Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 92: Barefeet and Dune Skiing

How I would have loved to stand and watch the display of the distant thunderstorm for it's duration but the sun was beginning to set behind the clouds and I could see at least three deep gulches that needed to be crossed in order to reach the small cluster of houses I could see on a ridge about three kilometers away. At just that minute there, I decided that that extended family compound would make a fine place to end the day's cross-country walk. In the Tunisian countryside, all of these families offer incrediably warm reception; everyone since leaving Gebes after my Christmas rest has urged me strongly to stay for several days. They all consist of at least four generations. The brothers each build their own house before marriage and raises his family together with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Like the borscht in Eastern Europe, the potage in France, the frijoles in Mexico, each woman makes a slightly differnt couscous.

That day on the ridge, the typical adolescent greets me in French. The women of her mother's generation rarely speaks French and the fathers return from work in the olive groves, livestock grazing, plowing or fishing just after dark. They often speak a little French, but often enough too little to have much of a conversation. Teenagers learn at school but only the brighter students can actually speak fluently. Nonetheless, the girl that evening did a respectable job speaking on behalf of the family to invite me in and show me around. It's difficult to get all the names down; but to be sure, there's always a Mohammed and an Ali among the men.

I noticed from afar that there were no powerlines leading to the houses and no solar panels. No matter. The houses are similar in construction and these were particularly plainly adorn. I could see in the twilight that a trace of a Roman wall was visible at the ground surface and near where the oldest wall of the oldest house was, it had been stripped of its masoned outer surface, these making up the cornerstones of the oldest house. The girl gave me a tour of the mangers - looking exactly like the standard Christmas nativity displays - for the donkeys and horse; the domed pens of woven palms for the sheep and goats; and the glen where the five camels spend the night hobbled. Small children fed the fowl and some boys chased the chicken for dinner We walked through the ancient olive groves that go on for hectares toward the dry wadi and the vegetable gardens where carrots, turnips, fennel, and hot peppers are grown for both animal and human consumption and various herbs are grown for 'tea'.

The lack of electricity and running water made the estate appear rather timeless. A peek into the cooking-fire house - different than the kitchen for some reason - led to an introduction to Grandmother in her traditional costume before a fire of sticks made on the pounded dirt floor squatted, stirring a great dish of couscous. To my astonishment, in the corner of this partially subterranean chamber leaned two amphorae, one nearly as tall as I and the other slightly shorter due to the pointed bottom having been cut off. For olive oil I inquired to the girl but with the universal eye-rolling and tongue-clicking response of a teenager thinking all grownups are duh, like, sooooo stuuuupid, she corrected my ignorance and said impatienrly they were for flour. How old are they, I asked. She translated for Grandmother, and the response was that they've always been there. Whether the grandfather who established the estate and harvested the stones of the Roman wall - at least a century before if it were he who planted the first olive trees of the area - found them in the pickings or bought them as functional reproductions seems not to be of interest to the modern family. Grandmother scooped some flour out as she prepared some panbaked bread. Terracotta potsherds litter the ground surface but my eye is not expert to know if they're just old or really really old. They indicate certainly that people have been here for a very long time. It's all eye candy to an observer.

The day out of Gebes, I followed the lead set by the shore fishermen as they hauled their nets in to the beach and doffed the boots and socks, rolling my hiking pants up over my knees and walked in the broad surf. The wet wadis are certainly easier to cross some meters out into the surprisingly warm sea with the firm sandy base rather than attempt to wade across the sucking mud inward from the beach. Adventures were had to be sure but I haven't got much time this evening to relate them.

The walk continued across the gently ungulating land in some places deeply incised with dry canyons, but nothing nearly as deep as those I encountered last winter in the Chihuahua desert of Mexico. Today, pressing further into the sands of the Sahara, produced a fierce and steady wind and the numerous shifting sand dunes have been blown crusty on the windward side and powdery on the leeward. Steely legs tempered by these thousands of kilometers make the difficult task do-albe. My stiff-soled boots and walking sticks with the snow baskets quite effectively allow me to lean back and ski down the powdery slope - a handy skill picked up also in the Chihuahua. Before I can look back into the wind to admire the graceful ess-turns carved into the slope, the shifting sands erase them. Fun, but tiring. And 47 kilometers of it!

Tomorrow, the border town of Ras Adjir; Sunday, New Year's Day, I'll ask for entry. Another call on the absent Patron Saint of Border Crossings. Happy New Year everyone, and thanks for all the supportive comments =]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 86 Joyeux Noel

My coastal walk has been a trip through a PBS Nature program and now there's a Christmas special. I've transitioned out of the olive and almond groves into the fringe of the Sahara. Camels have joined the sheep and goats grazing along my path. I've studied the wadis from the inside - some wet, others dry. Weasels are the abundant scurriers underfoot and the rabbits leap above the scrub from the salty holes under the banks. I've never seen such fat foxes, sly and shy as they are.

The further south I walk, the greater the unpopulated distances. I have to take care not to get caught out after dark with no village in sight. So far, I've done well. In larger villages, I stop in to see my friends of the Guard National, though, they fall a bit short of the bar set by the Gendarmarie of Morocco... olive drab uniforms aren't so dashing and they lack the endearing palm-forward salute. Nonetheless, they welcome me warmly, appreciate that I check in - pour votre securitie, Madame - and help me find a suitable place to pass the night. I think they're tired of my jaunts across the wadis and urge me always to stay on the highway, but the highway is not my way, so if they insist on keeping a close tab on me, they have to put out a little effort.

I've reached the last town of size before the Sahara begins in earnest, slowing down just a tad to arrive for Christmas festivities. The language of the group is French, yet no one's actually from France... A priest from Nigeria, another from Uganda; some students from the Ivory Coast, others from Gabon, an assortment of Europeans and some missionaries from far afield. Thirty or so in all. Huh, I'm the only pilgrim : )

Merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 81 Seashore of Yore

(just a quickie again...)

Having tons of fun and sun walking along the coast - right along the coast...feet in the lapping waves on the beach, and still, the Roman ruins are here to be tripped over. The Tunisian hospitality is right in keeping with their Arabic heritage. A few times I~ve come to a city with a French church and enjoyed the more standard pilgrim welcome. Mostly, though, as the sun begins to sink, I find some friendly women, the younger ones are almost certain to speak French, and soon enough their politely sparring with each other for who has the greater dibs on me. Few women my age or older speak any French at all so my Arabic has been improving by necessity. Women rule the households, so there~s not much gained by asking a man to help me find a place to sleep for the night. It~s all interesting.

By now I~ve had couscous prepared in a number of ways - all good - though the standard food of everyone is spaghetti. Pumpkin, potatoes, long skinny mild peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic round out the veggi line up. Little meat, and generally chicken is the standard fare, and being along the sea, lots of fish. Small ones, fried whole in olive oil. I~ve toured a few more olive oil factories, the traditional ones just like what I saw in Morocco, and similarly the end product is dark and strong. Lots of other crafts are practiced in the seaside villages I~ve walked through - basketry, stone masons hammering away on columns and other decorative construction pieces, weaving, pottery, woodworking... the doors to the courtyards are generally open during the day and if I peek in as I pass by, it usually turns into a tour of their handcraft operations and a small meal, invitations to stay a few days, discussions of relatives suitable for marriage...

Dates are in season here at the moment and make for good pilgrim food though at the cost of sticky fingers... and on the subject of sticky fingers, walking through a crowded medina in Sousse, I was relieved of both the tiny penknife I keep hanging on my belt and the folding reading glasses in the pocket of my hipbelt. I was occupied protecting my leather pouch that holds my credenziale and my passport with one arm and my hiking poles with the other. How the sticky fingers got passed my guard, I don-t know. Practice I guess. I think the medinas were designed for the benefit of thieves. Ah well. Something good will come out of it.

I set my route based on a Roman road that crossed North Africa. I~ve been finding bits of the Roman road and a lot of ruins, some now protected with archeological status, others just out among the sand dunes. Many of the towns that are hot spots now have been continually occupied since the time of the Romans, so they~re not so much ruins as just remodeled. The architecture really hasn~t changed much. It~s funny to look at building methods when weather-tightness is not an issue. There~s a lot of interesting things around and the area makes for pretty good pilgrim land. I could recommend that they tidy up the trash, though, it~s quite a problem in the towns as well as the countryside.

Yikes, gotta run now, but I~m heading toward Gebes for Christmas - there~s a small European and West African community there, so there~ll be a few Christians around to celebrate with. It will take another week and a half to get to the Libyan border and see what they say about entering. Dear Santa, I~ve been a very good girl and would like a visa for Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 72: Pilgrim Wonderland

Just a quickie again (and on a French keyboard)

Back on the trail and loving it. It didn't take too long to exit the city noise and confusion for the farm fields and country lanes. As the sun was beginning to sink, I entered a village, sat down for a rest on a molded plastic chair in front of a small shop to give some thought to how to best find a place to sleep for the night. The solution presented itself. Stress-free. The small crowd that gathered in amazement took care of my needs. Nasrine, a very elegant and mature 11-year-old served as translator and hostess. It seems that outside the city, the generation people my age who grew up just after their independence, don't speak French. The current youth of Tunisia learn Arabic and French equally in school and English as the third language, and by the time they graduate high school at 18 learn Spanish and Italian additionally. Remarkable. I think Nasrine is at the head of her class.

Welcomed into the family home, in a short while a trip was made to the local police station to register the foreigner staying under their roof. Quite proud was the family to state and record their hospitality. Nice. They all took good care of me, sharing the family meal of macaroni and spicy tomato-chili sauce, olive oil, and bread, and pulling out another mattrass. Simplicity.

In the morning, side pockets full of snacks for the day, I came to Ouhdna, an archeological site of an evidently grand ville of Roman antiquity. I saw the columns on a hill in the distance and hiked across a fallow field to get there. An arena, work shops, apartments full of mosaics, a temple... tons of history at my feet. Workers chiseling away at their restoration projects shared their tea and bread with me during the short morning break. I left as a busload of Japanese tourists arrived.

