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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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy June 14, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Phil!! It was so good to see you in Boston! The cherry brandy was good!! This reminds me of the lion faces in the DC metro…

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:06 am

Great to see you too! I’ve got a thing for tiles, I guess ;) Enjoy that brandy!

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Mzuri June 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm
phil June 19, 2012 at 12:12 am

Holy crap! What an incredible story!! So awesome. Thanks for the tunes as well :) His voice is too smooth. Damn.

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marlys June 14, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Oh, love your photos of Lisbon. I’ve been there 20 years ago but didn’t really get to see the city from the eyes of a travel blogger ;-)

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:12 am

Thanks, Marlys!

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Jeff Titelius June 14, 2012 at 8:06 pm

What a hilarious account of your journey my friend. I enjoyed every delicious word!! And the photos are quite striking!!

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:13 am

Thank you, Jeff

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Roy Marvelous June 14, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Looks like you had a more exciting time in Lisbon than I did :)

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:13 am

1.5 weeks > 4 hours

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Kay Johnson June 15, 2012 at 6:59 am

Thanks for this Phil. By the way – just spent a sleepless night with Lili. I think she’s made contact with Clyde already ! Spent the whole time drawing camels and now wants us to buy her an Ipad. With such a dog – what can you do !

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:14 am

What is she doing? Communicating telepathically? Yikes. I don’t have any answers for you. If she has made contact it may be too late!

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Kay Johnson June 19, 2012 at 2:55 am

She says that she has a ‘special system’ across the animal kingdom sound waves – whatever that it is ! Don’t worry too much though. I think she’s been in touch with the power house, Disney, as well. Keeps tapping out ‘Tramp’ – and f * * * k ‘Lady’ at intervals. Just hope to God she doesn’t find ‘Fantasia’ (!!!) or, ‘Tom & Jerry’ for that matter ! Gotta go ! Grrr-amps wants his breakfast !

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phil June 19, 2012 at 11:28 am

I think we may have to check her in to the doggy psych ward

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Andi of My Beautiful Adventures June 15, 2012 at 7:21 pm

I’m dying to visit Lisbon! I’m using Roomorama next week in Buenos Aires, very excited!!!

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:14 am

nice, have fun in BA

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Cathy Sweeney June 16, 2012 at 7:48 pm

I like Maria’s hangover cure. Such interesting experiences you had in Lisbon and that apartment looks great — and at a great rate! Hope I get to Lisbon sometime – looks beautiful.

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phil June 19, 2012 at 12:14 am

The hangover cure almost gave me a heart attack but it was worth it 100%.

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Linda June 19, 2012 at 6:28 am

How odd to find you reporting from Europe, but a nice change. Isn’t it “odd” how we perhaps unknowingly gravitate towards those things about which we are passionate, or did you have guidance to a Cape Verdian restaurant and the “west Africa hang out zone”?

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phil June 19, 2012 at 11:17 am

You’re right – I stumbled upon the restaurant completely by accident. I was given another recommendation for a Cape Verdean restaurant, which was good, but it wasn’t the place I ended up hanging out at. Funny how that happens.

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Linda June 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Serendipity!

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Cheri Lucas June 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm

You’re welcome, Phil — glad you stopped for some of that sweet, delicious cherry brandy. And…$44/night for an apartment?! I must keep this in mind for when I return to Lisbon. I’d like to see more of Portugal, so I hope to get back there in time.

And this line — “these birds may have the worst spatial awareness of any animal on earth” — is amusing. I *so* get what you mean!

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phil June 20, 2012 at 6:57 pm

To be honest, I feel comfortable around bats than I do around pigeons

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