Smoking Saved My Life
“Fuck this stupid ass machine.”
My feet sloppily kicked a rusty old Marlboro cigarette dispenser as I muttered under beer-drenched breath. By then, I had been consumed by joyous Latin salsa for hours — a far cry from the longing acoustic Fado that soundtracked Lisbon by day. Between pumping live brass, liquid flowing hips and equally flowing cheap drinks, it was time to let this sweaty body breathe with a ciggie by the water.
“Ahhh ah buddy, not like that, it gets everyone, don’t worry.”
After I’d spent minutes pushing buttons to every floor and pulling levers and flicking switches like a manic train conductor, a lovely local couple effortlessly procured my small bounty in seconds. We chatted for a short while about things to do in the area and our mutual love of football, but mostly about my stupidity.
I soon found myself on the wooden veranda out back with a lit Marlboro in mouth and my shoes dangling over the red-lit Tagus River. By my side was Clara: a blonde German film student I had met a few nights earlier at my previous hostel. This was supposed to be my final night, but I had fallen hard for the city and chosen to extend my stay. Unfortunately, the Oasis hostel I’d grown to love had become fully booked. So, earlier in the day, I quickly dumped my bags at Palace Backpackers a 10-minute walk away before rejoining my close friends — of three days — from Oasis on their night at the Salsa bar.
After another solid boogie, Clara and I decided to head on back to Miradouro de Santa Carina, a beautiful lookout opposite the Oasis where hours earlier we’d enjoyed the sunset with a cold Super Bock. We carefully hiked the cities infamous hills, hand in hand through the winding bright street art and up passed the iconic yellow trams that had long retired for the evening — we passed just as they were being repainted by tourists who couldn’t quite make it to the public toilet a few steps up the road.
“Sooo… You’re back to Hamburg tomorrow! What’s the plan?”
“I dunnnoo. Finish my degree I guess? What about when you get home?”
It was pretty clear neither of us had thought that far ahead. This was only my third day of solo travelling. I had months of European self-discovery and self-loss to go before having to confront any sense of a ‘plan’.
So with the weight of our futures lingering in the air between us, we blew the winds aside and kissed.
Another Marlboro or so later and it was time for us to go our separate ways. She quickly stepped into the fairy-lit glow of the Oasis whilst I stared at my wobbling Google Maps dot and prepared for the journey back to the Palace.
Five steps into the mission, I noticed a dude lurking in the shadows. Mildly chuffed by my short romantic encounter, I sent a cool-guy head nod in his direction. As I slowly paced past the opening of the lookout and into the alley leading up to high street, I began to hear his feet follow me down.
“Ey man, wait up!” I heard emerge from the darkness. I turned and he approached quickly, his size rising like the shadow of an approaching car. He followed with the age-old offering of, “Coke, marijuana, MD?”
I looked up at a small clock hanging between a dim street light and a closed fruit vendor; it was 4am and far past the point where this would’ve sounded appealing.
“No thanks dude, I’m all good.”
“You sure man? It’s good shit. Look I’ll give you a taster.”
He pulled out a small baggie of something or other and forced it in my face, a slight hint of fear started to rise within me knowing full well that a taste meant little option but full payment.
“No, no, no… I’m good honestly, cheers.”
My gratitude fell on unresponsive ears as he walked straight through me, stood tall and wouldn’t allow me to pass. I ducked left and right and he followed suit swiftly before shoving me back and grabbing my arm.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
I turned to see a second man pacing quickly in my direction. Gun in hand. The mirage of a drug deal had passed and the dry desert of danger quickly emerged before my eyes. Now speaking as one and with increased intensity, they yelled, “Empty your fucking pockets!”
Given the touristy nature of the Miradouro by day, I foolishly shoved my hands in my pockets, expecting Superman or a cop or even just a fellow backpacker to turn the corner and save me at any moment.
But no one came.
As a sheltered millennial, the concept of a beating or a bullet was far from my mind. I just had to protect my phone at all costs; how did anyone get anywhere before Google maps?
“I have 50 euros, just take it. Please don’t hurt me.”
Bang. A punch to my right cheek. Bang. A punch to the left. I fell back dazed and dropped to my knees. I looked up at the starless sky and tried to stand. Bang. The handle of the gun crashed into my skull.
With my ears and eyes ringing from a dangerous cocktail of beer, romance and violence, I finally emptied my pockets, spreading the contents across the pavement like playing cards on a table.
“Please just leave my hostel key card.”
They rummaged through my things and were surprisingly genuine in their search for the key. Unable to decipher what was what, they grabbed my cash and phone, left me my wallet and cards, and headed back into the shadows from which they came.
I collected my stuff as life returned to my body.
“Fuck… As if they took my ciggies,” I muttered to myself.
In that moment, a couple turned the corner like they’d been waiting for the ordeal to end before continuing their stroll home.
“Guys, guys! Please, I need help! I…”
I couldn’t even finish my sentence before being told from eyes fixed on home: “We don’t want to get involved.”
The two passed by and I looked back up the alley, seeing the thieves’ eyes glaring back. Noticing I’d asked for help, they started hurling back towards me.
“We’re gonna kill you!”
I ran as fast as my drunken limbs could handle. Being rejected for lack of cash or street address, I bounced from taxi to taxi to taxi. By the time the clock struck 5, I found myself kilometres away, sitting on the cold curb with my quickly purpling face buried in my hands. Then out of the night emerged the only Portuguese faces I could’ve recognised — the beautiful couple that solved my cigarette dilemma. I bounded over like a dog returning to its master.
In my approach they said, “How… How did you find us?”
“You found me!” I replied with renewed faith in the universe.
I quickly explained my situation and they patiently put it all together. Realising my hostel was en-route to where the girlfriend was heading, they committed to getting me home. I walked between them with my arms limp around their necks, looking like a soldier being pulled out of action; it was a little over the top to be honest.
They asked if I wanted any food and I replied that I could eat. The boyfriend knocked on a closed inconspicuous door to a property with no windows on the ground floor. He stood and chatted for a moment before being handed a bag of powdered pastries. They asked if I wanted a joint and I replied that I could smoke. So we wandered the path home, out of the nightmare and into a delirious twilight dream, munching on fluffy foods and puffing on joyous green until we finally reached the Palace Hostel.
Years later, I remain in close contact with Clara and the couple that saved me, having long forgotten the faces of the thieves and the passers-by.
Cover by Ander Burdain