Lagos: A Rocky Start

Our adventure in Lagos had one overall theme: Get it Right the Second Time. 

We booked a night in Dom Pedro’s sister hotel called Praia Maia Beach Resort.  Sounds lovely, right? We soon discovered that not all sister hotels are created equal in Portugal.   After having a cab take us to what seemed to be a deserted apartment complex in the middle of the night in this brand new city, we finally found the “resort,” which was really a collection of grimy apartments set up motel style, with outdoor entrances to each room, accessible through a parking lot.  We got our key from the motel clerk, who seemed to be the only human being anywhere in the vicinity.  We opened the door to our room, and flipped on the switch to a flickering light.  Our two twin beds were set up against either wall of the tiny room, with about an inch in between the two beds.  Randi commented that it felt like we had entered a military bunker.  We nervously explored the bathroom, afraid to really touch anything, and when I discovered a spider the size of my hand crawling on my bed, I lost it.  I picked up our bags and ran back to the check in desk.  I knew if we stayed here, I would be standing upright all night long, afraid of the critters and possibly serial killers that lurked nearby.  Since the only people within fifty miles of us seemed to be me, Randi and the hotel clerk, it really did feel like the beginning of a scary movie.

I explained to the hotel clerk that we were on vacation, and if we got a hotel closer to town, we’d be a lot happier because we wanted to go out to the nightclubs (this was a lie – all we really wanted was some semblance of normalcy and a hotel that would allow us to sleep through the night, but this was my way of not completely insulting the accommodations we were in).  Luckily, his friend had shown up to hang out with him while he was on duty at this abandoned shack, and she told us that she worked in a four star hotel right by the marina.  We begged the clerk to call that hotel to see if they had availability, and luckily, they did.  He called us a cab, we apologized, and we were off.

The Marina Rio was by no means a four star hotel, but we were just happy to see a real hotel, seemingly near civilization, other hotels, and with other people staying at this one.  We put our stuff down in our normal sized room, and went to the hotel bar to have a Sagres, relieved that we had changed our situation.

We had no idea that this theme of getting it right the second time would follow us well into the next day.

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Why I Love Technology.

Another night finding myself unable to sleep, I give in to the insomnia and sit up in bed, pulling my laptop off the side table (no room for a desk in my tiny bedroom in my NYC apartment).

Looking for distractions on the Internet, I’m thrilled when I see my good friend Michele sign online. See, Michele left for Uganda this weekend to start her 12 week stint as a Kiva Fellow.

Seeing her sign on showed me that she had arrived safely, and that in her different time zone, she might be up for a chat. It’s also crazy to think that if this had been 5-7 years earlier, this instantaneous conversation could never have happened between two people so far apart.

Part of her program requires that she blogs about her experience, so I’ll be sharing that as soon as she starts posting, but for those of you interested, here’s a quick snippet of our conversation – an update from the beginning of Michele’s adventures in Uganda.

2:21 AM
me: are you there?
Michele: yesss!
me: how is it?
Michele: it’s ok here still getting acclimated
Michele: got in late sat night and my luggage was lost
Michele: this is my 2nd day at work
me: ahh
Michele: so not much sunday i tried to explore a bit but was more focused on getting my luggage
me: and work is in an office?
Michele: yea and all the gov’t protests apparently take place on the road right infront of the office
me: oh wow
is it safe
Michele: yea i think so
yesterday there was a ruckus outside
but it ended quicly
Michele: i’m working out of 2 offices actulaly
this one is in the capital
the other is about 30 min outside
so not a village
but i have to go to villages to meet borrowers eventually
me: so awesome
did you get a motorbike
Michele: no you have to flag down dudes and hop on the back of their motorbikes – it’s kind of crazy
yea i need to get a helmet
it’s really the only way to get around the other way is a share taxi with like 50 ugandans
Michele: and it would take me an hour to get to work
me: ok get a helmet asap
Michele: yes i definitely will

So, this post is dedicated to Michele as I wish her luck on her African adventure – here’s hoping she gets herself a helmet to deal with that crazy Ugandan transportation… and that next time I find myself unable to sleep in the middle of the night, she’s signed online on the other side of the world.

