Friday, November 27, 2009

From Spain to Portugal, Part III - Planes, Trains and Automobiles

I. Planes

I approached an aisle seat occupied by a man with dark, thinning hair, and apologized for making him stand up so that I could get to the window seat. The plane was half empty, and the seat between us remained vacant. When it seemed that boarding had completed, an announcement that I didn't understand went over the PA system, and my neighbor explained that airline personnel would be walking through the cabin to check everyone's boarding passes because there was a discrepancy on the manifest, and it appeared as though there were one more person on the plane than ought to be. I let this information wash over me without lodging in any dark, shadowy places in my brain, and presented my ticket stub when asked.

A follow-up announcement was made and my new friend turned to me and said "they found him." I smiled and nodded. He reminded me a bit of Seinfeld's Uncle Leo, with a dash of Leon Voskovec, the herring merchant from Woody Allen's Love and Death. "One time," he said, "I was going to airport with my daughter, to go to America, and I look at passport the day before my trip," he raised his eyebrows slightly, indicating that the next thing out of his mouth was going to be a shocker, "and I see - expired!"
"Oh!" I said, and raised my eyebrows to mirror his expression.
"I get to America, but coming back home, it's problem." I nodded, tilted my head slightly and raised my shoulders in the universal sign of "whattayougonnado?"

"I fly back through Mexico," he continued. At this point I was committed to the story and wanted to know how on earth the man got back to Portugal on an expired passport. "They make me connect five times," he said, holding his hand up so that I could see the correlation between the digits of his appendage and the number of times he had to connect to different flights. "Finally I make it home. My daughter, she so worried!"
"Yes!" I said emphatically, and imagined myself in her place, flying home alone from the US to Portugal on a flight that I was supposed to be on with my dad, using the in-flight time to figure out a way to break the news to the rest of the family. "Where's dad?" they might ask as they met me at baggage claim. "Well," I'd begin, "there's a story..."

When the in-flight meal arrived my new friend held out a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer and offered it to me, saying "you want alcohol?" I accepted, and a glob of germ-fighting liquid plopped into my open hand, warm from resting in the inside pocket of his jacket. I was hungry, I hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was after 7pm. I ate everything on my plate, even the dry, overly frosted brown dessert.

II. Trains

It was raining in Lisbon when we landed; we de-planed on one of those movable staircases that I've seen in documentaries about the lives of US presidents, and piled onto a bus. With only my Rick Steves backpack to worry about (thanks Rick Steves!), I blew past baggage claim once we reached the terminal and found an information desk, where I was directed to the shuttle bus that would take me to Oriente station. There were two ticket booths at the train station, and I wasn't sure which one I needed. I picked one and waited my turn.

"I need a ticket to Braga," I said to the bespectacled man on the other side of the booth. He typed something into the computer in front of him and without looking up said, "today?"
"Yes," I said, perhaps a bit too forcefully. He continued typing.
"I only have first class," he said.
"How much?" I asked, leaning an elbow on the counter and peering into his tiny workspace, imagining briefly what it would be like to spend my days inside such an enclosure. He typed some more.
"Fine," I said, and handed some money to him through an opening in the Plexiglas that separated us. He took my cash and handed me a ticket and some change. "When does it leave?" I asked. The ticket booth dweller made eye contact with me for the first time.
"Now," he said, pointing to a spot above both of us, "track 1, upstairs." I trotted up a staircase and showed my ticket to a conductor to confirm that I was getting on the right train. I clambered on and found my assigned seat, two minutes later the train pulled out of the station.

I hadn't called João from Habitat from the station to let him know what train I was on, there hadn't been any time to find a pay phone. I had no idea how long I would be on the train or how many stops there were between Lisbon and Braga, and I couldn't understand the announcements being made over the PA system. I listened to the conversations in progress around me for anything that sounded like French, English or even Spanish, but heard none. In France and Spain I had the luxury of either understanding the language, being surrounded by signage and spoken announcements that were made in at least two languages, or easily finding English speakers; this was no longer the case. If I'd been on this train in Chicago I would have assumed I was hearing Polish; despite the similarities between Portuguese, French and Spanish I couldn't understand a word of what people were saying.

