On a Monday evening, I hail a cab to my hotel in Lisbon after a night out with friends. The cabbie is friendly (as usual. Portuguese cab drivers are awesome) and we talk at length about our lives. He tells me about the terrible economy that he and his family are suffering through.

“Cab driving is not my profession,” he says. “I’m actually an engineer. But you can’t find anything around here. I’m stuck driving cabs to feed my family.”

As I leave the taxi, he passes me his business card. “If you come across anything in the US,” he says, “please let me know. I’ll even bring my family there if I have to.”

The Plight of Portuguese Workers

The terrible economy in Portugal isn’t news to anyone. But during my most recent trip, what truly struck me was the entrepreneurial spirit that I found in the least expected places. It’s true that a certain level of suffering does this to people. But when I came to Portugal expecting hopelessness, what I really saw was a determined fight.

The Pigs in the Yard

On a cool evening around 9pm, a boy came running into my cousin Luis’ property. Luis lives in a humble home that he keeps adding portions to — a bedroom here, an outdoor oven there. Though he doesn’t live in luxury, the quality of his life is growing. No where else had I seen upward movement, yet in the past few years Luis seems to have done great things to his home.

“The pigs are knocking down the walls!” this boy shouts, and Luis and I jump into his flatbed truck with a bag full of fresh bread and bumble over the stone wall-lined streets of his little rural village. We arrive at the scene of the crime, where pigs twice my size are grunting with mild displeasure. The walls are secure, minus one lonely stone that has jumped off the pack, but we feed the pigs anyway to keep them satiated. Luis raises these pigs and sells them — sometimes eats them. I wonder how he does it, because it looks to me like these pigs would eat him first, but I don’t ask.

Besides raising pigs, Luis is a logger. I’ve seen fresh eggs in their house; I believe they also have chickens somewhere. Everything Luis does is a micro-business, and his family, in turn, receives the best he can give them.

The Lagar

My other cousin, Silvia, has an olive oil making factory that has been around for as long as I can remember. In the fall, old men from the northern region come and pick olives from the plentiful olive trees, then press them. She sells her olive oil to businesses around town, and every time we step out of the house she drops in to say hello to a client, even if just for a minute (literally 60 seconds) for a quick espresso. This is how she keeps her business going.

In the afternoon, after a few client visits, her daughter plucks a bowl of apples off the kitchen table and drops them into a plastic bag. “How much did we say, Mom?” she asks. “2.75 Euro,” Silvia says. It’s not much, but the profit margin is nearly 100%. It costs them next to nothing to grow those apples, and they’re able to sell them at a good price.

The Fight of the Entrepreneur

It would be naive to say that I’m confident Portugal will be fine and everyone will turn out happy in the end. Economies are rough on everyone, and there’s no denying that many Portuguese citizens have suffered, including my own family. At home, I study business and work for a humanitarian foundation, so I was intrigued by the agricultural micro-businesses that permeated my family’s small hometown. It was as if they were able to create their own economy — eggs, pork, olive oil, apples — without having to rely on the greater system. Yet there’s nothing like first-hand experience to learn how tough life can be, or how hard we must fight through it.