How did it feel to be flying from Heathrow Airport a month after the UK "terror plot"? Well, if there has been a real attempt to bomb, it has been foiled thanks to the UK police (who have been shooting people completely unconnected to any terrorist activities). Otherwise if it has been an attempt to scare, sorry the alleged scare isn't convincing. Given the choice I would have avoided flying at this particular time. Not that I've been successfully frightened -- just didn't fancy boarding a plane which I do not know where it is going to land! Since 10th August 2006, a number of flights were "forced" into emergency landing just because passengers grew suspicious of each other. Ridiculous! That's sick. Passengers have no right to screen fellow passengers. They are not airport security officials. Come on, if terrorists can be identified by the look, terrorism wouldn't have been terrorism.
I didn't have time to pick up any Portuguese phrases because I was stressed over my presentation for the symposium. The day before the travel I downloaded some mp3s from BBC to my iPod, hoping to learn a few phrases on the way there, which didn't happen. So I resorted to guessing. Not the most elegant manners, but I got by with my broken Italian plus Spanish. In the morning I was greeted with a foreign word which definitely meant "Good morning!". I parroted the word confidently and the receptionist believed that I knew. After that I forgot the sound of the word completely.
From the list provided by the organisers, I picked the hotel nearest to the symposium site, despite it being the cheapest, which I normally avoid. Walking for leisure is nice but just didn't like the idea of rushing in for the programme in the morning or having a long way to return to the hotel in the evening.
The hotel was clean enough I supose; the general state was sorry and lighting was poor. On the night the wind blew, the window kept rattling about loudly. During breakfast water started dripping off the ceiling. Breakfast was simple: bread (one type only), butter, jam, coffee, tea and milk. That would have been nice for a few days, but perhaps not for 10 days. And then there was an open air disco directly under my window till 6 am in the morning. Shutting the window didn't help because the state of the old building wouldn't insulate any sound. I kept believing that someone else must have complained, so I didn't. By 3 am I wondered how tolerance and reasoning balance each other, eventually picked up the phone and rang the reception. The noise didn't stopped till 6 am. Could the hotel owner have done something about it? I don't know.
The old university town has a unique charm. There was definitely a strong academic atmosphere: book shops, photocopying shops and students, everywhere.
Everything is old, at least in the area where my hotel was. No decorations put up to attract tourists, in fact nothing touristy at all. The old town stood plainly by its own personality. I liked this. This setting, together with the hilly climbs, appealed to me as the perfect setting. Even without exploring, it was just a gorgeous place simply to be, and be part of it. It was satisfying just to share its presence. I preferred such a setting to the modern city centre, where tall buildings climb, stacked with shopping malls which I couldn't differentiate from North Americans'. Someone wanted to shop for something Portuguese, I found the shops just like any other shops in any other big cities.
We joined the tours and excursions in the symposium programme. More for social purposes than any touristic intentions. I do not believe in guided tours - would rather navigate and find places myself. Sure, tour guides work hard to make a living and they are generally very likeable people. But they always have to find some stories to tell, even when the coach drives through areas devoid of anything to be told about. Their commentaries must be continued even after putting passengers to sleep. They just got to say something. When there are no buildings to point to, they resort to kings-and-concubines soapy stories.
We visited Coimbriga. As a site of (Roman) ruins, it wasn't going to impress anyone who has been to Rome or Greece -- unless you have special fascination for mosaic tiles. First of all, it didn't worth the heat most of us were unprepared for, though "heat-and-shelterless" is always the first idea to pop into my mind when it comes to ruins. We heard stories about what each building used to be; this and that happened exactly where we stood etc etc etc. I could have made up any stories for every inch of that site, I could have said anything and claimed it true and nobody would be able to refute. Then we came to two columns which I swore couldn't have been original, for they were unmistakeably modern. My friend explained that they might have been painted. But then who would paint ruins! Later another friend pursued the authenticity and was told that the columns were built 2 years ago to help people imagine history. And then there was a garden with fountains. Guess what, I found a box embedded in the pillar, signed "Insert 50 Euros to operate the fountain." Haha so Euros had been introduced in ancient times!
Sorry I haven't been the most co-operative or appreciative tourist!
We had a few Lithuanian delegates, who were taking a day off to go see the sea. I translated their words as meaning to go to the beach. But it turned out that they were literally going to see the sea, on a rainy day, from the train. They haven't seen a sea before. There's so much we take for granted.
The airport, as well as the trains, were nice, new and clean. I even saw the cleaner washing the ashtray on the trash bin with soap water from a pail on her buggy! Haven't seen such an act elsewhere.
Before flying off I stopped for lunch at an airport restaurant. A smiling and sincere young gentleman served me food. Then, I made my way to the counter, where a sweet lady made fresh orange juice for me while the gentleman spoke to her in Portuguese. At that moment I thought: right, I shall balance my way to my table with the cup of juice on my tray... or shall I politely ask for a favour? As I was still pondering, the lady actually came out to my side of the till, put the glass of orange juice on my tray and said, "I will help you!" She wasn't even asking, for she had already decided! Very, very kind indeed. After finishing my lunch, before leaving the eating area, I went to the till to say thank you and goodbye to them both. The lady was too shy even to look at me, putting down her head she said, "No problem!"