Hello there! Ember seems to have been a bit too lazy to keep her blog up to date so she asked me if I wanted to do a post about Portugal. She seems to have misjudged my laziness though and as such this post is a couple of weeks too late. Better late than never though, right? (Editor's note: That's a lie...you all know I'm not a lazy person :), I just haven't had reliable internet in Africa...go figure!)
So anyway, who am I? I'm Ilmer - don't ask about my name, that's a whole different and painful story! Just a random person living in Lisbon, Portugal. But this blog isn't about me, it's about Ember and her travelling stories so let's quickly get back on topic! I had the pleasure of meeting Ember when she passed through Lisbon and had some great adventures with her. To be honest, I was somewhat reluctant at first when I met Ember. As one of the CouchSurfing Administrators in Lisbon, I have been meeting so many random people lately that they all kind of blur into one big mess. I was looking forward to spending a lot of time with some other friends, relaxing and taking a break from hosing CouchSurfers.
I have no idea why, maybe I had one beer too many, maybe I just felt sorry for her as it was raining a lot at the time and she threatened to sleep on my doorstep or maybe it was the fact she claimed to be exiled from California, but I soon found myself agreeing to let Ember stay at my place for a couple of days. In retrospect it's painfully obvious that it was all due to her joyous expression and immediate familiarity, but, being a bit slow on occasion, it took me a while to realize that.
Let's fast forward a bit now... I'm supposed to be writing about her last weekend in Portugal. Ember mentioned that she wanted to go to the southernmost part of Portugal (the Algarve) and as my brother lives there along with his wife and their young baby, I figured I might as well visit them and as such we stayed at their place for the weekend. It's right in the middle of the Algarve, in a small village just inland from the coast. The Algarve is a famous tourist region and a large part of the coast is basically one resort after the next. I had already tried to convince Ember to avoid this area in general as there's not much to it that you can't find elsewhere in the world as well but the small villages inland are quite charming and the western and eastern parts of the Algarve are also quite nice.
We had been talking about kayaking a couple of times before, so when I mentioned that my brother had two kayaks Ember seemed pretty excited at the prospect. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very helpful and between the large waves on the sea, menacing rain and cool weather we figured it might be best to put it off for another day and explore the Algarve a bit. Ember kept saying that she was up for anything, so it wasn't really hard to come up with something we could do.
We decided to pick up my car from my parents house. It's a Citroën 2cv that has seen better days and I was a bit nervous about driving Ember around in it. While the prospect of her staying longer in Portugal was certainly pleasing, I didn't think that having her in the hospital for a couple of weeks would be ideal. Considering all that has happened in the past with this car-the hood flying off while driving, brakes not working, spontaneous fire in the engine, holes in the floor and what not-I had been crossing my fingers. By the end of the day, I was pretty glad that the most eventful moment while driving was when the roof almost flew off at some point, but luckily we managed to re-fasten it before it was too late.
Our first stop was Lagos which is a pretty important city in Portuguese history. As you may know the whole Age of Discoveries started with Portugal in the 15th century. Stuck between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese didn't have much of an option other than to try their luck overseas, and many of the ships set sail from Lagos.
After a short stroll though the center – during which we didn't manage to see much as I'm possibly the worst tour guide ever – we walked along the riverside to the sea and decided to hang out on the beach for a bit. By now the sun was shining,, the beach was deserted and the ocean was gorgeous. Ember was running and dancing around with a huge smile on her face and I don't remember seeing her that happy before. We were having a wonderful time at the beach until...two big waves caught us unaware and completely drenched us. That definitely was the sign that we had been on the beach long enough if we didn't want to end with severe pneumonia. After a stop at the beach bar to dry up a bit, we felt ready to venture out again and decided that we were up for something fun. Since we had some successful hitchhiking adventures by now, we wanted to take that to the next level and catch a ride on a boat! We had seen several boats coming down the river into the ocean so we decided to go back to the river. Unfortunately our hitchhiking luck seemed to have run out by now as only a single boat passed and they just ignored us. Still rather wet and getting cold, we figured it was best to move on, so we grabbed the car again and headed further west....
