Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Entry for September 12, 2007
"We'll have to go home and trade this car in for the 4x4 for where we're goin'."
So is the middle of perhaps the best day a guy could ever ask for.
I woke up at 7:35 A.M. this morning. A good seven hours of sleep...well, it should have been. But after waking up at 3:00 the previous morning and having short halfway-asleep naps on the bus and airplane, I felt drained. I laid in bed until I heard knocking on the wall. I was to have breakfast with the family at 8:00, and 8:00 was here!!!
After some bread, toast, and what I thought was the best coffee ever, I headed into town with Ralph. He had a half-day of work, and I was going to explore the town while he worked. Then we would have a day for exploring!!!
We drove through the beautiful hills of Portugal...limes and oranges were plentiful. The countryside was painted with a very dark red soil, the type that forces its way into the very ligaments of the clothes you are wearing, never completely coming out from the fabric. We drove about 15 miles towards the small town we were traveling to...
We rolled into town, and I escorted Ralph to his office. After meeting the German staff, I headed out on my own into town! What to do in a town where you've never been?!
Well, explore, of course!!!
So I walked up and down the streets. The town was far different than all of the rest of the places which I have encountered on my trip thus far. Gone were the tourists representing every nation under heaven. Gone were the flashes of the camera (except for my occasional shot). Gone were the shops full of people. And gone was the English language!
For the first time, I was not in my territory! I walked down a street...the houses were sometimes beautiful, sometimes falling apart. But each had a very distinct beauty which can only be described as...Portugal. I saw a church, an old cemetery, a fire department, and the new part of town, as well...full of beautiful houses...most likely nearing close to one million dollars...a far cry from two blocks earlier. They almost seemed out of place...the man in the tuxedo finding himself at a commoner's party. I'm afraid, however, that more and more tuxedos and dresses will come soon.
I eventually saw a school full of children and parents. And from the excitement of the students and the nervousness of the parents, I concluded that this could only be the first day of school. I made my way past the groups of excited schoolchildren, walked into the gated escola, and walked directly to the office.
"I would like to learn Portuguese. Would it be possible to sit in on a classroom?"
After finding someone who spoke a little bit of English, a piece of paper was brought out to me. "Sign this." Before me was a piece of paper with five names of others who wanted to learn Portuguese, most over 30 years of age. They have obviously moved to this little town and not been able to get by easily...
After explaining that I could not make it to the night classes, I was given directions to the Center of Explication. Whatever that meant! But I walked anyway. I stopped by an open produce market...bananas, tomatoes, every fruit imaginable, and fish! When I pulled out my camera, I was asked something to the effect of..."Porque la fotografia?" After a couple of words in English, she shook her head, raised her hand and continued her business. Ah, it all makes sense now. Again, no English!
I ended up finding the Center only to find myself locked out. A kind gentleman deciphered my desire to get inside and helped me understand the unique doorbell process. After two buzzes, he left. And so did I. At the end of the block, I heard some noise, though, and turned around to see a woman sticking her head out of an upstairs window. I think I woke her up!
"Hello there...I would like to learn Portuguese." I walked over and looked up at her.
A slew of French words came out. These were not Portuguese, I was certain! After letting her finish her sentence, I responded again with my desire to learn Portugese. She spoke French back to me. Uh oh. I could tell that she thought I would leave since we had an obvious communication barrier, but I was more than eager to at least find some common ground. After a minute or two of unknown conversation between us, she told me to wait there while she came down. Language is a beautiful thing, and I still do not know how I could understand her tell me that, but I did. So I waited. A minute or so later the door opened.
"Hi, I would like to learn Portuguese." More French. Yet I heard a bit of English! I resurrected my last ounce of hope!
We talked for a few minutes, exchanging a few common words, then she put me on the phone with someone she knew that spoke English. I told her that I wanted to learn Portuguese, and she told me to come back tomorrow at 5:00 o'clock. You see how easy that was?!
