holiday in lagos, portugal

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I headed over to the sunny town in Portugal’s Algarve after finals last spring for a little sun, fun and adventure.

The white village is full of gems; from winding cobblestone streets and beach-side fruit stands, to incredible views along the cliffs and cavernous grottos that beg to be explored.

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I recommend starting your visit off on the cliffs, following the rocky trail high above the beaches. Teetering along the precarious terrain, you’re privy to all the secluded beaches, patches of wild flowers, and breathtaking views hidden away from the main stretch.

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Take your pick of one of the dozens of beaches; you can join the tourists on the easy-access plots, strip down with nude locals near the grottos, or scale the cliffs to your own private half-moon of white sand and clear water.

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Not a beach bum? Sign up for the kayak tours, where you can explore the grottos and check out beaches not accessible by land.

Can you spot the teeny kayak weaving in and out of the grottos?

Can you spot the teeny kayak weaving in and out of the grottos?

A slightly less labor-intensive activity is a stroll through the white village. The cobblestone paths and architecture in Lagos are charming, and you can find some real local treasures along the way.

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During our visit, we dined at the most wonderful little restaurant on one of the tiny streets off the beaten path. From our table we could see the water peeking out and watched the sun set over the walls of the town. The meal was one of the best I had in Europe, and the owner extremely welcoming and accommodating. The seafood is fantastic, the produce fresh, and the wine is always flowing.

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Rua Porta da Vila, n.018

The party scene in Lagos is pretty incredible for a tiny costal town. Thanks to the awesome surfing there, the place is full of gorgeous Australian surfers, making for a very good time. The booze cruises are popular, and bars plentiful.

Full Disclosure: the partying there was a little much for me. Most drugs are decriminalized in Portugal, so people get crazy late night.

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Whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach vacation, or an active holiday, Lagos has something for everyone. No matter which route you choose, you’re sure to leave tanned, tranquil and with a belly full of some of the best seafood in the peninsula.

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life lessons from morocco

This time last year I was traveling around northern Morocco, hopping from Tangier to Rabat to a tiny village in the Rif Mountains and finally up to Chefchaouen.

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photo credit: {my talented travel companion} Ashley Portal

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My days in Morocco included some of the most uncomfortable and alienating moments I’ve ever experienced. The social norms I’d accepted for years were deeply challenged, my beliefs were shaken, and my eyes were opened. By interacting closely and observing a people whose culture is like oil to the water of a New Yorker, I learned powerful lessons in a very short time. I can truly say I am a different person for having experienced what I did there.

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by Ashley Portal

I learned that my problems are trivial.

In Rabat and Tangier the children played with sticks in the streets, if they were able to play at all. In nearly all the markets little children were working to help their parents make a living.

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In the mountains we were invited to dine with a family in their home, where the man in the picture below recounted the story of his life to us. He explained that the woman at his side was his second wife.

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by Ashley Portal


His first wife had been pregnant with their second child together and went into early labor. There was no road connecting their hilltop home to the highway 5 km away, so he and his wife had to hike the distance as she was contracting. By the time they got to the highway, they had to try  hitch-hike to the hospital 20 km away. She died of complications before they made it there.

Their house high up in the mountains

 Anytime I start to get overwhelmed by something, I reflect on the things I saw and the stories I heard in northern Africa. I’ve found that me and my problems are so small in the grand scheme of things. It’s reminds me to be thankful for all I have and all of the opportunities available to me, instead of getting wrapped up in trivial frustrations and worries.

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I learned to let go of my need to control everything.

Or at least to try.

If you spend any time with a Moroccan, or anyone of the Muslim faith, you will hear them say “inshallah” throughout conversation. This roughly translates to “God willing.” The people I met in northern Africa taught me to do what I can with my own hands and understand  and accept that there are outside factors in which I have no say. We are only human, we don’t have the ability to change the things we do not control. By accepting this, I found myself at peace after years of trying to micromanage every aspect of my life and those around me in order to get what I want.
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I learned that beauty has nothing to do with looks.
I was the kind of girl that wore make up every day; I even wore mascara to the gym. If I wasn’t looking my best when I went out, I didn’t feel confident. In Morocco, I wore no make up and bathing was a luxury every few days. I wore dirty, loose-fitting clothes that hid my body. The first day or two, I was horrified. I refused to be in pictures. A vain city girl at her worst.
Our second afternoon in Rabat though, I found myself in a rousing discussion with a couple of university students about dating, sex, politics and religion. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I was completely unaware of what I looked like. I was unable to control my appearance with make up and fashion, so I just kind of let it go. I was letting my soul show, sharing my beliefs and opening myself up to others’ without insecurity. I wasn’t dolled up, wasn’t trying to impress anyone; I was letting my true self show. I realized I’d never felt more confident than I did in that moment.
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In a culture where women cover themselves from head to toe in loose clothing, their value is placed on who they are inside as opposed to how perfect their figure and features are. I realized that I had spent years being hard on myself for not being thin enough, not having perfect skin, and ignoring everyone who told me “beauty is only skin deep.” It wasn’t until I was immersed in a culture that truly embraces that idea that I finally got it: there are few things more beautiful than cultivating your soul, being confident in who you are and what you believe in, and being open and kind to others.
Friends reflecting at sunrise.Chefchaouen.

Friends reflecting at sunrise.
Chefchaouen.

I went to Morocco a 20 year old girl, full of insecurities and largely shaped by the materialism and vanity that surrounded me at home. There is no better education than seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and that’s what I did during my time there. I came out a more confident, humble, and empowered woman.
I left with a new outlook on life.

facing my fears in the amazon {aka that time i swam with piranhas}

This past summer I spent a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon, trekking through mud, climbing hundreds of feet to the top of the canopy…

…and swimming in a prianha, anaconda, and caiman-infested lake. 

July in the Amazon is HUMID. It only gets up to about 75 degrees by midday, but it always rains at least once a day, making the air verrrry sticky.

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One particularly uncomfortable afternoon, after a morning hike through ankle-deep mud, I decided to strip off my army green cargo pants, knee-high rubber boots, and mud-stained tee in favor of a bikini. I wandered over to the lake where we had gone piranha fishing the day before, where caimans fancied a mid-afternoon snooze, and anacondas were rumored to slumber.

Brother and his angry priaña friend

Brother and his angry priaña friend

the misleadingly serene-looking lake

the misleadingly serene-looking lake

After consulting my cousins, we decided hey, YOLO, and took the plunge.

{so punny}

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Confession: I figured the predators would be much more interested in my adorable, scrumptious pre-teen cuzzos than this pseudo-vegan. I know, I know… I’m terrible.

Doesn't he look delectable??

Doesn’t he look delectable??

 

Admittedly, I was terrified and would jump in, and swim as fast as I could around the dock {past snoozin’ caimans} to get my feet back on solid ground.

We had an absolute blast. No one was eaten in the making of this blog post. 

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My favorite thing about traveling is doing and experiencing things that make my heart race. Although it’s become an overused cliché, “you only live once” has to be part of a travelers vocabulary, methinks. Do something that scares you. Throw caution to the wind. Do you want to be on your death bed regretting having missed out on experiences, or smiling knowing you lived life to the fullest?

What’s the craziest or scariest thing you’ve ever done? Are you a daredevil? Next on my list is bungee jumping in Interlaken, Switzerland! 

la mezquita mayor {granada}

During my time in Granada, Spain in the spring of 2012, I spent a good amount of time studying religion. In my university studies, my theology classes were by far the most interesting to me. I love learning about different faiths and doctrines, and the Jesuits at my university encouraged questioning and critical thinking. I have become quite curious when it comes to faith and religion.

Granada, as you may know, was the last city in Spain conquered by the Catholic rulers (Los Reyes Católicos)  in 1492. It was the final moorish stronghold to fall, expelling Muslim rule from the country forever. Although the country is very Catholic, there is still a strong Muslim presence in this city, due in part to its proximity to northern Africa. Arabic can often be heard in the streets, and the Albaicin (the old moorish quarter of Granada) is full of Moroccan tea shops and vendors.

The mix of cultures is enchanting.

I made many Moroccan friends during my semester there and even got to spend time Morocco staying with a local family. I quickly became fascinated by the foreign and mysterious Muslim faith.

Asilah, Morocco

Asilah, Morocco

A dear friend of mine was kind enough to take me to his mosque, discuss the teachings and traditions of his faith with me, and introduce me to women at the mosque. I spent a few Friday’s there observing prayer from the partitioned women’s area of the mosque, something very new to me, listening to the Imam give his homily in arabic and then in spanish.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt more at peace or tranquil than I felt during those afternoons. After 20 years of listening to Catholic priests rattle off an endless list of saints and teaching the same lessons over and over again, it was refreshing and fascinating to listen to someone profess the lessons of God in a totally new way.

After the actual service, I often spent time chatting with some of the women at a café near the mosque. They were so patient with me, answering all of my questions and helping me to understand their faith. Coming from the USA, specifically New York, I had been privy to many of the stereotypes surrounding Islam, and my new friends were happy to explain the truth to me. Their truths.

Keep in mind that Spain and northern Morocco are particularly progressive areas for Muslims, so the lessons I learned in these countries are certainly different than what is experienced in more radical areas.

I asked them why some women cover themselves. My male friends explained to me that many women wear hijabs to cover their hair and loose, conservative clothing in respect for both their bodies and their husbands, if they are married.

One friend told me “If I see a woman wearing a hijab, I look away. In covering herself, she is asking for respect and so I give it to her.” The women told me that they cover themselves because God made their bodies for its functions, not for the pleasure of any man on the street. My friend Fatima added that she chooses not to wear a hijab because she works in a store with many Spaniards and tourists, and does not want to distract from business in a place where her religion is still stigmatized. She told me that although she does not cover her hair, she prefers to wear loose-fitting clothing and to keep her pants long and necklines high, as she does not want to attract attention for her appearance. I was surprised that a practice I had previously seen as oppressive was, in many ways, feminist.

Another stereotype that was broken for me was the idea that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands. The women laughed when I brought the topic up, suggesting that their husbands are the obedient ones. I got the feeling that these ladies run sh•t in their houses. They also indulged me on the topic of polygamy. They explained that it may seem odd to a Westerner, in poor Arab countries, a woman is very lucky to find a man who is able to support them and start a family. Polygamy only happens when a man can afford to support many wives, and a woman is often considered lucky to be one of many wives. This is not common practice in Spain, however.

The most important lesson I learned during my conversations with my new friends was the importance of peace and reserving judgement in Islam. During every interaction I had in and around the mosque, I observed and heard words of kindness, greetings of peace, while gossip and the passing of judgement were refreshingly absent. To this day, I wear the Hand of Fatima on my wrist to remind me of those lessons, and to remember some of the happiest days of my life.

If you make it to Granada, I cannot recommend a visit to the mosque enough. It is located right behind the Mirador de San Nicolas, the most famous viewpoint in the city. The gardens are open to the public. They are so beautiful and tranquil. The center also offers lessons to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so if you’d like to study a new religion or take arabic lessons during your time in Al-Andaluz, be sure to check it out.

on growing up.

My heart hurts today.

I just received an email offering me a teaching position in my beloved region of Andalucía, Spain. This means that I have the opportunity to live and work in Granada come October.

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I’m not going.

A few months ago, I was accepted to a graduate school that allows me to spend a year studying in Madrid. I enrolled right away.

Now, I am faced with an opportunity that would take me back to the city that I fell in love with a year ago. An opportunity that I cannot pursue. I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach. I could eat my grad school deposit, back out, and move back to southern Spain to teach english and travel.

But I won’t.

My time in Granada was the most exciting, fascinating, enriching, fun, and unbelievable experience of my life. I ache to go back to the city where the streets smell like wisteria, where rich history pours out of every nook and cranny. I long to drop everything and embrace the hippie lifestyle that awaits me in my Granada. But life is about change. It’s about pursuing new experiences, and taking every opportunity to become your best self.

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Moving back to Granada would be a dream, but Madrid offers me endless opportunities. I can study things that fascinate me. I will experience a metropolitan Spanish culture that I’ve never before immersed myself in. I will get my Master’s. I will explore new streets, museums, restaurants, and barrios. And, most importantly, I will move forward in pursuit of my personal and professional goals.

When we experience something so incredible in our lives, it is normal to long to go back to that time. I don’t want to regress. Granada made me a better, stronger, more easy-going, more open-minded and more patient woman. I am a different person for having experienced life there. It is time to give another place a chance.

And I can’t wait.

So, there it is. Officially. A move to Madrid in September 2013.

Vaya.