The Paradise and the Wasteland
My arrival to Portugal was a complete anomaly as far as hitch-hiking goes. This realization came to me as I found myself standing at the exit of a truck stop some 20 kilometers north of Santarem on May 1st.
I was in poor spirits. The previous day was about as bad as it can get (it can always get worse, but it usually doesn’t). Our day ended with a meal of museli, gas station bread, chocolate spread, and a bag of Fritos. Our night began at a camp site just over a barbed-wire fence behind a truck stop. (I actually slept pretty well, all things considered).
The next morning, full of the optimism that everyone gets for free at the beginning of each new day, I sat on a guard rail and surveyed the parking lot of the truck stop that contained exactly 0 cars. Meanwhile, I listened to Maria in the background throwing rocks at signs and talking to snails.
“This is where we die.” I thought.
~One Week Earlier~
Maria and I finished hiking El Camino de Santiago on April 22nd and not a moment too soon. The previous two nights I had been feeling a bit off. Nothing major, just nausea and chills at night. Fred and Jen (our Canadians) insisted that it was just because I was tired from walking so much with so much weight etc. etc. But I knew quite well that I had contracted some milder form of what Maria had a few days earlier. We share everything.
Despite feeling quite ill, I went out with our Canadians for tapas in Santiago to celebrate the end of our journey. It ended up being the best meal I had in Spain. Everything was perfect and delicious. Unfortunately, I paid the price that night because I was up out of bed every 20 minutes running to the toilet. This persisted for the next 9 hours. I got no sleep and was in agony all night. Maria slept peacefully beside me the entire time.
A side note: I do not disturb Maria when I am ill. The logic is simple: there is absolutely nothing she can do for me to alleviate my illness, and I need her refreshed and rested so that she can take care of me the following day. The system works. Trust me.
Naturally, when I got out of bed the following day I felt like death. I was in the most hippie-new-age-indie hostel I have ever seen. It was peaceful, quiet, clean, and smelled of incense. The conditions for illness could have been worse (things can always be worse, you all know that now).
“What do you want to do?” Maria asked me in the morning
“Just get me out of Spain.”
And that is what we did. We had a host waiting for us in Porto and I was eager to reach him. No more albergues, no more bread and Nutella. Sick or not, I have a schedule to keep. But it was no use against the utter death-march the universe had planned for us that morning.
Our day turned into two hours of aimless trudging through the city after a bad starting spot. We had no fewer than 3 cry breaks before we finally found our road out. By this time it was almost 1:30 and we finally managed to get a lift right before the motorway from a young Spanish girl. She took us about 20 kilometers and when we parted she wished us luck and gave Maria an ice cream.
“Okay, things are looking up. At least we are out of Santiago.”
Unfortunately, the Laws of the Universe do not guarantee that getting out of one horrible situation grants you immunity from subsequent horrible situations. And that is more or less what happened. Again, parked against a guard rail, I crouched in the sun and waited for death. Casually I scanned my surroundings looking for viable camping. It was very likely that we would have to stay there if we did not wither away and die before nightfall.
In the exact moment that I was considering prayer, a car pulled over. It was a Portuguese man in his mid to late forties. He was going directly to Porto. It is over a 2 hour drive, (this is commonly known as a “Trail Angel”).
After two lifts and one juice break at a truck stop, we were picked up by Miguel (our host) at a gas station. At the time I couldn’t even focus, but I learned later that the lush backyard was full of orange trees, lemon trees, kiwis, grapes, strawberries and countless flowers. It smelled like California, and I was happy.
I immediately asked him where I could lay down, and that is where I stayed for the next 18 hours enjoying the sound of classical guitar and the smell of bread baking.
Now Miguel. He is a 46 year-old computer science professor with a PhD in engineering. He has been playing the guitar for 30 years and is classically trained. He lives in his late grandmother’s house where he built a steam room. He knows magic tricks, and EVERYTHING about Portugal and his schedule is so light that he can afford to spend all of his time with couch surfers. In fact, while we stayed with him we also stayed with about 8 additional people.
