Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#9: The Anarchist's Pad Pt 2 & 3 (Lisbon, Portugal)

When I returned to the Anarchist’s Pad I found a long-haired dark-skinned man sitting in the kitchen.  He introduced himself as a Peruvian named Shaman, “From the Jungle” he added in English. 

He pointed to a small painting on the kitchen wall of child-like depictions of trees, monkeys, a river and the words, Shaman From the Jungle.

He was an artist, he explained, and he was living in the Canary Islands where he made a living selling bracelets, necklaces and paintings to tourists.  He was just visiting Lisbon for the weekend.  He pointed around the room and indicated a few more of his masterpieces.  Paz y Amor, some peace signs, and a few hearts scattered around the stovetop. 

I noticed that almost all the kitchen was covered in various drawings and slogans.  Peace and love was a prominent theme in all tongues, as was the mandatory stoner mushroom, the hippy Om symbol, and a dozen or so half-baked pseudo-deep ideas: 

Humans are the only species to have invented a language of symbols and then forgotten that they did.

“You want to write something?” he asked in Spanish. 

“On the wall?  No,” I said, “I’ll write something later.”

“Come outside and I’ll show you the rest of my drawings.”

He led me outside and I saw the back yard for the first time.  It was divided into three sections: a small garden on the left, a grassy area crammed full of tents and a 30-foot long makeshift tarpaulin tent on the right. 

Shaman From the Jungle showed me a few more of his massive finger paintings and we went inside the tent.  There were a few mattresses on the ground, a seating area with a coffee table and a few guitars, and in the back a large table around which a dozen people were seated. 

I was greeted in French, Spanish and English and introduced all around the table.  Nine of the diners were Erasmus exchange students from Germany, Belgium, France and Holland.  There were two unemployed German punker girls who explained that they had hitchhiked all the way from Frankfurt.  At the head of the table was my host, the Anarchist. 

Dinner was on the table and wine was served.  I opened a bottle of California wine I had brought as a gift and we started making small chat.  Spanish was the common language, but I watched with amazement as my host danced effortlessly between fluent English, Spanish and French.  Glass after glass was filled and I started to thoroughly enjoy myself.

I couldn’t contain my curiosity about my host.  I made my way over to The Anarchist and struck up a conversation.  We dove directly into a discussion about politics and philosophy, which I quickly realized explained a lot about The Anarchist’s interpretation of the CouchSurfing website.  He was far more intelligent than his dreadlocked style suggested and his political views on anarchy were well-developed and supported with quotations, examples and figures.  He explained that he was an engineer and was currently working on his PhD. He had been hosting CouchSurfers for two years. 

“Do you always have this many guests?” I asked.

“No, this is pretty much the maximum I ever have at one time.  But I always have at least a couple.”

“How many have you had in total?”

“600 more or less.  How many are you guys?  A dozen?  Yeah, I should be at 605 or so.” 

“Jesus, that's crazy!  Do you just open your doors to anyone?”

“Yep.  A lot of CouchSurfers want you to make your Couch Requests personal, but I don’t give a shit.  I welcome anyone.  I am actually running a mathematical experiment.” 

“What kind of experiment?” I asked. 

“I am testing a theory of mine.  I call it controlled anarchy.”  He seemed to enjoy these enigmatic answers. 

“Which is…”

“Well, I think anarchy works if you control a few variables.  It only breaks down when people lack the essentials: food, shelter, and a clean toilet.  Here, I provide all those basic necessities for free and then allow everyone to do whatever they want.”

“Whatever they want?”


“What if someone did something crazy, like took a crap on your carpet?”

“It would bother the other guests and eventually someone would clean up the mess.  It may take a day or two, but the problem solves itself without the need for rules.  So I record each person’s behavior and incorporate it into my experimental data: Do they contribute to the system or are they frealoaders?  Are they an overall positive or negative impact on the anarchic system? Et cetera

The side conversations stopped and the rest of the guests were all listening in.  I tried to switch back to Spanish for their benefit, but he continued in English.   He started tracing out bell curves in the air with his finger and explaining the statistical conclusions he had drawn so far from his experiment.  I grew more curious with each answer. 

“And how do you afford to feed all 600 of your guests, if I may ask?”

“Well, about half of my guests contribute something and half don’t.  They either bring food or help me cook up communal dinners for everyone.  I cover the rest out of my own pocket.  I also use dumpster diving.”

I had never heard of the term dumpster diving, and apparently neither had anyone else.  The Frenchmen looked to the Belgian in hope of a translation, but he just shrugged his shoulders.  He looked to The Anarchist and asked, “What is dumpster diving?”

The Anarchist wiped his face with his hand and swallowed a mouthful of chicken before answering.

“Well, when supermarkets close at night, they have to throw away all the food that is good enough to eat, but not good enough to sell:  bread can’t be sold the next day, nor can dented cans, certain meats and vegetables.  So I go to the dumpsters after closing time, open up the plastic bags, take out what I need and then re-tie the bags and but them back in the dumpster.  It really cuts down the cost of cooking.”

The French girl was confused.  “An’ zis food zat we eat zis night, it is from zis ‘dumpster diving’?” 

