Chapter 8 The Sun
I finally found the sun. It was right there at the end of the road, just as I had expected, just as the map had predicted, and it really didn’t take anywhere near as long to find as I thought it would. In that part of the continent I was so far south there really was nowhere else to go anyway. But I also didn’t feel the need to travel any further because I’d found my sun, stumbled directly into it in fact, into the beautiful seaside town of Albufeira on the southern Algarve coast.
The Dutch had been so kind. Instead of abandoning me by the side of the road in the middle of Portugal, they offered instead to drive an extra half a day south so they could drop me as close to Lisbon, and hope, as possible. I never mentioned any other plans, they wouldn’t match with my initial story that, like them, I was just wandering aimlessly in search of an adventure and not towards any particular destination.
We said a slightly tearful goodbye just outside a small town about twenty miles north of Lisbon, and after a few more uneventful and cannonless farmer rides I found myself, early in a warm evening, standing outside the brightly whitewashed Dick’s Bar near Praia D’Oura, the Golden Beach, on the dusty outskirts of the bustling little fishing village.
Dick himself was there, sitting at an empty bar surrounded by a sea of chairs stacked on tables. A short, round, surly, overtanned Englishman dressed completely in white like a sailor and dripping in cheap gold like a pirate. I looked like a pirate too, and more of a real one than he ever did and even more authentic after three days of hitchhiking without bathing. A wispy blond red stubble had also begun to sprout in uneven patches across my jaw and chin, as though it came with the Spring, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that Dick didn’t have a job for me or seem to even want me to spend another moment in his empty bar.
“Try next door,” he gestured grumpily to the large and high-walled compound that butted up to the back of his bar. It was called the Magic Kingdom and it immediately made me smile at its complete and obvious absence of both. And it reminded me of my own magic kingdom far away in the north and the cold. Now that was a real kingdom, and maybe this was a real sign.
This kingdom was little more than a large whitewashed amphitheater that was centered around an expansive open air dance floor covered by a massive and tattered tiki thatched roof. Like Dick’s, it was also littered with stacks of tables and chairs waiting idly for the season’s first tourists to arrive. And I certainly wasn’t one of them.
The dance floor was framed around at least one edge by a long and also tiki’d bar and on another edge and down a couple of steps by a small open-air restaurant. In the distance beyond the dancefloor in an overgrown sandy field of olive trees sat a collection of what appeared to be abandoned fairground rides. I supposed that was the magic, just waiting to be summoned.
The castle wall only went about a third of the way around the kingdom, as if they had run out of money or enthusiasm, and the remainder of the perimeter was just open Portuguese countrywide as far as the eye could see. The bland whiteness of the wall was broken by a line of small white turrets with bright red roofs and the only obvious symbol of anything remotely regal.
A young and very friendly English couple ran the small restaurant and when I told them that Dick said they might have a job for me, their eyes lit up and made mine do the same. They were on their own adventure, but more of a relocation than a runaway. They’d sold all their possessions and abandoned the dreariness of old Enlgnad to bet on a space and a lease they could turn into a restaurant, a livelihood, and a new life in the sun.
And we seemed absolutely perfect for each other. They needed a face and voice that would be familiar to their mainly English tourists, a voice that spoke decent English, and an employee willing to do all and everything asked and in exchange for little more than endless good food and a handful of Escudos.
And it was just perfect, even if the only thing they couldn’t provide was shelter. With such low wages and all housing of any kind reserved for the upcoming tourist season, I would have to be creative in my search for a home.
But it didn’t matter, even if all I wanted at that time was a place to sleep for days. I had a new home, even without one. I had new friends, a new job, plenty of food, and the perfect place to begin a new adventure. Even a new life. I would help cook, wipe down the kitchen and the tables, sweep and mop, greet guests, serve food, and for the late shift that ended at 2 in the morning, cook, flip, and serve burgers to the ravenous dancers coming off the dance floor.
“You should make lots more in tips,” they assured me, “all those hungry English drunks in the wee hours.” But I didn’t, because, after all, they were all just English drunks. My shift started at four in the afternoon and ended at two in the morning but I was welcome to hang out and help out during the day too if I wanted, even though it was very quiet. But I would show up anyway because I loved the sights and the smells and more importantly, the place didn’t smell like the public toilet I now called home.
My new employers loaned me a small worn and torn tent and a damp-smelling sleeping bag abandoned by a previous employee, and suggested that I see if there might be space for me to camp with all the other low-paid workers in the area and on a very special and exclusive spot overlooking that Golden Beach.
Those who served in all the restaurants and clubs near the beach, just a 10-minute walk from my new job, had set up camp on a small and shady cliff just above the beach and with some of the best views of the entire coast. Few were local, most were transient, and many were immigrants from Angola and without papers.
The illegal campsite was right next to the narrow road that tourists would take to get to the Golden Beach resort, but the local police seemed to tolerate the occupation because the transients were essential to the local economy. And as long as there were no drugs or disturbances, the campsite was generally left alone and policed itself.
