Marissa and I arrived in Lisbon with two enormous bags filled with blindness. We dragged them like sacks of bones, dried and daydream-induced, powdery in an afternoon where several sunsets competed for travel manuscripts of old routes. We were lost. We can’t find our hotel in the confusion of an ancient city, washed by the loneliness and capriciousness of the Atlantic. The valuable time for us to explore the poetry of Lisbon eroded. It was slowly devoured by the precious and distinct ticking of an invisible astronomical clock which runs its disorienting course even before the age of exploration. The sepia-colored and imperial places that have been listed in our well-versed itinerary of exactitude and automation efficiency became an expired prologue, forgotten and tragically injured and inurned ashes of our memory.
I carried in that trip the book Blindness of Jose Saramago. Curiously, the book dragged me with silence and noise that constantly interpolated their mighty selves. Just like that novel, I figuratively became one of the victims of the mass epidemic of vision impairment that inflicted the characters of the novel. Perfect, I said, because knowing Saramago is also knowing Lisbon in its lushness, its noticeable truth and its hovering spirit of thirstiness even with the unending expanse of the ocean before it. Perfect because to know Lisbon in whiteness is discovering it too with my other vital senses. It means exhausting my palate, extending my ears, feeling the sweat on my leather shoe sole imaginatively moisten my luggage-calloused hands and dirty-mapped nails.
I know Saramago is undoubtedly the grand chronicler of Portugal. His works, Blindness, Blimunda and Baltasar paint this land with rich earth flavor beamed from valleys and anxious plateaus. His prose blisters the river, the stains and specks of dust, the narrow streets of ancient cobblestones, the attractiveness of unhinged doors and socialist-colored window panes. He is a philosopher, faith healer, and charlatan in one who summoned the fantastical and the philosophical without being obtusely pedantic. He captures the search for birth certificates of the osteoporotic laborers among files that evolved into a mountain of snapshots of origins, and the decadence of long afternoon coffee conversations of colonialists and story peddlers. He feels the permanence of marble statues where sailors sprawled their fever-fatigued backs to feel the foretaste on the absence of designed stones in distant shores. Saramago is a unique writer who I got so enamored with two decades ago. He came in from the sorrow of a country reeling from centuries of fame, fortune and heritage illuminated and debated in the papal conclaves. He glides through my coldness’ episodes and literary-torpedoed-awakenings as a termagant seer or the self-declared prophet of the Inquisition. As John Updike characterized his body of work, “his prose is open to philosophical and psychological speculation as well as to homely folk wisdom, and its flights into the impossible are balanced by a feeling for the daily routines and labors that compose, for most of humanity, the substance of existence.”
On the other hand, Lisbon was where we were then. What is Lisbon in this midst of non-knowing, I asked? How would I call its name in the forest or oblivion of space? How can I see it face to face and see empathy in its roundness and entirety? What is inside me to allow you to let me experience you, dear city? Saramago once said, “inside us, there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” He wrote this in one of the picaresque scenes of Blindness to emphasize our essence as human beings, our instinct to cling to the hand of a blind mortality-fearful alchemist when odds seem to run out. He said this to counter the expanding darkness that is hijacking the gift of light. He said this as the temptation to break from the moral fiber is so blatantly strong in the glib guise of survival and hopelessness.
We continued to navigate the city, passing through the statue of Camoes, to the old houses newly built right after the great earthquake of Lisbon, to the buildings whose signs in Portuguese emphasized the contending pull of gravity of ignorance. We hardly saw a soul that walked nor sat outdoors on otherwise intoxication-scarred benches. Where are the old men and grandfathers, storytellers and narrators who through their versions, seemed like they have also circumnavigated the world as some brave souls did?
We relied on ourselves to make sense of the natural logic of maps. We relied on the imaginary cartographers from the Iberian peninsula. We surmised on their configuration and possibilities on the manner of arranging the streets or the houses on a city that bathed in the glory of imperial majesty and abundance. We continued to struggle as travelers. We struggled as couple travelers. We serendipitously recognized that when you are lost, everything becomes white, not black. At that moment every color conspired and merged and became a bright presence. The shapes became very fluid and rude in its ambivalence. The texture became smoother and somewhat oppressive in their conspiring stares. The size of things around became both small and big defying their androgynous defaults. Street signs became invisible. Distances if far between grew farther apart and proximity became denser like particles in the thermodynamic state. The past cities became a long corridor of welcoming arches jumbled together in a heap of mixed-up travelogues. This was the world we were in – utter confusion.
