Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Next Up - Senegal

When it comes to Senegal, I'm not really sure where to begin. I didn't take very careful notes while I was there, and it was so different from my regularly scheduled life that I hope I can do justice to the experience in words. When I first committed to the trip, I was under the false impression that my travels to Morocco almost five years earlier would prepare me for the experience; I quickly discovered that simply was not the case.

About a month before the trip, a dinner celebrating my West African Dance teacher's birthday was held at the home of Nancy, a long time student of his who had been to Senegal on one of his previous tours. In attendance were a mixture of people who had been on one of his tours already, and those who'd signed up for the upcoming one. Advice was sagely passed on from previous tourists, pieces of paper and pens handed out to the newbies for note-taking. I scratched out a few details on a scrap of paper, consisting mostly of useful Wolof phrases (written phonetically) and items to consider bringing as gifts for people we would come into contact with:

Wolof phrases:
nanga def - hello
mangi fireck - I'm fine
djere jeff - thank you
no tudu - what's your name
mangi tudu - my name is
wao - yes
dedet - no
balma - sorry
soor na - I'm full
lekka - eat
nyoko bok - you're welcome

Gifts to bring:
mint toothpicks
crayons, paper
burt's bees
can openers
board books w/o words (or in French)
gum, chips, cookies

About the only thing I kept track of regularly in my notebook during the tour was sightings of t-shirts with English phrases printed on them. The ones I managed to jot down in my notebook are:

That's How I Roll (printed above a graphic of toilet paper)
Kiss Me I'm Irish
West Coast Family Reunion 2005
Add Some Fun To Your Fantasy
No Money No Lover
Catch Me If You Can

Hands-down the best t-shirt on the list is That's How I Roll. I wish I had a picture of that guy, but as it turns out its really quite difficult to take pictures of people in Senegal - at least it was for me. People really did not want their candid photo taken by a stranger, and there was pretty much no chance that I was going to blend in to my surroundings. Senegal isn't the most off the beaten track that you can possibly get to, but its as off the beaten track as I've ever been, and I just didn't want to become that big fat jerk who comes from another country and disregards the local customs to the point of offending locals, all in the name of getting a few snapshots. I did take some pictures, but a lot of them didn't come out that well because it turns out that my little point-and-shoot camera was designed for Chicago lighting (a lot of gray tones) and not so much Dakar lighting (extremes of very bright sunlight, and near-total darkness).

Sitting here in Chicago two months after the fact, my most striking memory of Senegal is how different the experience of time was. I'd been told about this aspect of Senegalese life, that nothing would happen in the amount of time I expected, that I'd have to throw away any and all expectations of timekeeping and its attendant properties. Someone told me about the acronym W.A.I.T., which stands for something like West African Itinerant Time. The example I heard to describe what this means is how public transportation supposedly works in that part of the world - instead of being on a schedule, a bus will wait until every seat has been filled. You could get on the bus and quickly move on to your destination, or you could wait all day.

My experience of Senegal, in addition to being amazing and beautiful, was extremely disorienting and at times quite stressful. In an attempt to re-create this experience I've decided to experiment with the way I tell this story; instead of going in chronological order as I did with my travels in Europe, I'll tell it in whatever order I remember it.

One thing I learned in Senegal it is that no matter how modern the world is, there are places where daily life is so different from my own that it overwhelms me to consider what life is like the world over. I was in Senegal for two weeks, it felt like two months. It opened my eyes in ways I didn't expect, and changed how I feel about life in my own part of the world. Don't believe it when people say the world is getting smaller. The world is big, really big, unimaginably so. It only feels small when you stick to a small portion of it.

More to come...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday, Technically Spring, Still Unemployed

This is my fourth post in as many days, I haven't been that productive on this blog since this time last year, when I attended Story Studio's In-Town Writer's Retreat. The best thing to come out of that weekend was connecting with the women who I've met with regularly over the past year for writing dates: Ms. Angelica, and Johanna Stein. This past Friday, in celebration of 365 days of writing (or at least thinking about writing), we had our own version of a write-a-thon, which involved cupcakes, wine, and tapping away on laptops.

A lot has happened over the past year: I lost my job; participated in a mini-triathlon; traveled to France, Spain, Portugal, and Senegal; volunteered with the Green City Market, Alliance Française de Chicago, Old Town School of Folk Music, 826 Chicago, and Habitat for Humanity; and became a staff writer at Gapers Block. I still don't have a flippin' job, but not for a lack of trying. For the most part I've kept busy enough not to let it get me down, but from time to time it's been hard to stave off negative thoughts. I've had my share of days spent oversleeping and lounging on the couch, wondering when the hell I'll be invited back into the grownup society of the working world. January and February were particularly bad months, I'd had several promising interviews, none of which turned into job offers, and the disappointment combined with winter weather really slowed me down. I didn't post much. I kept hoping I'd be able to publish a really optimistic post with a title like "Guess who just got a job?" or something like that, and when it kept not happening, well, it got me down.

It helps to have a project, one that doesn't involve cleaning the house (turns out, I'm a terrible housewife.) Having scratched my itch for international travel, I've started thinking about how much of this country remains unexplored to me. While visiting my sister in Boston last summer, I happened to see a flier at R.E.I. for an organization called the American Hiking Society. They have something called volunteer vacations, where for a nominal fee you can spend a week or two at a national park clearing brush and readying trails for the tourist season. The trips are assigned various levels of ruggedness, ranging from "easy" to "very strenuous" and you can decide how hard core you want to go. I managed to convince Ms. Angelica to join me on a volunteer vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which gets a "moderate to difficult" rating on the work level scale. It wasn't hard to convince her, she's from Michigan and loves the outdoors. I tried getting Johanna in on the fun too, but she has parental duties that cannot be ignored. We'll be working at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which is so far north its on the shores of Lake Superior, which is practically Canada.

