“How human the metallic peal of the trams! How happy the landscape of simple rain falling on the street resurrected from the chasm!
Oh Lisbon, my home!”
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, Entry 74
After a month-long hiatus, I’ve finally returned to the blogosphere:
Hola, mi carino, mi blog.
Reason for being MIA: Earlier this month, I went on a trip to Spain and Portugal with my mates, and let’s just say that readjusting to Hong Kong life took some time.
Originally, I had planned on writing a travelogue detailing each part of our journey from the east of Spain to the west of Portugal (Barcelona to Madrid to Lisbon and finally, to Porto), but:
(a) that would yield a gargantuan ‘guide’ which probably won’t rival TripAdvisor in terms of comprehensiveness or readability, and
(b) I figured that I, well, wanted to talk about something else instead.
Mostly (b), to be honest.
A year ago, I decided to go on one of those proverbial ‘soul searching’ trips after my final exams, and because I had just finished reading the Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s Blindness (and loved it) at the time, I ended up picking Lisbon as the destination for my solo adventure.
In terms of location choice, I’d say I hit the jackpot. To date, Lisbon is arguably my favourite European city, maybe bar London for reasons of sentimental attachment. I can still remember feeling a strange, almost unwarranted, kind of wistfulness on my fourth and final day in the Portuguese capital, as if I was about to bid farewell to an old friend at home for an indefinite period of time.
If the word ‘connection’ has become too hackneyed from Romanticist overuse, I think it’s fair to at least say that I understood Lisbon; from my cultural tastes down to my personality quirks, Lisbon – its friendly-but-not-too-chummy people, hilly-but-walkable environs, cheery-but-never-cheesy ambiance, peopled-but-not-too-crowded streets – resonated with me. Everything about the place fit the bill as prescribed by my inner Lonely Planet.
For a lot of people, it’s Paris or Rome or Budapest or Mykonos, but after visiting the place for the second time, I can confirm that my Continental soul place is Lisbon.
On the morning of 7th July 2015, I recall leaving for Aeroporto station thinking that I’d probably never come back to this city again, only to – voila – make an unexpected return in less than a year with dear friends.
From Barcelona to Madrid: First Impressions
Before I start talking about Lisbon, which was the third stop on our Mediterranean route, it’s probably worth pointing out that we had travelled to Lisbon from Madrid, both capitals of their respective countries. Unlike Barcelona with its architectural potpourri and cosmopolitan sheen, Madrid exudes an aura of confidence steeped in tradition, history and culture.
This is partly why I prefer Madrid to Barcelona. It doesn’t help that I find Gaudi architecture a bit tacky (what’s with the blue loo tiles everywhere in Casa Batllo?), and for all the acclaimed stature of La Sagrada Familia, the fact that Gaudi was the one who designed it offended my anti-Gaudi aesthetics right from the get go.
Suffice it to say that we did not go out of Barcelona with a bang, and when time came for my mates and I to leave the city for Madrid, the collective thought among us was –
‘Is that it??’
‘Have we missed something??’
In short, we left the city suspecting that there were sights we still haven’t seen, despite our jam-packed, guide book-verified (and ergo comprehensive) itinerary.
Madrid, on the other hand, I liked a lot better. In fact, I think I would rank it among the top 5 on my ‘Cities I have Visited’ list.
In a nutshell, Madrid is like Hong Kong, except it’s more cultured, less humid (a lot less, I had a nose bleed almost every day there); more colourful, less skyscrapery; more diverse, less drab; more economical, less economically-inclined.
So, eh, maybe not so much like Hong Kong, after all.
Still, they are both densely populated cities, which is a trait that one of my best friends – Bo, really likes about the Spanish capital. To her, this is what sets Madrid apart from Lisbon: the latter is a lot sparser and a lot less ‘peopled’, which coincidentally happens to be one of the things I appreciate most about the Portuguese capital, and a key reason as to why I prefer Lisbon to Madrid.
There’s a layer of friendly mystique in the air of Lisbon, which one has to actively seek out by traversing and trailblazing its ever-ramifying back alleys and avenidas and cul-de-sacs.
