"Artificiality is the best way to enjoy what's natural. Whatever I've enjoyed in these vast fields I've enjoyed because I don't live here. One who has never lived under constraints doesn't know what freedom is." - Fernando Pessoa
I started reading Pessoa's "Book of Disquiet" while in Portugal. It was probably a mistake to buy it for my Kindle - it is a book best used like a reference piece for sadness and existential musings, with no plot and only a little bit of story. What I like about it is the fact that it is emotionally provocative, and, interestingly enough, offers some insight into a life of solitude and idleness that I know I could never emulate.
We left Lisboa's density by afternoon train and watched as houses, businesses, and people dissipated and then faded into the distance along the coast. We traveled south to the tiny town of Tunes, past dusty orange groves and vast unpopulated areas. We switched to a small train that was waiting for the forty or fifty passengers who had to make the changeover - almost an hour late.
We met an Australian couple on the train, and enjoyed the ability to converse with other native English speakers. It had been a while since communication had flowed so easily. Once we reached Lagos, we took the 20 minute walk to our hostel, passing throngs of tourists and restaurants that were packed into the streets near the beach. The coastal wind was strong, but the air itself was not chilly, and the humidity of the ocean was a comfort. It was dark, but we could sense that we were very close to the beach along the walk; the salt air filled our lungs with a familiar feeling that reminded me of home.
The click-click-click-click of our rolling luggage on the crowded cobblestone streets made us so conspicuous that I couldn't think of much other than getting to the hostel as quickly as possible. As we walked, we heard people speaking English around us in the cafes and on the streets - it was such an odd thing after almost a whole month of rarely hearing our own language and struggling to understand anything in Portuguese.
We found dinner at a steakhouse where the menus were in English and the waitstaff understood everything we asked. Afterwards, we went to a bar where the bartender, George, was an English ex-pat and played American music. The only things that reminded us that we were in another country were the beer taps labeled "Super Bock" and "Sagres" instead of "Bud Light" and "Coors."
The next morning, we met a Parisian couple who had just returned to Europe this Spring after spending two years in Cambodia. They invited us to go for a hike with them after we ate breakfast on the bright white terrace of the hostel. We walked through a suburban neighborhood full of what looked like vacation homes for Europe's wealthy, and suddenly came upon a cliff overlooking the ocean.
The stunning view continued to the east and to the west. We hiked down steep stairs that had been carved into the face of the cliff and onto a secluded beach. There were a few other people around, but we still were able to settle into a spot where our view of the water was completely unobstructed.
We spent the afternoon lounging on the sand, climbing on rocks, and hiking the cliffs with interesting and gracious company, who seemed to be kindred spirits with a genuine joie de vivre. We kept walking west, toward the sun and a more crowded beach where we found a new trail to scale and a new vantage point for natural majesty.
We marveled at the lines in the rocks, and talked about the millions of years of tectonic shifts that must have created these strange lines that were only visible from high above the sea. We tried to identify the birds and plants, and talked about Cambodia, Paris, and New York City.
As I reflect on our last days in Portugal, I am struck by the truth in what Pessoa said. I notice that the natural beauty we see all the time loses its impact as it becomes the background to daily life. During my first trip to Europe, when I visited Ireland years ago, I remember the awe of looking at the castles and cliffs and Druid ruins. I wondered if the people who lived there had any idea how magical their surroundings were. They didn't seem to take notice of the things that interested and even fascinated me. As time goes on, I have learned that it often takes contrast to give us the perspective necessary to appreciate things we encounter.
I didn't realize how immersed I was in Portuguese culture until I was surrounded by tourists from Canada, Australia, and the UK. My love of the dense city streets in Porto and Lisboa is enhanced by my walk through the suburbs of Lagos. My appreciation of the history of the centuries of Roman ruins and Baroque buildings in the cities of Europe is heightened by the perspective of the millions of years I saw etched into the cliff walls and sharp mountains of upended rocks that have been here long enough to render all of human history insignificant.