In the coming weeks, in addition to my usual work search and writing activities, I'll be preparing for this trip. I have plenty to write about between now and then - I haven't even begun to touch on Senegal, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to publish a heroically optimistic post announcing my re-entry into the working world.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Portugal Part VIII - Epilogue

I. Porto

By the time Frances and I had woken up the next morning and gotten ourselves ready to explore Porto, half the team had already begun their journeys home. Cher was in the lobby with her copious luggage when we descended the staircase, and moments later a cab arrived to whisk her off to the airport. John had left a few hours earlier, as had Bebe and Catherine. Nicholas was scheduled to take a train heading north back to his parents' house in France. I wasn't leaving until the next day, as was Frances, and Lili had scheduled three extra days in a bed & breakfast on the Rua de S. Nicolau near the river. The participation fee I'd paid only covered one night's stay in the Porto hotel, but Frances let me share her room an additional night without charging me.

We handed our heavy room key to the grumpy desk clerk and walked out into the drizzling city to find breakfast. The rain had slowed, but it had been a near-constant for two days now. We settled on a cafe that had a pastry display in the window, and enjoyed the novelty of what felt like big-city bustle. On the street, people walked past the cafe at a brisk clip, and inside customers engaged each other in lively conversation. I looked out the window I saw the familiar figure of Shirley blending in with the locals, and waved to her. She smiled, waved back, and approached us.

"I'm glad I ran into you," she said, "I have something for you, and I was going to leave it at the front desk - my flight leaves in a couple hours and I'm heading out soon." Shirley had spent the past couple hours shopping for a gift for Frances; back in Braga, before watching the soccer game, we'd decided to pitch in €5 each and buy a gift for Frances as a gesture of our appreciation for leading the team. Frances had been just as taken with tile as I was, and we'd planned on buying her some as our group gift to her. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Porto there hadn't been time for shopping, and since today was Sunday hardly anything was open. Shirley had settled on a hand painted ceramic platter instead. I decided then that once I got home I would send Frances one of my tiles - I'd accidentally bought two of the same kind, and while the platter was nice, it wasn't the same as a piece of antique Portuguese tile.

We met up with Lili for lunch at the Majestic Cafe, a belle epoque building that featured leather seats, mirrored walls, and served expensive tea in fine china. We split up for the afternoon, each of us exploring our own interests. I spent some time at an Internet cafe that had reasonable rates and explored the city on foot, marveling at the buildings, and naturally, the tiles that covered them. We connected again at dinner, meeting at a three table restaurant called A Grade (pronounced ah grahday) that was owned by the B&B where Lili was staying. We dined on the most exquisite cod, squid, and Portuguese wine I've ever tasted. It was easily the best food and most fun meal of the entire trip.

Unsolicited, the owner of the restaurant came out from behind his station at the bar, approached our table with an ornate looking bottle and three shot glasses, and poured us all a serving. We toasted each other and downed the shots. It was surprisingly pleasant, whatever it was, and a moment later the owner returned and served us a second round. We hesitated, and finally Frances said "Oh alright." I lifted my glass up and said "If Frances is having one, I'm having one." A small boy at the next table began to parrot me: "If Frances is having one, I'm having one," he said, and then repeated the phrase. I took out my notepad to write down the name on the bottle label when a man at the next table - the father of the little boy who was parroting me, turned in his seat and began speaking to us in perfect English. He explained that the owner of the restaurant used old bottles for his own homemade hooch, and I'd only be writing down the name of what was originally in the bottle. By the time we left the restaurant we'd regained our sense of wonder that had been lost the day before. I was grateful for the chance to recuperate after the miserable day we'd just survived, and couldn't have found two better people to spend an extra day in Porto with than Frances and Lili.

II. The Journey Home

When Frances and I arrived at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, it appeared to be closed. "Cerrado", the taxi driver had said to us after unloading our luggage from the trunk, and "cinco horas". It seemed he was speaking Spanish. The lights were off inside the airport, and a few people were waiting outside on benches. We sat down, and peered through the glass walls into the darkened airport. After a few minutes I saw movement, there were a couple guards walking around, and I thought I saw the figures of people sleeping on the floor here and there. We tried the sliding doors and they opened, inside the only sound was the squeaky wheel of a cart piled with luggage that a lone traveler was pushing across the floor in slow motion, like a zombie in a horror movie. A flashing green pharmacy sign was the only source of light. As our eyes adjusted to the dark I began to make out the figures of more people sitting on benches, or asleep on the floor. The lights came on at about 5am. My flight was first, Frances and I said our goodbyes and I went through the security checkpoint.

I had a four hour layover in Frankfurt, where I experienced severe sticker shock. I'd become so used to Portuguese prices that €3 for an individual serving of yogurt and €16 an hour to use an Internet kiosk seemed beyond outrageous. I sent M the most expensive email of my life, struggling to use the German keyboard that seemed to be nothing but W and Z keys. A timer counted down the minutes of Internet access that I'd paid €2.50 for, so I didn't bother trying to spell anything correctly. The resulting communication was as follows:

Im in the Frankfiurt airport using a kiosk that costs 16 euros an hour, and II onli paid for 15 mins. the kezuboard is messed up so I cant spell. Mzu phone card ran out of minutes while we were talking in Portugal. Whz does the German kezboard have a Z where a Y should be? Annozing.