The peacefulness of the quiet country lanes reintroduced me to pilgrim life. Village people call me to sit in the shade and have cold water or hot coffee... idyllic now as in the Roman times. Ah.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 71: A Pilgrim Again

The wait is over, but the visa not quite in hand. The struggle's been a difficult one, due to the lack of infrastructure. Lots of misinformation out there, and a predictable level of extortion. People see dollar signs when the hear of an American passport. Lots of phone calls and faxes, but still no visa. Lots of waiting. I'm surprised and amused by the number of marriage proposals I've gotten hanging out in front of the Libyan Embassy... 'married at 5, on a flight to the US by 6'. Sorry fellas, doesn't work that way. I'm done with this life in limbo. I'm walking today. I'm a pilgrim.

The revised plan that precipitated out of the situation is that I'll enjoy the pilgrim experience of Tunisia. It should take around 18 days to walk to the border, mostly along the coast. It's the touristic area, and therefore I anticipate some degree of inauthenticity, but it shouldn't be crowded this time of year. I need to get back to the pilgrim life of 38 kilometers a day, new people to talk with every evening.

When I arrive at the border, I'll ask again for permission to enter. If they say yes, I continue; if they say not without the elusive invitation for a visa, then I'll make my way to a port and find a ship.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 68:Waiting...

Waiting on a sinusoidal wave between a patient calm and a frantic frenzy in the search for an invitation to Libya to be secured before a visa is issued... waiting waiting waiting safely and securely with no troubles except the interruption of my pilgrimage. I'll have to suffer the aches and pains all over again once I restart the daily walks. Ah well. So it goes. Life is still good. More soon, when the waiting is over.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 64: The Making of a Champion

Land ho without any deviation from the plan except a four-hour delay caused by overcrowding of the ship. Why so many people, why so many cars, why so many Mercedes??? I posed these questions to some men I lounged on the chairless deck with eating the last of my Morrocan clementines as we waited in Sicily for more passengers and their cars to board. The ship is loaded with entrepreneurial Libyans, recently able to travel more freely about Europe. My mates: four guys who pooled their funds raised enough money to buy a used Mercedes to sell to an eager market. Buy for €2,000 sell for the equivalent of €6,000. There were hundreds of these cars waiting to be driven the 500 kilometers to Libya.

For 28 hours we crossed together. First carving out space, then becoming friendly with the new neighbors. Easy to imagine, I was the only woman traveling alone. Few women in general, having the time to take a statistical accounting, I computed 1% of the travelers as women... fewer Europeans. So I stood out a bit in the crowd. At least one guy recognized me as a fellow passenger on the ill-fated ship from Barcelona. He commented to me when the announcement was made every hour declaring strict enforcement of the no smoking policy - the fire had been the result of someone smoking in hiding and tossing the smoldering butt among the trucks below. Nonetheless, the cabin was a smoking den as men lit one after another as they played cars.

Sadly, the coast of Tunisia, and particularly the port of ancient Carthage, appeared as but twinkling lights in the distance because of the delay. At last under the bright lights of the active port of the capital, I was eager to get on dry land again to escape the smoke and crowds. Without a dinar in my pocket, I had planned to walk to the city center to find the cathedral, but after dark, the idea begged for revision. It would take until after midnight. Into the mass of barking cabbies I launched myself and found a sympathetic ear among them. Many sympathetic ears, in fact. Once I explained my purpose and situation - no money but wanting to continue my trip - two big men actually shoved each other shouting loudly in the Arabic way - who gets to provide the hospitality of driving the pilgrim to city center. A man with a name that means 'faithful' won the honor and gave me a lovely short history tour along the way. In French. (My head is so slow to switch from one language to another.) Faithful became my champion and didn't release me when we arrived at the cathedral because the gates were locked. Double-parked, he led me around to the entrance to the Archbishop's residence and put me under the care of the night-watchman.

Now the night-watchman, Fahad, became my champion. Though he tried to dissuade me from ringing the bell because the offices were closed until morning, he stood by as I got the attention of a very elderly priest. The priest invited me to enter but said that there was no room at all for me to stay the night. He gave me 20 dinars (the value of which I had no idea) and called back out to the night-watchman to take me to a 'petit hotel' nearby. Fahad took me to many. Most of them fully occupied. Why. A festival? No, Algerians fleeing to tranquility and Libyans in transit, my champion explained. Tunis is a great city, he added. Seems it. Except that the hotels that weren't full were very expensive. My exhaustion caught up to me. Do you know of any convents or communities of religious sisters? Sure, down the alley from the cathedral. This time, my champion disappeared around the corner when I rang the bell. The sisters were at vespers but a young foreign man courteously let me in to wait. The multinational sisters of the Argentinian order not only let me stay but brought me a tray of dinner as well. A hot shower, a comfortable bed, warm blankets, ah, heaven on this pilgrim earth.

In the morning, I set out to find the Libyan embassy to know if I'll be able to advance. The tourist information center gave me the wrong address, but when I was wandering around asking the way, a wonderful Tunisian fellow no only told me where to go, but led me there personally. During the 5 minute walk, I explained my purpose - a silent pilgrim does the world no good. He was incredulous but intrigued completely with the idea of my pilgrimage. I must gain entry into Libya! He'll help. At the embassy, surrounded by great coils of razor wire and military tanks and men with guns, he explained in Arabic to guards at different posts. No one is permitted to enter the building; all discussions are conducted in the street below a high window. Shouting to the embassy staff up inside the open window, my champion explained everything on my behalf. The other people crowded below the window became involved with the adventure. What can be done to get the necessary visa to allow the pilgrim to continue? The pilgrim must continue!

With lots of discourse about types of visas and the instabilities in the cities but the kindness of the people, the bottom line is that an invitation is needed. A Libyan man in the street with plans to return to Libya in the afternoon assured my champion that he could fax an invitation from Libya in the morning. The embassy in Tunis is closed for the weekend, so the plan developed, I could return Monday morning, toss my passport up through the window, and have it tossed back down to me with the proper documentation that will allow me time enough to walk across the country. I gave a scrap of paper with the pertinent details to Naghi, the very kind Libyan man, and he gave me the greatest level of encouragement that I could come and stay with him and his family for as long as I wanted.

Returned to the community of sisters, I explained the good news that I can - insha'allah - get a visa for Libya and the bad news that I'd need to stay for three more nights... gulp! the tradition is that pilgrims get one bowl of soup and one night's stay at any religious house... but under the circumstances, the sisters allowed, no problem, stay until Monday. The apartments in the block-long wing of the Bishop's residence, extremely French in architecture, are sublet to international students giving the place a very lively atmosphere, and conversation in English.

The common element to every pilgrim day, unpredictable as they can be, is that a pilgrim needs help. Help comes to those in need, sure, but those in need can get the help a lot more efficiently if they ask. Talking with people is a huge part of the pilgrim life that I like so much. Can anyone give help - freely and earnestly - without feeling good about himself? Champions are those who actively engage in helping someone who needs it. Chivalry is not dead. Life is good.

(To be on the safe side, everyone out there, please cross fingers, press thumbs, start those prayer ropes and rosary beads circulating... whatever can be done to bring good juju to the Libyan embassy in Tunis. Patron saint of border crossings, we could use you now!)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Day 61: More adventure

The discomfort of inactivity is harsh enough, but without overmuch risk or exertion, time has been crawling painfully slowly across the western half of the Mediterranean. More than a week has passed without the joys of a pilgrim walk filling my day.

Although it's true I yearn for adventure, the broadcat order 'Await the Signal to Abandon Ship' came unwelcomed even to me. At least the fire struck at a respectable post-coffee hour of 9 in the morning. Dressed in a one-size-fits-all life jacket, I assured my designated group leader that I would certainly take off my backpack if and when the order would come to climb into the inflatable liferaft. A lot of people promised the same; everyone I'm sure intending to fight for the contrary.

Billowing sepia-black smoke streamed up from the Fifth Deck, Cargo Vehicles. The slight South Pacific men making up the emergency response team trotted by with air tanks and face masks. My assembly group of largely indifferent passengers was lined up and counted repeatedly on the upper-most deck - smoke 'em if ya got 'em - despite the no smoking signs. Europeans.

The hour passed and we fell out of rank. And the next and computers stashed under clothing came out of hiding and into use, groups of men played cards and dice. I buried my nose in a brittle yellowed paperback of 'Selected Short Stories/Great Authors of English' bargained for 1€ at a street stall near the Barcelona docks. At the third hour of the emergency, passing Corsica where I once spent a lovely New Year's holiday, caffe lattes were passed around, though too quickly cooled in the strong wind. The emergency was soon after declared over though the noxious stench of burnt rubber and melted plastic lingered all the way to Civitavecchia. If nothing else, a length of the 20-hour crossing was shortened by the distraction. And all of the instruction being in both Italian and Catalan helped push the mounted Castillian out of my feeble head and reintroduce the hibernating and unpracticed Italian.

A little sidenote in response to the comments about my boots, which were my biggest concern during the preparation phase of the trip... they've passed the 2,000-km (1,200-mile) mark holding up very well. The super durable Vibram soles of the guide boots have out-preformed the standard issue of hiking boots I wore previously. The trade off has been comfort - at the beginning they were as stiff and heavy as ski boots. Now, still heavy, they've softened up and I wax them every few weeks to keep the leather from cracking at the toe box. I think the heels will need to be replaced after another 500 kms or so, if I can manage to get back on the pilgrim trail!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Day 59: Chutes and Ladders

Okay, revised plan being implemented... I'm on my way to Barcelona.

We engineers are prone to whip up risk analyses frequently, at least in the nuclear industry. Checking around the shipyards, the travel agencies, various consulates led me to the conclusion the entry requirements into Algeria are vague at best and confusing by design. If authorities wanted, they could find any visitor to their country in violation of something. While the travel agents assure me that I could join on any tour group and separate myself once in country without problem with the police, I give high weight to the fact that the guards at the Oujda border point took plenty of photos of me and scanned my passport, so I'll be on their radar screen wherever I enter. Additionally there was my little flub with the Algerian consulate when I told him verbally that I was on my way to El Quds, Philistine, but on the little map taped inside my credenziale - the same as at the top of this page - I wrote Jerusalem. 'I do not recognize this place,' he said, 'How can I or any Algerian help you get to a place that doesn't exist?' This game could go tilt quickly.