I sat by the window in a berth of four seats, two facing forward and two facing backward. The seat across from me was empty, and the aisle seats were occupied by two women in their early 20's. They appeared to be traveling with four others seated in the berth across the aisle, the six of them engaged in lively conversation. The woman next to me had dark hair and groomed eyebrows, I made eye contact with her and said: "Français?" She nodded her head sideways, no. "English?" I asked, and got another sideways nod. I pointed to my watch, "Braga? What time does the train pull into Braga?" I asked. Through a combination of gesture, facial expression and ESP, the dark-haired woman explained that this train wasn't going all the way to Braga, that I would have to change trains at a station called Campanhã.

Like Holly Hunter in The Piano I opened a small notebook and wrote Campagna and showed it to her, to indicate that I knew where to switch trains. She nodded and began to mime descending the train and making a connection to another one, speaking to me throughout this exercise in the hopes that I understood some of what she was saying. I picked up on a phrase that sounded like ligne 1 and indicated that I understood by making my fingers "walk" off the train and "board" another one, and writing line 1 in my notebook. My new travel companion smiled and said "si". Then I pointed to my watch and asked "what time does the train get to Campagna?" She pointed to the top of the dial, then to the 10, and held her hand 0ut for a moment, waving it from side to side to indicate approximately. I wrote 11:50 in my notebook, she shook her head sideways. I wrote 10:50 and she nodded. I circled 10:50 to indicate that I understood this was when I should expect to make my connection at Campanhã.

As satisfied as I was with my sensory communication skills, I still had to make a phone call. The young women traveling with me all had cell phones, which they consulted frequently to read and compose text messages. I've never asked a stranger if I could borrow their phone, much less figured out how to communicate this need with gestures, but now was not the time to be shy about it. I let a few minutes pass to work up my courage, and thought of my brother in-law Mike, who has the uncanny ability to speak to anyone. Mike would figure out how to explain to this woman that he needs to use her phone, I thought, and imagined what he may have done in the same situation. I reached into my purse, fished out a €1 coin, and took a deep breath. I made eye contact with my dark-haired travel companion, held the coin in the air with my right hand, and made the call me sign with my left. I pointed to her phone, then pointed to the phone number I'd written in my notebook and said "its a local call, I need to call someone in Portugal," and hoped that she'd understand that I wasn't trying to call out of her cell phone range.

She looked at me, then looked at the coin, furrowed her well-groomed eyebrows slightly and held her hand up to say keep your money, and handed me the phone that had been resting in her lap. I dialed João, he picked up on the first ring. As I spoke, the conversations in the train car dropped, all ears were trained on me as I explained my situation to the man on the other side of the phone connection. Now that he knew what train I was on, João could look up the timetable and figure out when to expect my arrival. I ended the call and handed the phone back to my travel companion. "Thank you," I said, "merci, gracias," and then, finally remembering what I'd heard at the end of every train announcement, "obrigado."
"De nada," my travel companion said, and set the phone back in her lap.

Things went swimmingly until the train stopped for no apparent reason at a darkened station for half an hour. An announcement was made, resulting in a collective groan from the passengers on the train. My travel companion addressed me and pointed to her phone, and I understood that the train had been delayed, and that I might want to call João back to let him know. She handed me the phone, and I dialed. When the train began moving again a collective exhale emanated from the inhabitants of the train. We continued on, stopping at darkened stations with names I couldn't read from my seat.

My travel companion's phone rang, she looked at the incoming number and handed it to me. It was João calling to say that due to the delay I would miss the last connection to Braga, the only way to get there at this time of night was by taxi, and he was going to text the hotel information to this cell phone. "Can you just tell it to me?" I asked.
"It will be hard for you to understand, its better if I send it in a text," he said. I hung up and mimed to the dark-haired woman that I was expecting a text, holding my fingers in keyboard position and pretending to type, and then pointing to the phone. She said something to me that I couldn't figure out, and began collecting her things, including the phone. I stood up to get my backpack from the overhead rack, and she held her hands up and pushed them downward, and I understood that this was not my train stop, but it was hers. She kept talking, pointing to her phone and then to one of her friends in the berth across the aisle. I smiled and nodded, but didn't understand what she was trying to communicate to me.