See zou soon, love zou, miss zou,


I had coffee at Starbucks because it was the cheapest thing I could find, and ate granola bars that I'd brought with me from Chicago and were still in my luggage. Looking around I couldn't help noticing that I was the worst dressed person in the airport. Everyone around me was neatly dressed and coiffed, I had a red bandanna on my head and wore the same underwear I had on the day before. I smelled a little ripe too. Whoever sits next to me is going to wish they paid for an upgrade, I thought as I lifted my €3.80 latte to my lips.

Before I could present my information at the check-in counter a woman with excessive mascara and white eyeliner rimming the inside of her lids asked me a barrage of questions: where had I traveled - Marseilles, Barcelona and Porto; how did I get from Marseilles to Barcelona - by train; did I have any checked luggage - no; who had I visited - my father, a high school friend, and a Habitat for Humanity project; why did I say I'd flown from Barcelona to Porto, but the records indicated that I'd flown to Lisbon - because I missed the flight to Porto; and did I have access to laundry facilities? When I answered affirmatively to the laundry question the woman relaxed a degree and said "That explains it, no woman would travel with such little luggage."

From there I searched the mammoth airport for my gate, stopping to ask directions from a stout, mustachioed man dressed in a security uniform and carrying an assault weapon. When he didn't understand my question he looked me in the eye and said simply: "a-gaaaain" in a flat tone that reminded me of Lurch from The Addams Family. Behind him a photocopied flier with names and mug shots of wanted terrorists was fixed to a pole.

At the gate all passengers went through security twice, once on entering the gate area and again before boarding the plane. There were two aging stewardesses on board, one had bleached blonde hair and a ponytail extension, and wore bright red lipstick. The other reminded me of Selma Diamond from Night Court. The aircraft was strangely empty, no one sat next to me, I spread out and slept most of the way home.

III. Chicago

Back home, things were pretty much as I'd left them. There was only one voicemail waiting for me on my cell phone - my chiropractor's office had called to remind me of an appointment I'd scheduled for the day after my return. I was so used to straining to understand what people were saying around me that it was an assault on my ears to hear English being spoken everywhere, on the train to my appointment I felt as though people were speaking two inches from my head. Michigan Avenue seemed ridiculously wide, the sidewalk a massive platform of cement under my feet. In addition to a chiropractic adjustment, I had a massage scheduled with Chris, one of the Romanian masseuses on staff. He asked me what was new, I told him I'd just returned from Portugal, and our conversation turned to soccer. I've never heard Chris say so much in all the years I've been going to that office. The second qualifying game between Portugal and Bosnia was in progress, and Chris had been checking the score (Portugal won). We discussed Portugal's chances at making it to the World Cup, the team's star player Christian Ronaldo, and how nice it would be if the office installed an espresso maker in the waiting area.

I stopped by a drug store before getting back on the train, and overheard a cashier say: "the penny is the brown one" to a customer. A wave of sympathy came over me as I realized the customer was a guest from another country, trying to figure out what all the coins in his pocket represented.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Portugal Part VII - A Series Of Unfortunate Events

It took a few minutes for Frances to discover that her wallet was missing. Cher, Nicholas, João and I were waiting in the lobby of the hotel for her. It was our last night in Braga, and Portugal had just beaten Bosnia in soccer; we were heading out to a bar to celebrate.

Frances descended the stairs looking harried. “My wallet’s missing,” she said, and in just three words an evening that was destined to become fodder for nostalgic trips down memory lane instantly dissolved into a searing reminder of our status as outsiders. We had all felt so relaxed, since arriving in Braga I hadn’t checked for my wallet once in all my wanderings. Not even the nights that I’d called M from a dark public payphone, street sounds entering the mouthpiece, traveling up into space, feeding their way through a satellite, and finally beaming back to earth and into M’s ear canal in Chicago. I’d never felt the need to watch my back, not once.

Cher and Nicholas headed to the bar as Frances, João and I retraced our steps. Frances had settled the bill at the restaurant, and not five minutes later we’d stepped out the door into the rainy night. We scanned the cobblestones beneath us with intensity, and at the restaurant João spoke to the manager in hushed tones. Nothing had turned up, the wallet was nowhere to be found. I offered her what I could only hope was supporting patter. “It’s just money,” I said, “nobody got hurt.” And then: “you have to take it like wasabi - it stings for just a second, then you breathe and let it pass. Don’t let it ruin the whole trip for you.”

Earlier in the day Frances had paid the restaurant where we’d enjoyed our team lunches, and the bill had been surprisingly low. She’d withdrawn extra money just in case; when the bill came to just shy of €150, she offered to pay a tip to the sisters who ran the restaurant. They refused, insisting that whatever we’d intended to pay them as tip should be donated to the Habitat Portugal office. In all, Frances was carrying around €400 when her wallet was stolen. She felt responsible for the theft, I could see it in the tightness of her jaw, in the shortness of her step, and the fix in her eye. In the end there was nothing to be done but move on. We gave up the search, and I convinced her to come out for the celebratory drinks that we’d intended. I told her that just going home and going to bed would only make her think about the unfortunate incident more.

Frances, João and I caught up with Cher and Nicholas, and we shared a couple beers. We traded stories of being pick pocketed, it was hard to stay away from the subject. At 1am Frances and I called it a night, and went back to the hotel. We slept, but not well. Outside the rain grew harder, and I could hear Frances tossing in her narrow bed, the scene of the theft replaying in her mind. She gave up the fight for sleep before sunrise, showered, packed, and left the room.