I left the Center and walked around town some more. After a delicious pastry for only 80 cents Euros, I made my way to my third hardware shop of the day. I needed an adapter for mylaptop...the American plug-ins are different from the English plug-ins which are different from Europe's mainland plug-ins. On my third try, I was able to find what I needed. And on top of that, I found a young girl who spoke a little bit of English! Her eagerness to practice with a local was obvious, and we talked outside. I told her that I wanted to learn Portuguese, and she said, "Oh, of course! You need to see Miguel."
She gave me directions to his shop, and I headed off to meet Miguel! I found myself at a beautiful flower shop full of items representing travels around the world...all for sale. A house full of these items would only represent a rich person's journey. Very fancy. Seemingly misplaced in such a town. Except for the tuxedo guys on the outskirts.
The man behind the counter (who I found out was NOT Miguel) went to a backroom and fetched Miguel for me. I walk to the back of the shop and out walks this tiny man. He has all of the qualities of a full-grown man, not at all like the "small people" which I so accustomed to. It's as if he was a full-size image on a computer and someone dragged the corner box down to a smaller size...but all to scale! A delightful middle-aged man, shoulder-length black hair, and untold stories of traveling. He knew five languages fluently. He was currently teaching a man German, so he told me to come back in one hour. Of course I would!
I walked through the city some more, took some more pictures, dreamed about some old houses...I want to restore one of them and call it my own. My dreams were dashed when I happened upon a real estate company, however, with pictures of homes for sale in the window. A "ruin"...meaning exactly what the word implies...goes for $100,000 Euros. Ouch. You would have to tear down the old ruins, build a new house, and connect all of the electricity and water and whatnot. Easily several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wow. Though I will not go into detail here, the European Union has created wealth for many...yet problems which I will discuss later, as well.
I went to another school, but they sent me elsewhere. After a very enjoyable few hours in the town, I walked back to the office to meet Ralph. From his office, we drove out into the country. Rolling mountains with this red dirt. Small farms of oranges. Beautiful houses with terra cotta roofs. It's a pleasant paradise, though I would never have imagined drawing such a scenery if I was told to draw my view of Paradise. I might have a scene on the beach or on top of a mountain...but somehow this Portuguese idea carried with it a sense of beauty.
We drove to Silves, a town with an absolutely magnificent castle on top of a hill. We took Ralph's little car through streets where both of us could reach out and touch the house's walls. And for the first time, I realized what is happening with our world. I have said it before, but today the lesson became reality. The Silves Castle is a hidden gem, one that only a few travelers have found in the past. It is inland from the coast, so not too many frequent these parts. Well, until now. The European Union has opened up travel for all EU members. And this once-hidden town was now starting to grow with tourists. The numbers are not comparable to Dublin or London or even Faro...yet.
But as always happens, where people congregate, businesses develop. And within spitting distance of the castle, restaurants were starting to take root. Tourists were walking down the cobblestone roads, and beautiful marble tiles were replacing the old rocky walkways leading to the castle. Silves was becoming a tourist town. And quickly. In five years, I am more than confident that the town will completely transform. These once-cheap houses will now be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The local restaurants will face stiff competition from bigger chains. Best Western. The Hilton. And the like. And for the first time, I began to see what I had missed numerous times before. It's the same story of Wal-Mart, highways, and the movie Cars. Times are changing, for sure. And it is all for the sake of money.
Locals are selling their houses for fortunes. Businesses are eager to pay out the costs of these houses, because they see bigger fortunes in the upcoming years. And the jewels of Portugal, the Silves' of Portugal, the reason why I travel, all of a sudden turn into the tourist traps of Portugal. It matters now whether I travel to Dublin, London, Paris, Glasgow, Las Vegas, or New York. I will meet the rest of the world there. The small tiny town of Silves will no longer be Portuguese. It will be global. And it's all for the sake of money.
After a delightful and meaningful conversation about both of our disappointment, helplessness, and acceptance of these facts, we drove on. If I thought Silves was bad, I was foolish.
