Hitching Portugal’s Armpit

Well, perhaps not the armpit. Some people really like this part of Portugal. Some people also like licking armpits.

I am neither of those people.

And I suppose an armpit in winter is far more curvy and elegant than it is in the summer. For me, this armpit was hot, sweaty, and reeking of rotten tomatoes.


You last left me in Porto, up North in Portugal. My goal was to get all the way down to the South East, past Castelo Branco and into the desert of Portugal. There, my long-time partner in hippy crime and co-thesis writer, Fine, was working on a seed farm. As both of our wanderlust filled lives see us on other sides of the planet at all times, I figured this may be the last time to see her until who knows when.

I arrived a bit late to the bus station in Porto, a hot and sweaty basement beneath an apartment building filled with tired backpackers. I expected there to be no line.

The queue was immense.

I missed the bus and figured, “fuck it, I’ll just hitchhike. Fine just hitchhiked here all the way from Lyon, I can hitchhike halfway across the country.” I checked up on hitchwiki, did my research, and headed out into the sticks on the border of Porto. There, I trudged through the heat with my backpack to a rest stop right off the highway. I climbed under a barbwire fence, cutting myself and risking fresh tetanus, and pitched myself among the slowly passing cars with a shiny thumb.

I sat…

And sat…

And nobody stopped for poor hippy Carter. I sat, smiling and waving and receiving no response for about an hour and a half. At one point, a man stopped on the other side of the lot and stared intently at me from the dark windows of his fine German automotive tuna. I noticed him and kept up my happy go lucky facade. He continued to stare, sitting in his car with his gaze unfazed for five minutes. I looked around me. Behind me were trees and a dumpster. Nothing worth staring at for five minutes. I crossed myself and prayed to the Hitchhiking Gods that I remain intact and not in that dumpster behind me missing my kidneys.

The man stepped out of the car. He was skinny, dressed quite fashionably in a nice shirt and designer glasses, and I must say quite handsome. He walked to the bathroom of the gas station, not taking his gaze off me as his thin legs strolled across the steaming pavement. He stayed for several minutes, exited, kicked around in the dirt sadly, then returned to his car to stare at me for ten more minutes. By this point, the sweat had reached the nether regions of my personal horizons.

He stepped out of his car and walked in my direction. “Towards the dumpster?” I thought. No, toward me.

“Bom Dia.” I said in my ‘confidence’ voice in his direction.

“Hello,” he said sheepishly, putting his hands in his pocket as he approached me. He stood at a good distance and did not seem intimidating at all. “Where are you going?” He said, taking a hand out of his pocket to wring the back of his neck as if he were feeling it for the first time.

“Castelo Branco, but Coimbra would be perfect.”

“Oh okay…” putting his hand back in his pocket. “I’m not going that far, I’m not going that far at all.” He pulled out his phone and showed me where he was headed on the map. Only the next town over from the gas station.

“Ah okay, no worries then. Do you maybe have any tips for hitchhiking in Portugal? It’s been a tough day.”

“No, no, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” He said, slumping down into his spine a bit. “This gas station though, it’s actually uh… a place for gay people… you know. To meet.”

“Oh! Okay…”

“Would you… would you be interested in any of that?”

“No, no, no, I’m okay,” I said with the half-assed laugh of an embarrassed high school girl. “But I mean, thank you for the offer, I’m very flattered.”

“Oh…no worries….” He turned away. He walked a bit forward, then turned back “…are you sure?”

“Yes, quite sure. Have a nice day!”

At this point, I decided peeing behind the dumpster may be the safest option.


After another hour or so of unsuccessful hitching, I admitted defeat and trudged through the all-encompassing heat back to the bus station. I begrudgingly threw my 20 Euros at the bus ticket lady and found myself on a bus straight to Castelo Branco. There I sat, wondering what life would be like if I were able to throw myself into a gas station bathroom with a random man and come out of it feeling stronger than I entered. My brain daydreamed all the gratuitous details accompanied by that thought, and I pondered over I would enjoy that even if I were gay. To each his own, my lovelies.

I arrived late to Castelo Branco, one of the largest cities in the South East of Portugal. This was the exact opposite of Porto. Absolutely no tourists, and absolutely no chance of a cool breeze. Bugs rang their songs thick in the steaming arid air, and I melted along the street in search of a hotel. I found a nice little inn, untouched since the 1960’s, with a damn good price (for a good reason). The owners seemed burdened by my presence, as they were just sitting down for dinner as I entered. The man got up and grabbed his cane, hobbling over to a computer that has gathered dust since 1997. “Leave before 9!” He shouted, handing me a greasy key.

