Travel and Transformation Silver Winner: Walking to Nemiña

by Beebe Bahrami

She travels at the pace of her spirit in Spain, Iran, the Amazon, and France

The beautiful woman who ran the bar whisked past our table, plunking down just made croquetas, something like a tater, only of white fish, rolled in bread crumbs and deep fried to that perfect mouth-feel of crispy crunchiness. The bar was filled with a dozen fishermen, a retired man, and a local businessman.

The retired man sat at the bar counter sipping his morning pick-me-up of brandy and admiring the bar owner, a lithe woman in her twenties with long wavy brown hair and intense onyx brown eyes and a face that always smiled, even when her lips were in a neutral position.  He was soon joined by a flirtatious youth who was there for her sunlight as well as for the camaraderie of the older men.  The smiling barwoman had the energy of a hurricane and it was a storm out at sea that brought the fishermen here, to wait out nature’s winds while enjoying the benefits of hers.

The fishermen were making the most of being land-bound and were watching a soccer match. Each time a player on the Galician team missed a pass or goal, outrage erupted amidst laughter at themselves for getting so irate.  Of all people, fishermen have a right to be so critical.  Everyday these men risked their lives in an all or nothing gamble with the open ocean in a coastline called the Costa da Morte, coast of death.  Let them scold a land animal who maneuvers a ball for a living.

The local businessman was oblivious to all, reading his morning paper as he took occasional slurps of his café con leche.

Miles and I almost didn’t find this little local bar.  We were in Finisterre in Spain’s far northwest during the winter, a time when even some locals disappeared to the gentle city inland and waited out the storm. With their retreat, most restaurants were closed until the spring.  Hard pressed to find breakfast, Miles suddenly spied a man with a bright yellow jacket and olive-colored rubber boots.  “Let’s follow that fisherman,” he whispered. Not that whispering was necessary. No one was around to hear.

Armed with our rain jackets, our growing appetites, and The Surf Report for Spain, which we had planned to pour over during breakfast, we found a trail of other rubber booted men wearing similar stiff yellow rain jackets. Thick, salt-encrusted beards and wild, squid-legged eyebrows shot out from under their hoods.  Their eyes were bright and clear as only salt-and-open-air-faring men’s eyes can be. They all entered the smiling barwoman’s bar through a door that had hardly a sign. We joined them and entered last. Once inside, it was clearly a public bar, with wooden counter, espresso machine, beer taps, myriad bottles of intoxicating elixirs, a cash register, and an undiscovered chef in the back churning out one tasty masterpiece after another.

I followed the fishermen and called out my order, in turn, to the pretty woman on the other side of the counter, for two espressos with steamed milk.

“The Surf Report says,” began Miles who was already seated at a free wooden table “that the next reasonable surf spot is at Playa de Traba, but I have a good feeling about this little spot.” He moved his finger to point on the map of Galicia, which he had also spread out, right under where he had opened the Report.

“Nemiña?”

“Nemiña.” He savored the tilda and held it longer than necessary on the roof of his mouth. “Yes, let’s walk to Nemiña.”

“You know, they predict chubascos today.” Nemiña looked like it was about 15 kilometers away.  Doable, but with a far from home feeling if you got royally soaked.

“They predict chubascos everyday.  It’s the safest thing to do here.  It’s always raining.”

Chubascos had quickly become a favorite new word for Miles after we watched the weather report on the television in our room that morning. It was to be a word that would delight him throughout this first exploratory visit to the northwest. He would say it again and again, enjoying how it rolled around in his mouth: chubascos, chubascos, chubascos.  He was learning Castilian for the first time. I liked chubascos too, but was superstitious that if we said it too much, it would be like a rain dance.  It also sounded like one of the mischief-maker nature spirits that populated this northwestern reach of Spain.

“But chubascos are particularly stormy rainfalls,” I protested.

“Okay, how about a compromise.  We can always find local transport if the rain gets to be too much. If the chubascos hit, we can wait it out in Nemiña.” I could tell he didn’t care if he got soaked both ways, but he was negotiating.  And now he was relishing saying Nemiña as often as possible. It was becoming a second favorite word of the morning.

