Fish, oranges, figs, seafood, the cold Atlantic, and the blaring yellow sun. Flashes of color, the smell of salt in the air. These are the things I generally talk about with friends when they ask about my trip to the Algarve. Of course, my reality of visiting this southern-most region of mainland Portugal was more complicated. I had been traveling Europe for two months with my then 11-year-old daughter, and had just spent a miserable, feverish week in Lisbon battling chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus I had contracted in Venice. The Algarve – which boasts of beautiful beaches and delicious seafood – seemed like the perfect way to shake off the last vestiges of my illness.
An ex-boyfriend had given me a gift certificate to a luxury hotel, so my daughter and I spent our first three nights amid luxury in Lagoa, a small, touristy beach town. The irony was that at this point of our trip, I was broke. I had approximately 50 euros to my name as I waited for a freelance check to be deposited, and therefore, I spent our days at the hotel fretting about how I’d feed my daughter.
I decided to make everything an adventure: in the morning we feasted on the free breakfast buffet the hotel laid out, and then hopped into a shuttle van to head to one of the famed beaches. Around us stood beautiful restaurants and cafes, but I hit the markets and picked up bread, fruit, cheese, and other cheap nibbles, sweating bullets as I spent each euro. In the afternoon, we returned to the hotel and sat poolside, where I kept one eye on my daughter as she floundered in the pool trying to attract the attention of new friends, and the other eye on a group of wealthy, stone-faced German women who, flaunting their bodies in their bikinis, scowled every time they caught their husbands glancing at me as I baked in the sun. I soon realized that a single mother vacationing among traditional two-parent families is perceived as a threat. Ostracized, I just reapplied sunscreen and read every single one of the books in English I had found in the hotel’s library – mainly a collection of World War II stories and a few racy romance novels.
During the day I was fine, but come sunset, I felt like a fraud. Each night, I put my daughter to bed and then wandered the quiet grounds of the hotel, sobbing quietly in great, hiccupy gulps. What business did I have taking my kid on a two-month-long trip through Europe? I was an economically-unstable single mom in my mid-30s. Why wasn’t I married? Why didn’t I at least have a great, passionate love affair to help me feel less lonely? My friends were buying homes, saving for their children’s futures, and putting money away into 401Ks. Meanwhile, I had taken off with my kid to Europe in order to show her the world. It was marvelous, but I hadn’t prepared myself for the long nights of loneliness and forced hours of self-reflection. Why was I so uncompromising? So damn stubborn? My unquenchable thirst for adventure, romance, and the road less traveled seemed to make me unfit for anything resembling stability. I wished – oh, how I wished – to be more like others – to be able to settle for a more comfortable life.
So this, I thought, is what it feels like to have a mid-life crisis. It was the examination of all of my life’s choices – an onslaught of panicky, never-ending waves of doubt and despair partnered with the should’ves, could’ves, would’ves.
On our fourth morning in the Algarve, we bid adieu to luxury and hopped yet another bus to the neighboring town of Lagos. I had rented a room with a French woman, Makaila*, and she picked us up from the bus station.
Makaila was an artist and single mother of two wild, beautiful children, and we immediately hit it off. Maybe she saw the look of desperation in my eyes, or perhaps she also needed a friend, but she dropped her plans for the day, packed us all into her small car and drove us to the beach. We spent the afternoon talking about men, love, trauma, and art, and that night, with our children tucked away in their beds, Makaila brought me to her rooftop terrace and showed me her paintings. Vibrant and colorful, they were lovely. We drank a bottle of wine and, under moonlight, she passed me a joint. I don’t usually smoke pot, but that night I made an exception and took a puff. I exhaled, watching the smoke trail upward towards the stars.
We talked late into the night about our hopes, dreams, and insecurities. Makaila confided in me about how the relationship with the father of her children had failed, and I told her about how terrifying and lonely it was raising my child in New York. I said that I had many wonderful friends, but not many, I felt, who might be called upon if I were in a pinch. We talked about finances – how impossible it felt to be both the only parent and the only breadwinner. I confessed that I had less than 20 euro left and that I wasn’t sure how we’d manage after we left her place the next day. I told her that it was my daughter’s birthday in two days, and although I had planned for us to stay at a nearby horse ranch, it was more likely I’d have to somehow arrange to stay in a cheap hostel.
“My daughter trusts me,” I said. “But she has no idea how scared I always feel.”
“You’ll stay with us a couple more days until you figure it out,” Makaila said, taking a puff of her joint. “And no worries – I’ll plan your daughter’s birthday.”
The next morning, we walked to the fish market, where the children chose the fish that we’d make later for our dinner. Makaila then drove us into the countryside to visit a friend of hers – a German woman who owned horses – large beasts who wore braids in their hair and looked every bit as wild as the surrounding environs.
The children were given helmets and we helped them into their saddles. The joy that spread across my daughter’s face – the light that shone from her eyes – filled me with happiness. We hiked through the hills, passing farms where growling dogs protected the land, and our bodies grew hot beneath the blazing sun. I watched the muscles of my daughter’s horse, Fiona, ripple as she walked, and marveled over how carefully she chose her footing as she carried her rider across the rocky terrain.
On the drive back to Lagos, Makaila told us to hold on as she picked up speed and careened down a hill. The children screamed with joy, and my heart raced as the car lifted off the ground as we crossed a small bridge at the bottom.
Seeing the look on my face, Makaila laughed: “Life is good, yes?”
That evening, Makaila taught my daughter how to gut the fish we had bought at the market and tasked her with watching them cook over a small fire in the front yard. Before we sat down to dinner I checked my bank account to find that my check had just been deposited – in another day or two I would have access to my funds. I would’ve felt relief, only my fears over a lack of stability had already been mollified by the thoughtful, caring administrations of my new friend. I felt younger, healthier, and happier than I had in years, and unflinchingly unapologetic and thankful for all my life’s choices that had brought me to where I sat.
Sitting around the dinner table, listening to the children chatter and allowing Makaila to pour me another glass of wine, I took a deep breath and tried a bite of fish. Delicious. After singing Happy Birthday to my daughter, I raised my glass: “Aproveite o dia,” I toasted.
Seize the day.
*Name has been changed at the request of the subject