The board game of Chutes and Ladders was a favorite of my toddlerhood - chutes send you back, but their fun, too and they make the game last longer; ladders get you ahead but then the game's over faster (so I concluded as a 4-year-old). So goes the pilgrimage. A chute back to Spain for a ladder around to Tunisia is the best solution, I've concluded with a tinge of regret. I really was looking forward to Christmas in the monastery of St Augustine. Ah well. The chute that could appear if I get on the wrong side of some authority in Algeria could send me straight to prisant and at best a further chute of deportation back to the US. How difficult for a peaceful pilgrim.

This conclusion sent me on a big search for options by sea. Barcelona - Rome - Tunis seems to be the most logical route, and the only workable solution that I found, taking comfort in the precedence that St Ignatius Loyola from Spain made his way to Barcelona to begin his pilgrimage to Jerusalem by ship. Still saddened by the turn of events, I stopped by the Bishop's office in Almeria to get guidance on ways to get to Barcelona by Monday when the ship sails. Guidance was given me by a friendly priest - a combination walking and hitchhiking - and when I asked his name, could you guess, Father Ignatius. Eerie but confirmatory and I've been happily working my way up the coast.

A normal level of adventure has ensued and I should reach Barcelona this afternoon - insha'allah, of course - to work out the next set of details.

There seems to be an opening in the world of Saints for a patron of border crossings.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Day 55: Happy Thanksgiving

Searching for the answer here in Almeria, Spain, I stopped in at the church of Santiago to seek guidance from the priest. Kind man he is but has little to offer in terms of advice for a pilgrim to Jerusalem. What he said, though, made my arm hairs stand on end: 'when I need to think hard for a solution, I think first of St Jerome.' Geronimo! I'm sitting going through the possibilities over caffe con leche and churros... where will St Jerome fit into the picture?

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Americans =)

Next post will include the revised plan.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day 54: Princess Pilgrim

'Pour votre sécurité, Madame.'

To a comical degree, my dear escorts in the countryside have hardly left my side. Following me from the moment I departed the church (turns out, Spanish, not French) in Nador, as I made my way along a quiet backroad through the agricultural countryside, the unmarked car followed me at my walking pace. After some time, as I enjoyed the sights of the orange and clementine harvest, another car joined the parade - a change of regions. Eight men in two cars driving on the shoulder 100 meters behind me at 5 km/hr. When I wanted water, a slight nod from me brought a car forward and a bottle was offered through the open window. When I wanted a rest with some tea, another nod and a car drove ahead to the next village and a suitable house readied itself for the event - always involving an assortment of Moroccan snacks. When a young man on a moped drove up along side me, greeting me with a smile and words of encouragement, my escorts thought him too close, came to a skidding halt to block him, and chased him to the dirt as he tried to escape across a field like a Starsky-and-Hutch episode. Arggh. I managed to slip away for a few moments into an olive grove to answer nature's call, but the men were displeased with my brazenness. This continued for the three days it took me to reach the bordertown of Oujda.

The landscape of the broad irrigated valleys full of fruit, nut, and olive trees is lovely. At one point, passing an open door of a small building, a man carrying a plate of food saw me and invited me to join him for lunch, such is the Moroccan hospitality. Raindrops were getting heavier and I enjoyed the idea of a small rest, I accepted (upsetting my plain-clothes friends) and entered into an artisanal olive press where the two workers took their lunch break and we all shared in the great plate of tangine chicken, orange squash, vegetables in a luscious spicy sauce eaten with torn pieces of flat brown bread. Delicious, and I learned all about the age-old efforts to turn the plump black olives into thick strong oil. Accostumed to the light-colored extra virgen olive oil of northern Europe, the product here is formidably powerful -- as the typical diner coffee in the US compares to turkish coffee. I emerged through the small dark doorway smiling, fat and happy thus relieving my chaperones of further concern. These guys are constantly on their mobile phones and I can imagine their relating my every move to some guy sitting in an office somewhere who's hearing the whole thing like a radio soap opera. How dull his day must otherwise be.

The end of that day necessitated a grande montée - 800 meters in 8 kilometers/2,500 feet in 5 miles. Googlemaps guided me to a dirt road up through a small village to the town at the pass. Though even the shepherds I asked urged that I stay on the paved road, the 7 additional kilometers and the fact that I so distain the highways were too strong for me to heed the advice, so off I went across a freshly harvest field to the track I could see on the hillside. The boys were not amused. Once we met again on the dirt road, they stopped and asked me why I wasn't afraid. Afraid of what? The wolves, they told me as though it was so obvious it didn't need to be stated. I laughed. There are hundreds of sheep around. What wolf would view me as better prey than a lamb? 'Je n'ai pas de peur, messieurs, mais si vous avez le peur, restez dans la voiture'. See you at the pass.

My rewards for staying on the dirt track were many. As it turned out, there had been a wedding celebration at the mountainside village and the celebrants made a great parade down the path I was climbing, singing joyful chants, firing off shotguns and blowing great horns throwing flower petals. Small old hacienda homesteads sat in tranquility with smoke coming from dinner fires. Some deer were grazing by a brook. A shepherd boy was playing some handmade pipes quite melodiously on a rocky perch. A girl leading her donkey back to the isolated farmouse, sang a lilt sweetly. I loved it!

Everyone I passed smiled and waved vigorously. It's not often that a stranger - especially a European (so I appear to them) with a backpack - passes by foot on an autumn evening. When my escorts decided that the path made for donkey carts was too steep and bumpy for their car, one of them - the youngest and most athletic among them - was compelled to get out and walk. I waved for him to join me rather than walk the 100 meters behind. We talked along the way, but the labor of his breathing inhibited much conversation. He had to stop frequently to catch his breath and then got on his mobile phone. Silly boy, 'slow and steady sets the pace, slow and steady wins the race.' He was incredulous that I wasn't afraid of being alone and out in a strange place at dusk and dark and that I had no apprehension about not knowing where I'd pass the night. He clearly had all these fears. Experience goes a long way. The small town at the pass would have some place to accommodate me, I was sure. And so it was. The police - who babysit me in the village of their domain as opposed to the Gendarmerie who take their posts outside of the villages - were waiting. The capitan, in fact, who joined me for dinner at the wonderful auberge run by a transplanted Breton, and a fabulous dinner at that with a French twist on Moroccan food. To top it off, a bottle of Moroccan wine, a fruity Beaujolais ended the day in energized harmony. How perfect the pilgrim day, despite the close surveillance 'pour votre sécurité, Madame'.

Things have sullied just a bit... I reached Oujda at the end of the third day and went to the French church. The priest in Nador had called him at my request to prepare him for my arrival. Nonetheless, the elderly priest greeted me but not only refused my request for hospitality, refused my request for a credenziale stamp. 'Bonne route, bonne chance, au revoir, pélèrine.' He turned his back and closed the door. Dejected, I asked the police standing by for assistance and they got me a gratis hotel room. Always a sad way to end the day. Always a sad thing when a priest turns his back. He even denied that the Nador priest had called him three days earlier. Sigh. Onward.

In the morning, I led my escorts the 13 kilometres to the border point. It took a half hour for the surprised Moroccan command to give me permission to exit Morocco. Twenty men in suits and uniforms stood by with hands on hearts and palm-forward salutes as I walked the last bit through the gate to the two-meter wide lane between the flagpost of Morocco and the flagpost of Algeria. At the gate, since no one among the armed guards greeted me, I shouted across to the guardshack in French: I'm an American and would very much like to enter Algeria, if you please.

Another dozen Algerian men arrived from the building at the distance and finally the guards emerged and asked for my passport. I handed it over the gate with some reluctance. I'd rather stay with my passport than stand in the neutral slice of weedy land, but they have the guns. A man in a dark suit and sunglasses approached and spoke in very poor French that I would have to wait a 'petit moment'. I managed to squeeze the words about my pilgrimage and show the map of my route in before he walked off with my passport and the dozen men.

A half hour later, he returned and said simply: 'Negatif, Madame.' My request to speak with a diplomat only got me the advice that I'd find one in Oujda. Au revior, Madame. Pass the Moroccan flag again, I got another entrance stamp in my passport to the great disappointment of the Moroccans. From their perspective the borderpoint is open; it's the Algerians who view it as permanently closed, since 1994. I'd been asking the Gendarmerie everytime I encountered them - can I leave Morocco through the border at Oujda? Yes. Wrong question, it turns out. Can I enter Algeria? No.

The consulate was of little help. Friendly enough, with words of 'I want to help you but because you are not a resident of Morocco, I can do nothing.' He told me that I can only enter by air or sea and that I'd need a visa, only attainable in my country of residence and costing 120USD. This last bit surprised me, since I checked into this before leaving the US. Stuck for the moment. Need a new plan. No time for distress. When in need of calmness, find some tea. Sit, rest, maybe eat a bit. A plan will emerge.

With the aid of the Gendarmarie and police, some travel agents... here's the plan that evolved: retun to Nador (by car as there's no need to walk the same path twice) take a ferry to Almeria, Spain and another to Algeria. The travel agents I spoke with all assured me that I don't need a visa and can stay for up to six months. I'll only need six weeks - insha'allah - once I get to Algerian soil. One little hitch is that it seems I may need to spend six days sitting around Almeria as the ship only sails once a week. A wee hiccup. The pilgrimage continues!

