30 January 2012

What am I doing?

Some of you have asked what I'm doing here. I'll try to explain it.

There is a forest in northeastern Bangladesh, a small nub of a forest that’s nearly all that’s left of a huge semi tropical jungle that used to cover thousands of square kilometers. That forest has been declared a reserve, which limits the kinds of activities you can do within its borders. The 20 Asian elephants who live in that reserve need it; they’ve got no place else to go.

Asian elephants are a keystone species, which means that a forest that can support elephants is a healthy forest. Elephants need a lot of space and a lot of variety – banana groves, scrub, patches of old growth forest, water – and an ecosystem that has that variety and abundance is going to be healthy. The tricky thing, though, is that elephants help to make a healthy forest – they maintain the ecosystem by clearing underbrush and keeping some plant growth in check. Their presence means it’s healthy, their presence makes it healthy. They can only do that if there’s enough forest there to sustain them, though. It’s a delicate balance.

Around that forest reserve are thousands of people. Literally thousands, in villages all around, and in some cases within, the boundaries of that reserve. Most (estimates are more than 80%) of those thousands of people are at subsistence levels. They are living off the land, or if they are in the market economy (selling forest products or fish at the market), they are living on less than 80 taka (80 BDT = about US $1) a day.

Once that forest was declared a reserve, many of them were in danger of losing their livelihoods. For many, if they can’t collect timber or non-timber resources from that forest – honey, medicinal plants to sell at the market, fruit, banana and bamboo for food, fuelwood, and fibers for clothes - they will starve to death. When you’re living at subsistence level, your margin of error is very, very small. That’s what subsistence means.

The national government of Bangladesh declared that forest a reserve, in an effort to protect the habitat of an endangered species. The national government of Bangladesh is seated in Dhaka, only 300 km away from this forest reserve, but the condition of infrastructure is so bad that it is, at best, a 10 hour journey by road to get here. The local forest department officials maybe do their best. Maybe they don’t. Maybe on their salary of a couple hundred taka a day, there are opportunities to be had if they look the other way if some harvesting of forest products is going on. Maybe the local government official is in the same position.

The elephants need the forests, or they’ll die. The people need the forests, or they’ll starve. The government is remote, corrupt, and ineffective, and can’t protect the irreplaceable resource of the forest. If the forest isn’t protected, the villagers' children and grandchildren will have no way to make a living. It’s in everyone’s long term interest to protect the resource, but no one has the short term capacity to protect the resource – there’s too much immediate pressure on it.

How do you solve this?

I don’t know.

But I know what hasn’t worked: unilateral decisions, declared top-down by a weak central state with no capacity to enforce its laws. That’s not the solution.

People a lot smarter than me with a lot more experience than me have spent their lives on finding answers to these kinds of issues. I’m just here in Dhaka at this month long writing workshop to help those people rigorously evaluate what’s already been done and what’s being done now to maximize the chances of resource management, for all of the stakeholders – the villagers, current and future; the forests; and the elephants. There are practitioners from all over Bangladesh here (I just used the elephant example because it’s the sexiest; there are people here who have worked in wetlands and other natural resource preservation). The attendees are the people who will be conducting research and making forest and fishery policy in Bangladesh for the next 35 years.

Why a writing workshop? What does that yield? First, it gives people from across the country and across sectors a chance to learn what is working and what isn’t, and to adjust policy accordingly. Second, it’s building the capacity of resource managers by honing their skills (research design, publication standards) to analyze their and others’ work in the field in a rigorous, peer reviewable way, which will allow them to apply for grants and NGO support in future. Third, many past participants in the workshop have used the experience here – and their finished papers from here – to apply successfully for PhDs, further building capacity in Bangladesh as they come home to work in resource management.

And the cool thing is that there looks to be some solutions.

When I got my master's in Urban Planning, this is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking about - protecting resources while finding ways for the maximum number of people to live sustainably as was possible. Finding win-win solutions because that's really all that we can do in situations like this. We have to find solutions. What are the options besides that? There are none. I'm not deluded into thinking that I am making a huge hell of a difference, but we've got to try on some of these things.

This is a USAID funded project. ( More information here: http://www.usaid.gov/bd/programs/environ_response.html )

It is an honor to be here on behalf of the American people. It's in America's best interest, of course - a stable, democratic, secularly governed, majority Muslim Bangladesh is absolutely in America's best interest, and a Bangladesh with an impoverished landless class would be a humanitarian tragedy and a geopolitical nightmare (remember, Bangladesh has more people than Russia or Japan; it's the 7th most populous nation in the world, and they live in a space slightly smaller than the state of Iowa) - but far more than that, a healthy planet with healthy people is in all of our best interests.