My initial impression of Portugal was incredible. The following morning we set up breakfast outside in his garden. I ate yogurt, strawberries, Portuguese cheese, coffee, and fresh squeezed orange juice from oranges that came from the tree next to me that very morning. Afterward, we went in the steam room and I had a proper Turkish bath, ridding myself of all of the filth of the Camino. After that, Miguel drove us to the beach and we had beers practically on the sand. I was not even sure this was real life anymore. I considered for a moment that I had died in Spain and this was my heaven.
Miguel insisted that we have some truly authentic Portuguese food and so we went to a very special hole-in-the-wall that we would have never found otherwise. There, everyone else feasted on grilled sardines, squid, garlic potatoes, huge salads and olives. I of course, just getting back into the habit of eating, sampled as much as I could.
The fun did not end there. The Korean girls went off to Porto and the newcomers, a Belgian carnie and his French girlfriend accompanied us on a “hike” to some waterfalls. This turned out to mean free-climbing bushwhack through the mountains to not-so-secret waterfalls. According to Miguel, the Portuguese are too lazy to climb down to the pools and the tourists don’t know about them. So after some near-death climbing, we found ourselves (all 5 of us) swimming naked in a pool beneath a 30 meter waterfall in Portugal. It was truly an adventure and I somehow made it back alive.
The adrenaline rush left us all feeling like more adventure. Miguel called up his friend who happens to own a vineyard paradise nearby. We drove there and enjoyed bottle after bottle of free Vino Verde and enjoyed a complete authentic Portuguese meal. Just me, Maria, the Belgian carnies, and Miguel.
We ended up staying with Miguel for an entire week. I mean, we would have been crazy to leave. He took us to a vegan-anarchist bar for their 5th birthday party. There were clowns and free snacks including vegan chocolate cake. This, among countless jam sessions and breakfasts in the garden. I really could not have imagined a better host than Miguel.
Of course, he was particularly nice to us because he was quite smitten with Maria. Such is life when you travel with someone who is so attractive. But you can read more about that in HER blog.
Now, the time finally did come for us to leave Miguel’s house. We had set up a couch in Aljezur, approximately 250 kilometers away from Porto. It is not such a bad distance except that we have to navigate past Lisbon. There is no direct road south and this has the potential for problems. Maria neglected to inform me of the utter disaster hitch-hiking in Portugal really is. But it’s not a problem because I found out for myself very quickly.
The first rule I have formulated for myself regarding hitch-hiking is this: NEVER start hitch-hiking out of a city without doing your own research first. The supplementary caveat to this rule is to never trust someone’s idea of a “good spot” if they never hitch-hike themselves.
We were dropped in a terrible place at 11am. Much too late to begin such a long day. After spending 45 minutes effectively waving at strangers passing by, we decided to leave. This required walking to the opposite side of the city, adding easily two hours to our journey. Fuck.
Maria had her first real breakdown of our travel. Why did we not consult hitch-wiki before trying to get out of Porto? Eventually we found the road and walked down and down and down until we hit a truck stop. From there it was still a long time before we found a lift. Hundreds of cars passed us and no one stopped.
We got a lift to the truck stop near Santarem and that is where we stayed. Thumbing for nearly 4 hours with no luck whatsoever. Many people going to Lisbon, but it was too late in the day to get stuck in a city with no camping available. And finally, the next morning, still no luck.
Some police officers stopped and asked if we were going to Lisbon. We excitedly said yes, showing them our signs which said EVERYTHING: Sul, Lisboa, Algarve, Aljezur, Faro. They spoke amongst themselves for a minute and then drove off without any further acknowledgement.
Of course, we were rescued eventually around 9am. We practically coerced a woman into driving us near Lisbon and she was very kind, but clueless and dropped us off on the actual motorway. Now most of you don’t know this, but if you ever have the pleasure of hitch-hiking in Portugal the very kind highway patrol workers will make sure you know one thing: There is no walking on the autopista.
The next thing you will learn is that this is as far as their knowledge goes. When you are dropped onto the motorway, you are unable to walk, and yet, they are unable to drive you off. A modern paradox. And this is the situation we found ourselves in. In the end, the officer told us to walk “that way” as he gestured to the horizon into oblivion. And also told us to pretend that we had not seen him.
Oh Portugal, the land of cheap fish, beer, and uncrowded beaches. This is the same land that still very much maintains its mentality of a police state. There are so many police officers and so many random check points that everyone is afraid of getting caught with a wayward traveler carrying drugs.
