Part I: What’s Supposed to be Enjoyable
This series of posts is mostly a way for me to process the trauma of going through this. If you’re expecting happy travel content, this ain’t it. This story is number 1 in a series of 5. Here you can find the subsequent stories about rescuing a kitten in Porto, Portugal: Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.
Coming to Porto, Portugal
I had agreed to come to Porto in northern Portugal with my partner. He participated in a Digital Nomad conference by the German language ‘Citizen Circle’ that week, and I still had some unfinished business in Portugal. Back in 2015, my idea was to hitchhike through Portugal and hitch to the highest point on the mainland. I’d spotted on the map that the highest mountain was flat and featured a roundabout, meaning I could hitch it rather than climb it. Then I heard about the Nomad Cruise and abandoned that idea in favor of hitchhiking around South America for two whole years.
This time, I would hitchhike that bitchin’ peak.
So on Sunday the 8th of July this year, I boarded a Ryanair flight from Eindhoven to Porto. We’re just there for 10 days, after which we’d fly to Warsaw (Poland) and then finally hitchhike on to Belarus. We checked into our Airbnb, unpacked, and did some shopping. To celebrate, we opened a bottle of red wine and prepped a snack plate full of Iberian goodies. I was free of university nonsense, Jonas could finally put his new Digital Nomad gear into action. Together we were finally exactly where we wanted to be, and doing what we wanted to do.
From our balcony, we had a pretty good view of the city. A city that’s so beautiful mostly because of its total lack of city planning. Chaotic construction made the vista a mosaic of surfaces, textures, and colors. Someone opened a window, and the golden light flashed from the glass into my eye and onto my retina. I blink. The warm, moist air smelt of salty sea, but we couldn’t see or hear the Atlantic ocean. I hear the dings of a train station, and realize I can see the platform of the São Bento from the balcony.
On the door to the washing machine was a note left by our host. It read: “Please don’t feed the cats” in English, Portuguese, French, and Mandarin. I looked down from our balcony. There was a roof not far below us, with a bunch of cats lying in the angled evening shadow after a warm day. I counted eight mature cats. They were relaxing. One roof further was full of pigeons doing the same. Every now and then, a seagull would interrupt the peace on the rooftops. I was sad for the number of street cats but didn’t think much of it. Of course, I wouldn’t feed them.
Cats and Kittens. Everywhere.
The next morning, Jonas has excitement in his voice when he tells me to wake up and come to the balcony. I know it must be good, so I disentangle myself from the sheets, get decent, and stumble out the bedroom. Our north-facing balcony now receives shadow from the other side. Jonas tells me to look down onto the roof below. There are two kittens, next to the eight big cats. My heart melts. The fox-tailed cat is my favorite.
We make coffee and take some photos of and with the cat situation, which is at this point still harmless and adorable. But to my great irritation, someone throws their spaghetti leftovers onto the roof from somewhere above us. The entire building is an Airbnb, so it must be some other tourist that does this and willfully ignores the sign. The cats storm onto the spaghetti, and it’s gone within seconds.
In the evening, I see crumbs of bread falling down from a different corner. They land onto the pigeon roof and some of it on the cat roof. Feeding the pigeons is one of the most deplorable acts in my book, so I check on the balcony where it comes from. Judging by the decorations in the windows, I think the building is not an Airbnb, and possibly occupied by locals. A skinny, old hand empties a bag of crumbs over a balcony. I see no face. Just cats and pigeons going wild over the snow-like drizzle of dry, unwholesome lumps.
Cries in the Night
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday go by. The cats get fed trash from the sky – three times a day. I’m exploring the city and having fun. I haven’t been this energetic since I left Colombia. The thought of hitchhiking – alone – for the first time since January makes me nervous. Somehow I’m afraid I must have ‘lost my mojo’ along the way. I read advice on Hitchwiki on how to get out of Porto and do not feel assured I can make it in one day to Serra da Estrela. My backpack feels too heavy even though I can leave a lot of stuff behind in the apartment. I postponed leaving for two days now already. Eventually, I decided to take the Rede Expressos bus to Viseu (€11.90) and hitchhike from there to go a little easy on myself.
Thursday evening I’m packing my backpack. It’s late and dark, and I want to sleep but am too excited. I put my phone away and grab my waxy earplugs. I knead them to fit my ears so I can sleep without any distractions. Then I hear the high pitched meow of a kitten. I hear distress. The kitten continues meowing. It’s a constant cry for help. I know something is terribly wrong with it and sob quietly, by myself. I don’t act, put my earplugs in, and finally fall asleep.
Visualizing the Void
I didn’t hear any kitten cries early the next morning. I was focused on getting out of Porto, hitchhiking to the mountain, and maybe going camping. Jonas and I walk to the bus station and we say goodbye. It’s his first day of the conference and he’ll have a long day of workshops ahead. I settle into the bus with my book and start reading.
The whole 1.5 hours to Viseu I’m latched on to my book. It’s Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, and it’s his survival story of climbing an icy mountain with a friend in Perú. The title and cover photo are dead giveaways that shit is going to shit in this book. I know the guy is going to fall into an abyss and nearly die and all of a sudden my mind is at the kitten. My body tenses up as I realize the kitten must have gotten stuck somewhere. I do remember seeing the adult cats try to destroy the roof with their paws, and the distinct outline of a hole, which I thought was a chimney.
Lost in contemplation, I’m visualizing the rooftop and that chimney-like hole. I think I could climb off the balcony without a ladder and land safely onto the roof to check it out. How I’d get back is a different matter. I’m hoping the kitten will have managed to climb out by itself upon my return. I surely didn’t hear any cries this morning.
