Portugal | EELS?????

Okay so I intended to write every day of my trip, and then I just………… didn’t.

But hey, I have some time now, and I need to catch you up on everything that’s happened because – fuck me – it’s been very strange.

So after a few weird days with too-young people in Faro, I headed to Lagos for a couple nights. Nice town with some beautiful cliffs. I stayed in a small hostel that put on nightly bar crawls, and I went to one but it was very much not my tempo – people trying to make me do shots and shit. I do not want to do shots and dance to music I hate and put my hands in the air and go ‘woo’. My years are too advanced; my tree has too many rings.

It’s weird actually – before coming here I thought bar crawls and all that stuff would be fun. But I’ve learned that I actually don’t like to do that sort of thing anymore. I was always scared of reaching a stage where I don’t like the things I used to like, but now I’ve got there, it’s not sad at all – in fact I’m very happy in knowing what I like and what I don’t like with more certainty. No more faking it to please other people. I didn’t realise that happened when you get older – I suppose it’s one of those things you can’t really teach someone; you have to go through it yourself.

After some pensive debauchery in Lagos, then, I met Seth and Blanche. I’ve written about them a lot in these diaries, but if you’re reading this with no idea who they are: I met them on a blueberry farm in Australia four years ago. Seth is English, Blanche is French, and they fell in love on the farm, moved to Avignon in France together, spent a year or two working and saving, and have now purchased a van. They spent the winter renovating it, gutting it and fitting a bed and cooker and cupboards and all with a lovely wooden finish. They’re now driving around Europe for the summer.

I met them in Lagos, and it was transformative to my mood – which until then had been largely ‘unsure’. They were both deeply tanned, slim and healthy-looking – radiant, even. We had a couple of drinks in Lagos town, then climbed into the van (you can fit three in the front) and drove off to find somewhere to camp. It was such a sudden change that I felt stunned. If something very bad happening very suddenly can cause shock that leaves you numb, then it stands to reason that something extraordinarily good happening very quickly can cause the same effect. I sat in the van, beside two of my favourite people, watching the warm roads of Portugal sweep away beneath us, and I felt so grateful and humbled that all I could do was sigh.

We came to a lake surrounded by rolling green hills, and parked the van. We put on music, drank wine, and cooked a meal. It was so quiet it felt strange; I realised that it’s been perhaps years since I experienced the total silence of absolute nature. Walking through the countryside at home you can always hear distant motorways. At the lake it was nothing but birdsong and wind. I could hear my own breathing and the sound of pebbles underfoot.

After twenty minutes parked in the spot, a white car swept down the road and crunched to a halt beside us, followed by three barking dogs on foot. A tanned old man wound down the window and yelled at us:

“No camping here. I come back one hour, if you still here, I call police. Six hundred euro fine, each.”

He yelled at another couple of vans parked nearby too, and then he sped away, the dogs following him up the road. We walked over and asked the other campers what they were going to do. Nobody wanted to leave, so we didn’t – and he never came back. Just a local nutter with nothing better to do.

We drank a lot – Seth and I always get very giddy to be reunited, and our first night together after a long separation is always an outrageous boozing session – and Blanche went to bed in the van early. To avoid waking her, Seth and I took the camping table and chairs and candle, and hiked a hundred metres up a nearby hill.

At the summit we found something unexpected: an abandoned building, sitting quietly on the hilltop above the forest. We explored the building as the sun set, and it appeared to be an old restaurant. The roof was caved in, the flooring was all pulled up in places, and old sofas and bottles were strewn around a large decrepit fireplace.

The sun began to set, and Seth climbed up an old dead telegraph pole, right to the top. He’s a climber, and loves a challenge. He says it makes you feel alive. He encouraged me to give it a go, so I climbed up a couple of metres and hopped down, satisfied. That’s alive enough for me – my imagination is too vivid.

We sat at the table, lit the candle, and realised we’d forgotten the booze. Seth swore and jogged away back down the hill, and I sat alone in the dark in the forest beside the abandoned house, and I experienced for the first time in several years a feeling I’d long forgotten: adventure. Being afraid. Being unsure of what will happen. Not in a mental health, anxiety, I’m-walking-to-Tesco-and-am-suddenly-filled-with-an-inexplicable-sense-of-doom way, but just… in a very alive way. I sat under the stars with no sound at all but the trees, and I looked into the black doorway of the ruined building, and I felt a bit scared, and more than scared – fulfilled. Full up.

