Hosted by

"Any Port in a Storm"
November 7, 2000

Click to enlarge
Cape St. Vincent
Sagres, Portugal (5Nov00)

Portugal was never in the plan. But then the whole reason for traveling solo with no itinerary and no obligations is that you can stuff the plans. Indeed, the only real reason to have any sort of plan at all is so you can answer the question that just about every other traveler asks: "Where are you going after this"? The "Where have you been/where are you going/how long have you been traveling/how long do you have left" questions are as much a requirement when meeting other travelers as the "Where do you work" question is back in Silicon Valley.

Talking to other travelers is what got me interested in Portugal in the first place. After the 10th person told me about their travels there, I started feeling left out. By the time I reached Sevilla, almost everyone I met was either just back from or on their way to Portugal. The great thing about Europe is that everything is so close, you can decide on a whim to do a sidetrip to another country, and in only a few hours, you're there. From Sevilla, the border with Portugal was only about 100km away.

Unfortunately, international borders can often wreak havoc on what would otherwise be a straightforward journey. Not only do you have to change buses at the border, you also have to deal with a whole new transportation system once across the border. My trip to Lagos, only about 300 km from Sevilla, ended up requiring five separate segments: a train to Huelva, a bus to Ayamonte, a ferry to Villa Real, a bus to Faro, and a train to Lagos.

Click to enlarge
The Grottos of Lagos
Lagos, Portugal(3Nov00)

Lagos was the town that everyone talked about. My friend Soren had even stayed for a couple of months and worked there. I arrived in town at night, a hand drawn map, courtesy of Cheryl, in hand. I was having a hard time correlating the sketch of town with the real thing, but with the assistance of a wandering pack of local youths, I was soon at the youth hostel. The hosel, like hostels everywhere, offered rooms with bunk beds; in this particular case, four to a room. When I got to my room, it was a disaster. Clothes thrown everywhere, garbage on the floor, and possessions strewn across all of the beds, not leaving me an obvious choice of bunks. I figured that my roommates had gotten just a little to used to having an empty bed and had annexed the extra space. I decided to go out for a beer and sort it out later

At 2am, when I returned from a quick tour of the town's bars, the situation had not improved. One bed was occupied, but the other three were still covered with junk. One bunk didn't even have a mattress, but the base boards were still covered with stuff. I decided to just pick the bed that required evicting the fewest number of things and set off to sleep. At 4am, I was awoken by the sounds of four laughing, extrememly drunk Germans. About the only coherent words they could put together between fits of laughter were, "There's someone in your bed." After several more minutes of uncontrolled drunken laughing, they indicated that my bed was the one with no mattress and lots of someone else's junk. Realizing that it was not just a bad dream and that they were not going to listen to reason, I grudgingly got out of bed and started throwing the offending items from my bed onto the floor. I then installed the mattress, which was propped up against the wall, and tried to return to sleep. The drunk Germans had another idea, however, as they started throwing crackers and squirting shampoo on each other. I yelled at them for a while, and eventually they passed out.

Click to enlarge
More grottos
Sagres, Portugal(3Nov00)

The world of youth hosteling always has its risks, and you just have to take the good with the bad. The next morning, I rolled the dice again, and changed rooms, and ended up with much nicer roommates.

Lagos is a traveler's party town. People go there to surf, lay on the beaches, and drink. It's easy to see why; Portugal's dramatic rocky cliffs provide perfect shelter for countless tiny secluded beaches. The weather, however, was not cooperating when I was there. Cold, grey, drizzling weather doesn't make for a very good suntan. I instead decided to rent a bicycle and ride along the bluff. The rugged coastline, much like that along California's Hwy 1, made for beautiful biking. I was even rewarded with an appearance by the sun right at sunset.

In the evenings, I quickly settled into a routine: first, a visit to the shawerma place for dinner. I found the food in Portugal to be quite expensive and not very spectacular, so cheap shawermas were just the ticket. Then, I would go to the nearby pub, to watch a double header of the Simpsons. By 9, the first of a seemingly endless series of happy hours would start, and I would load up on beers with friends from the hostel. By midnight, everyone would migrate to the next bar, Barroca, for dancing. When that closed at 2, the survivors would move on to Zanzibar or Eddies, both open until 4. The final challenge was waking up in time for the free breakfast, which they promptly stopped serving at 10.

