We arrive at the airport on a sweltering day in Portugal. None of us are used to the heat except our host Ricardo. We go on a 3 hour coach journey and see the countryside and the landscape of this humid, yet beautiful country. We see poverty, we see communist flags, we see tailor-made cigarettes for four euros a packet. My friend tells me we’re in a second-world country and it shows. He goes on to say that if you’ve got a part time job at aged twenty-four then you’re living the life. Police carry guns. People are friendly, but not too much so.
We meet Ricardo’s father and his sister at the coach station. I give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek as she discretely tries to hide the anarchy symbol tattooed on her forearm. Antonio carries the same energy as his son. Bubbly persona and very animated. Taking selfies every 10 miles or so. Proud that his son has made life-long friends. He’s excited to show us his home-town. It’s not something that tourists get to see. He drives way too fast down a mountain range. The car sways as he checks his Facebook profile to see which of his friends have liked the aforementioned selfies. We fear for our lives but none of us say a thing. Firstly, because we are all grateful for the lift. Secondly because we are all trying to take this new experience in our stride.
His home-town is more like a rural village. But still unlike anything I have ever seen. High cemented walls surround the place. It looks as if it is ready for battle. “In fact,” he tells us, in a semi-Americanised way of speaking English, “There were a few big battles that took place here. I’m gonna be in the war re-enactment on Monday if you want to come.”
We finally pull into Almeida. We drive through the cobbled streets and feel out of place in time. We get strange looks from the locals as if we don’t belong there. Like we’re commodities. Like fresh meat. He pulls up to the council building where he works. The Mayor steps out the building and shakes us by all by the hand. We feel like royalty now. We’re in the VIP club because of Ricardo’s dad, and grateful for it too. This is the life. “We just met the bloody Major!” Theo reiterates with a hint of glee in his eyes.
The sun draws in and we go to see Ricardo’s grandparents who are warm and loving. His grandmother speaks at us in a language that we don’t understand, that she knows we don’t understand, but she continues to chatter away regardless. It fills us with warmth. They are very welcoming as they sit us down to dinner. Dinner consists of meat and saturated fats, along with soup, beers and the strongest of coffee liqueurs. We each swallow a plateful of delicious, wholesome food and everyone else continues to eat. I, however, feel uneasy, so I only manage one. Ricardo’s grandmother pulls him to the side. I find out later that she was questioning him. “Why does the strange, short, young man not like my food?”. She likes Theo on the other hand, as he manages to wolf down three plates full. He even has to undo his trousers to let his belly breathe after the meal is done. Masculinity is measured here in the traditional sense. By who is the strongest. Who is the tallest. Who can stomach the most meat. His grandfather pats Theo on the shoulder and shouts, “Ay, Big Boy!”. Clearly in this ethnocentric, catholic, and conservative town Theo is the alpha male of our pack.
As Night falls, we get ready for party time. We meet up with a few of the local youths in a graveyard. We sit and smoke and try to communicate through body language. Ricardo has a hard time switching on the fly between English and Portuguese. His head starts to hurt. He doesn’t know what language to think in any more. They tell us ghost stories about the time they found the corpse of a woman in the crypt. Remarkably, they know one our friends from back home, for his growing following and cult-like status on League of Legends. It is an incredibly morbid place but we’re still all laughing away and enjoying ourselves at the absurdity of the situation. The leader shows us a destroyed tower that was used to store dynamite. One shot from a trebuchet and it went up in flames. He chuckles at the lack-lustre military tactics.
We go to a party at a disused fire station. The lights are dim. A lot of purples and reds and you can smoke inside. We cant talk to anyone properly so we just dance and get too wasted for our own good on drinks as cheap as dirt. I spot a girl who I had seen earlier. She was absolutely gorgeous. I went over to her and started to dance. It was time to shoot my shot. “Tu Es Bonita… Eu Gosto De Gajas Boas” This loosely translates to, “You are beautiful, I only like beautiful girls.” Antonio taught me. He was somewhat of a player back in the day. It was supposed to be slick and charming, but I am sure in my broken accent it comes across as creepy. We finish the Latin-style, hip-gyrating dance and put our four-minute relationship to bed.
We attempt to leave, already knowing we’re going to suffer in the morning, but a drunken Antonio drags us back in as apparently the party is only just starting. I move onto spirits and the last thing I remember with any clarity is “Ayyyy Macarena”. My friends carry me home. I wake up the next day in the pitch black and think that I am dead. No one chastises me as the village has such a systemic problem with alcoholism. All in all, a good night. With many more to come.
By Curtis Moore
Image Credit: Pixabay