Route through Spain and Portugal

For economy of space in the sidebox, I've summarized the route I followed through Spain and Portugal, Days 1 through 36:

001 Bandiera 33 kms from Santiago de Compostela, SPAIN
002 Dozón 66 kms
003 Ourense 102 kms
004 Sandias 143 kms
005 Velín 184 kms
006 Sá, PORTUGAL, 228 kms
007 Mirandela 262 kms
008 nr Chaçim 306 kms
009 Mogadoura 351 kms
010 Bemposta 384 kms
011 Trabanca, SPAIN 419 kms
012 Ledesma 460 kms
013 Salamanca 494 kms
014 Valdecarros 529 kms
015 Muñico 569 kms
016 Avila 604 kms
017 San Bartholome 632 kms
018 San Martin de Valdeiglesias 674 kms
019 Torrejos 721 kms
020 Toledo 753 kms
021 Las Ventas con Peña Aguilera 789 kms
022 Pueblonueva 830 kms
023 Piedrabuena 867 kms
024 Tirteafuera 907 kms
025 Brazatortas 933 kms
026 Fuencaliente 975 kms
027 Montoro 1029 kms (yip!)
028 Villafranco de Córdoba 1055 kms
029 Córdoba 1081 kms
030 Montemayor 1119 kms
031 Puente Genil 1157 kms
032 Sierra de Yeguas 1197 kms
033 Cuevas del Belcerro 1239 kms
034 Atajate 1285 kms
035 Jimena de la Frontera 1327 kms
036 Algeciras 1369 kms

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Day 49: Chaperones and Prosperity

Another quickie...

My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, but certainly full of hope. It's hard to believe that I'm about to walk off the map of Morocco (though I never actually found one). In three days, I'll be at the frontier with Algeria and the Gendarmerie have assured me that I'll be able to pass freely.

The wonderful men of the Gendarmerie have become my most fraternal chaperones. I stopped at a pastural farm with a magnificent view of the sea yesterday afternoon and asked a Berber woman toiling in her kitchen garden for some water. Her husband motioned me to come up the slope and sit in the shade. Cold water was poured. The grown daughters of the house finished unloading sacks of manure onto the terraced garden and joined us. A short table was rolled out, a caraffe of coffee, another of hot milk... then some cookies, then a plate of olive oil and bread, a few fried eggs... a dish of olives, some dates, tangerines... laughter abounds. My lack of Arabic was hardly the issue, it was the lack of Berber that stunted the conversation until another daughter, one who'd lived in Spain for a while, joined the impromptu party, and communication began. Though an early end-of-day for me, based on time and distance, I asked if I might pass the night, and once more food started coming out the door. Yes! Of course! They wouldn't have it any other way.

I wasn't inside the house for ten minutes before the boys in red-trimmed steel grey showed up to interrogate the man of the house. There's a foreign woman inside this house; no harm will come to her. An unnecessary command, but it shook up the cheerful family who'd never had need to encounter the national police before. The women were suddenly in a tizzy. Lots of shouting going on. The Gendarmerie had been following me at a distance (I noticed from the hillside glints of sun on their binoculars like a spaghetti western) since I departed Al Hoceima, but to put pressure on this nice family was a bit close for comfort. I got a bit riled - politely, of course - but pleaded that they put the family at ease or I'd have no place to sleep. All was well within a quarter hour, but really, it was a short-lived ordeal.

That they mean well is unquestionable, but from their perspective, it's not that I'm a foreign woman passing through their domain that necessitates the close oversight, rather it's the demonstrable insanity - walking all the way to El Quds, Philistine [insha'allah] when I could easily hop in a taxi or hitch a ride through Morocco - that proves I could use extra help. They're really so sweet, all of the ones I've spoken with, and exhibit a level of gallantry beyond Jane Austen's descriptions of soldiers of equal rank.

Approaching the city limits of Nador today, I asked my assigned escort who'd been leap-frogging past me in an unmarked car every kilometer or so for the best way to get to city centre where I'd find the French church. I took the rare opportunity to accept a ride from him - entering any city by foot is mundane at best. First, though, we sat for some civilized tea - ultra sweet and stuffed with mint leaves. The questions that had mounted in my mind over the last few weeks about the conditions I see were all answered... the new houses come from the prosperty stemming from government programs - King Mohammed VI is apparently very well loved - and rather than bring electricity and water to the old-style adobe haciendas, new houses with integral utilities are being built. It's clear that the architectural style changes with such design criteria... the courtyards were needed to bring light to the small cubical rooms; electricity supplies the light in modern homes, thus, the new have no courtyards... Paved roads, irrigation systems, other civil projects are widespread... Trees are being planted in tidy rows for their agricultural virtues - almonds and olives I see a lot of - which will revegetate the denuded slopes stablizing them and reducing the dust... fisheries and commercial fishing co-ops are being created. Anyone with investment money wanting beautiful seafront property should buy it soon. My guess is that in ten years, this will be the hotest real estate around the Mediterranean.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Day 46: Same Same but Different

To look around and see through time and space, connections become clear. Most of the architecture I see on my coastal frollic through the mountains is modern. Odd in a way because people have evidently lived here for ever, yet nearly every house is built of modern hollow brick. Most houses are in some stage of construction, suggesting a level of recent prosperity. Yet there have been glimpses of the past in some isolated overgrown house of more traditional construction - mud covered adobe bricks sprung up from the earth... single story with wood posts protruding just below the flat roof; small rounded-cornered windows; blankets covering the doorway. With their center courtyards, these look exactly like the adobe haciendas of New Mexico and Mexico. The nopales cactuses - ever so ripe with fruit these days - cluster around them... In the yard of nearly every home, an adobe horno beehive bread oven, charred with use, for the yummy rounds of flat brown bread - just like in New Mexico. Same same, just different. A series of timelapse images from the 14th century to present would be fascinating to see the development on both sides of the pond.

I've noticed the women's dress... layers of colorful pants and tunics with a vibrant blanket tied around the waist; on top of the nearly-ubiquitous headscarf, a tall straw hat, sometimes colorfully adorned with ribbons or silk flowers. Very reminiscent of the hats of Bolivian women. Speaking in French with a host one night I made this comment. The hats, he told me, are made in China and are very cheap, so the women buy them to wear in the fields. Same same, just different.

Lots of agricultural activity in the steep fields... men plowing small irregular plots holding a wooden pole, the tip wrapped with metal, and drawn by a team of two little donkeys. There are a few motorized tractors, but the steepness and irregularity beg for the simple method. The soil is rocky, but the effort of the men with the donkeys doesn't seem so laborious. Another man with a basket supported by a string around his neck, broadcasts seeds for the next crop of alfalfa. The abundant mushroom-shaped haystacks would give Monet something to paint - they're everywhere.

Most families, it seems, live multigenerationally in the same big house... ten children, more... everyone sleeps on foam mattrasses under thick fleece blankets. I've stayed in many such homes by now, one more person always seems to fit in comfortably. I'm a pilgrim, a hajaa christiana... welcome.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Day 43 Loving it!

I've just got a sec... finding computers is not so easy...
The ruggedness of the Barbery Coast is incredible; worthy of legs that have walked a thousand miles. Progress is greatly inhibited by two significant factors: first, I'm following 'la piste' -the path of the road being constructed for many years now - beautiful as a earthen footway but within each hour of walking I've gone in each direction of the compass, so serpentine is the coastline, and ascended and descended hundreds of meters/a thousand feet, so mountainous it is. No exageration... my legs, my lungs, and my eyes get a workout - the views are spectacular, hidden coves, caves, beaches sometimes far below, sometimes underfoot. I can easily project my peaceful 21st century thoughts into the minds of pirates of yore and conclude yes, this would make a lovely place from which to launch my maleficence.

Villages are abundant. Fishing boats are pulled onto the beaches, wee goats and donkeys graze the slopes. This is the source of the second inhibitor to progress. The people are so overwhelmingly friendly, it's difficult to proceed. Earnest invitations to come and have some food (still tasty mutton left over from the holiday), sit and talk for a while, drink mint tea, please stay in my house, stay for some days... I was slipping out early one morning before breakfast when one of the boys insisted I have a bite. Another boy was sent into the yard to catch a chicken; two hours later, we were eating skewered morsels over a fire in a terra cotta pot. To sit for a rest and sip of water is to invite the village to join me, goats and all. It's fabulous. No problems, no fears, no dangers... sure, plenty of 'keefer' being smoked in long narrow pipes by most of the men, but I've seen tranquility, not violence from it. Sleeping in a private house has always come with a boy posted outside my locked door; my page for the night ensuring me a sound sleep (as if a pilgrim will have any other kind of sleep). Proud is the boy chosen for the duty.

So sweet the people, so gorgeous the coastline, so few computers (and those with French keyboards°#!@).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Day 38: Tangerines

Another very quick post on a borrowed computer...

Chaos isn't always such a bad thing. A rough and stormy crossing - bracing - across the Straits and the plans I had to meet with the brother of a friend for a few days of rest failed to execute. Props for the young Polish travelers who let me borrow their I-Pad and mobile phone anyway in the attempt to make contact. No worse for the wear, I made it to noisy and congested city center on my own and shortly after early darkness (slipping an hour across a time zone change again) found a French priest for the requisite stamp in my credenziale and assistance with lodging. Persistance is a blessing in such times, but all really is well that ends well.

As it happens, I've arrived in this Islamic land just in time for the killing-of-the-sheep festival. The weekend is pretty well devoted to the preparations. The actual ritual slaughter of the animals today being bought and sold on street corners is to happen tomorrow (Monday). Hemming and hawing all day about whether to continue on my way or stay an extra day in the Sparten pied-de-terre next to the church, I've concluded that to continue is the best thing to do... everything will be closed for the next two days because of the festival and there wouldn't be much for me to do in the cosmopolitan city.

The flip side to the decision is that it's often difficult to find people in a position to accommodate a pilgrim on a big holiday. I haven't walked on Christmas day for these last few years for this reason. Onward, though, is the right thing to do in this circumstance, so determined after many consultations with both some Tangerines I've met and many members of the thriving expat community... on a Sunday abroad, the local Anglican church in any big city is the place to find savvy English speakers.