I was new to this business of footing it from town to town, of trusting the road and the local environment, and the chubascos had me less daring than he.  His solution worked for me.  I nodded my accord and we turned to enjoy the two steaming cups of café con leche the pretty barwoman had just set on our table, along with thick slabs of freshly toasted local bread, slathered with butter and homemade marmalade.

In the end, the chubascos let loose hail and hearty and we never did get to walk to Nemiña that day. Instead we caught three local buses that wended their way along the coast northward and arrived in an even more remote northwestern fishing town in winter. Each local bus grew progressively more local and soon, everyone on board was interested in us. By the time we got to the town in which we hoped to find a bed, the locals on the bus and their relatives in town knew we were coming. Very few foreigners had ever been sighted there in winter. We found a room within minutes.

Thereafter, the rain relented and for the next several days, we “walked to Nemiña,”  meaning we walked to several fishing villages along the Galician and Asturian coast and in so doing, met locals who had often not left a wider girth than 20 kilometers of home, ever. They were full of lost wisdom that the modern world had forgotten, only because it was moving too quickly. “Walking to Nemiña” has ever since come to reference this type of journeying.

Little did I know that footing it from town to town, a pilgrim in all directions, not just to Santiago de Compostela, was to become my preferred mode of exploration, whether Miles was with me or not.  The experience of walking into and through a place, of taking the occasional local buses, of lingering in a local café with local characters while resting one’s legs, went a long way toward seeing the more intimate details of everyday life in the places I was visiting. It also opened up my life to the beautiful gifts people can give each other every day, when there is space: a story, a joke, a quirky view on important things, like love, life, money, romance, and food. Inevitably, I also met a remarkable person with a piece of wisdom to pass on or at the very least, an elder with a wickedly good dish I had to try. My journals began to fill with local wisdom and recipes.

I should have known I would have this passion. While as an adult I began to express it more fully through footed adventures with my equally inquisitive partner Miles, when I reflect back, the tendency had been there all along.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve and visiting family in Iran in the summer, I wandered off with two village girls I’d just met in a mountain village where I was staying with cousins, just south of the Caspian Sea.   We had gotten it into our heads to visit the neighboring village down the valley, on the other side of the neighboring mountain. It looked so close as we cast our eyes across the sinuous expanse. We set out with nothing more than a watermelon, which we took turns holding as one would an infant, and a pouch of pistachios.

It was further than we realized and we hadn’t anticipated that it would start to rain hard on that dry summer day. We sat underneath the protective cover of a tall swaying bush and cracked open our watermelon and polished it off as the rain dripped along the bush’s skirt and allowed us to wash our hands of the sticky fruit, comparing notes on what it was like to grow up in their village and go to a one room schoolhouse versus my life in a liberal progressive town in Colorado. We then ate our pistachios and soon thereafter, the rain stopped.

We trudged on, three girls finding common issues and comparing their different cultures, finally marching into the village where one of the girls had a grandmother. We were soon seated in her living room, sipping hot tea and eating honey-soaked pastries. Somewhere else in the village, someone put in the much awaited phone call to three sets of anxious parents who had put out an APB from the neighboring village about their girls who had disappeared. Later, I learned that shepherds and other villagers had all kept their eyes on the three girls to be sure no harm came to them.

Despite the anxious look on my mother’s and cousins’ faces, I knew I was born for trekking into the unknown, for that sort of adventure; all I could think of was I would not have met that grandmother any other way. I realized then that all across the world, there were people like her—kind, wise, and curious—who I would never meet unless I walked through remote places where the speed of feet was the speed of life and of life revealing her secrets.

Many, many years later, Dieter stood in front of me on the train platform in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. A tall and burly man with long, wild curly blond-brown hair and a thick beard, it was his rough-hewn khaki, dirt-and-oil-stained backpack that drew me. At least two times bigger than most pilgrim’s packs, his pack had a tent and sleeping roll fastened at the bottom and a cooking pot, camper’s stove, water bottles, cup, and cooking utensils attached with hooks and loops. When he moved he sounded like a herd of cows coming home.

