I ate dirt in Porto, and my goodness it was delicious.
It’s amazing how looks can be so deceiving.
It’s like you think you know, but you don’t really know. Not until you try, at least. Not until you taste or you see or you feel or hear.
It’s like the Nightingale. I thought the Nightingale was this beautiful, peaceful bird that’ll lull one to sleep; a creature so lovely hymns and poems by Keats and the like have been created in its honor.
But oh no. This is not the case! At least not the Nightingales I heard in Andulusia, Spain. You see, these were quite noisy birds. They make quite a racket when you’re trying to enjoy a glass of sangria out in a plaza in Cordoba, or navigate the gardens of the Alhambra. They swoop and squawk, causing you to look up in disbelief and wish they’d go on their merry way.
O Nightingale, O Nightingale
Go away, I say!
Quite surprising, right?
I thought I knew, but I did not know.
Sorta like the dirt.
(I’m getting there. Bear with me.)
This trip, despite what it may seem from the photos and descriptions, has not been easy. As I’ve mentioned, I wanted to treat it as a “working holiday” where I’d combine the two things I love to do—traveling & writing. I also try to make a living this way, adding a twist to this “live your dream” situation I’ve gotten myself into. But here’s something people may not know: Editors don’t just send you to places free of charge and rarely does an assignment come in prior to your trip. (Or even after.) It’s up to you, as the “expert” to seek out destinations and decide what’s worth sharing with the rest of the world when you get there. And to, you know, have a damn good time yourself. As you can imagine, that’s a lot of pressure. And when you’re away a month, traveling solo no less, it can also be expensive. Plus, some might say traveling is all relative. But while I do believe this to be the case—the hotel bed you may find comfortable, I may find hard as a rock—there are standards most of us can agree on. As a journalist, it’s my job, and luckily my joy, to find undiscovered pockets or over traipsed corners that meet (or don’t meet) these standards. Even if that means I find myself eating a lot of dirt in the process.
Over the past 21 days, in my attempt at what I’ve dubbed “in between” travel where I navigate places like a local while also absorbing as much as I can as a foreigner, I’ve gotten lost, missed busses, ordered wrong and paid extra. I’ve made a pretty good case for why I prefer to plan ahead, despite the occasional delights that spontaneity brings.
But when you go to Spain or Portugal, and you ask me for the perfect place to dine in Granada or the perfect way to get from Sagres to Praia Beliche or the towns to skip and the towns to stay in longer, I’ll know exactly what to tell you.
My mistakes can be your perfection.
If, of course, perfection exists at all. Which, let’s be honest, it probably does not. At least, nowhere but our minds.
You try to find the perfect hotel in the coolest neighborhood, or eat at the restaurant with the most stars on TripAdvisor or catch the sunset before it falls behind the horizon or arrive at the beach before high tide or … or … or …
But sometimes there’s dirt.
Take, for example, the following scenario:
You arrive in Porto, the last stop in your two-week stay in Portugal, via BlaBlaCar, a car-sharing program you’ve been using over the past few weeks. (More on that another time; ideally for a publication that pays.)
It’s late and the sun is setting—not an ideal time to land in an unfamiliar city as you’re bound to get turned around and spooked out by the prostitutes downstairs from the flat you rented, which is unknowingly on the outskirts of town. The driver of the car you’ve been in for the past three hours, who up until this point has been quite lovely, says, “This is not Centro Porto. Are you sure this is where you stay?” As you eye the delapitated building from the sidewalk to the rooftop, you wonder the same thing. But you check the address and say, “Yes, this is correct.”
You also think to yourself, Stop scaring me, dude. Just let me out.
You are worried. You are disappointed. You are imperfect.
You are taken upstairs to your far-from-homey AirBnB flat that you’ve paid $125 for for two nights. Cheap, yes. Crappy, yes. You are hungry, so you ask the host who thankfully speaks English to show you around the area a bit and bring you somewhere good to eat. She does, and while you think you scored by avoiding the massive queue outside a popular placed called Cafe Santiago by being just one person who’s able to take the lone seat at the bar, when the “famous” Francesinha dish arrives in front of you, you want to barf. It is a “sandwich” made with bread, stuffed with three types of sausage, steak, cheese, egg and special sauce. It’s a heart attack on a plate and people eat it morning, noon and night.