She got off the train at the next stop, along with a blonde woman who had been sitting across from her. Oh well, I thought, I guess I'll find a payphone at the Campagna train station. The train continued on, and I waited for my stop; I figured it would be at the end of the line and that everyone would be getting off. A figure approached me, one of the women who'd been sitting in the berth across the aisle; she handed me her phone and finally I understood what my travel companion had been trying to say to me - she received João's text and sent it on to one of her friends who was traveling to Campagna. I opened my notebook and jotted down the address, then tried saying it out loud. The woman who'd brought me the message went over the address with me, helping me to pronounce it correctly. "Obrigado," I said, and she returned to her seat.

III. Automobiles

A line of taxis waited outside the Campanhã train station. I found an unoccupied cab, its gray-haired driver standing on the pavement, and handed him a piece of paper that I'd transcribed the hotel address onto. He read it, and I said "Braga?" He looked at me, exclaimed "Braga!" and launched into something that I didn't understand but knew meant are you crazy lady? This is really far away! He walked away from me with the piece of paper in his hand, and consulted a fellow driver, or perhaps his supervisor. He came back a moment later, still chatting.
"OK?" I asked.
"OK, OK" he said, and opened the trunk of his car for my backpack.

I settled into the car and we took off. The driver talked incessantly, I assumed he was talking on a cell phone earbud until I heard a whistle, looked up and saw that he was making eye contact with me in the rear-view mirror. He said something that sounded like capeesh, and I shook my head: no, I don't understand. He kept talking, ending his sentences with the word português? "No," I said to him, shaking my head, "I don't speak Portuguese." This seemed to agitate him, and he began talking faster. I opened my notebook and pointed to João's phone number. "If you want I can call someone who can speak to you," I said, holding the notebook up so he could see what I was talking about. Si, si, he said. I pointed to the cellphone that sat next to him on the passenger side seat, "can I use your phone?" I asked. Si, he replied, and handed the phone to me.

João is going to hate me, I thought as I dialed his number for the fourth time since 3 o'clock that afternoon; we hadn't even met and already I was causing him grief. "I'm in a taxi and the driver doesn't understand," I said once we'd connected.
"Let me speak to him," João said. The driver was in the middle of an agitated soliloquy, and it took some effort to get his attention.
"Excuse me," I said, thrusting the phone into his personal space, "excuse me, could you please take the phone, there's someone who can talk to you." The driver continued on his rant, unabated. "Excuse me, excuse me," I kept saying, and lightly touched his shoulder, to no avail. "Excuse me," I said again, my touch on his shoulder growing more firm. Finally he looked at me in the rear-view mirror, "there's someone on the phone who can talk to you." He took the phone from my extended hand and began speaking into it. "OK?" I asked when he disconnected.
"OK, OK," he said, and drove us past a highway sign that read: Braga 44km.

We continued on this way for some time, the driver talking a blue streak, intermittently looking at me in the rear-view mirror to see if I understood anything. At one point he pointed to his temple with an index finger and said "cray zee, craaaaay zeeeeee!" Then he rubbed his index and middle fingers against his thumb, making the international sign for expensive and said "reesh, reeeeesh!"
"I know, I know," I said, "I don't usually take expensive cab rides from Portuguese train stations in the middle of the night, but there was a last minute change in my itinerary." I listened to the music coming from the car radio and realized that I was hearing a cover of Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now, sung by a female vocalist; it wasn't a version I'd heard before.

We got off the highway and began circling streets, the driver became more agitated; although he had a GPS monitor on the dashboard it seemed he was lost. I'm not from here, he seemed to be saying to me, I don't usually take passengers this far out of my way. We drove up a dead-end street, then turned back around. We circled the area, the driver speaking to me in a tone that sounded more desperate and anxious than before.

I had been watching the number on the fare box grow steadily higher, and didn't have enough cash on hand to pay the driver. He slowed the car near an ATM, and I tried to sound out the words printed on the side of it: Caixa Automatica. "Kai-ksah out-oh-mah-ticah," I said, and pointed to the sign.
"Si, si," he said. I left the car door open in case there was any doubt as to my intention of returning, and hoped that the hold on my debit card that the international operator had told me about in Barcelona had been lifted. I slid my card through the magnetic reader on the glass door of the shelter, and a tiny light changed from red to green. I put my card into the appropriate slot of a cash dispenser, and withdrew €200 without incident. I breathed a sigh of relief, tucked the money and the card into my purse, and walked back outside where the car was still running, the door I'd opened was ajar, but the driver was nowhere to be seen.