Praia D’Oura was one of the most popular destinations along that part of the coast, an endless and pristine beach of golden sands with a gentle and warm green and blue sea on one side and on the other, another sea of white hotels, apartments, and villas that washed down from the hills. Between the hotels and the shores was a cluttered collection of bars, restaurants. and nightclubs that kept the place busy and noisy for almost every hour of every day during tourist season. And when we weren’t working, we were sitting on our private cliff and watching it all.
Between the comings and goings, there were usually about a dozen tents in the campsite. And it was important to always hold your place and plot because as the holiday season arrived, demand for space soared and the new arrivals were sometimes brutal in evicting anyone who wasn’t paying enough attention to their homes. The cliff below the campsite was strewn with the garbage and waste of its residents, mingled with the mangled and tangled remnants of old tents.
The local business owners and hoteliers weren’t as tolerant of the gypsies as the police were, although they probably realized it was in their own best interest to leave them alone. But there was one thing they would not tolerate. Residents of the campsite were not allowed to use any of the bathrooms at the hotels or bars, and so there was a constant battle of wits and vigilance between the newcomers who would try to test the rules and the bar owners who could easily tell these were not tourists or customers.
With few options to exercise the essentials, we had to make do. And where we made that do was probably the worst decision of all, but probably because it was the only option. A narrow sandy trail at the far edge of the camp site wove down through the trees and bushes to a particularly secluded part of the beach, and that trail and its edges became the camp bathroom. The stench was overwhelming, and especially as the weather got warmer. And when the breeze was being particularly mischievous, the foul odor sat over the campsite like a suffocating fog.
The Morroccons were the friendliest in the camp, the Angolans less so. But they seemed to like me because for some reason they believed I was a fellow freedom fighter, a kindred spirit. Sometimes when they’d see me approach the camp on a day off, the shouts would go up “ IRA. AK AK. Aak, aak, aak,” and fire into the air with their invisible Kalashnikovs.
One of the waiters from my new job offered to give me the tour and make me aware of some of the most important rules for surviving this unenchanting paradise. He explained how vital it was to lay a thick layer of white bug powder all the way around the tent, every single inch, and more than once during the day, to keep the ants and the scorpions from invading. “Formigas,” he said, and spat, gesturing everywhere. I followed the rule from the very first night and lay down a large moat of borrowed powder extending at least a foot away from the tent in all directions.
What I forgot, or hadn’t been advised, was that the ants could climb ropes. And because the guys to the tent extended beyond the perimeter of the poisoned moat, I woke up early on the first morning at camp to a mighty army of large red ants that had invaded my tent, my home, my food, and every single one of my orifices.
We often shared tents, sometimes with complete strangers who had been loosely vouched for by other residents. Not together, they were rarely big enough, but when we were working. On one occasion I agreed to allow a bartender from a club in the middle of town to use my tent during that day, only to come home early the following morning to find myself sleeping on something uncomfortable buried in the loose sand under the tent.
I dug my way through to three blocks of something solid and black, about a foot square and nearly half an inch thick and wrapped in tinfoil. I buried it again and went back to sleep. It was gone the next day and we never spoke of it.
And that’s how the Summer in the sun went. I worked most days, because there was little else I could do, and the paltry wages left me little I could afford. But the Kingdom was entertainment in itself, and as much gazpacho as I could keep down.
I sent a postcard to my family, and had even received a letter back, addressed to the Kingdom, so at least they knew I was safe. I had tried explaining myself in the postcard but there wasn’t room to say much and I knew that what they wanted to know most was that I was safe.
I usually got off work at around two in the morning and would go straight home to the camp site and only the sounds of the cicadas and the ocean for company. After just a few hours of sleep it was up again for the same breakfast every day.
There was a small family bakery on the outskirts of town where a couple of hundred escudos could buy a small bag of warm and crusty Papo Secos bread rolls, then down to the old harbor where the brightly colored fleet of small fishing boats would just be coming in with their squirming and shiny catches of fresh sardines.
We’d cook the sardines whole on a campfire, picking apart what we could eat and rolling it into the middle of the bread rolls. If there wasn’t a bottle of cheap Vinho Verde close by, we might wash it down with some chocolate-flavored milk that was the only way to mask the awful taste of the UHT.
Early one morning, late in the season, everything changed. Just back from my night shift and desperate for rest, I struggled and stumbled in the pitch black to find my tent only to discover that it was just no longer there. Everything was gone. My tent and sleeping bag, my clothes, everything except my money which I keep on me at all times, along with the passport and Bowie knife I left in the care of the owners of the restaurant.
Ole probably, they said. Ole was a diminutive and sun-worn old traveler who had walked into the camp a week earlier with a story about being born in Norway, retired to Hawaii, and was now traveling the world at his leisure and with the aid of some funds his wife would occasionally wire him.
And we believed him because he always bought us food and beer. So I agreed that he could use my tent while I was at work, and now Ole and everything else were gone. I walked through the town, and camps on the outskirts, for nearly half a day, asking everyone I recognized, but no one seemed to know what happened to Ole or everything I owned.
