Obrigado, Portugal

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It’s been 12 hours since I left Portugal and returned to London, and I’m still in absolute awe of the adventures I’ve had over the past two weeks. I’m not simply reminiscing about these grand experiences, it’s so much more than that. I am mesmerized, in shock. I can’t believe that all the landscapes I’ve seen, the people I’ve met and the cities I’ve explored are part of my real life. How did I get so lucky?

Portugal, a country which I was recently clueless about, is now incredibly dear to me. Two weeks ago, I thought Spanish and Portuguese were similar languages. Embarrassingly, I believed my four years of high school Spanish would help me finagle some meaning out of Portuguese. This was definitely not the case. Two weeks ago, the only historical fact I knew about Portugal was that it stands for the ‘P’ in PIGS (an acronym taught in economics classes). However, I’ve learned that Portugal stands for so much more than a mere ‘P’. Two weeks ago, I had no idea I was about to embark on the most memorable trip of my life. But here I am today, starstruck by my experiences and holding on to them so tight, terrified that they’ll drift into my hazy collection of ‘one time ago’ memories. I want to remember my time in Portugal as vividly as I felt it originally.

A lot of my life has been spent fearlessly exploring. It started when I was 12 years old, when I spent each summer day biking to a different corner of my hometown. Today, I’m still confident that I know all of Rochester Minnesota’s hidden beauties, thanks to my 12-year-old self. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent weeks trekking through national parks scattered across the states. All these years of exploring, yet I have never felt so free and fulfilled as I did in Portugal.

For three days, my friend and I rented a car on an island called Madeira, which is actually geographically closer to Africa than Portugal. We must’ve gotten lost a million times, constantly finding ourselves deeply woven into the mountains. Our little rental car huffed as we drove it through the dramatic landscapes and screeched as we maneuvered it down winding mountain roads, which were full of 180 degree turns. Although we were just two girls on a remote island in a little, wacky car, I have never felt so empowered.

My friend Gabi and I hiked to the summit of Madeira’s two tallest mountain peaks, both over 1,800 meters high. We nervously scooted through long dark caves and then under rushing waterfalls in a rainforest. We trekked along the highest ocean cliffs in the world, with the powerful Atlantic Ocean waves constantly swallowing the remains of volcanic rock formations below. We drove our little car surrounded by a herd of 100+ sheep sprinting down a mountain road. We ate twelve Nutella sandwiches, all of which at the most scenic lunch spots I could ever imagine: Above the clouds on a mountain peak and even laying in a field of wildflowers on the side of a volcano.

The rest of our time was spent on Portugal’s mainland, mainly in the capital city, Lisbon. Every night we watched the sunset over the bright city or the ocean coast in nearby towns. We explored 6 castles – one of which called Palácio Nacional da Pena. Painted with bright vibrant colors, it looked like it was truly out of a fairytale. We wandered through majestic forests, tropical gardens, graffiti-lined streets, and hilly, old villages. We gawked at the beautiful mosaic tiles that decorated Lisbon’s buildings, bringing the city to life with rainbows of colors and designs. We stumbled upon hidden beaches, ocean coves and even random eccentric peacocks. We ate plates of fresh seafood and indulged in pounds of fresh fruit.

This incredible trip to Portugal has reminded me that my 12-year-old self who spent days biking around a city that seemed so big at the time is still a very important part of me. I’m no longer in middle school and biking across my fairly small hometown, but now I’m 19-years-old, hiking and driving, riding trains and planes across Europe from England to Portugal. Next up will be Austria, then Iceland and Scotland. I will never understand how I got so lucky, but I will always be grateful for the opportunities I’ve been granted, the natural beauty of the world and the goodness of the people I’ve met. I’m even grateful to my 12-year-old self for teaching me the importance of making memories and exploring the world.