which brought us to Sagres! Surely you must have heard of Sagres!? Well, probably you actually haven't, but anyway Sagres is the southwesternmost point of continental Europe. Since prehistoric times it has been considered to be the end of the world and has been a sacred place for many cultures since. There's a big fort there where the Portuguese dreamt about far away lands and planned future voyages of discovery. The landscape in the western part of the Algarve consists of rocky cliffs with small sandy beaches between and rolling hills beyond. It's a beautiful area especially with the dramatic coastline. We stopped by the fort, on top of a cliff. The wind blows in straight from the Atlantic and the first obstacles in its path are the cliffs and people standing on them. The waves bash against the coast, some reaching the top of the 30 meter high cliffs, and there's nothing but water as far as you can see. All in all, it gives a tremendous idea of the strength of nature and it's easy to feel somewhat insignificant. Each year many tourists as well as local fishermen who stand on the cliffs miscalculate the danger and fall down the cliffs to certain death. The day we visited, it was so windy that for a moment when Ember wanted to take a picture from the edge I feared she might become part of the statistics, but thankfully that all ended well.
The next day we decided to finally go kayaking. In order to spare us the trouble of mounting two kayaks on the roof of my small car, we went to Faro where you can rent kayaks for free. We arrived while the place was still closed for lunch, so we killed some time with a nice walk and lunch at the beach. By now some laziness was also kicking in but we still had to go kayaking! We gathered all our energy (or at least I did, Ember might have not been that lazy actually) and went to the sportsclub to get the equipment. First thing we had to do there was to fill in a form describing... well basically your whole life story. This is Portugal after all and unnecessary paperwork is still very much a popular thing here. When we were finally ready we got the equipment and the lifeguard on duty started explaining some stuff. Apparently we weren't allowed to take the kayaks more than 50 meters to either side of the club and we had to stick to the lagoon side (the coast here is characterised by a system of barrier islands with a lagoon between the islands and the mainland). We were however allowed to go into a canal between some islands, so that's where we headed. As luck would have it, it had just become low tide and we got stuck in a shallow mud hole! We decided to make the best of it and just sat there for half an hour relaxing, talking and enjoying the sun before making our way back. So much for kayaking!
To wrap the day up we went for a quick stroll through Faro and had a conversation in Portuguese, which Ember was quickly picking up by now. Unfortunately that also meant the end of Ember's stay in Portugal. I'm really glad to have met Ember and had a great time while she was here. By now I was actually quite reluctant to let her go. To quote Tim Cahill - “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles” - and these days with Ember were certainly one of the best journeys I have had in a long time. Cheesy? Sure, but hey, sometimes you just gotta be cheesy.
My original assignment was actually to limit myself to three words as Ember didn't seem very confident about my writing. I guess I'll leave it up to her to edit it all down to three words but my suggestion would be: Come back soon!
I've had a very busy week! I've been to the southernmost and westernmost points of continental Europe, three countries and two continents!
Ilmer and I spent a great weekend staying with his brother and sister-in-law Wiebe and Maddy and exploring the Algarve-the southern state of Portugal. Ilmer grew up in the Algarve, so I had a local as a tour guide.
We bummed around the coast in his 1989 pimped out ride. I don't remember the make of the car, but it was originally designed by the French to transport two farmers and a case of beer...what more could you ask for?
We checked out Lagos and Faro (two of the coastal towns), did a little kayaking, enjoyed some great dinners with Wiebe and Maddy and I even had my first conversation in Portuguese!
I have always wanted to learn Portuguese, and spent much of my two weeks in Portugal speaking Spanish with a Portuguese accent and guessing or trying to translate words and phrases I saw. A lot of the words are the same or very similar to Spanish and the Portuguese can understand me but I can't understand them. Thanks to Ilmer's conversation lesson, I picked up some words and even now spice up my Spanish with a few Portuguese words on occasion. Of course, that's just my excuse for accidentally mixing the two languages!
Anyway, more to come on the rest of my adventures from the week. Here are a few pictures from my weekend in the Algarve:
At the edge of the world, waving to New York. It was so windy!
