Yesterday we returned from a two-day adventure in the mountains of Asturias, the region directly east of Galicia. Pablo and his friend Brais had decided to go hiking for the day and they invited me, Vanessa, and Hanna, a wwoofer from Germany, to join them. We set off in Brais’ car, crossing into Asturias and up into the mountains, eventually arriving at San Cristobal, a tiny half-abandoned village. It is the starting point of the Ruta del Silencio, a 15 km trail that climbs ridges covered in purple and yellow wildflowers and descends into valleys full of ancient chestnut trees. Along the way are watermills, shelters built to store chestnuts, and abandoned villages, everything constructed from stone and everything in ruins.
At the end of our hike we were approaching San Cristobal when Pablo and Brais, who were a short distance ahead, stopped and shouted to us that there were bees. The warning didn’t trigger any immediate concern because there had been bees along most of the hike, but as Brais started to put on his hooded sweatshirt, Pablo came racing back towards us, leaping and flailing. I could hear a menacing buzzing around me. Pablo nearly ran me over as he fled, and I had to start running to keep from being trampled. I heard Vanessa scream from farther back along the trail, but when I looked I couldn’t see her. Then I noticed her shoulder bag on the trail, a few meters away her sweatshirt, and then a few more meters away her shirt. Suddenly Vanessa came scrambling up from some bushes below the trail, stripped to her sprots bra, screaming, spinning, and flapping her arms hysterically. “They’re in my hair,” she shreiked. I called to her to calm down. As she did a bee stung her on the shoulder. I walked over to her and removed the stinger. “Just stay calm and they won’t sting you,” and as I said the words I heard a sound, like a buzzing arrow cutting through the wind, and SMACK a bee stung me right between the eyes. We ran even farther from the bees. Pablo followed, with three stings. Miraculously, Brais and Hanna had none.
A minute later a woman clad in beekeeping gear approached and explained that she and her husband were smoking the bees out to collect honey. They had at least twenty hives lined up along the road, hidden behind a small wall, an illegal location given their proximity to the trail. She suggested that we try to run past the bees to get back to Brais’ car, an absurd suggestion considering how viscously the bees had attacked when we were still 15 meters short of the actual hives. Getting any closer would have guaranteed a dangerous number of stings.
Pablo said he knew a couple that lived in an abandoned mountain village not far from where we were, and we all agreed going there was our best option. We backtracked, found the trail to their village, and walked for forty-five minutes before arriving. My head ached from the bee sting.
When we got there we first met Elvira, who was hauling firewood to the house. She led us inside and introduced us to Chus, her husband. Together they live in a rehabilitated house in an otherwise abandoned mountain village. With nearly an hour walk to the first drivable road, and without a car, they rarely leave their seclusion. As such, they lead an almost entirely self-sufficient lifestyle. They tend a large fruit and vegetable garden, etched into a steep mountain slope, and raise chickens and rabbits for eggs and meat. Staples are picked up on rare trips to the nearest town, or delivered by friends when they visit. In the winter they are usually snowed in for two to three months, unable to leave the house. It the most difficult period for them psychologically. Chus builds his own musical instrument–sitars, harps, dulcimers–and plays them well. He is also an expert leatherworker, and he sells his works through friends for the little money they need to buy items like flour, sugar, and coffee.
Their lifestyle is simultaneously beautiful and wretched. It is an ethical statement to not participate in the worst of modern consumer culture, and a return to nature and its cycles with little way to bend its rules for their convenience. It is also a choice to sacrifice many of the advantages of modern life, and much of their participation in society.
In fact, Chus and Elvira hadn’t seen anyone outside of each other for several weeks until we arrived. Coincidentally, we weren’t their only visitors that night: a second crew led by another man named Pablo showed up an hour after us. Suddenly we had a party. We all headed into the woods just before dark to gather more firewood, which we then used to build a bonfire in a roofless stone building in the village. In the embers we roasted chorizo wrapped in aluminum foil, and passed trays of cheese, cured pork belly, and bread. We chased it with glasses of cider, a traditional beverage in Galicia and Asturias. Around midnight we headed inside for dinner.
We packed ourselves tightly around their table as Elvira dished out bowls of potato and cabbage soup. I looked into my bowl of potatoes and cabbage boiled in water and thought of how it most represented the food of poverty and subsistence. Wasn’t it Charlie who had only cabbage soup to eat before risking his last pence on a Willy Wonka bar that would change everything for him and his family? So, this was dinner, I told myself. I scooped a spoonful into my mouth. It was warm and soothing, and the flavor of cabbage and potato in the water was surprisingly satisfying. I felt like some fundamental truth had bubbled up from the pot into my head. Was it possible that a simple broth with boiled potatoes and cabbage could be the best dinner ever? I became comfortable with the idea. Yes, this was dinner.
When we finished Elvira gathered our bowls and began filling them from another pot. So there was more! The good had just gotten better. Chus explained he had slaughtered three rabbits earlier that day; he joked that he was starting to feel like his existence was solely concerned with killing them. Elvira had fried the rabbits first, then stewed them for four hours in white wine vinegar with garlic and thyme. The broth was fragrant with the tang of vinegar and an herbal character that was not like the varieties of thyme I know. It was a mix somewhere between menthol, oregano, and thyme. The rabbit was succulent. I obsessively cleaned the bones from both my and Vanessa’s plates. It was the best rabbit I have ever eaten. We went to bed late that night, side by side on the floor, tired and sated.
The next day Elvira made lunch before we left, converting the leftover broth from the rabbit into a soup with rice and potatoes. It was clever and delicious. They had been exceedingly generous with the little they had to host all of us in a way that went beyond anything we could have imagined. As we walked back we agreed that we had been lucky to be attacked by the bees the day before. They had driven us into the refuge of Chus and Elvira’s world, with their generosity and openness, and we were fortunate to have experienced it.