It was the first ocean I ever met, and the only one I would ever know until my twenties. The waves are wild and cold. The sand is made of larger granules than the usual sand - bits of visible shells and stones, smoothed by the pounding waves. You don't really find shells here, but rather bits of broken shells that have all been smoothed like beach glass.
My father taught me how to swim here, how to not be afraid of the waves. J was fascinated by them - "I've never swam in waves before!" We jumped in, playing like children, retreating and approaching. I tried to teach her what my father taught me, all those years ago. If you see a big wave coming, go towards it, not away - you'll just gently rise up with it and it will crash on the other side of you. The tugging and pulling of the waves is a rhythm that stays with me, long after I leave.
We spend the day swimming, walking in the sand, and laying in the sun, with the backdrop of the crashing waves and then cliffs behind us.
Nazaré for me is not a tourist beach. It is the place where my father came as a child and lost a little horn in the sand. It is the spot where my mother would snack on sun-dried little fish for sale by the boardwalk. It is a place full of real fishermen and their wives, going about their daily lives and taking no notice of outsiders. It is where a wave once tumbled me upsidedown in the water and my father helped me get back up again, without coddling, and I never developed fear. It is a place where I would swim out, out, out, past all the waves, past all the people and swim in deep waters along with one or two local elderly Portuguese men, while my mother watching anxiously from shore as I was a little swimming dot in the distance.
In the later part of the afternoon, J and I took the funicular car up the steep cliff to the top - a place called Sítio. From here you can see the whole beach from way up above - it's quite incredible how we manage to get so high up in such a short amount of time. I've been up here dozens of times as well, but the sentiment of a nearby tourist reminds me of the magic of this place - "I can't believe it," he said in awe, leaving his camera at his side and slowly walking around to get a better view. "La
I found myself teary eyed all of a sudden. I think it's certainly more complicated than that - an omnipresent being didn't just reach his hand out of the sky and craft these cliffs and beach and view in one fell swoop. The power of nature, science, time, and the human spirit are what crafted this place, over millions of years... there is more mystery and magic in that complex, intricate series of processes, and that is my religion, if anything.
The last time I was here, my sister and I had discovered the "North Beach", the place where the tallest waves in the world have been recorded, and surfers from all over the world come to experience the power of these waves. When you are at the top of the cliffs, you can take a trail that goes west towards the lighthouse at the tip, and then veer off on an unnofficial trail that slopes gently down towards the beach on the other side. There are a few signs that tell you not to do this, but we ignored them, as the locals do, and made our way down the old stone steps and rocky areas that lead you to the almost empty beach. Only two or three others were around, but we were effectively alone, and we wasted no time in setting our towels down and running into the crashing waves.
This is definitely not a place for swimming, as the waves are wild and unpredictable and the undertow is almost visible in many spots. We instead play games with the waves, running close and then running away as they come to break, laughing and shrieking as they pound down on the sand around us, spraying saltwater and joy all over us.
Later in the evening, after a simple meal at a nearby restaurant, we grab an ice cream cone and head down to the main beach once more. The place is almost empty as the sun is starting to set, and we sit on the sand watching the glowing yellow ball slowly make its way behind the cliffs, as a few locals make their final strolls, and the fishermen's boats are visible on the horizon, heading back home with their days' catch.
Earlier in the evening, thick fog had rolled in over the beach and you could barely see the cliffs or the town behind you at all. It was just us and the waves. The tide was going out and the waves were strong, so we didn't swim, but we had fun playing in the waves. At one point I looked down and I noticed bits of black everywhere in the surf - was it sand? I reached down and scooped up some water to have a closer look. I crushed some of the between my fingers and it smudged.
Ash. From the forest fires nearby.
I looked up, half expecting to see smoke or more bits of ash raining down, but clearly the ocean had brought it from some place else, or the winds had carried it here. It was a little unnerving at first, the knowledge that we were being literally covered with the devastation that had happened just a few days ago.
What is an appropriate response to tragedy? The world seems a more frightening place every day. London, Brussels, Syria, Palestine. Always something. This week, it's Portugal. Next week, it could be some place else. Some people would tell us not to travel - stay at home, where it's safe. But home is not safe - nowhere is. Anything could happen anywhere.
And that is precisely WHY we travel. Life is fleeting and unpredictable. So our response to tragedy is not fear but rather fearless joy. We will jump in the waves, we will climb the highest mountains, we will take risks and fly across the world, rent cars and drive them through windy roads, spend time with our families, write, eat, play, love, learn, explore.
Yes, we grieve, too, and we take precautions, and we fight for those that can't fight, and lend a helping hand, and protest, and write letters, and educate others, and educate ourselves. But I've seen firsthand the exhaustion and despair that comes from wholly immersing yourself in that way of life, and my philosophy is different, though no more right or wrong.
I have to take each moment and immerse myself in it. The world needs all kinds of people - activists and fighters, protectors and educators, yes, but also artists. Immersing myself in life IS an art, and it fuels me. These crashing ocean waves against my skin, the setting sun, the taste of my late grandfather's oranges, the cool damp of walking up the spiraling stone initiation well, the rambles through old stone castles - they are the fuel for dark nights, for cold winters, for frightening stories on the news. These are the things that I hold with me and transform into art, whether that is in the form of writing this blog for others who wish to journey to these special places, or singing choral music for a soul-weary audience that needs to be transformed, or telling snippets of stories to young children who still need to believe that the world is full of magical, unknown places and cultures to explore and experience.
So this is my response to tragedy. I jump back into the waves, let the white foam crash all around me, take J's hand, and immerse myself into the joy of the moment, for we never truly know when it might be our last.
Goodbye, Nazaré. Until next time.