Tomorrow, bright and early - assuming the rain dissipates overnight - I'll continue eastward to once again shout out 'catch me!' as I confidently fall back into the arms of humanity with the expectation that someone interesting will help me on my stroll. A stamp in my book, a place to sleep, and guidance on the next day's journey... As my French creeps back in and the Spanish takes a seat further back in my crammed head, I've been informed with nods of sympathy that I shouldn't expect farmers and villagers of the countryside to speak anything but Arabic... time to get out the cheat sheet I made and polish a few sentences by tomorrow!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Day 36: Perched on the Edge

...muy rapido, I'm borrowing a laptop from a kind fellow who was once a pilgrim to Santiago...

With a fanfare of rolling thunder and abundant rain, I've arrived at the edge of my map, the edge of Spain, and the edge of the continent. Tomorrow, Africa... wow.

I realize that many a pampered pilgrim would have given in and called a cab or flagged a ride or otherwise taken public transportation rather than slog through the last mountains, but snug under my raingear, I enjoyed the enhanced fragrance of eucalyptus towering above and mint being crushed underfoot, and came upon some water creatures as I forded the muddy brooks and some wild pigs feeding on acorns as I bushwhacked across a meadow... life goes on, even when wet. Time to dry off and get the last of the Spanish wine before the next gastronomic adventure begins.

Just as the darkness of nightfall encased the world around me, a small sliver of the setting sun broke through and illuminated the Rock of Gibraltar. The moon shines through the thin clouds that remain. Tomorrow, I'll glimpse the other Pillar of Hercules. Hasta mañana!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Day 35: Walk like a Goat

It's clear from my history of pilgrimages that I like to chose a route of historical significance but that I don't particularly like the crowds of the conventional trails like the Caminos de Santiago. I also shy away from highways - carretera in Castillian; estrada in Gallego and Portugese. A busy stressful motorway is a terrible place for a foot traveller. Aside from the traffic, who would choose to deal with the trash, hard surface, roadkill, and I can't stress enough that that's not water spraying off the back of the livestock trucks. Horrific!

I like the historical route and I like to chose my own path. Tranquility is more my style. Sometimes, small single-laned country roads; other times, nature trails or traditional footpaths connecting mountain villages. Farm lanes used by tractors are good; forest roads used by woodcutters are also nice, and fragrant, too. These exist in real life even if GoogleMaps doesn't record them. I don't use GPS and I've given up on searching for the wonderful 1:100,000-scale topographic maps like the IGN series in France. Why bother, I walk off maps pretty quickly. The best I've done with paper maps in Spain have been 1:500,000-scale road maps for each province. Whatever. Walk south. Cross the sea. Turn left. Walk east.

Throughout Spain, in my direct sun- or compass-aided excursions to avoid the dreaded carretera, I've encountered the various networks of Cañadas Reales... historically honored rights of way for livestock grazing. There's no path per se, except if the sheep and goats have recently eaten down the brush, but it is rather unobstructed and the rivers are all easily fordable. I walked along these around Salamanca and again south of Tóledo and have been more or less following another both north and south of Córdoba.

My standard three questions when seeking pilgrim help: a stamp for my credenziale wherever I pass the night; assistance in finding a dry place to sleep; guidance for the next day's 40 kilometers. Consistently, everyone tells me to stick to the carretera, that there's no other way. Of course, they've never walked 40 kilometers south of their town and only know how to go by car. I'm not a car. There's (nearly always) an alternative to the highways. Listen politely then go ask the shepherds and goatherds. My tried and true method.

The rapidity in which I've crossed Andalucia has surprised even me, but it's far more to do with the spacing of the adorable 'pueblo blanco' mountain villages packed with Paleolithic, Moorish and Christian heritage than with the endurance of my legs. I should arrive in Algiceras tomorrow evening and then cross over to Tangiers on Saturday, November 5th. I don't want to leave without commenting on how beautiful this region is - limestone mountains rugged and craggy with deep deep valleys and high high peaks, and it seems to my lungs and legs at least a million mountain passes that I've crossed. And, it's been raining. A rather warm rain as rains go, but wet and misty. I'm sure the glimpses of the distant sea are right there behind the white swirling clouds above and below me. There's beauty in rainy days, too.

Only a few more mountains left in Spain, and then a day or two of rest in Tangiers to prepare for the cultural change. More later.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Day 32: Thin

I woke up thin one day, hardly noticing until it was made clear to me. The first indication came in the form of a slight wardrobe malfunction at my morning coffee break. When I unclipped the hipbelt of my pack, I didn't realize that the weight of my pack had the effect of a plumber's belt on his jeans... a bit cool back there and several patrons noticed. I must more snugly tie the drawstring on my spandex-y hiking pants.

More notable has been the reaction of the priests, nuns, village ladies and even the barmen. They've all been foisting food on me like I'm a growning teenage boy. It's been like this since last Wednesday, the same day as the wardrobe malfunction.

I'd put on weight over the summer in preparation of the first series of mountains I knew I'd have to cross. Put some fuel in reserve, was the plan. It worked. Those mountains are behind me and I'm lean and strong again - down about 15 pounds - and forever miniature, eye to eye with typical 10-year-olds. Eating more won't make me the size of an average adult.

I'm being given a lot of food, so much I can't eat it all... this is the current content of the deli I'm now carrying: two sticks of salami, 3 bocadillas (1 egg and potato, 1 cheese, 1 serrano ham), a round of sheeps cheese the size of three hockey pucks, a tin of mackerel in olive oil, a 200-gram bar of milk chocolate and whole almonds, and a sleeve of chocolate-covered tea biscuits. In the fruit section that are the outside mesh pockets are 2 clementiness, 2 oranges, 1 lime, 1 apple, 1 pear, 1 pomagranite and an assortment of nuts in the shell.

For the mid-morning coffee break this morning, I opened the bag of goodies the nuns sent me off with and found 2 pots of yoghurt, 1 pot of chocolate pudding, 2 hardboiled eggs, 2 muffins, 1 tomato and 1 cucumber. I had to eat it all, none of it really suitable for carrying. I wasn't even hungry.

This is definitely an off-camino condition. I encourage the feed-the-pilgrim campaign, I just wish I were more up to the task of eating it all. I've begun looking around for potential guests for the candlelight supper I'd like to host. I foresee a cycle here - the more food I'm given but can't eat, the more I'll have to carry, the more weight I'll lose, the more food I'll be given. Wash, rinse, repeat. A pilgrim with too much food - life's not so bad here on the trail!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Day 29 New World Meets Old World

If there were only one word to describe Andalucia, at least the route I've entered on, it's olive. Groves abound, young and old... and old is really really old, some of these villages have been harvesting olives since before Rome destroyed Carthage.

Walking along part of the GR-48 toward Córdoba, I mused about how some of the grand haciendas have barriers of big nopales cactuses lining their grand gardens, along with various yuccas and aloes that I saw so much of in Mexico. Did the founding hildago make his fortunes in the new world and bring back some momentos to show off to the neighbors? Perhaps. Perhaps it was a fad fifty years ago to plant Mexican flora.

Passing an enormous barrier of nopales leaning way out over the stone wall of the garden, I met an older guy, the owner I presumed, walking his dog and his cocked shotgun near the enormous gate. I asked him if I might enjoy one of the plump ripe tunas, as the nopal fruit is called in Mexico. His confusion may have come from my odd Spanish - more than one person has told me I must have learned Castillian in Mexico - or the oddness of my request. I pointed to the fruit next to him. 'You want to eat this?' His disgust was obvious. With such deftness I honed a thousand times or more last winter, I carved a point on to the end of a stick with my tiny penknife, stuck the end of a fruit, carved back the thick spiny skin to reveal the pomegranite red flesh and snapped it off the cactus pad holding it like an egg-sized lollypop. I sliced off a piece and ate it to make sure it really was what I thought - ah, deliciously tart and refreshing. I offered the next slice to the olivier. He ate it with some hesitation and scrunched back at the sourness. The Mexicans would add some coarse salt, I told him. I like the tartness myself. He laughed at the affair and assured me that no one would be upset if I took the cactus fruits hanging over the garden walls. For him, there was too much effort in getting to the seedy fruit, he'd stick with the oranges and pears of Spain.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Day 27 Another New World

I looked up into the pre-dawn sky when I was set to leave Tirteafuera expecting to see Orion pointing me in the right direction. Instead, he was shooting sharp arrows at me from a pitch black sky. Rain, and lots of it. And cold, too. And in a hamlet way to small to have a bar; no coffee to ease me into it. Ah well. Rain cape quickly set, tightened against luffing in the squall wind, off I walked. (I saw that it was snow in Galicia - easier, dryer, and quieter to walk in.)

The world stayed dark until well after 9 that morning, and I made the last kilometer into the larger town on the fender seat of a tractor... it was a muddy field track I was on and the farmer took pity on me as he slowed to pass me, so he indicated, but since he bought me a cup of café con leche and churros along with those for himself, I think he was heading to town anyway. Miserable weather to be outside; cozy in the comfort of a bar-cafe thick with outdoor workers and piles of churros.

The mountains of southern La Mancha don't come across as friendly as those in northern Spain. Gone are the adorable timeless stone walls; present are tall endless barbed wire fences with padlocked gates and angry warnings against trespassing. The villages are pretty mundane with each house barricaded behind stuccoed walls and fortress-like gates. Outside the villages, weekend house after weekend house for cityfolks from Madrid to find private refuge. The fruit trees are locked beyond reach, their bounty rotting on the branches. Absent, too, are small shrines and niches with religious statues seen all along the Camino Frances. It's a different Spain altogether.

References to Don Quixote are abundant, however, giving an air of literary sophistication to the region and where I can find accessible unpaved roads connecting villages, I'm generally following one of the marked itineraries of the regional tourist board. Every village has a Calle Cervantes, Pancho Sanchez, and other character and place references making me regretful that I didn't re-read the books in preparation for the walk. Next time.

Off-camino villages offer different accommodation for pilgrims... unused primary schools, a local sports hall, a community center, some donated apartment with co-habitating mice... generally it falls to the mayor, el alcade, to hold the key and open the door; sometimes his wife will send over some food, sometimes he'll nod to the barman to offer me something... every day's a new day.

