Pedro

It was my second day in Lisbon. I had to be back for some urgent work and it was such a shame. I had always wanted to visit Portugal and the reason was not exactly tourism. Vasco de Gama with his curious name and all the tales of his exploration was an object of fascination during my school days. I had always wondered why would someone risk their life and steer into the unknown for the sake gathering riches. It had to be something bigger an adventurous spirit, a wanderers curse, destiny or who knows even Gods own will. I had always imagined Portuguese as industrious folks who were willing to cross the mighty oceans on ships they built with their toil, their grit and with their bare hands. This myth was broken when I visited Goa I found the people there quite chilled and laid back – they won’t even go to Panjim from Palolem unless they were pushed into it. Perhaps all the riches that De Gama hoarded had made them lazy. The question that how on earth did Vasco De Gama brave the mighty oceans in his quest for making a fortune remained and may be the answers that I was looking for in Goa were waiting for me in Lisbon. It was some five hundred years ago but I could still get some clue if not through human endeavor then by divine intervention.
I was packing my stuff when the phone rang. It was Anant, my 12 year old son.
“Hi Dad”
“Hey buddy. How are you doing? Tell me what you want.”
“That’s not fair. I was missing you.”
“C’mon out with it. Are you done with your football and friends? Dad I was missing you.”I mocked.
“OK listen. You know there is a football final today between Portugal and France. How about getting me a Ronaldinho jersey from there? It will be so cool.”
“See I told you it had to be some gift for you. I will get it but remember the last time I got you a Manchester United one it cost me a bomb.”
“C’mon Dad it was a fake. You know it”
“No it wasn’t a fake. It was of dubious origin that’s all. You want the jersey or not”
“Ok whatever. Just get something that looks original. I don’t want my friends to think that you are a cheapo”
“Let me come back and I will tell you what a cheapo is. Bye” Both of us laughed and I kept the phone down.
I changed into Jeans and a linen shirt and carelessly stashed away my suit into the suitcase. I had hardly anything to pack so I was in the lobby for the check out. The clerk at the counter was a lively good looking girl, possibly in her 20’s. She had big bright yes and long black hair which she had streaked with shades of light gold. I thought she would have easily passed off as an Indian if you saw her somewhere in Mumbai or Delhi. I gave my credit card and room keys and checked if there were any cabs available for a drop to the airport. The Oitavos resort was in Cascai just outside Lisbon and was located in a somewhat secluded spot next to the beach.
She asked me “What time is your flight?”
“It’s at 9 in the evening”
“But then isn’t it too early? It’s just 2 in the afternoon now. What will you do at the airport?” She said smiling.
“Good Question” I said wanting to match her friendliness.
“May I suggest something if you don’t mind?” She said.
“Ya sure.I am always open to ideas especially when they come from pretty ladies” I said trying to flirt.
She had finished the checkout process by now and handed over my card and invoice to me with a mischievous grin on her face.
“Well, have you been to Lisbon before?” I said no and added that having to go back without seeing the city was such a disappointment.
“Let me check if I can arrange something for you. I will try if the same cab which drops you to the airport can give you a short city tour. Hope you don’t mind paying a bit extra as it will not be a regular airport cab”
“I am fine as long as I have enough money to go back to India. I trust you”
She made a few calls after that. It seemed to me that she was not able to get the right deal. I didn’t mind it at all as I was in no hurry. It was a pleasure watching her make an animated conversation in Portuguese, negotiating on my behalf. As a man you never want to let go of a legitimate reason to stare at a beautiful sight so I started enjoying my few minutes of ignoble behavior. Finally she kept the phone down and addressed me” Your cab will be here in the next one hour or before that. It’s not an airport cab but a Private city Taxi.”
“Thank you so much. By the way does the driver speak in English?” I asked. She gave me a are-you-crazy look and confirmed “Of course, Yes. Your driver will also be your guide”. “I am sorry Miss.” I said and smiled back telling her to let me once the car is there. Meanwhile I will grab a quick lunch at the restaurant, I thought. All I could eat was boiled Potato and Rice so it had to be quick anyways.
After about 45 minutes the bell boy came to me. I was catching up on social media making use of the free wi-fi in the hotel. He said the Cab has arrived so I put my laptop in the bag and walked out after him.
