Coimbra, pronounced ‘Qwimbra’, is about half way between Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, and I arrived by bus in 30 degree heat. Using my digital photo of Google Maps, I headed south from the bus terminal towards the address of my couch surfing host and found a post office on the way. I wanted to send off another parcel of presents to lighten my backpack, and figured Portugal would be the cheapest country to send it from, before I reached France and Switzerland. The post office I came across was the most similar to Australian post offices that I’d seen, they had books and other goods for sale, along with boxes and parcels to send goods in. I took a number, like at the deli at home, and enjoyed my wait in the air conditioning. The lady at the counter was most helpful and friendly, probably because of her desire to visit Australia which she wistfully stated after discovering where I was from. I squeezed 1.960kg into the box, and was happy with the €14 it cost (including the box) to send it to Scotland to collect before returning home.
With a two kilogram lighter backpack I was happier to trudge the distance through the hilly city to the address on my sticky-note. Upon arriving however, I was shocked to discover my couch surfing host lived in a ‘Republica House’ – a well known student house, known for all the wrong reasons. It was a multi-story town house of sorts, with four levels and six bedrooms tangled in with two bathrooms, a kitchen and living room. Apparently they’d had a birthday party there the night before, which they were blaming for the mess that was everywhere, and also for the bleary eyed looks everyone had. I was introduced to everyone I met as ‘the couch surfer’ and I counted about fifteen people as we moved through the rooms. Climbing the rickety narrow stairs I was glad to reach the top floor, only to have to force my mouth closed when I glanced in the ‘kitchen’ – if one could call it that. The long table was piled high with food encrusted plates and bowls, pots and pans that needed a good scrubbing and numerous bottles that previously held a alcohol of any variety you could think of. Graffiti covered the walls, and I don’t believe the floor had ever been cleaned in any way, shape or form. I shuddered to think what animals called that kitchen their home, and was beginning to think I’d mis-read the host’s profile on the website.
Onto the lounge room, and the deluge of empty bottles continued, amongst a few bowls with scissors, and overflowing ash trays. There was an assortment of chairs and couches crammed amongst broken furniture, overflowing bookshelves, ornaments, street signs, bongs, guitars, lamps and lampshades, heaters and fans, sleeping bags, assorted works of art and items of clothing. In the centre of the room was a mattress covered in a layer of dog hair, with the perpetrator resting on the said mattress, his head between his hind legs feverishly licking his balls. Hesitating a guess and asked where I was meant to sleep that night and was answered with a wave of the hand and a tired ‘On that mattress I guess’. Yes, that mattress the dog was sitting on was what he pointed to. Really? You’ve accepted my request to stay at your house while I see your city and the best you can come up with is a dirty mattress dumped in the middle of your overcrowded lounge room in your filthy house? Ay yay yay.
While contemplating if I was just being overly sensitive, and having come from the lovely host house of Andre and Pedro in Lisbon, I tried to decide what to do. I met a nice girl from Denmark, Julie, who was also staying there that night, and she spoke English so I confided my dislike of the place to her and she offered me the bed she’d been allocated to sleep in that night and she’d sleep on the couch. I agreed to this because by this stage there were about eight people in the lounge room and all except for me and Julie were smoking. In the house, in the room I was in. I was going to die if I slept there that night. Julie showed me the room I could sleep in, but first we had to wake up someone else who had decided to sleep there in the meantime. Ahhh, I didn’t know these people, and even though they were nice in allowing us to ‘stay’ they made no effort to make that stay comfortable or homley…
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night. I spent the next hour deciding if I preferred to sleep in the (almost clean) armchair in the room, or in the bed on sheets I’m sure hadn’t been changed in a long time. I opted for the bed while gritting my teeth and shuddering at the thought of what exactly I was sleeping on. I then had to decide what to wear – I didn’t want to wear my pjs because they’d get ‘contaminated’ and have to be put back in my bag with my other clothes, yet there was no way I was not going to wear clothes in that bed. Ewww. Best not to think about the finer details I tried to tell myself, and just keep my skin clean – I can worry about my clothes later. I was also not sure that I’d be alone all night so I slept with one eye open as the saying goes.
Julie and I left in the morning, and she went to the train station to head further south, while I checked into a hostel I’d found. The hostel had clean sheets and a bed that was allocated to me, so it felt like heaven! I had a shower and washed away the grime of the night before.
As things would have it, I met two nice guys at the hostel, Pieter from Brussels and Marty from Ireland. Pieter and I got along so well he invited me to stay at his house when I get to Brussels in a few weeks, and I eagerly took him up on the offer. It’s nice to meet up with people you’ve met earlier in your travels, and especially sane, intelligent and interesting ones. Pieter spoke Spanish, along with Dutch and a little bit of German and French, and was on his way to Sevilla in Spain to attend a Flamenco course. Once again I was envious of the multiple languages he spoke and was excited he was heading back to Spain. Interestingly his sister is living in Spain with her Australian boyfriend – talk about a small world.
I had a lazy day the following day and booked flights back to Madrid (and Madrid to London) at the end of July. I hadn’t yet booked my transport from Brussels to London and managed to find an extra four days to re-visit Madrid and the guy I’d met there just the week before. I was keen to get back to Spain and figured I might as well seeing as I was so close anyway, and I’d be able to get my Spanish-English dictionary a little earlier than waiting until I returned home.