Walking on a Crocodile’s Belly in Lisbon

by phil on June 14, 2012

It’s been a long time since I’ve been bewildered and alone in an unfamiliar place. I was able to find this exhilarating brand of confusion in Lisbon.

I’m really good at walking around like an idiot, and being clueless is more fun than you think. When you don’t know anything, people are happy to explain things to you, girls are happy to flirt, and blind discoveries await around every corner.

My first hours in Lisbon were of the delirious post-night-flight variety. Sleeplesness, like LSD, gives you an observational edge. As I waited for the keys to my apartment in the Alfama district, I stared at a wall. To be fair, it was a really old wall, with blue and yellow patterned tiles climbing up it and plants exploding through it.

The sidewalk had its own arrangement of tiles, colored and pieced together like the scales on a crocodile’s belly.

I was in a trance until a man walked by with a small, ugly dog and said “bom dia.” Bom Dia? What the hell? Oh riiiiighttt. Portuguese. My brain toggled between French and Bambara, finally settling on handicapped Spanish.

Lisbon being its beautiful self. This was a one minute walk from my apartment.

Waiting for keys to my apartment? Roomorama approached me with an offer to stay in an apartment offered through their website in exchange for a review. I am not obligated to write anything positive, but I will do so because I almost ended up squatting in this apartment after my stay had ended.

My natural light-filled living room, complete with flat screen TV, wireless internet and artsy lamps

Full kitchen with a washing machine, something I had not used in the previous 7 months

The most comfortable bunk bed

It rained through my first afternoon in Lisbon and the bed’s gravitational pull became even stronger. I slept for 4 hours. It was the best kind of sleep. Twilight consciousness, strange and wonderful dreams, and a temperature to comforter ratio that made me feel like I was back in the womb.

When I woke up, I wandered up a steep street and admired the view from one of alfama’s many lookouts before buying some groceries. Back at the apartment, I took my time making pasta and a “tomato sauce” while doing some laundry and listening to Mahmoud Ahmed croon on my laptop. After one day, the apartment felt like my home.

If you are curious, this is the listing for the apartment on Roomorama. Helena and Ana, the proprietors, are incredibly kind and helpful and at $44/night, the place is cheaper than most hotels. Price aside, in terms of amenities, space and comfort, the apartment is the clear winner.

Finding the apartment on the Roomorama website took me about 5 minutes. The website has the kind of minimalist web 2.0 design that is easy on my ADD. I typed Lisbon, Portugal along with my dates and then filtered results to just the Alfama district, the oldest neighborhood of Lisbon and where I wanted to stay. I found Helena and Ana’s apartment, filed a booking request, and by the next day they got back to me and everything was good to go. I don’t like to do too much planning in advance, but when I do, I prefer to it to be as quick and easy as this.

After two days of wandering, sitting on benches in plazas and parks and dodging pigeons (these birds may have the worst spatial awareness of any animal on earth), I started doing what I typically do in an unfamiliar place: find people and places I like and visit them over and over.

I spent a lot of time in Restaurant São Cristóvão, a tiny spot run by a family from Cape Verde. Maria, the owner, became something of a mother to me and there was always an interesting crowd hanging out.

After a night that started with cherry brandy (thanks for the rec, Cheri Lucas!!) and ended with tequila on the rocks, I went to the restaurant with a hangover that had me walking sideways. Maria sized me up, brought me a cold beer and told me that I would be having mozongue, a spicy fish stew from Angola. Thanks, Mom.

A whiff of the fragrant stew, and I already started to feel better. Hunks of white fish, sweet potato and manioc served in a bowl which had a pool of fiery piri piri sauce waiting for it at the bottom. Don’t get me wrong, this dish, served with a beer after a night of heavy drinking, gave me some of the worst heartburn I have ever experienced. But I have no regrets. That shit was delicious.

In Lisbon, I found my spots, but I also maintained a healthy regiment of aimless wandering, stumbling upon cafes and small tucked away plazas of black and white checkered tiles, staying anti-social and anonymous but every now and then having funny interactions in multiple languages.

I taught an old Portuguese lady how to draw a camel in a park that was engulfed in purple flowers. I found the Montmartre of Lisbon (in terms of hangouts for West African expats) at Rossio station and continued my informal on-the-fly Fula classes. I met some cool designers after my friends who are making a documentary on camel milk led me to a collaborative weekly meeting for Lisbon-based creatives.

So now I want to, need to, go back to Lisbon. I think another TAP Portugal flight out of Bamako is in my future.

A big thanks to everyone that commented here and on the facebook page with suggestions and recommendations. My visit would not have been the same without them!

Summer travel plans to come along with updates on the Abidjan biz and a few other projects in the works for later this year. For the short-term, I will be spending some time in the states visiting friends and family. I will be on the road again in July.

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