Ilmer and I at the beach in Lagos
Ilmer and his super ghetto/awesome car we bummed around in all weekend!
After the Luis and Maria saga, Ilmer and I decided we were definitely hooked on hitchhiking. If anything, I was just getting Ilmer prepared for his world hitchhiking adventure! I had been planning to head to Spain for quite awhile now, but Ilmer somehow convinced me to spend another weekend in Portugal with the promise of showing me around the Algarve, the southern-most state of the country. He was headed there to visit his brother and sister-in-law for the weekend, and it didn't take much for me to agree to the detour. In our adventuresome style, we decided yet again to try our luck with hitchhiking.
It was a three hour trip to the Algarve, so we got into hitchhiking position early Friday evening. This time we were well prepared with Ilmer's sphisticated hitchhiking kit. Our plan of attack was for Ilmer to hold the "South" sign and I was in charge of the "It's my birthday" sign. We figured the passerbys would enjoy a little hitchhiking humor.
We shortly got picked up by-believe it or not-Luis and Maria...a mother and son who offered to take us half of the way. They were friendly and we had a nice chat in Portuguese before they dropped us off on the side of the road just as the sun was setting and it was beginning to rain.
The day had slipped away quickly and Ilmer and I were wary about our chances of hitchhiking at night. We considered taking the train or just staying the night in the small town, but I told Ilmer I was feeling lucky and if we didn't get picked up in ten minutes we would catch a train. Just as we got our "South" sign out, a 1980s model VW stopped 50 meters in front of us and was honking for us to get in.
What perfect timing! We grabbed our bags and ran for the car. This time, our new friend Bruno was headed to a town just 30 miles from our destination. Bruno was very friendly and anxious to learn about our travels, couchsurfing and hitchhiking adventures. He told us how he was planning a road trip from Portugal to Russia on a 60 year-old motorcycle next summer and he was excited to try CouchSurfing. We had great conversation during the ride (well Ilmer and Bruno did, as most of it was in Portuguese). Here is what I gathered about Bruno in a translation from Ilmer:
"Bruno's parents own a bakery and Bruno has a 10% share in the company, which is where he gets his income. He could work harder and own a larger portion of the business, but instead he choses to use the money and take random classes at university, travel and just enjoy his life."
Yay, Bruno! He truly had a care-free attitude and relaxed presence about him. Ilmer and Bruno seemed to hit it off and half way through the ride Bruno insisted on stopping in his hometown so we could have a tour of his favorite places (including his dream home) and meet his best friend. After, we drove a few miles down a windy dirt road through rural fields to the family bread factory. By now it was around nine P.M. and the workers were just finishing up the evening shift.
From the outside, the factory looked like a small warehouse with a muddy parking lot and stray dogs wandering around, but the air smelled of delicious warm baked goods. Bruno showed us around the small factory and gave us two giant loafs of bread hand picked from the oven. He then took us out back to the garage where his antique motorcycle resided. We admired the bike as he proudly told us how he had been working for months to fix it up for the trip.
After the full city tour and show and tell session, Bruno announced that he would drive us all the way to Ilmer's brother's house. When all was said and done, I was amazed at the total kindness of a stranger and how well everything worked out.
When I tell my hitchhiking stories to fellow travelers, they stare in amazement and ask why I'm so crazy to do this, or if I'm scared. I must say, that when you're traveling alone in a foreign country, you can't be too picky about who you trust, otherwise, you would never meet anyone or never get anywhere. You obviously have to be smart about who you get in the car with and expect the best rather pining over everything that could happen.
Thus far, all three of my hitchhiking adventures have been some of the best memories of my trip, given me some great stories and shown me that a little trust can go a long way.
It's my birthday, PLEASE pick us up!
Bruno and his moto
A few weeks ago I began to get bored with my normal travel routine. Bus-plane-hostel-tram-tour-plane was beginning to get tedious and a little too comfortable. I was seeing quite a bit, but felt like an important cultural element of my traveling was lacking. On the first day I met Ilmer, he told me of his plans to hitchhike around the world in a year, and right then I knew we would be great friends.
