On my last full day in Lisbon, I was double-booked. My first option was an African Lisbon walking tour which gave a history lesson in Portugal’s involvement in the slave trade and colonialism, and showcased the African influence in Lisbon. The second option was street art tour in one of the neighborhoods. I wanted to do both, but they were scheduled at the same time unfortunately. I had a tough decision to make, and I decided to go the the Afro-Lisbon tour since I had already paid for it. The night before the tour, I kept waking up to think about it and it felt like I was being pulled to change my mind by the time I woke up Saturday morning.

I followed my intuition and went on the street art tour despite the fact that I would be losing the 40€ I paid for the African Lisbon tour. The street art tour was nearly 30 minutes outside of the city center and the Uber to get there was more expensive than the tour itself. There was no public transportation to take me there, and I assumed it was done purposely to keep the people of that neighborhood out of the city.

Quinta do Mocho is a neighborhood in Lisbon, and most of the residents descended from African countries previously colonized by Portugal – Angola, Guinea, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Mozambique. Construction on the apartments began in the 1990s, but went unfinished and abandoned after the construction company responsible for the project went bankrupt. The African descendants finished the project – most likely not in accordance with any building code – and moved in.

Quinta do Mocho was once a dangerous ghetto. A few years ago, I would not have been able to walk through the neighborhood alone. Today it acts as an art gallery containing 108 murals painted by artists from around the globe.

When I arrived at Casa da Cultura de Sacavém, the tour’s starting point, there was still a group of visitors from the first tour enjoying lunch at one of the local restaurants. The first tour of the day was in Portuguese, so I couldn’t attend. Instead, Kally Meru and I strolled the streets by ourselves as he explained the story behind each mural and each artist who created them.

Whenever we came near residents who were “chilling” outside under a tree, he stopped and introduced me as the American visitor. Apparently, not too many people from the U.S. make the trek to Guinta do Mocho. Everyone smiled, welcomed me, told me I was beautiful. Kally told me I was at home with family, so I should enjoy.

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” he asked at one point.

“I’m fine,” I insisted.

“Do you want something to drink? Water? Juice?”

“I’m good. I have water in my backpack?”

“Chicken wings?”

*Record scratch*

“Oh, y’all got WANGS?!”

He laughed and motioned me over to another area under a tree.

And there I was – just kicking it. We ate chicken wings from a feisty woman with a bbq grill under a tree. We watched two choirs rehearse outside for the next day’s church service. We had mucua ice cream from the “frozen cup lady” by yelling her name through her kitchen window.

I played Rock Paper Scissors and clapping games with kids.

I flirted with Angolan men.

I got invited to dinner.

How did a street art tour transform into a day of kicking it with strangers who treated me like family? Who felt like family?

A father-daughter duo had been hanging outside and kept inviting me up to their apartment, but I declined. After the millionth request, I agreed and made my way up to the second-floor apartment with the little girl dragging me along by the hand. I greeted three Angolan women who were in the kitchen preparing dinner, and followed the father-daughter duo to the living room. I sat on the couch thinking I’d sit for a just a moment and then leave. Next thing you know, one of the women walked into the living room with a nice presentation of drinking glasses, ice, soda, and liquor. I appreciated her hospitality, but I was no one special.

They assumed I was staying for dinner, but I wasn’t comfortable being the unannounced guest. The American in me felt like an inconvenience as soon as I walked through the door. When I got up to leave, they were bewildered. I felt the pressure to stay, but I also felt like it wasn’t right to just pop up at someone’s home at the eleventh hour and eat their food.

I met up with Kally outside the apartment building to pay for my tour, and was about leave when he explained that I was invited to an Angolan dinner by the family. He recommended that I stay as their guest, and assured me I was in good hands and the food would be good. I trusted his word, and after confirming that I’d have no issues getting an Uber back to center city later in the night, I went back to the family’s home for dinner. I had another drink, and laughed as the two kids danced to the music and showed me their school photos.

I was unfamiliar with Angolan cuisine, but I ate well. There was funge – an Angolan side made with cassava that was reminiscent of mashed potatoes. There was also something like a shredded cabbage in a peanut sauce, another tomato based sauce with onions and garlic, well-seasoned grilled chicken, and peri peri sauce for the adventurous. I had a healthy plate with a bit of everything, but people kept adding food to my plate as I ate despite my objections. It felt like I was going to explode.

Just when I thought I made it to the finish line, the woman of the house pulled out her fancy bowls and returned with a large portion of rice pudding for dessert. I thought it was for everyone to share, but no. The whole thing was for me. Now, I’d never eaten rice pudding in my life. The concept of rice being in a dessert turned me off to the idea, but I knew many people loved it. There was no way I was going to turn it down. I’d already done wrong by trying not to stay for dinner earlier, so I couldn’t afford to make anymore offensive mistakes. So, I dug in. It was thick, warm, and cinnamony, and I quite enjoyed it. Still, there was no way I was going to even make it through half of such a large portion. I made it through what I felt was a satisfactory amount, and just continued to make general conversation with hopes that no other food would be presented.

The entire conversation was happening in a combination of broken English, Spanish, and Portugese. We only understood about 25% of the communication. I use Google Translate often, but the thought never occurred to me to use the app in that moment to make communicating easier.

The family’s neighbor heard through the grapevine that I was visiting, and sent her son over with a container of a traditional Portuguese codfish dish. I love that people show their love with food, but I couldn’t handle another calorie.

I stayed with the family past midnight, and would have spent the night per their request if my flight didn’t leave at 5 am that morning. Instead, I requested an Uber and went back to my hostel to finish packing for my journey back home. I thanked everyone in the family for their superb hospitality, hugged them all goodbye, and we waved at each other as the Uber driver drove away.

This day in Lisbon will be etched in my memory forever. The art, culture, people, and food were all phenomenal. I knew I would have a wonderful time going from mural to mural, but I didn’t expect such a delightful experience with this small community of afro-Portuguese people. I highly recommend going off the beaten path for the street art tour in Quinto do Mocho, and who knows – maybe you’ll get invited to dinner like I did.

One Reply to “A Day in Lisbon’s Ghetto”

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