As Tony and I reached the front door to exit the hostel on the next morning, Juan said, “Where are you going first?” Tony opened his mouth to explain, but Juan’s expression told us that was the wrong answer. We looked at each other confused, until he came out from behind the desk and ushered us down the hall and into another room where low-volume music was playing and a lavish breakfast was spread upon the table. Components of this breakfast also lay around the room. On the table, a giant teacup shaped bowl was filled with honeydew, cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi and grapes. There were five different kinds of cake surrounding the fruit bowl. On a bar near the table was a selection of orange and vegetable juices, yogurts, granola, oranges and apples. Across the room on another countertop was a selection of boiled eggs, cereals, coffee, tea in flavors from chamomile to peach vanilla, breads and jams. On a sideboard next to that was a selection of meats arranged on a platter with different types of cheeses. “We only put that out for the Americans,” Juan said, explaining that the Portuguese find meat in the mornings offensive. He elaborated on what was a quite accurate account of the “American” breakfast: eggs, bacon, ham. He stated that for the Portuguese, a simple cup of coffee with milk and sugar and a slice of cake was the standard fare. Juan once worked on a cruise ship, and the breakfasts he was forced to fix for the guests used to upset his stomach. After a month or two, he grew used to it, but still maintains the Portuguese preference of a light breakfast for himself. He explained how espresso is only drunk early in the day, otherwise, he would never be able to sleep.
There are some foreign words that sound like American words, but mean something totally different. You should never use these words until you know what they are. One of those words is “preservatif.” While Americans might consider a “preservatif” something that makes sure your food doesn’t spoil (such as a refrigerator or MSG), to the Portuguese (and to the French and Spanish) a “preservatif” is a condom. So, when Juan started talking, surprisingly, about political issues at the forefront of Portugal’s concerns at the moment, I was able to follow his train of thought when he said that young people in Lisbon should not fail to use “preservatifs” to prevent abortions. Apparently, like America, there is a concern politically about the use of abortion. I was delighted to find that Juan and I shared similar views on the subject, but I remembered thinking how odd it was to have that type of conversation at breakfast. After about an hour and a half of intriguing discussion (everything from politics, to employment, to living at home), Juan stated that he could keep us there talking forever and we had things in Lisbon to see. So, he ushered us out of the door and onto the Rua do Crucifixo.
This time, per Paula’s instructions from the day before, we took the 28 tram to the Belem Tower, one of the most popular sites in Lisbon. The Belem Tower, (pronounced Beh-lehn), is a fortified tower that served as the gateway to the city of Lisbon and as a defense against enemies. Built in the 16th century, the tower is made of limestone and is four stories high. Walking up the circular stairways inside made me feel like I would never reach the top. It seemed like much more than just four stories! And each story exited onto a balcony overlooking the Tagus River.
The tower is cut off from the shoreline by a drawbridge operated by a pulley system. My love of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy made me imagine a cave troll turning the heavy, spiked wheel, drawing up the bridge in the face of invaders. I couldn’t help myself. Once you cross the bridge into the tower and pay the entry fee, you will enter into the Baterie Baixa, or Lower Battery. From here, all the windows are guarded by cannon that are aimed over the water. There is a pit in the floor where the artillery would be kept. This room is large, with a checkered floor and little in the way of decoration. Below the Baterie, a dungeon held as many as a hundred prisoners at a time. The windows to this chamber were holes in the ceiling, now covered with grates and glass. There is a reason for the glass. If you look up, you will clearly see water is being kept out by the thick covering. When you obtain purchase on the upper levels, you can clearly see that the dungeon is situated under a moat-like pool which is filled with water when the tide rolls in. How cold and wet it must have been for the prisoners in this tiny dungeon, being packed like sardines in such a small space, the floor filling with water each time the tide rolled in. Of course, I can’t assume that this was always the case. Certain geographical catastrophes (such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake) or more subtle changes in the land could have changed the conditions in which these prisoners lived. It might not have been the tide that came in through the windows. Perhaps the prisoners only got wet when it rained, because regardless of the geographical arrangement of the land, rain will always fall.