As we were leaving Silves, I learned an interesting fact. In Portugal, you can only build a new house on top of an old house. In other words, you cannot buy a piece of property and build a new house on it...unless there was already an old one in its place. I love the idea! The farmlands stay secure, the country stays country, and the little signs in windows that say "ruins" make much more sense!
Until you deal with money. As in lots of money. As we drove out of Silves, we spotted a golf course being built. Here in the middle of rocky, red dirt only suitable for tough plants, we saw gorgeous greens that only an engineer could develop. A beautiful course halfway built which reminded me of an oasis in a desert. The problem? Ralph put it beautifully...
"This is not Portugal. This is fake Portugal. You have fake hoses feeding fake plants next to fake grass that never grows in this country."
And we both hated it. And what is more, we both instantly knew that the rules about building houses and buildings only where other ruins were...was only a good idea in theory. But as soon as a developer suggests that he has investors with millions of dollars who want to build a golf course, officials turn their eyes...you see, a golf course can exist in Portugal. If you have the right amount of money.
And we were sad.
But we kept on driving. And then something happened. Portugal changed. Literally within the blink of an eye. There is a highway that runs east to west across the country. Anything north of the highway is cheaper, further away from the coast. Anything south is prime real estate, a lust for big companies and small enterpreneurs. And as soon as you cross this highway, the red dirt disappears. In its place are laid nice marble tiles. Fake grass. And lots of lots of concrete.
The Germans come here because it is advertised in little pamplets in their country. The northern Portuguese come here because it is so different than the country they know. And rich British and Americans come here because they want to see beautiful Portugal. But they can't see it because the marble tiles and the concrete buildings block their view.
Albufeira is a city on the coast. And as such, it attracts people. And with the opening of the European Union, houses were demolished for extravagant villas and hotels. Ralph hadn't visited the city in a few years, and he showed me what used to be fields. They have quickly been replaced with towering hotels to house the most number of people. In American style. Plain, block, ugly style. As long as they can fit the most amount of people in the least amount of space. All for the sake of money.
I mentioned that Albufeira was on the coast. I only say that because I am told that. And on the map, there is a large body of water that some would call an ocean. But I can only guess that it is there. But I would have to ask Hilton, Best Western, Crowne Plaza, and Ibis if this is true. You see, they have been appointed to stand as guards between the British tourists and (what I believe to be the ocean out there). And I think that others hold that same faith in the ocean, because they walk with their dark bodies and their swimming gear in that direction. Or maybe we just use the same maps. I am unsure. Wouldn't it be sad, though, if we found out that there wasn't an ocean on the other side of those guards? I would want to cry. So I would still like to think that there is an ocean. And because I would be sad if there wasn't, I am going to believe that there is.
I thought that we had already arrived in the heart of the city, but I was wrong. We drove further and further, and I literally was boxed in by commercialism. Hotels on the right. Fancy villas on the left. Sandals for sale here. Swimming trunks there. Rented cars. Marble tiles. Concrete. And I became deeply sad. What was supposed to be a beautiful city really made me feel uncomfortable. The climax was when we came around a turn, and I was able to see a hill. I take that back. I was able to see what should have been a hill. I wish I had taken a picture, because I could not see ANY red dirt. I could not see Portugal, as in literally the country!!! The ground had disappeared below million-dollar hotels built from the coastline all the way to the top of the hill. I could see no dirt. No Portugal. What I saw was Las Vegas, Panama City Beach, England, America.
I could arrive via a British plane to Faro, rent a German car to Albufeira, shift from walking on concrete to asphalt to rubber to factory-made wood planks to irrigation-fed grass, hang out with my British friends, order an American hamburger in a now-fancy restaurant from a Polish waiter, drink an Irish beer, walk back down the same path I came, hop into my fancy bed which I had paid 500 Euros for, then fly home and tell my friends what a great time I had had in Portugal!
As Ralph said, "They were never in Portugal." And it is so true. They were in a concrete village put on top of Portugal. And we were both sad. And it seriously sickened me. I wanted to leave that city.