The people I'm working with and learning from are officials who are doing the right thing, despite an enervated and corrupt government and long odds, and who are trying to find the best solutions there are. I'm privileged to support them.

I'm lucky to be here.

27 January 2012

Week 1 - what I've learned


One week in Dhaka tells me as much about Bangladesh as one week walking around Michigan and Wacker would tell you about the United States - i.e., “not much.” BUT - I’m not extrapolating to the whole country, or even to the whole city of 15 million from the 2-3 km radius I’ve seen, so here’s some of what I’ve learned:
  1. Never, ever, lose your forward momentum while walking around Dhaka. Slow down when you have to, take stutter steps if you need to, bob and weave, but keep moving forward. Stop for that rickshaw or CNG taxi coming out of a side alley, and regaining your spot in the flow of people will take a while.
  2. Even if math isn’t your strong suit, learn some base-80 calculations since $1 = 80 taka. A rickshaw ride across town for 35 taka? A hell of a deal. A one day gym pass for 2000 taka? Less good. (Wait, what? $25 bucks to use the gym for one day? In a country where the average daily wage is $1.60? Did I do that math right? Sadly, no, I didn't. Not in time.)
  3. Be seen going into the wash room before lunch. (And no, that’s not a euphemism, it’s a separate room off the dining room with two sinks and nothing more.) Wash. Sit down to lunch and keep your left hand off the table. At all times. If you have to, you can drink your water with your left hand or pass food with it, but you shouldn’t use it for anything else. Eat with your hands, or, more accurately, with your right hand. Make balls of rice and curry or dal or fish or whatever is on the menu for lunch, and put it into your mouth with your right hand. Some at your table may lick their fingers when they’ve finished – the whole finger. Proceed as you wish. (The wait staff may take pity on you as they see you flailing, trying to eat non-tacky white rice ham-fistedly, and discreetly slip you a fork, but you can’t always count on that.) Be seen going into the wash room after lunch.
  4. It’s not impolite to stare in this culture. You’re gonna get stared at. Staring back is not considered rude and can lead to a conversation.
  5. When walking around the city people will stare but people will also ask questions. Usually, in order:
    1. What country are you from? (“USA” is the quickest way to comprehension, though “UK” and “Canada” also work pretty quickly. I’m egalitarian that way. Saying “United States” draws looks of incomprehension, at first, and “America” does too, which surprised me)
    2. You married? (which often sounds like “merit”, e.g., “you merit?” – if you want to presume it’s merit and that you are, in fact, meritorious, roll with it),
    3. How long stay in Bangladesh? (answer in weeks)
    4. First time in Bangladesh?
    5. Do you like Bangladesh? (of course you say yes, and if you want to be effusive add some detail, like "good food" or "very friendly people"…)
With the completely disarming young school girls (grade 3 and grade 5, and sisters, I’d say?), who approached me in a narrow side street, still in their uniforms, to practice their English, I had a more extensive conversation – what’s my name, do I like music, how old am I. I was impressed by their willingness to try. They’d walk along next to me, thinking of the next question, preface it with “uncle, uncle…” and then fire away.
  1. What from a distance at first glance looks like a drug deal isn’t – it’s a passerby slipping alms into a blind beggar's palm.
  2. What smells like marijuana smoke as you are walking through the tiny, narrow alleys between two main streets is marijuana smoke. Back up, pretending to find something to take a picture of just to make sure, and oh, yeah, there’s no doubt about that. Huhn.
  3. The slight downward tilt of the head to the left many Bangladeshi males will make as response to questions or statements means “no problem” or “you’re welcome” or “we’ll see.” It depends. It's endearing.
  4. Tea breaks are part of the cadence of life in Bangladesh. They occur at 10 or 10:30 or so in the morning; lunch is late, at 1:30 or 2, and then tea break will occur again at 4 or so. Morning tea break will come with something savory, like a samosa; afternoon tea break comes with “biscuits” in the British sense of the word. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the coconut ones – really nice.
  5. Coffee, universally, is instant Nescafé, and is often served along with the tea bags at tea break. “Chai” in Bangla simply means “tea”, not a specific kind of tea. Tea is served with non-dairy creamer and sugar.
  6. Dinner is often late. Like 9:00 pm late.
  7. Don’t cross your legs, as you may inadvertently “point” the sole of your foot at someone, and the sole of your foot is unclean. Fair enough given what is on the footpaths of Dhaka. (I’m getting a stronger sense of the degree of insult involved when that journalist threw his shoe at President Bush.) Crossing at your ankles is okay.
  8. Bloke at the gym walking around in his “Staff” shirt carrying a racket is not, as first thought, making his presence known so that if you fancy a game on the squash court but are tavelling solo, you’ll have a partner. He is pest control – the racket is a portable bug zapper. I’d seen them before, in Thailand, but I had never seen them wielded inside.
  9. If you want your room cleaned, you leave your key at the front desk. Otherwise, they won’t clean it. Figured that out on day four, when I was really starting to need fresh towels and more bottled water (to drink, yes, but also to brush my teeth).
  10. Watching Vin Diesel is not diminished when the movie is dubbed into Hindi. His delivery of dialog is not what makes him watchable, it has to be said.
  11. Blokes walking down the street holding hands – not locked at the elbows, but holding hands – or one with his hand on the other’s forearm, walking very close, are not likely to be lovers. I’m glad staring isn’t considered rude, because, honestly, the first time, I stared. I was so surprised at that (among everything else in a very surprising frenetic and colorful street scape, it was still surprising) I had to make sure I'd seen what I saw. Two guys, Western clothes, late teens, hand in hand. Every time I've seen it since, I’ve been charmed by the facile male intimacy, but not deluded into thinking it portends more than it does. Nice custom, though.
  12. People on their cell phones do not pay attention to anyone or anything around them. Some things are universal.
I reserve the right to revise these when I learn that everything I've learned so far is wrong, which I freely admit could happen.
Except for #17. You can take that to the bank.
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24 January 2012

