Colares is a town located on a mountainside near Lisbon Portugal, facing the ocean. It is known for cool, misty weather, old windmills, beautiful gardens and some of the most undrinkable wine on the planet. You pronounce it "Cool-ar-esh."
Having just returned from a lengthy trip to Thailand with my family, I decided to take a drive through the Portuguese countryside. Nothing beats the smell of salt water and pine and eucalyptus trees, and the sensation of bright sun and cold windy air. Nothing beats looking down from a mountainside to see the ocean glittering in the distance. This is what you get in Colares, Portugal, so I decided to take a drive out there.
Didn't take long, either, for me to get myself good and lost on the little twisting side roads that crisscross the area. This didn't bother me in the least. In fact, I wanted to just disappear into the countryside and see little areas and vistas that no tour bus could possibly access. The roads are so narrow and unmarked, nothing appears on GPS anyway.
I took a turn onto a promising looking, very narrow road called Calcada da Quinta das Corvas. That translates to "the small road of the Farm of Crows." The name of this road itself was enough to intrigue me, so I took that fateful turn and drove along that exceptionally narrow cobblestone street until the pavement abruptly stopped.
There was no way to turn around, and any normal person would have just reversed their way all the way back to the entrance of Calcada da Quinta das Corvas. Maybe it is a dyslexia thing, but I simply cannot drive a car backwards. My brain doesn't send me the correct signals about whether to turn the wheel right or left, so I tend to veer off of cliffs and to plow into stone walls if I try to drive in reverse. Usually, my wife or another passenger is with me when I drive, and can take over if and when driving in reverse becomes necessary or advisable. This time, however, I was alone in the car, and had no choice but to keep pressing forward on an increasingly slippery and muddy little road that began to resemble a horse path through the woods. It was pockmarked with deep puddles and and studded with jagged stones. And I noticed the steep drop off on one side of the path.
By this time, I was crawling along at salamander speed, when at last, part of the path gave way and the next thing I realized, the front end of the car was now hanging over a very steep embankment with a drop off of around 15 feet. I carefully exited the car and noticed the ground was loamy, wet, muddy, spongy with moss, and decided that my car was going nowhere. I needed a tow truck.
The first step was to figure out where I was, so I abandoned the vehicle and hiked through the woods a short ways until the road's surface evolved back into something that at least approximated pavement. I was standing in front of the Quinta das Corvas. There was a gate, and as I approached, a riotous chorus erupted. This was unlike any sound I have ever heard before - cackling, shrill human voice-like sounds coming from the swaying pine trees. Crows. Hundreds and hundreds of crows.
Sometimes, you find yourself in the middle of the woods with your car in the distance, sliding down a cliff, as you stand idly in front of an ancient gate surrounded by un-earthly sounding crows and you think to yourself, "how in god's name did I get myself into this situation?" I felt like I was a very, very long way from the law firm I used to work at. My suburban home in Chevy Chase, where my neighbor Mike's two big dogs used to poop in my front yard, that felt like another lifetime ago. I'm no longer that guy making mortgage payments, striving for 60 billable hours a week and trying to eat a responsible diet that includes vegetables. I feel more like Indiana Jones... on a bad acid trip.
Hours later, I am back in the woods in the pitch black night, with a dude who has a tow truck parked about 100 meters away at a higher point on the cliff. We had to strap the car to some trees using thick nylon ribbons, and have already managed to down one small eucalyptus tree in the process of hauling the car out with a wynch. It's raining, the car has, in fact, managed to swing like a pendulum over the cliff and the tow truck itself is stuck. I won't tire you with the blow by blow. Several people have come by, including two women from the UK on horseback, who generously offered to help. A man walking his dog through the woods has informed me, impassively, that my car is going to be destroyed. A Portuguese family from a house nearby has come to see what all the commotion is about. The man asks me where I am from, and when I say "America," he becomes irate and asks "did you vote for Trump?" I can't help wonder, what would he have done if I had said "yes?"
I won't keep you in suspense. The car was ultimately saved (which I still can't believe) and the tow truck driver, who labored in absurdly hazardous conditions for 5 hours, informed me that whole operation was going to be very expensive. He thereupon charged me 230 Euros. I had to insist that he at least accept a 100 Euro tip, and when he refused, I gave the money to his girl friend who came by in a Range Rover to try and help. At times, it really feels like nobody in Portugal accurately values themselves adequately.
And so now, one week later, the car still smells like menthol and moss, but the scrapes in the paint are superficial and the motor and transmission are completely fine. I have been counting the many, many, many things I have to be thankful for in life. It's not just the car. I have a wonderful family. We are all healthy. We have become very wealthy over the last three years, at least by my standards. Our after-tax dividend income, which comes to about a 3% yield of our total portfolio, is well over three times our annual spending requirements, and continues to grow by nearly 10% a year. We live in a beautiful country and travel extensively. We are very fortunate to have a number of extremely close friends. My wife and I are both retired, and basically we spend every day doing whatever we want to do, more or less (including my personal favorite activity: making digital artwork on an Iphone).
It goes without saying that we would do well to be thankful every moment of every day. We have made it a nightly ritual for each of us to state one or more things that we are thankful for, right before we eat dinner.
This year, I am working to train myself not to take any of our many blessings for granted. The problem, as I see it, comes from the natural human desire to want more. Always more. Wanting more is a very tough habit to break. So, to train myself to not want more and to be grateful for what I have, I will not be purchasing anything for myself this year, other than food, travel, language lessons and stuff for our kid. If something that I already own and need happens to break, I will replace it, but only if I satisfy myself first that I actually cannot survive without it. It's easy for someone like me to conflate need with desire - hence the stringent one year financial diet.
The second aspect of not taking things for granted is making yourself useful to others. Some of our friends are less fortunate than we are. One of them, for example, is at the front end of what could prove to be a difficult divorce. Fortunately, I have some experience with international domestic relations law, and quite a bit of experience structuring separation agreements for spouses who manage hedge funds. I've agreed to donate my time to help this family navigate what comes next. My old boss back in NYC is in stage 4 kidney failure. I volunteered to donate one of my kidneys to her, but the hospital informs me that I am not a suitable donor due to my lack of US health insurance. I'll be helping her navigate her way around getting a kidney replacement in Thailand, assuming none of her other potential kidney donors work out. There is never any shortage of things a person can get involved with to pay back into the system - and when you are as fortunate as I am, the desire to pay something back into the system becomes quite strong.
I suppose in some ways, everyone has had their car get stuck before. Maybe literally, maybe figuratively. Either way, once your car is freed, you don't necessarily see the act of driving in the same way as you did before.