But perhaps what sickened me more was my wandering eyes wondering which companies I should have invested in...or what companies I should currently invest in. All for the sake of money. I was becoming so angry at these people for making Portugal disappear so that they could retire on a coast in another country with the same landscape only to find out that MY very own desires were to retire on a coastline with the same landscape. Of course, in my more foolish moments, I would say that my house would be the only one on the coastline. I think we all know that Diego said the same thing 30 years ago. Or 10 years ago. Or 7 years ago. But now he has neighbors. And many at that. All for the sake of money.
Thankfully, Ralph took me to a somewhat unpopular beach. Out of knowledge from the tourists. But only because a pamphlet hasn't been made about it. Yet. We drove down a road not really fit for cars. But we did it anyway. Once more I saw the red dirt. And I felt more at home in Portugal. But it still wasn't Portugal.
I wanted to take a picture of the beautiful red cliffs meeting the coastline, but too many tourists were tanning on their plastic chairs on the beach. And the plastic umbrellas didn't provide a very natural backdrop, either. I snapped a couple of shots, but this wasn't the beach for me. Less people, sure. But still not my cup o' tea.
As we were walking back to the car, Ralph pointed to the fancy restaurant overlooking the ocean. "That was a beautiful lil' old hut a few years ago. I used to enjoy coming here for a drink." And he didn't say it, but we both knew that he would never come to this place again to let the ocean and cerveza drown out his worries. The neon lights and polished wood just couldn't do what a lil' rickety shack and a few old planks could do. Even the best cerveza wasn't strong enough to overcome this type of modernity. And I was sad for Ralph, but I didn't mention it.
From there, we drove out of Albufeira, and I was thankful. And Ralph said what my sorry eyes and ears needed at that moment. "We'll have to go home and trade this car in for the 4x4 for where we're goin'." I knew not what to expect, but next to sex, I think that is probably the best thing to hear! Ralph commented, "You know the difference between boys and men?"
"No, what's that?" I didn't really try to think, though I am not sure what answers I could have come up with anyway...
"The price of their toys."
Truer words have never been spoken. It was nearing 3:00 P.M. by this time, and frankly, a lil' piece of toast and a pastry was not doing its job in holding me over. When asked where I would like to eat, I told Ralph to get me as far away from the tourist restaurants as possible. And he did.
Just a short distance from his house, we pull into a small restaurant. There is only one man behind the counter and only one man ordering. And there were absolutely no tourists. And we were better off for it. As soon as we walked in, it became obvious just how local I had become.
Several old chairs and tables are scattered throughout the room. An old Marlboro cigarette dispenser is tacked along the right wall. The left area is hidden by a wall, but behind it more tables and chairs. My guess is that this man lives by a great deal of faith, because it would take some miracle to have both sides of this restaurant full!!! But what grabbed my attention the most were the calendars above the counter. Actually, this is what I first noticed when I walked in.
I had to ask myself if this was a mechanic's shop or a restaurant. Above me were about a dozen calendars. And 24 boobs. Yes, that is right. Boobs. Actually, by this point, it seems to me that these are becoming just as common as tourists. Of course, you may say that there are so many tourists! Of course. But for every one person I see, she actually gains two on the tourist count, if you know what I mean. And little did I know beforehand, but Portugal has gone topless on the beaches. Of course, I was a kid at a candystore the first day on the beach, but now it is just common. I only speak what I experience. It may be good, bad, or ugly. But it is the truth. Take it as you wish.
So there I had women explaining to me the wonders of creation over my meal. And in Portuguese all throughout the restaurant were printed papers of phrases. Ralph explained to me what these were by reading a couple of them to me...
"If you are concerned about being healthy, then do not smoke."
"It is better to have a known enemy than a deceptive friend."
How about that. Psalms and Breasts. What a combination! Ralph and I talked over a simple but delicious meal of pork on bread. He explained that the Portuguese do not like to use gravy or spices on their foods. It is just simple. He misses the German style that he grew up with...even their mustard has less of a bite...much to his dismay. After the meal, we had the traditional "pika"...that is what Ralph called it, though I am sure it is spelled differently. More or less, you have about one ounce of strong coffee to finish your meal. And it comes in a small coffee cup only fit for 3-year-olds playing "house." But it is delightfully tasteful!