Building

It’s the dry season so there is a lot of dust in the air over Dhaka, and visibility is limited to about a mile. Within that distance from my 8th floor window are more than 20 clearly identifiable construction sites. I feel like I’ve struck gold. Just like attending a wedding can tell you a lot about a country's religious and family life, I've found that observing a construction site can tell you a lot about a country, too: capitalization, labor supply and division, gender relations, even ritual. In Japan, every construction site had at least one employee - helmeted, uniformed and gloved - at pedestrian interface points to bow to passers-by, apologizing for the noise and dust. All employees were uniformed, hard hatted, and goggled, and all scaffolding was securely built and completely wrapped in mesh. The level of mechanization was very high with a lot of heavy machinery on every site, no matter how small, and the machinery was left on site, unguarded, where it was easily accessible and never accessed (well, except maybe for a drunk salaryman sitting in the driver's seat and moving the gears back and forth with boyish delight, which I saw one night in Gifu).

From this you could reasonably conclude that the Japanese culture valued order; that there was more capital than labor, or at least enough capital that most jobs could be done by machine; that it was tightly regulated society; that worker safety was paramount; and that property crimes and vandalism were not a common occurrence.

Well... Dhaka ain't Nagoya. At the site directly across the street from me, an eight story concrete and brick residential complex (below right) is being built completely by hand. I haven’t seen or heard one piece of equipment. Bricks are hauled up to the roof by pulley, concrete is mixed on the sidewalk in front with a hoe and water from a bucket, then it is scooped into baskets that women hoist to the top of their heads and carry around to the side of the building, then it is hauled up to where the work is being done. I could walk into the site anytime as it is completely open to the street, not cordoned or screened off in any way. It’s fascinating to watch, especially as I am on floor eight in a building that was most likely built in just the same way.

These housing blocks are built floor by floor, and as soon as some space in them is livable (i.e., the mortar has set and there’s a roof – no running water in the unit or even on site, usually; I see water hauled in by truck to fill the ground floor cistern, which is then tapped as needed to mix cement, to bathe, to brush teeth) workers move in.

