Spring is over when I travel to Lisbon after the end of a long relationship, after the end of a cold and exhausting era in my life. When I arrive to the sun-dazzled city, its buildings swathed in colorful tiles, I am flooded with brochures and guidebooks on where to go, what to eat, what to do. It’s hard to think, I am tired of decisions. I just want something simple.
Then an old man at the tiny tasca (traditional cafe-bar) near my hotel mentions Praia do Guincho, or Guincho Beach. It is beautiful, it is clean, it is on the edge of the continent—and I can reach it by bike. My heart is racing as I discover that this beach lies on the westernmost point of continental Europe, the edge of the world, the end of everything. I felt I already knew what this meant. But now, I could finally take a good hard look before I moved on.
Praia do Guincho is about 3 miles from Cascais, a beautiful town just outside of Lisbon where you can enjoy a free bike loan for the day. My Portuguese afternoon is a potent blend of searing sun and flirty warm breezes. The water off the coast of Cascais is jade green with red and yellow wooden boats playing between the waves. There is no room for sadness or fear in this postcard world.
The woman at the free bike rental stand, BiCas, waves her arm out to the bikes like Vanna White presenting the missing letters needed to solve the puzzle. The bikes are all technically the same: stocky, well-worn, with a metal basket in front to carry your shopping bags of souvenirs. She tells me to try them all, see which one fits me best, make sure the tires have enough air, the seat is not too high. I swing my backpack into the basket of the bike nearest me and hop on. The seat is high, so I clamber down and fiddle with the bolts. The seat slams down, and I think it will be just right. I don’t want to spend anymore time here searching for the perfect bike. I just want to leave, before I change my mind. I want to move. I want to move on.
But the woman is taking her time writing down my passport number, showing me where to sign my name, and slowly articulating her words as if I were a new student, informing me that I must return the bike by 6.30 p.m. It is already 3 p.m., and I am anxious and giddy. Finally I am off. There is a slight incline, and I am facing the water head-on for a moment before it moves to my left.
I speak to the ocean, You are why I came here, from a landlocked country, from a landlocked life. And now, I have no idea what happens next.
I wait with the ocean for an answer. It’s just a random summer Tuesday, and this is the day I will reach the end of the world on a bike. And then what?
I decide that I must take some pictures, to show everyone else what it’s like, to remind myself later. I slow down a little, steering with my left hand and tugging impatiently with my right hand at the zipper on my backpack lumped into the basket. I drag out my camera case, tug again at another zipper. I’m performing wrist acrobatics to wrangle the camera strap around my hand and settle camera into the shaky nest of my fingers. My index finger hovers over the button, the picture will be blurry, but I can’t stop. If I stop moving, it might all disappear, it won’t be the same when I am still and the air isn’t rushing through my nose and ears and pushing my hair out and around my face like a Bollywood starlet. Another sheet of cold wind slaps me through the stained glass air. Savage waves erupt higher than I’ve ever seen waves jump.
Poseidon is reaching out, climbing up in slow anger, falling back in momentary resignation to his lair, making an appearance to reaffirm the presence of wilderness, the presence of nothingness. It’s been waiting right beside us all along. It’s something I have forgotten, and I am reawakened here by this monster, realizing I don’t own anything.
How do you take a picture of the edge of the earth, how do you frame this infinite space (or is it nothingness?) when you cannot understand what you are looking at? The Tao Te Ching is right: “The unnameable is the eternally real.”
Watching the spinning liquid abyss, I know that nothing in my life will ever truly be under my control. Deciding to come here was less of a decision and more of another step in an endless series of steps that would continue to lead me through suffering and bliss and everything in between. For now, in this moment, I am free from it all—just me and a bike at the end of the world.
I arrive at Guincho Beach 10 minutes later without having stopped once. There are so few people here. My feet sink into the hot sand as I heave the bike forward. I just need to get to the water, to the edge. My bike is sinking with each movement. I feel bad leaving it alone, but I finally drop the bike and it falls over softly. Just me at the end of the world.
I am walking toward the water with a slightly panicked feeling like I am at the dentist’s, wondering if it will hurt. But the others here are tanning and relaxing as if it’s just another beach, as if it wasn’t a big deal to be so close to nothingness.
My shoes are off, waiting with the bike for my return. I leave the dry white sand for the wet dark shore, and the first touch of water slips up over my toes. The water is shockingly cold, so cold it feels warm, but there is more life here than I’ve felt in awhile. This is the end, and I sacrifice my solid thoughts to the tumbling, growling liquid furnace of unknowns.
The hour is almost 7 when I near the BiCas bike stand. I am late and hope for the usual “nao faz mal” (don’t worry about it) from the Portuguese woman. But I am back in traffic and so far from the strange place where I have come from. The people here don’t seem to realize what exists so close to them. I feel a bit dizzy and hop off my bike to walk it the few meters left. It seems better this way.
I wearily, faithfully guide my bike back up a last small incline as two men on racing bikes pass by, leaning in boldly colored body suits and professional gloves. They see me and laugh but give a friendly wave.
The woman at the BiCas booth says “Nao faz mal” as I roll the bike over to her. She has been waiting for me, I am the last one. I tell her sorry and thank you, she smiles and shakes her head, “Nao faz mal.”
When the bike is sitting comfortably back in the rack, I feel better and am bursting to tell the woman what has just happened, where I’ve been. Does she have any idea where these bikes will take you? But she is hurrying to close down for the day. The wind is picking up, so I put on my sweater, say good-bye and walk away with my back to the end of the world.