“Ce que la chenille appelle la mort, le pappillon l’appelle renaissance.”
– Violette Lebon
Alone in the City of Seven Hills one cool winter morning, I wandered along a side street running parallel to Avenida da Liberdade and came across this incredible work of azulejos (blue tiles so quintessentially Portuguese) depicting a phoenix coming alive unsuspectingly as it slowly emerged into view. Who knew that right next to an entrance to some banal offices, one could encounter this extraordinary mythical creature, perhaps just risen from the ashes. This piece of art was at least eight feet in height and many more in width; I remember marveling at it, thinking that it would have served as a fantastic backdrop for a photo shoot of some sort. But even on its own, it was majestic enough and projected a rather commanding presence.
Lisbon was a phenomenal final stop to my travels last winter. The chilly Atlantic winds blowing inland into the Iberian peninsula gave me a dreadful forewarning of the English Decemberian winter I was to re-encounter upon my return to Cambridge, and this necessitated the purchase of a lambswool scarf from a shop situated on Rua Augusta selling locally-made sweaters, cardigans, and jumpers. Up until then, I had not really required a neck scarf, given that the previous towns and cities I’d been to were blessed with an abundance of sunshine, even in mid-December. All bundled up and warm, my explorations through and along the city’s quaint alleyways and many stairs and uphill tramways could finally begin.
And I loved it — Lisbon was architecturally charming; gastronomically delightful; and topographically challenging. The hills made exploring the landscape of this city a workout in itself, but you are always rewarded, after a strenuous climb, with breathtaking views of the city sprawling below and the misty Tagus. Lisbon is also home to a wealth of ancient cartographical treasures, which is perhaps unsurprising given the incredble mark it has carved on the history of naval navigation. One of my fondest memories of Lisbon was certainly wandering into a random old bookshop (perhaps family-run for generations) selling old maps of every continent or region or territory you could think of, particularly of past Portuguese colonies, and choosing which best reflected my travels. I came home with a few reprints of old maps of the Iberian peninsula and that of Portugal, all marking the five cities I’d visited on my two-week journey. This, needless to say, was the beginning of my cartographical collection, which I’d indulge in whenever I visit a new country since then.
Since embarking on my journey alone, I’d grown accustomed to settling down in a quiet café with a cup of hot chocolate while musing into my Moleskine after a few hours of wandering. I consider these my “fieldnotes” from my travels, and still read them back from time to time to transport myself back in time and to another place. I can understand why solo traveling might not be for everyone — one really needs to be comfortable in one’s own skin, and to be content with one’s own company. But I have also discovered that there is a massive difference between being alone and being lonely, and while alone for much of the time on the road, I rarely felt the latter. Since returning from Lisbon, I had always pursued every opportunity to be alone in foreign lands, as this gets me thinking about what it means to be alive here, in this place, at this point of my life, in this world. Pleasant encounters with strangers who then become good friends and family substitutes on the road are also one of the reasons I find myself eager to uncover uncharted territories and unmask faces hitherto unknown to me, to get to the rich and wonderfully complex character underneath.
There is no doubt that with solo traveling, I always leave home one person, and return home internally transmogrified into another.