“Be joyful in Hope, patient in afflictions, faithful in prayer.” Romans 12:12
“Look! The sky is all blue! I won!” Olivia pointed out immediately as soon as we landed in Lisbon Portugal from the UK, where we had clouds and rain almost every single day.
“Looks like in Portugal Olivia will be winning over Joani every day,” I laughed over Olivia and Joani’s friendly competition to see who can see more blue sky or who can see more clouds because Olivia loves sunlight and Joani loves clouds.
After more than two weeks of cold, wet, and damped weather in the UK, we were all jumping for joy over the hot but dry weather of Portugal. As we feel our bodies warm up by the sunlight and beaches here, little did we know that our family relationship was also being warmed up by our travel in Portugal.
“Everyone, I have something I would like to share to all of you,” Joani announced calmly on our first morning in Portugal after she finished her daily devotion.
We were all bit confused as what she wanted to say as we came over and sat around the dining table of the shared kitchen in the hotel at Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
Joani continued, “I have decided to try to let go of what happen before and have a new start with Nathan (En-Li) and see how it goes for another month to see if I am still able to travel like this.”
“I am willing to try to get along as well,” Enli responded sincerely. “I am sorry for all the toxics I have caused and I want to apologize to you.”
The night before there was a big fight between Enli and Joani and each of us was feeling very lost, or despair over our family dynamics. Several of us were ready to give up and admit that this ambitious plan of traveling as a family of 5 adults during COVID-19 was more than we can handle. I was caught by surprise by what just happened and can’t help but to give praise to God for this great victory.
To add to the celebration, I announced, “After discussing with your mom, I have decided to give each of you USD100 per month for your spending money and to also budget USD 100 per month for eating out!”
That announcement got everyone off their feet!
“Are you feeling okay? Can you really afford to do this?” They asked with with concern.
It was a good feeling to realize that despite all the fighting that we had, deep down they do care about me and love me.
That morning we booked a free walking tour to the nearby mountain town of Sintra about 30km away. It was a gorgeous morning with a blue sky and a few puffs of cloud. Our hearts were also feeling light and joyful. For the 1st time in our two months of travel, we felt like our family was back to how it was five years ago when we traveled along the Silk Road, having fun traveling together.
To add to our great day, we had Mariana as our tour guide. After having done 30+ free walking tours, we all agree unanimously that Marianita was the best tour guide ever. Her talent in storytelling is unmatched. She is passionate about the history of Portugal and Sintra and really made it come alive with her vocal varieties and physical gestures. We were so lucky to have her.
There was a lady in our walking tour named Rish from New Zealand whom we immediately gravitated towards as she was talkative and fun and it was a good break from just traveling with ourselves. It was as if she has always been traveling with us. After the walking tour, Rish and we decided to visit the mystical and eccentric Romantic/Disney-like Quinta da Regaleira with its nine stories deep well and underground caverns and rivers. Hiking up to the Moorish castle overlooking the town and the ocean beyond was another icing on the cake to our great start of the day.
The next day we continued pleasantly with another free walking tour of Lisbon. We got to know about the important symbols of Portugal – the rooster, 12 strings Fado guitar, fish, grapes, and bullfighting and had a free tasking of Portugal’s famous Pastal de Nata (egg custard) and gin in a chocolate cup.
After the long walking tour, we were a bit tired and short on temper due to hunger. Thankfully, as we walked back into the city from the top of the viewpoint, we came upon an economical Indian/Portuguese restaurant where we ordered seafood rice, roasted codfish, and Indian curry. We sat by the sidewalk with our stomach full, watching people and tram passing by, relaxing as a family. It was a magical moment that I haven’t felt for a long time.
Lagos – The Algarve of Southern Portugal
After 4 hours on the bus, we arrived at the hottest and most spectacular beaches of Portugal, the Algarve. There I booked 5 nights in the most expensive AirBnB that we ever stayed. It really made a dent in our budget but we really needed to thaw out and just relax.
As soon as we got settled in the AirBnB, we headed straight out to the beach and it was amazing. Unlike typical flat long stretches of beach, the beaches here in Lagos are hidden in coves between sandstone cliffs that are connected to each other by tunnels, natural caves, or by swimming around the cliffs. The beaches were full of people sunbathing or playing in the sand. Although the water was cool, after a minute the body easily adjusted to the sea temperature and we swam from one beach to another.
For the next 5 days, we went to different beaches every day. One day we found a hidden beach that can only be accessed through rock climbing. One day we swam really far out and jumped off sea rocks and swam through sea caves, including one with an open ceiling hole that was so magical. One day we jumped the waves with all the surfers. One day, we brought a beach umbrella and food and just did what everyone did – just chill on the beach which is very unlike Asians. One day we went geocaching along the town, with one right in the science museum. Most days, we brought out the Spikeball and learned that it was so much fun to play Spikeball on the beach because we can really dive for flying balls. Enli enjoyed building sandcastles next to the wave, just as he had done when we built his first one by the shore of Colombia in 2008.
Lagos has one of the oldest ocean fort and the first slave market in Europe, more than 500 years old, in Europe as it is right next to the north coast of Africa. As we prayed for Portugal and for Lagos, Annie and I planted another symbolic mustard seed next to the slave market to ask for forgiveness for all the pain and bloodshed that happened at this salve market. May God’s Kingdom come down and drive out the Hell out of this place.
The Biggest Waves in the World at Nazare
From the sandstone cliff beach of Southern Portugal, we came to the famous big wave surf town of Nazare in central Portugal, between Porto and Lisbon. 8 years ago, here broke the world record successfully surfing a 10 stories high wave (30 meters). Due to the underwater canyon right next to Nazare beach, during winter, the waves grow to incredible heights under the right condition.
