Bom Ano Novo from Porto Portugal,
That's Happy New Year in the local lingo. Porto or O'porto as they call it here is a large coastal city in the north of Portugal. It has all the narrow hilly twisty-turny roads we see in travel brochures and something more: wonderful people who know the meaning of hospitality. The bus drivers go out of their way to help non-Portuguese speaking visitors find their destinations and stop -for late riders wherever they encounter them. With the 10 ticket passes, a bus ride costs only about 36 cents.
They use a lot of painted glazed tiles on the exteriors of the buildings, especially the old ones, together with spiked iron grillwork fences. This is the only place I know where they name hotels "Hotel Bloody Babies" (Hotel Infante de Sagres) or banks "Bank of the Holy Spirit" (Banco de Spiritu Sancti). I don't know the origin of these names, but they do catch one's attention.
Riding a bus around town is an "E-ticket" attraction. Often with space between buildings giving barely room for the width of the bus and turns so tight the driver must slow to maneuver, one would think traffic jams and accidents would be common. Doesn't seem to be the case. All of the drivers race around their routes like schedule is everything. Other drivers know the big buses have the right of way and give them plenty of room, especially when the road narrows to squashing width. Passing is statistical: when car occasionally meets bus everyone stops while the car backs to a wide spot in the twisting road. Doesn't seem to happen too often.
As usual, I have been walking around town a lot. The old town has changed little from the times of the ancient mariners. The newer part of the city is built around a three block park-like boulevard. Whenever I get lost I spill a little coffee on the sidewalk and follow the running trickle. The center of town must have been planted at the confluence of all the streams in the area, finally emptying into the river.
Compared to anyplace in Spain, there are far fewer smokers in Portugal and unlike the Spanish, Portuguese smokers respect the posted "No Smoking" signs. The Mac Donald's in the center of town seems to be completely smoke free. If there is a smoking area there, I haven't found it yet.
Don't get the wrong idea: I don't make all my meals a hamburger and Coke. Food in the many colorful restaurants is not only cheap, but a gourmet's delight. I've had several fish dinners with vegetables so fresh I had to wait a few minutes for them to be pulled from the ground:-) Often though, all I want is something to keep me nourished, not a cultural experience. Then, a fish-burger and coke from Mac Donald's will do just fine.
This evening before my cyber session I joined others lining the blocked off streets here in the center of town to cheer on the clumps of runners participating in an end-of-year race. The winners were three magnificent specimens of physical conditioning: all young black males. Following them over the finish line came the runners-up, also young and obviously fit. Then came a bunch that included a single young fit woman; then gray hair started making an appearance followed by more women. The overweight, not trying hard next, and groups with adjacent numbers brought up the rear... friends running with one another for the joy of it, I assume. It is a chilly ten degrees Centigrade, but the runners in their shorts and athletic shirts didn't seem to notice.
There is an escorted tour group in our hotel. At breakfast I watched as the excited participants noisily socialized with one another. As I observed their behavior I recalled my own rare tour group experiences and realized how different are solo traveling and traveling in a group. The latter is more of a social experience while the former is consistently cultural by necessity. Excitedly commenting on the flamboyant Flamenco dancer's dress is in another world from flirting with the dancer. Jabbering about how wonderful is the thundering waterfall, cannot compare to being overwhelmed by the visceral experience of embracing the water monster itself.
Not that socializing is a bad thing; other's comments can be enriching, providing information outside our personal grasp. I know my way of encountering new geography, new cultures, new examples of the human family appeals to few normal tourists. But, I am less interested in knowing what others have seen, what others think about what they have seen, than I am in seeing freshly and thinking my own raw untutored thoughts with each new immersion. Later, when I read tails of others who have traveled the same paths I can learn what they believe I should know. Often, what I should know doesn't interest me much. There is so little room in my memory for all the stuff there is to know, I need to be fanatically selective to digest even tiny portions of what I consider truly significant.
By now, I suspect few people will be following these dying embers of my African bonfire. But, hey! I've gotten into the habit of getting thoughts down as I travel and these are the ones running through my mind here in these ultra-civilized environs. Today, as I rode the escalator up a super-modern multi-story shopping center I couldn't help making comparisons with the abundance it represents and the scant resource availability I saw in so many of the tiny villages I walked in sub-Saharan Africa. No glitter, no choices, no orchestral music, no cosmetically perfect young girls handing out free samples of fudge, no blinding illumination pulsating special discount offers... no boring numbness. Hungry? Cook some rice, cook a giant root. Cold? Get out of the weather, under the thatch, under a leaf. Sick? Consult the traditional healer, trust the gods and the herbs your mama used, wait for your body to heal itself, die.
Feeling agitated at the thought of returning to the routines of normal living. Needing to think more peaceful thoughts. Enough philosophy. I'll close this "postcard" which is much too heavy to be scratched out on a small piece of cardboard, with or without a picture.
Fred L Bellomy 28 December 2001
PS: A friend sent my the following link to a "movie" which may be called "Right now," but for me it is a timely reminder of truths easily forgotten. Spend the five minutes it takes... especially if you are feeling tense:
PPS: There are some pictures, but no time to process them. They and many others also sitting in Limbo will be part of my omnibus trip summary page now in the works. I did find this excellent collection of professional photographs on the web, though. F
Porto Portugal: See? I told you they
had a lot of statues around town.