I was curious. To walk with a donkey. A slow journey, crossing only from village to village, with just a donkey in my company

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Just around the corner, along the way to a restaurant which is called Nascer do Sol, and which is well known in these parts, and just before the train tracks which have been forever rusty and desolate, where only three slow trains pass without any hurry at all during the day from one station to the next, here I was standing eye to eye with a donkey. All of a sudden. It was grey, as donkeys should be, with only a shade of brown colouring along its side and it was connected with a taught rope to a point in the ground near to where it was standing. It had a penetrating look in its eye, as it faced me. It was like the donkey saw me for the first time, which was true of course, but nevertheless such an exploring look could surely only seldom be found in the eyes of an animal. Approaching, I saw that in this meadow there were more donkeys besides just this one. On this side the meadow was separated from the street by a hedge. My donkey was able to look at me across from this hedge, which wasn’t yet fully grown.
On the left I now saw a large house loom up, new yet in the traditional Portuguese style, white washed walls and orange roof tiles, painted modest yellow stripes along the shuttered windows, and a blue border of azulejos along the roof. A large, obvious sign facing the street stood in between my donkey and the house and it said : Andar com um burro! Walking with a donkey!
I was curious. To walk with a donkey. A slow journey, crossing only from village to village, with just a donkey in my company. Forgoing airplanes, boats or trains to exotic destinations, or driving by car with many hours of too much sun and exhaust fumes, but here just –walking with a donkey. Would there be anybody in the house behind this sign? But just now, a charming lady approached me from the donkey meadow. ‘Olá, boa tarde senhor!’. It did not take her long to convince me that I would be back the next morning, to pick a donkey and indeed walk with it in a slow journey towards the north, or wherever I would like.
Later in Nascer do Sol I was going over the conversation in my mind while I was eating a meal of leitão with fries, rice and red wine from Bombarral, called Cerejeiras. It costs three euros in the supermarket and marvellously only four here in this restaurant. And this place was really a great room with hundreds of chairs and tables, a television on both sides showing the news for a full hour and half followed by everything going on at the soccer fields of Benfica and Porto de Leixões located in the North. On the walls large tableaus of wild pigs, hunting parties, the construction of the train track of Caldas da Rainha to Nazaré (close to the donkey farm), regional cows, bullfights, fisheries in Nazaré with women in their traditional dress, layered aprons, and stockings, caps covering their hair. They still look like this in Nazaré, the Nazareth of Portugal, of course only a short distance from Fatima where the biblical miracle of Portugal took place.
Rising before dawn, if only because donkeys do also, I knocked on the door of the donkey farm and was shown into a garden behind the house which lay between it and the meadow and the stables which kept 20 donkeys. The owners, used to waking early, were already preparing breakfast which they invited me to join. They told me some, about their donkeys, the donkeys’ names and origin, some were Spanish, others Portuguese, and whatever their peculiarities. Surely all “walkers” would find this out for themselves anyway but one would certainly note the relentless effort to assist their walker. After breakfast I was allowed to pick my donkey. Which was difficult. All of them looked at me with dark eyes hoping for imminent diversion. Something you wouldn’t expect from a donkey but perhaps they were well raised and socially minded and looking forward to new company. It left me to choose a donkey purely for its name which turned out to be Rita and which sounds like a real donkey’s name. She was a lively, average sized donkey and she carried a Portuguese passport.
Rita carried my luggage on her back, and I was armed with my manual and walking stick, like a character in an old photograph. We took off to explore things unfamiliar. On the street nobody bothered to be distracted by the site of a man with a donkey but then of course here many farmers still use donkeys to carry their produce, especially in the North, de Minho, where you’ll not only see them in the countryside but even in cities, and here in Salir de Porto, where I started my journey, donkeys can be seen on the beach or in the fields with pears, apples, prunes, oranges carried in baskets on their backs to any markets nearby. It was convenient to not draw any attention because it really avoids any stories people want to tell any traveller which would only cause a delay but which were impossible to interrupt and would be told at great length and many times over. As it is, my Portuguese isn’t good enough to understand a long and complicated story and to have to admit this could only be considered an embarrassing moment which I’d prefer to avoid. Rita had no such troubles. She trotted obediently by my side along the way to the Miradouro of Salir from which you can see a glorious view over the bay of São Martinho. I wanted to show Rita this, because that’s the feeling you get with a donkey. You take her everywhere so that she would see things she ordinarily wouldn’t. Just like a photographer who travels around the world taking pictures of lonely streets in Miami or playful beaches with many children on it, in Labadi. It was in this way I wanted Rita to get to know her world and when we reached the staircase in the Miradouro I gently encouraged her to come along with me to the top to see it.