Cascais

We weren’t sure what to expect in Cascais. We knew it was a coastal town and a fishing village, and that there was something called the Boca d’inferno there, but that was really it. We made the 40 minute ride out there, on a train that went along the Tagus River and showed passengers the beauty of the coast as the ride opened up to the Atlantic en route. After enjoying this most pleasant and scenic train ride, we hopped off at the station and found ourselves in the middle of a quaint, historic town.

We hesitantly wore bathing suits that morning, since we weren’t completely sure if there would be a need for them. We were completely overjoyed when about ten steps from the train station, we came to an outdoor restaurant perched atop a cliff which provided a great view of the ocean. Steps led down the side of the cliff, and just below the restaurant, sunbathers were climbing down to enjoy the sandy beach on this beautiful day. We ate a small breakfast at the restaurant and then joined the sunbathers for the next few hours. It was glorious. The water and parts of the beach were dotted with rock formations like nothing I’d ever seen before. Randi took pictures as I jumped from rock to rock, awkwardly dancing around and trying to balance on them.

A few hours later, we tried to make our way over to the famous Boca d’inferno, or “Mouth of Hell,” where apparently the waves of the Atlantic crash so hard onto the rocky shore, the top of a cavern was completely blown off. We try to ask people how to get there, and we receive several recommendations – bus, train, walk, cab. We eventually go with the bus, but then find ourselves being taken on a journey which is clearly in the opposite direction of where we want to go, as we pass the signs to the Boca d’inferno and our bus drives away from them.

We get off at a random stop and try to use the road signs to walk to the Boca d’inferno. We find ourselves on some sort of path clearly not meant for pedestrians, but we have a feeling we’re close. We can see the ocean ahead of us so we assume we’ll be okay as we get closer to the ocean. Finally, we find it. Unfortunately, today is a beautiful day with hardly any wind, so the waves are not as scary as usual. We still enjoy the scenery and walk around this new area, soaking up the beauty of this landscape before we have to head back to Lisbon.

Sintra, where Fairytales Come True

We eat breakfast at an outdoor café – it’s the first normal breakfast I’ve had since we arrived. Ham and egg on a baguette for me, and Randi orders bacon and eggs with a “double coffee,” which means there are probably about eight shots of espresso in it. We board a train to Sintra from Rossio Station, a beautiful old train station in the middle of Rossio Square.

Sintra is even more magical than we imagined. A quaint little town built on a hill; we spend our morning exploring the grounds of the Quinta de Regaleira, a large garden that once belonged to a wealthy family. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, wandering around this garden is basically a game of “what beautiful amazing hidden thing will you find next?” From a seemingly secret lily pond with a stone bridge hanging above it, to a multitude of stone castle-like towers and dark, inviting caves, Randi and I once again find ourselves in a real life fairy tale, running around and exploring the grounds to see what we’ll discover next. We come across a secret door made of stone – it looked just like another rock structure in the garden – but when pushed open, reveals a steep, old well.

The initiation well is a masonry well supposedly inspired by the Knights of Templar. I heard something about being reborn when you climb all the way down the well and then back up, but I can’t seem to find anything about that here on the internet, so I’m not sure how accurate that is. But I like to think we went through some kind of symbolic rejuvenation while climbing down the steep, dark steps with water dripping on us. It was completely surreal. I don’t know if we were reborn, but reaching the bottom of this structure and looking up at the circular opening so high above us that allowed just a bit of sunlight to creep down and illuminate the small space we were in felt like some kind of spiritual experience.

We continued exploring this place, climbing up magical castles and looking out at the lush gardens around us. We even retraced our steps on the way back so we could experience every part of it one more time. We ended up spending about three hours at the Quinta de Regaleira, which is pretty ridiculous when on vacation and trying to cram lots of sightseeing into a short amount of time. But it was well worth it – this place will be etched in our memories forever, and will be my absolute must see recommendation for anyone planning a trip to Portugal.

