Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Day 104 Feliz Navidad

Computer points are few and far between in the high country of Peru, but in virtual silence, I steadily made my way to Cusco for Christmas as planned.  Surprisingly, it was almost a White Christmas for me this year, despite the tropical latitude.  I spent the ten days afoot from Lake Titicaca bouncing between 4,000 and 5,000 meters - 14,000 to 17,000 feet - of altitude which sees a fair dusting of daily snow in this wet season.  I love it!  Cold is far far easier on the feet than hot.  The limiting factor to my daily distance is the number of hours of daylight rather than achy feet.

I've been following an old Spanish Colonial road, one they lovingly call a highway, though potholed packed dirt/mud with few bridges to cross the raging runoff streams - plunge right in.  The 17th- and 18th-century towns established by Spaniards for Spaniards look identical to ones of the same era in Spain and in Mexico, in architecture and design, and with the mountainous backdrop, it's easy to see Galicia in every town.  Red terrecotta-tiled roofs on stone or adobe houses with stone lintels and doorframes.  Very much Spanish style.  At the lower elevations, below the treeline, beehive hornos are everywhere.  Many of the churches have the typical Gallego three-tiered bell tower, though here they lack the ubiquitous stork's nests of northern Spain.  Some of the churches are plain on the outside yet loaded with gilded treasures and painting on the inside; others are the opposite with carved masonry on the grand portals yet plain on the inside.  Interesting.  On the other hand, the slightly younger towns built for Peruvians contain Spanish Mission style churches that look very much like the ones of the same era in the American southwest.

Incan and pre-Incan remnants abound, some of which are noted for tourists others not.  It's amazing, though logical, that some of the ancient circular stone buildings with grass roofs are still lived in by the alpaqueros.  More common are the adobe houses with either grass or corrogated metal roofs.  The life of the animal-tenders is pretty simple, and little has changed about it in the centuries with the noted exception of cellphones - everyone's got one, from the small children to the grandmothers out there tending their flocks.  They have a funny idea that during the daily thunderstorms, using a cellphone puts one in a protective bubble of electrical neutrality and they can't get struck by lightning.  They hunker down under the cover of their heavy alpaca blankets and chat away during the storms.  They laugh at me walking in my rain gear and offer me blankets to keep my dry - even a dry one weighs a lot more than my whole backpack!  I'll stick to Gortex.

The pilgrim route to Mexico divides itself into natural stages and the arrival of Cusco completes the first major etape, about a third of the way.  The second major chunk of the globe is between here and the Darian Gap between Colombia and Panama.  This might take until April-ish.  The next smaller subdivision is making my way to Lima, again along old Spanish Colonial roads, which of course are largely on top of Incan Roads, themselves on top of earlier transits.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Day 91 On the Shores of Titicaca

At high altitudes, it's probably best to be aware of your own loopiness... I crossed a pass at nearly 5,000 meters - over 16,000 feet - but for the last three kilometers, I felt like I was half in a wonderfully blissful sleep.  Being aware of the sense of sleepiness, I sat for a quick rest every few hundred meters or so, but was careful not to curl up for a much-desired longer rest.  Not many folks out four-wheeling on the single lane dirt 'highway' to rely on for assistance.  I was in the company of hundreds of cuddly alpacas, babies, too, all adorned with brightly colored tassles at the tops of their ears for identification.  Once at the pass, I overlooked broad grassy valleys far below with fierce black thunderstorms passing through, and made quick time down, regaining my full wits.

I passed one night in the sparsely populated high country on a soggy bed in a municipal building; five or six workers stringing streetlights in the village slept on mattresses in another room.  Another night in another municipal building in another village.  Finally, another night at the home of the local Baptist pastor, very antiCatholic at first, but he warmed up after a long and gentle conversation.  Though a potable water delivery system is being installed, there are only external faucets of cold water, and I was offered no water to wash for the three nights spent above.  Personal hygiene seems low on the priority list.  There are no fireplaces or heaters in the little houses, to endure the cold nights, more heavy alpaca-wool blankets are piled on.  Alpaca meat was in the soup, no surprise in the alpaca-based society, but what is a surprise is that they don't eat much bread.  Potatos and thick boiled corn kernels make up the starch.  Root vegetables round out the soup.

Very interesting cultural experiences through very pretty countryside of high-altitude alpaca ranchers.  Some of the girls and women wear the traditional colorful puffy dresses to the knees and wrap themselves in brightly colored blankets, topped off with formal tall felt hats, two long braids coming down their backs terminating in complex knots of colorful wool tassels.  Others were more modern clothes, even in the same families, by personal choice.  The houses are generally all timeless and ever-renewed adobe with either grass roofs or corrogated metal.  Walls of abandoned houses stand melting back into the ground.  Stone walls mark grazing areas for the alpacas, and at slightly lower altitudes llamas and sheep.  Terraces requiring an incredible effort to build extend high up the steep slopes to extend the grazing areas.

There are few Catholics in the area and no awareness at all of pilgrims or pilgrimages.  To all, I'm just a tourist, though tourists are pretty rare in this part of Peru.  Cusco is the touristic center.  Unlike the influences of European immigration in Argentina and Chile, here, I stand out even more noticably as a gringa and get the mild harrasment of frequent invasive photo-taking and horn-beeping, both of which I find irkingly unnecessary, all the moreso as I descend into the more populated areas.  I'm wanting to say to these morons pointing their fingers and gawking at me, 'didn't your mother teach you it's impolite to stare?', there's the mother staring right along with them.  On the flipside, there's tons of history all around, interesting architecture, lots of folklore, and some polite and helpful people.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Day 86 Up and Out of the Desert

My long walk along the beach ended in Iquique, and I headed up into the great beige of the unpopulated hot desert.  The Desert Collection of this season's pilgrimwear includes a light cap with long flaps around the sides and back accesorized with a linen hanky (fetching tone-on-tone embroidered) pinned across the face.  Very 'Dakar'.  The cap and hanky wetted every hour or so makes the passage endurable.  No shade, no place to sit, very little to interrupt the unchanging desert landscape all day long.

However inhabitable the landscape seems, I learned a lot about the saltpeter mining industry, which drove three countries into battle for years over this inhospitable land.  The saltpeter, key ingredient of gunpowder, is right at the surface and merely needs to be scraped up and processed.  The first night in the interior, I spent in a bonafide ghosttown, formerly with more than 3,000 inhabitants, churches, schools, markets, tram station, houses, offices, everything, now empty wooden structures.  If there were any ghosts, they let me sleep in peace.

In addition to the mining history, there are some impressive enormous petroglyphs created by a long-ago culture to indicate where to enter and exit the desert to reach various places of interest.  I've seen petroglyphs on many of the pilgrimages, but never so large as these.  Kudos to the early crossers of this empty space, the dryest desert on earth.

Funny thing, walking along a highway, even a little traveled one... the things that collect on the side of the road are thought provoking. In the one day from Iquique to the ghosttown of Humberstone, I collect 284 pesos and a wedding ring. At an exchange rate of nearly 500 pesos to 1 US dollar, the value wasn't so life-changing (600 pesos for a beer), but the little coins people come to loose add up; and the wedding ring? did someone throw it out the window in a fury or was it an unintended loss? Who knows. Funnier still, the number of marbles lying about the roadside... it's unclear if a few people lost all their marbles or if many people lost some of their marbles.  Either way, it's evident: people have lost their marbles.

I faced a weighty decision... a very kind young man, whose churchlady grandmother invited me into the house for the night - a large and lovely, exquisite modern home, hot and cold running water, no sand - offered me during the course of conversation a large modern edition of a book written in the early 1600s by the son of an Incan princess and a conquistador nobleman about the pre-conquest Incan culture.  Rich stuff, right up my alley of interest as I head into the core of Incaland - but at nearly a kilo, what's an egghead pilgrim to do???  If I take the book, I'll likely regret it on the big ups to come; if I decline thinking I'll find it and read it sometime in the future, I'll likely regret it just as well.  Doh!  I took the book and am reading it as fast as I can with the thought that I'll send it ahead once I've finished it.

The border crossing was relatively uneventful and I refilled the water bottles for the remaining 30 kilometers of desert crossing to Tacna, the first town in Perú.  Despite enormous tiring efforts, I could find no useful map of the country suitable for a journey on foot.  Google is useless, showing a wonderful highway that doesn't exist and misrepresenting distances with inexcusable error.  Shame on Google.  The women of the tourist information center went to great lengths to help me, and with a photocopy map of the province, I started out.  I met the first challenge by accepting a ride for 40 kilometers, hopping out at the ruins of a mule station for the final 40 kilometers to the first village of the mountains.

The rise in elevation was less strenuous than exciting - I heard the sound of running water beneath baked rocks; the patter of little critters in the underbrush; oh, the existance of underbrush!  Up and up, some big ups, twists and turns, more big ups... up up, the temperature dropped, more scrubby brush, some small trees, some bigger trees, some vicuñas, cloudcover, more birds, some little rabbity animals called cuyes, more ups toward a pass.  My heart pounded hard in my ribcage and I thought it was from having gotten soft during the desert trudge and from carrying an unnecessary but interesting weighty book, but no, the sign at the pass indicated more than 4,000 meters of elevation - an incredible ascent in one day, from a start of 800 meters.

The first full day walking in Peru and the slight miscalculation of the impact of the two-hour time difference at the border resulted in the arrival in the wee village of Estique Pampa a half-hour after nightfall at 6 pm.  Fortunately, the police control point, staffed by one young and very bored officer, was well-lit and resounded a television variety show, allowing me to find my way down the dark switchbacks easily enough.  The officer was happy to have a guest, fed me well, heated some water on the stove for me to wash my dusty clothes, and opened an unused barrack for me to sleep the night away.  I took the wool blanket from every one of the empty cots and stayed warm enough through the cold night.  Sunrise at 4:30.  In full daylight, the verdant valley of terraces and stone cottages seemed right out of a travel advertisement for this land of Incas.  Forty shades of green there are not, but a good half dozen anyway and an inviting contrast to the shades of inanimate desert beige.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Day 74 The Tropics

I neglected to mention on Day 70 that I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn that day and now am officially in the tropics.  It's just as hot and deserty.  The ocean is nippy, but I dip pretty regularly in the afternoons to cool off.  The air temperature hasn't been soaring, generally in the mid 20sC/80sF, and with the cool onshore breeze, it's pleasant.  Yet the intensity of the sun is unmistakable and stepping behind a dune for just a minute or two without the breeze is like stepping into an oven.  As I approached a fishing hamlet called Hornitos - little oven - I tried to imagine if the rock formations look like the typical beehive shape of the ubiquitos backyard hornos until I reached it, cut off from the breeze behind some rocks, I got the reference.  The temperature, not the rock formations garnered it its name.  I'm perpetually sunburnt - yes, nagging mothers out there, I really do use sunblock, honestly, every day - I'm just a naturally pink person,

In the sea, I've been swimming with sea lions and dolphins while the birds chatter incessantly overhead.  The guano they leave behind on the seaside rocks is ghoulish and strongly malodorous.  I'm comfortable with the birds in general, but I could do without the numerous sea vulchers who perch ever near with their ugly tiny red heads peering at me for a quick meal.  At times when the path rises high above the sea, the bleached white bones of earlier prey make them all the more eerie.  I feel them calculating how many vulchers it would take to pick up one little pink pilgrim and dash her on the rocks below.  They haven't come up with the answer yet.

Continuing northward, I should reach the border in less than two weeks and start the ascent back into the Andes.  A few challenges remain, and the heat of the afternoon desert is not least among them.  Close to 200 kilometers in the last four days, and with the lack of population here, it looks like I'll need to average 48 a day for the next three days to reach Iquique, the next proper town - that is, one with electricity and water, things lacking in the fishing hamlets. (Peru is more densely populated; I hope to recover my desired daily distances.)

A shout out to my young friends at Shaw Heights Middle School in Northglenn, Colorado who are following me this pilgrimage.  A challenge:  I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and ironically, the most common domestic animal I've seen has been the goat.  What's the connection?  Why is this an amusing coincidence?  Post your collective answer as a comment and we'll see how others fare.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 70 How do you cross the Atacama Desert?

How do you cross the Atacama Desert?
  (a) very quickly
  (b) with as much water as you can carry
  (c) by the foggy coast
  (d) all of the above

Score well? The distances between the fishing shacks has thinned northward as forewarned, and the dunes are higher, the sand finer, the vegetation gone completely, and, new to the list of challenges, precipices, impassable ones.  The high coastal cliffs have foreced me three times to jump in the beater pickups among the fishermens' catch and get rides around the impassable parts to the next collection of shacks.  The fishermen for sure admire my adventure, but when it's just not possible to pass along the coast, and there are absolutely no villages or hamlets, or even lone gas stations along  the interior highway, hitching a ride is the only way they'll let me continue.  Sad for me, but reasonable.  I've shortened the pilgrimage by about 120 kilometers because of this, and there might be a little more to come.

Consequently, I've taken to carrying 3 liters of water and walking well past the daily marathon target 8 of the last 11 days.  Still, I'm enjoying the long walk along the beach.  Soon enough, I'll be at the border and head interior to Lake Titicaca and Cuzco (for Christmas).

I don't recognize many of the fish I've been eating, being an East Coast girl, but the fishermen do a fine job preparing evening meals over hot embers of driftwood.  There's an interesting monovalve mollusc in the mix, called lapa here, that's particularly tasty, along the lines of the meat of crab claws, and boiled, roasted, or batter-dipped and fried, is a delectable repast, sand and all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Day 58 Endless Beaches of White Sand

These beaches never seem to end... the sand is fine and the dunes high.  Ups are difficult, but skiing the downs is out and out fun.  The fishing villages have become smaller and smaller, mostly consisting of a single shack.  One such shack on the side of a bluff came before me as a small miracle.  I started out in the mist of the morning with advice from an old man telling me that I should walk across a part of the desert rather that follow the shoreline because it would be a much shorter distance and the village that appeared on the map would take the entire day to reach.  Would there be houses where I could get more water?  Of course, yes, many...  Is the dirt road clear and easy to follow?  Of course, yes, can't miss it... Are there people in the village where I might find a place to pass the night?  Of course, yes, many...

