Portugal, the land of explorers and adventurers. It’s hard to imagine the global power and sheer wealth this small European nation once possessed. The traces of its past global empire however are still quite visible today. Lisbon’s majestic skyline, Sintra’s extravagant and imposing castles and Porto’s marvelous bridges are just some indications of the country’s rich cultural history and economic might.
The first week of the year has gone by like a flash of lightning. There have already been so many impressions, activities and encounters that a week seems like too little time to fit them all. Then again, the eagerness to experience as much as possible in as little time as possible is a typical feeling for me in the beginning of a journey. I suppose it is for most people, and especially if they’re just on a two- or three-week holiday. As much as I’ve been talking about it, the fact that this trip is actually going to last a year has not yet fully sunk in. Right now it simply feels like yet another city trip or short getaway. Of course that’s logical if you think about it, but it is causing me to perhaps overdo things just a little bit.
Which is not exactly discouraged by the hostel environment I’ve been a part of for most of the time. The backpacker way of life has its own set of characteristics just like any other travel niche. The constant flow of new people you meet, spontaneous plans that are made for the day or night to come, the exchange of profound or ridiculous or just batshit crazy stories defines how you spend your time if you choose to be a part of it. Traveler clichés are confirmed by enthusiastic ever-present Australians, hardcore drinking French or organized Germans. They are contradicted by highly intelligent and down-to-earth Texans and weed smoking Austrians. And somewhere in the middle of it all you find yourself becoming a part of a constantly changing group of friends, with a typical turnover rate of about three days and a continuous search for people to connect with.
And to be honest, that can become exhausting at times. The conversations very often start the same way (Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? – the WWW of backpacking). Everyone you meet is different and unique in their own way. Some people you immediately feel at ease with, with others it’s all superficial banter. Some people you hate and some people you love. Finding out which is which while carving out your daily routine (or lack thereof) and seeing places takes considerable effort.
Now look at me complaining about my trip one week in, like an ungrateful spoiled kid that can’t have all the lollypops in the candy store. You might be thinking that me saying this now already isn’t exactly a good sign for what is to come. But it’s just reality and I’d say it’s better to realize it and deal with it early on. That being said I am profoundly happy and satisfied with all that has occurred so far, and all that’s yet to come. I mean I’ve walked through underground caves, climbed saturated green hills to colorful castles and sat on cobblestone streets talking to likeminded people all night long. And that was just day 2.
Despite all of this, I’ve already had plenty of time by myself. Moments where I’ve been traveling between places, or just sightseeing on my own between a quiet breakfast and an unaccompanied dinner. And I love those moments too. Either to process all the events of the previous days or simply collect my thoughts on something I’ve had on my mind. Sitting at a restaurant by oneself sometimes triggers curious glances from or awkward interactions with staff or fellow guests. It’s a perfect illustration of the implicit meaning people attach to others being on their own. That it’s because you’re inadequate at finding people to spend time with, or are in some respect a loner.
And in a way that’s one of the great paradoxes of traveling alone. You alternate between one of the most social environments imaginable and perfect solitude and that can create sudden and extreme changes in mindset. Non-solo travelers and locals see one side, tourists in diners see the other. Only you have the complete picture and the confidence that you are not defined by how others see you but by how you see yourself. Overcoming this anxiety is not only incredibly relieving, but crucial to the whole undertaking.
Now let’s talk about food. Because I simply need to mention it. Portuguese food is the bomb. I’m pretty sure I will probably say this about most places I’ll go, but it's a fact that cannot be overstated. The amazing Pasteis de Belém - little cream-filled cakes encrusted with the crispest dough - are to die for. Porto’s port wine is as sweet and delicious as it is cheap, and Nazaré’s sea food dishes have managed to give me the closest thing yet to what I think would best be described as a food orgasm. And a glorious one at that. As I’m sure we can all agree on, food can tell you just as much (or perhaps more) about a place’s background and local customs as any building or view.
Without sounding too dramatic, Murakami’s 1Q84 is quite a fitting read for this part of the journey. Like the main character I feel a little bit like having ended up in a parallel universe, that’s how vastly different my life is now compared to just a couple weeks ago. I have a lot more free time (a lot), to do or not do with what I please and that is becoming more and more a calming notion rather than an uncomfortable one.
So what’s next you ask! Well after Nazaré, the epic beach town with world-record waves, I’ll move down to Lagos for some southern Portuguese seaside adventures and then on to Faro before leaving Portugal in about a week for Seville. It’s promising to be suntan inducing, night swim encouraging and laziness inspiring.
But most of all it’s unknown, which is what’s most exciting.
September 9th, 2016