The one thing that always stays in your memory

My parents must have been worried.They were troubled enough, I think, to see their 17-year-old first-born jump on a plane and head into the great unknown for eight months. But when the news came that I was going to Portugal, there must have been a few nervous glances exchanged.

Portugal wasn't part of the plan. There was a stay with a family friend in Boston, a side trip to Florida, a few weeks with an aunt in the Bahamas, some work with another family friend in Scotland, a Contiki tour and then a flight home. How much trouble could I get into?

Yet plans have a habit of changing when you're on the road. I'd made some new friends in Scotland, one of whom, Ron, had a family apartment in the little seaside village of Armacao de Pera, in Portugal's southern Algarve region. The idea was that six of us, all aged 17, would head over and stay in the apartment for a week.

The potential for self-inflicted trouble had just sky rocketed. We were all barely six months out of high school. Ron was the only one who'd ever been to a non-English-speaking country. We were planning to hire mopeds. This had Banged Up Abroad, or at the very least "hospitalised abroad" all over it.

Looking back, the funny thing about that potentially disaster-laden trip is that I don't remember much of it. I have no idea how we made it from Faro airport to Armacao de Pera (or vice versa). I can't really recall what Ron's apartment looked like or how close it was to the beach.

I know we hired the mopeds but I haven't a clue which company was brave enough to lend them to us. I remember riding to a foam party at a nightclub in nearby Albufeira but I don't recall how we managed to find our way there. Or what made us think it was a good idea to go on mopeds in the first place.

This lack of memory probably has to do with a few things, the most obvious of which is the amount of alcohol consumed. We would drink all night at the one bar that had table football and sleep for most of the day. If we made it up in time to throw a Frisbee on the beach before sunset, we considered our day a success.

We had a lot of fun but no one was injured or got sick and the mopeds made it back to their shop pretty much in the state we found them. The worst mishap was one of the Scots falling asleep in the sun and having the skin on his back peel off a few days later.

The few enduring memories I have of that trip, weirdly, are all tastes. Food. I remember my first bite of a Portuguese tart. I didn't even know Portuguese tarts existed at that point, so to bite into something so creamy, so crunchy, and so shockingly delicious was truly memorable. The bakery was tiny, just a dingy place at the end of a lane, but the queue out the front said it all.

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I remember the churros sold by the vendor at the beach - long sticks of doughy, sugary, deep-fried awesomeness, a gastronomic shake of the shoulders for a hungover soul.

Then there was the other end of the scale: that bar we went to, the one with table football, sold a cocktail called a "Detergent", which did taste like washing detergent. It was a sort of cloudy light-blue colour.

The last memorable taste was forged out of desperation. We got home from the bar one night, far too late for the churros vendor but far too early for the tart baker. Our meal for the evening: raw onion on toast. To this day, I can't face raw onion. Horrible.

Anyway, what I'm getting at, in this roundabout way, is that although I wasn't much of a foodie in my gap-year booze-a-thon days, my enduring memories of a trip to Portugal with new friends are of the foods I ate. And that was an indicator of things to come.

Food has become a huge part of the travel experience for me and it's reflected in the memories I have of good times on the road. Travel is now pintxos in northern Spain, empanadas in Argentina, larb in Laos and tacos in Mexico. It's tom yum goong in Thailand, feijoada in Brazil and ugali in Kenya.

And, of course, it's creamy tarts in Portugal. And raw onion on toast.

What's the most memorable food you've eaten while travelling? Post a comment below.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

Read Ben Groundwater's column on Sundays in the Sun-Herald.

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