Hitchhiking to the mountains (and back to the sea)
From the bus station in Viseu I start my hike to the main road to Seia. My sign is ready, but my head isn’t there yet. Some guy starts talking to me while I’m grabbing my backpack from the bus’ belly and it’s just too damn early. He holds up some religious card and tries to push it in my hand, but when I try to grab it he pulls it back and asks for money. Angry that it only took me one interaction in Portuguese to reach the Nirvana of miscommunication, I leave.
I manage to hitch to the top in three rides. On top, I relax in the sunshine and fresh air, have lunch, and take plenty of photos. As the clouds were rolling in, camping near the summit became a bad idea. Near the monument on top, I met some friendly young people also taking photos at the monument. Twenty minutes later they stopped their car for me when I tried to hitch out. I’d already decided to go with them before I knew which way they were headed. So I ended up making two new Croatian friends and including Coimbra in my itinerary. Weary from the sunshine overload (my mistake), I checked myself into a cheap guesthouse for the night. Something was nagging on me, and I felt the urge to return to Porto.
The next day I took my time in Coimbra. In the afternoon I hitched back to Porto in one ride.
Saturday 14th of July
At around 17:00 I typed in the door code into the keypad. I had the place to myself. I tried to take a nap but the meowing interrupted my nap. “Shit.” I thought, “the kitten is still stuck.”
I got up and got onto the balcony. I could hear the desperate sound and how nearby it was, but couldn’t see a kitten. It didn’t come from the previously identified ‘chimney hole’ in the middle of the roof. Another meow. I went to the window and opened both sides of it. I hung out, got blinded by the sunlight, and couldn’t see the cat. When my eyes got used to the brightness, I saw where the meowing came from: the void.
The Void where Kittens Disappear
This abyss was a 3 square meter gap between the rooftop and the westside’s neighboring building. It was very, very deep. I spotted the kitten at a sort of intermediate level of the 5 meter deep trap. The kitten was meowing and looked tired. There was no way the wee little kitten could help itself out.
So I got into action mode. I found a mop belonging to the Airbnb, and tied my own fabric shopping bag on it with my two backpack traps. Perhaps the kitten would see the opportunity and climb in the bag or stick its nails in it, so I could ‘fish’ the kitten out of the hole with my crafty kitten rod. I hung out the window, threw the bag on the rope on the stick down… and missed. The bag got stuck in the spiky ‘anti-pigeon’ strip on the edge of the wall.
I tried again and again until it fell down smoothly to where the kitten was. The kitten obviously got spooked by the bag and wiggled itself into a corner to get away from it. It kept meowing. I tried making the bag move like one does with a cat toy to pique its curiosity, but the kitten just felt threatened. So I stuck the mop in the clothes line in front of the window so it could hang there and the kitten would know it’s harmless.
An Argument about Responsibility
Two hours later, Jonas returned to the Airbnb and nudged a slight what the fuck at the wide-open window and the construction of household, backpacking, and shopping material hanging outside it. I explained the situation to him and how the kitten had been stuck there at least since Thursday night.
He didn’t believe me. I told him to lean out of the window to spot the kitten. He still didn’t believe the kitten couldn’t help itself. I kept repeating the story of how it’s been a few days and how the kitten would have gotten itself out by now if it could and how we are now the only ones capable of helping it. He told me it’s none of our responsibility, and that we should let it be. I said I couldn’t sleep at night from the cries. He said “Put in earplugs” and I really lost my cool.
“I can’t have the death of a kitten on my conscience,” I told him, firmly. It would be faster if he could help me brainstorm ideas and work together instead of letting me do it alone. He agreed to try with his long(er) arms.
“Here kitty kitty” — no reaction. “HERE kitty kitty!” — nothing.
I suggest to put in a slice of chorizo sausage in the bag, so there’s an incentive for the – by now very hungry – kitten to go in it or hang onto it. Surely its survival instinct just needs to be kindled. Instead, the adult cats on the roof go crazy over the suggestion of food and line up on the edge. We toss in the bag with the chorizo and let it hang in front of the kitten’s nose. No response. We stick the mop back in the clotheslines and let it be for now.
The Mop Bucket
We prepare and eat our human dinner. I feel guilty but determined to still get the kitten out. The furry, big-eyed creature is constantly on my mind. Why is this so hard? How could it be so hard?
I hang out the window and lean on my full stomach to check up on the kitten. It’s still stuck in the corner, but a big cat is now in the hole toying with the chorizo-scented bag. I pull the contraption back up. “This isn’t working” I tell Jonas. I grab the mop bucket and replace the shopping bag with the bucket. I place the half-slice of chorizo in it for bait. It looks a lot more professional than the previous version and I’m sure this is a game changer.
Jonas is – understandably – unhappy with my use of the Airbnb’s utensils for rescuing a kitten but doesn’t suggest an alternative. I toss the bright red bucket into the void and move it with the mop in the right position. The kitten is even more scared than before. I hang the bucket in the corner so it’s stuck, in case the kitty steps (or falls) inside (which is the point).
A curious adult cat looks at the bucket from the main roof, smells the chorizo, and looks me dead in the eye before jumping in the hole to check out what’s in the bucket. The big cat sits next to the kitten and stretches its arm into the slippery plastic bucket in direction of the sad slice of chorizo. The cat puts weight on the paw and the bucket moves. The cat loses balance, gets spooked, and crawls back into the corner squeezing the kitten. The kitten is curious now too, and looks at what the big cat is doing.
It takes a few more tries before we give up for the time being. The kitten is constantly on my mind. Jonas tells me about the animal shelter in Porto. His German Digital Nomad organization called Citizen Circle always picks a charity to donate money to whenever they organize a meetup. In Porto, they’ve chosen an animal shelter called MIDAS. He asks me if I want to join the trip tomorrow, as it’s also a good opportunity to ask for help with stray pets. I agree to join.