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  • Writer's pictureKirsten Gardner

What Stays With You? Human Connection & The In-Between Moments of Travel: A Guest Post by Ann Becker

This post was written by Ann Becker - an Outlier Journeys client, mentor and friend. All photos are credit to Ann Becker and Robert Putnam, who photographed the vineyard terraces from the Douro River.

As we elected to travel to Portugal during late October’s “shoulder season”, rain was our occasional hiking companion. One day our guide Helder moved rocks to construct little bridges over modestly engorged streams. We all offered each other a hand to traverse a challenging passage with encouraging words and requisite doses of humor. At day’s end, our friend, Rosemary, pronounced, “Hiking is a team sport,” a motto that resonated with us throughout our time together.

Hiking the trails of Portugal’s sole national park, Peneda-Gerês, in the northern Minho region offered the opportunity to use all our senses to discover the natural and archeological beauty of this protected area. Greeting us were wildflowers, agricultural terraces, colorful fungi, ruins of Roman roads, and the region’s Cachera cows grazing peacefully as we walked by. In fact, we counted more cows than hikers.

It is time to reframe how we think of recreational travel. It is a luxury, but its true beauty lies in the oft small moments, not simply five-star resorts, white sandy beaches, or awe-inspiring must-see sites. I am reminded of three such "small moment" experiences on our recent trip that offer a brief snapshot of a country and its people amidst the joys and challenging complexities of culture, conservation, and local economies. I hope these experiences inspire you to slow down and veer off from the main highway in your own travels, even if you must cross stone bridges across rain-drenched paths.

Commune in the Kitchen

I don’t care much for cooking at home, but transport me to someone else’s kitchen when traveling, and I’m all in. Sitting around the table with Casa da Cisterna Guesthouse owner Ana Berliner, while Cisterna’s long-time cook coached us through our dinner preparations, was a blast. Imagine the thinnest of thinly sliced potatoes and the tiniest of tiny diced green peppers paired at seemingly random moments with liberal amounts of top-quality Portuguese olive oil, finely minced garlic, and salt.

As our contributions to the meal were cooked on the stovetop and in the oven, we sipped on white port and talked with Ana about what drew her and her husband to the medieval town of Castelo Rodrigo, the evolution of their guesthouse and actions in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and their passion for the many birds of the area.

Our meal was delicious, and I was even inspired to try the potato recipe at home. What I loved the most about our Casa Cisterna time was the experience of sitting around that kitchen table, the food drawing us in, and the ease of comfortable conversation.

Ann (second from L) and friends with Casa da Cisterna Guesthouse owner Ana Berliner (center)

Pack your Patience and Problem-Solving skills

After a few more intermittently rainy days during the first part of our trip, we were counting on our next hotel’s laundry service to perform its magic on our wet, dirty clothes. Upon arrival we learned that the hotel’s laundry service operated every two to three days due to lingering post-pandemic staffing challenges. A serious clothing dilemma for us? Hardly. Nice to have if we could come up with a plan B? Sure.

My knowledge of spoken Portuguese is a few words at most, and the woman at the front desk spoke very little English. However, when she asked “Parlez-vous francais?”, we clicked. While going to a laundromat wasn’t a viable option, the receptionist knew women in a nearby town who periodically provided laundry services in their homes. She confirmed by phone that they were available if we could find a way to get our clothes there and back. We could, and with the willingness of our driver, Xavier, we did.

The underlying messages of our laundry day remain with me. The tourism industry in many parts of the world, including Portugal, is still recovering from the pandemic. Staffing shortages and training needs continue to challenge companies, especially small businesses, worldwide. Patience and compassion are something that we visitors must offer.

I reflect as well on the power of human connection, even in the space of 10 minutes. It was a wonderful feeling to engage in multilingual communication with a young woman, feeling bad initially that she could not provide the anticipated customer service, finding joy and appreciation for her creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Be understanding. Be kind. Be gracious.

Lunch spread near the Côa Valley

Everyone has a Story and a Perspective

Portugal’s Côa Valley is home to more than 1000 rocks full of intricate Paleolithic engravings. They include thousands of animal figures carved over several millennia which were first discovered during the initial construction of the Pocinho Dam and reservoir in the mid-1990s.

Today the Côa Museum is the portal that offers an archeological and historical context of the engravings. With a well-designed layout and the thoughtful use of technology to enhance the visitor experience, one gets a taste of their magnitude, complexity, and significance.

Through a short film, one learns of the numerous debates, broad-based populist movement, political scandal, and pressures from outside the country that ultimately led then incoming Prime Minister Antonio Guterres to halt the dam project in 1995 to preserve the engravings. In 1998, Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley became a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I departed the museum feeling that Guterres had made the right choice. Then a brief conversation jolted me back to reality.

Shortly after our museum visit, we meandered through a nearby town, engaging in a bit of conversation with an elderly local couple. Our friend Bob asked Helder if he might ask them their feelings about the dam and the protection of the engravings. I had no trouble understanding the essence of their reply-- We needed that dam. We needed that water. Look at the impact on our villages today. Without water, there is little agriculture. Those engravings are not important.

How does one navigate the tightrope of conservation, culture and the health and well-being of local communities? There is no one right way or absolute answer. As visitors, it’s not up to us to solve Portugal’s challenges. However, we are all part of a deeply interconnected global community. We must ask questions, seek out different perspectives, and share stories often buried beneath a popular narrative. Those stories and the intentional style of travel that enables us to hear them can be a catalyst for expanding awareness, sparking new thinking, and perhaps laying the groundwork for action, at home or across borders.

Recreational Travel is a Luxury

It is worth repeating: all recreational travel is a luxury and having the time and the money to travel is a privilege limited to a few. While it’s important to me to underscore this acknowledgement, I’m not on a personal campaign to extinguish “luxury” from the travel lexicon. Rather, I urge us to move beyond its common connotation and instead center a bright spotlight on the more inclusive and accessible small moments that can evolve naturally from being open and curious versus an oft-labeled “authentic experience” that is frequently performative and overly curated. These small moments offer lasting memories and often the greatest positive impacts on host communities, the environment and ourselves.

With Gratitude

Our trip would not have been possible without the guidance and skills of Kirsten Gardner, the co-founder/co-owner of Outlier Journeys. From the get-go, she was sensitive to our personal needs coupled with our desire to enjoy nature walks and small rural towns, engage with host communities, expand our awareness of Portuguese history (“the good, the bad, and the ugly”), and be intentional about our environmental responsibilities.

She kept us apprised of and expertly navigated the planning challenges of post-pandemic realities and locations no longer accessible due to the summer’s devastating wildfires. Ultimately, all our travel information was pulled together and uploaded into a private link through the easy to manage Oasis Travel app.

Kirsten also sent us a book called “Walking Europe’s Edge- Reflections on Portugal.”, Stephen Powell’s beautifully written small moments story of his 18 month walk from one end of the country to the other. It is a story that draws one deeply into a “beyond the guidebook” Portugal. Kirsten’s purposeful planning, right down to our pre-departure gift, laid the groundwork for a travel experience ripe for powerful small moments and lasting memories. That is luxury…

Obrigada, Kirsten!

From 2006-2020 Ann Becker led small groups of women on immersive trips through Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Chile, anchored around genuine human connection and experiential travel. Ann holds a certificate in Sustainable Tourism from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. She is currently the Principal Strategic Advisor for RISE Travel Institute, an active member of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) and serves on the board of Amigos of Costa Rica. She and Kirsten connected at an ATTA Elevate Event in Sedona, AZ, a few months before Outlier Journeys was launched. Thank you Ann for being a needed voice and quiet strength in the tourism industry!

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