The trip to the first balcony nearly killed me. What is it with the Portuguese and stairs?? The winding staircase curved up and up and just kept going. It was only wide enough for one person at a time, so determining whether someone was coming down at the same time you were going up without being able to see past the curve in the wall of the stairwell was an interesting endeavor. Fortunately, the sound of footsteps echoed off the limestone well enough to hear someone approaching. Telling whether they were nearing the second story or were still on the fourth story was impossible, however– like a mountain in the desert that seems close until you start walking toward it. With only half a bottle of water. And no sunscreen. (And, no, that has never happened to me. Ha.) Once on the main patio, the view of the river and the surrounding landscape is incredible! The shadows and light play mysteriously off one another, making each crevice enticing. The projecting turrets on the corners of each of the levels contained arrow slits or murderholes and were small enough for only one person, especially if that person was carrying a weapon. Projectiles could be thrown or fired through the slits at any enemy force, while offering protection to the defenders of the castle. The view from each of these windows is lovely. Most prominent is the view of the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge that closely resembles San Francisco’s Golden Gate. The top balcony exhibits a plethora of towers in the Manueline style. Each tower is intricately designed, and most are different from one another.
But now, on to the important stuff. The Belem Cake is a Portuguese institution. It’s pretty easy to tell where these cakes are. But the storefront may be deceptive. For one thing, the pastelaria where the cakes can be purchased resembles a sidewalk kabob restaurant. Where the 28 tram drops you, it’s a very short walk to the pastelaria, though. The line stretching from the shop tells you that the world-famous Belem Cakes can be purchased here. The cake is a traditional Portuguese dessert called Pastel de Nata. You can find it in any pastelaria. But those bakeries cannot call their cakes “Belem Cakes” and Juan insists that you can easily tell the difference between the real thing and the reproductions. It’s like how no one else’s turkey and dressing can be mom’s turkey and dressing. So, after visiting the tower and having a Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail) at the cafe near the tower, Tony and I located the pastelaria and purchased authentic Belem Cakes. They were well worth the calories! The Belem Cake is like a pudding or a custard (but not quite) in a pie crust (but not quite) covered with cinnamon.
Just down the street from the pastelaria spans the Cathedral of St. Jeronimos. It’s spires are similar to those of the Belem Tower, but the cathedral dwarfs the tower in size. Everytime I saw the word “Jeronimos”, I thought of the story of Geronimo, the American Indian. I don’t recall the way that story went, but in my mind, I always seem to see Geronimo jumping from a plane (even though planes hadn’t been invented then). I always used to see the state of Utah as an orange, squarish object just like on my grade school maps, until I actually saw the state, which isn’t nearly as orange as Nevada. Technically, however, “Jeronimos” refers to St. Jerome, the saint almost always portrayed with a lion.
Unfortunately, we didn't know how awesome Lisbon was when we booked our trip. That resulted in a stay of only two days, which isn't nearly enough time to spend in this beautiful city. When we told her we were headed to Madrid the next morning, Paula told us that we wouldn't like the Spanish. "They think they're special!" she said. The next morning at 5:30 a.m., we hauled our things out of the Hotel and into the back of a waiting cab. The cabbie drove through the deserted Lisbon streets at a breakneck pace. we bounced up and down as the car shuddered over the cobblestones. My last memory of leaving Lisbon was thinking that I was going to die.
How curious it is that a city of so much excess flourishes in a place of such sparseness. Just outside the borders of that city, the constant flow gives way to the oppressive stillness of the desert. The traveler encounters the sudden silence as if striking a wall. Who dreamed up that city? The brightness of its lights and sequins gives no time for the thoughtful to reflect on its inner ruin. She is like the craggy-skinned old woman who dresses her face with makeup that hides her age from no one-- not even herself. But daily, we do not tell her it is hopeless. She is content thinking that we do not know. Even the insides of those huge casinos, cities in themselves, give one the illusion of being outside. The ceilings are painted blue with white puffy clouds. Storm clouds gather over the fountain where Zeus perpetually raises his thunderbolt. Nothing here is real. It is the motion of the cities visitors revolving around the static inhabitants that powers the city. Those inhabitants paint their faces like clowns and dress in costume every day. They are slaves and prisoners, captured by roving caravans of slave traders that have brought them into that city to perform. They are gladiators.