“This is your cab Sir and he is your driver” the bell boy said gesturing towards a decade old Mercedes Benz which was an old but in good condition. The driver jumped out of the car. He was a bulky man, not fat but over weight just like me. He would have been in his early 50’s and with his gold framed specs and grey hair looked more like a University professor than a cab driver. He was immaculately dressed for a cabbie – wearing a dark grey trouser and a crisp white shirt. Wrinkles were beginning to show on his white skin and they got highlighted when he gave a wide grin before introducing himself ” Hello Sir. I am Pedro. Your driver for today” Instinctively I held out my hand for a handshake and he grabbed it with both his hands shaking it vigorously, the smile on his face and the sparkle in his eyes made the welcome genuine and heartfelt. I had a feeling that we will have a good time togeher.
As the Merc swivelled around the corner of the street and came on the main road the vast blue ocean next to the road greeted us. It was a gorgeous sight. Having arrived at night I was half asleep when I came in so I had no idea about the road being next to the sea. Sensing my excitement, Pedro switched his role to a tourist guide ” Sir, we are in Cascais which is like a town outside Lisbon. I will be taking the longer route as it is more scenic and you can see a few things on the way. This road we are on will run next to the sea right up to Lisbon which is about 20 Km or half an hour away. Do you wish to see anything special? “He had turned back slightly to address me. “Honestly I don’t know much and I am not sure what I would like to see but if possible I would like to see the tomb of Vasco d’ Gama.”
I told him.
” Sure we will go to see the tomb of Vasco D’Gama. You are from India. Right?
“Yes I am. And have always been fascinated about this great explorer. We were taught about him in our school books. I think he was an amazingly brave man to have dared to cross the ocean to explore an unknown land. And that too with such basic equipment hundreds of years ago”
“You are right.Da Gama led two of the Portuguese armadas to India, the first and the fourth. The latter was the largest and departed for India four years after his return from the first one. Vasco da Gama remains a leading figure in the history of Portuguese exploration. You would not know that the Portuguese national epic, Os Lusiadas, was written in his honor. Because of him for a 100 years Portugal had supremacy over the sea route from the African Cape. The English, French and the Dutch could catch up much later. If you ask me Sir, Vasco D Gama is considered our national hero. Never has Portugal been at the top of world economy as it was during D Gama’s time. It’s said that in his first voyage he got back with riches that amounted to 60 times the cost of the voyage. Can you imagine that?”
“Wow Pedro. You know so much. I rightly thought that you were a professor when I saw you the first time” I joked.
Pedro seemed a bit embarrassed” It’s nothing like that. Actually, I wanted to study world history when I was young but I had to leave my studies at 18 after my father passed away. Being the eldest I had to take care of the family. Sir, with such a great history, I feel sad that Portugal is a very small country today which no one cares about. If we did not have a bit of Textiles and Tourism we would have perished.I feel bad about it”.
“Coming from India, I totally understand how you feel. Ours too is a great country but it does not have its rightful place in the world thanks to our politicians and corrupt officials. But Yes there is hope and thing seem to be changing for better.”
I tried to offer some consolation.
“It’s different for India. You have a big population and lot of Industry. Portugal is very small, we struggle for our identity now. By God’s grace we have reached the football finals and today is the big match. If Portugal wins at least we can create an impact in the world news. It will really be a moment of glory for my people. This match is like everything to us today”.
I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of national pride and glory in someone who drove a cab for a living.
“I will pray that Portugal wins.” I said.
“Amen. That’s so kind of you” Pedro seemed to be relived and back in his spirits now.
The drive from Cascais to Lisbon was beautiful. The road meandered parallel to the sea on one side and the houses and streets on the other. The similarity to Goan architecture was striking in many of the buildings. Lisbon was full of tourists and looking at them Pedro suggested:
“Sir, I think you must come to Lisbon next time with your family”
“Yes, even I was thinking about it. There are so many people here and they seem to be having a good time”
“Actually, Lisbon is much cheaper than other European destinations and one could enjoy a lot for less money. It’s a different thing that we Portuguese revel in sadness” Pedro said rather thoughtfully.
“How do you mean? Revel in sadness?”
“It’s kind of difficult to understand for outsiders. We actually have a word for this joyful sadness. It’s called Saudade. No other language has a word quite like this so I can’t even translate it for you.”
“I know what you mean. In Goa they have a word similar to this. It’s called Susagade and means chill out. You guys have a way of coming up with unique words” I said smiling.
“Saudade is a longing, an ache for a person or place or experience that once brought great pleasure. It is akin to nostalgia but, unlike nostalgia, one can feel saudade for something that’s never happened, and likely never will. At the heart of saudade lies a laid back sense of absence, of loss.I think our country has become a good example for it.” Pedro mocked.
