Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lisbon: Oh God, Lisbon.

We did not die. But I do not love Lisbon. I love Paris. Barcelona. Madrid. Montpellier. Avignon. Collioure. Even Perpignan, now. I hate Lisbon. We cut our time there in half--thank GOD we asked to stay an extra night with Jonna in Porto--and we're on the train now to Faro, after having spent not even a full 48 hours in Lisbon. It was enough time. The thing about traveling on the cheap is that you don't have money for the touristy things, like visiting castles or museums--and those are the things that take up so much time on vacation. We are left with walking around, taking pictures, and eating. There's only so long I can spend walking around a city before I tire of it, no matter how large the city, particularly when it's raining and kind of cold. We ended up going into restaurants and cafes just to escape the weather--which necessitated purchasing something, which negated the "shoestring budget" idea we all had in mind. All this would have been enough on it own to cut our stay short. But.

The icing on the Lisbon-flavored cake, the cherry on the Lisbon sundae, the gravy on the Lisbon-shaped mound of mashed potatoes was the accommodation. We stayed with a young Portuguese man named Joao who hosts at least five couchsurfers per night in his house, and has several tents outside for those who don't request to surf early enough (we were originally supposed to be in a tent, but the bed situation is a bit...loose at Joao's, and we stayed in beds both nights). Joao was a really nice guy, charming and welcoming and very intelligent. His house was a cross between a Bellingham hippy haven and a crack den.

No, no. No one was smoking crack there (to my knowledge, at least...) although I doubt Joao would have batted an eye. The house must never have been cleaned--EVER--since Joao moved in, and the level of flith is exacerbated by the fact that loads of people are moving in and out of there on a day to day basis.

The first night there we stayed in, met up with the ten or so other people there (from an assortment of places like Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, Latvia, and Idaho) and had dinner that a nice French couple cooked for everyone. It started to rain, so Karen and I decided to sleep indoors, and we unrolled our sleeping bags onto some mattresses that literally covered the floor in the couchsurfing room, minus enough space to house a broken desk and a desktop computer from 1992. We awoke the next morning after a mostly sleepless and uncomfortable night, kind of grungy but still ready to explore the city. With the dorky touring Europe book stashed away in a purse, we set off through Lisbon, finding cool tiled walls, weird 50s American soda fountain style cafes, and tiny winding streets leading up to a castle at the top of a hill. Wandering around the city was quite nice, but we were all a bit cranky due to lack of sleep, low temperatures, and persistent rain showers--it was amazing how marked an improvement we saw in our moods when the sun decided to come out. After wandering aimlessly for about 9 hours, we found a restaurant in my guidebook (Europe on a Shoestring Budget) that boasted 2.50 euro main dishes and "filling vegetarian" fare). The outside of the building and what we could see of the inside seemed like a 2.50 euros dinner kind of place, and we walked in before looking at the menu to find a lovely restaurant with a stunning view of the city and a menu with mains starting at 10 euros.


We are fairly certain that this restaurant starting getting more business because of the listing in the Europe book, completely overhauled themselves, and started charging five times as much for their food. We saw at least two other groups of people come into the restaurant, and then leave once they saw the menu. After the waiter asked what we wanted to drink (water. no way could we afford wine now), we sat leafing through the menu and I started to panic about money. The whole trip was turning out to be far more expensive than any of us had planned. We must have looked miserable--I was actually crying at one point.

At any rate, we looked miserable enough for the owner of the restaurant to send over a bottle of complimentary wine. Then the live music started, and we began to actually enjoy ourselves. Throughout the night, they had two guitarists (one on classical and one of a traditional Portuguese kind of guitar) and two amazing singers who performed fado, a traditional Portuguese style of music whose name means fate. The music is beautiful--very melancholy and sensual. It felt like that scene from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" where they're at the guitar concert in Barca...except there were no Spaniards asking to take us to Oviedo. Just a lovely Portuguese waiter who spoke with us in French.