A while later I went downstairs for breakfast and came across the figure of Nicholas asleep on the couch in the rec. room, facing the back of the couch like an Andy Capp cartoon. Frances was sitting across from him near the computer, where she was catching up on emails. We exchanged glances and she told me how she’d heard his sodden footsteps coming up the stairs as she sat up in the wee hours with insomnia. He’d been out all night, his clothes were completely soaked through with rain, and his mind was completely soaked through with alcohol. He’d pulled off his clothes and fallen asleep on the couch in his boxers. “I covered him up,” she said. In the breakfast room all conversation surrounded the drunken 24 year-old on the couch. In an hour we were scheduled to get on a charter bus headed for Porto, and Nicholas showed no signs of reviving. Just leave him here, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud.

I headed back upstairs to get my bags, and piled into the bus with the others. Frances headed back to the hotel to see what she could about Nicholas. Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty. João hadn’t shown up yet, he’d been assigned to ride with us to Porto so he could give directions to the bus driver. “There they are,” someone said, and I looked out the window to see Nicholas being supported like an injured football player coming off the field, his right arm around Frances, and his left around one of the hotel employees. He was stumbling, his feet barely making contact with the pavement, his eyes were half open slits, and his mouth hung open. A chill ran down my spine as I realized the only open seats were directly behind me.

I grew up in an alcoholic household, and nothing makes me want to jump out of a moving vehicle faster than having to sit right next to, or right in front of, someone who’s so drunk that he can’t stand on his own two feet. I have nothing against drinking in principle, and enjoy sharing alcohol with friends, but I cannot tolerate drunkards. Unfortunately for me, my reaction to drunkards tends to be that of a possum, particularly when I’m in a strange land, surrounded by people who are essentially strangers.

Frances piled onto the bus with Nicholas hanging onto her, and he slouched his way to the back of the bus. “Where’s João?” he asked loudly. “ João didn’t show up,” came the reply. “What? No way! He’s cheating,” Nicholas said, tipping his head back. “He’s cheating, he’s cheating, he’s cheating,” he repeated, as if it were new and hilarious each time. His already slow gait became even slower as he approached me. “Get back,” I said to him, a little more sharply than I’d intended. “You go all the way back, through that curtain,” I said, pointing to an orange curtain that separated the sleeping quarters intended for the bus driver on his off hours. “Whaaaat?” Nicholas said, his brow furrowing as the sharpness of my tone began to register in his soaked brain. “No way, you want me to go all the way back there?” “Yes,” I said. Nicholas planted himself into the seat behind mine. “Who wants company?” he asked, sticking his head into the aisle. No one answered. “We’re fine Nicholas, nobody needs company,” I said. He went quiet and my spine tensed, every muscle in my body readying for flight. All I could think was that he was going to stand up and vomit all over my head. I craned my neck behind my seat and our eyes met, and I quickly turned back around. The next time I checked, he was asleep.

Without João, we had no one to translate with the bus driver, and no one who knew the way to Porto if we got lost. Frances had the address of the hotel in Porto where we had reservations, I hoped that would be enough information.

We descended the bus in Porto, and waited on the sidewalk as Frances revived Nicholas and removed him from the bus. The hotel clerk couldn’t find our reservation, Frances used the lobby phone to call Irène, who was scheduled to meet us at the hotel. There had been a last minute change in hotels, we trudged the few blocks to the right address and checked in.

Its hard for me to explain the paralysis that sets in when I’m confronted with a drunkard, but I wasn’t able to speak up. I so badly wanted Frances to leave Nicholas at the hotel, but he ambled down the stairs to the lobby and joined us as we walked to the waterfront to meet Irène and to take a riverboat tour. Everyone was avoiding him, not just me. Cher gave him the cold shoulder, and I got up and moved to another table when he sat near me on the boat. Snippets of hushed conversation took place in corners as we reacted, each in our own way, to the situation. For the next several hours we were dragged through what would have been a pleasant afternoon: a boat tour on the Douro River; lunch at a restaurant where Nicholas fell asleep in his chair; and of all things, a tour of a port wine manufacturer that featured a tasting at the end.

From there we went to dinner, where a somewhat sobered Nicholas sat at the end of the table and made penitent eye contact with the rest of us. Cher continued to ignore him, but somehow by the time we made it back to the hotel they had reconciled. We gathered in a living room and began recounting highlights of the trip. We went around in a circle, each of us saying what the best part of the trip was for us. When my turn came I took a pass, in that moment I couldn’t think of one pleasant memory that still sat with me. I wanted to scream.

Finally we got up from our seats. I’d told Irène that I was interested in hearing some live music, and she’d found a place. Nicholas and Cher had decided to accompany her, and were waiting on the stairs for Irène and me. With tears in my eyes, I told her I was just too tired and to go ahead without me. It was all I could do to hold back until I walked through the door of my room, errant tears slipping past my resolve as I climbed the stairs, until the door opened and I sobbed in front of Frances. We talked for two hours that night about everything that had gone wrong in the last 24 hours, and what steps could be taken next. Finally, having exorcised our bad fortune, she asked me to show her the antique tiles I’d bought in Braga. I was so taken by all the gorgeous tile around us, and felt a special connection to it now that I’d done some tiling myself. On one of my walks through town I’d stopped into an antique shop that had its doors propped open and boxes of tiles set up on the sidewalk - just to look of course, and an hour later had left with 13 tiles weighing me down. I spread them across the bedspread and Frances picked each one up and turned it over in her hands, marveling at their beauty.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Portugal Part VI - If this were a movie, this would be the part where the camera pans around a dinner table, zooms in on each character, and lingers.