In a country with insufficient housing stock and more labor than capital (by a large margin), it makes sense to build this way, of course. It employs people, and having enough work to go around is a challenge in the 7th most populous country in the world. It helps to redress the housing shortage, which is acute in Dhaka. There simply isn’t the means to buy heavy equipment to put up apartment buildings. The heavy equipment is purchased or leased from Japan or Germany in yen or euro that is lent to the government of Bangladesh from the development agencies of Japan or Germany or the ADB, who then fly in experts to run it. (And if it seems like the yen and euro don’t actually stay here, that’s true – the equipment stays here and the debt stays here, but the money doesn’t – it never arrives.) That equipment will be used to build infrastructure projects, like the new Padma (Ganges) bridge (eventually - it's currently on hold, and now, nationwide, there are no bridges from 100 km north of the capital to the sea). So it’s a cheap way to meet multiple needs.

It’s also dangerous. The scaffolding is bamboo tied with rope (right), and in none of the cases that I’ve seen is there a protective rail or net or, well, anything.

In the picture above, in addition to the typical bamboo scaffolding, you can see two workers on the building in the left background. They don't have more than what amounts to a bamboo ladder, with the rungs half a story apart. You see these everywhere in Dhaka. The guy in the dark shirt is two stories above the tree line so five stories up, doing something to that concrete seam. He and his colleague are both barefoot, and he is simply straddling the outside of the bamboo rigging as he works (bottom right).

It's a high wire act with no admission fee. I was fascinated, and very, very nervous for him until I realized that he was completely chill (and tremendously agile).

It's also revelatory of Dhaka and Bangladesh: it's loosely regulated and less formal; it's poor in capital but rich in labor.

And it's not like there's a ton of choice. It seems to be the best way, given current constraints, to meet the immediate needs of a growing nation.

And I know that even on my longest, hardest, day, I'll never work as hard as these guys. Never.
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23 January 2012

Morning Traffic

video

The view (and sound) from my window in the morning, and really from 7 AM to 10 PM. The cacophony does subside into the background, and at night it is blissfully quiet until the morning call to prayer.

(And I can't help think: a Republican's dream, really, right? The government that governs least governs best?)

22 January 2012

Dinner

We checked into our home for the next month, a hotel on Green Road (left) in Dhaka’s older downtown area, strategized for the workshop, and decided to get settled in and then meet up for dinner after a bit.
"Settling in” meant, for starters, moving the furniture around to get access to the one plug in the room. Well, there are two plugs, in fairness – one on the lower wall, where it would be expected, that takes a flat, three-pronged plug, and one on the wall near the bathroom door, five feet from the floor, that takes a round two-pronged socket. (The Bangladeshis are very egalitarian about how they get their electricity – there are three different, incompatibly shaped, sockets, and most rooms will have at least two of them. Thankfully, I have adapters for both.) I hung up my dress shirts on the four hangers in the chifforobe (it’s a conservative country and as I’m here for work I packed accordingly), and threw my socks and underwear into a drawer. And I was moved in. My “hotel room” is not what you’re thinking, probably – it’s a smallish, single dorm room with plumbing that will occasionally tease me with hot water, a tile floor, a double bed, and one, well, two, plugs. The bed, when I went to sink into it, resisted. It’s firm, very firm, essentially a futon mattress on a wooden frame – but it’s got two pillows and a duvet. The room is immaculate and all I need. Well, a little insulation around the windows to keep out some of the daytime traffic or the early morning call to prayer from the Mosque would be nice.
I’ve not found the mosque from which these calls are coming, though every morning when I’m awakened I think it’s been set up in my room. It’s loud. I remember as a kid hearing the church bells of Sacred Heart ring the Angelus at six am, noon and six pm, but this is nothing like that – for one thing, we were about a mile from Sacred Heart and the mosque is about a foot, I think. For another, one mosque starts and then a neighboring mosque, perhaps having a different (more relaxed?) sense of time, will begin its call, and so on, for about seven to ten pre-dawn minutes. Perhaps in the countryside it’s a pleasant part of the cadence of life, like Sacred Heart’s bells were in Fowler, but here in Dhaka, well, I hear them. Every morning.
We met in the lobby and Jeff suggested a typical Bangladeshi place, the Aashiana, which he had found on a previous trip to Dhaka where the food was good and the owner was nice. After a ten minute walk, we found it (no small feat!) and walked in to what had the feel of a boisterous political or union rally going on in the main dining room – call and response, spontaneous “Yes!” and “No!” outbursts (in English) . There was an empty table, though, and after a brief look at the menu we let our colleague order family style for the three of us. (What do I know from Bengali food?) Soon the owner, Mohammed, came over, heartily welcomed my colleague back, and invited us all to move to a “special room” a little set apart from the noise.
Mohammed (or “Md.” as it is inevitably abbreviated in the Daily Star, the Bangladeshi paper) is probably 40, and the self-described owner, manager, waiter, and chef though he has a staff of at least ten. The Aashiana is a middle class Bangladeshi restaurant, and he told us he’s doing a good business, keeping busy, and thinking about opening a place in Rangoon, Burma. He is not the last Bangladeshi to talk about Burma and opportunities there, as that country is slowly opening to outsiders, and there will no doubt be “many westerners and foreigners coming there.” He ran back through our order and made a few emendations, including adding a special traditional fish dish “I make special for you,” which was stunning. We also had curry, another fish (the whole fish, head, tail and all) fried and served with eggplant, which was also amazing; a very spicy vegetable dish in sauce; and a chicken which most definitely had never been injected with growth hormones. There were mounds of white rice, of course, but this was served with coriander and fried garlic. It was all delicious.
For dessert, we got a small square ramekin with seeds, sugar crystals and toothpicks. I watched the others (like I had been doing all meal) and in my turn took a few nuggets between my fingers. A little worried about a troublesome tooth but never one to turn down dessert (and yes, I’m aware those might be related), I nibbled gingerly and marveled as the sweet and the spice and the texture mixed on my tongue. It was the perfect ending to my first real Bengali meal.
Throughout the evening Mohammed would step in to speak with us when he had a moment. We asked him about the meeting next door, finally winding up, and we learned it was a marketing seminar (I’m thinking Bangladesh’s answer to Amway); he doesn’t allow political meetings. I’ve only been here four days, but Bangladeshis over 30, unprompted, will heap scorn on their political system and its leaders as being venal, corrupt, and the single largest impediment to their nation’s progress. “How do they get so rich? They don’t do anything,” Mohammed asked. One of my companions suggested that it’s the same in our country, but it’s a matter of degree, of course. It might be true but it rang hollow, and we all felt it.
After we’d paid, he invited the three of us into his office. Mohammed sat behind his desk and talked about how he saw his business. It was clearly a vocation to him, and one he took very seriously. “I am a religious man,” he said, then clarifying, “to me, I am a religious man, but what is religion? I don’t need this (motioning to where a beard would be on his clean shaven face) or this (motioning to his uncovered head where a taqiyah would be) to be religious. I have to be right in the eyes of my god and I do that by doing right by the people I serve. If I cheat them or give them bad food, that is wrong, and they wouldn’t have the strength to do their work.” He was deadly earnest. Perhaps the three foreigners crowded close into his small, hot office was an easier audience to speak to about it than to his peers, but I’ll never know of course.
He solemnly presented us with business cards, and invited us back. I know I’ll take him up on it.
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18 January 2012

On my way

What images come to mind when you hear "Bangladesh"? Anything concrete? A friend from school? Color and movement? Rickshaws? Kissinger's quote calling it a "basketcase"? Just an amorphous sense of poverty, or crowds, or floods?

Some numbers: Bangladesh is the 7th most populous nation in the world, with 154 million people. It has more people than Russia, Japan, Mexico or the Philippines, or more than Germany and the UK combined. These 154 million people live in a country that is slightly smaller than the state of Iowa – imagine, roughly half of the US population in Iowa. The population density is the highest in the world (for a country not a city state like Singapore or Monaco), at nearly 1,000 people/ km2. Eighty percent of national territory is floodplain, nearly all of it less than ten feet above sea level, making it tremendously susceptible to cyclones, storm surges and monsoonal flooding. In 1991 a cyclone hit Bangladesh killing 140,000 people, but that was considered progress as one in 1970, before a warning system or evacuation plans were in place, killed 350,000.

According to a recent article in the NY Times, the poverty rate in Bangladesh has fallen over the last two decades from 59% to 40%. That is a remarkable achievement, but it shows how far Bangladesh has had to go – that 40% in poverty is the equivalent of every person in the UK.

That same article lauds Bangladesh for doing so much – 94% of its children are immunized for DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus); infant mortality has fallen sharply – with half of India’s per capita income. (Bangladesh is twice as poor as India, in case you missed that.)

That is a statistical snapshot of where I’m going for a month. This is not moving to Japan, not even – by a LONG shot – working in Thailand.

