Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Just a quick note because I haven't finished my walking for the day but spotted a roadside convenience store/internet cafe and didn't want to pass the opportunity.

My short easy days into Mexico City still have turned into more kilometers than expected, a lack-of-map issue, but no big deal. I've passed the 3,000 kilometer mark (1,872 miles) and still have more than 300 kilometers to go. Since San Juan de los Lagos, I've been in pilgrim territory, though I haven't seen any. Pilgrims here seem to flock together in great hoards - thousands - and only on certain days of the year from certain starting points. And, oddly, only walk on the major highways, and from what I've been told, mostly a night. For this reason, the daily destination towns are known, but there's no marked trail. The unpaved country roads are really quite lovely and fully suitable for tranquil walking, it's ashame pilgrims stick to the noisy, polluted, dangerous, and stressful highways. Alas, I ask frequently for a suggested route, but am only told to go to the major highway... to ask the number of kilometers until the next village is as meaningless as handing an untrained person a sheet of music and asking how many incidentals are in the final coda. Huh? So I begin my days not knowing if I'll be walking for 6 or 8 or 12 hours before dinner and have little way of knowing the answer until I arrive.

I'm on track for January 12th. Twelve more days until I get to the Basilica and the end of the walk. The soles of my boots wore out weeks and weeks ago, but my pilgrim spirit is still strong =)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fast Moving Days

I've crossed through four Mexican States in the last week alone! Zacatecas, a gold- and silver-mining district, Aguascalientes, a thermal region though I found no hot springs, Jalisco big into dairy farming, and now Guanajuato. Fast going, but still difficult to find paths other than the major highways. It´s amazing how little people know about their surrounding lands... if they go anywhere, it's in their shiny pickup or fully equipped SUV and to the highway as quickly as possible. I'm still bushwhacking to avoid the traffic, but well rewarded for the effort. No sooner did I mention the lack of clouds, clouds appeared. A palpable sense of humidity in the air. Nice. Greener, too, more trees, fewer cacti, many more bodies of water. I like the change. Despite the greater number of villages, I still seem to have to walk long days... with an average of closer to 40 km per day than the 30 I was striving for. Ah well, it keeps me busy =)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Feliz Navidad

I'm spending this very merry Christmas at a convent in the capital city of Aguascalientes where 8 aging nuns supervise 39 orphan girls. We've been having a grand and festive time this evening. It's always interesting spending a holiday in a different culture. The girls are all outside at the moment whacking a sparkling pinata with a long stick while blindfolded and singing.

I've made a lot of southward progress through a lot of territories. Once in the mining district way back in Parral, I was technically out of the Chihuahua Desert, but one wouldn't really notice. The vegetation is a bit thicker, though far from 'lush', and a few of the rivers actually have water in them, but it's the dry season everywhere and the varieties of cactus are more numerous, so it all still looks very deserty. And feels it - every type of plant has prickers or spines or some other barbed weapon to use against me with vengence.

Desert it may be, but it provides! Out bushwhacking, I inadvertently bypassed a village (single-story mud-colored cubicles blend into the surroundings remarkably well). Without the village to refill my water bottles - actually Platypus bags, which I highly recommend for their collapsability - I had a dry and thirsty hot afternoon. The Nopal cactus is in full bloom this time of year, and beautifully adorned with bright red fruits called tunas. Having seen these fruits for sale at the market stalls, I was compelled to give them a try. With a leaping swing of a walking stick, and using my sombrero as a catcher's mitt, the harvest of a hatfull of fruits was easily made. De-spining them a bit more challenging. A few whirls around the inside of the hat gets most of the invisible barbs off of the tough skin. Peeled with a small pocket knife, an egg-sized brilliant red juicy fruit is left. Tasty, refreshing, and a bit seedy, akin to pomegranate and entirely thirst-quenching. A hatfull left me satisfied and with pricked fingers stained pink.

I crossed the Tropic of Cancer a few days ago... winterpilgrim in the tropics; it's an oxymoron! I haven't seen a cloud in the sky for well over a month. Every day is in the mid 20sC/70sF and every night at the freezing point. A bit warm for my comfort, but not bad at all. I wouldn't mind a few clouds, though. Even in the desert, every day was like walking through an aviary and the further south, the greater variety of songbirds. Many people keep caged birds for their singing abilities, but the birds hidden in the trees produce a remarkable volume.