The next morning, I went to the bus station to ask for a bus to Idanha-a-Nova, the town closest to Fine’s farm. “Today is a holiday, no buses.” The young man said from behind the glass window.

“But it’s Thursday!” I squealed.

“But it’s Portugal.” He said with an apologetic smirk.

I sat tight, drinking coffee and reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar while Fine hitched over to guide me through. Before long, we were escaping the sun in a shady patch eating fresh figs and pumpkin seeds. Castelo Branco is excellent for the off-the-beaten-pather. It’s adorable, and there’s no one visiting. Perfection.

Fine and I headed to the road and put out our thumbs. No buses go directly towards the farm, so one either has to hitch or walk a good two hours. We stuck to it, through all the strange stares. An old man came walking past, mumbling in some unintelligible Portuguese dialect “You’ll never get a ride, never get a ride.”

We kept our spirits up, listening to cumbia and drinking some tereré (yerba mate with cold juice). Eventually, a man with a ponytail came riding his bicycle, asking with a smile where we were from. Fine smiled back and said Germany, and that she’s working on a farm.

“Oh! Does she work hard?” He asked me with a laugh. “This little girl?! She likes it hard doesn’t she!” He grunted in my direction, bending his arms upward while shifting his hips back and forth along the seat of his bicycle as if he were shining it with his ass and dilapidated testicles. I gave him a long hard look and decided that he didn’t much deserve an answer. He looked back to Fine and mumbled some other nonsense before riding off. Hitchhiking is never a boring experience.

Eventually, a pair of priests were able to drive us up to the main road. They were incredibly warm, and somehow Protestant rather than Catholic priests. They dropped us off on the turn in to the main road and waved a holy goodbye. It was only about twenty minutes before a beige and beaten up minivan pulled over. At its helm, a middle-aged woman with huge dragonfly-like sunglasses. “I do reiki and energy work,” She told us. Fine was in hippy heaven.

She recounted the tale of how she came here with her exhusband, just passing by on vacation. When driving past Castelo Branco, a voice told her “You must move here!” She said she listened because all her life the voices in her head told her the truth. Fine said “Go on,” while I made sure the doors were unlocked.

She was nice enough to take us directly to the farm, which saved us a good hour of walking. She was incredibly kind, and I hope that the voices in her head give her peace. We were home, and I got about familiarizing myself with the spot.

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Fine was working on an Organic seed farm and was somehow the only person living on the farm. All the owners and workers either lived in Castelo Branco or another nearby city, giving Fine the farm to herself aside from the gigantic behemoth of a horse dog, Rudolfo (His actual name is Adolfo, but Fine is German so she renamed him).

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No kidding, this dog is two meters long if not more. I have never been so close to such a beast. Any fear of theft immediately goes out the window with a dog like this, but he appeared to be too much of a sweetheart to take anything down.

I figured I couldn’t live for free on the farm without working on it, so the next day we were up early at 5 o’whatever clock to hit the fields. The seed farm utilizes nature, specifically natural fermentation. Apparently letting the seeds rot a bit gives them an extra layer of protection. For this, they wait for their produce to go bad before picking and isolating the seeds. For us, that meant an entire day of picking boiling rotten tomatoes in 40-degree heat. I would grab a tomato, and it would explode a bucket of boiling noxious goop across my pants and hands. At one point, I was carrying two boxes of rotten tomatoes when the box broke under the weight of goo. In the dust laid a mound of melting tomatoes, and the local workers laughed their sun-tanned faces off while I scooped up the biohazard with my sore hands. “Farmings hard work!” One hollered at me.

The day of picking ended, and I could not have been happier. Fine’s coworker, a lovely Dutch woman, Marit, invited us to join her Friday routine of going to the lake for a beer. We joined, sitting in a shaded encampment with tanned Portuguese listening to horrendously catchy techno music. Marit says she hates working, and realized that after taxes she only needs to earn 1000 Euros to live for a year. So she’ll work until she’s earned those Euros, about two or three months, then she packs up and puts her thumb out in any direction seeing where she may end up. Pretty romantic shit. She’s the kind of freak you don’t see often, and I like it. She invites us to stay at her place in Idanha-a-Nova, where she drops us off and sets us loose.

The town doesn’t have much to offer but some very untrusting cats.

