Alone in Portugal
by Allysse Riordan
It was raining that day with no sign of respite from the clouds. I was soaked through and although the weather was warm, I couldn’t be bothered cycling any longer. All I wanted was to find a shelter or a secluded spot to erect my tent but I was navigating a built-up area with pastures and fields with farmers in them. My map was showing no signs of a campsite either. So I cycled on, hoping the next tourism office would know of a campsite or cheap youth hostel my map didn’t. There was none.
Water trickling from my helmet, I walked out of the tourism office defeated. I wheeled my bicycle to the nearest bus shelter and sat down. It occurred to me then that I had barely seen a soul outside of the two members of staff in the tourism office. I had crossed a good section of the town to reach the centre but no one was about. A handful of cars had passed by but other than that there had been no signs of life. There wasn’t any work ongoing outside or lights coming from building windows. I wondered if it was a bank holiday and I hadn’t realised. I had only learned of the previous bank holiday by accident when people had come flooding the shores of the quiet lake I had been calling home.
There was no way for me to check other than by going back to the tourism office but I was enjoying being out of the rain too much to step back in it. I stared blankly at the deluge for a while wondering what to do. I really did not want to carry on cycling but splashing out for a full blown hotel was out of the question. I extracted a squashed cereal bar out of my handlebar bag and munched on it to occupy myself. With nothing left to do and no revelation coming to me, I opened the map of the town to review my options. There wasn’t much to check out for free so I scanned for other signs that might be of use to me. There was a big park on the outskirts that appeared to lead to the countryside and just before that a sign of waste disposal point for motorhomes. I knew from experience that I could probably set up my tent between two motorhomes without being kicked out if there was a car park. I put the empty cereal bar wrapper back in my handlebar bag and went in search of the waste disposal point, all the while dreaming of dry clothes.
Within minutes I found it. There was no car park attached to it, only a tower of flats rising behind me. Under the rain, it looked abandoned. Defeated, I headed for the park. Back in Spain, I had slept under a few picnic tables. Maybe I would be lucky to find a suitable one here.
The park was as deserted as the streets had been. I stepped off my bicycle and walked on the main path. There were trees in the distance where I knew I could hide. I wasn’t too keen to pitch so close to a town but given the atmosphere, I had no doubt I wouldn’t be found and asked to move on.
Behind a small hill, I noticed a concrete block. I craned my neck to see more of it. It had the unmistakable squareness of a public toilet. I hurried my pace, hoping for an en-suite for the night. Unglamorous as they were, public toilet could make for great sleeping spots. They had fresh water, hand dryers to take some moisture away from my clothes, toilets, walls and a roof to protect me from the elements. The outline of a digger emerged by a pick-up truck brimming with tools next to it. I scanned the area for people and spotted three men in the doorway of the toilet block. They were wearing hi-vis and work boots. I slowed down, hoping they hadn’t yet seen me but one of them waved in my direction. I smiled and waved back rooted in my spot. The man kept on waving, his hands unmistakably inviting me closer. I thought back on how empty the town had been but forced myself to walk on. I had only met one dodgy person in the more than two months it had taken me to get here. Everybody else had been friendly.
I got closer and could see all three men smiling at me.
‘Olà,’ I greeted. ‘Chuva, eh.’ I gestured at the sky and the never-ending fall of water.
They replied too fast for me to catch what they were saying but their body language was clear. They had parted ways, making enough room for me to get in with my bicycle.
They shared their names and I shared mine but before we could attempt any further conversation, they gestured at my clothes and my bags. They had slowed down their speech and I could catch the meaning of their sentences. They were asking if I had any dry clothes to change into. I opened one of my pannier and got a dry change out. At the sight of those, the men sprang into action. They cleared the debris out of one of the cubicle and turned their backs to me.
I stepped into the stall with my dry clothes in hand and locked the door to stop it from swinging open. I stood there for a second not wanting to change. Three burly men were standing on the other side of that one flimsy door. For the second time on this journey I felt vulnerable. There was nothing I could do if they decided to open the door and… I cut off my trail of thoughts there. They had shown me nothing but kindness in the few minutes since we had met. Why would they suddenly turn evil?
Quickly, hands shaking, I undressed, my exposed skin sending waves of panic through my brain. I hurriedly put on my clean clothes and finally dry, I unlocked the door. The three men were still there, backs turned to the cubicle, staring out at the rain.
‘Obrigada,’ I said with a weak smile on my lips.
The men nodded and settled back in the block. They were gathered on one side while I rested on the other with my bicycle. One of them offered me a cigarette. I declined and he put the packet away without lighting one for himself.
Slowly they asked me questions once more. What was I doing, where was I going? Questions I had been asked a hundred times over and knew how to answer well enough with my limited Portuguese vocabulary and hand gestures. We inched closer without noticing it, the gap between us odd as the conversation unfolded.
When I finished explaining that I was exploring Portugal to get to know the country, one of the man spotted the ring on my finger. He asked about my husband. My husband had stayed at home in England. They were surprised at the answer and thought I was brave for travelling alone.
