Friday, February 27, 2009

Unmistakable Signs

Göthe opined in his lasting words that nothing is more difficult to endure than a string of nice days. In fairness, it rhymes rather nicely in German, so doesn't sound quite so cynical. I thought of this as I set off on a pre-dawn start in thick fog this morning in contrast to the crystal clear skies I've enjoyed for a long string of nice days.

The wildlife was out in force and the scents of the fresh vegetation stronger for the moisture in the air. A wobbly vole crossed my path and darted around me for some meters, daring even to climb on the toe of my boot. A pair of handsome weaselly creatures chased each other with spring friskiness along some fallen logs. I paused on some planks across a fast-moving brook and watched a fat trout paddle itself in the same point for a good five minutes, thinking how he'll wind up in a buttery dish with tarragon leaves one day. Carpe diem.

The orchestra in the treetops harkened to all of my monastery mornings listening to the chants of the monks or nuns answer each other from one side of the aisle to the other; now it was the songs of the birds on either side of the forest trail rather than the psalms.

Even in the mist, the punctuated echo of a tapping woodpecker drew me to its vermillion plumage high in a centuries-old chestnut tree... dozens of enormous chestnuts copsed to the same height - how many generations of foresters have maintained this Galician orchard?

Three small deer drank from the stream not thirty meters from me. For a week now, I can't seem to rid my clothes of their lockerroom stench, yet the deer took no notice of me. Maybe I don't smell as badly as I thought.

The trail rose out of the valley at a steady pitch, so it was just a matter of a short hour that I was tucked in with the wildlife. Above a select horizon, the thick fog evaporated under wide blue skies, the sun bursting from the east. For a good quarter hour, I walked through a meadow with my head and shoulders above the white blanket of cloud and my legs obscured in the gossamer swirl caused by the movement of my walk. My string of nice days continues.

Significantly the condensation no longer freezes on my clothes. The day before, when I arrived at O Cebriero, the highest point on my entire journey, it was 20· (72-ishF)! A scorcher. Daffodils and other spring flowers abound. Pink puffs of eager fruit trees peek out above stonewall gardens. Bees and other insects compete with the birds for the higher decibel level. These are unmistakable signs to a winter pilgrim.

And the moreso... eleven of us shared a room last night in the pilgrim house in Sarria. The trail's getting crowded. A few days earlier, in Ponferrada, a busload of Santiago-bound French schoolkids stopped over at the parochial pilgrim house where I stayed with three Spanish guys. Fifty-four ten-year-olds, two class moms, and their religion teacher took over the bunkrooms. With just the one bathroom - well, the sight of a disheveled priest in his boxers standing at the urinal early in the morning as I brushed my teeth, is something no one needs to see. Comical, though, that he took the effort to put shirt and collar on.

Warm temperatures, spring flowers, a crowded trail... winter's all but over.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Validation by a Village Housewife

Walking through the industrial miles after León was uninspiring, but at least the plains were largely behind me and the approaching mountains looking beautifully snow-capped and tranquil. After a rather boring trek under the beating sun - the daily temperatures now above 15 (mid 60s F) - I arrived into Hospital de Orbiga undecided whether to stay or to continue another 15 kilometers to the next open pilgrim house.

A sign along the amazing Roman bridge indicated the direction to the three pilgrim houses in town. I knew only one was open, but didn't know which. I started walking toward the indicated direction of the municipal house. A housewife saw me and opened her window to shout out that only the parocchial house was open, in the opposite direction. 'Peregrina' she addressed me. I thanked her and returned to the bridge. It was kind gesture on her part, something that seemed lacking for quite a long time now. Reason enough to stay in the village for the night.

After I got settled into the pilgrim house, I set off to find the watercolor of the day. I remembered that near where the village lady called to me, there was a nice view of the belltower of the church with nesting storks. Across from the lady's house, I sat on a doorstep and made my watercolor. She noticed me again, and came out with a small tray with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. She liked my watercolor and began a gentle conversation.

When I conveyed that I'd walked from Germany and passed the 2,000 kilometer mark that day, she was amazed. The standard response I got in France, for the first time I experienced in Spain. A long way for a woman alone in winter. No guidebook, she concluded, no camera, no documentary. She looked me over, my clothes rather tattered since the hurricane in France, just hang on me, limp and faded. She reached out and touched my sunburned face softly. 'Our Lady protects and guides you,' she stated, 'you're a true pilgrim. You're not a camino walker. Most people just walk.'

Somehow, that validated my effort again. Everyone makes a pilgrimage for his own reasons, and no one's reason is more or less justified or noble than the next pilgrim's. This woman, in her housecoat on the sidewalk talking to a foreigner, somehow made me feel good about what I'm doing. She gets that there's a difference in spirit and she took the time to tell me. I couldn't overlook that she used virtually the same words as the woman in Chartres - Our Lady, the Virgin, protects little me? How do they know this? However, it feels pilgrimagy again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Doing the Camino

It just doesn't seem like a pilgrimage any more. 'The Camino' is a machine of economic exploitation. Each pilgrim is anonymous to the local people - there are too many now to be considered individuals. The difference between how Spanish pilgrims are treated and how foreigners are is extreme. A native orders a glass of wine at the lone bar in a dusty village, and gets the basic table variety for 40 cents; a foreigner orders, and the question is immediately a complicated verbal list of different types for 1,50. A Spaniard askes for a glass of water, and it's from the tap for free; a foreigner is given bottled water for a price. It's a commercial enterprise now, and a test of endurance. No one likes to be taken for a putz.