As we entered the city our first stop was The Belem Tower. Pedro told me that it was built in 1500 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor, the Belem Tower was the starting point for the voyages of discovery, and for the sailors it was the last sight of their homeland. It is a monument to Portugal’s age of adventure. Pedro was very considerate and dropped me at a point where I have to walk the least. What surprised me was that as soon as he parked the card he jumped out of it and came back to open the door for me. This was something totally unexpected. I was reminded of the Taxi drivers of New York and the cabbies of London who would throw you out if you wasted a minute! I got down and spent some time looking at the monument imagining the ships sailing out, the sailors praying to Our Lady of safe home coming and that how a sailor would have felt going out into the unknown some 500 years ago. I took off my shoes and let the Ocean wash my feet. I had a strange feeling that the same water stretched out to Calicut where D Gama and his crew landed . There were some small shops selling knick knacks. Among them was an old lady selling mulled wine in cups. I bought one and sipped it on my way back to the car. By this time Pedro had already parked at a different spot so it was easy for us to get out of the place. We didn’t have much time and this little gesture saved us a few precious minutes.
“So what next Mr. Pedro?”
“We will now go to Jeronimos Monastery. It is a symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the age of Discovery.Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before leaving for India. It was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success. Vasco da Gama’s tomb is placed inside by the entrance, as is the tomb of poet Luis de Camões, author of the epic The Lusiads in which he glorifies the triumphs of Da Gama and his compatriots. I think you will really like it.”
Pedro drove quickly but with precision as if he knew the angle of each bend of the road, even the pace of traffic as it approached us. He was deftly quick but unhurried. Pedro had told me that he has been driving on Lisbon streets for past 20 years. I could see that in his driving.
The monastery was really quite impressive. After seeing the tomb of Vasco D Gama I took a short tour of the place to get a glimpse of its superb architecture.
The cloisters were magnificent, each column minutely carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs bringing the spirit of sea adventures to life. There was also the entrance to the former refectory that had beautifully reticulated vaulting and tile decoration on the walls depicting the story of Joseph. The church interior was spread out with octagonal piers richly decorated with statuettes,outside was a garden consisting of hedges cut in the shape of various municipal coats of arms of Portugal.
I had taken enough pictures to boast of my audience with the great Vasco Da Gama who changed the history of the world through his spirit of adventure. I came out and could not see Pedro. The parking space was a bit far so I had taken Pedro’s phone number. As the phone began to ring I saw Pedro approaching and waiving his hand so I could spot him. Once again he stopped and jumped out of car to open the door for me. I told him it was absolutely not required. He said it was his duty to make sure his guest is comfortable. I knew He was not going to give up easily.
“Are you hungry Sir. We have the famous pastry shop Pastéis de Belém close by. It is not to be missed when you are in Lisbon”. Pedro asked me.
With all the walking around I had built up an appetite and we decided to make Pastéis de Belém our next stop. It was a typical pastry shop in the city center. I was intimidated by the que in front of it but Pedro who had walked after me sensed my apprehension. “It won’t take long. They are very fast. Most people go for their famous egg Tarts and coffee for the take away. The seating place is inside where they spend more time and even the service is a bit leisurely.”
He was right. Our turn came in not more than five minutes. The que was well organized and was being served by several counters inside the shop. The counter clerks as well as the customers knew exactly what they weredoing and everything moved with clock-work precision. I bought two servings of egg tart and coffee, one for me and one for Pedro. We took our packets of food in one hand and coffee in the other and walked back towards the parking lot. The tarts were Oven fresh and made a great combination with coffee. I checked with Pedro about his family and told him about mine. We chit chatted about how different yet similar it is to grow up in Bangalore and Lisbon. The more I talked with Pedro the more I appreciated his knowledge of various subjects, his clarity of thought and his polite manner of putting his view point across. When we saw the statue of General Albuquerque, for example, at the Central Square, Pedro was quick to add after his description of the great conqueror that coming from India I may have a different view. Had he not been forced to discontinue his education he would have made a great teacher. Life had dealt him a bad hand and here he was trying to make the best of it.
We were ready to go once more and Pedro informed me that he will now take me to the Alfama neighborhood which represented the oldest part of Lisbon. We will be driving through to the highest point in the city and would start heading towards the airport on our way down.
“Pedro I need to buy a football jersey for my son. He is a big fan of Ronaldinho and will be supporting your team today”
“Really Sir ! I thought that France was the favorite team.”
“No he is supporting Portugal as I am travelling to Lisbon. He supports Manchester United otherwise.”
“Isn’t it amazing how sports unites and also divides us at the same time?”
“Ha ha you should have been a philosopher too. But I think sports unites us more than it divides us because one sports man knows how hard he has to work to reach the top. He respects his opponent and knows that either of them could win. Can we say the same thing for politics?”