On our final night as a team, we ate fried cod at a hole in the wall restaurant favored by the local Habitat office, watched Portugal play Bosnia in the first of two qualifying games that would determine which team would make it to the 2010 World Cup games in South Africa, and drank Super Bock, the local beer. The restaurant was the size of an American living room, our waiter negotiated around the half dozen wooden tables like the steel marble in a pinball machine, and conversation was secondary to watching the soccer game. When the week began I thought I knew who my teammates were based solely on their brief bios and my first impressions of them, my opinions had changed over the course of our time together.

I’d always liked Frances, on the phone she’d come across as a down to earth Mid-Westerner, and she didn’t disappoint. If anything, she was even more folksy than I could have imagined, delighting in small observations in an almost childlike fashion (“oh look, there’s a cow!” she’d once said as our bus passed along the route to the job site one morning). Her speech patterns and word choices - “oh yeah” and “you betcha”, had grown on all of us, becoming so familiar that I began to hear them in my thoughts. We made gentle fun of her folksy ways, but it was that very quality that made her a great team leader; she didn’t force group participation through the use of ice breakers, or lead us in prayer every morning - which could easily have happened. Habitat is a Christian organization, and while they tolerate people from all walks of life, the prospect of daily prayer is spelled out in their literature. I’d expected to run up against it at some point, and try to use the time to reflect in my own way. When it never happened I asked Frances about it over dinner one night. She explained that every group was different, and trip leaders took the pulse of the team to determine how to handle this aspect of Habitat. If we’d been a church group this trip would have had a more spiritual bent, but since none of us had expressed a deep connection to religious beliefs, it wasn’t part of our itinerary.

I’d genuinely enjoyed being roommates with Frances, we’d shared more than one funny moment together - the time I was on the hotel room phone with M (using a calling card), and told him about the bidet in our bathroom. He said that was the first thing he would have checked out, which I relayed to Frances, and we laughed good and hard together in Braga while M waxed poetic in Chicago about how he wished America had picked up on the bidet traditions of the old world. We’d talked about the team, had conversations about what her job entailed when she wasn’t leading teams, and waxed rhapsodic about Michigan. When I’d first asked her how she’d made roommate selections she told me it had been luck of the draw - she’d pulled names out of a hat. Later she confessed that she’d matched people together, and purposely picked me as a roommate.

Frances was the only woman on the team besides me who hadn’t packed evening clothes, so I never felt too out of place going to dinner in a clean t-shirt and R.E.I. pants. Frances’ wardrobe seemed to contain an endless supply of workpants and t-shirts from Habitat events dating back to 2000, when she first started working there.

Bebe Neuwirth had come across to me at first as a bit tight-lipped, but her wry sense of humor seeped through her quiet ways as we worked together. She spoke to Luis and Mario in full English sentences before anyone else did. “Oh, you want this?” she’d say to Mario when he approached her with urgency in his stride, pointing to the bucket she’d been using, or the ladder she was standing on, “I don’t see your name on it.” Something about Bebe made me feel like she’d lived a hundred different lives, and the only way to find out about them all was by spending time with her.

The photo that Catherine O’Hara included in her bio had instilled fear in me; it was an arty self-portrait in bluish tones, hair spiked dramatically on top of her head, and a thousand yard stare accompanied by a slack, unsmiling face. Frances explained to me that it was a passport photo, which accounted for the giant patriotic star superimposed across the top left quadrant of the image, and that Catherine claimed not to have any other photos of herself so Frances used a copy of the passport photo that she’d included in her application. Catherine was a little quirky, but she had become endeared to me. When she wasn’t having loud, animated conversations with her teammates there was always one happening in her head - I could tell by the way her head tipped up at odd angles from time to time, and her facial muscles expanded and contracted in response to whatever piece of dialogue she was keeping to herself at that particular moment. When I told her I was too chicken to go into Casa das Bananas by myself to buy a penis shaped mug, she was more than happy to go with me and do all the talking. I never did take her up on it, but it was enough to know she’d have done it if I’d asked.

Shirley MacLaine and I had more in common that I’d first expected, she was a violinist with a subtle sense of humor and a manner that was completely free of vanity. She and Catherine were roommates, and the three of us spent an evening sitting at an outdoor café drinking hot chocolate - if you can call it drinking, the stuff was so thick it required a spoon, while they asked me about my station in life. I’d said in my bio that I was an unemployed writer, and they were curious to hear more. Shirley and Catherine were like aunts to me, and had only supportive things to say about the path I’d chosen after losing my job. “Good for you,” I heard each of them say more than once as I recounted the events that led to my decision to travel while I had the chance. It was like having my own private cheering section, and I loved it.

Lili Taylor’s bio and photo gave me the impression of a new agey, free spirited woman who lived within the confines of her own world, and for some reason the fact that she was a vegetarian only reinforced this view in my mind. I passed by her one evening during my walks around Braga and she was so completely absorbed in whatever visions had conjured themselves in front of her eyes that she walked right past me without actually seeing me. Tiling the bathroom with her I saw a different side of her - one of attention to details and pushing through to see a project to completion. She had a laugh that was so loud I could hear it from anywhere on the job site, and a sense of humor that was much more wicked than I’d expected.

John Malkovich was about how I’d expected him to be; he looked like a rugged outdoorsman in his photo, and in his bio he described himself as a Vermonter who enjoyed building things. He had a surprisingly high pitched laugh that always caught me off guard, and told me stories about previous Habitat trips that he’d been on, including a two week project in Vietnam where the accommodations had been very basic and every meal was spent on-site with the family whose house was being built.

