For the third, and presumably final, time this winter we found ourselves wandering the manageable unpretentious streets of old Lisboa for just a single night. We haven’t stayed long but three separate visits has begun to breed a certain familiarity that I think is going to lead to a pleasant aftertaste and hopes of returning for a longer stay sometime down the road. Cheap and architecturally old and interesting, I will admit that the main draw is that we’re suckers for any city that has a metro line running all the way to the airport. Anyway, for our last day in continental Europe until April, we…
Ordered two bifanas each. Bifanas are typically small meat sandwiches eaten for breakfast. As it turned out, though, these ones weren’t very small after all. So two each was too much. We couldn’t finish.
After that we wandered down to the oceanfront, spent some time discussing which of the famous historic buildings enclosed in gigantic swathes of scaffolding were like that last time we were here and which ones looked different, kind of, now, then some requisite cultural shopping at the local H&M where I bought the most boring navy blue sweater known to man, or even city bus drivers, in anticipation of colder nights in Morocco than we had been experiencing in Madeira. Laynni bought a few things, but I have no idea what.
Later that afternoon we explored an area of Lisbon previously only know to us as “left”, to locals as “Bairro Alto”, the name giving away the fact it was way uphill. We went in search of a well-known funicular, sort of a combination of trolley, escalator and elevator, but with a more 19th Century type name, somehow only finding the top end, having already walked all the way up in our meanderings, and kind of defeating the purpose, and eventually we just walked back down instead. So don’t come looking for us for advice about Funicular Gloria, because we don’t know anything about it (except that you can walk up in less than ten minutes). After hiking through the chestnut harvest in Spain last fall we thought we should finally try our hand at a paper bag of the roasted chestnuts they sell on the street all over Portugal.
Verdict: hot, bland and mealy, with enough salt to make them palatable, but not quite enough to convince us to spend another two euros. After that, some more exploration, a skinny beer in a park (like skinny jeans except with less hair poking out the top), a couple minutes unobtrusively observing an Asian man standing in front of what was, presumably, a painting he had recently completed, and just staring at it with a look of such intense puzzlement and consternation that we suspected he was trying to improve the shading and overall texture using nothing but his mind and the occasional sudden movement.
Laynni has been complaining lately that her body is craving iron. I’m not exactly sure what that feels like, or how it can be recognized so specifically, but I suspect it has something to with watching True Blood and licking the peanut butter off too many knives. So she got herself a nice juicy Portuguese steak for supper, possibly her first bit of red meat since we were still wearing toques and scraping windows back in early January (unless you’re into off-colour, and generally inaccurate, sexual metaphors, in which case I just winked).
Before all that, of course, there was that small matter of our final two weeks on Madeira. As I’ve found during our previous long stays in Mexico and Guatemala, one does start to run out of things to write about eventually (relevant things, that is), and that was even more the case lately in Madeira as we pretty much laid low while I worked on my upcoming Camino book and watched a lot of soccer.
Not necessarily in that order.
But Madeira itself had no intention of fading easily into obscurity, not with February rolling around and the big highlight of the Madeiran social calendar – Carnival! That’s right, here in Madeira they have a sort of parallel celebration to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio. Supposedly it is one of the best and biggest in Europe, but since we’ve never been to one in Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, I really can’t say. What I can say it that they have a LOT of parades, and many people – performers and spectators alike – dress up in random costumes like we would on Halloween. There are the two biggest parades, the Parade of Floats and the Trapalhao Parade. Then there are also the Children’s Parade and the Solidarity Parade, apparently just a fancy name for a parade of old people who have little to no desire to strut around town in feathers and revealing thongs. Then the Transvestite Parade, which doesn’t actually involve real live transvestites as far as I know, at least not exclusively, but is described more as a night “when the lads go into the closets of their mothers and sisters to have a little fun”. Sounds a little creepy, you ask me.
Anyway, the big one, the Parade of Floats, held a place of prominence on Saturday night at 9 pm, much to Laynni’s consternation, that being just half an hour before she was due to be asleep.
She graciously made an exception, though, so that we could squeeze along the promenade with thousands of other locals, tourists and revellers to witness the loud, extravagant, lively and occasionally outrageous floats people apparently planned all year. Each one was led and trailed by groups of talented dancers clad in sensational costumes revolving mainly around bright colours, huge feathers, barely contained breasts and form-fitting G-strings giving it their all to bombastic Carnival music. The clothing choices generally also applied to the troupe leader, often a rather effeminate man (in fairness, it is difficult to not seem effeminate when covered in orange feathers and crotch sequins) with an excellent sense of rhythm but not always the body to pull off that much spandex. Besides the already difficult task of leading live shows full of entertainers who probably had been drinking for several hours already, in front of thousands of raucous spectators, their task was usually made even more difficult by the huge television cameras being wielded by scampering cameramen every fifty metres or so trying to capture the very essence and vivacity of the show in a six second clip, apparently by shoving the camera directly into the faces of them as they danced or, in the case of the more well-endowed females, intense close-ups of their bouncing, glitter-covered breasts. Not a bad job, if you can get it.
