Porto to Lisbon, Portugal
10 years ago, despite spending five weeks in Spain, I had so much going on with all of Silvia and Óscar’s recommendations, and so many friends to visit elsewhere, that I never had a chance to get to Portugal. Six years ago, the original idea of my Silk Road trip was to go from one ocean to the other, from Hong Kong’s Pacific to Portugal’s Atlantic, by land. I had so much fun in the middle that I ran out of time by Austria. So there’s some motivation to address some unfinished business!
But let’s just cut to the chase here: this portion of the trip was completely overshadowed by the Azores. I had a fine enough time in mainland Portugal, but having experienced so many emotional reunions and seen everything I already wanted to, my head was already elsewhere. Unseasonably frequent rain also didn’t help. But there had to have been something more to explain the general sense of disconnect I felt despite being in an objectively compelling place.
São Miguel, Azores, Portugal
After all these years and after becoming conversational in Portuguese, somehow I’ve never been to Portugal, a pretty popular place in its own right. It’s right next to Spain, too. So… Let me just skip right over it (insert meme song here) and fly to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean instead. Sounds logical, right?
Well, the Azores are still Portugal. Maybe not the first thing that comes to mind though, since they’re an autonomous region. Even some of the mainland Portuguese visitors I encountered slipped up and called it “going abroad.”
I’ve been fascinated by these little dots on the map ever since I saw the largest city, Ponta Delgada, had relatively short direct flights from Boston, home to a large Azorean diaspora. Though I never took the opportunity to go while I lived in Boston, they’ve stuck in my mind ever since. Why are these little isolated islands so inhabited? How’d they become part of Portugal?
Empordà / Girona, Catalonia, Spain
It’s funny how fast and intense travel friendships can be. Usually it ends with people extending an open invitation to visit their homes: hey, I’ve been on both ends of that. As genuine as they are, more often than not, these invitations are aspirational, seldom followed up.
It’s thus all the more surprising which friendships endure. I spent barely a day and a half with Gemma and Ramon in Sri Lanka seven years ago! We pulled a memorably freezing all-nighter, hiking up those 5500 steps, before parting ways in opposite directions with each other’s recommendations. Occasional messages over the years gave way an increasingly serious desire on my part to act on their open invitation to visit. And so here I am!
Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
It’s rare for me to visit a place twice. Even when it comes to visiting friends, it takes me ages. Without friends though, it practically never happens. There’s one big thing different this time that brings me here.
En route to visit my friends Gemma and Ramon deeper in Catalonia, timing led me to make an impromptu weeklong stay in Barcelona, just in time for the biggest cultural festival of the year. (Shoutout to Rob for telling me about it, and sorry the timing didn’t work out for Valencia!) They set me up with their friends in Barcelona, Mar and Ignasi, who could not be more welcoming and hosted me despite a week where were all too busy to actually hang out beyond a dinner or two. It’s still enough to form another fast friendship, and I hope we find an opportunity to pick things up again just as I’ve been doing with others on this trip.
While waiting for the main attraction on the weekend, before and after my weekday remote work hours, I spent a whole lot of time aimlessly walking around Barcelona. It’s nice for once to not have any pressure to see the sights or do touristy things, to relax at home whenever I felt like without feeling a loss of time, and to have a mix of old and new.
Where do I even begin? 10 years is a long time. How do I even start a conversation? “Hey! It’s nice to see you! Long time no see! How is everything?”
10 years is enough for the world to visibly change. From the last time I’ve been here, we’ve gone from paper maps, big cameras, and day-ahead bus ticket purchases at the booths to the ubiquitous, always-connected smartphone. From the last time I’ve really talked to these friends, we’ve gone from Facebook to Instagram to an opaque, increasingly toxic algorithm pushing away any sort of personal content and whittling away already-tenuous connections literally separated by oceans. It’s made keeping up even on a circumstantial level more difficult, and time has worn the initiative it takes to keep in touch.