Half an hour later, I was seated in the same train car and we began chatting amiably. He had just finished walking the pilgrimage road to Santiago, the Way of St. James, from his front door in Lübeck in northern Germany. Some five months earlier, Dieter had closed the door to his apartment and to his life: His girlfriend had just broken up with him and he had been working inordinate hours at a job while continuing fulltime studies. “I was devastated,” he said. He went right to the heart of the matter. “She was the woman I wanted to marry.” He took leave and started walking.

As for me, I explained, I was still walking the pilgrimage but in a far more nonlinear fashion. I had just come from walking west of Ponferrada and was taking the train east to Pamplona to walk west toward Burgos.  I was filling in the spaces of unwalked portions.

This walking for me was about finding out what would happen to my modern mind if I let my feet do the talking, if I let something more ancient and ancestral in me take the lead. We live in a world where the world is literally at our feet, where we can jump in a car, a bus, a train, or a plane and be anywhere within 24 hours.  I wanted to slow down to witness transformation as it happened.

Dieter had walked well over 1,400 miles and said that the most profound part of the pilgrimage was, “The great vast plains of Castile. There, it was just me and my footfall. There were no mountains, hills, or rivers to distract my mind, just wide, open expanses. You can go mad.  There, I found peace.”

I set out from Pamplona, making my way back west. Perhaps because I had already been walking, the vivid dreams began to come quickly and each day on the trail was a deep inner journey set to a steady beat, parading unresolved issues, passions, fears, and connections as I climbed up and over one pass to the next.

Somewhere past Puente la Reina, I processed my grief over my grandmother who had died the year before. I released my worries over my aging parents beyond Estella. I reaffirmed my love for life by Logroño, and curiously, I completely forgot my worries about making a living throughout. Sometimes, an electric elation shot through me, from tailbone to skull crown, marveling that I was self-sufficient, strong-legged, and living simply by putting one step before the other.

Outside Pamplona I met Javier from Argentina. As much as I was nonlinear in my walking, he was nontemporal in his. He would walk a week or two at a time as he could, race back to classes in Pamplona, and set out again where he’d left off on the next set of vacation days. I saw him three more times on the trail before he got to Estella and had to take the bus back to Pamplona.

Once, Javier came upon me as I had just made it to the top of a rise and was watching a man on the trail below. The man was near an altar of trees and stone, pacing back and forth with a cigarette in his hand. He was speaking to himself or to some invisible entity. A shopping cart nearby held his backpack and he had tied plastic bags filled with food and gear to the cart’s sides: it was a modern rendering of the medieval pilgrim’s donkey.

“I see you’ve met our permanent pilgrim,” said Javier as he arrived at the top of the rise.

“Really, he never leaves the Road?”

“Villagers and other pilgrims give him food and help him as they can. He walks back and forth along the path. This,” Javier swept his arms indicating the expanse of the entire pilgrimage road across northern Spain, “is his home.”

Dieter made his way home knowing that he would fall in love again. I, like Javier, would keep walking stretches of it as I could, excited by how the outer journey triggered a rich inner one. And out there was a man who was always on it, the world ever at his feet.

Years ago I assisted in the research on the exhibit, “The Gift of Birds,” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, on bird feather ornamentation gathered from South American indigenous people. Many of the items had been gathered by William Farabee in the early 20th century. His journals of the expeditions were held in the museum’s archives and I spent hours pouring over his accounts of walking into parts of the Amazon as yet unknown to anyone other than a person indigenous to the region.

Farabee described one day of challenging walking through unmarked forest, hoping to rely on the guidance of a group of people, headed by an elderly man, who were from the area and who had joined them when returning to their village after a big feast at another. Farabee and his small team walked faster and found that their pace was slowed down by traveling with the guiding group. One morning, he was ready to move on but the elderly man refused, saying he had traveled so quickly the prior day that his spirit had yet to catch up, that he was waiting for it to arrive.

This one-liner, ‘waiting for my spirit to catch up,’ hit me hard and has ever since become a guide for how I choose to live and how I choose to travel. In it, I think I discovered why I do not like to rent a car or have a long list of places I must see when I travel. Those experiences have indeed left me feeling like my sprit had yet to catch up. My spirit walked, took local buses and trains, connected to the land and the people. That made it feel engaged and full.