So, I was happy to escape that place of constant movement for the slower, more quiet life of Boulder City, on the banks of Lake Mead. Our campsite looked directly out onto the lake. Though it looked close, the lake was some miles off. The perspective in the desert is not to be trusted. A slight wind was blowing up from the lake and the sunset erupted the lake into deep reds and oranges. The reddish mountains create a Martian-like landscape, and even though some of the country looks harsh and unforgiving, the life-giving waters of Lake Mead encourage the growth of a multitude of trees and flowering plants that one does not find within the borders of the desert. Waterfowl swam placidly on the lake and their was an abundance of crows. Even though there seemed to be few types of birds, the capacity of the crow to mimic other calls made it seem that a variety of birds were hidden in the bushes, just beyond view. Boulder City, too, is a quaint, slow-moving town. Its downtown area is reminiscent of those California seaside towns like Carmel-by-the-Sea and Cambria. Its clean, cobblestone streets provided an excellent escape for those who were ready to escape the mindless entertainment provided by nearby Las Vegas. The presence of trees reduced the blistering heat and businesses closed early so the shopkeepers could return home to their families.
Though Lake Mead is beautiful and calming, rumors abounded that the lake was losing water levels due to the excesses of Las Vegas, and the presence of drought. Many marinas that had once enjoyed a huge influx of travelers had had to close down due to the falling water levels. However, high snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas provided a much-needed reprieve. Still, the once-bustling resort town of Echo Bay had very nearly joined the group of Nevada ghost towns like Rhyolite. There, the hotel had been closed indefinitely. In the summer season before the shutdown, the hotel had only received two guests. I felt a kind of sadness for the death of this town, left to the care of a woman and her husband and less than ten caretakers.
On Realizing You Are NOT Heartless (Because you can hear it pounding)
My first memory of Lisbon is feeling like I might die. The Pensao Royal on Rua do Crucifixo is some six flights up. No elevator. Tony and I, hauling our overstuffed backpacks, tromped the narrow, ascending stairs with slow-witted footsteps, our chests heaving. But the walk is worth it, because the Pensao Royal, run by Paula, a lovely hostess with long, dark brown hair and an enchanting accent, is a miracle in the center of the Chiado district. The room we are housed in is a cheery yellow with butterfly and flower decals on the walls and optimistic pillowcases and small throw pillows in the shape of owls. The room overlooks the Rua do Crucifixo.
The observer can easily note the colorful facades that make up a large majority of the old structures of Lisboa. Juan, a caretaker of the hotel, tells us that the Portuguese do not tear down the fronts of the old buildings, but rather make improvements behind the original facades. These structures are made from many different materials and have interesting internal configurations. They remind me of people whose faces only age, seldom changing their original structures, but internally make hosts of improvements, changes, or breakdowns. Inside, the stairwells may be made of uncertain number of steps or one may find the doorway to a room that was not expected. A piece of plaster torn away may reveal the most intricate pattern of colorful tile. We are like this. Like us, these buildings have character. Unlike the United States (from the streets of Mountain Brook in Birmingham, Alabama to the pitted, snow-covered roads of Racine, Wisconsin), no two structures look alike. It is Juan that checks us into our rooms. He is tall, willow thin, with a shock of curly, brown hair and kind eyes. He speaks English well, with the peculiar accent common with the Portuguese, Spanish and French. He knows we look tired from our journey (and indeed, we have visited three airports in the United States, plus the airport in Lisbon, all within the span of an extended day (brought on by the six hour difference in time from the beginning of our journey to its end). Our shoulders hurt with the weight of our bags, but our spirits are high. We are looking forward to nearly two weeks of adventure. It is only midday in Lisbon, so we decide to strike out from our hotel through the Praca do Comercio. Its boundary is the harbor. It is pressed toward the sea by the streets of Lower Chiado.
The square is wide, cut through by a busy street that separates the upper part of the square from the lower part and the sea. There are tourists in the Praca do Comercio: some girls, finely dressed, taking pictures of each other near a monument that look like a man in a feathered headdress. Of course, I can't read the Portuguese that explains who the statue is, but he looks like an explorer and a conqueror. Perhaps even a king. Across the street, near the sea, stairs lead down to a dark beach, more rock than sand, the kind of silt one expects from years of tides washing in oil and debris from the traffic of a busy port. But the beach isn't dirty, just dark, but its black rocks make the brown sand seem whiter.