It’s a new feeling, being challenged by travel, or more accurately, by a destination. We, or at least “I”, get cavalier about travel and about the size of a shrinking world. I’ve never crossed the Equator or been to Africa or seen anything between, well, Singapore and Venice before this trip (Marco? Polo?), and the places to which I’ve travelled in Europe and Asia are places that are similar in terms of level of development. I have lazily extrapolated the tiny corners I've seen to the map writ large, even though I know better, and I'd forgotten that I can still be genuinely surprised or challenged. I’m nearly always charmed and delighted, but rarely challenged, not in the way that I expect to be over the next month. I've only come to recognize this by stretching for this. That's a lesson I hope I remember, and I'm sure it won't be the only one I get from the next month.

It’s still a big world, and it’s still not flat, despite what Friedman may say. I’m excited and looking forward to making a contribution in some (very) small way, and to facing the challenge of Bangladesh. And challenges give the opportunity for growth.

Two more flights.

07 January 2012

Lisbon



(First appeared in condensed form in print in Soul Edition, Kraven Magazine, Winter 2011)



The plane banked over Spain for the final approach and there was Lisbon - like me, just waking up - near the mouth of the River Tagus. And “mouth” is exactly what the topography looks like: upper and lower jaws slightly parted where the Tagus flows into the Atlantic. Lisbon is the site of an old port where for centuries Portuguese princes, captains and sailors embarked for voyages of exploration and conquest.


Like former imperial capitals Paris or Berlin, Lisbon presided over a vast territory for vast stretches of time – China to Africa, Brazil to the North Atlantic, from 1488 to 1999. More people speak Portuguese worldwide than Russian, Japanese or French. The technological advances in navigation developed here spurred the Age of Exploration, and led directly to Columbus and other Europeans circling the globe. This imperial legacy shows – you can’t gaze up at the statue of King José I in the grandiose “Praça do Comércio” (right) or down the long, ordered lines of the Praça Marques de Pombal to the riverfront without feeling the grandeur.

Unlike Paris or Berlin, however, Lisbon and the Portuguese seem to have settled comfortably into a post-imperial life. Its charms are not primarily tied to its proud past, they are found in its agreeable present of good food, great music, and a European quality of life.

I took a bus to my hotel in the Saldanha neighborhood, a trip which should only have taken 15 minutes that took 20 because I missed my stop - I just couldn’t believe any international airport was so reasonably close to the city center.  Walking through the commuters and observing the morning rush, I was immediately and irrevocably charmed. The architecture! The fountains! The non-rush rush hour! The agreeable pace of life!

I knew little about Lisbon and had done next to no research. I was there on a whim - thanks to a break-up and a United Airlines fare sale - and had only got the flight two weeks in advance; I really hadn’t planned out an itinerary. That's how I like to see new places, in any event: a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach that I’m sure means I miss some gems but I'm equally sure yields unexpected delights. And it suits me. I’m not an ambitious traveler. I remember conversations more than monuments, and atmosphere more than museums, and this pace and style perfectly suits Lisbon. I walked and took trams – slow, rattling, unautomated trams – everywhere through the old city.

It was perfect.

My room at the penzion wasn’t ready yet, since it was only 9:30, so I stepped into the Hotel Ibis Lisboa Saldanha for a coffee and ended up having a full breakfast of eggs, toast, yogurt, coffee and juice for €6.50, thus discovering yet another of Lisbon’s charms: it’s affordable. A hotel breakfast in most European capitals would have been far less tasty and far more expensive.  (Consider the hotel for lodging; it was immaculate, the staff was friendly and helpful though I clearly wasn’t a guest, it is in a quiet neighborhood, and it has published rates beginning at €69/night.)

Despite my lack of planning, the trusty Lonely Planet Portugal guide that I’d bought just before boarding in Newark had great suggestions, the first of which was the Lisboa Card, a €32 investment at the airport welcome center good for 72 hours’ free travel on all metro subways, busses, trams, and funiculars. The Lisboa Card also entitled me to discounts – some up to 100% - at many museums, and mine more than paid for itself. On the flight I’d roughed out three key things to do: day one, walk the city streets and climb up the hill to the Castle of Saint George, in the oldest district in the city; day two, take the train to Belem to see the Manueline architecture of the Monasterio de los Jerónimos; and day three to wander the city on foot and by tram, and to take in its Plazas, restaurants and nightlife.