Eventually, we’re able to part with our new favorite place in the world, so we head back to town to get some lunch.  Randi read about a Portugese/French restaurant in a guidebook, so we make our way around the narrow cobblestone pathways until we find it.  This restaurant, Tacho Real, had the best salmon I’ve ever eaten – melty, super fresh and delicious.  Randi’s stuffed crab was pretty good, too – I now understand why guidebooks exist and why people buy them.

After lunch, we did a bit of shopping, and then made our way up to the Pena Palace, which sits atop the hill overlooking the entire village of Sintra. Yet another gorgeous place for us to explore while feeling like we’ve entered a magnificent fairy tale, the royal family once lived here. I particularly admired Portugal’s queen Amelia, whose glorious bedroom opened up to the “Queen’s Balcony,” which overlooks not just the entire castle, but all of Sintra and beyond.

Sintra was like a five-star, fifteen course decadent meal for the eyes.

San Jorge, Alfama, and Nutella Pizza

Today we’re going to the Alfama neighborhood and starting our day at Castelo San Jorge.  Our cab driver asks where we’re from, and when we tell him America, he says it’s a good day for us.  We ask why, and he tells us Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed by American troops.  We’ve hit possibly the most major turning point in the war on terror, and Randi and I are in Portugal.  But on a positive note, we get the BBC here, so we’re getting a global perspective on the situation versus a skewed view from American media. 

Arriving at Castelo San Jorge, we walk up onto the castle grounds and see the most amazing view of the city of Lisbon, terra cotta rooftops everywhere and an incredible view of the Tagus.  We start to wander towards the castle but are interrupted by a peacock walking around with its feathers extended.  We admire this guy, one of many stray peacocks that seem to wander the castle grounds.  We begin to make our way up to the castle itself, and soon, Randi and I are running around through ancient stone fortresses and climbing narrow staircases, peering through windows and exploring this ancient labyrinth.  We feel like we’ve walked into a fairytale.
After playing at the castle all morning, we begin to explore the narrow cobblestone streets of Alfama.  We wander into an artisan shop, where the owner asks if I voted for Bush, thoroughly relieved when I shake my head no.  I ask where the tiles I’m admiring are made, and he holds up his hands and says “with these.”  He lives across the river and has a workshop set up at his home, where he makes everything that he sells in the stores.  I buy a few of his hand painted tiles before leaving the shop.
 
We stumble upon a small park, with two men playing music next to a painter making watercolor depictions of the site we’re looking out on.  The park overlooks the river and sits next to a church with blue painted tiles depicting various biblical scenes.  We wander a bit more and head towards Rossio Square, on our way to explore the Bairro Alto neighborhood. We stop into a café for lunch.  As we’re enjoying our meal of calamari and pork, the weather changes our plans.  It starts raining, and we decide to visit the Oceanarium, the world’s second largest Aquarium.  The café owner, a sweet woman in her fifties who can’t do enough for us, gives us detailed directions on how to get to the aquarium by metro.  And then she scolds us for not finishing our meals.
 
Our afternoon at the aquarium is lovely – we see penguins, starfish, and the most adorable sea otters.  We can’t stop watching these furry otters as they glide around in the water, washing themselves and just enjoying their aquatic life to the fullest.   The aquarium is set up so you can see ecosystems from all the major oceans of the world, which is really interesting.  We walk outside the aquarium and stare at the Vasco de Gama bridge, the longest bridge in Europe.  It seems to go on forever.  We stroll back to the metro station on what seems to be a rickety wooden path over the water, somewhat unsettling, but we make it.
After many failed attempts to put money on my metrocard, we make it back to our hotel just in time for our exotic wood and bamboo massages.  Randi booked a bamboo massage, me an exotic wood drainage massage, but when we compared notes afterwards it seemed like the same thing – where the masseuse basically rolled a rolling pin down each of our backs at various points during the massage.  The spa at the hotel is a sight itself, containing an indoor pool that illuminates in different colors every few seconds, and has a tile mosaic of some ancient statue overlooking this glowing technicolor spectacle.
This evening, we’re eating at Guilty, a new restaurant opened by famous Lisbon restaurateur, Olivier.  Our waiter doesn’t speak a word of English, so we communicate with him through pointing and hand gestures.  He’s amused by us, and every time we buzz him on the buzzer in the middle of the table (apparently this is how you get your server’s attention in Lisbon), he cracks up and comes over to see what we want.  We’re too full for dessert tonight (obviously), but we order the nutella pizza anyway, which proves to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

