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Wanderlust and Laughter- The Portuguese Train Adventure

There is something about traveling by train that seems so romantic. For me, it evokes a sense of old-world charm and adventure, reminiscent of a bygone era.

Throughout most of Europe, modern-day train travel is incredibly easy and efficient. You don’t need to get to the station hours in advance to allow time for long security lines. You don’t need to check your luggage for the fear you might never see it again. There are no “bad seats” as everyone has a good view. Super easy, right?

Except in Portugal.

Portuguese train cars have a unique quality in that they appear to have been given a number “at birth” and stay that same number their entire existence. Instead of the cars lined up on the tracks in sequential order, a train consisting of 4 cars might be car 5, 27, 2 and 14, in that order. What the heck?

In order to find your assigned car, you must walk past all the cars on the platform until you hit the jackpot of your assigned car. Sometimes the numbers are only listed on the inside of the car, requiring you to pop your head into the entrance to each car to determine its number. Thank goodness Harry Potter wasn’t leaving for Hogwarts on a Portuguese train or he might never have arrived to save the world from Voldemort.

But I digress.

My husband and I were spending the week apart in the south of Portugal while he joined a group of friends for a golf trip, and I explored the Algarve as a solo traveler. Our plan after our solo week was to meet up in Lisbon, taking trains from separate locations in the Algarve. We would arrive at different train stations in Lisbon at slightly different times and meet up at our Airbnb.

Knowing I would be on this adventure by myself, I anticipated this travel day with a bit of anxiety. My husband had a direct train, but my travel schedule required a very tight ten-minute connection about an hour into my journey. I had no idea of the size of the station where I was supposed to make the transfer, but visions of the Madrid Atocha station with multiple floors and several trains coming and going simultaneously, danced in my head.

The big day came, and I arrived at the station in Lagos early, thinking I would enjoy a nice cup of Expresso at the station before departing to help mentally prepare myself for the journey. To my horror, the coffee shop did not open until after my train was scheduled to depart. I was facing this journey without my best friend, caffeine.

The station in Lagos is very small and there was no sign on the track announcing the departing trains. About 10 minutes before my train was supposed to depart a single car arrived and a few other waiting travelers boarded. There was no one checking the tickets before you got on board so I had to make the bold assumption this was the correct train and got on.

‘I’m on a train, but I’m not completely sure it’s the right one,” I texted my husband. “And I haven’t had any coffee!”

“I’m all set on my train,” he responded. “There’s a nice car with coffee and breakfast on my train.”

“Thanks for the empathy,” I thought.

About 15 minutes into the trip, a conductor appeared and scanned my ticket without giving me a funny look, so I relaxed a little and assumed I was on the correct train.

“I wonder what they do if are you on the wrong train at this point?” I pondered.

We progressed through a sparsely populated, rural area. The train stopped occasionally at some small stations. The was no announcements at any of the stops. A few passengers exited, magically knowing this was the correct station for them to end their journey. These were clearly seasoned Portuguese train travelers who knew what was happening.

We approached a station right at the time I was scheduled to arrive at my transfer location. In the absence of any other information, I assumed this must be my connecting station. I quickly gathered my overstuffed large roller bag and heavy backpack.

“I’m arriving at my transfer station,” I texted my husband. “Wish me luck I can find my connecting train in time!”

It seemed a bit odd that I appeared to be the only traveler exiting, so as the train door opened, I cautiously stuck my head out to look around. Right at that moment, a man appeared behind me and literally pushed me and my luggage onto the platform so he could exit.

I quickly gathered myself. I looked around and saw only a very small shelter that looked like a bus stop and a few cows standing so close to the platform I could almost touch them. This was clearly not the right stop for my connection! At the exact moment I realized that I was not at the right station, the doors shut behind me and the train started to pull away.

“Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t!,” the expletives erupted, and I frantically pushed the stop button on the outside of the train while I could still reach it. Miraculously, the conductor stopped the train and reopened the door. I sheepishly hauled my overweight luggage back onto the train while all the remaining passengers on the train gave me looks ranging from pity to utter amusement.

“Stupid American,” was clearly the thought bubble above their heads. I can’t say I disagreed with them.

At this point, it was well past the time of my connection and was sure I was going to need to come up with another plan for getting to Lisbon.

“That was not my connection stop.” I texted my husband. I decided to keep the details on my faux pas to myself at this point.

“I’m pretty sure I have missed my connection at this point,” I texted him. “I’ll figure things out when I get to the station and let you know the revised plan. Go ahead and check into our Airbnb. I’ll be fine.”

I knew I would be fine, but I was not thrilled about spending the night in a rural town in Portugal.

“OK, keep me posted.” my husband texted back. “I’m going to be late anyway as we’ve been stopped at this one station for a long time now.”

Another ten minutes passed and almost everyone on the train stood and prepared to exit. A nice older British couple approached me and told me this was the connection station to Lisbon.

“We were so worried when you saw you get off earlier,” they said.

“I’m meeting my husband in Lisbon” I said. “I was afraid I was I going to miss my connection,” I tried to explain and meekly followed them off the train and towards the connecting train to Lisbon.

This train was significantly larger, but true to form of the Portuguese train system, the cars were in completely random birth order. Given that we were late, I was afraid the train would leave the station any second. I quickly boarded the first car I could wrestle my luggage on to and started making my way between the now swaying cars as the train pulled away from the station and picked up speed along the tracks.

A porter appeared with an annoyed look at me standing between the train cars with my luggage on a moving train and mercifully escorted me to my assigned car, shoving my luggage into the crowded rack at the front of the car.

I sank into my assigned seat, shaken and sweating, but grateful I had made my connection.

“I made it!” I texted my husband. “I hope there is a car on this train with coffee and breakfast.” And indeed, there was. Reunited with my dear friend caffeine, I nestled in my seat and relaxed.

Over the next couple hours, we texted several times about nothing important.

“Did you get the Wordle?” I asked. “How about the Quordle?” “How’s the scenery?”

My husband indicated he had taken a nap for several minutes during his long delay. We estimated both of our arrival times given our separate delays.

About 20 minutes outside Lisbon, I got up to visit the restroom. It was occupied so I patiently waited. The door finally opened and a masked man (this was still in the time of Covid when masks were mandatory), wearing a blue pullover that looked exactly like my husband’s favorite one, backed out of the restroom and turned around.

Not only was he wearing the same pullover, but he also looked exactly like my husband.

“Gary,” I said quizzically, like I was in some parallel universe.

“Amy,” he said equally quizzically, looking at the masked women in an incredibly familiar looking blue Patagonia puffy coat?

We both stared at each other in a moment of disbelief before the reality that we had been on the same train for the last 2 and ½ hours sunk in. Even more hilarious, we later realized that we had been sitting two rows apart in the same car the entire time since I had made the connection while we had been texting each other.

His ‘long delay” had been his train waiting for my connection! I had been so stressed trying to find my seat I had only been looking up at the seat numbers and he had been napping when I had walked right past him.

We embraced and then laughed uncontrollably as we recognized the foolishness of the past several hours.

We hatched a plan to get off at the next station, which was neither of our final destinations our on tickets but was much closer to our Airbnb. As we started to gather our luggage, I realized that the porter had shoved my luggage, right next to my husband’s roller bag with the bright pink luggage tag with his name on it that I had seen him shlepping around Spain with me for the past two months.

As we prepared to exit at the next station the concerned older British couple gave me a look of “Not this again dear.”

“It’s ok,” I said smiling. “I found my husband on the train!”

Reunited with my real best friend in Lisbon.


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