, in order to prevent a similarly ugly scene from taking place, Marlo and I packed up and headed to Portugal to take the sting out of the transition to old-ballsdom.
Let me preface this travel tale with the fact that, as we stood at our door, backpacked and ready to go, we made a verbal checklist of necessary items: bikinis, check. Skirts and dresses, check. Money? No check. Right before we walked out the door we realized: WE HAVE NO MONEY. But we left anyway, armed only with our charm and our willingness to eat bread and cheese for days on end.
After a brief stint in Dublin, during which we met a couple of awkward Canadians who explained to us why Guinness is not, in fact, a friendly drink, we spent an agonizing morning coming thisclose to missing our flight to Porto. In the past six months, I missed a flight out of Paris and Marlo missed one to Dusseldorf, so we were appropriately freaked out that we’d repeat the mistake and have to invent an entire week’s worth of adventures so no one in Belfast would ever know we'd never left the island. Fortunately, the travel gods smiled upon us and we were first on our flight. This gave us plenty of time to make friends with our extremely groomed and delightfully feminine “air host” Fergal, whom we took as a good omen for our trip (side note: the other guy was named Fabio. This is not a joke, people are actually named Fabio!).
Important thing to note at this point: Marlo and I, stubbornly insisting that our week would be a 5 day beach holiday during which we predominantly drank sangria in our new bikinis and allowed muscle-bound men to fan us with palm leaves and feed us peeled grapes, were in for an abrupt and unkind awakening when a hostile rain greeted us in Porto. Unfortunately our stubbornness had translated into a ridiculous insistence in packing only “breezy” stuff, meaning we had to sludge around in long dresses and sandals when the weather called for super-traction boots and waterproof tents. We slid around over Porto’s polished tiles for a while before hopping on a bus to Lisbon, crossing our fingers that the beach dreams would not be dashed in the City of Seven Hills...
Interesting Randomer #1: Mar and I commandeered the entire backseat of the bus to sleep on and silently breathed death threats on anyone who would dare join us, the tallest African we had ever seen sat down between us and gestured that his long legs wouldn’t let him sit anywhere else. Fair enough. Joao was from Guinea Bissau, spoke three languages (none of which was English, but one of which was Spanish luckily), worked for USAID, and currently runs a reconciliation program in Guinea Bissau from its base in Lisbon. Our chat was grounded by my limited Spanish vocab related to conflict work, but Joao was our second good omen and kept us good company for the longest bus ride in the world.
(I need to add at this point that whenever I travel, I imagine myself teleporting from city to city rather than taking normal human transport options. A couple of four hour bus rides will nip that habit in the bud no problem and force a girl back to reality: you can’t leave Dublin in the morning and end up on a Portuguese beach by evening. Scientists have proved it impossible. Don’t ask what kind of scientists, it’s just a fact, ok?)
Landing in Lisbon was a test of the kindness of Portuguese strangers (just like any place where clueless American girls pop into… we’re sorry about our politics, but we’re just here to hang out) and they really pulled through in the clutch. Half the city aided in our hostel-location scheme and as soon as we put our bags down, we decided to find the beach for the last few hours of sunlight. The good news is, we found water. The bad news is, we also found Lisbon’s shantytown and had our dinner on the three-inch stretch of “beach” along the river with one bum peeing on a rock behind us, one sleeping in a box, and another getting wasted out of a paper bag ten feet down the line. Needless to say, we felt right at home and jumped into our newest plot for how to save the world: opening a halfway house, preferably in Portugal. When we got home we found a half-nude Australian on our deck, who turned out to be Nick, our new travel buddy. Nick had just returned from hiking to base camp at Mt. Everest, his buddy Dylan just finished a volunteer stint at a Millennium Village in Kenya and they’d decided to meet up in Egypt. The four of us bonded the first day, and our breakfasts in Lisbon usually involved a few hours of drinking coffee, dancing to the Rolling Stones (the middle-aged guy working at the front desk: “Mick Jagger is my adopted father!”), and finding out the life stories of every single person in the hostel.
Interesting Randomer #2: As we wandered the glorious castle overlooking Lisbon, we met a guy selling those little wire toys that monks supposedly make to tell the story of the universe. Henry from Germany was more than happy to delve into an intense conversation with us, focusing heavily on Brazilian domestic policy, Austrian/German/Dutch linguistic idiosyncrasies and cultural anomalies, Hitler’s secret occupation of the castle and how happy he was to find friendly faces. We rediscovered our dreams of busking on European sidewalks until age 40… or at least painting and writing about every city we go to and selling our “art” to survive in rundown hostels.
Our Aussies cooked us dinner the last night in Lisbon (core ingredients: garlic and eye contact), and we made a vat of sangria (really good wine for €1? We’ll take four) and ran around the Alfama*, listened to jazz, and met Eduardo, the most aesthetically appealing Italian/Portuguese guy currently in creation. Drunk Marlo, when realizing our friend Ashley from St. Louis had swooped in for the same kill, launched a tirade verbalizing the “glaringly obvious” fact that Eduardo liked men. Whoever requested sour grapes, your order is up!
*THE ALFAMA: Lisbon’s major earthquake in 1755 destroyed most of the city, aided by the fires that followed it, but a decent-sized area just below the castle survived the destruction and is now the oldest surviving part of Lisbon, and one of the most unreal neighbourhoods I have ever seen. It’s all jagged brimstone, broken down shops, and unique sights and smells. Not to mention the most killer view in the city.
Interesting Randomer #3: Nobuku, a Brazilian Japanese guy who thought Marlo and I were God’s gift to comedy (no, he wasn’t drunk… we don’t think…), laughed uncontrollably at every “joke” we attempted and repeatedly suggested we get our own TV show. I offered Nobuku obscene amounts of money to follow us around as our promoter, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be and we headed out to Porto; having gained two Aussies but not the Brazilian fan club we’d always dreamed of.
*Story paused for a puke break*: An old boyfriend once used the delightful term “vomit chorus” and it has never applied so fully to my life as it did the day we went back to Porto. Food poisoning is a really good way to NOT see a city. On the plus side, however, my stomach has never been so flat. On the down side, our bikini dreams never came true, so no one can verify that. Moving on.
By the time we made it outside, I fell in love with Porto. The four of us went wandering around wine cellars and sampled port, laid in the sun and hiked up and down the steep hills until hunger drove us home. We cooked the boys dinner, discussed African development, and passed out embarrassingly early that night due to our total inability to deal with the heat and early wakeup call the next day. Overall, a pretty anticlimactic ending to the trip that was meant to contain 4 days more beach quotient, 1 day less puke quotient and a freaking ton more muscled men with palm leaves, but what can you do? Our dreams of sun, sand and sangria were only fulfilled by one third, but Portugal… we’ll be back.