Tuesday was a public holiday and Ilmer didn´t have to work, so we decided to check out a natural park nearby and try our hand, or rather thumbs at hitchhiking. We took the train from Lisbon to Setúbal, and steaked out a promising spot along the road leading into the park for our hitchhiking endeavors.
We stood on the corner for 40 minutes with our two fold "Arrábida," sign watching car after car passby, I was beginning to get impatient. Ilmer said that if you juggle flaming batons or you write something like, "I don´t smell" or "it´s my birthday" on the sign, your chances of getting picked up increase. They all sounded great to me, I was willing to do anything at this point, so while we were pondering which of these options would be most suitable, a black Kia mini van pulled over. A woman jumped out of the passenger side and opened the sliding door for us.
Our two hosts, Luis and Maria, turned out to be a Portaguese/Italian couple who frequently moved between the two countries, and had just bought a home in Setúbal. They were headed to the beach for a day of fishing when Luis spotted us and insisted on stopping despite his wife´s protests.
We were expecting a short ride into the park, but Luis insisted on giving us a full tour. We stopped at a beach to take some pictures, and Luis decided that we would all have a nice clam and wine lunch and get to know eachother. We were impressed by such a kind gesture, and decided to go along with it.
The conversation began normally with small talk of where we were from and what we were doing in Portugal. Ilmer told Luis about his life growing up in the Netherlands and Portugal, and Luis automatically assumed I was German...that is until he tried to speak to me in German and I stared at him dumbfounded and explained that I was from the United States.
At that point, Luis quickly changed the conversation, stating that he would rename Ilmer "Marco" because that was much easier to remember, and I would be called "Hamer" the (according to him) Turkish version of my name. He went on to insist that I must have some Turkish ancestry because my hair color was very Turkish. I decided it was better to let that one slide, he did buy us lunch and give us a tour of the park, so letting him pick our names was the least we could do.
We continued to eat and learned about Luis´ job for Coca Cola working in the bottling plants and traveling all over the world. He told us about living in Venezuela, the beaches in Thailand and his sword collection from Yemen. Finally, he started a side conversation with Maria in Italian and looked at us with an embrassed smile explaining that him and Maria had agreed to invite us to their house for dinner.
The adventure had been pretty interesting so far, and we decided it could only get better, so we agreed. They took us to the grocery store, handed us a basket and said we could pick out anything in the store for dinner. Ilmer and I had no idea what to do. We had never been in such an interesting social situation and weren´t sure how to politely do grocery shopping for someone else. Since Luis was obsessed with fish, we insisted that he pick out his favorite catch.
On our drive back to Luis and Maria´s place, things got a little more interesting. Luis started to explain that fishing was taken very seriously, and how it was common for fishermen to kill other fishermen in order to get the perfect spot. Luis continued on, "I´m not sure if you noticed, but in my right pocket I have my cellphone, and I also have something else...it is very important to protect myeslf."
Ilmer and I glance at eachother, a mixture of concern and fear on our faces as we think, "Oh, shoot he has a gun! What did we just get ourselves into?" We immedietly start regretting our decision to agree to dinner. Our minds are racing, should we think of a good excuse to leave, or we could always just open the van door and jump out. I considered several possible excape scenarios, all preposterous and sure to be awkward, but eventually convinced myself that Luis seemed like a nice enough guy, he would surely mean us no harm, right?
It turned out to be a good decesion, because it wasn´t a gun afterall! At dinner Luis withdrew a pocketknife from his right pocket and began to cut his fish. He was very proud of the tool and explained how he bought it for 1000 Euros in some far off land.
The remainder of the dinner was relatively uneventful compared to the earlier happenings. Luis insisted on watching the one German television channel he had, just so Ilmer and I would feel at home (half way through dinner, he switched it off and put on an Italian movie). Luis also assured us that we were great friends and he would do anything in the world for us. If we were ever in trouble, he would send someone...he knows people from all over the world and has kilos of contacts. He was also kind enough to give us his 24 hour direct phone line. Needless to say, I definitely got my dose of culture that evening.
