I came close to getting my passport stamped on a couple of cruises - but you have to wait in line for it, and it felt like I hadn't "earned" the bragging rights. Barely engaging with people from the islands I'd spend 6 hours with while in port.
On the tail end of COVID-19, I had had enough of the talking. Nothing is promised, especially not tomorrow. So, I decided my wife and I would throw caution to the wind and finally travel abroad. With a lifetime of financial mistakes to undo, three kids, and a mortgage - traveling as a family was a daunting idea coupled with the reality that family travel becomes a series of concessions—navigating our competing interests, phobias, dietary restrictions, and more. Traveling solo seemed like the best approach.
I landed on Ireland as the destination after a quick search for the cheapest flights available near my birthday, but that didn't last long. An ad caught my eye, and Porto's coastline and terracotta rooves drew me in. I told my friend, Bryan, I was considering switching destinations, and he replied, "Portugal has been on my bucket list. If you book a ticket, I'll join you." Bryan is a well-traveled guy, and the idea of traveling with him felt like a security blanket. We've known each other for years and have as much in common as we do not.
From here, things moved fast.
Lembre-se que você deve morrer
Flights and hotels were booked in February 2022, and we decided to keep the itinerary open. Live like a local, and just let what happens happen.
Bryan was spending two weeks in the country, while I would spend five days in the middle of his bucket list trip sharing the AirBnB. However, by the end of May, massive thunderstorms struck the East Coast, grounding every flight the day of my departure.
I was transferring through New Jersey and traveling within the storm bubble. My first flight was canceled en route to the airport. My second flight was canceled the following morning. The airline stopped trying to rebook me and just waited out the storm. I couldn't bear the thought that after years of talking about traveling the world, my first genuine attempt would be thwarted by a storm.
I clenched my cheeks, pulled out the Amex, and booked a same-day flight with Iberia with a layover in Spain. I hoped to escape the East Coast before the next wave of storms hit. Thirty-six hours after my original departure, I'm on the plane, and it's starting to hit me.
"It's real now" - was the second to last text I sent to Kelley before going into airplane mode.
Navigating the Madrid airport early in the morning, speaking absolutely zero Spanish and having missed my connection, thanks to the storms, was difficult. But I managed with a "café y sándwich" holding down my nervous excitement until my next flight.
Finally, riding to the Airbnb in Porto, I was surprised to see graffiti-riddled walls lining neighborhoods along the highway. I always tell people, "There's a hood everywhere," why should Portugal be any different?
Our Airbnb was a cozy three-story walk-up without A/C on a busy street. I freshened up and hit the ground running. An effort made a little more fun thanks to the complimentary bottle of wine in the room that I had to myself—perks of staying with a non-drinker.
We immediately hit the streets and went for a walk. The eerily empty residential streets and historical sites were a constant reminder of Portugal's large swaths of UNESCO areas. Bryan had already familiarized himself with the area, but we quickly found ourselves at my highlight of the day. Torreão do Jardim do Palácio, with its beautiful views and wild peacocks.
I enjoyed imagining life back then, of course, under different cultural circumstances. This led me down a rabbit hole, researching why Portugal, the oldest nation-state in Europe, went from being so rich and powerful in the 16th century to being a budget vacation spot for Europeans today. It was a melange of over-investing in slavery, spreading its Navy too thin across its many colonies and trading ports, and finally losing Brazil as a colony, effectively relinquishing control over how the Portuguese language would continue to develop across the globe.
I ended the night with house wine, a delicious pizza, and a Vinho Verde cocktail at Pizza Club Grigio. Surprise, the restaurant didn't accept credit cards. I called Bryan, but he had fallen asleep. I promised to return and jogged to the end of the block to get cash from an ATM. The waiter watched me nervously the entire time.
We spent the lion's share of the day on the other side of the Douro River, where I ate an absurd amount of food. All of which made tackling the hilly terrain a bit easier. We ended the day at Nola Kitchen, where I had a nutritionally dense vegetarian dinner. Perhaps I was trying to undo all the junk from earlier in the day.
By now, I was noticing a trend. The vast majority of people we've interacted with were actually from Brazil. Our Uber driver, for example, had been in Portugal for three years and informed us as to why so much of the tourist industry is staffed by Brazilians. For them, obtaining a work visa is more accessible, and after 5-6 years, they're granted citizenship. Which in turn grants you access to all of the EU.
My driver shared how her family is eager to stay in Portugal because crime is so low, and everyone is generally very relaxed. On the other hand, she wanted to move to France the moment she had EU access. Openly willing to leave behind the relaxed culture and low crime for significantly better-earning potential elsewhere.
Without plans to navigate but a steady cell connection, I found out that the Portugal National Futebol Team would be playing Sweden that night. Living for the moment, we bought midfield tickets and headed to the train station. I was served the best espresso ever, and I've been searching for something as good ever since. We made it to Lisbon with a couple of hours to spare. After checking into a hastily booked hotel (Yay, points!), we grabbed a bite and ventured into the city.
The highlight of this night was seeing Cristiano Ronaldo score a hat trick at home.