Of course, we showed up kind of last minute, not really thinking about the crowd being five or six deep by that time, then spent a long stretch of time wandering up and down the street harbouring some irrational hopes of suddenly discovering two empty front row spots that everyone around had missed, or had recently seen a homeless man urinating on just before we arrived.
Nonetheless, it never happened and we ended up settling for a spot standing on the cement wall rising up from an underground parking enclosure. The drop behind was probably ten or twelve feet. An unpleasant fall, I’m sure, and worth being careful with. However, for the less than fully mobile elderly couple in front of us it had holiday-ending hip replacement surgery and lengthy recovery period irritably muttering suspicions that their Filipino nurse has been liberating their loose change slowly but methodically. Didn’t stop them from tottering back and forth on the narrow ledge in hopes of just the right zoomed shot of a sexily wriggling belly, making it even worse by repeatedly sitting back down, and standing back up, and sitting back down, then struggling back up, extremely unsteadily, grasping shakily at the arms of spectators around them as they desperately attempted to coax their stubborn foot around from back to front. We literally caught ourselves cringing and looking away a few times and I was already working out a plan in my head for when one, or both, were to plummet to a painful and destructive heap on the ramp below. I would jump quickly down, check for a pulse, then yell for help from someone with a cell phone since we never did bother to get one here. I would do this in Spanish, but with some random “sh” sounds thrown in to make it as close to Portuguese as possible. Then I figured I would stand idly by staring and looking very concerned because, you know, by then I’d be out of ideas. Alas, they never fell, and I’ve learned my lesson. Planning is for chumps.
The highlight of Shrove Tuesday was the Trapalhao Parade, essentially a free for all which is open to anyone doing pretty much anything, with “trapalhao” I believe meaning “allegorical”, which unfortunately doesn’t help me that much since I’m not sure I entirely understand what allegorical means either.
Based on the evidence, though, it could mean all sorts of things:
Political satire – the carrying anti-government signs describing the horrible unemployment situation in Portugal, dressed apparently as your average unemployed person would in tattered suits, work boots and ghoul masks. Or, even more darkly, the men in suits carrying gallows dangling dummy politicians by very dead-looking throats.
Confusing racism – or maybe there was something else behind the women dressed all in white with pointy white hood, something smurfy perhaps…
Slapstick – the small truck done up to resemble a public pay toilet with several teenager boys dressed alternately as women, zombies and construction workers with fake plastic asses smeared with brown frequently pretending to void their bowels into the toilet mounted in back to the delight of the crowd, who were then pelted with a reasonable facsimile of dirty toilet paper. Wiry old men in fish net stockings, boys dressed as women with red felt penises dangling out the bottom of their plaid skirts to women with horns and outrageously large lower halves handing out beads.
Oriental – the giant Chinese dragon that was actually pretty impressive, at least until several pairs of its legs got tangled in the TV crew’s power cords.
At least three groups dressed more or less randomly and kicking it to unbroken loops of Gangnam Style.
Dance Troupes – large groups of young girls frowning in concentration through complex and impressive dance numbers while surrounded by people leading goats or performing a silent play where a man with a zombie’s head gives birth to a briefcase on a hospital bed adorned with slogans regarding the atrocious state of the country’s health care.
Advertising – a couple restaurants and a bakery had floats featuring entertainment ranging from spraying water on thrilled children to twirling pizza dough to dumpy men dressed like nuns miming intercourse with large loaves of bread to having teenage girls in men’s briefs bend way over for the enjoyment of the watching families (Check this out! Then come buy some doughnuts.)
All in all, quite the display.
Although it didn’t seem to have quite the same atmosphere of absurd public drunkenness and gratuitous public nudity Mardi Gras and Rio seem to be known for, although we didn’t stay into the wee hours when I’m sure most of the true craziness took place. Let’s face it, at 3 am after a dozen cañas I am always way more likely to do fun things like piss on cop cars, or casually touch strangers with my nipples.
Now I have to go, since I’m writing this while killing time in the Madrid airport waiting for our flight to Marrakech and I’m overdue at the Arrivals gate where I’m thinking about spending some time greeting perfect strangers really enthusiastically like we’ve known each other all our lives, and quite possibly experimented with heavy petting at some point back in the nineties.
And then, well, that’s that then. For Europe, anyway. For now. Back to “real travel”, as Laynni calls it. Or “life” as the Moroccans call it.
For a longer diatribe about things we actually did, saw and discussed at length over a few too many beers, check out my book Random Acts of Travel: Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting.