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.