By the time the food was eaten and the movie was finished, the last train to Lisbon was long gone. Luis offered to drive us back, and totally impressed us with his high-speed-chase-like driving skills and ability to zoom through red lights when no one else was around! We even learned that he once got four speeding tickets in a 26 minute span. Bottomline: If you are ever planning on getting involved in a high speed chase...I know your man, just ask I have his 24 hour hotline!
Lunch with Luis and Maria, our new hitchhiking friends!
The beach in Arrabia
...is the nickname that Portugal has adopted. The country is well known for its gorgeous beaches, warm weather and laid back culture. Unfortunately, I have not been so lucky with the weather, but on the exceptional nice days here, I have been exploring towns outside of Lisbon. I reached a point where traveling from big city to big city was tiring and they all seemed to meld together, so I decided it was time to get away from the cities and check out nature.
On Monday I took the train 30 minutes southwest of Lisbon to visit my friend Eva in Cascais. The entire ride along the coast was gorgeous, imagine PHC from Big Sur to Carmel, I was mesmorized by the sight and slipped completly back into California mode. Not a bad thing at all considering I was a little homesick for the Golden State.
When I reached Cascais it was love at first sight. It was strikingly similar to Ventura, a small town situated on miles of coast with green rolling hills in the backdrop. The South side had long sandy beaches and the north side was lined with Santa Cruz style cliffs...perfection.
Eva and I got free bicycles and spent the day riding along the coastal bikepath admiring the humongous waves and rock cliffs. Bike riding seems to be a skill I have been working on perfecting during this trip. Afterward, Eva entroduced me to the most famous ice cream parlor in Lisbon (and possibly all of the world, in my opinion). Cascais definitely gets my vote for best off the beaten path small town in Ember`s Contenintental Europe.
Eva and I on a bikeride along the beach
My first day in Portugal was culture shock. Coming from the Netherlands where everything is orderly into semi-chaotic Lisbon was definitely something I had not prepared for.
By the end of my first day in Lisbon I was ready to pack my bags and get as far away from Portugal as possible. I'm not sure what I expected Lisbon to be like, but as I spent a whole day traipsing in the pouring rain through a city full of decrepit buildings and graffitied alleyways, I knew this was a far cry from the "California of Europe" I had conjured up.
By the end of my I-hate-Portugal-day, I was desperate to figure something out. There happened to be a weekly CouchSurfing meeting that night, so I decided to stop by. I met a lot of local Portuguese along with some foreigners living in Portugal. They gave me tips of what to see, offered me a place to stay and even invited me on a road trip to a small town north of Lisbon for the weekend.
The city might be different from expected, but the locals sure were welcoming! I decided that a Portuguese road trip was bound to be an adventure, so I agreed to join the crew. The thing about Portugal, is that everything is, well, slow. The people are relaxed and take their time doing things, a stark contrast from the United States, which in tern can be very interesting when coordinating a road trip with nine people. It was a small glimpse back into my Mexico days when I´d sit at cafes all day, show up to everything an hour late and take a whole afternoon to make plans for a night. Regardless, I loved it all and had a fabulous time getting to know my new friends and their culture.
We went to a small university town about two hours north of Lisbon called Coimbra. Our friend Bruno had a vacation home in a quaint little village on a river and surrounded by rolling hills just outside of Coimbra. The house was tiny, but we somehow managed to squeeze in nine people!
We got in touch with several Couch Surfers in Coimbra and met up with them throughout the weekend. Two of them introduced us to an all you can eat restaurant where each meal comes with a whole bottle of wine for 7.5 Euros...that was a big hit! We also attended a rock concert at the university. In the arena, each discipline had their own bar to decorate, and students clad in cloaks (traditional college wear here) danced on the bars.
The weekend was a perfect getaway for me, and I made some great friends. I now feel somewhat attached to Lisbon, and apparently have adapted very well to the Portuguese way of life, as I have now been here for a week and am still not ready to leave!
The CouchSurfing gang in Coimbra