“I wish we can be here during winter to witness this incredible sight,” Joani kept lamenting at me.
Nathan sighed, “I love this place. I am definitely coming here for my honeymoon.”
Nazare was so much more beautiful than I had imagined. It is a fishing town with red clay tiles and narrow alleys nestled under a 100-meter cliff that jugs out into the ocean. The town’s municipal market is huge, full of seafood, meat, and fresh vegetables. It was full of tourists, but almost all local Portuguese tourists as opposed to British tourists in the Algarve. Watching the sunset both below and above the cliff was spectacular.
Our favorite shop there was the “Gelatomania”, an ice cream shop that serves “mania” portion of ice cream and toppings. Watching the sunset as we dig into the ice cream sundaes, fruit cups, crepe, and waffles was definitely a highlight of our time there.
After a week of victory in our family dynamic, anger flared up one night again. The feeling of defeat and hopelessness came upon my heart once again. Are we able to continue to travel like this?
I like this quote from the movie, The Way: You don’t choose a life; you live one. I prayed to God that He will not let me lose hope and to have faith in Him. That I will remember to count each victory and to forget each defeat. Annie reminded me that it is normal to have these defeats. It is not realistic to have no conflict. Annie and I prayed and the hope God places in my heart is that these moments of defeats will be less intense and farther in between for nothing is too difficult for God.
During these four days in Nazare, we played Spikeball every day at the beach. Somehow Spikeball held us together during tough times. Whether when things are good or bad or whether we feel like or don’t feel like talking to each other, we still played Spikeball. It became the consistency in our relationship. We usually rotate partners for Spikeball among the four of us. First-round would be Joani and Olivia, against Enli and me. The second round would be Olivia and me against Enli and Joani. The third round would be Joani and me against Olivia and Enli. We became so into Spikeball that we started to what Youtube videos of how to be better at Spikeball. We started to do more sets and even use our chests to block hard spikes.
During these moments, Spikeball forces us to forget our individual brokenness and requires us to work in teams of two. We cheered on each other on and high-fives our teammate and even our opponents when a ball was set for that perfect spike. It gave me a picture of hope of what we could be again as a family.
Porto – The Most Beautiful Urban Sunset
God gave us a miracle when we arrived in the famous historical city of Porto.
After 3-hour bus ride, two metro rides, and a long walk with our heavy backpacks, we finally found the building where I had booked a hostel for our family. Write on the door of the hostel was an A4 paper with big red letters, “Closed”. I was shocked. I had never booked a place only to find out that it is closed when arrived. We were all hungry and tired and I was frustrated. I called booking.com and they said that the hostel owner is not replying to their calls so I quickly went onto the website and book another hostel that is 50% more expensive but as it turned out right next to the bus station that we just came from. Surprisingly, no one got angry or blamed me for this situation. We all put on the heavy backpacks again and walked back to where we started
“They all said hi once we walked into the new hostel!” Joani told me with a big smile. “There was a person from South Africa, a person from Germany, a lady from France, and a guy from Italy.”
“I guess we are all ‘covid travel survivors’,” Annie laughed. “We are currently a rare breed of travelers.”
What started out as a disaster, turned into a blessing. We got a large room with 8 beds, a patio, and a bathroom. The shared kitchen had lots of free things left by others. The hostel was close to the historical center, right next to the bus station, and near several large supermarkets. We found a takeout restaurant where we bought inexpensive pork rib and Port’s famous Francesinha dish, which is a pork sandwich dish covered with cheese and smothered with beer sauce. We also went to a cat cafe that was nearby and had a wonderful afternoon of playing with different cats as compensation for not having Michi, our cat in China.
But the best of all, especially for the three children craving for more social interactions outside of the family, was the many people from all over Europe that they could talk with. For the first 4 hours after we arrived, they all disappeared talking to different travelers downstairs. That same day, a traveler from Guinea invited everyone to the sunset viewpoint on top of a park overlooking the famous Luis I bridge, Douro River, and the historical center. It was the most beautiful city sunset that anyone of us can recall. It was so beautiful that we packed our Chinese food and went again to eat dinner on the grass watching the sunset. On our second day, to our surprise, Francesca from Italy offered to cook Carbonara pasta for our family.
Our free city tour guide Fiel with Porto Walkers was another amazingly passionate presenter of his city. He was well prepared with maps, photos, and even the Portugal flag. Not only did he cover historical, economical, cultural, musical, culinary aspects, he even gave us a very good Portuguese lesson. He also gave us great tips on food, sights to go, sunset spots, events, transportation, and even ATMs. Fiel led us to a small shop with a dessert called, “Heavenly Cream”! He also gave us a pdf file with all the tips he has mentioned. He was able to answer any questions that were thrown at him and very humorous. It is a great walk to take on anyone’s first day at Porto.
Olivia summed it up well our first two weeks in Portugal.
“Hundreds of years later, Sintra still hopes for King Sebastian’s return. We are a hopeful people and it’s true—all dreams come true here in Sintra,” explained our walking tour guide Mariana in front of the King’s palace.
It was a magical day in Sintra. It was our first day in Portugal, our first day in a new country, our first walking tour on the trip, and we also made our first new friend who joined us for the day. Entranced by the underground labyrinth and fairytale-like maze that all led to a mystical well, we wooed and Ahhed in unison. Sharing the beautiful castle grandeur, we sat by the trailside wolfing down crackers and ham together. We laughed. We took turns talking. We gave each other space to be ourselves.
This was a new familiar for us and it all began in the morning when we decided it’s not quite the time to give up yet:
“I am sorry. I am willing to give Portugal another try.”
“I am sorry for the ways I have reacted.”
I believe in miracles. I believe in prayer. Now I also believe in the magic of Sintra, a place where dreams come true.