About two weeks after we came to Salamanca, we had the opportunity, for enough Euros to purchase a new formal gown, to go to Portugal for a weekend. Naturally, there was no question which choice was superior.
“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing,” I said to my roommate. “Portugal has never been on my bucket list.”
Considering that ten percent of the money I had brought with me on this trip was now sitting in the travel agency’s cash register, this was a little belated.
It really was something I had never thought of. Portugal was just this little country right next to Spain, and the only notable thing I could recall about it was that the Virgin had appeared in Fatima in the early twentieth century.
Nevertheless, on Friday afternoon I fell asleep in Spain, very close to the Portuguese border, and woke up, both literally and metaphorically, in a whole new place.
Portugal is greener, with more lush vegetation, than Spain. I opened my eyes to look out on a country whose hills and mountains reminded me of pictures I’d seen of Ireland, studded with sheep, but with white houses and terra cotta roofs as in Spain.
I had never before been in a country where one could so easily cross national borders, never known that travel could be this easy. And suddenly, my mind opened to the fact that the world is so much bigger, so much more diverse, than I have known. It’s possible, despite all the travel I’ve done up to this point, that this is the first time I have really understood and appreciated a country for what it is: its culture, its history, its geography, and its language, and it’s definitely true that this was my first realization that my life could be very, very different from the way I have always imagined it turning out. In the blink of an eye still tired with sleep, I saw myself walking, talking, living different languages and cultures, studying in European universities, unafraid to leave the security blanket of the United States. And understood that this is possible, even more than what I am doing now. I smiled out the window of the bus, and watched a new place fly by.
Four hours later, we were lost on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Our bus driver stopped at a gas station, more to ask directions than to let us use the bathroom. Nevertheless, we gratefully availed ourselves of the opportunity while he chatted (in Spanish) with the cashier (who spoke Portuguese).
Twenty minutes later, Joaquin stopped for the third time to ask directions from a tourist wearing a camping backpack and standing at a bus stop. The tourist looked at him, obviously confused, and then at the green traffic light in front of us.
Half an hour later, we found the hotel. On the other side of the street. Then, thank God, we found a turn lane.
We grudgingly surrendered our passports at the front desk, and went upstairs, exhausted.
On the desk in my room was a small pamphlet advising guests to lock up their valuables upon leaving the hotel.
“I’m not going out tonight,” I said to my room mate for the evening (our traveling assignments change every night) after we had watched MTV with a friend. “I’ll just stay in and watch ‘Beevus and Butthead’ with German subtitles.”