After accidentally spunking a fat €50 on a beach towel, I went about my first full day in Portugal.
I had breakfast in a fancy café the hostel guy recommended to me, and it was tasty but I felt guilty because it was very nice and modern and expensive and I don’t think local people eat there. I don’t really see the point of going abroad and not at least trying to do whatever the local people do. More fulfilling.
After my guilty breakfast I went back to the hostel and met the pair I’d hung out with the night before, Chris and Gloria. Chris had the strongest Irish accent I’ve ever heard, full of long vowels and very few consonants. We sat in the common area for a while, then decided to go to the beach.
On the way, we stopped off to see a famous ‘bone chapel’ that I’d seen when Googling things to do in the area – there’s not much. We paid €2 into the church, the altar of which is decorated in insane amounts of gold and biblical figures and, weirdly, lots and lots of doll heads – little baby faces smiling at you from every angle. Bit spooky.
The bone altar is around the back of the church: a room around twenty square metres with the walls and roof consisting entirely of skulls and femurs. I’ve often wondered if travelling a lot will make me harder to impress, and in this instance it was true: after visiting the catacombs under Paris, the walls and roof of which consists of some three million skulls and femurs and whatever else, I didn’t experience the confusion and horror that Gloria did – she had to leave after about fifteen seconds as she felt weird. An entirely fair reaction to a room made of bones, to be honest.
We took a taxi to the beach. The beach in Faro is bizarre, and I don’t know whether it’s natural or man-made: you have the town, and beyond that is a mile of swampy marshy watery… stuff… and then there’s a thin strip of beach that runs along for a few miles. It was a hot day with a blue sky but very windy, and we sat in a bar overlooking the ocean and drank a few beers.
The water was a beautiful greeny-blue, but the waves were high and rough. The beach was deserted because of the wind, and we watched a lone pot-bellied man in a black speedo wade into the surf up to his knees. We laughed to see him try again and again to work up the courage to go in, taking a few steps forward and then running away as the sea rolled back ahead of another fat heavy wave. Every now and then he timed it wrong and got slapped in the belly by a wall of white frothy water and almost fell onto his bottom. It was very funny.
It was around beer number two that Chris started talking about energy and spirituality and all that stuff. I didn’t really want to have the conversation, but he spoke with a sudden zeal that made it impossible to interrupt him.
“Let me tell you about my spiritual awakening,” he said.
“Sure thing,” I replied, bracing myself.
He told Gloria and I that everything is energy and vibrations, and that when he was cycling around Portugal a couple of weeks ago he was stood looking at a leaf when he was overcome with emotion and cried for two hours. Now, at this point, I was with him: I’ve done my fair share of staring at things and shedding a tear, albeit usually under the influence of hallucinogens.
Then he came out with:
“And the other thing is that diseases aren’t real.”
I took a sip of beer and looked at him through my sunglasses.
He told us that disease is actually ‘dis-ease’: that all sickness and illness comes from either fear, anger, or grief. Depending on who you are and what your history is, of course, this could be monstrously offensive, and I was suddenly very aware of how loud he was talking in the bar. He told us about J D Rockefeller and how he made medicines designed to keep people sick, and how it’s actually suncream that gives you skin cancer, not the sun. I looked at his blistered shoulders and said ‘I see’.
He rolled a smoke and told us about his new hobby of sungazing; that is, staring straight into the sun for extended periods. Loads of people do it, apparently.
“It can’t hurt you,” he said. “It’s all energy.”
“It’s definitely energy,” I replied, working hard to be agreeable.
Occasionally he veered dangerously towards making sense: he told us he believes in holistic healing, and treating an illness not just through fixing symptoms but through encouraging the patient to deal with any past trauma they may have experienced and working through it, and living a healthier lifestyle. Like… fine. I get that.
We walked on the beach later and I spoke to Gloria as Chris wandered around on the sand. Turns out we’d both been thinking the same thing while he was talking: there was no point disagreeing. Gloria was 32, while Chris was only 20 years old, and was obviously going through a bit of a ‘phase’. It was actually quite endearing to see someone believe something so passionately. And he wasn’t hurting anyone, of course – except, I imagine, his own eyeballs.
We found an empty stretch of beach and went into the sea. The water was almost warm, and we spent a very pleasant half hour wading in and out of the surf and getting smashed about by girthy waves. Chris leapt in head-first and attempted backstroke, until he was clobbered under the water. Back on the beach he was quiet and restless.
“Man, those waves fucked me up,” he said. “My head’s pounding. I think it was the pressure.”
I resisted the temptation to ask him whether it might have just been some un-processed grief he was holding onto.
We took a bus back to the hostel, and Gloria caught a taxi to the airport; she was due to fly to London that evening. She gave me an album of printed out photos before she left, and asked them if I could post them a friend of hers elsewhere in Portugal. She wrote down the address and I said I’d post the photos, despite being very unsure of how to go about it. Chris and I went out for a curry – it was insanely good – and we spoke about our favourite books. Chris recommended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, lol, and I told him about Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.
By this time it was around 8pm, and back at the hostel I met an English girl in the dorm. She’d only just arrived, and said she was going out for drinks with some people she’d met online; apparently there’s a Facebook group where solo travellers post where they’re planning on heading for a holiday, and people jump aboard as they see fit. She invited me along, and I said why not.
There were five of them in total: a guy from Glasgow, a guy from Cardiff, a girl from Ireland, a girl from New Zealand, and the English girl. We found a bar with live music that did cheap-ish drinks and sat there for a long time. I was mortified to learn that I was the oldest of the bunch by a good margin: they were all around 22-23, with the youngest of them being 19.
“Fuck off,” was my immediate response to this piece of information.
I told them I was 28, feeling bashful and silly.
“Aw, you don’t look 28,” said the Irish girl.
“Yeah, I was thinking more 27,” said the Kiwi girl.
They were all friendly and nice, but I sensed within a few seconds of sitting down that we were on different wavelengths – or vibrational frequencies, as Chris would have put it. There were photos of Che Guevara all over the bar, oddly enough, and I pointed them out to the Welsh guy.
“That’s my hero,” I said.
“Who is it?”
“Che Guevara. You know, the guy from the t-shirts. The revolution in Cuba.”
“Yeah, he helped overthrow a dictator.”
“A dictator? You mean Fidel Castro?”
After a couple of hours the girls wanted to go inside to see the live music, and there was a lot of ‘woo!!!-ing’ and arms-in-the-air dancing, which I didn’t really feel like joining in with, but then the guitar guy onstage played Blink 182 and I found myself drunkenly howling the lyrics. Predictable me.
I fell into my bed face-down once again.