Something about the contrast of the rocks and the shore reminded me of Piedras Blancas in San Simeon, California, a small stretch of beach just outside the Hearst Castle, where sea lions come to lay in the sun. But there were no sea lions here. Merely swarms of gulls, cawing at the visitors, curious of everything. Paula had given us instructions on how to get to the famous Belem Tower, but in the way of overwhelmed travelers, we hardly understood her directions. There was some discussion among us as to whether Paula had said to take the 28 tram or the 28 bus to get to Belem, so after a few minutes, we found ourselves boarding the 28 bus. It was the wrong choice, however. So for the first hour and a half of our trip, we find ourselves circling the city entire. For the 28 bus travels nearly the circumference of Lisboa, along the coastline and through all the major neighborhoods of the city. We could have gotten to Belem, most likely, taking that route, had we only known which stop to get off on. Instead, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't nice to sit down for a while and enjoy the sights of the city and hear Portuguese spoken by native speakers. It was a nice break from walking the city. When the bus ended at its terminus, we had to switch back to the bus going the other direction and finally made it back to the Praca do Comercio, not long before the sun started to wane. From the Praca do Comercio, we wandered the streets of Lower Chiado, checking out buildings and graffiti, entryways and alleyways, getting our bearings. We'd had trouble finding the hotel that afternoon and had tried asking various patrons of that great city. So, we already had some sense of which streets led to the hotel and which led into the city. We traversed up stairways leading to breathtaking views of the harbor, through winding streets where artists and craftsmen made handmade tiles or textiles or sold their paintings on the streets. I bought three canvas paintings from a street artist for ten euros. Two of them I bought for gifts, but one I saved for myself. All around us were the colorful houses and businesses so prevalent in Lisbon.
Walk Through Lisboa or "How They Found Their Way."
Winding through the alleyways found us looking into windows that held anything from antiques to cheeses. The windows displayed the shopkeepers' wares in the most appealing light. The Portuguese know how to decorate, both their dwellings and themselves. I found them to be the most fashionable people I had the opportunity to witness. The Euro is worth quite a bit more than the dollar, so I continued to wonder what kind of businesses these young, stylish people found themselves involved in. What enabled them to be able to spend even weeknights partying in the Bairro Alto and wearing such nice clothes? From Juan, I found out that the young people there live with their parents until they get married. Unlike the American ideal of proving your independence, Portuguese youngsters rely on their parents and families to teach them the ways of the world: to help them afford their food and clothing, to find them satisfactory houses when they marry and to keep up their children's standard of living so they lack nothing. While in America, I would be considered a "loser" since I am unemployed and living at home with my parents, the Portuguese considered me to be smart, living on my parents love and dollar until I obtained some kind of firm footing in the world. It's not actually like that, however, for me at least. I have lived away from home for quite a long time, done several different jobs and obtained some degrees and some publishing cred, so in my case, most people just shrug and say, "Everyone goes home sometime." This is true. But for the benefit of storytelling, I tell Juan whatever will make the best conversation.
During our trek, I had happened upon an Italian restaurant with a beautifully decorated interior. It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so I had planned to return. As it happened, though, when we returned to the hotel, Paula provided sausage rolls for our dinner, and my traveling companion was too tired to go out for a meal. So, we decided to rest for a time.
That evening, Tony and I find our way into the Bairro Alto to have a beer at one of the many bars with outside tables. The bar we chose had a band playing in front of it, some traditional music of one of the islands off the coast of Africa, which unfortunately, after a drink or two, now eludes me. A wispy, dark-skinned girl was dancing in front of her bandmates, alternately moving in swaying ecstasy and peddling CDs to the bar's patrons. I am always afraid I am being rather rude to those solicitors, but I do not often buy things off the streets, since once I start, every peddler within a two-mile vicinity will expect to make a sale. When you are traveling Europe on a budget, you have to be discerning. Plus, I had little room left in my carry on and was saving most of my room for goods procured in Morocco, which we would not be in for several days' time. By now, my exhaustion is seeping from my pores, so we decide to call it a night. The night time had become increasingly cold, so we expected a rather miserable rest; however, the blankets on the bed kept us delightfully warm.
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