This, contrary to what you may think, is not the dirt. (See? things are not always as they appear!) The dirt is coming.
You have three bites, enough to convince the waiter you at least tried to like the thing, and you resign to calling it a night. You spend the next few hours on your computer looking for a suitable place to stay the following evening as this won’t cut it. Once again, your aim for perfection via the casual ‘n’ cool “in between,” has come back to haunt you. Porto is a busy place in July and all the reasonably priced, central and comfortable places to stay are booked.
The next morning, you hit the ground running. You are half just exploring, in between style, ducking into famous bookstores here, checking out awesome street art there, eyeing amazing azulejos tiles here, and half looking for a new place to rest your head that night.
You enter a few hostels and hotels, asking about availability and price. Finally, you happen upon what seems like a lovely guesthouse on a pedestrian street in what appears to be a good location.
It’s not down in Ribeira by the river where it’s super touristy, but not all the way up by Galeria de Paris, the “bar street” as its known. A man named Tiago greets you and tells you that yes, in fact, he has a room available for the night. It’s only $65 and the place itself has only been opened three weeks. You likely missed it on Booking.com because it did not have any reviews yet.
Good price? Check. So new you could write about it? Check. Large comfortable bed with ensuite bathroom and view of the Sé cathedral? Check. Lovely, personal owner whose goal, it seems, is to welcome you warmly? Check.
You practically skip back to the sketchy flat, which you manage to find on foot fairly easily despite it being a ways out of the center and you only having been walking around—sans map!—for two hours. Soon enough, you and your bags are in your new room and you are breathing in the scent of fresh cut wood. (The place is that new!)
What’s more, the host of the sketchy AirBnB flat has agreed to not only refund you for the night you’re not staying, but for the one you did. Whether it was to avoid a bad review or just be nice, it was unexpected and much appreciated.
You are hungry now, of course, so you ask Tiago where to go for lunch.
“What do you want to eat?” he asks.
You tell him about the previous night’s disaster and say you’d just like a lovely salad. Something fresh. Yes, that would be great.
He suggests you try the place right next door, Cantina 32, which is also part of his building and also brand new. (Double score! Another possible story.)
It’s a lovely day outside, but the restaurant is indoors. Luckily, you are sat at a spot just under a skylight, allowing you to enjoy both the chic decor and the afternoon sun. You order a glass of white wine from Alentejo, an area of the country you only drove through, and choose the iceburg salad with orange, creme fraiche and salmon. Two fresh rolls with some sort of fois gras butter show up (despite not having asked for it) and you eat them both gleefully, fully knowing you’ll be paying for them later. (Both in Euros and pounds—not the currency kind.)
To say you are satisfied, would be an understatement. When the waitress asks if you want dessert, you are dubious because a) you had just finally had something light and b) it is the middle of the afternoon. But considering the night and morning you had, and the lovely setting you are now in, you figure why not.
You order the mini chocolate with port, but they don’t have it.
You are disappointed.
You are imperfect.
You think you know, but you do not know.
She suggests you order the cheesecake, as it’s quite good and her favorite.
So filling, you think! You never even order cheesecake at home.
“OK, I’ll have the cheesecake,” you say.
This is the cheesecake. This is the dirt.
When it shows up at your table, all eyes in the room turn towards you. Everyone wants to know what you are eating.
You are imperfect and you are lucky.
You smile, eating your delectable dirt—complete with banana center, creamy whipped filling and chocolate crumbles on top—knowing others may now safely do the same. My risk, our reward.
You drive yourself crazy looking for perfection, but there’s always dirt first.
You think you know, but you don’t know.
And even when you learn, it’s still just…dirt. Or cheesecake.
Luckily, you get to choose.
Footnote: During my time in Portugal, I discovered the poet Fernando Pessoa. In Lisbon, at Blog Chiado, the working space I sat at, there was a room dedicated to him because apparently he used to work there way back when. After that, I noticed his quotes everywhere, from the table decor at a fancy pizza restaurant in Lisbon to indie markets in Porto where artists placed his words into their work, which is where I found the aforementioned saying. Considering my final days in Portugal, and all those leading up to it, it seemed so apropos and served as the inspiration for this post.
“We worship perfection…because we can’t have it; if we had it, we would reject it. Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect.” — Fernando Pessoa