After such an adventurous day, we turned to wandering Lisbon before our train ride back to Porto. We visited another beautiful garden, religious sites, and a bustling indoor market.
Lisbon was a very welcome dose of diversity. We encountered people from Angola, Spain, Brazil, and more. That diversity was apparent in the street art, food, and tourists. In The TimeOut Market, we met a woman from Jamaica, by way of London, where she worked, vacationing for a few days. It was a memorable moment where I was reminded of how small the world is. After discovering this was my first trip abroad, she insisted Jamaica be on the list as soon as possible. I learned about her path, how she studied abroad, and how she jumped at every opportunity. I then shared my son's higher education plans and his aversion to studying abroad. Moments later, we were connected on LinkedIn. Networks have been built in stranger and more random ways.
Visiting the Carmo Convent was a wow moment. My worldview, shaped by my surroundings, is wildly small. I was walking through the ruins of a convent founded over 100 years before the Americas were "discovered" and lasted until 22 years before the United States of America was even established. I kept pictures to a minimum as there were ample examples of the brutality the church inflicted on indigenous populations. On the one hand, they could have suppressed and hidden these barbaric trophies, but I couldn't help but feel like there was little respect shown for the suffering that was inflicted.
Ending on a lighter note, we visited the Jardim Botânico de Lisboa. Another large garden that, while beautiful and full of exciting finds, is also a living example of the spoils of colonialism. Most of the flowers and trees on display are not native to Portugal. While basking in their unique beauty, I couldn't help but think, "But y'all stole all this." A surprising find was whale bones on display on the property. My memory fails me on their significance.
Eventually, we headed back to the train station, where I witnessed another shining example of how small the world is and how accessible it can be, thanks to a little effort and chance. Unsure we were on the right platform, Bryan communicated with some workers in Spanish and Portuguese to get us to the right place. After boarding the correct train, a Korean family boarded after us. He could hear them speaking, visibly confused about their seats. Bryan nudges me and says, "Watch this."
You see, Bryan speaks three languages, not including the minimal Portuguese he picked up on the trip. He asked the family, in Korean, if they needed help. The mother was visibly shocked. Dare I say, excited. To our surprise, they were seated directly across from us. He went on to chat with the daughter, who was carrying a translation book for Portuguese. First, they talked in Korean before she asked, "Are you American?"
Why yes, yes we are.
The conversation with the daughter and us continued in English. Thank god, because I was sitting on my hands the entire time. They arrived in Lisbon by way of Dubai. Bryan flew from Austin, TX, by way of Amsterdam. I flew from Washington, DC, by way of Spain. Wow. The five of us on this train, in this very moment, felt like a weird real-life Rube Goldberg. What were the chances we'd cross paths? I don't mean to make it sound like divine intervention, just a very cool occurrence that, again, makes the world seem so damn small. That day, when Bryan spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and English in 24 hours, I decided to learn a language. More on that another time.
Back in Porto, I was low-key disappointed in the food I had been exposed to. Almost everything struck me as cheap or weird takes on Italian dishes. Little did I know I had walked past two of the best restaurants I'd experienced on the trip multiple times, and it wasn't until my last day that I decided to stop mindlessly judging and give these places a shot. But not before I explore one last time.
By now, I was a little burned out on the religious landmarks. Beautiful architecture and views aside - a big takeaway was that just because the Catholic Church has had such a long history shaping the world doesn't make it worthy of my attention and time. I'm much more interested in learning about those they subjugated and stole from.
Vila Nova De Gaia is a quaint neighborhood I could imagine calling home. If only the main road weren't overrun with people hocking what I assumed were fake high-end bags, belts, and such. It was like walking through New York, past street vendors, except the setting was prettier.
Finally, a long walk along the beach near Paços. It was here I got existential. I imagined traversing the Atlantic Ocean back to Maryland, where my family was. How long might that 3,564 miles feel by sailboat?
The beach was vacant, with signs everywhere announcing the impending "beach season." I still wonder what that town is like during peak tourism seasons. Not pictured were higher-end condos overlooking the coast. I'd price-check a property or two later.
Lunch that day was lasagna from San Martin Prestige, which turned out to be an Italian restaurant that served the best lasagna I can recall ever having. The restaurant was unassuming from the street. From the outside, it reminded me of a boardwalk restaurant in Ocean City, MD. Upon going to the bathroom inside, I could see how upscale the establishment was. I wish I had visited it sooner.
For dinner, squid ink pasta with prawns from Almada 331. I'd pass this restaurant at least twice a day during my stay as it was directly next door to our Airbnb. Perhaps my biggest lost opportunity of the trip. The dining experience in this tiny restaurant with a single chef, the owner, who'd come by each table and chat with the customers between cooking. The menu was refreshed daily, based on what was at the market, and mixed and matched live on the spot to suit the customer's dietary restrictions. The owner and the establishment embodied a love for cooking, people, and customer service I rarely see at a place that doesn't also take itself a little too seriously.
At the airport the following day before heading home, I wanted to toast Portugal in a specific way. A Super Bock Stout washed down with a Pedras Limao.
I came home with one thing known for sure. This experience needed to be shared. Soon enough, I booked Kelley a trip to Paris, France, to do the same thing.