This week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor is a writer and anthropologist who has intimately explored the cultures, languages, peoples, and histories of the western Mediterranean world:Beebe Bahrami. The author of The Spiritual Traveler: Spain — A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes, she has also written for the Michelin Green Guides, National Geographic books, and Archaeology magazine. Visit her website at www.beebesfeast.com.
What is “home” for you? Is it a particular place or person or thing?
I aspire to create my feeling of “home” every day, in the place I currently am, with the people I befriend, and through the meals I cook. (I also like to have a bouquet of fresh flowers on my table, ever since I saw Laura do that with daffodils in Doctor Zhivago.)
My sense of home is always weaving all my travels into it: it is taking ideas of how to live from different cultures and aspiring to integrate the most uplifting practices and the most earth sustaining ones as well. Having learned that life is constant change and adjustment to change, I have striven to make “home” an interior place and to try not to cling to a physical place as home because it could change. I could instead spend my energy savoring what it is and where I am now. If I can make the present feel like home, then I’ve succeeded in celebrating the best that life has to offer. This, of course, is the ideal I work with.
When did you first hit the road? How did it go?
As a kid, my family always traveled. We would take spontaneous road trips, stop at places that interested us, and look for a place to stay once we arrived wherever it was that we felt was a fun place to stay overnight. We also traveled internationally but that was always for the purpose of visiting relatives in Iran.
As a solo traveler, I really struck out on my own when I went to study for a college semester at the University of Seville in Spain. I would spend hours exploring Seville on foot and I would take off on breaks and walk, hike, and take local buses and trains around southern Spain, Portugal, and France. I fell in love with the whole idea of just going and finding out what the road had to offer. Unmarked bus stops, no hotel reservations, little money for a hotel anyhow, and train strikes made for obstacle courses I’d never trade in. They led to making friends, asking strangers for help, sharing food with strangers, and walking into unknown territory, stretching my skills and trust in the world.
Indeed, I worry that people over plan their trips these days because of all the information available on the Internet. I like to recapture as much as possible the original idea of a pilgrimage: to leave what is familiar and to trust that you will be able to handle the unknown that comes at you and very likely have a terrific time. This way, you learn what you are made of and meet fascinating characters along the way.
How did you break into the travel writing scene?
I’ve always written, nearly everyday working at the craft in one form or another, and I have always striven to make sense of a life dedicated to learning about other cultures. Both of these are good starts for travel writing, but my first real break into the scene came through a project to write two chapters in a coffee table book for National Geographic books, Peoples of the World. They were looking for experts on the areas for which they needed chapters and who could write clear prose for a broad audience. I wrote the chapters on North Africa and the Middle East. I worked with a terrific editor and learned a lot about solid travel writing. That made me more adventurous to further explore my voice as a writer. I realized that travel writing was well suited to my nature and to my training as an anthropologist. I began looking at my fieldwork in the western Mediterranean as a great source of writing material, taking the on-the-ground experiences and insights and turning them into prose that would reach out to people and tap into their own universal experience of being human, while giving them an appreciation for the uniqueness of the culture and people about which I wrote.
What travel story will you still be telling your pals in the nursing home?
For the pals who are willing to listen for a while, I’d want to tell them about the liberation and exhilaration of walking the Camino, the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. This is an adventure to which I keep adding as I have walked the French Road and portions of other roads and keep going back to walk new stretches of new roads in France, Spain, and Portugal.
But for the less epic length tales, I always like the humorous stories where something unexpected and humbling happens and everyone laughs about it. A top one for me was when eight men in northern Spain competed with each other in offering marriage proposals to me. In didn’t matter to them that I was already married; the performance was really for each other, not me. They were funny, jovial, saucy, and absolutely harmless, even if they were royal flirts. That piece came out in The Pennsylvania Gazette, “The Mother Hens of Andrín.”
Another fun story was when I was researching my book, The Spiritual Traveler: Spain—A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes, and two friends joined me for my research in Basque Country. I had originally intended to track down a very local Marian phenomenon in a place called Unbe but could not find it. A friend of mine in Bilbao had told me about it: A farmwoman in the Basque mountains had had several visitations from Mary over the years, and the farmhouse and stream nearby all had healing energy and were gaining reverence among locals who knew about it.
Basque culture is rich with ancient and surviving matriarchal qualities and so that this shrine was in traditional Basque territory made it all the more intriguing. Was it another case of Mary as the ancient Mother Goddess occurrence? As a perennial student of matriarchal cultures in Europe, I hoped so.
