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Goodbye Greece and How I Failed at Portugal

Leaving Lesvos, Greece

Leaving Molivos hurts like hell.

In the chill of the morning, at 5 AM, a taxi picks me up.  I cry in the back seat, trying not to whimper.  Like a normal person.  The taxi driver, his face in darkness, does his best to comfort me in this awkward situation.  “I’m sure you’ll come back”, he says.  “Nothing is for sure”, I think to myself.

We navigate the same winding, olive-oil-slick roads that brought me to Molivos in February.  Half asleep and staring at vinyl seats and shadows, my eyes are watery pools, and recollections of the last forty days drift through my head like clouds.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

As the sun rises over the horizon, we approach the airport.  Scattered clothing, along with a pile of neon-orange life jackets on the shore means a refugee boat has just come in, on this last day before the EU-Turkey deal goes into effect.  A million came before them, but these are the last refugees that will hold hope for a safe life in Europe.

Shortly, I am at the ticket counter, with an overwhelming sense of guilt and privilege, presenting my US passport and checking in with ease for my flight across Europe.  The disparity makes me sick to my stomach.  

Within walking distance, today, a child, or a sick mother, or an elderly refugee will be treated like a criminal, standing in line, wet, traumatized, exhausted and hungry to register themselves in Greece and to be stuck here with little hope that asylum will be granted if ever that process is even made possible — months, years from now.  “It’s not fair” comes from my lips but it’s a tinny, hollow statement that does no service to the colossal lack of justice in this world and in my immediate vicinity.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

I know I’ll never be the same after this.  I can’t un-know what I know now.

Sitting in the airport I am, again, craving pickles and eggs.  Since arriving on Lesvos, this has been a constant.  No idea why.  One might wonder if I were pregnant if such a pregnancy could only have occurred by immaculate conception and my ovaries did not likely resemble raisins.  It’s not possible to find pickles or eggs in the minuscule Mytilini airport.  In case you were wondering.  You weren’t?

My flight to Madrid and then eventually Porto, Portugal did not go as planned thanks to thunderstorms throughout Spain.  In the end, the three hour flight took 22 hours and consisted of: two hot hours on a tarmac, three bumpy hours in the air, one sweaty run through the Madrid airport (only to miss my connecting flight by seconds), four hours in customer service lines, one bus trip to a hotel, two hours waiting to check in to said hotel, eight hours of sleep, one bus ride, one more hour of flying, and a partridge in a pear treeeeee.  All handled with the highest degree of customer non-service possible.  Thanks Iberia Airlines.  First world problems.

But eventually I get to Porto, Portugal.

First Impressions in Portugal

Leaving the airport, I’m immediately impressed by the sophisticated, clean and functional public transportation system which brings me within a short walk of my hostel.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

Leaving the station,  I note the ceramic tiles which decorate the exterior of buildings.  Inside the hostel, the brightly-tiled floor reminds me of the floors in Merida, a city in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, which features the same type of tiles decorating houses inside and out.  It’s thought that these ceramic tiles arrived on the “New World” beaches of Mexico when they were dumped after being used as ballast on “Old World” ships.  Likely a few Portuguese ships.  Seeing how different cultures connect in sometimes obscure ways is one of my favorite things about traveling.

Tiles in Porto, Portugal

Tiles in Porto, Portugal

There are lots of bakeries.  The local people are quite small and short.  Seagulls are omnipresent, crying out all day and night.  Drivers respect crosswalks.  The woman at the coffee shop is patient and kind even though I order my coffee in Greek before I realize I’m in Portugal.  Wash is hung on balconies.  I’s a hilly city with terracotta tiled roofs.   Graffiti is nearly as prominent as in Athens.  Castle walls and modern bridges tower over colorful houses on hillsides which meet the Douro river.  The signs of port wine companies, many with familiar names, dot the landscape beckoning the tourist to come for a tasting.  Pilgrims, as evidenced by scallop shells on their bags, loiter around Porto Cathedral and inside the tired walkers get their stamps for the Portuguese Camino de Santiago.

Pilgrims in Porto, Portugal

Pilgrims in Porto, Portugal

How I Failed at Portugal

While my body was in Portugal, my head and heart were still in Greece as I followed all the refugee-related news occurring after the EU-Turkey deal.  It felt impossible to disengage.

My days in Porto were largely spent in recluse mode, in the hostel, trying to integrate the last six weeks into my body and psyche.  And eating lots of pickles and eggs.  Like a normal person.  While most volunteers recover at home, I need to do it on the road, which means sometimes I miss experiencing worthwhile places.  Case in point.

I can only hope I’ll get another chance to be in Portugal.  And that next time I’ll be in a more receptive state.  Can’t win them all.

Photos of Porto, Portugal:



  1. Nice writing. Thanks.

  2. You accomplished so much in your 6 weeks in Greece! I know they must miss you! But there’s only so much one person can do. Getting the word out as you did was monumental. I Miss your smiling face and, when you can, give Porto (and Portugal) another look as it’s magnificent! Safe travels!

    • Thanks Diane. I hope we can meet up again…somewhere in the world!

  3. Laura – you’ve been carrying this load for all of us. I’m grateful for your efforts and descriptions of all of these unpleasant truths.

    I hope you can find a spot to relax and replenish your spirits and heart.

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