Henry David Thoreau, the great travel essayist before the advent of blogging, has this to say about getting lost, “not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” My wife and I had to stop and ceased walking altogether. Importantly, we silenced our emotions. Since fatigue was surfacing a like a conquering hydra with poisonous tentacles that would ruin both of our tempers, we silenced ourselves in prayer. We recognized the futility of moving in circles and even in straight lines. We breathed and inhaled a fresh big dose of patience and exhaled more significant doses of frustration sediments and clear the system. We touched and held hands. We told ourselves, thanks since if we get lost, we get lost together.
Did we find our way soon? I now realized, the question nor the answer does not matter. It is just like my realization of climbing stairs upon arrival at the last step. I don’t ask whether I’ve finally reached it, but I marvel at where I ended up.
Although science has no uncontestable truth yet whether blindness can make our other senses more acute, our own experience pointed out that when we focus on something, then we gain new perspectives and even skill sets.
“Bacalhau!” I praised the heavens for secretly giving more than a thousand ways of cooking bacalhau to the Portuguese people. I exclaimed in glee as our way of celebrating the finding of the lost hotel who waited for us in warm welcome and empathy with our heavy and dragging tired feet.
Mercado da Ribeira was the place we ran to in celebration. In this largest market pavilion to satisfy your gustatory craving, bacalhau is king. This cod specialty is art and the soul of the Portuguese people. Dried and salted, this cod fish caught from the colder North Atlantic is the ubiquitous ingredient in the traditional ways of cooking that date back to the 15th to 18th centuries up to the present’s varied forms of culinary expressions. We learned then that ancient techniques were used to preserve nutrients and historically, the sailors of the past who traveled the world for several months, had bacalhau as their staple.
In the stupor of blindness, I soon discovered the tingling rearrangement of my taste buds to suit and orient with the taste of Portuguese cooking. I had bacalhau a lagareiro or a cod fillet baked in the oven served with potatoes and smothered in olive oil. As if enchanted in that open atmosphere of a night market, we ordered bacalhau a bras which is shredded and baked cod bound with eggs and mixed with small potatoes.
I discovered the acuity of my gustatory sense. I discovered yellow cod or bacalhau and its integrity and encompassing plethora of taste. It is a world of a cold sea, a deep sea of peril and horizon. It is a world of the ocean that sleeps and awakens with ferocity and bountiful harvests. It is both a paradise and hell for sailors, for discovery and death, for limitless possibility and the expanse of hopelessness. I discovered bacalhau and the taste of its people and its many saints, the rich who almost always got the best parts or the poor who contend with the bones and other unpalatable portions. I discovered how it communes with garlic, how the latter humbles itself in the background, not stealing the show from the main protagonist of the recipe. I found how it clothes itself with salt, the beloved offspring of the sun and the seawater. Salt is its ardent lover. Salt that rubs and caresses it is its birth, life and death, and nutrition. Salt, salt, salt, it is the white and red blood that nourish it to freshness and longevity. It’s taste has the melodrama and boldness of an ambitious horizon that embraces both the sun and the moon. My palate, got to encounter the different sections of its body of taste, the torso filled with the seaweeds of time and boredom, of tragedy and flotsams among the waves. Bacalhau brought me to the small currents of mysticisms, to the otherworldly and the in-betweens of love and hate. It grounded me too, lowly and fisherman beaten by the wraths of Poseidon.
I savored each bite, while fado, the melancholic sound of Portugal in the background was playing. It was a song of poor fishermen in their deep longings.
We missed many places in Lisbon. Despite those misgivings, we discovered something unique about ourselves. We have the innate capacity to find our way in patience and prayer, to be in communion with our loved one and be hopeful for what the world will surprise you with. In this Lisbon of our journey, we discovered the world of bacalhau. We left the city very early in the morning while it was asleep with thoughts of Saramago in my mind, “perhaps only in the world of the blind will things be what they truly are.”