On the contrary, Madrid doesn’t have this sort of coyness. The city delights in putting its hustle and bustle on show, all at once at any given time, like a Cabaret-meets-Flamenco. The street energy reaches its hilt at around midnight – a surprising fact we discovered after a taxing walk along the Grand Via at 12 am, during which we kept having to edge our way through swarms of bag-laden shoppers (I thought I got away from HK to avoid this sort of thing?!).
It seems, then, that living is a nocturnal activity for the Spanish. At one point, I couldn’t help but recall Javier Marias’ characterisation of his native city in The Man of Feeling, a novella I had read and enjoyed several months back:
Madrid… seems in a hurry to say everything, as if it were aware that the only way it can win over the traveller is through unchecked noise and vehemence. It does not… allow for any long-term expectations, any reticence or reserve, nor does it allow the visitor (not to mention the perpetually harassed resident) the smallest imaginative or imaginary hope that anything more might exist – hidden, unexpressed, omitted or merely contingent – than what is brazenly offered to him as soon as he steps out along its dirty, suffocating streets.
(p. 81, Penguin Modern Classics edition)
To be honest, the 1980s version of Marias’ Madrid sounds more like the 2016 reality of my Hong Kong. But having witnessed the formidable, and at times overwhelming, energy that imbues the streets of Madrid, I can definitely see why Marias, a writer, thinker and above all, lover of solitude, would paint a less-than-pretty picture of what is objectively a very picturesque city.
Living it up in Lisboa: One city, two visits, three friends
But as promised: Lisbon. Lish-boo-ah. The city of colourful azulejos, gleaming pavements and eternal sunshine.
It’s just one border crossed, but the difference in ambiance between Madrid and Lisbon is stark. I’m almost tempted to not describe the city in such concrete terms as a bait for everyone to experience it themselves, because there’s just something ineffable about the happiness that buoys up its environs, one that doesn’t so much exhibit (as with the case of Madrid) but exude an attitude that is at once laid-back and inclusive.
It’s an atmospheric baptism that you can’t really get away from. Like a mother’s bosom, this place suffocates you with love; its charm has the capacity to suspend even the strongest kind of wanderlust and convert the itchiest feet into a willing lodger.
The other key difference I’ve noticed is in the people: pretty much no one struck me as especially friendly in Spain, whereas almost everyone in Lisbon was condoning and cheery towards our often touristy overtures and questions.
On our second day to Sintra, a coastal town further west to Lisbon, we bought tickets for the wrong train and didn’t realise it until we got to the station. In a state of panic, my mates and I frantically explained our situation by gesticulating and ‘code-switching’ between Portugues and Ingles to the train conductor. Despite not knowing how to speak English, the man tried his best to explain and offer us alternative travel routes. And while we ended up not being able to swap our tickets for the high-speed ones we had wanted, I still really appreciated the conductor’s earnest attempt to help.
From Sintra to Belem – again
When I went to Lisbon on my own last year, I visited the Belem area and left the place feeling like I’ve not truly lived until then. This time around, I re-visited the main sights – Torre Belem, Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos – in the company of my best friends, and I can only say that I fell in love with the place all over again.
I’ll leave it to Saramago to work his descriptive magic on the Mosteiro/Monastery, which he calls “not a cemetery, but an architectural miracle” in his travel memoir Journey to Portugal:
The traveller feels overwhelmed… he surrenders to the decorative detail of what looks like weightless lacework, and before pillars that seem too slender to support any weight. And he recognises the stroke of genius in the decision to leave part of each pillar free of any decoration. The architect, reflects the traveller, wanted to pay homage to the basic simplicity of stone, while at the same time introducing a feature that would give the spectator a jolt, waking him out of his lazy way of looking.
But what captivates the traveller most of all is the sight of the vault over the transept. Twenty-five metres high above a floor twenty-nine by nineteen metres. The vaulting soars in a single arch, with no pillar or column to support it. Like the hull of a giant ship turned upside down, this soaring belly shows its ribs, its innermost structure so amazing the traveller does not know whether he should kneel on the spot and praise whoever conceived and designed the miracle.
(p. 329, Harvill edition)
It’s one thing to take in such incredible beauty all by yourself, but I’ve come to realise that sharing beauty with people I love endows me with a different appreciation for the same surroundings.
I mean, in what other travel group can you shamelessly cam-whore in front of each site and take a million trio-fies from a trillion different angles? Or take turns taunting one another into accosting cute-looking Portuguese guys to take photos of yourself?
