That title is for all you Camper Van Beethoven fans. Which, of all the people reading this, means Lynn and myself.
"I'll be interested to hear (or read) your take on Portugal" my friend Bob wrote. "I hear mixed things."
Yeah, I can understand that. From the little I've seen of the country so far (Lisbon and Fatima), it is definitely a land of contrasts. The people are very nice, very kind. Lots of smiles, and when they correct your pronounciation of Portugese, it's in a helpful rather than frustrated manner. However, I've been cheated out of change her more than in the rest of Europe put together (and that includes living in London ten years ago). Yeah, yeah, it's my own fault for not being careful, but is the trolley driver so hard up he has to cheat people out of 30 cents, or is that his little "fuck you, tourist?"
It is a country that seems to be experiencing growing pains, pains that it sometime shares with its inhabitants. One of the poorest of all EU countries, it benefited the most by joining the European Union. It gained lots of loan money that had to be allocated by 2006. This is good, in that thereºs some needed improvements being made that will ultimately benefit a lot of people. It's frustrating in the short term, in that basic services have changed so much in the country in the short term, and its hard to keep track. An elevator downtown, designed by the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower, currently has its baroque design hidden under scaffolding while it is renovated. They still charge over 2 euros to go up the elevator for the nice view of Lisbon, however.
I spent much of yesterday morning making my pilgrimage to Fatima. Fatima, for those who don´t know, is where the Virgin Mary is said to have made several appearances in 1917 to three children. She made three predictions, all of which have come true, although my translation of the second preditiction (Russia´s conversion to communism playing a part in the second world war) is one I would argue with. WWII was caused by Germany's slide into fascism and Japan´s colonial designs, not by Russia becoming communist. Other than that, I really have no arguments with the Virgin Mary, and would hope that if ever we do meet, this topic wouldn't come up.
When I was a kid, Mr. Jack, the annoying alcoholic who lived next door to my family for most of my childhood, gave us a book of weird phenomena published by Reader's Digest. (Mom - do you know the book I mean? Do we still have it?) The book covered the usual strange phenomena: Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Aztec calendars...and the story of Fatima. Since then, it's been at the back of my mind to come here. I didn't envision that it would be such an ordeal. The bus station listed in my travel guide has since closed. No sign, no explanation. It's just gone. After searching for a tourist info kiosk, several of which that are listed on my Lisbon map (which I got from a tourist office in Lisbon, by the way) seem to have disappeared, I finally found one and got directions to the new bus and train station. I found the train station without trouble. The bus station, however, was half a block away and a little more difficult. Do you see what I mean about Portugal suffering from growing pains? Considering that some pilgrims have made the trek to Fatima on their knees, I know I shouldn't complain.
What is Fatima in 2005 like? Well, imagine several large parking lots that lead to a blinding white basilica. When the sun is out in Portugal, it is hot and can be blinding. The reflection off all the beautiful marble can make your head swim. The "several large parking lots" are there to hold the faithful, which can number in the tens of thousands at a time. Inside, the basilica is beautiful, white, clean, and despite its size, humble in scope. For something swarming with that many tourists and takes up that much space, it is a surprisingly peaceful spot.
Surrounding the basilica area, about a block away, the town of Fatima is undergoing a development phase not unlike Lisbon's. Think Sacred Suburban Sprawl, and you get the idea. There are shops and shopping malls, and lots of construction going on, mainly to build hotels to hold the faithful. It's tacky in the way that all suburban sprawl is tacky, yet not as vulgar as you might think.
Before going to the site, I stopped and had lunch in the Fatima shopping mall, which contains stores that sell religious things (no surprise) as well as stores that sell secular items (an underwear store, for example). The Fatima shopping mall has a movie theater. What sort of movies would be showing so close to where the Virgin Mary appeared, less than 100 years ago? "The Wedding Crashers" and "Bewitched," as it turns out.
Anyway, I stopped and had a salad and a small pizza. While I was eating, a group of 12 kids, all boys, obviously on a class trip, came in and took over the restaurant. They were your typical early-teen boys: loud and energetic, a little spastic and desperate to see how much pizza they could get for how little money. I have to say, however, they were better behaved than their American counterparts. After playing havoc with the waitress' attempts to install order, take orders, and deliver food, the boys broke out into spontaneous and genuine round of applause as thanks for the waitress' hard work when she handed over the last pizza slice. The waitress beamed.
I did see several people making their way to the basilica on their knees. A new structure is being built to accomodate the faithful. If the concrete base I saw is any indication, this building may rival the pyramids when it is finished. There´s a large area, think open barbeque pit, where you can place prayer candles. I bought a candle, lit it, placed it in the pit, got it out when the flame blew out, burned my arm just a little, lit the flame again, placed it back in the pit away from the wind.
The candle was in honor of my family and friends, so you're all covered.