I struggled with Cher. Because of my adventures getting to Braga I wasn’t present when she descended from the airplane wearing a fur-lined coat, lugging an oversized suitcase stuffed with party clothes, but the image has been seared into my memory nonetheless. She tried to include me in her incessant patter about New York, Florida, and the stepmother who was only about a decade older than she was and had breast implants, but to me it all just sounded like so much noise. The New York I knew in my youth was so far from the one she lived in now that it was near pointless trying to connect over it. I did my best to overcome my dim view of her, succeeding in some measure, but there were key moments that kept me firmly planted in my first impression of the recent college grad: the moment I walked into the basement of the job site to find her hunched over a bucket of cement, jeans riding low enough on her ass that the top of her black thong underwear was visible; her expression of amazement when I told her I’d been married for eight years - maybe it wasn’t quite amazement, “that’s so weird that you’ve been married so long” is how she put it; and the plunging necklines and copious makeup that she insisted on wearing to dinner every night. I’d like to think that the experience broadened her worldview, and I can only hope that it did.

And then there was Nicholas Cage. Of all my team members, my connection to him was the most difficult. He initially struck me as a spoiled rich kid, born to parents of means who had traveled the world and taken him along for the ride. At 24 years old he lived with his parents in the south of France, and had participated in a number of experiences designed to broaden his worldview - Outward Bound, backpacking across Europe, and now Habitat for Humanity. His unwavering focus on mixing cement during the day was matched only by his nightly mission to find watering holes during his off-hours; every day he told us about the bars he’d been to the night before - with Cher in tow, and every night he stayed up later than he had the night before. Nicholas and Cher created a fast bond: leaning into each other on the couch of the hotel rec. room as they watched reruns of Dallas; staying up late; and making playful jokes about the relative age of the rest of us with regard to our self-imposed bedtimes. Over time we found common ground - a mutual interest in the music and lyrics of Leonard Cohen, a shared appreciation of unpasteurized French cheese and of the French language. My opinion of him had improved just enough by the end of the week to be completely destroyed by the events that would soon follow.

Portugal beat Bosnia 1-0, and we settled the check. Having come to the end of our time in Braga, and having enjoyed several pints of Super Bock, we were all in a giddy mood. Tomorrow we were scheduled to take a charter bus to Porto for one last day together before heading home. We stepped out into the rainy night and made our way back to the hotel, walking in hurried pairs under cheap umbrellas, steadying ourselves against each other as we negotiated the wet cobblestones under our feet.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Portugal Part V - Azulejos

At the job site I had a new assignment; Lili and I were teamed up to tile the bathroom. I was excited to learn something new, and that I would be doing something at the job site that was related to an aspect of Braga that captivated me in my off hours. Tile covered the sides of buildings everywhere; some was hand-painted, some was cracked and deteriorating, all of it was gorgeous. I wandered the streets with my camera taking pictures of it, I probably took more pictures of tile than of anything else.

Luis, one of the Portuguese workers, showed us how to spread the cement onto the back of a tile with a trowel, press it onto the wall, insert small plastic pieces that looked like mathematical plus signs into the spaces between tiles to create an even gap that would be filled later with grout, and gently pound it onto the wall with a mallet. Luis checked our work regularly, this job required more communication than cementing the walls. We spoke to him in English and he responded in Portuguese, and when necessary the Habitat Portugal staff would translate for us. Luis had seemed so gruff to me the first day on the job site, but not nearly as much as the foreman, who looked so much like the mustachioed character from the Mario Brothers video games that we'd all taken to calling him "Mario", even though his name was Manuel. He didn't seem to mind, and in turn used the name "Maria" for every female Habitat volunteer that came through. Irène explained that Maria was a very common name for Portuguese women, so common that women named Maria often went by their middle names to differentiate themselves. In fact, Irène's first name was Maria. Mario was using a shorthand - since he didn't know our names, he was using the one name he was pretty sure covered us all.

Luis and Mario were very different in stature; where Mario was diminutive, Luis was imposing, and where Mario wore facial hair Luis was clean shaven. One word I'd picked up from them was mais (pronounced maish) - more. No matter how thickly I cemented the walls, they always needed mais. Invariably, I learned the word for cement too - massa. Mais massa, mais massa, I heard it fifteen times a day. Working on the more specialized job of tiling the bathroom I realized that Luis wasn't gruff at all, it was just hard to communicate more than the basics with his English speaking volunteers. When I pointed to some pipes that were sticking out of the wall, and asked how I should go about tiling that particular section, he mimed tiling over the pipes, then crossed his arms, smiled, and waited for me to get the joke. He'd become playful around Lili and me, and the three of us relaxed in each other's presence. He made fun of our language ticks - "um, um" he parroted Lili, bumping his shoulder into hers. "He's messing with me!" Lili howled. My tick, apparently, was "okie dokie." I was mildly embarrassed at the Midwestern-ness of it, but I suppose it could have been worse. He began using English phrases around us, chief among them was "oh mai god", which meant anything from good job to what the heck are we going to do about that?, depending on the inflection used. My favorite was "penzil please", which he seemed quite proud of.

I began to understand a few words of his Portuguese, mostly from context, and sometimes because it sounded similar to French, but once in a while it felt like some kind of Vulcan mind-meld. Being immersed in the language was forcing my brain to start delineating the sounds that came out of his mouth and entered my ear canal into discrete words, the way it must be for infants. When it turned out that the ceiling sloped towards the front of the room, and we had to figure out how to match up the tile, Luis looked at me and said "shprimenta", which I understood immediately as "experiment," and "papel" was close enough to "paper" for me to figure out. I learned how to say "tile" too, but only because I asked Irène how to say it - azulejo.