After a quick nap I headed out, avoiding the closest subway station to walk above ground to see something of the city. Good decision. Lisboetas, on the Friday that I was there, were in no hurry as they played chess or backgammon in the sidewalk cafes. The irregularly shaped, ancient blocks result in irregularly shaped, ancient buildings, at almost every corner. As I walked through the working class neighborhood near the Arroios station (and if that name looks familiar, it’s because the district is built in and above a deep arroyo - pictured left), nearly every block yielded some charming, architecturally improbable sight, in green and orange and pink that seemed just perfect in the soft January light.

My wandering through the Baixa district and up (up!) the Castelo district got me to the Castelo de São Jorge a few hours before its closing. I had enough time for the serious business of the day, looking through the impressive museums on site showing the twenty eight centuries of human history. Looking at a coin from 600 BCE, I couldn’t help but wonder. Who had minted it? What long dead hands had held it? What did it buy? How did it end up buried under castle walls, to be found centuries later? I exited the museum at the perfect time to climb back up to the walls and look west, for stunning views of the sun setting into the Atlantic, far in the distance, beyond the estuary and the city and the river’s mouth.

It was serenely beautiful: the city, with its plazas, six hills, and river, laid out below me. Time slowed, then stopped. I gazed from the river out toward the Atlantic and the horizon, imagining the Phoenician sailors on the Tejo 3000 years before; and the Arabs, who built the walls I was sitting on and who first arrived in 1300 years ago. I looked away from the horizon, closer, first to the other hills and churches, then, just below me, to a house not 30 feet away, where I watched a dog walking in lazy, mildly inquisitive circles in a back garden, under a clothesline, under 900-year-old walls.

It seemed perfect. Men had hewn these massive blocks of cooling stone, and had fought bloody battles around them, and the walls and the turrets with the Portuguese flag flying above them were testament to centuries of history and effort and toil. And yet here was a dog and clean clothes and a beautiful sunset. How many dogs had there been, in the those 900 years, under those ramparts? How many loads of laundry had someone washed and hung out? Who had sat before me, looking west at the sunset?

The compression of time – of eras and centuries – seemed profound. I sat there and took it in.

But time, however compressed, doesn’t stop, so when it was politely indicated to me that the Castle was closing, I walked out through the gate, down the hill, and back into time.

I had heard that Lisbon goes out late so I took a nap and returned to the lobby at 10:30. “Too early,” the desk clerk said, and told me to go get a coffee and dinner, and not to hit the clubs for another hour at the earliest. I wandered through Bairro Alto, just waking up and soon to have people of all persuasions with drinks spilling into the streets. Temporarily and pleasantly lost, I stopped into a tiny corner restaurant across the street from one gay bar and down the block from another, none of which could I find again, unfortunately. I was the only diner - "too early!" - and the two matronly proprietors plied me with rum and port, brought out samples of “real Portuguese cooking” from their mothers’ recipes, and dusted off the English they’d learned to go to Oxford forty years earlier. This was quintessentially Lisbon, I decided – wander in, find more than meets the eye, and be made to feel perfectly at home. As I finished some dinner and drinks and post cards and port and, well sated, prepared to go, I was given a grossly inadequate bill, I grossly over-tipped, and saying out goodbyes they thrust a map of Lisbon’s gayborhood in my hands and bade me well.

I didn’t have an issue with jetlag because I essentially stayed on Lisbon time – dancing ‘til 4 am, sleeping ‘til noon, exploring more of the city on my Lisboa transit card, napping, dining, repeating.


I made it out to Belém, saw the fanciful architecture of the UNESCO sites, and was moved by the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries, left) statue as I watched modern Maersk container ships motor by on a route to China first made possible by the caravels that had sailed 500 years before. As recommended by every guidebook, with good reason, I took Tram 28 from end to end. I met friendly, tolerant, stunningly attractive people, Lisboetas whether by birth or via Angola or Brazil or the Portuguese countryside, at every meal and at every club. And I was completely ruined for any future trip to any other European city.

How could they compare?

Some have better food, some have better museums, some have better entertainment, perhaps. But what do you want out of life? What’s your rush? Do you really need to collect the greatest hits of European travel? Slow down. Savor the moment. Lisbon doesn’t sweat the small stuff – it’s seen it all, and learned a thing or two about ambition and what that yields. It is perfectly happy to do a load of laundry, hang it out to dry, and sit in the back garden with a good meal and a happy dog and watch the sun set behind the hills and the river and the west.

Since it was January and I was still in a New Year’s resolution frame of mind, I made one of my own: in the new year, I vowed to be more Portuguese.


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