Lagos was a strangely alluring place. While really not uniquely Portugese, the convergence of so many travelers made it a great place to party for a few days. But I still wanted to go off and see the real Portugal. When I had gone to rent my bicycle, the same shop also rented motorcycles. My mind pretty quickly got set on the idea of renting a motorbike for a few days and checking out southern Portugal. If I really was planning on a six month motorcycle journey across Asia, it seemed like a good idea to do a trial run. Anyway, I had lugged a motorcycle jacket all the way from the US, and it was time to put it to use.

Click to enlarge
Friends out on the town
Lagos, Portugal(7Nov00)

The motorcycle rental was amazingly cheap - only 14,000 Escudos (~US$65) for a Yamaha 350 Enduro bike for three days. I didn't have saddlebags, and I wasn't about to rig up anything elaborate for carrying a pack, so I just gathered together a few necessities (including all my camera gear, of course) and hit the road.

I didn't really have a plan, but I was hoping to make it as far as Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and a city with many points of interest. I didn't get far. Only ten minutes into my ride, I stopped just outside town to fuel up. When it came time to get going again, the bike wouldn't start. The battery was dead.

If you are going to have your battery die, one would think that the best place is at a gas station...just make sure it's not a Portugese gas station. There were no jumper cables to be found. The attendant suggested I push start it, so back and forth I ran, the bike barely managing an occasional cough. The attendant, a stocky man of about 22, had no more success than I. Finally, I phoned up the rental shop, and they said they would be right over. I was expecting someone to arrive with a new battery, but instead, a man showed up by motorbike, and he too tried his luck at push starting it. It took a good 10 minutes, with him pushing the bike up and down a nearby hill, but he finally managed to start it. He then rode it back and handed it back to me. I tried to argue that I should get a different bike, or at least a new battery, but all he said was, "Don't start it with the lights on."

Click to enlarge
Easy Rider
Near Sagres, Portugal(5Nov00)

With those feeble words of encouragement, I was off again. I had already lost a fair bit of time, so I decided to only go as far as Sagres that day. Sagres is the southwesternmost point of Portugal, and in fact all of Europe. Between Lagos and Sagres are a string of small fishing villages, connected together with small, sometimes dirt backroads. Seeing as I was on an Enduro bike, I felt obligated to see how it handled on the dirt.

I arrived in Sagres just before sunset. There isn't really much in Sagres; about the only thing of interest is a lighthouse perched on the barren cape of Cabo de Sao Vicente. As the sun set and the sky lit up, I saw my opportunity for a great photo; the silouette of a lone lighthouse set against the fire red sky. I raced off to the point, trying to catch the light at its peak. I was trying to line up the lighthouse so that it lay just on the horizon with the sun directly behind, but everywhere I stopped, things just didn't line up how I wanted them. I finally calculated that the ideal vantage point was going to be of the road, on the barren, brush covered bluff. The only way to get there was by a rocky, rutted trail, and time was running out. In another minute, the sun would be gone altogether and so would be my shot. An enduro bike, however, is designed for just such harsh conditions. Its long travel suspension and knobby tires just eat up rocks and ruts. In just a few hops, I was just where I wanted to be.

I had no time to waste. I hopped off the bike and immediately began setting up the tripod. As I was doing so, I kept hearing a trickling sound, nearly like the sound of a small brook. Odd, I thought, since the only water in sight was the ocean hundreds of feet below. Once I got back to the bike, it all made sense; fuel was pouring out of the bike. The fuel line had been severed from the ride.

Click to enlarge
Near Lagos, Portugal(3Nov00)

I frantically whisked out my tiny flashlight and tried to assess the damage. Hanging off the carburator were a tangle of three cut hoses, one of which was continuing to empty my fuel tank. I couldn't make any sense of it - if the fuel line had been cut, why would there be three ends of hose? I made my best guess and removed one of the dry tubes from the carb, replacing it with the gushing one. Just for laughs, I gave it a few cranks to see if it would turn over, but with the battery on its last legs, I didn't try for long.