Advice can be so outrageously misguided to save the pride of an old man... why couldn't he say he had no idea where the village indicated on the map was (turns out, it was abandoned more than a century ago and nothing but old stone walls remain) and that he hadn't been on that dirt road in years and didn't know what I might find?  Moron may be too strong of a word to describe the old man, but taking the advice put me in quite a difficult situation.  The desert road shown on the map - in reality dozens of crisscrossing tracks all over the place... the houses - none, so no water available... the town with no people, no place to pass the night... details details details.

Reserving my water as well as I could, the clouds burned off and the sun came out and I became concerned.  Using my compass to triangulate off the antenna masts let me know my location in reality but not on the map, so no sense of how close or far from any habitation... all day long... in the last hours before sunset, I devised a contingency plan to reach the sea again, make an emergency shelter among the rocks, possibly gather shellfish in the surf, and hope that the morning mist would provide sufficient moisture for a few sips of water.  The inventory on hand was down to two dry cookies, an orange, a chocolate bar, and a quarter liter of water.  Not a very good plan, I thought at the time, but lacking other input, it was the best I had.  Everything looks better in the morning and I could pass the night comfortably enough for contingency planning.

As I reached the sea at dusk, I saw the glow of a light on the shore to the south and quickly abandoned my plan for a new one.  A light might mean people, and people would surely mean water, and the introduction of water improved any plan.  I found the source of the light inside a fisherman's shack, with three young men watching Big Mama II dubbed in Spanish, three big dogs, and three small cats.  The men, without interrupting their television viewing, offered me water, prepared some fried bread and clams for all of us, and didn't mind in the least that I would spend the night on their little sofa once the movie was over.  The generator powering the television ran out of fuel a few minutes before the movie finished anyway.  All's well that ends well with a moral to the story being that staying by the shore increases the probability of finding fishermen with water compared to the barrenness of the desert in bloom.

I spent six days walking along the long shore encountering fishermen's shacks with jovial gentlemanly fishermen more than happy to provide fresh water and shellfish with fried bread.  What a diverse culture I've seen.

Northward, the shacks will thin out, I'm being told, but I'm good for another 200 kilometers (another four days.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Day 51 Beauty and the Beast

Nothing lengthens or hastens the stride like the promise of a new vista.  For this, I've been walking steadily northward, over mountainous terrain, with new views of the approaching desert at every crest.  The trees and livestock have thinned out and gotten shorter, a fog hugs the coast.  A foggy coast makes for inefficient trekking.  I've been meandering a bit inland, as dirt tracks and footpaths take me, though still close enough to hear the seabirds.  The cactus and other desert plants are fully in springtime bloom.

Among the transitional vegetation is a gorgous bright yellow flower on a neon green stem that is so perfect-looking, it almost looks fake.  Yet this plant is as diabolical as it is beautiful.  The stem is loaded with spikes that cling like Velcro.  Trying to remove the sticking stems is like trying to hold set something Velcro on a table while wearing wool mittens.  Sticky sticky sticky.  On an occasion to look down as I walk over hill and dale instead of at the promised new vista, perfect floral sprays look brilliant against my black hiking pants, covering everywhere like a print design.  The treacherous barbs break off the spiked stems and drive right through the fabric into my skin.  Beneath, it looks like a bad case of measels, yet in a lovely floral pattern.  Not too itchy, but a bit oozy as my skin acts to reject the invaders.  A bit of antibiotic cream, and everything is healing well, but the two-day encounter of the beautiful plant has left me spotty.  The further north, the fewer plants...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Day 45 ...and long walks on the beach

How long is a long walk on the beach?  I've been going well over 200 kms on the beach since leaving Valparaiso six days ago, sometimes in the lapping surf, sometimes among the dunes, sometimes arriba over the rocky cliffs... the noisy sea lions, squawky pelicans, flitting and chatty oystercatchers and clamdiggers keeping me fine company, along with a few surferboys owning the enormous waves.  The weather's been perfect for this long walk on the beach with constant cloudcover keeping the sun off my face for the time being allowing my nose and cheeks to peel back to the standard pink.  (Little kids still point and cry out "Mama, mira! una rubia!")

I made a command decision this morning to continue along the coast as the desert begins to overtake the verdant vegetation of the south.  I chose against an interior route that's just as deserty and away from the coolness of the coastal winds but that has more villages for nighttime support.  The coast, which I always adore, has very few villages and uncomfortably widely spaced.  I'll be picking up speed a bit.  Heading now for La Serena, dating from 1544, it's the first town settled by the Spaniards - 13 years after the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

No one's asked to take photos with me lately, so no updates there... I'll find opportunitites to ask.
Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Day 40 Bread and Water

An odd clash of cultures, a pilgrimage and Chilean meals.  Breakfast here is leaner than even in Italy - a piece of toast and a cup of coffee, then I'm off for mountainous trekking.  The main meal of the day is eaten around 2 in the afternoon, when I'm walking.  Finally at 9 or 10 in the evening, a cup of coffee and some bread with margarine and jam.  The timetables of daily meals has been out of alignment lately, and I've gone three days now on bread and a few cups of coffee.  Walking through the vineyards, I've only been offered water to drink during the day.  Not one to complain, I explained this predicament to today's parish priest when he asked if there was anything I need, and he's now preparing a proper dinner.

I've reached the South Pacific and dipped my toe in to christen the event.  Some boys were swimming in the crystalline blue surf, loads of people on the beach... the water is certainly inviting, though too cold in this early springtime for full immersion in my opinion.

The mountains plunge right into the sea and the walk involves many big ups and equally many big downs.  Santiago was as far south as the pilgrim route goes, and I'm heading north again, directly into the sun, giving the burn on my face a chance to even out after the month plus of walking west and only over-weathering the right side.  It takes some work trying to figure out the daily routes now; the towns are becoming more widely separated with fewer roads connecting them.  The Atacama Desert is the next big destination, and then the effort to cross it with the stipulations that I don't like walking alongside the highways and I have to find a house or other building to sleep in every 45 to 55 kilometers.  Still hoping to reach Cuzco for Christmas.

Pilgriming remains great!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Day 32 Over the Top

Two significant changes happened as I crossed a flowing river out of the pampas into the province of Mendoza.  First, gone the corn and wheat in the irrigated farmland, replaced by vineyards as far as the eye can see.  Second, it rained.  For three days the rain came down cold and harsh from a low grey ceiling that prevented me from seeing the approaching Andes.  By the time the clouds lifted, I was already stepping into the mountains.  Quite a shame, missing the appearance of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas at 22,800 feet, over the horizon.

Still following the old Caminos Reales, the hike up up up from 2,500 feet in Mendoza to the pass at 12,500 feet, was used throughout history by anyone wishing to cross the Andes.  Informative historical markers point out Inca ruins in many places.  Treeless and all but barren, the snowcapped peaks on either side of the Mendoza River stand out majestically - many are more than 20,000 feet high.  Tall.  A huge engineering feat, a railroad was built more than a century ago with support towns established every 30 kms or so, linking the east and west coasts of the continent.  For reasons no one seems to know, it was abandoned in the mid 1990s and the towns now complete ghost towns or inhabited by a few old timers who have no where else to go.  The land can't seem to support even a few cows.  Without the railroad, it's a hard life.  A few ski lifts dot the upper parts of the valley, but they're hardly resorts.

With many adventures - one in which I became separated from my second pair of socks - I reached the continental divide four days out of Mendoza, the last day with the greatest elevation gain and the greatest temperature drop.  I love the cold temperatures - wearing everything except my summer hiking skort and pajama top, and carrying very little.  I could do without the fierce and frigid headwind.  (Always optimistic, when it's so windy, at least I can pee standing up.)

When I arrived at Las Cuevas, the last hamlet before the continental divide, late in the afternoon, I asked for advice on how to proceed over the top... 8 kms of switchbacks gaining 5,000 feet in elevation, and at that moment, clouds forming over the razoredge ridge and snow blowing in the persistant frigid wind... 'come back in December' was the consensus if I intended to go by foot.  The alternative is the 3-km-long tunnel into Chile... no one, it seems, ever just walks into Chile.  Hoping the snow wouldn't accumulate overnight, I slept snuggly in a stone lodge under half a dozen wool blankets in front of a tiny space heater.  The morning was clear as could be yet looking up from below, the 'white wind' was blowing relentlessly over the ridge.  A degree or two above freezing is fine, but accompanied by a 60 mph wind... less appealing.  Nonetheless, I headed up the trail toward the statue of Cristo Redentor marking the peaceful border.  With great effort, I got to within a kilometer of distance and a few hundred feet of elevation before the whiteout conditions forced me to abandon the effort of walking into Chile.  Rats.  Had I a companion who knew the route, or at least some crampons... Quite a similar experience to crossing the Alps on the Via Francigena six years ago on my first pilgrimage.  I had to abandon the effort, retrace my steps, and get a ride through the tunnel.  On the Chilean side, it was clear that I never would have been able to make it down the windward trail for all the snow.  Ah well.  I tried and had a great time.

Down down down, I've reached the first village in Chile.  Much greener on this side of the mountains, the surrounding peaks rugged and inviting rather than barren and stark.  The river coming down from the glaciers along the divide runs clear rather than red from the burden of the eroded rocks on the Argentina side.  A few more days and I'll reach Santiago, then Valparaiso, and then figure out the strategy for crossing the great Atacama desert.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Day 24 Holy Thermal Baths, Batman!

Some days are long; some days are short.  It all depends on where the villages are.  After lumbering over 130 kms in 3 days, I passed to the south of the sole breaching whale of a mountain and found the active city of San Luis.  Though hoping would see more mountains beyond the mountain, I only discovered more endless views of flatland.  The welcomed difference is the dryness - more deserty vegetation, scrubby trees and cactus instead of lush prairie grasses and fallow farm fields, and most delightfully, no more mosquitos.  Anyone following my tracks would note the sudden interruption of the steady line of dead mosquitos I left in my trail.

The additional sudden change is the lack of population.  Hamlets are few and far between.  I still follow the old Camino Real, but sometimes with 25 kilometers or more between houses and drinking water.  A few scraggly cows and horses keep me company; the guinea pigs have been replaced by lizards scurrying beneath the underbrush.  Endless chatty birds.

Continuing along with the crappy map of Argentina, one dot looks like the next, though the legend says 0 to 1,000 inhabitants... in most cases, the population of the dot is on the 0 end of the scale.  Ghost towns around old railroad stations.  In San Luis, a provincial city of a few hundred thousand, an energetic parish priest insisted that I stop the next night in a village with another one of his 5 churches.  I was reluctant, being only 30 kilometers away, until he mentioned the thermal waters there.  Hard to find sweeter words to fill the ears of a pilgrim.  And me, a VIP (verily intrepid pilgrim?), had a long hot soak for my feet and the rest of me, sunburnt arms and all... it's great when these little gems reveal themselves, like cherries popping up right in front of you and getting surprise bonus points in the Super Mario Brothers game of life =)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Day 19 Some Relief

Nineteen days and close to 800 kms (500+ miles) into the pilgrimage - a distance greater than the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela - and finally, far ahead of me, some topographic relief.  A distant blue mountain rising above the horizon like a sole breaching whale.  The terrain is still rather flat, but not so much like Kansas anymore... small rises of prairieland, sand dunes covered with grasses and thorny shrubs, allow occasional glimpses of what's to come.

I'm still able to follow the old railroad beds on small dirt roads or grassy paths alongside.  I've seen some graceful big felines - pumas they tell me, but I think it's more of a generic name than species; these are fluffy and pale yellow - but mostly guinea pigs and armadillos on the ground and an abundance of noisy birds in the sky and treetops.

The tranquility increases as I head westward.  The number of villages has decreased significantly and I only see a few people during the day's walk.  It's interesting to note the vocabulary... when I ask how far to the next village (and these are villages of a few dozen to a few hundred inhabitants), the answer from the old men of the ranches is generally given in leagues.  A league is the distance that can be walked in an hour.  This used to be a standard unit of measure in all European countries - so much so that it's the same word in many languages - until people switched over to cars.  It's amusing to hear the old men speak of leagues while the young people (including me!) use kilometers.

Pilgrim duties along any off-the-beaten-track camino include the interviews.  Already, I was interviewed for a local paper Vadia, did a television interview in a town called General LaValle, and an interview during a live radio program in Vicuña MacKenna.  What is a pilgrim doing here???  As unnerving as it might be for those moments when my slowly improving Spanish mustn't fail, it's a fun part of the pilgrim experience telling people why there villages are important.  I'm following, after all, a Camino Real, where the Spanish colonists marked out their new world, rightly or wrongly, a part of history.  I've seen a few references to the Camino Real - old wayside inns - but because the current population is largely made up of second and third generation Italians, Irish, and Germans, the history is all but lost.  Another reason pilgrims are important.

A purpose of following this route to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico was to see if the tradition of Guadalupe is known in these distant parts of the Americas.  Yes, indeed, it is.  I pass Iglesias and Capillas de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe every day, and nearly every church and many private homes I've entered have the image hanging in prime spots.  To be a pilgrim to the Basilica in Mexico is to be welcomed everywhere.  The downside is, as is so often, having to carry so much food everyone insists on giving me - kilos of fruit, salami, and cheese.  Pilgrim life's not so bad!  

Thursday, September 27, 2012



envio de fotos




Monday, September 24, 2012

Day 11 View from the Flatlands

I spy a lone tree ahead on the grassy field path.  A place to sit in the shade, a bit out of the wind, a perfect place for a short rest.  It´s at least two hours away by foot.  So spacious is the land here, so flat.  Flatter than Kansas.  Grassy fields, countless grazing cows in the distance at every direction, herds of unbridled horses, uniterrupted by much of anything else..the occasional wind turbine pump to drain the land of the salty water, a small cluster of trees surrounding an old homestead now in ruins.

The land seems merely a hand´s breadth above the water level, and much of the land is inundated by recent rains with a hand´s breadth of cold floodwater I cross barefooted.  It´s pretty land, green and breezy, but broadly underpopulated, save for the abundance of chatty birds and scurrying guinea pigs.

The villages are widely spaced along this old camino real, leaving few places to sit and rest, as in under a lone tree, two-hours´walk away.  Endurance is a necessity.  The villages seem swallowed by the curvature of the earth and only appear from a distance of less than 10 kilometers.  For as many places as I´ve visited, this is new and interesting terrain.

La gente es, por supuesto, muy buena.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

photo on the go...

I don't know why this is on the side, but here's an example of kindness in-transit, a gastropub in Miami worth going to...

Day 4 A Pilgrim Once Again

Happy I am to be a pilgrim again.  (My feet ache, of course.)

Argentina has been good to me.  The pilgrimage progresses, a little slowly because of my new stiff boots, but beautifully.  Springtime here brings scented blooms of jasmine in gardens, magnolias bursting out on bare branches, lambs, calves, and colts in the great fields.  The humidity has surprised me and mosquitos are everywhere - each swat on my bare arms brings a half dozen smashed cadavers tumbling to the biomass of the earth.  Such is the world.

The days have been pretty warm and sunny - so I'm again sunburnt, more on my right half as I walk westward.  Sadly for me, the evenings have brought on the cloud cover and I have yet to see the southern constellations.  I've got some time ahead of me.

Some oddities of Argentina - greetings are made by pressing the right cheek, kissing sounds optional, no handshake involved.  Although most people are clearly of European stock, the number of times I've been pointed at with the delighted squeal of 'Rubia!' suggests that they find fair-haired blue-eyed folks something worthy of note.

Foot pilgrims are a rarity, even in Luján with their precious Nuestra Señora and hoards flocking there each year, bus pilgrims or enormous groups walking in particular week with all the logistics taken care of.  A few times now I've been told that it would be easier to find accommodation if I were in a group that called ahead.  Nonetheless, kindness prevails, sometimes with a heavy dose of persistence, and accommodation is found - a Catholic school, a mission, a hostel, a convent of retired nuns, a village church.  It's been easy as always to receive water from anyone I ask, generally accompanied by offers of food, more than I can carry, and comfortable conversation, even with my halting Spanish.

I'm happy to be a pilgrim again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Transit...

Greetings from Miami...
Transit is a trying time for a pilgrim.  I want to begin, yet I have to get there first.  Denver - Charlotte - Miami.... 36 hours... onward to San Paolo (I had to check; earlier I thought I was going through Rio) - finally, if all goes well, I'll arrive in Buenos Aires, get to the Santuario San Cayetano and begin the pilgrimage.  I'm biding my time for the prolonged hours in Miami.

I was quite preoccupied with buttoning up the pilgrimage I led to Chimayo, which included writing a book describing the route.  [Visit to find the link to Tattered Cover Press for El Camino del Norte a Chimayo.]  Now, my focus is shifted and affixed on my style pilgrimage: walking village to village through remote corners of the world toward a well-known destination.

The sketched plan for the first great segment has me crossing Argentina to Mendoza, over the Andes to Santiago, Chile, up the coast to the great desert, back to the mountains to enter Peru and aiming for Cuzco for Christmas.  Even by my standards, it's ambitious and will require a pace of 45 km per day without a break; realistically, I'll need to up it to 50 km per day to enable me to take a few short days and in so doing, rest and repair as needed.  The motivation of speed is not that I need to reach the Basilica of Guadalupe at a certain time, but more practically, I'm aiming to enter the jungles before the rainy season of spring.  If I can't maintain the pace, I'll enjoy some other destiny.  I've got to start with some plan in mind

By this time tomorrow, transit will be over; I'll have left mugginess and humidity behind and step out in late winter under the skies of the southern hemisphere.  I'll try to blog when I can and ask people to post the photos they take of me so everyone knows where I am.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Boot Resolution

The biggest anxiety in the pre-pilgrimage planning is consistently getting the boots right.  Can I get boots to go the distance (~8,000 miles/13,000 kms)?  I've got a plan...

Last winter's boots - Scarpa SL M3 - held up fairly well for their 3,000 miles/4,600 kms of rocky mountains and sandy deserts.  The two weak points are somewhat resolvable.  Firstly, the lack of cushion in the insole made for overly tender feet.  While my feet generally always recovered by morning, by the end of the daily marathons, they ached pathetically.  To resolve this, I conferred with the ever-helpful guys at The Custom Foot on South Broadway in Englewood, Colorado and got semi-custom fitted Sidas insoles designed actually for running but meeting my needs for repeated impact cushioning and arch support.  The difference was noticeable immediately.  I have great confidence that my feet will be happier.  I hope they'll last as long as the boots.

The second weakness of the Scarpa boots last pilgrimage was that the heels wore more than the rest of the boots.  I had anticipated this and carried new Vibram heels with me, supplied by the old world cobbler at Phelps Shoe Repair, to replace the worn heels when necessary.  Necessity reared its head somewhere in the Egyptian Sahara, but no where could I find someone with the skills and machinery required to do the job either in Egypt or in Israel.  With new heels, I'm sure I could get at least another 1,000 miles out of the boots.

Two right feet: 3,000 miles (top), new (bottom)
Now, with the brand new Scarpas, old Mr. Phelps devised the solution of nailing crescent-shaped heel extenders onto the striking point of the boots and sent me off with an extra set, nails and all, with which I can make my own repair along the trail with a small tube of contact cement.  I'll still carry the extra set of heels I took for the long walk last winter, though I have comparable hope of finding a so-skilled cobbler in Central America as I did in Egypt.  Can I get 8,000 miles out of these soles? I inquired of the cobbler.  Sure, why not? he resounded studying the old boots.  I feel obligated to the challenge of finding out if they'll really be able to go the distance.  Keep the heels maintained and the leather conditioned...

Part of my standard kit has always been Teva sandals that I've used as shower shoes, eveningwear, and house slippers in addition to water shoes when fording streams and rivers.  They dry quickly, soothe my aching feet after the long booted day's walk and allow me to more comfortably totter around villages or monasteries in the occasional hours between the walk and sleep.

My recent experience on the pilgrimage to Chimayo has introduced Abeo hiking sandals into my modis operandi.  They held up remarkably well during the break-in period and the 350-mile/550-km mountainous and desert-ous walk.  Their featherlight weight, openness and coolness made the miles a pleasure to walk.  The mid soles compressed a bit for the wear and the lugged tread of the outer sole wore completely down, but The Walking Company, who owns the proprietary brand, replaced them for me gratis and they'll serve as my second shoes for the big walk serving the same function as the Teva's have, but with greater form-fittedness and arch support.  They may better serve me as the primary walking shoes through the jungles of Central America than the heavy leather boots...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Plans Coming Together

I'm caught in a realm of absurd contradiction: I'm so busy planning the pilgrimage to South and Central America  that I hardly have time to write about it.  Further into the absurdity, I'm so motivated to begin the pilgrimage (ticket in hand; weather window about to open), I hardly have time to capture all that was accomplished on the last.   The pilgrimage to Chimayo successfully forged the Camino del Norte a Chimayo.  Read about it here.  It's our hope that the camino to Chimayo will be used by many pilgrims and that the pilgrimage by the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish will become an annual event.  Time will tell.  More on the other website; book to follow shortly.

I've been studying the history, geography, and UNESCO world heritage sites for months now.  I have tickets in hand to leave on September 11th to head to Buenos Aires over Miami to begin the pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe.  I walked there already from the north and now I'll walk from the south.  There's no singular route connecting the starting and ending points, but the whole region is steeped in a myriad of cultures linked by the legacy of the Spaniards over the last five centuries.

I intend to exit Buenos Aires in the direction of the famous shrine of Our Lady of Lujan then westward to Mendoza (800 wineries), over the Andes to Santiago, Chile, to the coast at Valparaiso, then ever northward to Peru, driest desert on the planet - Anacama - to be somehow crossed.  Of course, the Nasca Lines, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu are cultural must-sees, but the intervening villages are hugely interesting to me.  After Lima, I'll continue to Quito, Ecuador, and to Colombia.  Tackling the Darian Gap should be a fun diversion, and then strolls through the history and geography of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatamala before entering Mexico and enjoying the climb to the Basilica.  Except for Mexico, all of these countries will be new entries in my passport.

Maybe 12,000 to 15,000 kilometers  in total; maybe 8 to 10 months... the constraints are not too numerous.  A few vaccinations, the standard 3-month visa limitations.  No ongoing wars; pretty standard travel warnings; this should be stress-free travel compared to last winter's pilgrimage.

It's interesting that in Spanish, pilgrim is also used as a verb - peregrinar.  I'm happy that I'll be 'pilgriming' again soon.  Once I do, I'll update weekly-ish as I'm able.  I hope you'll enjoy tales of the extended winter walk this year.

Monday, May 14, 2012

What's New?

I've been back at my home base in Denver for a few months now and my silence on the blog has been my way to transition back into 'normal' life. I've been far from idle, of course, and just walking around the city to all the things I keep myself busy with adds up to about 50 or 60 miles every week.

Three exciting announcements from winterpilgrimland:

1. I'm developing a camino in the US!  Denver, Colorado to the Santuario de Chimayó, New Mexico.  I'm collecting the information about it in another blogsite -  It's a camino for everyone, stylized after the Camino to Santiago with regard to a network of pilgrim houses and support facilities.  There's a lot to organize, but I think there's sufficient interest to give it a try.  The Santuario is America's most visited pilgrim site and of the 300,000 pilgrims who visit annually, more than 30,000 walk there during Holy Week, so there is a long tradition of foot pilgrimages, but as of yet, no network of pilgrim houses exists.  Because it's new and the land is rugged and vast - 550 kms/350 miles - the pilgrim houses will only be opened for a week-long season... well, wait, enough here, go visit the site to get the details.

2. I'm a solo pilgrim through and through, but for 18 days this summer, I'll be a pilgrim leader and guide a group of pilgrims from Denver to Chimayó on the above-referenced camino.  I've got to walk it to mark the way and test out the shade stations and pilgrim houses, so I'm happy to guide all the pilgrims who leave Denver on 22 July, or hop in along the way to arrive in Chimayó on 8 August.  Anyone who's interested should sign-up on the other blogsite or contact me directly.  I think we'll limit it to around 15 or 20 pilgrims, so don't wait too long, and as I'm starting from Our Lady of Guadalupe church, there will be a lot of Spanish spoken.  The parish pastor will come along as the spiritual guide of the group and say daily Mass on the trail (in Spanish).  Any pilgrims who leave Denver in the days after the 22nd, will still benefit from the trail markers and the trail descriptions I'll leave with each pilgrim house.

3.  Finally, I'm a winter pilgrim, aren't I?  Winter will be upon us soon enough, so I'll be off again on another epic pilgrimage.  I was hit with unbounded inspiration one Thursday morning walking to a neighborhood coffeeshop to meet a friend - South America's calling... Argentina to the Basilica of Guadalupe... following the spine of the Andes right on up, through the Darien Gap, the rainforests of Central America... leave mid September, arrive late spring-ish.  Map to follow soon... A long one it will be, perhaps 13,000 kms/8,000 miles -ish, I'm not really wrapped up in the distance, just the number of villages I can visit, the cultures, the fun people, the astonished children... stay tuned for updates.

I'll be better at updating this blog to wrap up the last great pilgrimage and develop plans for the future one.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Day 149: Je suis arrivée!!

At last my feet are standing at your gates, Jerusalem.

What a long way to come by foot, passing through the wilderness, coursing through the millennia, mingling with distant neighbors.  Love your neighbor, we're all told.  Easy to do when our neighbor lives next door and looks just like us; more interesting to go far afield to meet the ones that are less like ourselves.  I've met a lot of neighbors.  It's overwhelming, really, as always at the end of the path.

It was not possible to know when I started out that I'd arrive in Jerusalem during the 'high season' when pilgrims are plentiful but accommodations harder to find - bus pilgrims, of course, I haven't seen any other foot pilgrims or even bicycle pilgrims.  Pushing outward, I found a quiet monastery of St Martha outside the walls in Bethany at the traditional site where Mary and her sister Martha lived when their brother Lazarus was raised from the dead.  The three Passionist priests give me just the solitude I need for the conclusion of my trek.  See the sights, plan the return...

I sit with mixed feelings, of course: I've arrived!  Yeah!!  Delivered from evil!!  Yeah!!  but the pilgrimage is over.  Boo =(  Time to make my way back across the globe.

Day 146: Bad Samaritans/Good Samaritans

(I wasn't able to post this when I wrote it...)

For the first time in all of my pilgrimages - over 15,000 kilometers by foot - something 'bad' happened =(  Two men tried to rob me of my leather bag that holds my pilgrim credenziale, the book that contains the record of all the places I slept, the stamps from churches and monasteries, notes and signatures from the various hosts, etc... In the souk I visited in Monastir, Tunisia, I was stripped of my reading glasses and my wee little pocket knife, but there was no violence involved, so it wasn't such a horrible experience and I dismissed it as a simple annoyance.

Walking through richly historic Samaria in Palestine, midway between Nazareth and Jerusalem, I came down from the terraced olive groves where the road winds tightly between some mountains... I like the groves, muddy though they are, but geography overrules at certain points and roadside walking is required.  Not many cars or trucks pass along the modern highway, so it's not too stressful for a pedestrian pilgrim.  Idiot drivers honk their horns as they pass, though, which I distain as much as I cannot imagine what possesses them to cause such unnecessary stress to a complete stranger... 140 decibels is unpleasant... morons disturbing my tranquility... whatever.

One of the idiot drivers who honked as he came up from behind me shouted 'where are you going?'  I waved him off and he drove away, only to return from the opposite direction a few minutes later.  The passenger got out of the car and said he wanted to help me.  I don't need anyone's help, thank you, goodbye.  He got back in the car and the two men drove off again, turning around a few hundred meters further along, and passed me in my same direction.  They disturbed my tranquilty once again stopping only long enough for the passenger to alight.  ´Imshee!´ I shouted at him to leave me alone and went from the shoulder of the road to the center, though there were no cars at that moment, if one came by, he'd have to stop.  The man told me straight out, rather politely I can honestly say, ´I want your bag,´ pointed to the leather pouch.  ´You won't get it, I'm a pilgrim and have no money, there're only books (in English)...a traveler only on foot and with no money (in Arabic).´  He laughed and said of himself, ´but I'm crazy.´ ´Still, I have no money, leave me in peace.'  The moron then made an effort to reach for my bag.  I whacked him hard across the chest with one of my hiking poles.  Though the lightweight titanium just bounced off the solid muscle, it sent the message that his petty theft wouldn't be a painfree one and thankfully at that moment, a car came around the bend a half kilometer away.  The crazy would-be thief thought better of the situation and ran off in the direction of his conspirator waiting in the getaway car hiding behind the other bend.  Then a steady stream of cars came by in both directions and I saw the car of the two men pass me in my direction again, waving a twisted fist.  I wrote down their licence plate number, for what it was worth, but the ordeal was over.  I was through the windy part of the mountains within a few more kilometers and returned to the tranquility of the olive groves and sheep pastures.

I certainly wasn't afraid of either of the morons - what could they do in the middle of the highway while I was armed with two hiking poles, two very heavy hiking boots, and a backpack for ballast?  Thieves should really think these things through a bit more.  It was just sad that after all this distance, days before completing the pilgrimage, I had to encounter 'bad' people.  There's always something 'good' about the people I meet, even if they're pesty morons.  It's hard to convince myself that they're really 'good' guys just having a 'bad' day.  Heavy sigh.  Bad Samaritans.

Continuing on, I entered the outskirts of the city of Nablus.  I asked a few people where to find the Catholic church and was pointed toward the Greek Orthodox one high up a mountain.  I asked more people who directed me to the farthest end of the city, high up another mountain.  Once again, Greek Orthodox.  Next door, there was an insurance agency.  I popped my head in the open door and asked for help.  The kindest of men stopped what he was doing to help... phone calls, directions, Google Maps... he offered coffee.  Settling on the location of the church, he offered to accompany me there since it had gotten dark.  It was back toward the first Orthodox church, which was too far for his legs, so he hailed a cab and escorted me there.  It turned out to be a Melkite Catholic church and a friend of his new the son of the priest.  More phone calls, invited in to spend the night in the rectory with the priest's family, cake, sparkling wine, festivities followed... Good Samaritans.  Happy ending.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Day 144: Closing in

Only the quickest of moments here at the computer...
I've got a whole new impression of Israel now - it's green! Not quite the 40 shades like Ireland has, but a few days of rain and all the land is lush, wildflowers, flowing water in the streams, gooey cow patties underfoot.  It's wonderful to see the Sea of Gallilee with verdant slopes full of such history... Cana, Nazareth... pick a place mentioned in the Bible, I've visited it or am about to.  Four more days until Jerusalem, unless I take another lap around the Dead Sea... Pilgrim fun, but the only other pilgrims I've seen have been the bus variety, no other foot pilgrims.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Day 137: The Dead Sea, the West Bank

Desert to fit them all in one blog? Amid covered farmland, smelling sweetly of hidden herbs and vegetables, I never would have guessed that 'sawadie-kaa' would be a useful greeting in Israel, but it's been mostly Thai field workers who supply me with requested drinking water. It's a small world, after all.

Friendliness and openness, warmth and hospitality; Israel is good pilgrimland. Two winters ago, I read whatever I could about the great Greek philosophers as I approached Delphi; now I'm strolling through Old Testament territory, and though much of it recounts wars and general violence, some of it is very intriguing being in the presence of history... I climbed high and licked the skirts of Lot's wife! Salty, no surprise. She was a big woman. Sodom's not much to write about. Gomorrah's gone, too...

After twisting my ankle on some rough terrain, I thought how good it would feel to soak in a salt bath... Doh! the Dead Sea served the purpose well, though any pilgrim will have scrapes and scratches...oooh how the salt stings! As the air is thin in mile high in Denver, it's thick a quarter mile deep, which is the current elevation of the salty surface. Breathin's been easy.

Partying with diverse groups every evening... The only challenge is the heat - high 20s/low 30s - which requires high water consumption, which adds kilos of weight to my pack. A side benefit to the Dead Sea is the protective shield of the evaporative layer... No sunburn!!!

Off to the Sea of Galilee next...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Day 130: Meanwhile, back at the kibbutz...

Delivered safely from the land of Egypt, a most exhausting country full of extremes.  Sinai was a challenge the passed much too quickly.  'Tourist Police' seem to think that the best way to keep tourists safe is to not have any.  And since they need tourists in Sinai to keep the artificial tourist cities in business, they want the tourists to stay in their all-inclusive Club Meds and travel around only in tour buses.  Like I encountered in Algeria, having no clearly written rules means that any self-authorizing individual can make up rules that suit him and there's nothing to be done to challenge the rule.  Anyone venturing outside the tourist town of Sharm el Sheik must have a permit to be there (so the Tourist Police decided.)  Walk through the mountains [where Moses and the exiled wandered for 40 years] to the Monastery of St Catherine?  Permit Denied.  No reason needed.  Denied.  Get on a tour bus like everyone else.  Not even if I would pay a Bedouin guide.  Denied,  Where are the 'Pilgrim Police' when you need them?

So off to the monastery by car - a kind and honorable young Camino graduate who lives part time in Sharm el Sheik offered greatly needed assistance... military checkpoint all along the way, very curious about my nationality.  We found out that that very day two Americans with their guide were abducted by 'bad' Bedouins and held in exchange for an imprisoned drug dealer... the Egyptians paid up thus setting the exchange rate.  Americans are high-value assets.  But I'm just a pilgrim, safer on my own in the mountains than with an unarmed security post in the car on the highway.  Isn't that obvious?  Argghh.

The monastery, anyway, was fabulous and the monks let me stay at their guesthouse gratis.  Joining the tradition, I got up in the wee hours to climb the 6-kilometer well-marked path loaded with heated rest stations and lined with Bedouin hawkers offering every sevice and commodity under the stars to aid in the ascent.  Seeing the sunrise from Egypt's highest peak and the site where God handed down the commandments is a unique experience that I shared with about 400 bus pilgrims.  Cautioned very sternly by one of the 'good' Bedouin coordinators not to reveal my nationality to anyone, I tagged along with a group from France and spoke nothing but French except to bark at the boy hawkers aggressively convincing walkers to ride their camels (the Bedouins conduct business in Russian or English).  Many of them were incessantly asking 'where you from, lady, where you from?'  I always had the idea that Moses had the mountain pretty much to himself... oh, but for a moment.

Returning to the monastery, the Tourist Police officer, wouldn't let me leave the monastery except in a car with an escort and directly to the border crossing.  I've grown so weary of trying to explain why I want to go on foot.  The fat man who couldn't walk as far as the gate of the monastery will never get it.  Though I doubt his authority entirely - he just makes up rules that suit him - the fight is out of me and I only gave him enough of a hard time to make him earn an hour of his paycheck.  Deposited at the border town of Taba, I walked the last half kilometer out of Egypt.  Robbed of the weeklong walk through the Sinai mountains, Africa is prematurely behind me.

