Continued from A Tourist…by Accident(s) (September 7, 2010)
About two hours later I found myself in a five-star hotel in Lisbon, drinking Super Bock (Portugal’s finest) at the hotel bar with three campaigners that were en route to help with the presidential campaign in São Tomé who took me under their wing. I had felt bad about not scheduling any time in Portugal, my family’s home, between São Tomé trips. Yet suddenly here I was, a tourist in Portugal by accident.
In my room I became a normal human being again. It was a blessing in disguise. I showered in the mysterious glass shower/tub mechanism, wrapped myself in a terry bathrobe and fell into the feathery blankets and into a deep sleep. I slept until 11:30am when there was a knock at my door. One of my new friends was on the other side. He told me they would be eating lunch at 12:30. When 12:35 came around and I had stayed in my room in a mixture of sleepiness and shyness, they called my room. “Where are you?” they asked. “We’re eating now, come downstairs!”
I couldn’t say no.
For a traveler, I am surprisingly shy. Not unreasonably so, but quieter than many independent travelers you see on TV or in airports. Often the nomadic travel shows (where a person jumps on a plane and heads to any old place, talking up the locals, eating at random restaurants, making friends) feature a male host. For women, things are different. When I travel alone, my boyfriend holds his breath. He begs me to be careful. To him, I’m like a little bunny rabbit from the countryside hopping into Manhattan for the first time. At any moment, I could get squashed flat by an oncoming car, skinned alive by a curbside purse-maker or perhaps eaten at the local Portuguese restaurant. In many ways, he is right. On the outside I appear easy to be taken advantage of. I wear a tank top with big pink roses, I smile through confusion, I’m pleasant and I laugh a lot. I seem overly trusting- a perfect target for deception.
Now imagine that I call my dad and say “Hey Daddy-o, my flight was just cancelled but don’t worry, I’m with three nice Portuguese men who are taking care of me.” He’d probably throw himself out a window. But there’s a difference between being stupid and unsafe, and being cautious and constantly aware. I can’t help that I look like a bunny rabbit on the outside. But I can help how I act on the inside. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t still have a good time. Unfortunately for us, men traveling on their own don’t have to worry as much about this as we do. They’re not such easy targets, as it is commonly assumed that men can physically defend themselves much easier than women can. Whether or not this is true, a woman has to have her wits about her. When you travel alone, male or female, it is nearly impossible to depend solely on yourself. By virtue of the fact that you are traveling alone, you will meet people, have company, or at least interact with someone from time to time. You learn how to turn strangers into friends at a rapid pace. And if you are smart about it, if you stay alert, then you can not only be safe but have a great time.
For example: we traveled in a taxi together to the hotel that had been announced by the airline. We booked separate rooms, each with our own individual key. We met only in public areas. I speak Portuguese, so I am not relying on them- but they are a huge help to me when I’m looking for company.
It is now 3pm on Friday. I had expected to spend the whole day sleeping in São Tomé on Ned’s dock. Instead I’m staying at a five-star hotel in one of the most beautiful cities of the world. My computers are safe. My toiletries, gifts and clothes have been lost but I have since purchased enough toothpaste and deodorant to survive comfortably. I have a delicious meal in my system, including coffee, chocolate and Super Bock. My Portuguese is better- I’ve had a moment to settle into it and now I feel normal again. I am clean, I smell nice, I in fact feel good, and I’m about to go watch the World Cup with some new friends at a bar before getting, this time 100 times more rested and happy, onto a secure, safe plane. I already have an invitation to join these people for dinner sometime during my month in São Tomé.
There are a number of things here to be grateful for, and that is ultimately what my post is about today (and last week). Things happen when you travel, they do. But if you can manage it, if you can just smile and try to listen to people, if you can just take it a step at a time…then maybe the worst things can turn into the experiences, the memories, the real moments. Perhaps it takes an uncommonly outgoing group of friends that want to help a young foreign woman. Perhaps it doesn’t. But whatever the situation, let yourself welcome change. Don’t fear it. Let the adventures and the misadventures guide you- they are where excitement hides.
But if you’re young like me, keep your bunny rabbit teeth sharp and your ears perked up. Whether or not you are a target for deception, you look like one. Have appreciation for the strangers who are friends you have yet to meet. Keep your wits about you. And have a great time.