In the manual I couldn’t find any advice on donkeys, and fear of heights. Considering her gentle pace as she followed my up the steps I gathered that donkeys did not suffer from our handicap. Lovely grass grew along the staircase to the top of the Miradouro, apparently, because Rita paused to taste it as she reached halfway. This is a great advantage to walking with a donkey, they eat as they go and you find that a small bowl of water is not too much to ask at any place where one stops for a rest. When we came to the top it was not only I who looked around me. Rita did also. In the distance across the glittering sea water in the rounded bay of São Martinho, was a picturesque little town with a small harbour in which fishing boats lay side by side along with yachts foreign and sea worthy. None of them with deep keels because the bay is shallow and can only be reached with the tide.
The sun was already shining this morning but the breeze made it comfortable to walk, and we eased down the hill and across the grass towards São Martinho for coffee. The question rose in my mind whether this was appropriate, to take Rita along to a restaurant. We walked across a new path, by the beach along the bay, decorated with palm trees and I wondered if I could have a coffee while I sat on the terrace in the sun with Rita standing just next to me. My question was interrupted by a mother who wanted to let her young kid ride on Rita for a bit and Rita didn’t object and shortly thereafter even seemed to like the noises coming from her back. My luggage on her back swayed back and forth, the child clung to the reins and after walking halfway along the bay enough was enough. Much ado of course, but her child’s tears had little impact on three stubborn mules and soon after we were moving along again, just the two of us across the bay towards a little terrace that already from a distance looked perfect, just on the edge of the sand. And surely Rita would be able to stay here while I ordered some bica. The waiter brought a small bowl of water without being asked and the sign of the place said that ‘O Farol’ would be serving fresh crab for the entire week. Rita was thirsty. Obviously. But she very carefully gobbled the water that was in her bowl.
Now that the morning was half gone I had no regrets whatsoever about Rita and the idea of walking around the area for a few days. My plan was to approach Nazaré along the coast and then cross the valley towards the mountainous area of Serras d’Aire e Candeeiros. I felt that the more savage the country, the better Rita would like it. De Serras, a stretched out area of mountains and caves, small villages and slow creeks, strange birds, bats in barren surroundings with only few trees which had been planted in order to patch up the damage caused by wildfire the previous season. I figured that this would be the natural habitat of a donkey.
After coffee and water we stepped onto the road, rose slowly upwards to reach the tip of the dune and as we left this town I turned around to look at the shiny water lying there and it was flickering because of the light. We found the our way to Nazaré over the Serra de Manues and met up with another donkey standing next to the road. It was strapped to a pole but the length of the rope was short and the grass around it had been eaten, a few flies rested on its ears and very sad eyes. I looked but I noticed Rita didn’t. Perhaps she felt no kinship or sympathy with this misery. So she wasn’t concerned as she followed me, without a blink of boredom in her eyes, and even as the road became steep she continued to walk in the rhythm of a merry metronome on a black baby grand piano. And she wasn’t bothered by angry short dogs we passed which fake attacked from their safe distance and yanked the chains which held them.
Reaching the top of the dune we saw – below - the immense Atlantic ocean approaching the coastline with its rolling waves. Down there, a protected habitat, the beach stretched along a thin line by the dunes and its greens, here and there a palm tree in the gardens owned by foreigners. For there were plenty of those here, with pools, a view of the sea, hedges around their property, and called Casa Hilton, Quinta de Boavista, Casa da Costa Prata. Which is also the name of this region. A silver coastline with an endless sea which curls itself around those who swim and surf, the divers and fishermen and the lonely wanderer who feels himself miles away from the place on which he rests.
In the slow pace with which we began the morning, we continued along the beach of Salgado, halfway along from São Martinho to Nazaré, which lies in a valley, a long descent but Rita seemed fine. Below, there was a wide beach, thundering waves, a small outhouse with a weathered old girl of unsaid age sitting in a chair by it and next to her a table where people could leave their tip. Further along the road there was a restaurant where one could have lunch. From this Praia do Salgado looking towards the north you could see the town of Nazaré, built halfway on a cliff, and towards the south the peninsula of Peniche and the paradisiacal islands of Berlenga on the coast, where birds hovered across the sky like white spots of ink on a pallet of blue paint.
The waiter already brought a bowl of water and a parasol also, as I tied Rita to a pole by the restaurant. The sun was very bright now and shone with all its strength pouring its rays of light on to the yellow beach. Rita deserved some shadow. It was a lunch of fresh shrimp and squid, Vinho Verde, tomatoes and onions grown in the sun, and bica, Brazilian coffee in a very small cup. After two sips it leaves you wide awake and I was up again along with Rita, on the way to Nazaré, where we would probably stay for the night. The bottle of Vinho Verde had me somewhat drowsy. I looked at Rita and asked her if she would carry me uphill. Of course she didn’t answer but talking to animals is a most normal thing to do. The flickering movement in her eyes told me it was okay. Sitting on her back, rocked by her footsteps, we walked slowly towards the road which would take us to Nazaré. One last glance at the endless ocean, the untouched greens on the hills around us, with bright flowers. It was a glamorous vegetation.
When we reached the top I slid off her back. The way to Nazare I would walk. As I should. Andar com um burro.

April 2009

JJ van Kranendonk

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