Women’s Travel Gold Winner: Down a Stream in Iran and Up a Creek in Spain

by Beebe Bahrami

Getting lost and finding oneself anywhere in the world

As a child born and raised in the Rocky Mountains in the USA, I recall my Iranian grandfather’s advice to me. “If you get lost, go downhill, and follow the stream.” I felt safe with these few words. All would be well, I concluded, if I go downhill and follow the stream.

Only as an adult did I think how odd such comfort was. Certainly, my grandfather was an old hand in the mountains of northern Iran, yet he also had been an army general and the times in his life when he was the most up the creek, he was never in the mountains and there was never a stream nearby.

One day, as a member of a team inspecting Iran’s eastern border with Pakistan—because part of the border is a river that periodically changes course—my grandfather was alone and in the desert when his Jeep’s radiator overheated. He spied along the dry horizon a tree, and hiding in it, a Baluch tribesman. He went to him and asked for water. The man disappeared and returned with water from some mysterious source along with an armful of grass, which he dropped in front of the Jeep. “If your animal needs to drink, he’ll be hungry, too.”

My grandfather loved telling that tale. It ennobled the tribesman as much as it revealed the existence of people leading traditional lives that modern technology had not touched.

During World War II, Russians held him as a prisoner of war. Two years after his release, the British detained him and other young, educated Iranian nationalists and placed them in a camp to keep watch on any potentially dissident types. Inspired by Gandhi next door, he became a hunger striker to protest foreign occupation.

A few years after the war, when the world was rebuilding itself, my grandfather backed Mossadegh, striving for an independent, nationalized Iran, not one playing the role of world oil puppet. When Mossadegh’s leadership failed, my grandfather was quietly retired.

His life had not been an easy one, but he had made the most of it, always seeking the right paddle, not the easiest paddle, for the boat and for the creek.

Trekking one day in northeastern Spain, near Soria, west of Zaragoza, I got lost. I had hoped to find a local bus to the nearby village of Garray where stood the famous Celtic stronghold, Numancia, an archaeological ruin dating to 134 BCE.

No bus was forthcoming. I started walking, figuring that if I followed the Duero River nearby, I’d arrive in Garray and then Numancia. I passed through undisturbed beech, pine, and oak forest. Only once did I see another person, a fisherman hip deep in the river with his rubber boots, casting his line, oblivious of me.

Two and a half hours later, Numancia’s hilltop stood before me. It told the story of the famous last stand. In 134 BCE, the Celtic-Iberian Arevaci had managed, through determination, strategy, and fierceness, to hold out against Roman domination for years. But the Romans built a wall all around their hilltop and slowly caged them in and cut off their water. After so many years of resistance, they weakened and began to die. Knowing that life as Roman slaves was worse than death, the Numantines set fire to their homes and killed themselves. Spanish school kids today still learn about Numancia. It instills a national message about perseverance and holding out through hard times.

I returned to Garray. I waited an hour for a bus that villagers told me was coming. It never did. I went downhill and followed the river. I was hardly up the creek in the same manner as my grandfather or the Numantines, the ultimate creek, but nightfall was approaching and I was in remote territory; not even the fisherman was in his creek.

I followed the narrow forest lane I had taken to Garray and as I passed the same abandoned water mill straddling the Duero, I reached into the bottom of my pack, grateful I had the foresight to toss in an extra bottle of water and a bag of almonds.

Almonds always remind me of the English vagabond I met years back on the ferry crossing from Algeciras, Spain, to Tangiers, Morocco: He’d offered me a handful of almonds from his sack, stating that they were a perfect protein, the ideal food of the nomadic temperament.

I smiled. It seemed I carried him in my pack too, goading me on into a more nomadic life. I also dug out my one fall-back to old-fashioned technology, a small compass.  I couldn’t be sure the stream I was following would take me straight to Soria, where I hoped to alight that night.  I located southwest, grabbed a handful of almonds, and set out beyond the mill.

While at times nervous about making it to Soria unscathed, a larger part of me was exhilarated by the sudden acquisition of real silence, a rare occurrence in the modern world. But this part of Castile had become more and more abandoned for the big cities and in that forest, along the Duero between Garray and Soria, heading southwest, I was pulled into a sudden world silent of manmade sounds. The river took on a symphonic melody. The beech trees fanned their leaves and chimed.  A fish pushed up and plopped back into the water.

As I hiked, I also thought of the woman I met on the bus from Zaragoza two days earlier.  A native Sorian, she told me that growing up next door to Numancia instilled in her a great courage and pride over making independent choices in her life. The example of these ancient people over how to behave when up the creek was one that made them exceptional, that kept them eternally alive 2,200 years later.

As the sun raced to the ground and the last light of day offered another half hour of comfort, I finally left the forest and the Duero and made my way up to the crest of a hill. There, below, in another 2-3 kilometers sat Soria, her lights coming on, her citizens pouring out into the streets for their paseo, her bars and cafes filling up with another comforting sound—the perfect complement to the silence of nature—the sweet chatter of talk big and small of neighbors over a beer, a glass of wine, and an array of small plates scattered across the table. I quickened my pace anticipating the sweet reward that came from following the stream.

And I thought of my grandfather, smiling that I was taking his advise literally, but also thinking of how often the paddle he had found was an inner state, no matter what the outside world was doing. That was the root source of my comfort: All of us will find ourselves up the creek at one time or another in our lives, likely, more than once.  And if we look hard and hold our ground, we’ll discover that we always have a paddle.

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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