Monday, September 7, 2009

Lisbon, Portugal

The kingdom of heaven is like a bad road trip.

After two weeks of traveling through Spain, my two best friends and I started our trek to our final destination: Lisbon, Portugal. I had heard and read amazing things about this place. But the day started off wrong from the first hour.

Although we had a set schedule to leave at 8 to avoid traffic, one of my friends decided to take her sweet time. She had taken her sweet time the entire time we were traveling, and I was about to strangle her. We had had a conversation with her the night before, and even though she assured us that she would be ready first thing in the morning; such was not the case.

But she was not the only thing. I lost my passport for five heart stopping minutes. But of course I lost it in my purse. There was a momentary concern over whether or not Lisboa, where we had booked our hotel, was the same thing as Lisbon. And the GPS let us know in a snobby British accent that Lisbon was not three and a half hours away as we had heard, but 6. We got on the road an hour and half later than scheduled. And we hit traffic. And car accidents. The gps took us on the scenic route through towns and even preferred that we off road next to the highway instead of actually being on it. The GPS tried to run us into oceans and off mountains and for most of our trip told us that the road we traveled did not exist. We turned her off after a few hours and some heavy name calling.

Once we got to Portugal there was a 35 dollar toll. When we stopped for gas it took 45 euros, which was about 75 dollars to fill up the car. The food we purchased had a lovely 35 percent tax added onto it. People spoke Portuguese that sounded more like Russian. Once getting into Lisbon the GPS told us our hotel didn’t exist and we spent an hour circling the town.

By the time we reached the hotel, which did indeed exist, we had been driving for nine hours. We were grumpy, discouraged and broke.

That night we trudged out to the historic downtown. Within a few minutes however, we were greeted with some of the most beautiful sights of our entire trip: Portuguese men.

Our spirits lifted somewhat.

We noticed second the weather- it had been miserably hot in Spain. As the sun began to set it was a beautiful, cool 75 degrees. We walked by shaded parks and fountains and beautiful statues. Nearing the historic center the paved roads turned into white mosaic tiles. It was like walking on art.

The architecture was elaborate and dramatic. Entire buildings were covered in tile mosaic, like fine china. Statues of angels and past kings on horseback adorned parks and squares. There were enormous fountains and towering cathedrals. The golden sun was setting behind an ancient monastery nestled into the hills right above the city. The ocean glittered, visible from the streets. Lisbon is the most beautiful city I have ever seen.

After walking around for a few hours in awe, investigating museums and palatial structures, streets that seemed virtually unchanged in the past thousand years and antique shops, we settled into a little café on a quaint winding side street. A few meters away a street performer sang requests and painters painted and children danced on the white street.

Surfers from brazil sat behind us and we small talked with them. Next to us, a dignified man in a three piece business suit sat to enjoy a fine dinner and glass of wine alone. He did not attempt to talk to us, and I thought to myself that he had sad eyes.

Half way through our wine and desert a street performer made his way over to us. We requested a song of his choice and he began playing ‘the girl from ipanema’. A few minutes into the song, with sad eyes raised to heaven, the businessman next to us opened his mouth and sang the chorus, moving his head along to the tune.

We gasped.

The two surfers behind us were not to be outdone. They sang along with him. A family of Italians walking by stopped and joined in the melody. Other tourists and shop keepers came out to listen to a real life musical in the middle of Lisbon. I looked at my friends and I think our hearts stopped.

You know those moments in life that you know, while experiencing them- that it is a time you will think about for the rest of your life? So I tried to memorize every moment, every detail and sensation. The smell of the sweet night air. The building adorned with flowers and lights; the guitar chords; the man next to us singing to the stars, the expression on my bestfriends faces…

When they finished, we burst into applause. The business man paid for his dinner and left. The Italian family continued down the street. The surfers went back to their meal, the performer on to another group. We walked back to our hotel in a daze.

It is one of the most beautiful memories I have.

And perhaps Lisbon was so sweet because the way there was so terrible. And perhaps heaven is a little like Lisbon. I don’t think of heaven much, it starts a lot of controversy down here and all. But when we were in the middle of our fairy tale song, none of us were still thinking about the car ride. None of us cared about the toll or the tax or the gas. None of us were still fuming about driving or sleeping or being late. We were so grateful to be in the present that the past was only a brushed away memory. St. Theresa, a woman much accustomed to suffering, said that life would only be like a bad nite in a hotel once we reach heaven. life is like a road. Sometimes the drive is wonderful, music is great, you are sitting next to someone you love. And sometimes the car breaks down, accidents happen, and we lose our faith, our trust in God. But no matter the road we take, our destination is the same. We don’t know heaven, but God does. And so when we cry out for justice in the present, he knows it will come to everyone in the future. When we suffer, he knows how all of it will be erased, he knows and is the destination for everyone. God did not promise an easy life, Christs road was lonely and bloody. We don’t have a God immune to our suffering, we have one that entered into it. We have one that will ride with us, remind us of the importance of being the justice, the kindness, the answer to prayer the people around us are asking God for.

So when on the road, remember the destination.


  1. did not see the beautiful spiritual analogy at the time.. well.. maybe once we had a cheeseburger.. way to be "glass half full"

  2. "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."