May 1st – Belem

We’re told to take the tram to Belem, where Portugal’s most famous piece of architecture lives.  After boarding the crowded tram, we realize the machine accepts coins only, of which we have none.  We desperately ask people to make change for our paper money, but no one has any.  We notice that they really do make a valiant effort to look – very unlike what we’re used to in America.  After giving up and simply hoping we won’t be kicked off this tram, we notice that one of the men we originally asked for change had made his way to the front of the crowded tram, and is now pushing his way back in our direction.  He gives us coins, and it’s apparent that his trek through the crowd to the front of the tram was solely a mission to get us the change we needed.  We’re astounded by his kindness.

We pass our desired stop at Belem, but when we get off one stop later, we’re standing in front of the Jeronimos Monastery, a centuries’ old, vast building with domes and iron wrought spokes extending across its massive roof.  We admire the architecture for a long time and walk around the gardens surrounding the monastery.  There’s a beautiful fountain directly in front, which adds to this amazing scenery.  We see an interesting looking sculpture in the distance, up by the water, so we head in that direction.  The sculpture hangs over the Tagus River, depicting various 16th century prominent figures boarding a ship.  It was such an interesting structure, and the placement of it hanging over the river made it that much more impactful.
At the base of this sculpture, we find ourselves on a path along the Tagus, looking at the Torre de Belem in the distance.  As we enjoy our lovely stroll across the river, we stop at one of the ultra simplistic cafes that pop up along the path.  By simple, I mean the décor of these restaurants consisted only of white walls with floor to ceiling glass windows, with outdoor and indoor seating.  We had a quick orange juice and sandwich as we stared across the Tagus at the rolling hills and terra cotta covered homes dotting the Portugese landscape.
We continue on and reach the Torre de Belem, the most famous structure in Portugal, a castle/fortress standing since the 1500’s.  We walked around and admired it from all angles.  As we walked away from the fortress, we stumbled upon a military memorial, guarded by two military soldiers.  Fully dressed in uniform, the soldiers were slowly marching towards each other in front of the memorial.  When they reached each other, they promptly turned around, and slowly marched back to their individual posts at either end of the memorial.
 
Next, we made our way to the famous Pasteis de Belem, which I can only describe as the Café du Monde of Portugal.  Sitting at a table in a large area crowded by tourists, our disgruntled server brought us our coffee and pastries.  These were no beignets, though.  The following description won’t do the pastries justice, but these were the most amazing creations, crispy, caramelized goodness on the outside with creamy, cheesy deliciousness on the inside.  Randi and I were in a complete daze as we lost ourselves in these delicacies, savoring every single bite.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant called AlCantera, located in the neighborhood of the same name.  The expansive restaurant with high ceilings and nude statues was almost empty, and we’re told this is because it’s Sunday, and May 1st, which is Portugal’s national Labor Day holiday.  The décor reminds me of Morocco with the high ceilings, wood paneling and wooden fans hanging down from the ceiling.  Everywhere we go in this country reminds us of somewhere we’ve been, but really, it’s like nowhere we’ve seen.  There’s a little Israel, Spain, Italy, even New Orleans here.  We’re still encountering confusion followed by delight everywhere we go.