The churches are all locked up. There're no notes on the doors with the name of the resident who holds the key. There are no priests in the villages, no churchladies to ask for advice. No one I speak with cares about the pilgrimage, no one touches my face or asks for a prayer to be said when I arrive at my not-so-far-off destination. There are few statues on the exterior walls of the churches, where are the Saints staring down with encouragement? What's so pilgrimagey about this?

The saddest part of the economic element is that the villages along the pre-selected route are not interested in helping a single pilgrim, they're motivated by the masses. The masses start arriving in mid March and continue until the end of November. For the winter pilgrim, there's little financial incentive to keep the pilgrim houses open. I had to walk an astonishing 54 kilometers in one day, passing from one village to the next trying to find a pilgrim house that wasn't locked up and no one around with a key. In the end, unable to walk another 7 kilometers to the next village where I had little confidence the pilgrim house would be open, I paid a pretty price for a hotel. Sure, photocopied lists of pilgrim houses and services for each village are readily available, but they all differ and contain errors. This is an unexpected challenge. Tomorrow, I'll be out of the expansive plains and in León. I hope that more pilgrims will be on the trail again, which will motivate the villages to open the pilgrim houses.

Since Ronscasvalles, the readiness for 2010, the Holy Year, has been astounding - rest stations, drinking fountains, shade trees planted along the trail. Something on the order of 250,000 pilgrims are expected to walk the Camino next year, for the glory of entering the Cathedral of Santiago through the special Holy Door and, for the ardent believers, receive a plenary indulgence for their sins. This is the right time, economically speaking, for the villages to close their pilgrim houses for refurbishment and repairs. It just bad timing to be a pilgrim now.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

'Most of the world looks lke Wyoming'

'Most of the world looks lke Wyoming', a well-travelled friend told me after a trip from Istanbul to Beijing, and it certainly applies to the high plains of Spain. I'm wide open to criticism for this - it should rather be phrased that Wyoming looks like most of the world, but it's a simple matter of perspective.

Walking through the Province of Burgos has a wilderness aspect to it moreso than neighboring Rioja. The broad layered plateaus of pale red, grey, and ochre rock with scruffy vegetation... impossibly distant snow-capped peaks of a bounding mountain range... missing are the cowboys, coyotes, bison, pronghorns and jackalopes, but the sense of distance and isolation are surrounding.

A South African walked the 32 kilometers between Burgos and Hontanas at much more leisurely pace than my companion and myself on his first day on the trail. Arriving at the hamlet's pilgrim house late in the day, sunburnt and thirsty even for mid February, all he could utter was '' before collapsing on his bunk. And then find out there was no restaurant, grocery store, or possibility for any dinner... he was a bit out of sorts for a while. Using the home-country advantage, my campanion was able to procure some pasta and eggs and fed the South African through his moments of rookie dispair. All is well in pilgrimland.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's still great, but it's completely different.

Through Belgium and France, I walked closely on the land, studying all of the many elements of the small-scale map to know where to go. I spoke every day, many times a day, with locals to find out about lodging opportunties, about the history, about unique cultural things. I figured out where to go based on the general direction I wanted to take and then by asking people what the best way to get there would be. Some days, there wasn't much to see. I pursued some of the interesting things that I saw, such as 12th-century architecture, the lives of Saints Fiacre, Martin and Hilaire, for example, and other quirky things. I read just about every information placard I saw in front of churches and town halls.

Now in Spain, on this revitalized 800-year-old path across the north of the country, everything is different. I don't carry a detailed map, there's no need. The path is well marked with giant yellow arrows and scallop shell graphics. At the entrance to every village, there's a placard notifying pilgrims of the cool things not to be missed. Lodging opportunities are provided on lists with somewhat accurate references to their availability, the number of beds, whether there's a kitchen available. Charts are handed out with indications of how many kilometers there are to the next village, whether there's a place to eat, drink, rest, etc.

It's unfair to say that this part of the pilgrimage is 'easy' - every kilometer is hard-earned, every meter of altitude climbed; every snowflake, every raindrop felt; the left side of my face is being frightfully more weathered than the right on this long westward walk.

If walking through the north of Europe is likened to a safari, walking through Spain is more of Six-Flags safari park - there are still dangers and everything is very real, but every day I'm 'told' where to go, everyday is guaranteed to include landscape and architecture of historical and religious significance. A big part of the 'thinking' is taken care of. It's still great, but it's completely different. I'm no sure what to make of it yet.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Another unexpected adventure

Life, like the camino de Santiago (which it must be called now that I'm in Spain instead of the chemin de Saint Jacques), is a series of ups, downs, and level bits. I had been leap-frogging with the French-speaking Spaniard I stood at the alter with in Eunate, a young Austrian man, no doubt on his first trip away from home, and a young Mallorcan. We've been cohabitating in a sense, walking alone during the days but meeting in the evenings for convivial polyglotic banter around the pilgrim house.