I took advice opposite of what a priest told me and headed on a dirt road into the mountains rather than the path alongside the highway. I was rewarded by a day's walk in a beautiful deep canyon lined with steep villages and terraces with stone walls. This is what it is to be a pilgrim on foot... I'm sure the priest isn't aware of this canyon, unseen from the highway on the plateau above. I wonder how many other Mexicans are aware of it. I wouldn't have missed it. The principle town in the canyon is San José de la Isla, founded back in the 1500s on the conquistadors' march to find mineral wealth. The tricky part is, even though I was able to find a map of the state of Zacatecas, most villages are not indicated, many of those that are present, are placed in the wrong place, and a good number of them are given the wrong name. So having a map isn't such a benefit after all. San José de la Isla is listed on the map as Genaro Codina, a name change in the 1950s to promote revolutionary figures. Ask anyone and they'll tell you the town is San José. Agh, how to cope sometimes. Nonetheless, an excursion off the beaten path is well worth the effort.

The further south, the greater the population density. Finding villages is getting easier, and finding a day's destination 30 to 35 km southward is now quite reasonable. I'll take a day of rest in Aguascalientes for Christmas day and make some repairs before continuing southward. I'm targeting January 12th for the arrival at the Basilica in Mexico City, which means averaging less than 33 km per day from here on. Easy-peasy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Walking with the Saints

On my first great pilgrimage, from Canterbury to Rome, I was startled one afternoon when in Switzerland and a woman described pilgrims as 'walking with the Saints through time.' Since that moment, I've often thought of that description. It's certainly easy to become familiar with many Saints on the pilgrim trails through Europe. Carvings, paintings, statues, grottos... all sorts of art and architectural elements relate the stories of these many real-live people who lived long ago in Europe, and thanks to their subsequent sainthood, have become part of the cultural fabric of the land. What better way to pass those ten-minute breaks in village churches in France playing 'Name-that-Saint'?

I've gotten to know many of their stories and carry them with me on my long, often isolated, treks. Being a hardcore engineer, I'm not one who falls toward the inexplicable; on the other hand, I've realized that not everything has an explanation, nor needs one.

While I walk, I think of my favorite Saints as part of the team heading off to the Basilica in Mexico City. Saint Rocco, the pilgrim... he comes to mind when my feet are tired and I've still got many kilometers to go to get to the next village. Saint Martin of Tours, my horseman, always depicted in his Roman soldier's uniform on a gallant steed cutting his cloak in two to share with a cold beggar (or maybe pilgrim). Outside of Poitiers, I spent a night in the monastery he founded, so we're pals, obviously. Saint Joan of Arc - I spent a pilgrim night in her hometown - also mounted and in ridiculously shiny armor completely unsuited for the desert heat and dust. San Juan de Ortega, the Dominican abbot whose abbey church in the north of Spain has an astronomical phenomon wherein on the spring equinox the rising and setting sun illuminates a particular series of columns that depict a passage from Genesis. Saints Catherine of Siena and Rose of Viterbo, I took refuge in each of their convents during my way to Rome, were both of rather weak constitution, so I don't call upon them often during the rigors of my journey. There are others, too, but these are some of my go-to Saints.

I've been doing a lot of bush-whacking lately - cutting through the rugged terrain without benefit of a trail (or map). I think of Joan on horseback to my left and Martin to my right and sometimes appeal to them to go on ahead and reconnoiter on the next ridge to plan the advance. One recent day, I could see from the ridge, going down to the left would be difficult through thick undergrowth, but to the right, a more unfavorable steep, narrow canyon, unpassable. Joan's way won, but without her armor, the prickery vegetation would lead to a lot of bloodshed. Ah ha, a cornfield, unseen from above, provided me with the inspiration to wrap my lower legs with the rustic armor of corn husks. I made it through the thicket largely unscathed, and for the first time, without ripping my hiking pants and without having to spend hours de-thorning them. Joan saved the day!

Some days later, a similar call-to-arms. This time, Joan's side was unpassable, but Martin's, not so easy on foot. I could see from the vantage of height the need to cross a wide arroyo, then a dry island of tall cactuses and mesquite crossed by a myriad of cowpaths, and then only one correct path out the far side up the hillside and onto a truck track. I actually thought: It will take a miracle to find that one path out. Plunging downward into the obscurity of a labrynth, I didn't know how I would manage but resolved myself to spending hours applying some unknown logic to make it through. As I jumped down into the arroyo (=dry river) who appeared - and this was miles and miles from the nearest ranch - but a cowboy on a tall horse. I explained my plight and with one strong arm, he pulled me up onto the horse behind his saddle (I wish I could convey the idea of grace on my part, but it was all very awkward, being so small and all, and it was a very tall horse...). I was almost afraid to ask his name for fear of the answer, but it had to be done. Luis. Very suitable; 'Martino' would really have freaked me out. He rode me through the maze of paths in the cactus and mesquite and out to the truck trail. I made it to the next village before sunset. Oh happy day Martin! Luis was far more Huck Finn-ish than a Roman-era knight, but whatever...