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Marit told of falafel’s in one specific restaurant, and we headed straight there. The bar took a while to find, and when we got there we noticed a large wooden ring surround the nearby square. The floor was covered in sand, and we were perplexed to say the least. “Maybe they sell cows and sheep here,” I thought, reminiscing of the stock show back in Denver. But no answer could be found. We sat for a falafel, which came as four individual and lonely falafel chunks on a plate with half a cob of half grilled corn. We were upset and walked home defeated, having expected a lush juicy falafel wrap bursting with fresh vegetables. We ran into Marit who was enjoying a beer only a few bars down. We sat and opened some beers, enjoying the warm summer night air.

People began to gather in the square around the wooden fence, and the lights began to fade. In the middle of one of Marit’s stories, a sound of thunder erupted from behind me. I turned and saw a black flash screaming across the center of the fenced off ring, kicking up sand angrily as it charged moving humans. The bull taunting had begun.

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We were all a bit disgusted, but I had to grab some photos. I went up, and got just a little too close and almost lost my grandchildren by the tip of a bull’s horn. It was a young bull, but terrifying no less. We stayed for a while, then grew tired after they tied the bull up and shoved it back in the truck to receive an encouragement shock from a long prod. When the bull exited the truck, mouth foaming with blind anger, we decided we had seen enough.


The next day, we woke and again stuck out our thumbs. The goal of the day was to end up in Monsanto, a famous little rock town pretty close to Idanha-a-Nova. After a good two hours, a nice hippy woman listening to African music picked us up and took us to the main road. There, we waited only a few minutes before a mother and daughter from Lisbon picked us up. They were in visiting family and were nice enough to take us to the next main junction. There we stocked up on bread and picnic goodies, and waited about five minutes before an old beater pulled up.

I shirtless man sat in the front seat with a younger man driving. Both had their own individual joints in their hands. “Where ya goin?” the shirtless one said in a thick British accent.

We hopped in the back, next to a young toddler strapped into his baby seat with his arms up behind his head as if he were sun tanning on a Caribbean beach. We drove along, both of the Brits smoking their joints slowly. They kept having to relight them, which made driving a challenge, but they managed. They worked on a farm nearby and had been living in Portugal for over a decade. They drove us straight to the town next to Monsanto and dropped us off right next to a local Saturday market for us to pick up additional picnic olives and fruits.

Monsanto is a cute town, where the old meets the new. This is perhaps the main tourist destination of the region, but it was still relatively easy to get around. The town is a UNESCO site built on a hill, with houses built around the rocks to create a calm feeling filled with solitude. On the top of the rock is a castle, much like those we saw in Sri Lanka. This castle was built by the templars and has stood the test of time impressively. We lingered a while, steaming in the sun for a bit too long, before heading back to the main road to get our thumbs sore again.

A van pulled up, filled with a ceaselessly barking dog and two Spaniards. They took us pretty far, up to the main road before dropping us off. The next ride was a man who seemed he had nothing better to do with his life. He was a telecom salesman from Porto, in town to visit family. He was obviously melting and spent the entire ride playing with the A/C. His skin glowed with the sheen of a layer of moisture, giving him the look of an alien that was still getting used to human weather. He drove with his left hand while his shining right hand hovered in front of the mouth of the A/C, turning it back and forth as one would warm their hands by a fire. He had nothing better to do and drove us straight back to the farm.

The night in the middle of nowhere is quiet and lonely, but the stars are beautiful and Fine and I passed time telling stories and reading to each other. The next morning, we woke up early to get me to the main road. We decided to take Rudolfo, who had been chained for about a week without a walk (not our idea), along for the journey. We walked for an hour in the morning chill, enjoying the sunrise over blueberry plantations and sandy hills. When we reached the road, Fine tied Rudolfo up near a quiet road so she could say goodbye. He was none too pleased and barked his low growl nonstop fearing abandonment even though we were only a few meters away. We decided it was best if Fine go back and not wait with me for Rudolfo’s sake, but it was too late and Rudolfo had reverted to defense mode. He lashed out, biting us with teeth as long as my fingers when we tried to untie him. Gigantic barking and biting dogs scare me more than most things, and Rudolfo’s rage didn’t appear to have an end in sight. At some point, I grew tired and shouted “No!” in my best pack-leader voice, and that someone calmed him down enough for us to untie him. Fine left with the dog twice her size, a dog who was able to lift her by placing his head between her legs and pulling up, and I waited in this oh so familiar spot with my sore thumb.

A while passed, and after a couple took me to the main road I ended up waiting about 3 hours for a ride. Once I got it, the drivers, some hay farmers, took me directly to Castelo Branco to catch my bus. It was time to leave this corner of Portugal with men as tanned, wrinkled, and skinny as the cigarillos they gnawed in their gums. It was time to head back north to meet up with my adventure partner of 2018, Black Hummus Diaries, for the final leg of my Portuguese adventure.

 

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