The French-speaking Spaniard, who knows well the trail and all the sights to see, suggested a side trip to a pair of ancient monasteries a day's diversion after Najera in the land of Rioja. I was up for it, but the other fellas not, so in a foreboding wind, we set off through rugged landscape up the wall of a redstone canyon onto some barren heights of sticky red clay.

I had awoken with a stomach ache, quickly attributed to undigested dinner. First mistake, I suppose. Within a few miles, I emptied the contents of my stomach and intestines along the trailside. The snow began after a hundred meters' climb. The wind became intense. Happy to be much much smaller than my companion, I took some shelter behind his billowing poncho. Within a few miles, the delirium began to be noticable, but what was there to do but keep on walking? As the snow thickened, my sad trail of ejected bile left orange stains until frozen and covered with more blown snow. If there were a soundtrack, it would include heavy organ tones in a minor key. A sad situation.

After three grueling hours of hiking and puking, my patient co-pilgrim led me to a village. In a small hostel, I continued to eject bile for hours, feeling like someone with exceptional strength was gripping me under the ribcage. 'C'est une case d'urgence', I finally concluded, and a doctor was called in.

Gallbladder attack was the diagnosis after some tapping and listening. Medicine was injected, tablets swallowed. 'It should pass by morning', the doctor announced, 'rest a day and you can continue with your pilgrimage.' A modicum of cost, a handful of tablets, a pathetic bucket of bedside bile. Everything on the inside hurt. But the doctor was right, after a day of rest, I got back on the trail. Ca va bien.

As a lingual sidenote, I had lingering heartburn from the episode, and found a pharmicist for something akin to Alka-Selzer. The words 'plop plop fizz fizz' are lacking in this language, and the pharmicist spoke no English. Luckily for high-school chemistry, I drew out the chemical formula for sodium bicarbonate (foolishly mixing up the valence state, but no matter). The pharmicist gestured to his stomach, I pointed higher up, he scratched out the Na and replaced it with Al and Mg and said 'muey bien' Now that's communication.

Ironically, when we arrived at the monasteries, both were closed to visitors on Mondays. What luck.

Guardian angels really do help out on the little things. At the next pilgrim house, in Santo Domingo, a pilgrim I had run into 4 days earlier was already checked in. As it turns out, she's an American ex-pat living in France - someone I could speak 'normal' English with. Into her senior years - planning to arrive in Finesterre (several days' walk beyond Santiago) for her 70th birthday - she's experienced in life, including to my benefit all possible gallbladder issues. How comforting it was for me, after 8 weeks of only speaking French, including with the Spanish doctor, to be able to sit cross-legged on a small sofa with this wonderful woman and chat about such an issue over a cup of tea. My guardian angels made sure there was a 'pilgrim mom' for an encouraging hug when I really needed one.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Happy Groundhog Day!

If there are any groundhogs living near Pamplona, there was no way in the thick, low clouds they could possibly have seen their shadows; thus, spring is right around the corner. :-)

Here in Spain, though, Groundhog Day doesn't get any press time. Instead, there is a lovely festival of candles - Candlemas, so often mentioned in Jane Austen books. As it turns out, I've been sharing quarters with a Spaniard name Franco for the last three days. He's very well experienced on every route to Santiago and led me off-trail a bit today to the wonderful little Templar church of Santa Maria del Eunate. There, as luck would have it, they celebrate with a special mass and candle procession. We arrived just in time to take part. When the priest saw two pilgrims enter, and frankly, everyone else because it's such a small church, he took note and called us to the alter toward the end of the service for a special 'pilgrim's blessing'. This sort of thing has happened to me before, but I was always the sole pilgrim. This time, with a man about my age standing to my right at the altar while the priest spoke in a language I don't understand holding his hands above our heads, with all eyes on the two of us... unusual. There was a press photographer present, since the candle procession in this particular church is something unique, who recorded the event. Franco is certain we'll make tomorrow's paper. Who'd a thunk that?

Franco and I speak in French as our common language. I'm learning a little more Castillian every day, since I'm sure our paces will cause us to separate one of these days. We've been joined today by a young Swiss named Rolf, who will begin his walk tomorrow. He lacks Spanish as well and knows little French; with him, I speak German, and translate into French for Franco, who translates into Spanish for the priest who let us into the pilgrim house. It's all so culturally diverse.

I'm well into Spain now. Pamplona yesterday; Puenta de Reina this evening. The weather isn't bad, but the condition of the trail is highly eroded from overuse, and with the recent rain, quite a mudbath. Ah well. The pilgrim houses are many and huge - generally well over 100 beds. It's an entirely different experience on this side of the Pyrenees.