Eu amo meus amigas.
From Portugal to New Mexico (?!): Reading about solitary traveling while traveling with friends
Make no mistake though, I’m a big advocate for solitary travelling. I think it’s the best outlet for self-reflection (even better than journaling, imo). By observing the contours of a landscape in quietude, we are able to re-centre our thoughts and recover those hidden recesses in our minds, the ones we daily shun for “matters of consequence”.
In fact, spending so much time with my friends on this trip got me thinking about what it means to be an ‘introvert’. As an introvert, I’m most naturally comfortable when left to my own devices, but this trip has confirmed that the opposite holds true for me as well: I love spending prolonged stretches of time with the people I love.
At the backpacker’s hostel that I stayed in last July, I met three South African girls who were travelling across Europe together. One of them couldn’t believe that I was travelling alone, and somehow felt obliged to include me in their itinerary. To her, the concept of being alone, of solitary exploration, seemed sad, if not almost sacrilege.
Of course, I politely declined her well-intentioned invites, but what I honestly wanted to say was that she should also try solo backpacking some time.
Little did I know that fast forward to a year later, I would be one in a trio, exploring the same place which I had first sought out as a post-degree sanctuary for reflective solitude.
Just to double up on the irony, I was reading a book about solitary travel throughout this trip, given to me as a ‘parting gift’ by my friend and ex-colleague Dan.
It’s called Fire Season, and the author, Philip Connors, is someone who spends 6 months every year hidden away in the Gila Mountains to look out for wildfires – alone, with no company save for his golden retriever, Alice. Basically, this guy is a professional fire lookout, which is just about the most anti-social job you could ever get in the First World.
One of the many things I find extraordinary about his account, though, is the fact that he’s actually married. How is it possible for someone to prefer a hermit’s life, and yet claim to love his wife when he’s not willing to give her the necessary companionship that she yearns for?
In fact, how can anyone justify loving both extreme solitude and constant company in equal measure?
Connors, being a man of thought, is aware of this chasm in his mode of existence. And so towards the end of the narrative, he attempts to address it, but there is no intention of him ever wanting to ‘marry’ the solitary and marital halves of his life:
I wonder sometimes if my loner tendencies make her life more difficult than it needs to be. We married because our minds are enriched and our senses sharpened in each other’s presence, and because our interests dovetail nicely – but my attraction to solitude precludes time together and doesn’t really dovetail with anything but its own perpetuation…. I continue to argue for my summer here [in the mountain] on the basis of necessity – for my mental health and for my creative life. The days and weeks alone help me focus my all-too-often scattered thoughts, and I like to think I leave each summer a calmer, happier person… I know she’d prefer it if I gave up the job. A third of the year is a long time to be away.
(p. 204, Macmillan edition)
Some critics of Fire Season find the author to be a self-indulgent Romantic who’s trying to live out some Wild, Wild West fantasy, but I can empathise with Connors’ need for quality ‘me time’, since this very need is partly what motivated me to go on solo ‘backpacking’ trips to Dublin and Lisbon last year, the former in January and the latter in July.
Granted, the firewatcher’s solitude is of an entirely different intensity and duration; I don’t think I could isolate myself from human contact for more than 6 days. Besides, if Facebook news feed scrolling counts as virtual involvement in society, then I’d say I have yet to experience absolute solitude, unlike Connors:
In the world below [the mountains] I tend toward the attitude of the bemused spectator. I use landline telephones, I answer email, and I’ve yet to renounce my… access to a high-speed Internet connection. (Hypocrite!)… Up here I’m not a six-foot-tall billboard or a member of a coveted demographic; I’m a human being, and as such I find it restorative to be in the presence of certain mysteries our species once knew in its ones, mysteries ineffable and unmediated.
(p. 74, Fire Season)
Next up on my travel bucket list, then, is to go on a road-trip across the Appalachian region and other mountain belts in the US – Kerouac style.
I’d be happy as a clam with just a Moleskin notebook, my Canon EOS, and a resolve to renounce all digital temptations a la iPhone, FB, Twitter, this blog etc.
Just one last request: I’d like to be driving a cotton candy-coloured caravan while doing it.
Don’t ask why.
#Just #Jen #Things #carpe #diem