It wasn’t a good way to end the summer, a new friendship, or my adventure. But something was telling me that it was still the end anyway. It was a message, a summons. I needed to go home. It had been nearly five months now, it was enough. I’d made my point. Besides, the tourist season was fading and everyone would be gone soon and there would be no work anyway.
I spent as little of what money I had left on a change of clothes, and an even smaller bag to carry what was left of my meager possessions, and headed back to the Magic Kingdom to let them know about my plight, and my decision. That all things considered it was probably time I returned home, to face the music (or the parade), and hope to see them all again next year.
It was time to retrace my steps, I told them, and finally find my way back home to the frost and the damp and maybe even the disappointment. It was mid-September and I hadn’t sent any postcards for months, and I was looking forward to surprising everyone in a week or so. What stories I would have, such unbelievable adventures, and what a much different person would be sharing them.
There really only were two travel choices. The most logical option would be to head directly east towards the Spanish border, and then march north through Spain and France until Paris. Or I could leave the way I came, a more complicated path that was also more familiar, north to Lisbon and all the way through Portugal, across the border into Basque country and along the west coast of France to the ports across the English channel.
But my tearful farewell to the Algarve and the kind couple who had taken me in and trusted me, protected me, maybe even from myself, was all just a well choreographed lie. The lie wasn’t malicious or meant to be deceptive, but I just didn’t want them to think less of me by changing my mind so quickly.
The problem was, I had met a man, near the beach below where my tent used to be, and he persuaded me that instead of following the tourists north, home, for the winter, I should consider joining he and his crew in pursuit of other tourists, very different tourists, in the west, across the sea.
We’d struck up a conversation as he handed out fliers offering a once-in-a-lifetime ride along the Alragve coast in the magnificent square rigger tall ship that had been moored just off the beach for a couple of days.
They would soon be headed west, he said, chasing the flocks of mainly American tourists who would be heading to the Caribbean for the winter. They might have room for me, if I was interested. “Just fed and a bed,” he said. And fun and adventure too, of course. “American tourists are big tippers,” he said. “You could get rich on tips, and especially since you’re Irish.” A familiar tale but this time it sounded much more enticing.
And that’s all they did, this band of sea gypsies. Follow the tourists around the world in order to pay for the upkeep of their magnificent ship and the fairytale adventures she promised.
I was in, without hesitation, although for the rest of that day I wrestled with what I might be about to do. I had settled into the idea of returning home, the wanderer, the adventurer, the legend welcomed back, a much different person and much about him to be respected and even adored.
But other things called me too, unfinished things. Serving burgers to Brits never felt like much of an adventure and any time I spotted the small groups of carefree and often beautiful young nomads passing and laughing through the town square in Albufeira, I was so jealous. I so badly wanted to join them, go with them wherever they were going, be them. And be forgiven for so easily betraying the code and settling for settling.
But if there were to be any doubt about how I’d be received back in Dublin after nearly six months on the road, or at least near the road, an adventure on the high seas with a band of cheery pirates would settle that.
The pirate with the leaflets said they’d be mooring off the village of Portimao, just up the coast, in a couple of days, where they’d be prepping and provisioning to set sail across the Atlantic in such an ancient tradition and heading for the Virgin Islands.
I waited for two days in Portimao, living and camping on the beach, and wandering through the town during the day in the hope of finding the pirate. And constantly looking for the best place to get the widest view of the harbor and coast just in case they were just late.
But they never showed. And there was nothing for me in Portimao anyway, it was easy to see how few tourists were left. It was as though the town had already started to doze off for the winter hibernation. It would have to be north after all, and the best way to get there would be east, back to and through Albufeira. So I started a defeated march back along the road that I nearly skipped along with such excitement just a couple of days before.
Only ten miles out of town and about half way back to Albufeira, a local dropped me in front of a farmhouse at the edge of the road that had been converted into a hostel and glamorously called The Astor. It was bustling with backpackers from all around the world, and familiar music wafted from a beer garden at the side of the building. Although I knew I had a bigger mission and a tough challenge ahead, I felt like I needed to say one last goodbye to the Algarve and the sun. And to my fellow nomads.
In spite of its grand name, the hostel had a limited choice of accommodations, the most expensive being a bunk room to share with six other people, and the cheapest being the right to sleep on the flat roof that included some blankets and an escape from the ants.
Naturally I chose the roof and before I settled in for my next final night in the Algarve, I wandered down to the noise and magic of the bar, a sandy garden twinkling with lights strung through the trees and busy with young and pretty backpackers from all around the world.
After a long conversation with a pretty American girl who flashed her passport to prove that her name really was Holly Wood and who told me she intended to marry someone called Dan Fogelberg, I was rescued by an equally pretty and chatty blonde girl from the north of England who had a ring in her nose and the most audacious breasts. She said her name was Blackie, that she was headed to Morocco, and wanted to know if I wanted to go with her.
The old road would have to wait because a new one had just opened up, and I was captivated by what sun might lie at the end of this one.