When I walk at my spirit’s pace, my motion-hungry body and my over-stimulated brain simultaneously kick into motion and go quiet, while shifting awareness and taking in rich, otherwise invisible details of everyday life. That’s when I see the little trail to the left that leads to a medieval village with a ruined Romanesque church whose door is off its hinge and inside I discover Cistercian acoustic perfection as my voice beams off the walls and rises to the heavens. That’s when a red-breasted thrush is willing to bother to fly down to a branch right before me and let me look closely at his dark brown eyes and thick orange breast. That’s when a roadside café appears out of nowhere with beer and ham sandwiches at just the right temperature and freshness along with an elderly man in a black beret who has the world’s best recipe for truly good hard cider.  The Homo sapiens sapiens body and brain I inhabit likes to hunt and gather, which means paced movement and awareness of all that is around me. When I achieve the old rhythms, I find I am most content, not to mention, the most alive.

One day recently, I set off on a trail into the forest north of St-Cyprien in southwestern France, in the heart of the region famous for its painted and engraved caves from human inhabitants who lived there over 20,000 years ago. My goal was to arrive in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in two and a half hours, the amount of time my trail map told me it would take. It neglected to mention the extra two hours I would need to find the way after I got lost due to faulty trail markers, or the absence of them in sensitive turns. But four and a half hours later, after several doublebacks and uphill climbs (I am certain it was uphill in both directions), I staggered into Les Eyzies and made a direct path to the Café de la Mairie over which stood the famous limestone sculpture of Early Man gazing over the valley from a nearby rock shelf.

I did what he would do under the circumstances and ordered a cold, frothy blond beer. As I sat savoring my well-earned brew, I reflected on the places through which I had just come. I had wandered through thick oak forest that wove in and out of caves and rock shelves that were perfect shelters for our ancestors. My mind recalibrated itself to that reality and slowed down while taking in details, like different plants and animals, unique turns in the landscape, a particular tree that seemed to bear promise. I realized I had time traveled as well as foot traveled. I had found myself in a pristine area that could have been like what it was for a prehistoric person (except for the fact that I knew I would arrive at a cold beer, eventually, before the day was up.)

I heard birdsong without the sound of car motors or a distant thresher from a farmer’s field. I did encounter a winemaker, tying his vines in the southern sun in a clearing in the forest on a slope perfect for his vintage. I also stopped and talked to a farmer harvesting the hay in his field, the clarity of sunlight and physical work shining in his eyes. Twice, local dogs appeared from the forest and walked along as if we had known each other all our lives. Chestnut flowers swelled with the promise of abundant nuts later in the year.  Of necessity, I had to trespass across a farmer’s field, when the trail markers failed me, passing the black and white dairy cows and someone working hard at making lunch glimpsed from their kitchen window. When I finally arrived at the Vézère Valley, limestone cliffs emerged like a dramatic stage set, telling me I was on the right path. A sign appeared telling me I could buy wine in 50 meters to the left. I had returned to civilization.

By the time I wandered into Les Eyzies, my body and brain were in synch with my spirit; my mind was now ready to really understand ancient life as it was lived in this valley, when humans dwelled in rock shelves and painted and engraved deep in caves for ritual symbolic purposes.

I finished my brew and wandered a few meters down the road to the Abri Pataud, a limestone protective shelf that was occupied for thousands of years, starting around 35,000 years ago. When I took in the overhead engraving of an ancient goat from 22,000 years ago, I think I understood better the reality of the person who had made it. I realized then that most of our history, not just prehistory, could be understood better from the walking pace. It was a reality, and affinity, that modern pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela discovered every year after they left their fast-paced lives behind for a few weeks.

Now, I take that one-liner and add to it this: If I travel slowly enough to let my spirit catch up, I also get into synch with the spirit of others and slow down enough to learn something from them about their part of the world, and their own walk in it.


Beebe Bahrami (www.BeebesFeast.com & http://pilgrimswaycafe.blogspot.com) is a widely published writer and cultural anthropologist who specializes in travel, food and wine, spirituality, outdoors adventures, and cross-cultural writing, particularly on France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. Among her travel books are The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Historic Walking Guides Madrid. She is currently at work on a travel memoir set in southwestern France.

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