Many mountains have been crossed through numerous passes every day - they're adorably called 'puertas' meaning gateways and are marked with their elevations, generally around 900 meters / 3,000 feet. These gruelling climbs for me end with an armwaving dance, like Rocky Balboa reaching the top step of the Penn Stadium, then I can relax for the kilometers of descent before the next climb. Occasional information panels reveal the Roman history of the area - old mines, mills, roads, settlements - and local cave paintings capture the much more antiquitous human presence. Remarkably, the cave and rock paintings have an uncanny similarity to those I saw in New Mexico and northern Mexico last winter.

Just arrived in Andalucia - more later.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Day 25 - Pilgrims and Pilgrimages

If there's one thing reliable in a pilgrimage, it's the inherent unpredictability of each day. Get up, walk, stop walking, sleep. These are the only commonalities. With each step being into new territory, there's something new around each bend.

A few days ago, walking along a quiet paved road - something I'm adverse to, but the best way to dodge bullets and errant pellets during hunting season - three men in a Mercedes passed me, turned around passed me again, did a u-turn ahead of me and drove toward me in the shoulder lane... jeeze, trouble afoot? Before the car even came to a halt, the passenger door opened and a Frenchmen jumped out: Don't worry, we're pilgrims, too! (In a Mercedes??)

The incalcuably small probability of another pilgrim to Jerusalem passing me by on that stretch of road midway between Toledo and Cordoba was realized. His pilgrimage began in Auschwitz, and being an EU citizen, he was unhindered to pass through Syria. He and his pals were out field-testing a potential pilgrim route connecting Cordoba and Toledo. Incredible odds, really. Another long-distance pilgrim... (in French).

The very next day, I entered a village after the requisite kilometers and sought out the priest for lodging. While waiting in a cafe-bar, I got to talking with the affable barman and a barfly, a successful pilgrim to Santiago some years past. When I finally got to the old priest, he gave me a stern, and unnecessarily loud, lecture telling me that I'm not a pilgrim because there is no traditional pilgrim route between Toledo and Cordoba... no pilgrim route, no pilgrimage, no pilgrim. He shouted his outrage that I should sullen the pilgrim tradition by willy-nilly making my own route. He reached into a drawer and pulled out first 15€ then a pause and then another 10€ and shouted louder that I should leave. I quickly asked for a stamp for my credenziale, but he fumed all the more - no pilgrim route, no pilgrimage, no pilgrim, no stamp! ¡Vamos!

Stunned, I returned to the cafe-bar for solace. The fellows laughed at the situation saying that the sour old priest has been part of the village for 35 years and that only the old ladies go to Mass. A beer was served and directions to find the local hostel where a clean and well-appointed room could be had for 18€ and a full meal for 6€. With a hot shower and clean sheets on a comfortable bed, I really made out well despite the clerical reception. All's well that ends well.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day 20 Holy Toledo

I once visited Toledo, Ohio and asked how the expression Holy Toledo came about. Two answers came up: 1. there are more churches in that city than anywhere else in the US - believable when you see the obvious result of the 'my steeple's bigger than yours' contest the various denominations must have had. 2. during the gangster era of Al Capone, the rival gangs of Pittsburgh and Chicago would meet in Toledo as a place of truce and no fighting, thus making it holy. It sort of doesn't matter which story is closer to the truth, Toledo, Ohio is a lovely place.

It doesn't compare, nor do many cities, with Toledo, Spain. Another UNESCO World Heritage place, it's pretty darn whooey. I love the Moorish architecture, and the history oozes within and without of the crenulated walls. Here in the middle of La Mancha, I found other trail indicators for a network of hiking/biking trails following the travels of Don Quixote. I'll have to come back another time - yikes, time's up on my computer...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day 18: A whole new world

It's amazing how quickly the landscape changes. Some of the vegetation changes are a bit gradual - fewer olive trees, more oaks noticable over the course of 10 kilometers or so; sporatic cows grazing across a hillside rather than the large herds of sheep down in the valley... this sort of thing. I came over a pass this morning, 35 kilometers south of Avila, and suddenly, in a matter of a kilometer, oaks gone completely, groves of pines have taken their place. The entire landscape is different.

The welcomed change in landscape was accompanied by the very welcomed presence of some morning clouds. The region has been experiencing a prolonged drought since winter, and an extended heatwave on top of it. The clouds and cooler temperatures in addition to the different trees together are like walking into a whole new world.

I climbed out of some mountains into picturesque Avila. I immediately sensed its similarities to Siena, Italy - enclosing wall, tons of churches, lots of learny things, hoards of tourists, herds of their buses, noisy restaurants poured out onto the cobbled alleys, every building turned into an hotel. Yikes! Overwhelming. And by coincidence, La Fiesta de Santa Teresa was going on. Chaos redoubled. I stayed in a pilgrim house, alone on this little-used pilgrim route, and a nice one, one for the encyclopedia defining pilgrim houses... a hot shower and a washing machine =) It's the little things.

Back into the mountains, higher and higher, reaching 1,200 meters (4,000 feet), I'm enjoying lots of vistas, highlighted by the golden poplars along the dry riverbeds, with a lighter load since the harvest is largely over and fruit trees left in villages.

Pilgrim life continues... I'm as far east as I'll get in Spain, heading south to Toledo in a few days, then southwest to Cordova... I plotted out the route and came upon this little factoid: the difference between averaging 30 and 37 kilometers per day will add up to 2 months over the course of my travels to Jerusalem... do I arrive at the end of April (37 km/d) or end of June (30 km/d). Place bets on earlier rather than later, the heat takes its toll on me.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Day 11: This little figgy went to market...

I loved my little walk through very picturesque Portugal.  If I searched to find something negative, it would only be trying to escape well-intended country women with less than 2 kilos of fruit and nuts from their orchard trees.  Although I anticipate a good frost one of these evenings to put an end to the swarms of gnats, the benefits of the autumn harvest are delightfully manifest.  Apples, pears, quince, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, grapes, more grapes, grapes red and white, and my favorite of all, fat tender figs.  And, bonus, the region is plump with big rounds of sheep cheese - yum.

On my first night off the pilgrim super-highway, as I've come to think of the camino, I made my way over pastural hill and dale unfettered by road or even a path to a small town just as Mass was ending... it's uncanny how a pilgrim can so often beat the odds of stumbling upon a Mass when there is only one per 12 days.  A short conversation with the grateful priest, who thankfully was fluent in Castillian, got me not only an invitation to his mother's house for the night - an a great cook indeed - but also guidance for the remainder of my walk through Portugal... names, towns, off-road paths, two monasteries, and a google-map.  What a gift!

The days are warm, overly sunny with vast areas of little shade, and full of necessary kilometers.  I'm still averaging that marathon distance of a bit more than 40 mountainous kilometers every day.  Although I've got absolutely nothing to complain about - nothing, nothing, nothing.  After the fourth day, one which involved quite a lot of asphalt and long hilly distances without shade or water, I was internally beginning to whine a bit, quite truthfully.  My attitude was put to rights when a kind family driving home stopped me at the entrance to the town to offer help.  I'm so happy they did as the priest was away and it was a weekend, so the mayor's office was closed.  With a number of phone calls, the father of the family, who considered the honor of the village at stake, got things arranged for me to spend the night at the facility run by the Sisters of Mercy.

A geriatric facility, sure, but what a great experience.  Invited to the dining hall for a dinner of Portugese specialties, I saw dozens of residents shuffling with the aid of walkers and canes, progressing three inches for as many steps... my aching feet still throbbed from the pounding of the day's 45 kilometers, but I was reminded by the experience of how fortunate I am to be able to earn my pain with a great deal of gain.  I recalled an Islamic proverb I recently came upon: 'I  cursed at God because I had no shoes and then saw a man who had no feet.'   Doh! how true.  And how interesting we stumble upon such experiences just when we need them.  St Jerome's handiwork?

The next day, refreshed and facing only 35 kilometers of gorgeous and deeply gorged landscape, I entered a village celebrating in large form the feast of St Barbara.  I was invited to join in the procession through the winding village cobbled streets behind the shoulder-mounted tableau of the venerated Saint and in front of the marching band.  (I switched from boots to sandals, of course.)  What a treat for the heart and soul/sole, and stomach enjoying more of the local specialities.  {Note that every culture I've visited on all my pilgrimages seem to relish tripe soup.  Don't chew, just swallow.}

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Day 5: The sun shines on...

I've a quick minute to update...I'll be in Portugal tomorrow and can see from a google map (that I can't print out from the public library computer) that the villages will be less frequent for a pilgrim.

Time is an odd convention.  Once the world generally agreed to standard time for transportation purposes, time became a bit disconnected from the passage of the sun across the sky.  Noon long ago ceased to be defined as the point in time when the sun was directly overhead and shadows were shortest.  Spain chose to be in the Central European time zone, which has logic founded in commerce, but shifts the timeline awkwardly westward.

In these days since I began the walk in the very northwest of Spain, I arise before sunrise, as has always been my pilgrim habit, so that I can be warmed up and mentally present to welcome the rising sun along with the tweeting birds and enjoy the luscious moist fregrance of the vegetation.  Eucalyptus trees abound here.

My southeasterly heading has Orion standing strongly over my right shoulder arrow drawn at the ready; the Big Dipper has toppled its contents out above my left; I walk toward the orange smudge on the horizon until the curtain slowly lifts during the first hour of daylight to reveal the sequential rolling bluish ridges to be climbed and descended all day long.  I leave the albergue at 7.  The sun reaches it height around 2 in the afternoon.

Portugal, staying more true to their place on the globe lies in the Western European time zone.  Though I'll head both south and east tomorrow, the subsequent five days will begin at 6 to get the same hour of the dim light of dawn to myself, only afterward to step back into Central European time and reset my clock.

Next stop in Portugal - who knows what the keyboard will look like!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Day 3: =D A pilgrim again!

Here I am, checking in from the trail - three days of walking, a respectable 102 kilometers of hilly warmup.  I love the scenery and the food and particularly that every view is new for me, every footfall onto land untrodden by me previously.  Cool stuff.  By noon on the first day on the trail, I had spoken in three different languages, and none was English.  That´s always a hoot.

