Tomar Part Two
Adjacent to the Nabao River under a tapestry of blue, brown and white tarps pulsed Tomars’ public market. Unlike the markets I’m familiar with which sell four dollar gluten free muffins, lacquered tree stumps with secret compartments, ear rings made from acupuncture needles, and organic everything from honey to socks, Tomars’ market sold just the basics.
Merchants draped in stained aprons and framed by headless carcasses sold butchered meats and fresh fish. More aggressive salesmen stood on chairs shouting prices for blouses, blue jeans and boots. Earthier salesmen hawked garden tools and live chickens. A stately character in a quiet corner sold doll-like white dresses to girls ready to make their first communion. For more mature woman there were bras in every girth, cup size and color. They danced in the sky like confetti, tethered to lines that formed a maze above the man that sold them. Stacked on tables that trapped that man beneath those festive bras were mounds of dull beige corset-like units. Only the most mature women dug through those piles.The units were military strong and purpose built. They begin their mission at the level of the bellybutton, encircle the ribs and midsection like a hose clamp and finally lift the delicate bits to long forgotten youthful levels.
According to the woman at the tourist office it is important for women to look young in Portugal.
“In Portugal a woman over forty is considered old. That makes it hard for a woman my age to find a job” she said. “I am lucky they hired me for this job. They usually hire women my daughter’s age, she is twenty-six. But finding a job is a problem for everyone in Portugal. My daughter is young, smart, went to University and she has no job.”
The woman had a tidy five foot frame with hair as dark as espresso and chocolate eyes that looked powerfully into mine as she spoke and made me deaf to the chatter around us. If she was a patient I would note: patient appears younger than stated age. At dinner my wife and I discussed the woman’s comments and we both agreed that most of the Portuguese woman we saw looked younger than their stated age. I scanned the restaurant and noticed the men looked younger too.
Then my wife asked, “Have you noticed we are the only people in this restaurant with white hair?”
It was true. There were other people in the room around our age (58 and 62) and some probably older, but none had white hair. Over time I noticed that most of the Portuguese with white hair were much older than us, to the extent they needed canes. Checking the store shelves as we hiked along I discovered that even the small towns stocked hair coloring for both men and women. Our observations seem to support the woman’s claims.
That night, after washing my T-shirt, shorts and socks the water was a slimy gray and it reminded me of the waste you see pouring into the rivers and bays of third world countries. I couldn’t drain the bathroom sink quick enough. In fact the sink wouldn’t drain at all and a rim of scum began to form at the waterline. With the courage of an ocean swimmer in Rio I plunged my hand into the gray slop. My fingers dove deep in search of a forgotten sock or that misplaced wine cork. Finding nothing with my fingers I then placed my palm over the outlet and started rhythmically pumping my hand like a human plunger. After a few minutes I stopped and waited for the miracle of gravity and that reassuring spin of water leaving the bowl. But all I saw was gray slop dripping from my elbow and a ring of scum on my forearm.
From the bedroom came a familiar reframe.
“Did you fix it?”
“No, Sweetheart, I did not fix it.”
Our hotel was three floors of closets converted to guest rooms with a grocer at one end of the building and a furniture store at the other. The structure was made of mammoth stone blocks and instead of the plumbing running inside the walls it ran outside, along the surface of the drywall and tub. I found the network of pipes attractive, they resembled a stainless steel sculpture.
My guess is the building was a few centuries old. It’s dungeon-like hallways were always dark because you had to run hard for ten yards to trigger the motion sensor to flip on the lights. Of course by the time I got to my room, caught my breath and found my key, the lights had flipped off. At that point I would run my hands up and down the door like Helen Keller in search of a keyhole.
In the morning, after my wife inspected the sink and confirmed I didn’t fix it, we headed to breakfast. The woman at the front desk pointed to a blackhole off the second floor landing and said, “The breakfast buffet is down that hallway.”
I then told her about the sink.
“I’ll take care of that sir.”
It was early and I knew it would be awhile before a plumber arrived. The breakfast buffet was a European standard – sliced ham, cheese, bread, and coffee. It didn’t take long to eat and get back to our room. I passed the sink and was about to kneel down to brush my teeth over the bathtub when I realize the sink was empty. The gray water and scum was gone. I ran the water and it spun like a top and disappeared quicker than a campaign promise. In the time it took to eat a few slices of cheese the desk clerk found a plumber to unplug the sink and a house keeper to scrub it clean.
On the way out I stopped at the front desk and told the woman how impressed I was that she found a plumber to fix the sink so quickly. She had a gentle smile and the crinkly eyes of a mature woman. I rested my tongue and studied her face a moment then asked, “Are you the person who fixed our sink?”
“Yes”, she said softly.
“Wow! Thank you.”
There was no way I could say, without sounding a bit odd, how impressed I was by her actions. From my experience the labor at hotels is usually divided. The clerk checks you in, the housekeeper cleans and the maintenance folks repair what’s broken. But this woman did all those things with a smile and no attitude.
As my time in Portugal grew so did my respect for its people. The Portuguese are struggling financially and when money’s tight you focus on basics and learn how to fix the things you have, like bathroom sinks and old motorcycles. I hope the Portuguese economy improves, but in the process I hope they don’t lose the riches they currently have, their resourcefulness and kindness.