A Night Out in Lisbon: Confusion, followed by Laughter

When we return to the hotel after our first meal debacle and admiring a fusion of Asian, European, Egyptian and Persian art at the Gulbenkian, there is a message for us in our room.  The hotel has to move us out of the room they originally put us in when we arrived at 6 a.m. that morning, because they’re doing renovations on the floor.  We’re just happy they were able to accommodate us at that early hour, so we don’t mind moving rooms at all.  When we go to the front desk to exchange our keys, we’re told that we are being upgraded to the top floor, with windows that overlook a sprawling view of the entire city of Lisbon.  And for our inconvenience of having to switch rooms, we’ll be granted VIP spa access.  Again, Portugal, is this REALLY happening? You really love us, don’t you?

We move to our new room and get dressed for dinner.  We’re feeling really special here, so we decide to continue with this theme and eat dinner at a five star restaurant that came highly recommended.  Our cab driver can’t find the restaurant.  He pulls the cab over not once but three times to look at a map, get out of the cab and ask pedestrians for directions, while leaving the meter running.  Not knowing our way around this city yet, we don’t have much choice but to wait for him to return to the cab and try to find his way to our destination.  Eventually, we find the restaurant, which was supposed to only be five minutes from the hotel.

The doors are closed, and we have to ring a buzzer to get in.  A uniformed woman retrieves us at the door and escorts us down some stairs to a regal looking couch adjacent to a small coffee table, the whole setup overlooking an outdoor garden with palm trees and greenery.  We’re again, confused in Portugal.  Is this where we’ll be eating our dinner? Why do other people seem to be at normal looking dinner tables? Are they simply placing us in this strange situation because we’re two seemingly naïve American girls? The waitress finally comes over and takes our order.  We order two entrees, but there is no wine on the menu, so she asks if we like white or red wine.  We respond with white, completely unsure of what she’ll come back with or how much we’ll be paying for this bottle.  Meanwhile, we’re served appertifs upon appertifs, which were all delicious, but now I’m growing concerned about what kind of appetite I’ll have for the main course, and will I be scolded again for not eating it all, and is our entire meal going to be eaten while bending over this coffee table, and is there any more of this ridiculously ornate restaurant that we haven’t seen yet, and also, what the hell are we even eating right now?  Just as maximum levels of confusion overwhelm, our waitress comes over and in a chipper, pleasant voice, asks, “Shall we go?”  She motions to one of the tables with normal dinner chairs and silverware, similar to the tables the other Portugese patrons are sitting at.  We’re pleased to see that we haven’t been pushed into a corner because we’re two American girls, not because they’re shunning or tricking us, but this is simply the process in which this particular restaurant serves dinner.  So if anyone goes to the Casa de Comida restaurant in Lisbon, just enjoy the unique progression of your meal.  By the way, it was delicious.  And yes, they were disappointed because I didn’t lick my plate clean.

After dinner, we head to the Al Canterra neighborhood, with the waitress telling us to go to the “docas.”  The docks? We pull up to a roundabout and are greeted by a swimming pool on its side, lit up like a sculpture at night.  The “docas” remind us a bit of South Street Seaport, a line of bars along the water, with a mix of American pop music and Portugese dance music blaring out of every nightclub we pass.  We take a video of two couples dancing beautifully to Portugese music, and one of the women comes up to me and says, “This is not photo for YouTube.”  Laughing a little, I shake my head and wildly stress to her that no, no, I’m just taking photos from my vacation, not for YouTube.  She eases my concern by putting her hand on my shoulder, saying, “It is only to laugh.”  I know she meant to say she’s only kidding, but I really like this new expression.  Because so many times in life, “it is only to laugh.”

After making our way through a few of these nightclubs and enjoying the nighttime waterfront scenery and carefree culture, we are ready to head back to the hotel.  It’s around 1:30 a.m., and our taxi driver’s name is Marco.  He was a law student who had to stop his studies to go back to work, because of Portugal’s current financial crisis.  He’s determined to go back to finish his law degree in the fall, and wants to visit New York as soon as he gets his life in order.  We’re stopped at a red light when out of nowhere, Randi and I hear whistling and a voice yelling “taxi, taxi!” over and over again.  We look all around us to see where this voice is coming from.  Turns out, it is Marco’s cell phone ringtone.

Portugal – utter confusion followed by laughter and delight.