We drank an ungodly amount of wine, as we always have. But there were signs of maturity too: we also drank water in between glasses. I don’t remember what we talked about; probably everything. After an hour spent in this way, something strange happened: we heard the crunch of wheels and saw headlights swish their way through the forest below. Our first thought was that it was the crazy yelling dog man from before, and Seth stood up, ready to sprint back down the hill in his Birkenstocks to make sure Blanche was okay.

But the headlights didn’t turn towards our camping spot; they turned up the hill, towards the abandoned building, and us. We sat in our chairs, too drunk to know what to do. Two cars drove around the building, to the back of it, where we sat on a flat expanse of concrete, with our table and our wine and our single flickering candle. The cars slowed and drove around us in a full circle, then came to a stop.

If I’d been more sober I might have felt uneasy. The two engines switched off, and four people got out: two guys and two girls. They milled around, keeping their distance and drinking beers. It was unclear what they wanted.

We waved to them, and they came over to say hello. They were Portuguese but spoke English. They asked how old we were, and I said twenty-eight.

“You’re babies!” said one of the women.

I asked them how old they were.

“Forty-one,” said the man, and patted each thigh in turn. “Twenty, and twenty.”

I frowned, and pointed at his cock.

“One?”

He burst out laughing and patted me on the shoulder.

“Okay, that was a good one.”

Over the span of an hour we got chatting, and the strangeness dissipated and we made friends. It turned out eventually that the reason they’d looked so shifty and uncertain when they climbed out of the car was because they’d driven up to an abandoned building at midnight in the middle of nowhere hoping to chill and have a drink, and had found two men sitting in the dark with a table and chairs and wine glasses and a single candle between them.

“Ah yes,” I said, when they told us this. “I can see how that might have looked odd.”

When they left, Seth and I sat a while longer, talking about the stars and all sorts of things. Then we went to bed, and I slept like a brick.

*****

In the morning I woke up feeling like an old sock. I drank a coffee and soon needed a dump.

“What do I do if I need a shit?” I asked Seth.

“Just go into the trees man. I’ve already been, it’s fine.”

“Do I need to take my shorts off?”

“What?”

“What if I shit in them by accident.”

“Dan, man. You won’t,” laughed Seth. He worries a lot less than I do.

Feeling a little bit fragile and afraid, I took a roll of toilet paper and wandered out into the forest. After a couple of minutes I found a good spot, but couldn’t bring myself to do it; shitting onto a forest floor, wind against your genitals, birds tweeting – it’s all so visceral. After five indecisive minutes I forced myself to do it, then covered everything with leaves and headed back up to Seth and washed my hands.

“Alright mate, I thought something had happened to you,” said Seth.

“Wow,” was all I could offer.

“How was it?”

“Actually… brilliant? Like it feels like that was the truest shit I’ve ever taken. Like… that’s how we’re meant to shit.”

“Right?!” laughed Seth.

It seemed absurd, but out in the wild, even taking a shit was a fulfilling, sensory experience. I felt like an animal. I thought about how many bland, thoughtless shits I took in London. It all seemed so misinformed, suddenly.

*****

Blanche went up the hill to do yoga in the sun, and Seth and I went down to the lake for a swim. The water was almost warm, and we waded in up to our necks and I let myself float around, feeling refreshed, hangover banished. We chatted for half an hour, and some people walked past with a tiny brown Labrador puppy and waved hello. I was halfway through telling a story to Seth when he stopped me mid-sentence.

He looked me dead in the eye, a grave expression on his face.

“Dan, just by the way mate, I should probably tell you – I did see a snake in here earlier.”

Well.

It’s not everyday you hear that sentence.

“Are you fucking JOKING?” I wailed. “WHAT? SNAKES? EELS? WHAT?”

“Don’t freak out, man. It won’t come anywhere near us, we’re massive.”

“Oh my fucking god.”

I stood up to my waist in the water, zen vibes vanished in a horrifying puff, and glanced around me for the serpent.

“Where is it?”

“It was by the shore. I saw it when we were on the beach but I didn’t want to tell you because you wouldn’t have got in.”

“You are a bastard.”

He howled with laughter.

“It’s fine, Dan!”

Seth is always telling me things are fine.

I was determined not to be cowardly, so we stayed in the water another ten minutes, talking but keeping our eyes peeled. When we waded out and got dry, the snake swam past: it was only the length of my forearm, and very thin and harmless-looking. Almost cute.

“You could have specified it was tiny,” I complained, as we walked back up the hill to Blanche. “You hear ‘snake’ and you don’t think ‘harmless tiny thing’. You think ‘fucking anaconda’.”

“Ah yeah, right,” laughed Seth. “Sorry mate.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon cooking food and listening to music and talking. It’s incredible what you can do with twenty four hours when everything aligns just right.

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