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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Life in the Sun

somewhere near paradise CC Image by flavijus on Flickr
Breathtaking beaches. Sunburnt tourists. Hard-partying backpackers. The first time I visited the Algarve region of Portugal it was hard to reconcile it with the sleepy fishing village where Vovó Flora was raised. Lagos is now a thriving tourist spot, one of the most popular in Europe. Her memories were of a poor economy and little opportunity. Her sister Isabel, on learning I would be visiting Lagos, sniffed and asked why I’d bother. “Nothing there, just fishermen,” she said. “Go to Lisbon.” I never saw a fisherman but I did see hordes of vacationers. Hardly anyone spoke Portuguese. The waiters were Aussies. The menus were in English or German. I couldn’t picture my Vovó there at all.

  
Lagos by Night CC Image by carlosoliveirareis on Flickr Lagos, Portugal CC Image by coda on Flickr
The region didn’t become a vacationing hotspot until the 1960s, long after Vovó Flora had moved away, first to Lisbon for work, then to America. When I visited I never strayed far from the beaches. Every tourist town has an area past the main drag where the real people live. The glitz and leisure along the coast belong to the visitors. I have no idea how the residents of Lagos actually live.

So many stories go untold. I searched for a history of the Algarve, some sense of how the region fared economically at the start of the 20th century. There is nothing, not in English anyway. You can learn how the are changed hands from the Carthaginians to the Romans to the Visigoths to the Byzantines to the Moors. You can read about the role this coast played in Portugal’s Age of Discovery, or how it’s now a thriving beach destination. But nowhere can you find out how the people there lived. The everyday lives of simple people go undocumented, unremembered. Their stories are lost beside the triumphs of conquerors past or the picture-perfect holiday snapshots posted on Flickr.

I can’t tell the story of a region. I can’t even really tell the story of a woman who left there and never looked back. I can only piece together what I’ve been told and what I know she became. The past is lost, and the present gives only a sun-drenched slice of the life that bears little resemblance to the place Vovó Flora knew.

Flora visiting Lagos in 1968.

First three photos used are copyright of their owners and are available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

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