But having had no luck in locating Unbe, I suggested to my friends that we stick to the coastline and make our way to the more masculine shrine of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (a fascinating hermitage on a rock island connected to the mainland via a great stone bridge). We were certain we knew exactly where we were going as long as we kept the coast to our left. Forty minutes later, we had no idea how it happened, but we found ourselves deep in the mountains and utterly lost. I suggested that at the next sign of human habitation, I’d look for a local and ask him or her where we were. Ten minutes later, we came around a bend and there was an inn and two cars parked in the narrow space off of the one-lane, two-way road on which we traveled. We pulled over and I jumped out and in to the front room of the inn where a hardy farmwoman was serving up lunch to her two patrons. When I asked her where we were, she smiled enigmatically as if we were expected, “Why, sweetheart, you’re in Unbe.”
The farmhouse shrine was just a few more meters down the road. Stunned at first, we then laughed and joked that if the Goddess deems it, she will find you no matter what. We then sat down to a great meal of beans, bacalao, and greens, and afterwards made our way to the shrine. Though it is unknown to most people outside of the radius of Bilbao, it is a powerful sacred spot and probably has been for millennia. (I did, in the end, include Unbe in my book.)
Let’s say you could take a free trip with anyone of your choosing (a historical figure, an ancestor, a super hero, etc). Who would it be, where would you go, and why?
My passion for travel writing came through my studies of travel narratives in cultural anthropology. I was intrigued by heavy-hitters like Herodotus (c.484-425 BCE) and Ibn Battuta (1304-c.1369) and more recent 19th century writers like Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great multilingual scholar and explorer (1821-1890), or intrepid female writer-explorers Isabella Bird (1831-1904) and Gertrude Bell (1868-1926).
To pick one, I would have to go with Ibn Battuta. He had a real sense of adventure that trusted the unknown, traveling for some 30 years. During a time when the world was not so wide to most people, he took off and traversed the Old World. Just to glimpse that past world through which he traveled and then to look at how he wrote about it, I think would both be fascinating and also make for terrific sparring sessions around the campfire at night. “I can’t believe this is how you write about these folks. I found them to be very agreeable.”
Name one place that should top everyone’s travel dream list be it a nation or a landmark or a village.
I would encourage everyone with the desire to travel to find their own magical spot based on their passions and nature. You can find your slice of paradise anywhere, even more so if you are not trying to follow someone else’s prescription for where to find it or experience it. That said, I heartily recommend finding a pilgrimage road that appeals to you and to striking out onto it. There are thousands to pick from. They can be famous, like the Camino, but they can be intimate and known only to a certain town or village, as I discovered all across Spain and Portugal, where nearly every locale has some form of pilgrimage road that leads to a nearby holy shrine during certain times of the year. It can be a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, or a hike to a holy mount in the Holy Land, or to a Buddhist temple. Wherever it is, walked with centeredness and trust in one’s abilities and in life, it can become a travel dream top list experience.
What specific travel resources (websites, guidebooks, blogs, etc) do you always consult when planning a journey?
Part of what revs me to travel is not knowing too much about the how, what, and when. The why and where, well, that is what starts my journeys.
So, resources I consult are the ones that teach me as much as I can get my hands on about the culture, the natural environment, and the language. I delve into language guides, travel narratives—from old ones to recent ones—and good cultural accounts (like many in the Culture Shock series). As for flights, trains, lodging, restaurants, what to do once there, of which the Internet is rich, I plan less there because so much of the spontaneity of travel arises out of not knowing everything and letting things happen.
After I read up on travel narratives, cultural accounts, language study, as well as any quirks about how daily life gets done in a place, I then settle on one guidebook to take and wing the rest.
On selecting guidebooks, I always spend a lot of time perusing them in bookstores, feeling each one out on my destination place. As I look them over, I imagine myself on the ground, in the train station, at the door to a hostel, etc., using it. Its content and organization have to pass these tests. While all guidebooks have strengths and weaknesses, I do have a larger portion of Lonely Planet and Cadogen guides than any other. Both do content and organization really well and both tend to hire writers who really know the culture.
Once on the ground, the anthropologist gene kicks in and I strive to build on the book foundation of cultural knowledge by getting out there and hobnobbing with the locals.
What is the hardest lesson you¹ve learned on the road?
The hardest lesson is also the best and most joyous lesson: that I can rely on myself and that I have a lot more muscle inside me than I realized. It was far easier—but equally delightful—to learn that most people you meet are motivated by humanity and kindness. They want to help and they want to connect.
What advice can you offer to women with itchy feet?
Embrace your nature and start traveling, whatever your budget. The road will meet you and make it happen. Lots of people actually have more of a budget for travel than they realize, if they are willing to examine the expectations of life that direct their daily choices. I have forgone buying lots of things and lots of take-out coffee with the promise of travel as a reward. When that new couch ages, that’s sort of it. But when a travel experience ages, it gets better and better. So, I have no couch. It’s hardly a sacrifice.