Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

How Porto, Portugal, Liberated My Mind

Panoramic View of the Portuguese city of Oporto from Vila Nova de Gaia

Panoramic View of Oporto from Vila Nova de Gaia
 Photo: Gervasio Varela

Most people in the United States have the wrong mindset when it comes to exploring foreign shores. Most people think about foreign travel as a treat, as something they get to indulge in for a couple weeks a year when they have time off from work. In other words, when most people think about foreign travel they think of it as a vacation. But this “vacation” mindset is problematic.


The Perils of Taking a Vacation

The vacation mindset is a terrible one. Not only does it encourage seeking out the artificial thrills and adventures of tourism but the philosophy of “taking a vacation” also carries with it the belief travel is somehow meant to be an escape.

Considering travel an escape implies all sorts of nasty things about an individual’s normal life and what they expect to experience out on the open road. Considering foreign travel an escape from daily life implies daily life is the equivalent of confinement. If you’ve constructed a life for yourself you equate with incarceration then no amount of two-week vacations will dramatically improve how you feel about yourself.

Porto Town Centre

Porto Town Centre
 Photo: Graeme Churchard

Approaching travel as an escape also produces a set of expectations unconsciously designed to prevent you from learning a single thing on the road- about yourself, about the rest of the world, or about what it means to live a good life. The “vacation” mindset sets you up to absolve yourself of all responsibility while you travel. The vacation mindset finds you seeking pampering- seeking hotels that will cater to your every possible whim, seeking tour guides who will give you a dishonest view of the lands you’re visiting, seeking to run away from every possible inconvenience or impediment to you having a carefully controlled “good time.”

In total, the vacation mindset, the escape-oriented mindset, leaves you with a trip amounting to little more than a blur of being treated, by yourself and others, to an experience which never challenges and, by proxy, never produces any sort of growth. If anything the vacation mindset represents a de-evolution, a slide back to your crawling days instead of a climb up to a new sense of what your life can be.


An Antidote to the Vacation Mindset

My time in Porto, or Oporto in English, represents an alternative to the vacation mindset, an alternative that cures the ills of the thought of escaping daily life and instead revolves around exploring a different sort of growth-oriented routine.

I spent three weeks in Porto and during my time there my life didn’t appear dramatically different than my life back home. I continued to work daily as a freelance writer. I continued to cook a couple of my meals a day (with the same foods I normally eat) while going out for a regular lunch and the occasional dinner. During my free time I connected with (new) friends, I took long walks, I worked on personal projects and I watched movies or read before bed.

In many ways my daily life during my travels and explorations in Porto very, very, very closely mirrored my life at home, with one crucial difference- in Porto I was disconnected from the people, the specific social and occupational structures, and (most importantly) the expectations informing my life back home. In Porto I was able to construct a mirror-image life, one keeping all the things I liked about my daily life while jettisoning the baggage I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue to carry with me.

During my time in Porto, I indulged in a different form of travel, one that didn’t rely on pampering, one that wasn’t about escaping my daily life, but rather one that stripped down and reframed my daily life. Porto didn’t represent fleeing from anything- it represented a sidestep, a temporary lateral jump allowing for deep evaluation and some tough decision-making. In other words traveling to Porto wasn’t about trying to forget daily life. Traveling to Porto was instead about exploring the world to gain the space and new perspectives I needed to focus on improving my daily life in a way I never could back home.


Why Porto Worked

Properly engaged, any foreign location can provide you the perspective and the space you need to undertake a form of travel more concerned with improving daily life instead of escaping it, but there are elements of Porto that make it an ideal location for such enjoyable soul searching.

  • Porto is inexpensive. It’s difficult to navel-gaze when you’re fretting about finances the whole time.
  • Porto isn’t well known. The fewer expectations you hold about a location the easier time you’ll have letting go of all the other “shoulds” of your life.
  • You probably don’t speak Portuguese. Some travel experts argue you can unplug and learn more about yourself if you can connect with the locals using their own language. I can’t weigh in one way or another about this assertion as I’m not fluent in any language other than English, but I will argue there’s value in diving into a country where you’re unable to distract yourself too thoroughly with external stimuli.
  • Oporto iglesia azulejos on a building in Porto, Portugal

    Oporto Iglesia Azulejos
     Photo: cutus.geo

  • Porto is filled with non-pampering sensual pleasures. Being able to sink into enjoying the basics of life, such as beautiful scenery and delicious food, can be an important element of redefining your priorities, but there’s a big difference between stumbling your way through a Portuguese menu until you get to dig into a hearty plate of grilled octopus and buttery potatoes in the basement of a small family restaurant and ordering “Florentine” omelets from room service while you stay in bed for 16 hours straight. Porto’s sensual pleasures are deeply satisfying but I was never more disappointed with my time there then when I went to one of the city’s fanciest and most famous restaurants. Waiters with white gloves, crystal chandeliers and an extensive English-friendly menu filled with pleasantly arranged foods just couldn’t compare with the jumbled meat-and-potatoes warmth of my favorite neighborhood café.
  • Porto’s residents don’t cater to you. The people of Porto are friendly, and they’re kind, and they’re more than willing to help you out, but they won’t bend over backwards to meet your every perceived need. One of the great sins of vacation-oriented travel lies in spending a lot of money to be treated like royalty by poor people who both depend entirely on you and (likely) despise you. I’ve said it many times before but whenever you’re traveling you’re really just visiting someone else’s home. Porto is very clearly just a home for its residents, and the overwhelming sense the city isn’t designed to baby you helps you let go of the expectation you can somehow absolve yourself of all personal responsibilities.

Porto perfectly encapsulates the sort of foreign city you should travel to if you’re looking to ditch the poisonous vacation mindset. If Portugal doesn’t appeal to you, then simply use this article as a guideline for looking off the beaten path in your search for a new home. A new home that will help you return to your old home with a new sense of purpose, focus, and appreciation, rather than the creeping dread that too often accompanies the return home from a two-week pampering binge.