And all the while, I was treated with a television show comparable to American Idol. Except for the contestants were all Portuguese. However, all three songs I heard? American. "We are the Champions." And two more that escape me. That was interesting to me.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Ralph and I talked about America. Inevitably, the question comes up when I travel. I do not remember how it surfaced today, but Ralph asked me a question about something, and I asked him what he thought about America. As a German now living in Portugal, he made sure that I understood that he did not speak for Portugal, and I understood. But he said three things about America...
We have a double-moral. He expressed that from the outside, we appear to say no to alcohol, sexual immorality, and the like. But when you actually get into the country, you just see all of these items hidden. He explained how drinking took place behind closed doors rather than in the open (like in Germany where people drink on the streets or outside of restaurants)whether restaurant or home. He mentioned the sexual stuff, as well. To an outsider, we look moral, but when you study us closely, you will find strip clubs, pornography in every household, and sexual immorality everywhere.
We are racist towards foreigners. And I will admit that I have learned about myself over the past few years. I told Ralph that racism comes in various forms...when I walk down Springfield, I am much more scared when I come upon a group of African-Americans than if I were to come across a group of white people, for example. Racist? Sure. And not at the same time. Often (and for various reasons), African-Americans are the culprits of crime in Springfield. Is it because of their skin color? Not at all. Is it because of their circumstances? Most of the time! And before you get all defensive, I understand that a white person can be just as dangerous as a black person, that a white man can be just as hateful as an Arab. But whether from culture or reading stories or media or experience, when I am honest, and that is all I try to be, I am racist. And frankly, I think we all are. It's a natural result of life that we must constantly fight and hone. Ralph agreed.
We are arrogant. I really couldn't argue. We think we have all we need. Four times now in my travels the statistic about Passports in American has arisen. The stats thrown out there are that only 10% of Americans have Passports. I talked about this with a Polish girl, a Brazilian man, an Australian man, and now a German man. And when I think about that statistic, it seems awfully low! But when I look at my friends and the people I know, the stat may be high! And, of course, there are various reasons for such a difference between Americans and Europeans, some including...
We have a big country. 3500 miles from "sea to shining sea" is only comparable to all of Europe. For us to travel state to state, we need nothing. For Europeans, they need a Passport, hence the huge difference in statistics.
Our country is diverse. If we want mountains, we have a few options. If we want rain, we can get that. Snow? Aisle 2. Sleet? Yup. Ice? Sure thing. Hail. Sporadic but deliverable. Corn? Of course. Plains? Gotcha covered. Plateaus? Like tables. Deserts? Hot or cold? Valleys? Mm hmm. Canyons? Grand. Caves? Underground. Rivers? As deep as they are wide. Lakes? Great. Coast? To Coast. Sand? Fine. Oak? Hard to get. Cacti? You get the point. So we feel that we do not need to travel outside of the country to experience God's wonderful, marvelous, colorful, and diverse Creation.
And we are arrogant. What do other countries have that we don't? To those who use this argument, I cannot argue against them, for their mind is already made up. Even my own grandpa told me, "Son, there is nothing over there for you. I have been there." Don't tell him, but he was deeply wrong. I love him, but I wholeheartedly disagree. I can only encourage those who have not grown stubborn or arrogant quite yet. There is a vast and beautiful world out there. Lessons are plentiful, and allow me to echo what has already been said by the wise before us...
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness -- all foes to real understanding. Likewise, tolerance or broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in our little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
-- Mark Twain
May I never vegetate.
Well, the day was halfway over. haha...much like this blog. haha. Hey, I haven't written in awhile, give me a break!