“Just before we enter Alfama there is a showroom of Adidas. We can stop there and buy the jersey.”
“No I don’t want to spend a fortune. My champ won’t bother about them once the world cup is over.”
“Ok then I know where we will get a copy. Do you know I was born here?”.
“Oh that’s great. Let’s start our age of discovery then”
The Alfama neighbourhood was quite a step back in time. A village within a city, it comprised narrow streets, tiny squares, churches, and whitewashed houses with tile panels and wrought-iron balconies adorned with pots of flowers, drying laundry, and caged birds. Pedro drove through the zig zag alley ways like a true local. I imagined him playing in these streets as a kid, hanging out with his friends as a teenager, cycling up and down the slopes with little care in the world. Pedro took me to the shop which was on the way but tucked away a little in one of the narrow alleys. He said it belonged to his childhood friend. The shop had a variety of T shirts in all shapes and sizes. They were also selling ceramic wares along with some other curios, gifts and keepsakes. The shopkeeper was very polite and gave me a good discount on the shelf price. Having got the jersey We drove up to the highest point in the city. But time when the car stopped I jumped out and pretended to open the door for Pedro. He laughed and said “I like doing that. It’s my duty” I said “No its not. And even if you think it is I am not used to such majestic treatment. Just like you I am a working man who deserves no special treatment” Pedro smiled back at me and we started walking up to the view point. There were a number of tourists but the place was not crowded. There was enough place for us to stand and have an uninterrupted view of Lisbon city. The red roofed building many of them with painted domes looked magical in the setting Sun. At a distant I could see the ships sailing by in the Ocean and the Tagus river. It was quite windy and a TV crew was struggling to set up their shot. It was amusing to see how they moved their equipment from one spot to the other to avoid the gust. I asked Pedro to click a few pictures of me. He turned out to be a great photographer and I had several perfect shots of myself with Lisbon in the background. I asked Pedro for a picture together to which he readily obliged. We stood behind the iron grill with padlocks for some time just absorbing the serenity of the moment. There is something about the time when the sun is just about to come up and when it is just about to go down – time just seems to stop as night hands over the baton of creation to day and vice versa. It is in this change that the message of infinite continuity hides somewhere. We can hear the hum of life clearly at these times only if we are still enough in our actions, in our thoughts.
The ride to the airport was uneventful .Lisbon is a small airport and there was not much traffic on the way. Pedro was his usual courteous self and put my bag on the trolley so I can carry it without a hassle. I told him how thoroughly I had enjoyed his company and that I will always remember him when I think of this trip to Portugal. I tried to thank Pedro with a small tip but he refused saying that I was more of a friend than a customer. I couldn’t agree more and we bid farewell.
I arrived in Bangalore a little after midnight. As I pulled my bag out of the lift I heard a loud roar coming from my apartment. I was greeted by a band of boys dressed in French and Portugal T shirts. The French had just missed scoring a goal and the Portuguese supporters were ecstatic. The atmosphere in the living room was electrifying and resembled a stadium. However, I was too tired to enjoy the game and went to sleep.
I woke up next morning and life started as usual. I had to catch up on a few things, make a phone call to my parents, update my colleagues about the meeting, stack up groceries and so on. My son was still sleeping. Around noon when he finally woke up he came to me and asked
“Dad did you get my Ronaldinho Jersey?”
“Yes I did and you will be glad to know that it’s the latest design. The picture you sent me was from last year. What I have for you is the latest and the greatest. By the way who won the match – France or Portugal?” I asked.
“Portugal won the world cup by 1-0 and it was so awesome. Imagine I will wear this Ronaldinho Jersey coming straight from Portugal. I will certainly score many goals in the evening game today” His imagination was running wild.
I was reminded of Pedro and how both of us had prayed for Portugal’s win just yesterday. I checked my phone if I still had his number. It was there in the last dialed list and instinctively I pressed the call button. After a few rings a voice answered at the other end – “Hello”
I knew it was Pedro. “Hi, it’s me calling from India. Portugal won!!”
I will have to become a writer to describe the happiness in Pedro’s voice.
“Oh my dear Lord. You remembered me. I am sure it’s your prayers which have been answered. I can’t tell you how happy I am. Thank you so much”
“I wanted to share your joy. I knew how important it was for you and I did sincerely pray that this happens. I am so happy for you and your people”.
I kept the phone down and pondered for a while. Whenever I think of Portugal or football or Vasco D Gama or buying a fake football Jersey Pedro will get exhumed just like Da Gama who was originally buried at Fort Kochi.