Dinner in Portugal

So here I am in at a restaurant in Villa Real drinking Douro wine eating olives and bread sausage, waiting for my Oven Roasted Duck Rice and reflecting on 6 days of hiking through the Portuguese countryside. Some rain has come in and I’ve decided to stay in this town to enjoy Portuguese city life and the holiday season of Carnival. This is my first trip ever outside of North America at the ripe young age of 31. I’ve come to Portugal to visit some family, hike a trail through the country, and see the major cities. To learn about my heritage and get some perspective on things. And most importantly, to write.

I didn’t know what I was getting into with the Camino de Santiago hike. But I’m really glad I got into it, like all of my adventures lately. The hike is based on a pilgrimage from central Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Lots of elevation, lots of language barriers, and learning how to care for myself mentally as well as physically. And it’s good, this is how I grow, this is how I feed my hunger for adventure. This is how I heal from all the trauma in the past that made me afraid to do things like this. Internal voices that told me it was impossible, unnecessary, or illogical. This is how I mend a broken heart. How I break the conditioning, be it my own or whatever my mind created due to how I grew up. I started out doing 10–12 miles a day, then fell into 5–7 mile days once I hit wine country. Not sure how long I’ll keep hiking. This trip is all about going with my gut, what I’m feeling, where my instincts take me.

On a trail in the middle of nowhere is relatively simple — you have your pack, your food, your water and you set up camp when you decide. On the Camino in Winter there are complications when you don’t speak any Portuguese. First, you find some maps and attempt to trace a general route of the Camino, because as far as I can tell no official map exists. You walk and follow the little yellow arrows that point where to go until they are no longer there, then you keep going and have faith you are heading in the right direction, and then suddenly they reappear. Also, you must plan your route to arrive at the hostel at a decent hour, assuming you accounted for elevation, with enough food to last the night, and flag down a local and attempt to communicate in google translate to ask them to call the right person to open the doors for you. Hopefully the hostel keeper arrives before nightfall and you can let them know in broken Anglo-espan-guese you’ll be gone the next day and will leave the door unlocked and the key inside. Nobody else is hiking the Camino in Winter, so of course the hostel is usually locked and the person with the key may be as far as an hour away. All of this of course is after hiking 5–10 miles with a 40 pound pack because you’re new to this sort of thing and packed heavy.

Then, when back on the trail, you have to find tiny understocked village markets and stock up with food for the next leg of the journey. All of this requires a certain amount of mental strain to communicate without words and use a combination of translation apps or shrugs, sheepish frowns, and embarrassed gestures to get your message across. Not to mention using the bathroom or asking for directions when you lose the path because you decided to only rely on wifi for navigation (Again, I’m pretty sure there are no official maps). Old women look at you like you’re insane, and you probably are, but in a good way, the right way, the get your mind crooked in order to figure out what’s straight way.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. Much of the joy of traveling in a foreign country for the first time in my life has to do with the feeling I have of being an alien. Of not knowing the language, the customs, the simple ways that I stick out like a sore thumb. And I really like that. It makes me feel something real, a combination of worry and wonder at the fact that I am not of this place and have to work hard to do basic things like order a meal or find a place to sleep for the night.

So after 6 days on the trail I am taking some days off to enjoy the comforts of civilization, which I have lately been weary of. They just feel too loud, I like small towns where people are personable and say hello even if they don’t know you. Over the past few years I’ve come to dislike cities — that is, American West Coast Cities with a population over 100,000, mostly because that’s all I’ve ever known — and find myself immersed in ancient cities for the first time in my life. Cities that have history, hundreds, even thousands of years of history. Suddenly my perspective of what cities are and the role they play has shifted, based on a few new places I’m now immersed in.

Like this place, Villa Real. At one point it was the seat of the Portuguese kingdom, a place where the Catholic King took his stand against the Moors and settled his family in the 13th century. There are also Celto-Iberian settlements dating back to the Paleolithic, Roman-era estates, and a number of other slices of historical homes, ruins, and relics. I come here to feel what these places feel like, because I’ve never known them. My native West Coast cities are 175 years old, at most.

This new perspective helps me reflect on cities, the roles they play, how they are simultaneously efficient and inefficient. How they are both cultural hubs and collections of crime, addiction and alienation. What have they been in centuries past? More of the same, with different cultures, different vices, different cultural gems and rich traditions. Here, in Villa Real, I just soak up what I can as a world traveller for the first time in my thirty one years.

So many details to attempt to capture in text. Like for example the waitress here at this restaurant, effortlessly floating between Portuguese, English and French. She forgets that I’m not Portuguese and speaks to me in her native tongue. I nod, understanding, replying in gesture yes the food is very good thank you. Things like that.

Good wine helps the words flow. In vino, veritas. It’s difficult to fully experience a place without being able to use the faculties of language, especially as a writer, a generally verbose person who enjoys conversation with random people on the street. That skill has been taken from me. I am mute, humbled, simply a floating eye. But what I see is magnified by my inability to engage it. I concentrate from the outside, from my American tourist bubble. And the reflections will distill into something legible, in time.

So for now I savor every bite of my cocoa liquor pudding and just simply enjoy the ambiance, the buzz of the wine, the knowledge that this is my adventure, of my design, and that all of it is very, very good for me. I worked hard for this. I earned this. It is possible.

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