Some distance back - around Parral, if I recall rightly - I checked my compass one day just out of habit and noticed it was behaving pretty wonky. Mining districts tend to make compasses unreliable. It's not that it matters very much. I haven't seen a cloud in the sky in over a month. The sun's position is unerring. Lacking a map for as long as I was, I had only a general sense of my day's direction - somewhere between east and south everyday taking not of boundary conditions - the principal highway to my far far left and the tallest sierras to my far far right. I call Juan de Ortega up front. Check my math, Juan. A reliable geographic compass can be made with a stick and an analog watch. True north, not magnetic north is the better instrument anyway. Holding one of my walking sticks upright, I align the short hand of the watchface with the direction of the shadow made by the stick onto the ground. With the other stick, I etch a line into the sand perpendicular to the shadow. Twelve on the watch points to true north; six to south. I scratch these lines into the sand as well. I find some point on the horizon in the direction I know I need to walk that day - southeast, for example - and note the angle between the shadow and this direction: acute or obtuse. For another hour or two, I can gage my progress from both the point on the horizon and the magnitude of the angle made by the shadow and my direction of travel. It's not so complicated to do, but I like to think Juan watches over my shoulder to make sure I don't mess up.

Meet a Saint and he's your friend and team mate. I'll be soon coming into the lands of San Juan Diego. Maybe he'll become more active. Maybe he already did by nudging the Native American who judged how long it would take me to get to Indè? Who's to argue?

Laughable Language Gaffs

I can't be expected to get through the Spanish language without flubs in just 6 weeks, but a few mistakes I have to laugh at myself for...

'¿Tiene hambre?' ('Are you hungry?')
'No, soltera' ('No, I'm single.')

Written, the words hambre and hombre are easy to distinguish, but spoken, it's sometimes very difficult to tell them apart. I usually have hunger, but no man.

'¿Està casata?' ('Are you married?')
'Poco; solo mis pies, verdad.' ('A little, only my feet really.')

Again, listen to the words consada (=tired) and casata and try to tell them apart when you're truly tired. After a few stares and sudden changes in conversation (I thought we were talking about my tired feet, and we've moved on to whether I have a husband...??) and I explored the vocabulary a bit further. Now I've got it.

I'm sure I've made other goofs, but those two I know about. And can laugh out loud!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

No Time or Distance

I'd whittled down the 'needs' of a pilgrim to the bear minimum... a safe place to sleep (heat and comfort set aside as 'wants'), some water to wash, maybe something to eat, and a map. The map has now fallen off the list. I looked all around the city of the Parral for a map of the state of Durango to no avail.

Other than the general guidance of 'walk south', I'm at the mercy of the locals every day. 'How many kilometers to the next village?' or 'Is there a village 35 or 40 kilometers along the old route to Mexico City?' are the questions I ask with little hope of getting a valuable answer. I'm convinced that no Mexican has walked further than their own village cemetary. Few people know what a kilometer is or how long it possibly would take to walk one. Arghh. Head south...Mexico City is the largest city in the world, how could I possibly miss it?

I was heading south across some corn fields toward the pre-columbian town of Indè, in the mountains a few days ago. I'm out of the desert now, heading up up up into the foothills of the Sierra Madres. I asked every one I passed, how far to Indè? The answers varied from 4 km to 45 km. How can I plan based on these kinds of answers?? Head south.

I saw some of the Native Americans, who come down during the harvest time to help in the fields. The women and girls dress in long colorful skirts, so they're easy to identify. Harvesting corn is a family affair. Taking a break under a shade tree, I asked a family how far to Indè. How many kilometers? How many hours by foot? The older man silently pointed to the sun then pointed to two mountain peaks drawing their M shape with his finger. Then, without the flourish of a magician making a coin disappear, he covered one hand with the other.

Sure enough, four hours later, just as I crossed over the progressively higher ridges on a winding dirt road and looked down at the sleepy hamlet, I looked up at the two peaks of the M and watched the sun sink behind them. Who needs a map when there's a sensible native around who walks from place to place instead of taking a ride in a pickup truck.