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#9 - Slow Down (The Garden pt. 1)

Something wasn't right. The sunlight played on the hostel window and I heard the cafe downstairs setting up chairs for Lisbon tourists. The promise of a day of blue skies, seawater and castles was secure. I was in my favorite city in the world with Karim, now like a brother to me. If I got up now I could still catch some crepes in the kitchen with Nutella, my favorite. But I stayed there watching the light play on the window. Something wasn't right.




Our mission in Lisbon was to understand how culture and language influence the psychology of happiness by studying the concept of 'saudade,' a word that only exists in Portuguese (and Galician) and isn't directly translatable to any other language, though others borrow it. It is akin to nostalgia, but in Portuguese there are two words for the feeling of heartached, loving longing: nostalgia and saudade. In our exploration we pieced together that while nostalgia is a general longing for a person, place or experience of one's past, saudade is a distinct feeling that the thing/person/feeling that one misses will never return, is an integral part of one's soul or identity and to be physically distant from it means that one is not whole.

Early Portuguese history was more than a bit tumultuous, impacting their ability to record a written history. As a result, Portugal has a particularly rich tradition of oral history, passed on largely through the folk music that would be called Fado by the 1800's. Suadade is the prominent theme of the songs.

With this in mind, my out-on-a-limb thesis went like this:

Perhaps the way in which we learn history influences our worldview. Cultures with an emphasis on oral history have a more emotional understanding of their people, in contrast to cultures who learn from textbooks, which are analytical by nature. Portugal would have an especially emotionally-shaped worldview because much of their history was passed through the arts, especially songs of heartache. Could this answer why the Portuguese language ended up with a more nuanced understanding of the feelings of longing and identity?

Plausible? Maybe. Helpful in the search for everyday happiness? Not so much. So, when I'd had enough of playing a totally unqualified anthropologist, it was clear that the city was not the place to find the happiness insights that we were looking for.

We caught a bus in the morning on a chance recommendation from Rose, our hostel roommate and soon to be close friend. She had mentioned that she was on her way to Ecosurf camp - a small permacultural initiative built and run by a couple in the tiny surf town of Milfontes. I wasn't sure what we were looking for, but I knew that if a eureka idea doesn't come in the bathtub or on the toilette, it always comes on the surf board.

And it did.

As soon as we stopped to smell the ocean water, we realized that we didn't need to seek an historical psychoanalysis for happiness insight in Portugal. We were surrounded by it. As it turns out, Alentejo is home to some very happy people, and some of the most diverse and interconnected permacultural communities in this part of the world. This would be our focus for the next several weeks, starting with our friends Felipe and Susana at Eco-surfcamp.


Felipe and Susana built Eco-surfcamp with love in their own backyard in Milfontes as a quiet refuge for friends worldwide to spend time in nature, to surf and reflect. They teach surf lessons as the only licensed surf school in Milfontes and put nearly every penny earned from guests back into making the surfcamp ecologically sustainable and nurturing to the human spirit.

Milfontes is in the south-central region of Portugal called Alentejo, a land of magic. Alentejo is known for its dry, sweeping hills of eucalyptus, cork oak and olive vinyards. It kisses the Atlantic to the west and backs up to Andalucia, Spain to the East. The people of Alentejo are known to be as peaceful as they are relaxed.

...And, in a humorous context, lazy. One night, as we barbequed sardines and shared recipes with what became our little surfcamp family, Felipe told us a joke about the people of Alentejo:

"There's a couple driving down from Lisbon through Alentejo who stop to talk to a local man, sitting on the side of the road, barely digging the earth with a shovel." He took his time, pausing to drag his cigarette. "And the couple ask the man why he is digging sitting on the ground.

'Well,' replied the man from Alentejo, very slowly, 'laying down wasn't working, so I had to sit up.'"

They may be slower to move in Alentejo, but that is in no way a negative thing. There is that old Zen Buddhist story about the man who sat in the darkness of a cave for 10 days and nights seeking enlightenment. When he finally gave up, he stood to take up his old life again and was instantly enlightened.

Alright I made that one up. But the point is that maybe life is what happens between the moments that we try so hard to be anything but present. "Slow down," they'd tell me, "you speak so fast!"

From the perspective of a skeptic-turned-believer, there is a spirit in Portugal that seems to show you what you need if you are willing to slow down and listen. Following that feeling to Milfontes opened us up to a whole world of rich experiences and some very colorful characters with a lot to share.

The next several blog entries are to be read as chapters of a story. Come along, it'll be fun.



Felipe the man lays out the plan. The work is never finished.

Sunset from Eco-Surfcamp

The Distinguishing Milfontes Facade

Lovely Lisbon

We met Sofia as our Fado music guide during our Lisbon exploration of Saudade. She took us on a private night tour to unveal the Lisbon that tourists rarely see.

I'm not a famous musician but I play one on T.V. (sort of)

Upon close examination, my nipples are pointy. It was an exciting interview.

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