(the characters below are fictional but not the places and the experiences!)
It was 9:15 in the morning and we missed the bus. I almost finished my breakfast and Pankaj told me this. I remained cool, unlike him with his hands on forehead and worry all over the face. These days, I seldom get tensed or frustrated about things, they cripple my thinking when it is most needed.
Putting the cutlery into the plate for good, I said, “Then lets make the day exciting”.
Pankaj pulled the chair and seated himself before me, “What do you mean?”
“Remember what you said in Spain?”
“You said, a tourist can never truly love a place, only a traveler can!”
Recollecting his own words, he smiled with his eyes to the floor. He jerked his face up decisively, “We need a map,” I nodded my head returning the smile, “Lets explore.”
It was after seeing Spain that I and Pankaj came to Lisbon, not very far, the second in the two cities we planned to visit. Frankly, I did not read or listen much about the city or about Portugal before, except the faint remembrance of Pankaj telling me something about Portuguese egg tart that tastes scrumptious (his choice of words), when in law school.
With no longer the co-tourists with us, we rushed through the palatial lobby of the hotel to our rooms, swapped the flashy clothes with some airy shorts and tees. Being a lawyer comes with a lot of weights – most of it of the heavy black suits that we wear each day to work. In those tees that we wore, it felt different… it felt easy.
I approached the beautiful lady at the hotel reception who must be in her forties and asked for a map. She handed it over so quickly as if she had been waiting all along for us to ask. Seeing us struggling for tourist spots in the map, another receptionist, a hefty, pale but a well-mannered man, suggested places from behind the counter in his broken English that we marked hastily… thees… veary naice… beoutteful place… ‘ave thoo veesith…
The hotel generously arranged for us a cab that took us to the train station in Oeiras. We wasted no time on the way and conjured up what seemed to us, an itinerary for the day that was both concrete as well as flexible to our timely whim! In no time, we reached the station. I got down, wearing the rucksack on my shoulders, out into the sun that was brighter than the day before, wished the driver farewell and walked into the station with Pankaj. Puzzling to us, the chauffeur gave a very insolent look to us as we left. I ignored. And in the sun blaring upon us, I knew Pankaj ignored too.
Though well equipped with automatic ticket machines, vending machines, etc., the station felt small and dingy and not having many travelers, abandoned too. Pankaj and I did not dare use the automatic ticket machine with all those names of places in Portuguese. Besides, we really wanted to communicate with people; their suaveness was something we were barely accustomed to in India and it struck us too pulling to pass up – the way they respond with their faces tilted and a beautiful smile all over them as if nothing in the world could be better.
“4 Euros, 50 Cents,” said the petite woman, pushing the tickets to us from behind the glass. We headed to lane 1 and waited there in the open air for the train. Unlike inside the station, there were many people waiting just like us, on the platform.
“These chaps are quite diversified!” Pankaj said observing intently the people around, his lips making an inverted ‘U’.
I joined him in observing – “I do see a few black people and a few Americans around here but I have to say, the Portuguese maintain great integrity in their language and ethnicity.”
“Meaning… above ninety-five percent of Portugal population is Portuguese speaking.”
Nodding his head, “you do have a point there… But where the hell did you read that?”
“I was surfing the net yesterday and thought, you know, getting interested in the country we’re in isn’t a very bad thing!”
The train came with great speed and stopped instantly and all the passengers boarded. I was surprised we did not get seats. Absolutely against my notions, the train was too crowded. Anyway, we just stood there cuddled between so many people my mind unable to think. Though this was the case, there was something very uncommon about the train that didn’t make me think low of it. I was appreciating everything when I was in. I do not know how or why. The world seemed to be like some pleasant decision I have taken.
Amidst the rush, I found a woman standing, resting on the a seat that she missed to someone else and I asked, in the politest possible way, “Excuse me, how many zones is Cais de Sodre?”
“Uhh… Three zones,” and a customary smile.
Pankaj added to the girl, “Can you prompt us when we are there, please?”
The girl plucked an earphone from her ear that must be playing some Portuguese melody, not understanding what he said.
I interrupted, “He means, can you tell us when we reach Cais De Sodre?”
In a few minutes, we were off the train in the destination station. Another perusal at the appropriate part of the map, a mile’s walk on the road by the calm Tagus River and we reached Alcântara, where we planned to take a ride on the Hippo bus. Hippo trip arranges buses, which travel both on land as well as water, or the way we called them, the amphibian buses! We did not exactly know the itinerary though.
We bought two tickets and waited for the yellow bus to be ready. Slowly, other tourists joined, bought tickets and in no time, we were on the bus while it started. Pankaj and I ran to the last seats for we knew they had the best view. I was resolved I wouldn’t take my phone out for photos.
First was a city tour for about forty-five minutes and then the same bus enters onto the water in the River Tagus – that was the plan. The bus started whirring past the small and beautifully ornamented shops on the streets while the guide explained to us, the city with all the humor added. The cold air from the huge window hit on my face and I gaped at every building, every public square and the statues they had, as the bus cut through the city on the beautiful roads paved with assorted stones.
I was trying hard to understand the localities, with little success though. But at that moment, I felt alone… the most beautiful kind of loneliness if I may make some sense. Even the thought of getting off the bus in some time, made my gut feel sick for the ironical loneliness was too comforting to pass. I just put my elbow on the sill, forgot about the feeling and let the air hit my face harder, pushing my hair back and the solitude entice me.