From the last time I saw these friends, many now have children. I’ve only ever known them while travelling, and now our lives have taken very different directions. And for the most part, I admit I haven’t really been great at keeping in touch either. So it’s with a bit of trepidation that I proposed this trip — am I imposing on them, am I being a burden? Am I merely a reminder of a past life? Aside from the good times we’ve shared, what drew us to become friends in the first place, and do we continue to share anything in common 10 years later? It’s with immense gratitude and a little bit of surprise that I’ve been so welcomed with open arms.
“Hey, I got Chinese takeout! Have some!”
–“Thanks! Where’s it from?”
“Just around the corner from here.”
The next day, I walk around the bend. The restaurant’s name? Fortune House, the same name (in English, but not in Chinese) as my dad’s former restaurant. It may have only been day one of my trip, but it made me immediately homesick.
It’s been absolutely mind-boggling to see the constant presence of Chinese people in the three Guianas. We’re members of the same diaspora, but we just ended up on opposite sides of the globe. Our daily language, the ones we live in, are completely different, mutually unintelligible, and yet the immediate knowing glances when I walk into the door of a Chinese business immediately leads to a conversation in the one thing we share.
Kourou and Cayenne, French Guiana
Another day, another aquatic border crossing. Just taking one of those small rickety pirogues to the other side, that’s all — that’s a little step down from the ferry between Guyana and Suriname. Wait, why is everybody speaking French now? Why is my phone welcoming me to… Martinique? And now my phone’s stuck in the wrong time zone, one hour behind the local time.
This town looks a little run down. The road out to Kourou seems quite empty, and huh… hello corrugated steel shacks. Haven’t really seen them that much this trip until now.
Oh look, there’s a freakin’ space rocket.
Now firmly in Europe and no longer on the Silk Road, I was completely caught off guard by how sudden the changes would be. After being close to alone for so long, I was now surrounded by tourists. Everyone can speak English. Fancy mosques are replaced by fancy churches, and all the buildings — spires, statues, windows, paint — exude Europe. Crowded streets of hodge-podge clothing stores give way to wide streets of high fashion. Instead of small businesses’ neon signs fighting for attention, it’s billboard-sized screens. Pop culture, advertisements, posters depicting people of a far more diverse spectrum of skin colours and subcultures both mainstream and niche, promoting individuality, but also frequently flaunting flashier things, wearing less clothes, trying too hard. And no more marshrutkas, dolmuş, or minivans: it’s all trams. For better or for worse, I was very much back in the Western world again.
I’m satisfied that this is the end of my trip, and though I passed through some stunning locales most people would go out of their way just to see, I have to admit that my focus wasn’t all there anymore. My planning only took me up to Istanbul, and the places thereafter — all of which warrant another future visit — were really a bit of an afterthought: all I wanted to do was to see my friends.
Even more so, I just wanted to feel like a normal person again.
Saint-Pierre, St. Pierre and Miquelon
A mere 25 km from Newfoundland lies a geopolitical curiosity. Canada shares a border with the US, and a maritime border with Greenland, but did you know it also shares one with France?
(the way home)
I enjoyed Benin so much that I stretched my stay an extra two days, cutting everything else from my itinerary. Instead of using them to go somewhere far, I chose to hang out — at the beach, at the badminton court, at Miguelle’s house, at my hostel with Firmin and Clementine.
With my French finally at a basic conversational level, it was all the more refreshing to get to know people better… tragically, just as I was about to leave. We coached Kesley through her interviews for a volunteer opportunity in Canada. Aubin and I exchanged music and learning materials related to informatics. Maman and her gang at the shop gossiped some more, teased me about potentially dating African women, while I dished right back to them. Lots of time killed on Youtube, huddled around a smartphone. I played a bit more badminton… and at least scored a single point. Watched a few telenovelas with Clementine and her family, then received a few bags of peanuts and tapioca flour to bring to her brother in Boston. I was killing time and enjoying company. I felt like I could stay… I really didn’t want to leave.