Once upon a time I was traveling by train through Portugal with my boyfriend, now husband. We were headed to Sagres, known for its dramatic scenery and sea-carved cliffs along Europe’s most southwestern tip. We stopped in Faro along the way.
Rice Eye Reaction
Upon arriving at the station we were greeted by a dark, greasy, middle-aged man about my height at 5’ 4” wearing a tattered button-up shirt and baggy shorts. He had the most crooked teeth I had ever seen. We were holding our bags and looking for directions when this stubby man, whose name I can’t even remember, stopped directly in front of me. His face was so close I could smell his funky fish breath. He didn’t say a word.
He just stared at me and slowly moved both of his arms up from each side of his boxy body with his index fingers pointing towards his face until they each stopped at the outer corners of his eyes. Without hesitation he pulled at the corners of his pupils until they resembled thin slants mocking my rice eyes. The dude was making fun of me. I was partly amused, stunned and confused. I didn’t even know how to react. My boyfriend intervened and there were words. Yet there was something strangely curious and inviting about this man. He wasn’t vindictive or evil. Crude, yes. But harmless, vulnerable and ignorant.
He went on to explain in broken English how he saw me from a distance and wanted to flatter me. How there aren’t many Asians in these parts and to see one was special. I can’t imagine that move has worked on many other women, but he seemed sincere. I actually felt sorry for the bloke.
At this point the details become fuzzy. This was 1998. Back when trips were planned pre-Google, over the phone or with Lonely Planet and Fodors guide books. We were still students and time wasn’t an urgent issue. It was early spring and we were wrapping up the tail end of a 3-week roaming tour of Portugal.
Friends and Strangers
What I do recall shortly after the “incident” was eating delicious escargots at a casual seaside restaurant seated at an elongated wooden table among Germans and Scandinavians introduced to us by our new Portuguese friend. Somehow afternoon turned into an evening of playing pool and drinking beers followed by eating one of the best fish stews I’ve ever tasted, cooked up by our curious Portuguese companion no less. An international mix of 20-somethings congregated on the roof-top of this enigmatic man’s sparse rickety house overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The evening turned into night and I’m pretty sure there were 10 of us vagabonds crashing on one of the many tattered mattresses lying about his house.
The next morning we slowly awoke and my boyfriend and I were on our merry way to Sagres.
Faro wasn’t my favorite part of the trip but it certainly was the most memorable. Thinking about it now has me missing those carefree days of youth and wonder, being unplugged from any semblance of home and finding friends in strangers.
Now we travel with itineraries and lists, secured reservations and arrangements. We vet everything through TripAdvisor or friends and have lost our adventurous spirit of trial and error. The elements open for discovery are those that happen among other tourists who are all lining up to see the same thing.
I’m sure life has changed for our long lost Portuguese friend. Surely, he’s still not greeting visitors at train stations. Maybe we’ll have to return to find out.
Often time it’s the people we meet along the way or the spontaneous experiences which make our travels worthy of memories.
Read about one of my all time favorites here. Tell me about a place that left an impression on you.