I´m nearing the end of my trip, fighting the blues and impending sense of finality not at all discouraged by the dark and brooding city of Porto.
Every place I go in Portugal seems to the up the ante. College-town Coimbra was a steep jumble of old streets and sudden squares with startlingly beautiful sights tucked inside every twist and fold. It was as pretty as a girl without make-up on, a girl who doesn´t know how pretty she is—clutching her parks and praças (plazas) and fountains to her chest like a Valentine. I wandered around the small city, sighing and thinking, This might be my favorite place in Portugal.
Then came Porto, sharply cleaved by the Douro River in a precipitous dive of rock and stone, bridges and dancing light. It´s the dark-haired, fiery-eyed counterpart forever in the Northern shadow of its shiny, more popular younger sibling, Lisbon. The two cities have a huge rivalry (most overtly expressed via football); I feel like an aunt that loves them both, for their different personalities, but that can vibe a little more with the darker side. At least, right now I can.
I spent the bus ride in yesterday not reading or writing or listening to my ipod, but staring out the window and wishing I would never arrive. Just keep riding, keep traveling, keep going. It was the last bus ride of my trip and I was savoring those precious moments of just sitting, thinking, living in that inbetween state—like when I used to ride the bus as a teenager. Having the time just to sit and stare is a huge luxury for me these days, and I´m going to miss it.
But more than even that, I wanted to hang on to the feeling of traveling, the mindset. When I´m on the road, everything seems possible; I´m more open to chance, more aware, more able to live life on life´s terms. When I´m at home, nothing seems possible; everything seems difficult and riddled with tedious and insurmountable obstacles. Of course, neither view is entirely accurate, but I enjoy the former much more than the nose-to-the-grindstone latter.
Two days ago, on the bus ride from Peniche to Coimbra, I began plotting and planning—sketching out timetables and earning versus saving projections (yes, really), trying to figure out when my next trip would be. I was seized by panic, stressed by the dismal prospect of not being able to travel anytime soon. Basically, I was future-tripping, trying to manage and arrange life before I even got home.
But I´m not alone in that. During my trip, I´ve slowly been reading Peter Matthiessen´s The Snow Leopard, a classic travelouge and meditation on the state of living. As timing would have it, Peter´s about to head back down the mountain, towards home, just as I´m about to hop on a flight and sleep in an airport and hop another two flights. In the passage I read today, he´s also losing the Zen of travel and stressing about home, “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day” (p. 244). He suggests that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to live in the present, to “pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life” (p. 245).
So I rambled around the shuttered shops and lonesome graffiti of Porto this afternoon, the uneven stones in the street like a repeating mantra against my worn soles: be present, be present, be present. I wandered past baroque building facades adorned with trumpet-blazing statues, up gasping stairways, into gold-dripping cathedrals, past the darkly oxidized rock (“the awful and irrefutable rock-ness”) that jutted from the earth, bold and undeniable. I felt the murmur of Roman ruins beneath the surface, beneath my sneakers, and tried to hang on to this fleeting feeling of present.