I´ve encountered a good dozen pilgrims each day going in the opposite direction from me.  It´s difficult to follow the camino since the markers show the way to Santiago, not away from it.  It´s sort of like New Jersey - it costs nothing to get in, but you´ve got to pay to get out.  I´m paying dearly with the wasted half kilometers or so trying to leave towns... they add up.  Even though I´m 'only' logging 33 kilometers of progress a day, I'm really walking over 40.  I'm giving it up soon, too.  After tomorrow, I'm veering off the trail to make my way to Salamanca shorter by cutting through the northeast corner of Portugal.  Note to self: learn how to say 'hello, I'm a pilgrim in Portugese.'  It'll work out, and being off the trail will be easier not trying to follow the markers. (People get pretty irate if a pilgrim is seen straying from the trail.)

Since I last was in the area, the required fee for a shower and bunk bed in a municipal pilgrim house has risen from 3€ to 5€, which adds up pretty quickly.  Consider that the going rate for a cold beer is 1€. The fee is for a bunk bed that you can't sit up in, in a crowded room, a tiny shower cubicle with warmish water that has to be reactivated from the push-faucet every 60 seconds.  The wash sinks for clothes have no hot water and washing clothes in the showers is deeply frowned upon.  Pilgrim life, for the masses.

Worse now is the propensity of pilgrim-tourists.  Since the economic squeeze has intensified, the number of people looking for inexpensive holidays has risen and the camino is a perfect place.  These tourist 'pilgrims', from all over Europe I´m told, get a credenziale, take a bus to a pilgrim house and pay the required fee.  The next day, they take a bus or taxi tour around the area for the day, arriving at the end of the day at the next pilgrim house, to do the same thing.  Getting to Santiago is in no way a priority, but if they happen to, hey, they get a certificate.  Apparently this has lead to a lot of petty theft in the pilgrim houses - backpacks, boots, even pots and pans from the kitchenettes - over the last few years, so the municipalities have raised the fee.  I'm told some of the municipal pilgrim houses in the cities beyond the province of Galicia have even higher fees.  A crying shame, it is, but what´s to be done?  A letter from the pilgrims' Bishops authenticating the pilgrimage as in the Middle Ages?  Can't see that happening... although I happen to have a stamp in my credenziale from the Bishop of Denver...

The right side of my body is three shades redder than the left, walking southeast as I am.  I've got a few hot spots on the balls of my feet as the callouses are trying to form.  Aside from the barking dogs (peculiar American euphenism for tired feet), everything is in perfect working order.  I'm loving every minute of it, heading toward Portugal.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Attention passengers...

'Attention passengers' - said the pilot over Newfoundland - 'due to a persistent oil leak, we've been authorized to return to Newark.'

Arrgh!!  Blah, blah blah, no one was hurt, yeah, but returning to Newark instead of landing somewhere on the European continent has put me fully a day behind.  Every emergency vehicle was on the runway for our crippled return, but still... I could have gotten some better connections from Reykjavik.  Spent the night in Newark with a diversely international group all fretting about missed connections while the Jet Airlines, self-described as 'India's finest' took their phones off the hook and disappeared.

At least I'm as far as Madrid at the moment, waiting for the night train to Santiago de Compostela.  I suppose starting a pilgrimage on the feast of St Jerome - a real thinker, he is - is as good as on the feast of St Michael.  But Michael's got the wings...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hours to go...

It's a great feeling when everything is ready to go - I'm checked in to the three flights it will take to get to Madrid - boarding passes are printed, folded, labeled, and tucked in my very worn passport; the boarding pass for the night train to Santiago de Compostela is all prepared, too.  I'm sipping red wine on this lovely warm evening, watching the clock.

Countless times now I've packed and unpacked and got everything just so - a skosh less than 5.5 kilos (=12 teeny little pounds) with plenty of room left over.  (Doh!  I could have gone with a 18-liter pack instead of the 24-liter one I have from my walk to Mexico.)  The 12,000 pilgrim kilometers walked so far have rendered a pretty high packing efficiency.

I got the first of the stamps in my crisp credenziale stating my city of origin (Denver, Colorado, USA) and my personal information, origin, and destination inscribed in Spanish and Arabic.  A new medallion reflects the religiously-neutral palm leaves of peace - made from the lid of a can of tomatoes.

Hair's cut; boots are waxed; flight snacks are packed... soon after I post this blog, I'll be completely unplugged - no mobile phone, no GPS, no computer, nothing requiring electricity.  I think it will be fairly easy to post a blog one a week or so through Spain and likely in Morocco... I'll deal with computer availability in North Africa when I get there.  Five weeks, I estimate to get to the Straits of Gibraltar... and so much to see in Spain, and the journey starts in a matter of hours.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Even before my pilgrimage begins, I've experienced kindness from people whose only interest is in helping me on my challenging journey.

The situation with my boots - arguably the most important part of the pilgrim kit - is now happily resolved, but not without the aid of people more knowledgeable than I and a chance meeting.

The heavy leather guide boots I selected was after consultation with at least a dozen boot specialists.  I explained the intended use - extreme, I realize - and sought guidance.  For the most part, I was treated dismissively and got little meaningful advice: 'You just don't understand, boots aren't built for this kind of use'; 'You have to send additional boots ahead, or stop when they wear out and order new ones'; 'You should never walk further than a single pair of boots will last', 'to walk such a distance, you'll need a support team; they'll carry your extra pairs of boots', blah blah blah... most of the advisers might as well have added 'silly little girl' for all the condescension.

One expert in his field, and not far from Denver, provided meaningful technical advise on the three occasions I went to see him.  He understood the gravity of the issue as being greater than just another in a series of banal commercial transactions.  In the end, though I found his advice valuable, it didn't turn into any financial gain from him as I ordered the boot over the internet and got the replacement soles from another outfit.  Nonetheless, he helped me just for the sake of helping me; he helped me because I asked.  He never treated me as though I'm daft.  Anyone who's in the market for technical footwear should consider talking with Lee and John at The Custom Foot in Englewood, CO for some solid, friendly, and caring advice.

With boots on feet, I still face the 'what-will-I-do-after-the-first-2,000-kilometers' question.  Because it's the heels that wear out first, I'm sure I can extend the life of the soles by another 2,000 kilometers if I can bring an extra set of heels along.  Easy in principal, but getting them led me to another heap of boot repair guys telling me that that is simply not how it works.  Finding an equipped cobbler along the way isn't a viable solution.  I have as little hope of finding hiking boot heels in the Sahara as I did in the Chihuahua desert.  I was told several times that the licensing agreement with the Vibram sole distributor prevented sales of supplies independent from services.  Arghh.

Just as the Custom Foot guys were going to look to pull strings with their suppliers, I happened to walk by a corner hole in the wall cobbler shop while running some errands.  Asking at yet another shop seemed almost fruitless, but I felt inspired.  Inside, two elderly Russian immigrant cobblers welcomed me, stooped low from years tapping needy soles on their shoe trees.  I explained my need and to emphasize the reality of it, showed a small map of my route.  Seeing a small icon of a Russian saint hanging on the wall, I told them of my experience walking from Kyiv and around Crimea, but the soles lasted longer walking on snow than on the rocks I'm now anticipating. A craggy bent forefinger motioned for me to wait a moment and the old man reappeared with a pair of brand new heels, same brand, same durability, very similar pattern.  Amazed though I was, he wasn't satisfied with the fit and disappeared behind the curtain once again, returning with a set he found more suitable.  I have great gratitude for the solution-finding cobblers at Phelps Shoe Repair in Denver.  They get it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Itinerary

My trip is on the threshold, yet with so many variables in front of me how much should I try to plan?  For convenience, I'll follow the Via de la Plata out of Santiago until I can break free of the world of giant yellow arrows and cold municipal pilgrim houses at Salamanca and begin the walk toward historic Toledo, passing through Avila with a nod to St Teresa.  Onward to the former Moorish capital of Cordova then to the crossing at Algeciras to Morocco, perhaps by the first week in November.

Crossing Morocco and Algeria should be fascinating and straightforward - how possibly can I lose my way if I keep the Mediterranean to my left at all times?  It will be interesting to see the coastal cities still under Spanish governance yet mingling with the remnants of French colonialism and 'home rule'... I'm expecting a nifty mingling of architecture and cuisine.  Although there will be plenty of Catholic enclaves in the larger cities throughout the region, I think it would be pretty cool to get to Annaba, formerly Hippo, to celebrate Christmas at the Monastery of St Augustine.

Onward, is the plan, toward Tunis, perhaps by January 3rd to check with the Libyan embassy about access to that country.  Hopes are high!!  If all goes well, I'd get to the border around January 23rd and to Tripoli just at the end of the month.  [If not, I'll find some way to sail around the 2,000 kilometers of shoreline to Egypt.]  With joy, I'm anticipating the Libyan land route through Sirte and to Benghazi in the early days of March.

Entering Egypt before the end of March would put me into Alexandria around April 10th (or so...) then down to Cairo to make arrangements for the desert journey to the very old and very historic and uber-whooey Monastery of St Anthony.  The local Coptic priest I met suggests a donkey and cart if I'm truly committed to hoofing it.  Many many days in the open desert with not so much as a Bedouin camel train anywhere in the vicinity.  The beast of burden will carry the necessary water and food for the both of us.  Since I am so committed, I've got to make a little time to study up on donkey husbandry... then somehow cross the Red Sea to the bottom half of the Sinai Peninsula to get to the Monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai, overflowing with history.  Maybe it will be early May by then.

No time to linger, the desert will be getting hotter as the days get longer.  I'm not sure of the best way to get to Jerusalem, but I'm not going to overdo the details now.  I'm certain locals will best advise a lone pilgrim.  Perhaps I'll get to my final destination before the end of May.  ish.  The average daily high in late May in Jerusalem is 25°C (78°F) and it will be just at the end of the rainy season.  There's a lot of motivation for me to be out of the desert before the arid heat drives me to sit in the shade all day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Plans for a Summer Pilgrimage

I enjoyed my walk to Mexico City last winter immensely - as I have enjoyed all of my winter pilgrimages. But why should I have all the fun? I want to emphasize the practicality and feasibility of this North American pilgrimage for others to follow. Certainly and without hesitation, I encourage anyone who is motivated to make a great pilgrimage in North America to use this same route, either by foot in three months or by bicycle in one month. Get out there! Be not afraid!