“Ah, so this is where we die.” I remember remarking to myself as we walked toward the horizon.
Our strategy changed from the conventional thumbs-out-smiling approach to frantic arm-waving distress signals. The drivers smiled and waved at us.
“Fuck this.” I grabbed my bag and turned around indignant. Just at that moment, I heard Maria screaming at me.
A car had stopped. Thank God.
This guy was from Angola and I found out quickly that he brakes for all birds. Nevertheless, we were dropped safely on the national road to begin our second stint of wasteland wandering. We walked maybe 8 kilometers and were passed by hundreds of cars. Not a single one stopped. There is nothing to do at that point but laugh. And maybe borrow some oranges from a nearby farm because we were starving.
We decided to park in front of a pharmacy and watch as all traffic passed us. A toothless man across the street brought us a bag of food. That is how pathetic we looked sitting in the dust next to the road begging for salvation.
We made it to Aljezur at 5pm. Exactly 9 hours after we started hitch-hiking that morning. Jesus tap-dancing-Christ it was the longest day ever and it ended with a truly awkward situation.
~The (somewhat awkward) Paradise~
Have you ever couch surfed as a lesbian woman with an Arab Muslim? Oh really? Because I have.
I am a huge fan of profiling people as a traveler. I need to do it in order to keep myself safe. If some guy looks shifty, then I don’t get in his car. I am not rude, or aggressive toward anyone, but the last thing on my list of concerns is preserving the feelings of someone who might do me harm.
That being said, I also try to avoid situations that might become confrontational, such as, planning to stay in the home of someone who hates gay people. Maria and I are not “out” as a couple on our couch-surfing profiles. We are considering changing this now, but initially we decided it was a better idea to keep it quiet.
The situation was such that, we were invited into the home of Bilal. He lives directly on the beach in Aljezur and is somewhat of a fixture in the community. Originally, we were not planning to stay with him because he had negative references on his couch-surfing profile from women. They expressed discomfort with his attitude toward women and of course, we listened to this warning.
However, we were also planning to surf with a guy in Aljezur we found on BeWelcome. It didn’t occur to us until we arrived in Aljezur that it was THE SAME GUY we saw on couchsurfing. Uh oh. But, upon re-reading the negative references, we decided to give it a shot. If it was truly uncomfortable, we would just leave and go camp somewhere.
The moment I saw him I was shocked. A very large (read: rotund) man. I tried to conceal my surprise but my eyes were as wide as saucers. I extended my hand hoping for an American handshake, but he went ahead and leaned in for the European two-kiss greeting. I cannot tell you how much I hate that. First of all, it takes forever to introduce yourself to a group of people. Secondly, the only people who are really into it are men. Precisely the people who I would prefer not to rub my face against.
Anyway, he was polite enough. I was quite shocked, but not scared. There were no actual red-flags or gut feelings about him so we continued our meeting. He drove us up to his house and showed us to our own private room. Inside there were two twin beds and one double bed.
“You are a couple, right?”
Is it that obvious?
“Yeah. I hope that’s okay.”
“I thought so. I don’t care. Which one of you is the man?”
“I think you are the man.” he said to me.
I’d like to call this next segment “Things Not to Say to a Lesbian”
“It’s like with dogs. For example.” he began.
What the fucking fuck.
“You can always tell… dogs they think the leader is one in front. If the dog is well-trained, he walks behind the master. Katie. She walks in front. She takes the lead.”
This is not happening.
“Of course, I can only really tell if you kiss in front of me.”
Maybe one of the guys reading this can tell me why on earth anyone would think this is appropriate conversation 4 seconds after we arrived at his house.
I looked over to Maria with horror. Yet, I still somehow managed to understand that there was no antagonism in his voice. I truly think he was trying to be funny and make us feel more comfortable. (just a side note: this is the worst way to go about that, you know, just for future reference).
I for one, have a healthy sense of humor, I can handle most things. But his jokes were more like something to cringe at than to laugh at. It’s kind of like when your dad tries to be cool by saying things like “YOLO” * facepalm*
“Listen, I don’t care. You will see, I am a very liberal guy. If you are a couple, just say so. I’m not interested to see you together.”