Well, from the small restaurant, we went back home and picked up the 4x4. And this is no ordinary 4x4. This is for tackling the mountains and deserts of the world...which it has. Rugged construction, an altimeter to show you your altitude, GPS, and a gauge which shows you how far forward or backwards you are and how far sideways (so you know whether you will flip or not when you climb the mountains...true story). And on top of all of this (literally!), is a fold-up tent. Right on top of the rig. Beautiful.
Well, we took the Galloper to Portugal. Real Portugal. There were no signs for this praia (beach), but we drove down these red-dirt roads, and you knew the ocean was coming. After breaking out of the pine trees, the ocean was before us. With just a handful of locals. Off in the distance about a mile down the coast, you could see the brilliant sunlight shining off of the million-dollar resorts. But for a time, this beach was safe. I give it only a few years before the outstretched hand of greed and tourism finds it, and that saddens me. But for a time, if only for a time, we were safe. And I was able to take pictures up and down the coast. With no plastic chairs. And no plastic umbrellas. And life was good.
From there, we took the Galloper off-roading through the woods along the coast. At one point, we were just feet away from the cliff where the trees meet the coast. And we had to fold in the mirrors just so that we could pass through the trees! A very tight fit! It was beautiful. Every man's dream.
We went to another part of the local's beach where Ralph and I drowned out our worries (which were very little by this time...only sadness for the rich man down the coast) with a couple cervezas. I ordered from a middle-aged man with a moustache. His beach shop was old, flaking, and hadn't been swallowed up by Commercialism. Before and after the cervezas, he walked outside his shop and sat down with his friends at a table and talked. My guess is that he has worries of his own, but you sure wouldn't know it from watching him. He was Portugal. I walked from his shop to a hut made out of old sugarcane. No neon. No paint. This was Portugal. After a second round of cervezas and watching the ocean, talking about America some more (how we put so much pressure and emphasis upon sports...in Germany and Portugal, sports are not tied to schools...only communities. He wondered if the American shows about jocks and cheerleaders and popularity and the like were true. For the most part, I said. It's cool to be good at sports. It's cool to be attractive. And strong. And pretty. And fit. Smart? Eh. Musical? Eh. Nice. Eh. "So the shows are right, then," he said. I guess they are. What poor creatures we have become.), and talking about everything yet nothing at the same time, we left the ocean oasis.
From there, we took the steel machine up a mountain. And I mean literally up the mountain. We followed an old red-dirt road up the the side of a mountain! 4x4 in gear the whole time! Up and over little ramps, dodging the deep ditches of water run-off from the previous day's rain. Rabbits scurrying across the road. And we were the only ones. From the top, I could see all the way up and down the coast. Faro. Albufeira. The ocean. And somewhere out there was Afrika. Absolutely beautiful. I would go back and forth from the private beach to the top of the mountain if I lived here. Miles away from everywhere.
From there, we went and picked up Aaron and Zoe from school. Aaron saw the red dirt on the sides of the rig, and he knew what we had been up to! "The roads had some dirt on them after the rain," I said smiling. And we both knew that I was lying. They are such neat kids! We drove home, and I just laid down. I was exhausted!
After a bit, Aaron came and knocked on my window. After last night's fancy meal, we were going out to eat. And I can't even begin to describe what I experienced. It's when a little boy sees the ocean for the first time after only knowing his swimming pool. It's when an astronaut takes a look back at the earth after having only known his country. It's when a little boy from Illinois takes a trip into the heart of Portugal. My tastebuds found tastes that they had never used before!
I easily had the best meal of my life tonight. No questions asked. And I have had some fine meals in my lifetime. I am a huge fan of steak, but no steak has even come close to what I experienced. Somehow spirituality and taste joined for a meeting in a fancy restaurant in Portugal tonight. I enjoyed the best skewer of fish, shrimp, onions, and peppers that ever graced this world. Topped by one of the smoothest red wines in the world. We had laughs, Zoe had some smiles and some tears, but we all relished the moment. A beautiful Brazilian waitress, a fine wine, great bread, and a spiritual supper could only make me think of one thing...
This is Portugal.
2007-09-13 00:30:28 GMT