As I swat mosquitos feasting on my face the scent of the river bank cooking in the sun fills my nostrils. Again the Camino has become so narrow and smothered with weeds that they brush against my body with each step. It’s clear that this end of the trail is in its infancy and I’m grateful ticks and lyme disease are less prevalent in Portugal than America. It’s my third day out of Lisbon and I have yet to meet another pilgrim walking to Spain. But despite the weeds and thirsty insects it feels good to be on a dirt path out of reach of speeding cars and belching trucks.
For some, walking three days without seeing another pilgrim would be the highlight of their Camino. Such blocks of solitude lead to long conversations with yourself. Questions and memories that never emerge during ‘regular life’ bubble up like artesian wells and you have the luxury to ponder them for miles not just minutes.
I enjoy those silent conversations but the main reason I prefer to travel by foot or bicycle is it’s the best way I’ve found to see how others live. Yesterday afternoon Sue and I walked into Alpriate thirsty, sweaty and too early to check into the albergue so we headed to a cafe for lunch. It was easy to find as it was the only cafe in the village and possibly the only viable business left in that forgotten town. The town, a few streets of brick homes and barking dogs, sits in the bottom of a valley. Portugal has yet to adopt the idea of picking up after your dog so you have to watch your step.
Like many businesses in Portugal the exterior of the cafe looked more down trodden than the interior. Inside was a bright stainless steel bar with no stools, a few tables with heavy gray chairs and hung high above all that was a large screen TV that mesmerized every man in the room. With their eyes fixed, chins tilted and mouths slightly opened they appeared as if they were about to receive communion but it wasn’t the body of Christ they were focused on it was fútbol (soccer).
The menu was verbal, not written, and delivered to us by the owners wife, an attractive middle aged woman with taunt skin, long black hair, a thin sharp nose and an expressionless face. She was pleasant and helpful but reserved. Perhaps like most of us she felt uncomfortable trying to communicate in a foreign language, English. Portuguese vegetable soup was the lunch special along with a mixed salad. The soup was made from the huge green leaves of a plant that seemed to grow in every garden from Lisbon to Spain. The beauty of the plant was that all summer long you could trim off what you needed and the plant would continue to grow unaffected. It was as delicious as it was resilient. The salad and the bread were just as fresh as the soup but the food that was always better than expected no matter how small the cafe or town were the Portuguese french fries. They always seemed to be fresh, not frozen, hand cut and fried in some magical oil that made them taste great even though they looked pale and anemic compared to the golden fries sold by the golden arches. And to start the meal and occasionally end it, I ordered a cold Shandy, a fifty-fifty blend of beer and lemon soda. The beverage was low enough in alcohol content (or perhaps high enough) to make the second half of the days hike do able.
After lunch we checked into the albergue, showered, hand washed our clothes then headed upstairs for a nap. The sleeping quarters were in the attic of the one story building. The ceiling was too low for bunkbeds or even single beds, so they scattered rubber mattresses across the floor. A window provided ventilation and cooling but since the sun was still high and hot we kept the shutters closed. The room was stuffy, like being inside the trunk of a car and laying on the rubber mattresses was guaranteed to make you sweat like a miner. They gave us paper mattress covers but that didn’t help much and reminded me of those toilet seat covers you find in airports. But I’m not complaining. I think it’s good for you be hot, thirsty, hungry and generally uncomfortable once in a while. It reminds us how lucky we are most of the time. And how can I complain when I have a dry, safe place to sleep for only six Euros?
After returning to the cafe for dinner, which was pretty much the same thing we ate for lunch, I decided to look for the source of the loud rock music I heard coming from down the street. The Alpriate Recreation Association with it’s gravel parking lot and brown lawn looked like a neglected senior citizen center . Except for two smokers at a picnic table all the life was inside. I had no idea whether the party was public or private, a wedding or a birthday but my curiosity had the best of me so I smiled at the smokers and pushed open the door. To my right was a long bar and at the far end were shelves of trophies. The bartender looked up, I gave a friendly nod then walked toward the trophies to see where the communities talents lie. Based on the collection of manly brass figures on display, Alpriate’s Recreation Association has some badass paintballers. I stood there a while checking dates and names and once I was sure no one was interested in throwing me out I ordered a beer.
With beer in hand I ventured into the adjoining room where all the ear piercing music was coming from. In the center of the room a half dozen glossy eyed middle aged men and two dark haired women gyrated to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Classic rock tunes from the seventies and eighties kept coming. For one song all of the men stood together playing air guitar, for others they would take turns singing Karaoke. I heard ‘House of the Rising Sun’ sung in Portuguese for the first time and the singer, a tall thin fella with thick glasses sang it well. Sadly I caught only the last hour of fun at the Alpriate Recreation Association, then they unplugged the Karaoke machine and I headed back to my rubber mattress. It was not a great find anthropologically speaking, it was just Karaoke, but nonetheless it was interesting to see how that forgotten village in the bottom of the valley spends a Sunday night.