Sitting in my dark room in the first months of university , a heavy depression hung in the air. The curtain was tightly closed, in order to keep out the prying stares from the benches outside, and the candles remained unlit. Due to fire regulations and yet a old romantic soul, they stayed purely for decoration. I was thinking about the two years preceding that moment, years filled with exciting and new adventures, incredible sights and discoveries, and a new set of friends every day. In truth I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing there.
In was purely by accident then, that I happened to be absent mindedly browsing skyscanner that evening and came across incredibly cheap return flights to Faro, Portugal, that Christmas. At £50, it seemed like a less economic decision not to do it considering how much is usually spent on a student night out, so I booked it without a second thought. After deciding that I would use this time for pure relaxation, I stayed away from couchsurfing.com and instead spent the next the few days researching on various hostel websites for a good deal. Due to an administrational error, a few days later I stumbled upon something amazing. Thanks to the mistake of someone who has probably long since been fired, I managed to book six nights in FaroWay hostel at an absolute steal of one euro a night. Talking to the hostel manager once I had arrived, it turns out that only one other lucky guy had managed to book before that error was taken offline ten minutes later.
In mid December, armed only with a carry-on filled with four textbooks for three essay titles which would remain neglected for the duration, and a poor grasp of Portuguese that three months of a degree had lent me, I arrived in Bristol Airport with no idea of what to expect. I have travelled alone of course, but this definitely seemed more like a holiday, and I wasn’t sure how to approach that.
Fortunately for me, one of the best things about FaroWay hostel was the diversity of the crowd it attracts. I was by far the youngest person there, and by then I had learnt that although wisdom doesn’t necessarily grow with years, the multitude of stories does at least. The first night I spent in a dimly lit typical Portuguese bar, discussing literature and politics with a 44 year old Scotsman. Scot, it happened, was also midway through writing his first novel, and we exchanged stories and ideas throughout the night. He had been travelling since the age of 18 and had witnessed things I can only imagine. Five years was spent with an ex girlfriend, living in a cave in southern Spain and harvesting their own fruit and vegetables, dumpster diving for anything which they couldn’t grow.
When he first started travelling mobile phones were not yet a thing, and the only way he had to keep in touch with his family was to call the landline in the local pub in the middle of the Scottish highlands, and book an appointment for his mother to come in and talk to him every few months.
The second night was spent with Scot, a Floridian girl, an incredible man from Paris, a boy with Greece, and a Belgisch woman living in London, watching a typical Portuguese style of music called Fado on a bar by the beach. Jorge, our host, was incredible in his ability to make sure that everyone in the hostel had met each other and was getting along, and was always happy to provide a recommendation for coffee, lunch, dinner, or evening entertainment. I miss that man. I have stayed in many, many, hostels, and never have I found a man so enthusiastic and kind to his guests.
The next days were spent discovering the town and surrounding area with the guy from Greece, who I still hope to see again one day. Faro is an amazingly beautiful and historic town, the best backdrop to a romantic setting that I can imagine. Arriving back in Faro on the Friday night, I met another man who would go on to change my life. Fresh off the bus from Lagos where I had spent two unforgettable days, I came back to the hostel in a sad and weary state. Fortunately for me, my roommate Aoki, from Bali, had a very similar expression on his face.
After I invited him out on the terrace to share a beer and forget the woes of life for at least a moment, we ended up spending 7 hours in the many bars in Faro, discussing everything from love and relationships, to cultural differences and religion, to diet and fitness. We stayed in contact from then, and in February of this year he invited me out to Reykjavik Iceland to distract me from the many stresses that University life so willingly provides. He was an incredibly good friend to me in a time of great need, and I can only hope that I returned at least a small fraction of the impact he had on me.
In April I spent ten incredibly, awe inspiring, and beautiful days with him, his wife, and her uncle in Reykjavik. Strangely, I have not yet written about those times. In all honesty, the only excuse that I can give, is that the kindness and beauty I discovered in Iceland deserve a far better writer than I. The time I spent there changed me both mentally and spiritually, and I have found that not a day goes by where I do not remember seeing the aurora borealis light up both the sky and my dreams.
The day I spent hiking up Mount Esja with Antonio Monteiro was a turning point in my life, I learnt more from that man and that mountain than I have learnt in so w many years of schooling. On my penultimate day in Iceland my grandfather, another man I worshipped and loved like a god, who has had a bigger influence on my life than he ever knew, on so many lives more than he ever could have wished for, went into hospital for his last time. Were it not for the advice and love I received from Antonio, were it not for our talks about death, and reincarnation, were it not for the strength and wisdom he showed me, and the faith he nourished in my heart, I don’t think I ever could have survived. A man like Antonio Monteiro is a very lucky man to find in life, I cannot be more grateful for the time I got to spend with him, Aoki and Julianna in Reykjavik.
For someone so different, so much wiser, intelligent, and loving than I can ever aspire to be, he changed my life, my views, and my heart at a time when it could not have been needed more. I have a habit when I travel, even long before my grandfather’s death, of finding grandfather figure in those who I meet. In Barcelona, it was the head chef of the pizzeria next door to my bar on the Barceloneta. He called me Carmen because he could not pronounce my name, and I loved him for that. In Rome, it was the manager of the cafe I frequented four times a week, the man who brought me chocolates and biscuits and insisted that I must eat. When I went back to Rome, he wasn’t there. Because of his age and health, I was heartbroken and distraught, until one day I bumped into him on the street and he explained that a triple heart bypass had meant that he could not return to work, at least for the foreseeable future. Antonio, you are one of the best men I have ever met, and I will never forget all that you did for me.
None of this, none of the growth, none of the friendship, none of the love, none of it would have happened if I had not taken that chance and been spontaneous. In booking flights to a place I had barely heard of and never seen, I let the wind carry me where it must, and it saved my life.
Written and edited by Bethany Naylor
Although I managed to spend ten days in Iceland on a shoestring budget thanks to the generosity of a few amazing strangers, the reality is that it can be a very expensive country to visit! If you’ve been holding off Iceland due to financial concerns, why don’t you check out Ferdinand Götzen’s blog post on surviving Iceland on a budget!