A week of camping, and a night after things went growl in the night, I declared it a night NOT for wild camping. It had been a lonely day on the road less traveled. Parts of it gloriously wild and beautiful along river canyons, other parts were the planalto (high plains) for which the region is named. Friendly smiles from locals, but few towns had any kind of hotels, so that left only “the ask”. That means being bold enough to pedal up to strangers and ask if there is a place we might pitch our tent for the night.
It usually begins with spotting someone outside, even better if there is an obvious patch of ground nearby. We pedaled up to a threesome in their later years, and were politely informed that we might try down by the town water fountain … perhaps pitch our tent on the small hill behind it. Moving along, we wave to a man with a large grassy field between his house and the road. Circling back, again we try our friendliest smiles and ask if we might pitch our tent. Again we were encouraged to check down the road by the water fountain. Reaching the water stop, it was clear that the only place was directly next to the road in the small pull-out drive strewn with debris—not a good, safe or comfortable place to set up our tent. It is times like these, facing the 3rd strike and we are out on the road as dark once again approaches, that my chest grows tight and anxiety creeps in. We are most at the mercy of the kindness of strangers and I am washed by doubt.
Pedaling slowly through the small village of Malta where houses mixed with orchards and barn yards, we spot a small empty field with a low fence and open gate. It was entirely visible for the world to see if we camped there, but no obvious person to ask.
Across the street was a nice home with rose garden and small patch of green grass. It looks nicer than most, but closed up and quiet … and we assume no one is home and are reluctant to even make the trip to the front door. But Willie does – he’s the brave one, you know – and as he walks up the drive a head pops up and we realize the lady of the house is planting in her garden. With a wary look in her eye, she tries to understand our question, doesn’t, so promptly whips out her cell phone and punches in a number. A moment later, she thrusts the phone to Willie and he explains in his warmest, most agreeable voice that we are bicycling Portugal and there are no camp sites in the area. We need only a small place to put our tent for the night – we have food and water and everything we need – just a small, secure place … maybe that field next door? The voice on the phone only says, “OK, I understand” and the phone is back to the lady of the house. By now, her husband had joined us, and we all wait for the cell phone translation.
To watch her face, is to watch enlightenment, even joy. She confirms that we want only one night, then the phone snaps shut and a quick conversation between husband and wife and we are shown our options. The carport! The vegetable garden! The chicken shed area! We select the area next to the vegetable garden and the soil is quickly smoothed with a rake and ready for our tent. Just as we begin to assemble our tent, our hosts call to us and I expect to be encouraged to take the carport in case of rain. Instead, they open a door and show us into a “mother-in-law” apartment of sorts. It’s complete with kitchen, bathroom and shower, long table, keg of house wine, three motorcycles, and plenty or room for our two bikes and sleeping pads. Without a doubt, we are invited to forget the tent and move inside. The shower is pointed out so importantly that I wonder if we smell like our several days pedaling and wild camping.
The gesture of kindness and goodwill is overwhelming and intoxicating. Soon we are in conversation about gardens and fruit, and out comes marmelo marmalade (quince marmalade), apples from their tree, tomatoes from their garden, wine from their keg (yes, just like a beer keg), a stronger drink made with wine and aguardiente, and finally prosunto (prosciutto). We are gifted a feast and I am thankful, more than they will know.
Eventually, we are left to take our showers and settle in for the night, tucked in with extra blankets and pillows too.
Morning comes and we rise and pack our bags and make a simple egg breakfast with our eggs and their stove. Just as we put away our cooking supplies, a knock on the door and our hostess arrives with tea and milk, toast, sausage, cheese, more sausage, and ham. We feast all over again laughing at our good fortune, thanking our hostess with warm smiles and gratitude.
Our language is hardly enough to express our thanks and appreciation for their generosity, I can only hope that the light in my eyes says more than words ever could.
After filling my pannier with a dozen more apples and a jar of peach jam for the road, we wave good bye. Leaving behind a small picture of Seattle, a word of thanks, and our names and address hoping one day to repay the favor.