From his work on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca to the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China, we present Gonçalo Cadilhe, the Portuguese travel writer besotted by the beauty of our world.
Gonçalo Cadilhe waits in Largo Martim Moniz, Lisbon’s melting pot. He walks oblivious to the cries from the streets, the saris, the Chinese writing on the buildings and the hubbub of the cosmopolitan square. We rush off to Sé, to the studio where he’ll be photographed. Time is pressing. Having just had his fourth book for Oficina do Livro published, Nos Passos de Magalhães (In Magellan’s Footsteps) Gonçalo has an autograph session at the Book Fair in an hour and a half.
While snacking, he tells me of how he used to roam the surroundings of his home town, Figueira da Foz, as a scout with his backpack. He graduated in Management but the time he spent in this area wasn’t even enough to keep his seat warm – seven short months. With a whole world out there, Gonçalo set out on a voyage of discovery. Before beginning “writing for my daily bread”, he had a number of summer jobs in different places in the world. He waited tables in Portofino, a small Mediterranean resort. “I served Madonna, Niarcos, Armani, Magic Johnson, and Berlusconi, amongst others.”
His first travel writing appeared in the Grande Reportagem magazine in 1992, and since then he has made travel and writing a full-time occupation. In the new millennium the Expresso weekly newspaper published reports of his solo round-the-world trip by sea and land. These articles went to make up the book Planisfério Pessoal (Personal Planisphere), which was followed by No Principio Estava o Mar (In the Beginning There Was the Sea) – which was also a collection of articles written for the SurfPortugal magazine – which recounts the adventures of the nomad that left Portugal aboard a transatlantic cargo ship only to return hanging on to a heavy-goods lorry.
A total of 19 months in transit. He left Lisbon for Valencia (just like Christopher Columbus), where he caught a transatlantic ship to the USA; from there he made his way down to South America. Hitching a lift on the cargo ship Contship London, he left the Panama Canal and headed for New Zealand with a stop off in Tahiti. He left Oceania by sea again for Japan, travelling overland through Asia to the Middle East and then onto Europe.
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As the first flashes go off in the studio, Gonçalo continues explaining his itinerant professional life. “In this seemingly-dissolute life, you have to be methodical and responsible.” Writing while travelling used to be more complicated than it is now. Nowadays, with e-mail and the Internet everything is much easier. “I’m very hard on myself. I’m also very disciplined. Sometimes I have to opt for what makes my texts more colourful. A conversation with a taxi driver can be much more useful than a visit to a museum”. In fact, Cadilhe’s books and chronicles are more a collection of thoughts about the places he visits, about their political, historical and social life, their customs and people than a description of countries and places. And in order to be more open to people and their customs Gonçalo travels alone. “When we’re in a group we tend to shut ourselves off and we don’t create any bonds with the locals.” For the writer, the publication of a book signals the end of any of his journeys. A Lua Pode Esperar (The Moon Can Wait) was the closing chapter of a journey that took him to Patagonia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Zanzibar, Indonesia, the Marquesas Islands, Tasmania, Morocco and some European cities.
During the round the world trip for Planisfério Pessoal he travelled over four continents, Africa was the one he missed out. He gave it his undivided attention in 2006. For seven months he travelled the continent from the south to the north, from the Atlantic side to the Gibraltar strait, the place that pointed the way home. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Morocco were the stepping stones on the pilgrim’s path. “Africa can’t be predicted, you experience it. You go there.” The route was defined in the places themselves. The indecision regarding the path to take was due to a number of obstacles, including wars, political tensions or the complications about visas. The result was África Acima (Across Africa), a sincere account of an “impressive continent”.
In his professional life, Gonçalo has made pilgrimages to places of the most remarkable beauty. Machu-Picchu, the Victoria falls, the Zimbabwe savannah, the Mentawai archipelago, in Indonesia, the Molucas islands, the marvellous Mdumbi Bay, in South Africa, Angkor, in Cambodia or the Fish River gorge, in Namibia, were places for trekking, surfing, and reflection; from made-to-measure adventures to a traveller who takes a step back to absorb the entirety of what he sees.
“Wherever I am, I will do as I see done”
This motto of his has meant some quite unique experiences. On the Molucas islands, one of his destinations In Magellan’s Footsteps, he was the guest of honour at a wedding. “Normally I don’t ask what I’m eating, but this time I did. As there were guests of all kinds of religions at the banquet, I asked what would be served to please everyone. ‘Puppy dog’ was the reply, which was, in reality, quartered dog with chilli pepper sauce. As the guest of honour I started the proceedings. I had the entire wedding party looking at me, waiting for me to say: ‘It’s lovely’. It actually tastes like ants, with a sweet and sour tang.” He is deaf to the appeals of luxury resorts and gourmet restaurants. He finds refuge in small backpacker hotels, in dodgy guest houses or in the open air in his sleeping bag. He hitch-hikes, walks, catches buses bursting at the seams with passengers or perches on top of a truck, next to the load. He does as the locals do.
The world doesn’t have be his own, like the title Planisfério Pessoal implies. Gonçalo doesn’t want to be the Portuguese traveller with the most stamps in his passport, “there are those who compete in this”. “But not me. I even go back to the same places to force the next meeting. I like to see how the passing of the years affects certain experiences and places and how those places and the friends I made there have changed over the years.”
Since November all of his travels have been on home soil, between Figueira and Porto, and the author doesn’t hide his longing for a bit more adventure, but work is work and he’s had lots of projects to occupy his time. The latest book is presented as “a round-the-world trip based on the travels of the greatest Portuguese navigator of all time” – Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) who was the first man to circumnavigate the earth – and, apart from the book, there is a documentary on the Portuguese channel RTP2 and there was some office work to do, in the true sense of the word.
So, at the end of the day, what’s his favourite place? It’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is. “I can’t choose any one country. It would be unfair on all the others”.
En-route to the Book Fair, he reveals his travel essential: “The idea of returning home. Only by returning does every journey make sense, like a book that’s finished, a cycle that ends. If not, my life becomes an escape with no reference points”.
We’re nearly there. “And what are your reference points?” “I’m off to South Africa tomorrow”. It’s the start of another pilgrimage. Half a world away. Or another world? He’ll leave South Africa, moving through the continent, northwards, as a guide for a group of travellers seeking an experience similar to the one he described in África Acima. Then, not surprisingly, he’ll continue his journey alone. He’s going to reencounter old friends, places and experiences and, who knows, discover new destinations. “Perhaps Sri Lanka or some islands in the South Pacific”, but these are scenes of future chapters. The taxi meter comes to a halt.
A week after our conversation, I get an e-mail from Gonçalo. He’s in Jeffreys Bay, in South Africa, looking at the sea: “J-Bay is classic. Whales and dolphins on the horizon”, he says. Looks like the moon will have to wait.
by Maria Ana Ventura
web design & development 262media.com