Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The other side of Porto.

We were really comfortable in Porto, but in a strange way. It was the first city where we've encountered aggressive beggars on the streets. It was the first city we've visited where every single street in and around the tourist areas had countless boarded-up buildings. And it was the first city since... since we can't even remember... where we were subconsciously more mindful of our backpacks in public spaces from the minute we stepped off the train to the minute we boarded the bus out of town.

But wasn't this western Europe? And didn't we have an image of Portugal as a lush, exotic, thriving country? To try to understand the situation, we took a very biased but enlightening walking tour led by a young anarchist mostly-out-of-work architect.

(Ed. note: We said "very biased", right? So take all this with a grain of salt, and if we've misrepresented or misstated anything please correct it in a comment. It's been a few weeks. Obrigada!)

Portugal is the poorest country in western Europe. We had no idea. As we walked down the former main street, our guide explained why and how Porto (and Portugal overall) was hit so hard by the economic downfall as she pointed out shop after house after apartment that sit boarded up and empty.  

hint: the EU and the conversion to the Euro had a lot to do with it

Sounds like the current government isn't helping the situation. The mayor is all about tourism and wants nothing but 5-star hotels and businesses catering to their clients built downtown. This means that small local businesses are being run out because they can't afford increasing rent.

Or they no longer have the customers - it seems that a lot of the older people are being displaced from their homes and sent to the suburbs to live in housing projects. Portugal is very family-centric, and being alone when you're elderly is very difficult, especially when you have no money. Plus, it sounds like people are ashamed to admit they live in these projects, which causes huge life stress. Put all that together and this seems like a very bad idea.

us in a few years

The young people are moving out too.  There is no opportunity and no encouragement from the government for them to stay. Those educated youth who do stay, for love of family or country, often find jobs in call centers.  Or, like in Portland, they work at a coffee shop.

She explained that there are activists like herself ready and willing to fight the good fight but that the majority of people are just getting by day to day and don't have the mental energy to vote... so the current government can basically do whatever they want.

true in many other parts of the world too
including the US

She took us through "the islands" ("Ilhas"), 4x4 meter row houses hidden away in alleys that were once used to house workers. Back then they had bare necessities - one door, one window, no sewage or water supply. Now poor people reside in them, and pay little (or no?) rent. Now they have running water and interior bathrooms, and unlike the projects in the suburbs, these homes are coveted and there is a huge sense of community. People watch out for each other.

they even compete for "best kept island" awards

She showed us the old public wash station, which is now back in use because people can't afford washing machines (or the electricity to run them - Portugal's electricity costs are the highest in Europe right now).

a particularly sobering site

She told us about Es.Col.A da Fontinha, a community project from a few years ago that she was involved in. Volunteers occupied an empty building and turned it into an education center. Kids could go there after school for lessons on various topics, sports activities, and general community building. The police shut it down three times. The last time was the final time. There's a video about it with English subtitles. It's an interesting idea. And it is such a shame when perfectly good spaces go unused.


She took us to a private art school, one of the only places graffiti is allowed anymore. You know, because the tourists at the 5-star hotels don't like it.




Over croissants and coffee we discussed the high incidents of antidepressant prescriptions and heroin addiction in and around Porto. Meth will probably be next. They've been hit by all the other low-cost synthetic drugs as well.

She took us through a former shopping center that some musicians have turned into a cheap co-op, where they practice and hold concerts. The shop windows are blacked out and the escalator has been turned off to save costs, but with the paltry rent they pay, they still maintain the bathrooms and (some) light fixtures. Priorities in order: check.

the paved the shopping mall and
put up a recording studio

If this all feels a bit disjointed, that's because it was. Five hours (!) later, we had been completely inundated with information. She was awesome, her energy was contagious, and the tour was really, really interesting though. We definitely appreciated the perspective and we had to wonder if we were doing a good or bad thing by supporting the mayor's movement and contributing tourist dollars to tourist establishments in the city. She assured us that yes, we should spend money and yes, we should encourage visitors to Porto. (So please go! Really, we loved loved loved the city.)

And then she told us about the new job she'll be working on... a building for a tourist agency.

She'd fit in well in Portland.


  1. I should add that my community activism synapses were firing after this tour. I have a hard time just being a tourist; while it's true that my dollars help the overall economy, they don't trickle down to those who really need it. And I don't just want to give cash to people on the streets. This walking tour reminded me to be cognizant of all of this, and to start seeking out wider-reaching opportunities to give back in our future travels.

  2. do any of the beggars drive away in a Mercedes Benz at the end of the day, as they do in this country?

    1. I'm just now seeing this comment, sorry.

      I will admit that I have worked closely with, and also just walked by, people with skewed priorities in the US (the low-income family in Oakland with the Land Rover and the kid on Pioneer Square in Portland begging while using his iPad come immediately to mind).

      But our culture reinforces and perpetuates this behavior. Hell, it's currently a drought summer in Portland, yet all the older folks have green yards because green grass is a status symbol for that generation in our country.

      Until we de-value status and get back to basics, this kind of thing will prevail around the world.