Close Encounters in Portugal’s Capital

This would have been a good time for some Spidey-sense.

Lisbon’s electric trams are not as safe as they might appear. (BG)

My visit to Portugal’s bustling and historic capital city of Lisbon, with a population estimated at 1.3 million, didn’t go quite as I had planned.

I was hit by a streetcar.

The city’s Castelo do São Jorge had been an unforgettable sight, an 11th-century fortress and royal palace built by Moorish conquerors. Lunch with Barb, my traveling companion, at an obscure nearby café introduced me to delicious Bacalhau com Natas, a creamy cod-fish casserole. A stroll down the cobbled streets of the Alfama district allowed us to peek into little bars which, later that evening, would host aging singers with gravel-tinged voices crooning Portuguese Fado melodies with guitar accompaniment.

Lisbon sidewalks can be notoriously narrow. (BG)

But I got lazy about a prime tenet of travel: Don’t let your guard down. Don’t ever take personal safety for granted.

Sidewalks are notoriously narrow in Lisbon’s older neighborhoods. That’s especially true along Largo Sao Martinho, opposite the ancient Sé cathedral where it is crossed by the Rua do Pedras Negro, the “Street of Black Feet.” Electric trams race past on tracks that can be shockingly close to the pedestrian walkways. Streetcar schedules are unpredictable, the rails are silent, and a person can never be 100% certain if one of them might come racing past.

If I was waiting for a tingle of warning, it never came. As I followed Barb around a narrow corner, with one step on the nearly nonexistent sidewalk and one on the street, I was thrown off my feet and knocked to the ground by a completely unexpected shove from behind.

A scary moment

I landed on my left side with my arm outstretched. I rolled with the impact and hit my head as I fell. I looked up and saw the streetcar above me as it screeched to a halt. Barb, who had seen me tumble past her, shouted “Stop!!” and let out a blood-curdling scream that could have landed her a stand-in role in a horror film.

There may be little room to walk next to streetcars. (BG)

I slowly rose to my feet, brushed myself off and took inventory of my condition. My elbow was bleeding, my hip was bruised and I had a growing bump on my head. But I hadn’t lost consciousness, and I could detect no major injury.

The tram driver, a young Brazilian man, leaped from his cab in shock and offered assistance. The pretty driver of a passing tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled touring taxi, came racing over: She spoke excellent English and insisted upon calling police and an ambulance.

Within moments, an emergency medical technician arrived on his motorcycle. This bear of a man checked out my head and eyes for possible concussion, bandaged my elbow and recommended that I visit the hospital — to have the wound thoroughly cleaned and to get a tetanus shot. “I’m the sort of guy who likes to find the good in everything,” Ron said. “You’ll get to see the inside of an 18th-century monastery. That’s what Hospital São José used to be.”

The med tech who accompanied me in the ambulance asked a series of questions about my health history, then walked me through the registration process at the hospital. I was directed to “Surgery A” to see a doctor. I waited, standing, for about a half hour, as two law-enforcement officials took a police report and administered a breathalyzer test. (I passed.)

“Cuckoo’s Nest”

EMT “Ron” talks to John after the accident. (BG)

Barb, who had stayed with me all the way, agreed that the waiting room was an eerie place. I began to wonder if two covered stretchers were corpses until one of them began waving an arm. From somewhere around a corner, a patient shrieked as if in excruciating pain. This place was even more like DiCaprio’s creepy “Shelter Island” than Nicholson’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

When my name was called, I was shown to a room where a doctor waited at her desk. She told me that she had reviewed the notes of my injury, determined they weren’t serious, and sent me to see a doctor in “Surgery B” to have my wound treated.

Lisbon’s medieval Se cathedral. (BG)

By this time, however, I had determined that my injuries didn’t warrant another lengthy wait in a different room, lest I be recommended for brain surgery. I considered that a glass of locally produced port wine would be better therapy. So Barb and I looked at one another and departed on foot. Exit, Stage Left.

Curiously, through the whole process, not a single medical practitioner checked my vitals. No one took my pulse. No one checked my blood pressure. No doubt, it would have been elevated!

But it wasn’t the dubious quality of medical care that I now reflect upon. I recall best the warmth and genuine caring of the Portuguese people — Jefferson, Melanie, Ron, Miguel and others whose names I have forgotten —  in their response.

Staying on point

And I remember that I must stay on point at all times.

John gives the thumbs-up sign … moments before a thief attempted to rob Barb. (BG)

Barb did exactly that on the following evening, as we returned to our hotel from dinner in the Bairro Alto, or “Old Town.” On the crest of a hill where the renowned Kronos Quartet had just performed in the ruins of the 14th-century Convento do Carmo, destroyed by a great earthquake in 1755 yet left standing as a monument, she was targeted by a pickpocket.

We had been cautioned, more than once, to be aware that this scam was alive and well in Portugal’s capital. I was careful never to carry anything besides a city map in my back pockets. Barb, who as a photographer always had a camera or two strapped to her person, also toted a small neck purse for valuables — cellphone, cash, credit cards, passport.

Just as I had no clue that a streetcar was bearing down on me, she never heard the thief coming. But at the same moment that she felt a distracting tickle on her right shoulder, she became aware of her purse being unzipped as far as her left hand, which rested upon it.

Two steps behind me, she erupted. “Get the f*ck away from me!” she shouted at her bearded assailant.  “GET THE F*CK AWAY FROM ME!” she repeated at full volume. As I turned, two men were scrambling away, down the street, and my companion was trembling with anger. Thankfully, caught in the act, the miscreant had failed in his theft attempt.

I wish that I had some of her Spidey-sense.


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