He seemed to understand his mistake.
And then after that, no more awkward comments. In fact, he was excellent. We asked him all sorts of questions about Islam and Arab culture. We picked his brains about what we could expect in Morocco and he was extremely generous with information. He was kind, respectful, and I felt very comfortable staying with him. All of this, despite a slightly awkward start to things.
The best part for me was hearing about the previous couch surfers who left him negative references. Hearing his side of the story was very good for me. Because in that moment, I realized that Bilal spends a lot of his time trying to overcome other people’s prejudices about him.
He is a large Arab guy and he is frequently hosting couch surfers, a lot of whom happen to be young girls. Everyone in the community judges him for this (couchsurfing is hard for a lot of people to understand) and his surfers judge him because he is a large Arab guy who hosts a lot of young girls. It was good for me to get his perspective, even though we definitely disagree on many things, that is kind of the point.
When someone says “I like to travel to meet new people.” what they more often than not mean is, they like meeting new people who think exactly like they do. As I sat across from Bilal, someone who shares such a different perspective than I do, I was suddenly thankful of the opportunity to actually be able to share in someone else’s culture. It took me until that moment to realize how truly rare that was.
~Paradise Part Deux~
We were actually able to avoid the Wasteland that is hitch-hiking in Portugal because our next host only lived 45 kilometers away and offered to pick us up. This is where I begin culture shock number 2. Kurt, our 64 year-old host from Germany.
Kurt lives within walking distance from here:
Kurt has worked for many years in civil engineering and project managing with American companies as well as European companies. He is wicked smart and very open minded. The only thing is that he talks constantly and is a bit deaf so for the past 4 days we have hardly had a chance to get a word in edgewise.
I’m not kidding. In 4 days, I have maybe managed to get 6 sentences across to him. He also has this hilarious habit of citing the year as “nineteen hundred and seventy-six” and it cracks me up every time. Some of his little nuggets of wisdom are hilarious. For example…
“When you are tired…sleep.” and “If you never take the first step, then you never arrive.”
But other points he has driven home have a little more depth…
“Accept what you did in the past. If you do not like it, then do not do it again. If you do like it, then do it again.”
And these types of things go on and on all day. Still, despite the extremely one-sided conversation, he somehow achieved the impression that Maria and I are very intelligent and worth having around.
“It took me 57 years to find Algarve, and here you are! so young! Please, I invite you to stay as long as you like. You have the key. Just take it. All is easy for me.”
He added that we are intelligent and disciplined. Coming from a German guy I take this as a compliment in the highest order.
As such, he has offered to drive us practically everywhere and show us everything about Portimao.
So far, we have been…
For these things, all I have to do is listen to this extremely kind man talk about his life. The best part is that everything he says is on point. He might repeat himself once or twice, but when it comes to sharing life lessons and experience, he is full of wisdom.
“Life is easy if you are organized.” This is so true.
“Run your own way, don’t discuss it, just do it.” Okay, maybe I’ve heard a similar version to this, but also true.
And perhaps the best advice of all was that of living in general. His philosophy is that you should determine what it is that makes you happy, and organize your life such that you have all of those things near you. For example, he needs fresh vegetables and sunshine and a friendly community. He finds all that he needs in Algarve, and he is very happy in his modest life.
Just an aside, the produce here is amazing:
It’s almost like attending a lecture all day every day except instead of sitting in a hall, you get to go to fish markets and walk on the beach.
Kurt has helped drive the point home that I am 25 and I know fuck all.
I mean, I have learned a lot and the things I do know are generally good things. I have a decent capacity for new information and I would consider myself to be very open minded. But I have so much more to go. And so, I shut my mouth and listen to Kurt. There is nothing I could tell him that he doesn’t already know (except for maybe that peanuts and hazelnuts are not part of the same family). The point is, this guy is probably the most authentic couch surfer I have met, and he is one of the most generous people I have met.
I feel very fortunate to have had the experiences in Portugal that I have had. There were some trying times, but I have been blown away by how awesome this country and the people are. I suppose in every place there is a wasteland and a paradise, the trick is just finding the right people to show you what’s what.
I am happy to report that Portugal seems to be more Paradise than Wasteland.