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.