I was stuck. I was a good kilometer off the main road, with only a loose, rocky, rutted trail to get me back. Even if I could push the bike through all that, I would still be 4 km away from the nearest gas station. And the sun was long gone, and it was dark and cold.

Click to enlarge
Sagres, Portugal(4Nov00)

Just then, a truck came bouncing along. It was an old Portugese fisherman, returning from a day's fishing out on the point. I flagged him down and gestured I needed help. I tried talking to him in English, but he didn't understand. It wasn't until I thought of trying Spanish that we managed to communicate. I had given up trying to talk to anyone in Spanish - the Portugese seem to hate the Spanish and they get offended when you address them in Spanish.

The fisherman offered to take me and the bike into town, but first we had to get the bike on the truck. The rear wheel of the truck was on the top of a large rut, so we had to lift the bike about 3 1/2 feet to get it into the bed. As impressively strong as the fisherman was for an old man, between the two of us, we couldn't do it. Just then another fisherman came by on another motorcycle, and between the three of us, we managed to just barely lift the bike up. The fisherman soon had it tied down tight, and we were on our way into town.

We went to a service station, but we realized that it was Saturday night, and nowhere was going to be open on Sunday. By this point, I was half a day away from Lagos, and the rental shop wasn't going to be able to just pop by. With no better option, we unloaded the bike at the service station, and I walked to the nearest place that had rooms to rent. THere was nothing I could do until the morning.

After a lazy start in the morning, I walked down to the bike to ponder my options. Before calling the rental shop, I thought I would give the bike one more look. I pride myself on being able to fix anything, and not being able to figure out the fuel lines was really eating at me. I eventually determined that one of the hoses must be a drain of some sort, so I just removed one of the other hoses and connected it to the first. It was the same thing I had done the night before, but this time, the bike started immediately. I was on the road again.

I still had my heart set on Lisbon, so I started to make up time by traveling on the highways. By late afternoon, I was within striking distance of Lisbon. The weather, however, had taken a turn for the worse, and by 4pm, it was pouring down rain. That, combined with the sheer number of vehicles heading into the city, resultd in a monsterous backup reaching for miles outside the city center. For two hours, I essentially walked the bike, occassionally darting between the rows of stopped cars, all the while trying to avoid stalling the bike at all costs.

Click to enlarge
Lisbon, Portugal(6Nov00)

Lisbon is a huge, sprawling city, and I arrived in the drenching rain and dark of night. The face shield on my helmet was scratched and fogged, making it difficult to make out anything other than blurry shapes, but it was better than being pelted in the face when the shield was up. The only guidebook I had covered all of Europe in one volume, and the map it provided of Lisbon didn't even have the youth hostel on it. So I just rode aimlessly around, hoping to find someone or something that would point me in the right direction. Every few minutes,I would stop, get off the bike, retreat to an awning out of the rain, and pull out the compass to see where I was. In a complete stroke of luck, on one of my stops, I was informed by a passerby that the youth hostel was only a 1/2 block away. Minutes later, I was defrosting my body under a hot shower.

Since I had been delayed so much getting to Lisbon, the next day I had only a few hours to tour the highlights. The weather was strange; every few minutes, the sun would burst out from the clouds, lighting up the white buildings against the grey, bleak sky. With uncanny regularity, everytime I would get on the motorcycle, the sun would disappear, and the skies would start pouring rain. The moment I would get off, it would get sunny again. It made for treacherous biking, with wet cobblestone streets and trolley tracks, but it made for great photos. By early afternoon, I had to get back on the road to Lagos. Technically, I didn't need to return the bike until the next morning, but I was hoping to get to Lagos in time for one more night on the town.

Click to enlarge
St. Georges Castle
Lisbon, Portugal (6Nov00)

Lisbon lies on the north shore of Rio Tejo, so you have to cross a bridge to get out of town. Getting to the bridge, however, was another matter. I soon gained renewed appreciation for bicycle touring; when you're bicycle touring and you get stuck on a road going the wrong direction, you can always cheat and hop the center divider. In a motorcycle, you're pretty much stuck following all the traffic rules, even if doing so sends you to the wrong side of town.

