Taboo's Junk Trunk: A Storage Dump for Taboo's Random Literary and Cultural Blatherments
Published on January 11, 2006 By TaBoo Tenente In Travel

A shallow breeze whispers through the night air along the foothills of the Serra de Sintra. John and I drink from a two-Euro bottle of full-blooded Ramisco wine, share a supper of cigarettes and pickles, and, under the raucous scrutiny of a small crowd, begin a second game of chess on the sidewalk outside of the train station. Meanwhile, João attempts to recruit a gathering of young squatters to break us in to the tunnels beneath the Monastery dos Capuchos.

John and I eat with the shameless gusto of ravenous scavengers—one vegetarian scavenger and one carnivorous scavenger though we are, and forced to compromise on queijada—the local cheesecake—and pickles. Portuguese pickles are entirely superior to the classic kosher dill, and each pickle glass holds a variety of surprises. We crowd into the jar, at first thrusting and stabbing with our short-handle knives, then swirling our tobacco-soiled fingers about in the murky brine as we hunt for remaining scraps of cucumber, carrot, and the prize morsels of red pepper.

João returns with seven squatters. “No one will go. No one ever goes anymore. This man was eaten by a snake,” he says, indicating a grimy, milky-eyed boy no older than eighteen. Impressed, I open another bottle of wine and offer him the first sip.

“I’m Owen, from London,” he says. “These lot are local. They know Sintra rather well and let me squat with them these last two months. We’re climbing Moon Mountain; if you like you can come.”

João grimaces. “It is a very good place, but there are dogs and police with guns. More dangerous than the tunnels. We will not go. Sintra has good bars and you will meet Portuguese women. Portuguese women are also dangerous.”

In the few weeks of our travels we have already encountered the peculiar danger of Portuguese women. Dragging João along, we follow the squatters.

The squatters are lean from hard living and unhindered by hiking packs; they set a brisk pace from the station. We hug the edges of a winding, lamp-lit road for only fifteen minutes before one of the squatters taps my shoulder and points to the sky and the shroud of Moon Mountain looms like a deeper darkness of shadow inside the night.

For the next three hours no one speaks as we break a trail directly up the mountainside, cutting through brambles, splashing in hidden, icy streams, climbing over boulders and chest-high timber, groping blind in the dark, guided only by the sounds of those in front of us.

We halt twice: once when we hear the barking of several dogs; and then again when two flashlights split the darkness below. During the second break John lights a cigarette, and someone grasps his arm and whispers urgently. John stubs out the cigarette. Then we wait.

Suddenly we’re in motion and all thoughts of stealth are left in the mud as everyone scrambles up the hill. I have to crawl sometimes, but mostly I’m jerking my boots high to free them from oozing mud—my thighs and elbows are caked with the sludge.

Then at last we summit, and over a wide granite shelf we can suddenly see for miles. Above us there are stars and moon; below, a long plain of scattered lights. The squatters crow with joy. I throw down my pack and flop down next to John, wheezing in, wheezing out of consciousness.

Someone is dancing. Someone says something once or twice. John responds, “Le sentado,” which barely means anything in any language. We’ve acquired a pathetic habit of responding with intentionally corrupted Spanish—believing for some reason that speaking Spanish incorrectly will make things easier for the Portuguese than speaking Spanish correctly.

The squatter laughs. Finally, John laughs. I laugh and soon we light cigarettes and open wine—each drinking from his own bottle and with a third to share with our new friends—and before long we are telling jokes that no one understands—even Owen from London—and we remember how lucky and free we are, traveling recklessly and free, and I remember how terrible and wonderful that freedom was the first time I traveled many years ago. I offer my silent, fervent thanks to the Mountain.

The party retreats to a secluded, sheltered nook within a swaying copse of black skeletal pine. The squatters fill their mouths with spirits and breathe clouds of fire. Three of the squatters are women, soon naked, holding hands and dancing in plump writhing circles to beating drums while their fellows holler and clap. John and I are thankful for many things. And even the young women with shadows of breasts swaying both soft and swift like projections of promise on the back drop of a moistened forest—even the women cannot distract me from my moment, from something deep and almost, but not quite, forgotten.

But before dawn, we are too cold to for thankfulness, and a squatter named Gonzalo offers to guide João and his Americans back to Sintra. Even though the risk of being caught has disappeared, descending proves much more perilous than the ascent. There are high rock shelves that were easy to climb, but without a flat base at the bottom we cannot trust ourselves for balance. Many times we’re forced to slide down the trunks of trees as if they were poles rather than gnarled, bristled chunks of bark.

We do not see the sun when it rises behind the mountain, but darkness dries into the ashen light of morning, and, for the first time, we realize, we are able to see the mountain at last.

Both climbing and descending, several times we cut across a single, spiraling road that sections Moon Mountain into several tiers. But the road had been hidden by the dark. And we discover that many of the trees in the highest places are ancient, transplanted Redwoods. Then, about halfway down, we enter a denuded meadow, littered with the unusable debris of felled lumber.

Gonzalo stops for a moment and we survey a field of little white tubes. There are tubes everywhere, row upon row of Plexiglas cylinders containing new-starts, twelve-inch substitute saplings--like we've entered the nightmarish future of graveyards.

As I prepare to resume our trek, I see that Gonzalo is crying. At first he will not speak; then he speaks in a rush of feeling and João explains that one year earlier, the entire mountain changed from public to private ownership. Speculators from Japan and the United States had purchased most of the land. The squatter is losing his forest. He is tired. He talks about suicide but he is too afraid. After many meditations and prayers he knows he has no means to make things right. He hates the world. He is afraid to die. There is nothing he can do.

There is a fountain at the bottom of the mountain. Two scowling, grey-haired ladies are collecting water with two identical blue jugs, and I am surprised when they smile. They offer us a drink. My throat is filled with dust and restraint and the clean purity of the water stings as it goes down, as if to say, you know nothing of purity, you know nothing of clean intent.

Above the lip of the water jug, I watch Gonzalo as I drink. He stares at my shoes.

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on Dec 06, 2006
I just googled Janna's name for the first time ever, and your blog popped up. Wow. A flood of memories from over 10 years ago came to me when reading your words. Thank you for that.