Lili and I worked in that room for two days, tiling first one wall and then the next. When we packed up at the end of the last day it was completely tiled. The house wasn't finished, and another group was coming in a few weeks time to continue working on it, but we'd made measurable progress. The last day that our group was there, the family who would someday live in the house walked through it in wonder. Their youngest daughter filmed us at work, and interviewed us, asking questions that were translated through Habitat Portugal staffers. She interviewed me as I stood on a ladder wearing a hardhat with the name "Vladimir" written on a piece of masking tape across the front. She asked me if I'd ever done anything like this, and if I had learned anything, then held a microphone out to me in her eight year-old hand. I told her that I'd learned new skills, and that the experience had increased my self-confidence in my ability to do things. Then she filmed Lili and me as we lay one of the final tiles in the room.

After we packed up, Luis and Irène drove the team back to our hotel in their cars. I sat in the passenger side seat of Luis' van as he drove down the hill, Justin Timberlake's "bye by bye" playing no the radio. When he let us out by our hotel he kissed all the women on both cheeks, shook the hands of the men, and on the count of three we yelled "mais massa" to him as he drove off.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Portugal Part IV - The Day Off

When Frances first mentioned there was a day off worked into the project itinerary, I thought it was bizarre. We were only here for a week, why on earth would we take an entire day out of such a short stay to be tourists? By the time our day off arrived I had changed my mind; my right arm positively ached with the stress of willing cement onto walls all day long, I was popping ibuprofen like they were mints, and I was dog tired.

We slept in that morning, and the eight of us and Irène from the Habitat Portugal office piled onto a tour bus, and headed for a town called Barcelos, where we strolled through a market that sold everything from live chickens to second hand clothing. On one end of the market vendors sold olives that were stacked impossibly high, crates of dried fish, and cheese. In other corners were housewares, clothing, furniture and CDs. In one spot a woman holding a microphone seemed to be conducting a live auction for used clothing, and in another was a stall that sold handmade folkloric clothing in children's sizes. I bought several miniature hand-painted roosters (the national symbol of Portugal), that had the word "Portugal" painted in script on the base of each one. I told the aging vendor how many I wanted to buy, in broken Spanish, and he lined them up in front of me for inspection before wrapping each one individually in tissue paper. Then he typed what I owed him into a hand calculator. I bought four tablecloths printed with the rooster motif from a vendor who spoke French, and a top that looked a lot like a dreidel from a man selling handmade wooden items. He painstakingly explained what the letter on each side of the top was, and I repeated after him. Then he tried to explain what the object was, or perhaps how it was used. I nodded and smiled, but I could see in his eyes that he knew I didn't understand a thing he'd said to me. Finally I bought a second hand soccer jersey with Christiano Ronaldo's name and number on it for my brother in law. I'd started a precedent a few years ago when I bought him a soccer jersey in Marrakesh; virtually every time he wears it in Boston someone yells "Aaaaaaay Morocco!" to him. He's the kind of man who looks like he could be from one of a hundred countries, and I was sure he'd get a similar reaction wearing Ronaldo's number.

The day had started out rainy, but by noon the sun broke through the clouds and I was squinting. We ate lunch at a restaurant in Barcelos where I ordered a dish that included dried cod. My friend Muggy, who lives on Cape Cod, had recently given me a book titled Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which contains detailed descriptions of the cod trading route, ancient recipes for dried salted cod, and descriptions of Cape Cod that made me wish I could travel back in time. Among the many facts I learned reading that book is that Portugal and Spain are the largest consumers of dried cod in the world. I'd tried making an old cod recipe from the book at home, with limited success, and was determined to try it while I was in Portugal. As with all the seafood I'd eaten on this trip, it was better than anything I could get back home.

After lunch we piled back onto the bus and drove to a small beach town called Ofir, where I rolled up my pant legs and strolled along the oceanfront with Frances. We were drawn to the perfectly round, smooth stones on the shoreline. I picked one out of the sand, rinsed it in the wake of a broken wave, and dropped it in my pocket. As the tide receded with each wave, more perfectly round stones emerged, cold, wet and gleaming in the sun. I picked up one after another, soon my pockets grew heavy from their weight, and my jeans sagged. Frances was just as into it as I was, "oooh, look at this one," she said, showing me a translucent white stone sitting in the center of her open palm. We were the only ones on the beach, and I felt like a kid walking in the wind with my jeans rolled up to my knees, the pressure of my body weight causing the sand beneath me to pucker against the sides of my feet when I plunked one down, and pool with water when I lifted it up again. Time stretched, it seemed we spent an entire summer picking up stones and looking out onto the ocean. I imagined what I'd be looking at if I could see around the earth's curvature, and all the way across the ocean. What American city was I lined up with at this moment? Baltimore? We walked back to the boardwalk where the others were lounging, and boarded the bus - shoes in one hand and pebbles in the other.

From there we returned to Braga and drove to a hilltop to see a church whose name was Bom Jesus, and was pronounced Bom Shush in Portuguese. From the top of the hill we could see the city, and Irène pointed out where we were in relation to the hotel and the job site. I walked through the church quietly, a service was in progress, and hovered silently by the vestry, where a heavy wooden door opened onto a scene of a priest sitting at a desk, lost in an oversized book. It looked like a paper advent calendar window.