Through with many streets and beautiful squares, we got back to the main road by the river that had many historic monuments, memorials and towers protruding from it onto the wide river. And then, a grand symphony started playing loud in the bus and slowly it had slid into the water. All roared with cheer, me included, as the bus made its way into the river. We sailed in the waters for over half an hour listening to the guide explain us all those historic buildings by The Tagus.
We turned back when we reached the end of the river where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, heading back. For a second, I wished that we didn’t turn back, that we touched the waters of Atlantic Ocean. Just that it could have been memorable. Anyway, we were back on the land as if saved from sinking, and reached the place and disembarked where we started.
To my shock, it was 1:45 in the afternoon already. Welcomed back to the land by the dark clouds that have taken over the sky, the sun went missing. “Its gonna rain today…” Pankaj said, “It’s gonna be awesome!”
I felt irritated by the thought of rain. I always despised it for the way that it made things uncomfortable – sticky clothes, dirty roads, droplets all over the spectacles and a very, very gloomy city. “Oh, I hate this. Does it have to be only today.”
“Come on,” Pankaj stretched the words, “don’t be a drama queen.”
“Drama queen? What’s that supposed to mean?” He walked as if he didn’t hear me, “You said rain was awesome and then you call me a drama queen?”
“Get some testosterone!”
This guy is the most difficult one I have ever befriended. Difficult to be with and even difficult to let go off.
We walked almost half a mile for a taxicab stand and approached a lone taxi standing.
“Jerónimos Monastery,” I said to the driver from the half open window glass of the black sedan.
“Mosteiro dos Jerónimos,” he assured in Portuguese and indicated us to get in.
“You know, you don’t ask if he’s willing to take you,” Pankaj said as soon as we sat in.
I looked intensely waiting for him to continue.
“You can just get in the car and tell him where you’d like to go.”
“What if he doesn’t know the route”?
“Dude,” he gave me his signature look that says – how much dumber can you get – “he uses…”
“Okay!” I interrupted, “he uses a GPS”.
We started off to the monastery from Alcântara. It started to get dimmer and dimmer around in the afternoon for the clouds ruled the whole of the sky. The driver, an old man with no hair above him, drove so deeply lost in his driving. “Hi,” I started the conversation in quite an awkward manner, “can you suggest us some good restaurants around, if possible”?
“Oh… uhh… you are going to Mosteiro dos Jerónimos which is in Belém. If you want to eat lunch, there is a café Niccolo, nearby.” And got lost in his thinking again, “there is a café nearby called Pastéis de Belém. Most famous for uhh… Pasties de nata. You know Pasties de nata?”
I did not. Pankaj cut in, “yeah, yeah… the egg tart!”
The driver replied with great exclamation, “Oh! Okay! Egg Tart. Yes, that’s what you call it.”
“So what’s special about this place?”
He swerved the cab on to a street and said, “It sell… uhh… the best egg tart in Portugal. You can have a good dinner there. So go out in evening and come back by eight uh clock. Huge line for the egg tart… but try!”
“Sure,” I said, “thank you!”
“No problem,” he stuttered.
The taxi dropped us at Café Niccolo, not a very Portuguese type of a café but was quite different in the taste that it served. We had some burgers with coke and some deserts – nothing exquisite, and extra tipped the waitress for good service.
Soon, we were before the brilliant Jerónimos Cathedral looking at it in awe, at its historical architecture and gothic style. We went along with the moving crowd into the cathedral. It was a tall and wide cathedral stretching long, with all sorts of historic scenes, voyages, sailors, battles and other religious and Portuguese carvings over its stonewalls. It was lit by candles and was crowded with tourists.
As soon as we were in, we realized two things. One, that all have come in groups of at least more than five and have arranged a guide for themselves, two, that we cannot do without one. So, I started being the lawyer that I was and pried into a group, which seemed peculiar. It was diversified and none knew each other. I pulled Pankaj along and curtly stepped inside and joined. Now, we have a guide too, a tall, bald-headed man with Portuguese slang but a perfectly grammatical English.
“Hmmm!” – Pankaj said – “Impressive move!”
The guide took us through the importance of everything in the cathedral cum monastery. It was particularly surprising to see Vasco da Gama’s tomb inside and to imagine his bones underneath. On the huge glass windows were the typical evangelical paintings in rich resplendent colors. One such striking painting on a huge glass window that was on the right side, was of Vasco da Gama praying, along with his co-sailors, before embarking upon a sea voyage to nowhere, that later turned out to be India, in 1498. Then, on the other side was the actual church with people praying. I did not have many words to talk to Pankaj or anyone at that moment but to think only intensely about what I was seeing.
The sculptures in gold, the decrepit utensils made of precious metals and stones and everything inside was a work of brilliant historic sagacity. I do not know what it was, but the composure of the cathedral was inspiring and very enticing to my heart – it was attracting and pulling stopping me from leaving.
After an hour of admiration, we all moved out and the guide did not stop there but started to preach about the outer peripheral magnificence of the cathedral, about its dimensions, the carvings and statues on the front, with a statue of King Emanuel I and above it, another of a mother holding a baby, that suggested assurances of protection and help when navigators of the olden days needed it.