Perhaps more attractive would be a shorter pilgrimage from Denver to Chimayo in New Mexico. I strongly encourage this route for the masses. Fellow pilgrims and future pilgrims, anyone who has thoughts of walking the Camino in Spain, why not consider this route in the US? The history of Chimayo as a pilgrim destination doesn't quite reach back into the depths of time that Santiago de Compostela does, but it still has many centuries attached to its lure and with a host of unique cultural elements in stunning landscapes and quite unspoiled wilderness. Contemplate a 350-mile/550-kilometer walk in the mountains.

I see that three stages exist for something like this to become established: explorer, pioneers, colonists. I made the exploration of the route last winter, so that stage can be checked off the list - I demonstrated that it can be done and I know a beautiful and accessible route. I've drafted a written plan for the next stage. Next summer after I return from Jerusalem, I will gather a group of 16 'pioneers' whom I will lead on the route. In Spain, pilgrim groups find refuge in established pilgrim houses. These don't (yet) exist in the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico, so the plan for the pioneers is to bring the essentials of a pilgrim house with us - water, cots, hot showers, a laundry facility and a kitchen. Together with a small group, I'm working through the logistics necessary to make the journey of the pioneers a success. We're targeting the pioneer journey for next August (2012).

The product of the pioneers' experience will be a guide that will disseminate the route to other pilgrims and groups of pilgrims who wish to walk from as far north as Denver to Chimayo. It's a rugged route indeed, with many mountain passes to cross, and with many thousands of feet of elevation gained and lost - oh so beautiful. For Camino grads, the distance is roughly equivalent to Burgas to Santiago de Compostela. The plan is sketched at the moment for 18 days of 20 miles/31 kms. Five or six days of relatively flat terrain and the balance mountainous. The pioneers will be of diverse ages and physical abilities so that we can be better able to provide guidance for future groups.

It's difficult to predict now if the evolution of the colonist stage will become viable - that would be the construction of permanent pilgrim houses. It could be well into the future, I think, but if there's interest and need, it will happen organically. For the moment, I want only to plant the seed. Will the route from Denver to Chimayo become el Camino del Norte? Will other routes be explored - across Arizona, Utah, Texas, and Kansas? Pilgrims ho!

I've set up a poll at the top of the blog page to get a sense of some feedback. Please feel free to comment. Thanks!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pilgrimage Coming Soon

Realizing that I won't be able to walk to Santiago de Compostela from Denver until the Atlantic Ocean either freezes or dries up, I've gone ahead and bought a plane ticket. The next winter pilgrimage is imminent. I'll begin to walk under the wings of St Michael the Archangel, the 29th of September. Depending on a myriad of unpredictable factors, I should be strolling into Jerusalem sometime in late spring. -ish.

Ticket in hand, boots are now on feet, too - heavy leather guide boots with the beefiest soles I could find, and I looked carefully and dutifully for months. I have no endorsements or product sponsorship, but for anyone else searching for boots ready to go the distance, I'll share that the selected boots are Italian-made Scarpa SL M3. I ordered my normal size of 38 but they were too small; the 39s that just arrived fit very comfortably. I'm hoping that the soles will get me through the three mountain ranges I'll cross in Spain and then through the Atlas Mountains of northern Morocco and Algeria. The soles of the three other boots I've gone through - Raichle, Meindl, and Zamberlan - all similar heavy leather guide boots, each lasted 'only' 1,200 miles/2,000 kms. I'm now hoping that these new ones will get me at least to Algiers, 2,500 kms, but more hopefully to Annaba (Hippo) where I'm thinking about spending (western) Christmas at 3,000 kms. After that, my soles are in the hands of fate. I'll be sure to report on their condition frequently, since footwear is paramount to any distance walker.

I'm rushing through my days reading about the diverse and fascinating histories of the all the areas I'll walk through, going through shifting checklists of equipment repairs and the gathering of odds and ends, learning enough Arabic to make a suitable cheat sheet, and interminably studying maps. I'll come up with a picture of my route soon and post it for all to follow. In general: Santiago de Compostela, Avila, Toledo, Cordoba, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar at Algeciras to Ceutas (a speck of Spain relic in Morocco), onward and eastward along the Mediterranean coast more or less along an old Roman Road through countless ancient cities, some thriving, some in ruins...Algiers, Tunis, lots of historical places in Libya (let's hope I can get through the border, sometime in mid January-ish), Alexandria, the monastery of St Anthony, across the Red Sea to the monastery of St Catherine below Mount Sinai, and then to wherever I'm able to walk in Israel. Long, sure, but fascinating, too. And it all begins in 4 weeks from today. :D !!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

'Planned Obsolescence'

Boots. Always a tender subject on long walks. They need to be sturdy and durable, and comfortable, of course - no blisters! - and the soles need to absorb energy. In my experience, it comes down to the soles.

In the three boots I've gone through on the 12,000 kilometers so far, the original Vibram soles have lasted 1,600 to 2,000 kilometers on each set - which is to say that they're worn smooth by 1,600 kilometers, but I've stretched them to 2,000 kilometers through uncomfortable persistence and necessity. In Italy and again in Istanbul, I was able to get the soles replaced with other Vibrams, though the replacements were always far inferior to the molded originals, plus, my feet being small, the one-size-fits-all blank gets so cut down that very little of the tread knobs are left. In Mexico, the disaster of having only cowboy boot soles available for replacement taught me well the key hiking-boot sole feature of energy absorption. Still no blisters, but my feet ached perpetually because of this factor even though the slipperiness of the flat-bottom was never an issue in land of no moisture.

Now I'm setting off for a journey in the high four digits, maybe 8,000 or 9,000 kilometers. I dread the thought of the fatigue my poor dogs will have to endure by the time I reach Morocco. I contacted several custom boot makers to learn more about the construction of this critical piece of equipment. The uppers have always served me well, but the soles are the critical point. What can be done to extend their lives?

'Planned obsolescence' is the phrase of art. The soles are designed to wear out to encourage new purchase. It wouldn't matter if I were to buy boots off the shelf or custom made (though all three cobblers have a backlog of at least a year), the soles are by and large the same. They're never rated for distance, which obviously is a broad variable, but they generally have the caveat that they'll 'last for years'. Months is all I ask, but it won't matter. With the experience of my last four winter walks, I am positioned to say 1,600 kilometers is all I can expect.

'Buy four pairs in advance and ship them ahead to different cities along the route' has been the common advice. Not so easy as that, in reality, especially with this trip coming, how can I know when I'll be to these places, whether there will be a general delivery post, whether the (expensive) boots will actually be there... 'Carry a few extra pairs, then' is hardly more easily followed advice. Boots weigh far more than my empty pack. Even carting along extra soles is a weighty proposition.

In Spain, I'll start off in mountains and then traverse two other ranges. In Morocco and Algeria, I'll walk along the Atlas Mountains... Alas, mountain walks rather demand solid footwear. After that, desert. Maybe I'll be able to get away with sandals? Hopeful, but perhaps not the right thinking to start off. I'll continue to search for a reasonable solution. We can put a man on the moon, but can boot soles made to go the distance be beyond our operational technology? Beyond the economic rewards of sole-makers, it seems.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If not now, then when?

Despite my efforts to resist the call of the path, I can't help but let my thoughts wander toward the pilgrim trail.

'There are still some miles in my legs,' I told myself not long past arriving in Rome after three months on the trail from Canterbury, 'so I should make another pilgrimage.'

'There's no harm in doing just one more long walk,' I convinced myself after I reached Santiago de Compostela fresh from the three-month journey from Germany.

'Of course a great foot pilgrimage can be done in America, too,' I insisted to myself after arriving in the Peloponnesian springtime following the long and exciting winter walk from Kyiv, 'so I should do one.'

And lately, the thought 'if not now, then when,' has persistently toiled on my mind since I've returned to Denver from my walk to Mexico City even after two months on the Ultima Thule.

Anyone thinking that 'Winter Pilgrim' is already making necessary preparations for a new epic winter walk would be right. I can't seem to help it! I'm called to the pilgrim life and suited for it.


'A little revolution every now and then is a good thing,' said Thomas Jefferson in reference to Shay's Rebellion in New England not long after the birth of America.

Yeah, so isn't the Arab Spring timely for me? Even the possibility that a pilgrim might travel on a US passport across North Africa is enough for me to attempt it. Prior to the rebellions, I wouldn't have thought it possible. I'm now experienced walking across a desert alone and experienced passing through a Muslim culture while on pilgrimage. Timing is everything.

Santiago de Compostela to Jerusalem by way of North Africa.

Mega-epic, if it could be actually be done in the winter 2011-2012.

I'm fixed on beginning in September. At my now-well-established rate of 1,000 kilometers per month, perhaps it will take me until April or May or June...ish. How foresightful those Romans were for creating a network of old Roman Roads the entire distance!

There are layers upon layers of history to be trod upon, of particular interest to a geek like me is the opportunity to visit the Moorish intellectual centers of Toledo and Cordova in Spain; crossing over at the Pillars of Hercules to Morocco; traversing the Atlas Mountains along the coast of Algeria; then there's the Barbary Coast and the remnants of Carthage, Tunisia; okay, a few questions about crossing into expansive Libya need to be resolved by about February when it will be important to me; then Egypt and a short stroll along the Dead Sea to the final destination before the desert gets too hot.

Wow! I'm bubbling with excitement at the thought of it.

With the diversity of this route, only Santiago de Compostela is a place I've visited before. Start with the familiar, then every step is a new one... what will be around the next rock?

I've already gotten the Arabic alphabet under my belt, and of course, the phrase, 'Hi, I'm a pilgrim.'

Much more to follow!

If not now, then when? and afterwards maybe I'll get a normal life again.