Below the church was a series of stairs with seven landings running down the length of the hilltop, a fountain at each one. The fountains on the second through sixth landings were dedicated to the senses; the fountain dedicated to sight had a sculpture of a woman with water flowing through her eyes, the one dedicated to hearing had a sculpture of a figure with water flowing through its ears. There was something delectable about seeing something that I knew absolutely nothing about, in preparing for this trip I hadn't read anything touristy because I didn't think I'd be doing much touring, so I was seeing everything for the very first time - unfiltered by guide books or must-see lists. So often by the time I see a monument in person I've seen it a thousand times already in pictures and in movies, or had the experience described to me by someone who's been there. Everything Irène showed us on our day off was brand new to me, I had no preconceptions of what it would be like, or how I would feel when I got there. It was liberating.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Portugal Part III - Doubts

As the days wore on, I began to wonder how much of an impact my work was having on the Habitat project. It seemed to me that what took me half a day took just minutes in the hands of the contractors, and my wrist began to hurt from the strain of repetitive motion. It took me all morning to spread the first layer of cement onto a wall, and all afternoon to spread the second. When I was done, one of the contractors would come in with a 2x4 and expertly smooth down my uneven handiwork by running it down the length of the wall, and the bits of cement that fell on the floor were swept up and reused for coarser work, like filling in the space above the stairwell between the basement and the main floor. I tried spreading cement lefty, to no avail, and went back to slowly and painfully applying cement with my right hand. I considered how much it would cost to hire a local construction worker to do my job, made estimated calculations comparing the participation fee I’d paid to the cost of paying professionals to build this house quickly, and began to doubt the utility of my labor. Once the thought had edged into the corners of my mind that my physical contribution to the project was essentially busywork designed to make me feel like I was indispensable, it latched on and wouldn’t let go. How much of my unskilled labor was actually helpful, and how much of it was designed to make my lefty, bleeding heart feel good? My energy flagged in direct proportion to my doubts; I began moving slower, applying pitifully small amounts of cement to my board and spreading them painstakingly slowly across the wall with my trowel. I looked around me and watched as the contractors sped through their more refined, skilled tasks, and fell into a funk.

To compound my rapidly dissolving sense of purpose, it seemed that we simply weren’t roughing it that much. Sure, the toilet on the job site had no tank on it and we had to flush it with a bucket of water and then use hand sanitizer because the sink wasn’t hooked up, but that was about the extent of it. We were staying in a relatively nice, if quirky hotel that had thin walls but plenty of hot water to shower with, and feasting every night as a group in one restaurant after the next. As it turned out, most of our group had come prepared with evening clothes, jewelry, makeup and hairdryers, but I went to dinner wearing a cleaner version of what I wore on the job site and a smear of Burt‘s Bees lip shimmer. To be fair, I’d picked Portugal as a destination with Habitat because it was less intimidating than some other locations, but it was all beginning to feel a bit too cushy. That night, in the privacy of our hotel room, I asked my roommate Frances, who happened to be the project leader, about it.

“So,” I began, choosing my words carefully, she was just so upbeat and sunny, I didn’t want to expose her too much to my dark, doubting side, “how much of the work that we do here is, um… would it be more cost efficient if the participation fee that we pay to come here went directly to Portuguese workers? I mean… how much of the work we do is to make us feel like we’re contributing to the project?” I tried not to look too sullen, paying special attention to my body language: I sat up casually on my bed, back supported by the headboard, legs crossed at the ankle, one hand on the bedspread, the other fiddling with my hair.
“That’s a big part of it,” she began, “its to make people feel connected to the project. We have some volunteers who come back every year to do projects, there’s people who make this their vacation every year.”
“So the fee that we pay… it would probably cost less if it all went towards the project than if it went towards paying for our meals and lodging…”
“Part of the participation fee go towards the local Habitat office, and part of it covers expenses.”
“So… this is to make people feel more connected to the project?”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding her head and maintaining an evenly sunny disposition, “and the families know that volunteers are working on the house, and that there might be some imperfections because of that.”

Frances explained some of the finer points of the Habitat model, that the family would have a loan that they’d repay, and the payments would go towards building other Habitat homes. They would also have to put in a certain number of hours helping to build both their own home and other Habitat homes. I considered all of this: on one hand I was genuinely helping someone to have a home, but on the other, it could be done much more quickly if I’d simply made a donation and left it in the hands of professionals. Of course, I wouldn’t have made the donation if it hadn’t involved traveling to Portugal and participating in the experience of travel and hands-on work; the fact that a professional team of construction workers could finish the house much more quickly than an unskilled team of volunteers was beside the point.

A family of five were going to move in once the house was complete. They’d begun construction on the modest house themselves, and then run out of money. Then they applied for assistance from Habitat. We’d met the father of the family, he worked alongside us regularly, and we’d met the mother of the family on the bus on the way home from the project site one day. She greeted us with enthusiastic hugs and kisses on both cheeks before someone explained who she was, and there were three kids who we hadn’t met yet. They all lived in a small temporary shelter near the job site. So they know that volunteers will be working on their house, I thought, and that their house might look a little jacked up as a result. Hmm. I went to bed with a bevy of doubts, pros and cons floating through my head.

The next morning I dutifully donned my cement-crusted pants, t-shirt, and trusty red bandanna, and joined the others in the lobby at 8:15am, as I did every morning. At the work site Frances and I were assigned to a new wall, a huge expanse in what would become the kitchen. It was less refined work, the cement mixture was rougher, and we were directed by the foreman to apply it more thickly. I don’t know if it was the cement, the challenge of such an enormous wall, or my need to release a night’s worth of questioning doubt, but I owned that wall. I dumped huge piles of cement onto my board, and literally threw it up against the wall with an impressive force. People walking through the kitchen stopped in their tracks and watched as I deftly flipped pound after pound of dark cement onto the wall.
“You have a technique going,” Cher said to me over lunch. It was true. No matter how much doubt had crept into my disposition, I had found a niche and grown into it. No matter that these skills would be useless once I came home (I’m fairly certain that drywall could have been used much more quickly had it been available), and that I’ll never again throw cement up on a wall like that. For a few days, I was the best cement flinger in town.