The gust of wind from the opened car windows blew the last hope I had of retaining any volume in my hair. The scorching sun penetrated my skin, the leather upholstery of the car seat absorbing and distributing the heat faster than I could adjust my sitting position.
The highway was empty except for the occasional one or two other cars we passed by. I felt a strange sense of solidarity rising up with those cars, it was as if we were in the impossible race against the sun together.
I was sitting at the back seat of an older model of a Mercedes-Benz taxi. Avelino, the driver, a Portuguese man in his 60s with a considerably thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair, was behind the wheels. We were heading to Monsaraz, a village I had no prior knowledge of, 2 hours away from Lisbon.
"I'm sorry for my broken air conditioner. Yesterday, after I dropped you off, I went to fix it. But, it's still no good," Avelino broke the silence after, I suspected, he saw me squirming in the back seat from the rear-view mirror.
I had met Avelino at the airport the day before. As chance would have it, I got his taxi after waiting in line with many other fatigued travelers at the taxi stand. My first impression of him was that he looked rather frail and grumpy. A prejudgement that was immediately shattered as he hoisted my suitcases, one weighing 30kg, into the trunk of his taxi all by himself because he wouldn't let me help him.
"What do you have in there? Stones?", he closed the trunk and broke into a smile. And at that moment, I decided I liked him, and I would like to have him to drive me to Monsaraz the next day.
The escalating heat brought me back to the present moment. Avelino was silent, expecting a response from me.
"Don't worry about it," I replied, thinking to myself that air conditioner wouldn't have been able to help assuage the unbelievable heat anyway.
We rode in silence for several kilometers. He asked me what I do for a living and I told him I'm a makeup artist who do all sorts of makeup jobs ranging from editorials and lookbooks to weddings.
"Are you married?", he asked me, his eyes squinting slightly from the bright sunlight.
"Not yet," I replied, waiting for the usual defensive feeling to emerge when such question is directed at me, but it uncharacteristically never materialized.
"But you have a boyfriend?", he continued.
"Yes," I answered gingerly, wondering where this conversation was going.
"Ah yes, that's what I thought. Because if you don't have a boyfriend, the boys are all... sleeping or something," he grinned.
"Haha, thank you..", not expecting such compliment, I felt extra heat rushing up to my cheeks.
"Yes, it's true. You're beautiful and you're a very nice person," he remarked.
Something in his harmless tone made me feel safe. He wasn't trying to flirt or anything like that. Truth be told, it felt good to hear such acknowledgement. I was reminded, more than ever, that I was a human being who could use a validation or two, sometimes from a stranger.
He drove in silence for the next 40 minutes or so. Every once in a while, he told me fun facts about the towns we passed by. When we passed by neat rows of trees, he told me they are cork oak trees and that Portugal produces half of the world's production of corks. Something I wouldn't have guessed.
"We are passing the town of Évora. Next time, when you have time, you should stop by and visit this beautiful medieval town. My daughter went to university there before, to be a veterinarian. It still pains me deeply to talk about this," he explained.
"Oh... why?", unsure of what to say, I asked him a question I shouldn't have asked.
"You know," he took his right hand off the steering wheel and made repetitive shoving gestures with it, "I gave money, money, money, and she didn't finish her studies. She keeps changing her mind about everything, never finishing what she started."
A fresh wave of disappointment invaded his eyes. At that particular moment, I was struck by how universal the look of disappointment was. It defied any language barriers and cultural differences. That a father's aspirations for his daughter were not something that would get lost in translation. The fact that he's Portuguese and I'm Indonesian completely irrelevant to the human connection we managed to forge.
It was my turn to fall silent. For one, I wasn't certain what I could say regarding Avelino's intimate revelation about his expectations for his daughter. For another, I was lost in my own thoughts, reflecting my own relationship with my parents. Have I let them down? What can I do to make them proud?
Before long, we arrived at the estate where I would be spending the next three days. The driveway was a particularly long one, lined with olive trees on both sides. He dropped me off in front of the entrance of the estate.
"Well, good luck to you, Silviana. It was nice meeting you," Avelino shook my hand and smiled.
He got into his car and drove off, leaving a trail of dust in the air and a deep impression in my heart.
Monsaraz, Portugal, 17 July 2018.