This post is part of a series. Day one of my trip lives here!
September 30, 2019: Part 1
When our plane finally coasted into Monday’s sunrise, my shoulder mate rose from his sweet slumber and thanked me in Spanish for not waking him up. I helped him and his wife order breakfast from the flight attendant that only spoke English and Portuguese–which was only possible because we were using all the basic phrases on learns one Duolingo in the first three months. “He wants coffee without sugar please.” “Do you have a bottle of water?” High five, persistent little green bird.
With a jolt of caffeine in my system, there was now a better chance I would get to my hotel in one piece. I desperately hoped they’d let me check in early. I was becoming a bit cross-eyed and it was supposed to be a particularly hot day. If they didn’t, I had four sweaty hours ahead of me until I could lay my head on a pillow, and my body could not fathom that many hours in the standing position with my pack.
I Am Only Type-A When I Travel
After a rough six-hours-and-change on the flight, a calm and organized airport awaited me in Porto. The country felt like a deep exhale. It was quiet and steady, the opposite of Newark.
I headed through customs, down to the Costa Coffee at the entrance, and right to the “I don’t know where the hell I am” tourist booth to buy a subway ticket. The woman behind the desk explained everything to me without resentment or frustration. What a joy.
I walked down a flight of steps and boarded the first and only train to the center of the city. Hooray me for making this so easy on myself! When I stepped on the train, exhaustion started to kick in, but there were no seats to be found. I had about a 40-minute ride ahead of me with over 15 stops.
We were so packed together that I only reached out for the handle when the train jolted forward, since to do so, I had to stretch my smelly arm past a young guy with a skateboard. I apologized with my eyes. Whenever I did this, my backpack, balanced between my feet, unleashed its waist straps in every-which direction, bonking tired commuters in the ankles.
I looked at the towns pass by and wondered if the Camino crossed over the tracks at any point. Was I going backwards on a train just to walk it all on foot? That feels silly.
There are some people who fly in from nearby countries who start their Caminos straight from the airport parking lot, but I needed sleep, and wanted to explore what was supposed to be a truly special city. At last, my stop arrived, and I stepped out into the already-hot morning air. It smells like bread and the city is filled with color.
At this point, it was only about 6am in my body, 11am local time. I’ve already had two cups of coffee and two pastries, but since cafes were the only thing open so far, I go for my third of both. I also desperately have to pee.
I headed into a bakery and asked, in a mousey nice-girl voice and the polite verb forms of Portuguese, if they speak English. They do not. I point at the counter and order two of the famous pasteis de nata–because the guy at the Portuguese bakery on 18th street at home told me to–and yet another coffee. They tell me I can sit outside. I ask about the bathroom and the waiter brushes his hand toward the back without looking.
When at last I reach the bathroom after this polite song-and-dance, a 90-something-year-old woman juts in front of me and yells (for my safety) that there is no toilet paper. She takes me by the hand and leads me to a manager in the backroom. She tells him in Portuguese that there is no paper and that I need it, now! I shrug and smile, as startled as he is. The man rolls his eyes, goes into another back room, and returns, only to say that no, the restaurant does not have toilet paper with a “why would we?” look to his face.
The old lady looks furious for me. I give her a smile and beckon her to the restaurant. At this point, we scramble around the tables, taking the last of the small napkins from the holders and place a small pile in the bathroom–for me and future desperate visitors. We smile at our success and part, never to see each other again. Afterwards, I head outside and sit with my pastries to console me.
For the first time since I landed in Portugal, I sit down and zone out. I look around at the breathtaking city. A pair of tram tracks weave down in front of the restaurant toward an underpass and a sign that reads Jardins do Palacio de Cristal, or the Crystal Palace Gardens. What is that?! In the other direction, artsy-looking students wander up the cobblestone streets carrying books and supplies. Their arms are covered in small tattoos. They are confident and have kind faces.
When I’ve killed enough time at the table, I gather up my bag and round the bed to my hotel, Pão de Açúcar. My hotel is named after a pastry. It is designed with old bump ’em cars, vintage dental chairs, and dark green lighting. It feels like a theatre set designer had a collection of odds and ends from a very strange play and needed somewhere to put them. Online, the style of the place looks like a museum of a 1950’s carnival. In my exhaustion, however, it looks more like a poorly lit Twilight Zone episode. But maybe that’s what they’re going for. Still, the people behind the desk are deeply kind but tell me with remorse that I cannot check-in for two hours.
I leave my backpack in a safe spot and stumble back out into the day, sweaty and bleary-eyed. I should eat. It is lunchtime and I don’t want to miss every normal meal in this city. I head to a pizza place across the road and accidentally order enough food for four people. The sweet owner smiles at my mistake but, much like I’ve experienced in Spain, is excited that I will be well fed by her restaurant.
I make it through nearly every bite and my body continues to crash, but I still have an hour to go. When I head up to pay, I have six loose Euros in my hand and a 20 Euro note. The owner looks at my hand and says “Seis, por favor,” with a smile. I knew she made it up so she didn’t have to break the 20. It was very kind. She is the third of many Camino helpers.
I decide to head up to the Cathedral–now ready to either burst or keel over–to the place where I plan to get my first stamp. Stamps are how a hiker proves that they walked the Camino in the first place. They all go in a pilgrim passport, AKA a credential. Each hostel, church, coffee shop, you name it, has their own stamp. You get to collect them like Girl Scout badges until you reach the end. The first stamp is always an emotional one.
Once I make it to the top of a very steep hill, even sweatier and more delirious, I spend the next hour tracing my way through the beauty of the church and its grounds and exit to look out over the city of Porto, a town made of glorious hills cut in half by a winding river.
It’s been less than 24 hours since I sat on 80th and Amsterdam in the pizza place with Ben. Now, layer upon layer of colorful facades stretch out across the horizon of this sweet city. I’ll never have the time to wander through all these beautiful streets, I thought, and I only had two days to try.
In the Parts Unknown episode about Portugal, Anthony Bourdain learns about the concept of Saudade–a feeling of “joyful sadness” that is known throughout the Portuguese and Brazilian culture. Realizing you’re back on the Camino is never easy to emotionally process. It slowly cracks you open, fills you with exhilarating fear, and at the same time, provides an overwhelming sense of love and protection. You know you’ll be taken care of by people you’ve yet to meet, and you know you’re meant to take care of them. I’ll never be able to explain it. It’s like coming home to see friends from an old life.
I needed to sleep. I needed a shower. But I could already feel the energy of this beautiful place pulling me in. My persistent melancholic self had found a new home. I enjoyed knowing I could feel my joyful sadness here in peace.
When two o’clock finally arrives, I head back down the hill to my hotel, check in, shower, close the curtains, put in earplugs, and promptly fall asleep for four hours.