Nothing good ever happens in empty taxi cabs that are left idling with a door wide open; I scanned the area - I was the only person on the block. I stood for a moment and considered my options - was I safer in the cab or outside of it? Should I open the trunk, take my backpack and run for my life? Should I abandon the backpack and run for my life? If I'd taken that grim facebook quiz that tells you the hour and means of your own demise would the result have been: bludgeoned to death by a Portuguese cab driver, 1am, November 9th, 2009, 38 years old?

I got back in the cab, closed the door, and engaged in a 360° visual scan. Shortly I saw the figures of two men approaching from behind the car; the driver and a man dressed in a doorman's uniform. The doorman was making wide gestures with his arms, perhaps explaining how to get to my hotel. My breathing relaxed a bit as I watched the men communicate. The driver returned to the car and got in. "OK?" I asked.
"OK, OK," he said, and put the car back in gear. His cell phone rang - I hoped that it was João calling to see why I still hadn't shown up.

The call ended and the driver pulled away from the curb, he took us around a bend and down a street that had a signs for a hospital on it. He talked to me, but the only word I understood was hospital. He pulled over to a curb and repeated himself, ending his sentence with capeesh? I shook my head no. He spoke to me again, maintaining eye contact in the rear-view mirror: capeesh, capeesh? I kept shaking my head no.
"It doesn't matter how many times you say it to me in Portuguese," I said, "I still won't understand." Finally something clicked. "Oh," I said, "the guy from Habitat is going to meet me here?" I asked, and pointed to the curb.
"Si, si," the driver said.
"So I should get out here?" I said, walking my fingers through the air to the door of the cab.
"Si, si!" the driver said, his mood seemed to lift with my comprehension of the situation.

A moment later João appeared on the sidewalk; I knew instantly that it was him, and I can honestly say that I have never been so happy to meet someone in my life. If I had to set the moment to music, I would use Parliament's 1978 classic: Flash Light. The driver sat at the wheel for what seemed like a long time filling out a very detailed receipt; the fare came to €70, almost as much as the economy class airline ticket from Barcelona and the first class train ticket from Lisbon combined. I didn't understand why a receipt was necessary, João explained that I could submit it for reimbursement due to the extenuating circumstances of my travels. The driver got out of the car and opened the trunk, revealing my backpack and two plastic bottles of water. João took my backpack and the driver took out the water bottles, holding them up and speaking to me.
"He wants to know if you want some water," João explained.
"Oh, that's okay, I have a water bottle," I said.

We parted ways with the cab driver and walked along dark, quiet streets; João carried my backpack, and I felt positively light with the success of having survived my journey, and excited that the person I was speaking to understood what I was saying. I talked a mile a minute, it was as if I'd been infected with the cab driver's proclivity for incessant speech, and recounted every detail of my trip like a schoolgirl telling someone about her day. When I explained to João that a kind-hearted stranger on the train had lent me her cell phone, he asked: "what was her name?" I'm sure someone said her name out loud over the course of that train ride, but my comprehension of the language was so low that I couldn't decipher names from any other parts of speech.
"I have no idea," I said.
"I have her number, I'll send her a text thanking her," João said.

The hotel was just a few blocks away, João walked me to the door of my room and said there was another member of the team who'd had travel difficulties and hadn't arrived yet. The others would leave for the work site at 8:40 in the morning, but I could sleep in and wait for my fellow errant traveler, and we'd arrive at the job site late together.

It was 1:20am, over 16 hours had passed since I left Mara's apartment in Barcelona. I turned the key to the hotel room door and crept in; in the dark I could make out the figure of a sleeping person occupying one of two twin beds. I took off my shoes and glasses, and climbed into the empty bed fully clothed.


Midtagessen said...

Thank you for making it real. Loved the good cry at the airport phone booth. Loved it all. So glad you are taking me with a lovely written way.

JP said...

You are so welcome Midtagessen, thank YOU for following me in my travels!

j.cro said...

The women you met on the train kind of restores your faith in humanity, doesn't it?

JP said...

They were so nice, it was pretty cool the way they took care of me. The group of American women on the way to the Barcelona airport were great too. There's something about a group of women traveling together that spells safety, especially if you're traveling alone when you find them.