Finally out of Lisbon, things only got worse. The road signs in Portugal are atrocious, with none of the highways actually marked. Instead, they simply state the name of either some tiny place I couldn't find on the map, or Lisbon. It seemed that every option went to Lisbon, which was the one option I didn't need. I eventually make it out of the suburbs of Lisbon, to a city called Setubal; a city with apparently no exit. I rode from one side to the next, eventually getting so confused that I had to backtrack all the way back to where I had started two hours earlier. By that point, the sun was setting, it was getting cold, and I was still only 60k or so outside Lisbon. The only freeway I could find was a pay freeway which, having been charged 1000 Escudos on the trip into Lisbon, I was trying to avoid. I also wasn't looking forward to being run over by bad Portugese drivers (they're known as Europe's worst) going 130 kph on wet roads at night, but I was running out of time and desperately wanted to get moving. THe problem with the toll roads, as I found out the hard way, was that once you get on the onramp, you're committed. I followed the signs to the freeway, but I was given only one choice, and that was Lisbon. It was 35km later when I encountered a toll booth and was allowed to escape (I had to pay, of course.) It had taken me almost 4 hours to get 40km outside Lisbon. Another 20 minutes of riding around, and I eventually found an overpass which got me to the other side of the freeeway, and to an onramp heading in the correct direction.

Click to enlarge
Tower of Belen
Lisbon, Portugal (6Nov00)

By that point, it was clear that I wasn't going to make it all the way back to Lagos than night, but I wanted to get as far as possible. I got back onto the pay highway, put the bike in high gear, and started blasting towards Lagos at 120 kph.

Somewhere along the way, I had to make a turnoff, and I was understandably paranoid that I would miss it entirely. So, a few kilometers short of the junction, I pulled over to consult the map. Once convinced I knew exactly where to exit, I attempted to start the bike and leave, but I was greeted with the sickly sound of a dead battery. I was stuck on the side of a deserted highway, with no gas stations or even phones for as far as I could see.

I decided to push start the bike. I knew it was humanly possible, so I ran as fast as I could, the bike awkwardly bobbing back and forth with each step. Each time I engaged the clutch, it would sputter and grind to a halt. I repeated the exercise a few dozen times more until, if nothing else, I was no longer cold. I realized that the only way I was going to start the bike was if I ran faster, and the only way I could do that was to run alongside the bike, then jump on as it started. Bad idea. Much to my surprise, the bike started on my first attempt, but I was so caught off guard that I didn't mount the bike successfully. The bike fell to the ground, breaking a tail light and bashing my knee in the process.

After a few minutes quietly contemplating why I was doing all this instead of sitting safely back at home reading the paper or something, I eventually pulled myself together, got back on the bike, and managed to get it started. For the next hour or so, everything went smoothly for a change; I was making good progress towards Lagos. But with the way my day had been going, I knew it wouldn't last long.

Indeed, a short while later, I flew by a sign pointing to Lagos. I quickly turned around and headed in the direction indicated, but after a while, it became more and more apparent that I had been led astray. I was on a series of tiny backroads, which, while a pleasant alternative to the chaos of the main highway, were anything but easy to navigate. I had to stop every five minutes to consult the map. For the next two hours, I didn't see a single car, hotel, or, more importantly, an open gas station. I had somehow ended up in a natural park, which, while having beautiful roads for riding, did not look promising for fuel. I had never ridden over 100 km on a single tank, but I was already over 140. With no other choice, I kept riding, and through nothing short of a miracle, made it to a small town that had a hotel. Cold, tired, and traumatized, I went straight to bed.

Click to enlarge
Safely back in the pub
Lagos, Portugal (7Nov00)

When I went out to the bike in the morning, I was horrified; there was the cable lock, melted all the way through the rear fender. Apparently, the lock had slid back at some point during the previous night's ride and had ended up directly behind the hot exhaust pipe.

At that point, I was just thankful that I had made it in one piece, so I rode the bike, sputtering and coughing, to the gas station, filled up, and rode the last 70 km to Lagos. I was fully expecting to get screwed when I returned the bike, with a melted fender and broken tail light. Instead, they looked at the fender and said, "It's not your fault, it's not my fault," and let me off only having to pay 3000$ (US$15) for a tail light.

I walked back to the hostel and began the long process of drying out. My Portugese adventure was over.

Copyright 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.