I enquired about their families knowing they would carry on talking for a while and I wouldn’t have to pay too much attention. We had established by now that in spite of my comprehension of their language, my spoken abilities were limited. They could talk and I could listen. But I wasn’t listening. Instead I tried to rationalise the rising guilt in me. I had lied to these men.
My husband wasn’t at home in England.
I didn’t have a husband. I had a partner, a woman called Emma, but I was too scared to voice this.
I knew homosexuality was legal in Portugal, I knew same-sex marriage was allowed. This was a country of freedom where I could be a lesbian. On paper. I knew too the distance that can exist between the law and the land but I didn’t know how big a gap it was here. If these men learned I was a lesbian, how would they act? If they became aggressive, who could I turned to? The rain was still falling heavily and I knew that no matter how loud I would scream, no one would hear me. If I ran for the police, would they protect me?
But these men had been kind and I hated the thought of lying to them. I wanted to stop them in their flow of speech and tell them, ‘actually I have a girlfriend. Not a husband.’ I wanted to be honest to these people who were welcoming, warm and smiling.
I wanted to be honest to my partner. Every time I didn’t correct people, every time I lied, I felt unfaithful to her. I was hiding behind words that were not true because it was easy. I was negating our existence.
I had mulled over this multiple times on the road. I felt trapped in a roman language that was so defined by gender. In English I could get away with ‘they’ or ‘my partner’ if I didn’t feel safe but that rarely happened. In Portugal, I couldn’t. It had to be ‘ele’ or ‘ela’. And in any case, in Portugal I never felt safe when people asked about ‘my boyfriend’ or ‘my husband’.
In England I had learned to judge the situation, to sense the atmosphere and reply to it. But not so here. In Portugal I was foreign. I was in a rural landscape that I had been told to fear and run away from because people in those environments were bad. They wouldn’t understand, they would fear me, they would punish me. Were those men kind because they assumed I fitted a norm? Would they still be kind if I broke that norm? Would they even care?
In Lisbon nobody had cared. My partner had flown to meet me two weeks prior and we had not hidden. We had held hands, we had kissed. Nothing had happened. The world around us had carried on as normal, but this had been a capital city and we had been tourists.
I hated my brain for rationalising my fears, for making me afraid to speak and be truthful. But as I looked at these men, I could not get past the lump in my throat. There were three of them. There was one of me.
The rain eased off and one of the men poked his head out. The clouds were parting to reveal blue sky. We gathered by the door and gazed in silence at the sky. Our bodies were close but I noticed how they held back, always giving me space to be, giving me priority to the warm rays of the sun.
One of them enquired where I intended to sleep for the night. I shrugged and said I would find a spot for my tent somewhere. This was supposed to be my cue to get away. I couldn’t stay now that three people knew I was here. They looked at one another and nodded, a silent agreement passing between them. I looked back at them puzzled.
They smiled and explained that no, I was not going to get back out. It was due to rain in the night. Instead I would sleep here. They showed me that I could lock the door from the inside so nobody could get in. I tried to protest. This was a kind offer but I could not accept. This was not a space I was supposed to trespass in. They argued back and it was settled. I would sleep here but not before they cleaned the toilet block. They got to their truck and picked up brooms, cloths, and buckets of water. I tried dissuading them. They really didn’t need to clean for me. I tried helping them as it became clear that they were going to clean. But they stopped me. I was to sit in the sun and enjoy its warmth. So I did.
Could these men really turn angry if I told them I am a lesbian?
The toilet block cleaned, I was allowed back inside. We said our goodbyes and they drove off in the pick-up truck, the working day over. I watched it disappear at a bend and listened for the motor in the distance growing fainter. I stood motionless in the doorway, soaking up the sun and unsure of what to do. In most cases I would have left, gone somewhere nobody knew I was. But I couldn’t. Not now. Not after all the kindness I had received. So I began the process of unpacking my home for the night.
I settled on my slowly deflating mattress and opened my book. I didn’t want to think anymore about how vulnerable I felt about being a lesbian, about how that tainted all of my interactions as soon as ‘my husband’ was mentioned. I didn’t want to take my ring off. I didn’t want not to have a partner. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t feel I had a choice.
A few hours later, I heard a knock on the door. Hesitantly, I opened it. One of the men was standing there with his son. I smiled at them both asking if this was the son he had talked about who loved football. It was. Before I could say anything more he handed me a warm bowl. It was full of soup. For me.
I accepted it knowing he would not take no for an answer. I thanked him and before I could
I accepted it knowing he would not take no for an answer. I thanked him and before I could add anything, he walked away.
‘Obrigada,’ I repeated quietly in the darkness. But what I meant was ‘Sinto muito.’ I’m sorry.
Allysse is an image maker, writer, sound artist, and microadventurer (not necessarily in that order). At the source of her work are her journeys and every day life. Through non-fiction pieces and imagery, she recounts the personal stories she encounters in her daily life and during her travels, taking the reader/viewer/listener outdoors with her. She becomes the guide through which the audience can embark on a journey in a particular space and time, noticing the small things of everyday life, meeting strangers, exploring new landscapes, and delving into her inner world. Find Allysse on Twitter @allysseriordan