After spending nearly 3 hours in the restaurant (and 12 hours away from Joao's) we decided we had put off returning for far too long, and made our way home.

Sometime during that day, we had come to the conclusion that we needed to leave Lisbon rather than stay another day and night there, and booked the hostel for an extra night in Faro. We looked up an internet cafe in the guidebook, and walked for about an hour and a half--in circles--trying to find it. We found the Irish pub (to which we later paid a visit), some weird installation art, and a group of twenty-odd twenty-somethings, blowing whistles as hard as their lungs would let them, and when we FINALLY found the internet cafe, it looked as if it had been abandoned for at least five years. Not even closed, just straight-up abandoned. Like thick layer of dust, old computers still on tables, cups and glasses still in the cupboard abandoned. Thanks, Europe on a Shoestring Budget. We headed back towards the Lisbon visitors center, another hotspot, booked the hostel for another night in Faro, and figured out the earliest train to get outta Lisbon.

When we got back to Joao's, we were surprised to see that no one was home, and we packed up our stuff and hit the hay--almost literally--in peace. Kaz and I slept inside again, and Kili and Ash took the tent outdoors. Maybe about 45 minutes after we turned out the light, the buzzer on the door started ringing. I tried to ignore it at first, but whoever it was was pretty insistent on being let in. When I finally did get up, it turned out to be a girl and a guy, probably just a little but younger than myself. I asked if they were new couchsurfers, and they said no, that they had requested to surf but Joao told them his house was full, but they should stop by to say hi anyway.

Standing in a dimly lit hallway, I apologized for being in my pajamas (our group had to get an early start and I had been sleeping...) and explained that no one was home but maybe they could stop by tomorrow or something. I hoped that would get rid of them, but instead they stood around in awe, staring and asking weird questions:

"So what's Joao like?"
-He's pretty cool. Really chill and welcoming. (Please go away)
"Is that his computer?"
-Yep, there it is. (Obviously it's his computer. Are you done asking inane questions yet?)
"So this is all free?"
-Oh yeah. (You don't actually think I would PAY to live/sleep like this, do you?)
"So what's it like here?"
-It's pretty cool--there's people here from all over, so it's pretty cool to meet people. (I've never felt dirtier in my life, even after a week long camping vacation and a subsequent midnight dip in mercury-ridden Bellingham Bay...)

About 25 minutes after I told them I had been sleeping, they finally decided to leave, and I was able to crawl back into my sleeping bad and tried to go back to sleep.

A few hours later, Kaz and I were woken up by lights and loud voices, and an older woman with a deep voice asked abruptly, "Who's sleeping here?" several times before Kaz and I realized what was going on. Karen sat up and said, "Karen and Ashley" to which the deep-voiced woman replied, "Karen?". Karen said yes, and then the deep-voiced woman said, "Okay, well I'll just hang out here then" and walked back into the kitchen. A bit confused, we went back to sleep, only to be woken up a few hours later by Joao and the rest of the couchsurfers when they stumbled back from the bars in the wee hours, after which very little sleep was had by all.

In the morning, Kaz and I woke up to find 3 or 4 other couchsurfers passed out on mattresses around us, and Ashley on the "emergency bed" (some blankets over crates...) where she had moved to during the night because she got food poisoning and needed to be closer to a bathroom. We packed up all of our stuff, made a quick stop at a Portuguese pharmacy to get Ash meds before heading to the train to get the eff out of Lisbon.

Don't get me wrong. I really like Joao and he was a gracious host. He's the kind of guys who needs couchsurfers, who needs new and different people around. I can appreciate that, and I can also (for a short period of time) appreciate and share his grungy hippy lifestyle. But when it's raining in Lisbon and I have nowhere to escape to other than Joao's dirty kitchen, I just can't hack it.

Next stop: Faro, on the southern coast. Bring on the beach and the sun. And a hostel, where I can step in my room barefoot without fear of contracting a disease.

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