“Yes.   Well, most of it is.” 

The French girl put down her fork.  We all inspected the food on our plates.

“Don’t worry!” he laughed, “It’s safe!  Everything is wrapped in plastic bags.  It's completely hygenic.  And anyways, the veggies were grown right here in my garden.” 

The conversation died out with our appetites and The Anarchist went back to sucking the meat off his chicken bones.  The Belgian placed his folded napkin on the table and stood to excuse himself. 

“Where is the toilet?” 

The Anarchist looked up from his chicken bones and pointed across the yard.  “Go piss on the compost pile.”  He smiled at the rest of us and said, “Compost is wonderful.  It really helps the veggies grow.  Come on, eat up your veggies!  These onions are grown in the piss of a hundred CouchSurfers!  Are you going to finish your chicken?  So much food in the world is wasted...” 


I am writing about this weekend in Lisbon for a reason.  In many ways, it was a turning point for my time in Europe.  The depressing monotony of Arevalo that had engulfed me in the past months was replaced by a new world of alternative lifestyles.  Small town life in Arevalo was boring, but I discovered that I could use CouchSurfing to meet interesting people like this virtually every weekend if I so desired. 

I spent the next day walking around with new Peruvian friend, Shaman From the Jungle.  He showed me a side of Lisbon I never would have seen on my own.  We walked from neighborhood to neighborhood to drop in on his fellow South American friends.  All of them had immigrated to Europe in search of a better life.  Some owned Peruvian clothing stores, some sold goods in markets, while others eeked out a living from busking (playing music on the streets for money).  We watched six of his friends play flutes and guitars on the main square while fully dressed in traditional Incan clothes.  We walked to the second-hand market where Shaman From the Jungle sold his paintings.  Many of his friends had no immigration papers.  They were clandestinos, as the Manu Chao song calls them, and they showed me a glimpse of the daily life of illegal immigrants.
I gained a lot of insights that weekend.  From the hitch-hiking German girls and the Anarchist, I got a few tips on hitchhiking and insight on the European punk movement.  One night we went to a punk bar in a seedy part of Lisbon and their political beliefs almost got us into some trouble.  According to The Anarchist, the bar was the ‘oldest punk rock bar in Europe.’  It was, as we later discovered, run by neo-Nazis.  When the girls tried to enter the bar they were stopped by the bouncers, who asked them bluntly “What are you?”  They labeled themselves as punks, and the bouncers pulled them closer and inspected all the pins and patches that covered their sweaters to determine their politics.  The girls started freaking out and yelling at The Anarchist in English.  He tried to tell them that the bouncers were idiots, that they weren’t Nazis, they were just racists against the Angolan immigrants

The German girl was actually quite pretty despite her best efforts to hide behind piercings, patches and pins.  I imaged what she would have looked like two hundred years ago in pre-industrial Germany.  Some long-haired innocent farm girl. But in the aftermath of Germany’s industrialization and subsequent attempts to conquer Europe, she was now an Anti-Nazi German Punk being denied entrance into a Lisbon punk bar by Portuguese Neo-Nazi Skinheads. Ironic? Labels were flying around everywhere that weekend: anarchists, punks, neo-Nazis, communists, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, etc.  Is there no room for someone to just be themselves, free of a label?

Labels aside, The Anarchist taught me a good deal.  I considered his political views and enjoyed learning about his philosophy on alternative lifestyles.  We talked about my ambitions to write a book and I told him I doubted that it could get published, but that I had to write it for personal reasons.  He showed me a list of self-publishing websites and explained that I didn’t need a large publishing house if was just writing for my own personal satisfaction.  I could do it myself. 

I went out on the town with the Erasmus students on Saturday night.  We took the metro downtown and emerged from the station in the midst of a swarming crowd of young people all moving in the same direction – towards Bairro Alto.  We joined in the crowd and floated along with the crowd.  We moved away from the station and up the hill to the bar area. The streets narrowed and the crowd thickened.  Bars lined each side of the street but no one seemed to stay inside for more than enough time to buy a beer and take it back to the street.  Thousands of Portuguese were gathered in circles drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and passing joints around. 

Street after street was packed wall to wall.  People hung off their first story balconies and flirted with passer-bys on the street.  Chupeterias sold 1€ shots to fuel the party and beers cost 2€ for a liter.  Spanish was almost as common as Portuguese, and I had no trouble making myself understood. 

We all exchanged past travel stories and planned adventures.  I told the Frenchies that I wanted to learn their language.  They said I could get a job picking grapes in the summer time, which would be a good opportunity to pick up some French.  Or maybe I could move to Marseille and get a job in a tourist area for a the summer.  Surely they would need someone fluent in English and Spanish to handle the hordes of tourists.  The possibilities were endless.

Yes, the possibilities were endless indeed.  That realization grew excessively painful near the end of the weekend as my train returned to Arevalo.  I had spent the whole weekend surrounded by interesting people and enjoyed a taste of a new world that was opening up to me.  That interesting world of adventure made my apartment in Arevalo seem hollow and dead.  Back to work for a week.  I realized the hardest part about living this double life would be giving up my adventures every Sunday. 

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