Ah, but a half-hour interview with the senior officer of the Israeli border guards - refreshingly a woman - was deemed necessary once posed the question of what countries I visited in the last year.  I'm not sure if it was just Libya that sent me up the chain or the itinerary as a whole.  Walking on foot?  No money?? Alone??? okay, in the end, a one-month visa granted.  The clock has begun.

The scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world changed from black and white to technicolor mimics well the emergence on the Israeli side of the border... everything so clean and orderly, tidy gardens, sidewalks, pavement, no taxi drivers chasing me down, courtesy, silence, beauty... the pilgrimage is not over yet - a month to tour the famous historical sites of the Holy Land - but the dangerous part is in the past.  Delivered from dangers, the dangers posed mostly from the security forces.  The Egyptian people were by and large very good to me - where there was good, it was very very good; where the good was lacking, it was very very difficult.  Extremes.  In the first town on the Israeli side, I asked for a Christian church - none I was told - so I found a synagogue and asked a rabbi for some help.  Sure we can help you, but you can go to the Christian church around the corner if you'd like... Catholics.  People who understand about pilgrims.  No explanation needed... of course we'll take you into our home for a place to shower and sleep... ahhhh

A marked hiking/biking trail parallel to the highway... quiet, peaceful, scenic, with informative kiosks describing nature and wildlife management programs in place.. houses in orderly kibbutzes...Maps - real maps, accurate so far... maps for touring Christian sites, Jewish sites, nature trails, water points, rest stations... this is all so promising for a person on foot.  Happy pilgrim...

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Day 125: The Wadi of Wonders

The wilderness is a remarkably safe and beautiful place, a feast of visual diversions!.  I loved every minute of my walk once I finally got to a starting point I could reasonably place on a GoogleMaps printout.  I admit that with the proper basemap, a GPS unit would have given great assurance of my location, but it didn't make much of a difference.  Walk up the biggest wadi then southward across the plateau and down the next biggest wadi.  Water was the limiting factor that kept me from reaching St Anthony's Monastery by foot.

Nonetheless, I had four wonderful days in a spectacular canyon walking up the unnamed wadi eastward from the Nile.  The impossibility of my mission became apparent by the end of the first day.  The labor of dragging the sled - whooshing quietly across the sandy stretches but noisily along the rocky sections - made me thirstier than my allotment of water allowed and the added distance from the tightness of the canyon made it pretty clear that it would take a day or two longer than I originally hoped.  I couldn't haul more weight in the sled if I could get it... a donkey is really necessary.  I followed the fresh tracks of two small-footed soft-soled men, a small dog, and one camel.  I didn't think camels did so well over such rocky terrain.  Pack animal with water is the key.

Realizing this, I wasn't going to squander my opportunity in the wilderness.  I continued on to explore in solitude.  The canyon, steeply sided, sometimes even vertical, for heights of 300 meters/1,000 feet - echo-y, soaring with ravens and a few raptors, full of petroglyphs.  I copied a selection of them in my little sketchbook but the camera on this computer doesn't present them in focus, but I'll try to update this blog with a photo of my sketches when I find a better camera.  The petroglyphs are remarkably similar to those I saw in the Chihuahua desert last winter - male figures and animals mostly.  The animals here are camels - men riding on them with lifted spears - and gazelles with their graceful long horns.  Fascinating.  They suggest that people have not only visited this particular canyon throughout the ages but that they considered it sacred in some way.

The modern additions were limited to some boundary markings - Latin alphabet, not Arabic - that seem to me to be from mining surveys and a small abandoned settlement of buildings with a palm grove of sickly looking date palms.  The collection of seven or eight buildings were built within the last 30 years but look like they never were used.  I speculate that some mining firm had some ideas about the chalk and other mineral resources but it never materialized.

On the ancient side again, I poked my head into several caves in the canyon walls; one with petroglyphs as well but the passage was blocked after 10 meters.  Ropes, shovels and lighting could lead to a good time in the mountains there.  (And a partner for safety.)

The other remarkable feature that I contemplated was that the steepness, color and dimensions of the canyon walls clearly gave inspiration for the great pyramids from the time of the Pharaohs... the pyramids of Giza, less than 100 kilometers away, look just like them.  Even the step pyramids mimic the nature here because the rocks of the canyon are blocky limestone, some sandstones, silicious and calcitic inclusions - lots of chert/flint - and form natural steps.  If I were a Pharaoh with all the money in the world, I suppose I could command a mountain be built out behind the palace and expect that it look just like the mountains in the canyons beyond.

I had no problem making a camp each night - the blocky chalk makes nice sleeping platforms and a framework for my wee little tarp.  I gathered enough small branches from the scrubby vegetation to have a fire for several hours each evening just after sunset to warm my little space and heat small rocks to bring inside after the fire died down.  The temperature only dropped to the mid single digits (40s), so it's not like 'real' winter camping in the European or North American sense.  The crescent moon didn't overpower the glorious canopy of stars and my planisphere made for dimlit entertainment before bed.  A note for the 'fraidy cats out there: no water in the canyon means no fearful wild animals; the only noises at night were the occasional distant rockfalls echoing through the canyon.  Peaceful music.  Sunsets, sunrises...two days up, two days back down.  Lovely solitude.

Knowing I had to retreat back to the highway, and that it's too dangerous to walk along the highway, I exited to a military checkpoint and had them flag me down a car to take me to the destination.  Minor adventures only, but I got the the monastery late in the afternoon.  I wish I could say I was well received, but these things don't always follow script.  The monk assigned to greet all foreign visitor was a cranky old grouch and gave me nothing but a hard time.  That I'm not a regular tourist was of no issue to him; that I was on foot meant nothing.  He brushed his hands together and told me where I slept was not his problem but it wouldn't be within the extensive and lengthy walls of the monastery.  It was an ugly situation and in the end, with no help, I could think of nothing to do but sleep another night in the desert outside the walls.  I asked for something to eat - got a small bowl of cold soup; I asked for a place to wash - got a cold shower in a filthy bathroom; I asked for an extra blanket since I wouldn't have the luxury of a fire - got a stinky, mildewy filthy old thing.  Ah well, I was too tired to suggest they rethink their idea of hospitality.  A shame, though.

I saw the monastery properly very early in the morning, before the rainy dawn, and climbed up to St Anthony's cave 1,000 feet higher up the canyon wall and enjoyed the tiny space with three Ukrainians - one a priest - who were having a little service there.  Experience on my pilgrimage to St Andrew two years ago allowed me to jump right in and join in the 'hospady pomiloy' chorus.  The rest of the soggy time at the monastery was soggy as well - I dared to ask for something to eat again and got a small bowl of cold beans and some cold feta cheese.  I still had some chocolate bars and peanuts the wonderful Coptics of Cairo set me off with.  It wasn't an issue of going hungry.

The monks refused outright to tell me the way over the mountain to the monastery of St Paul of the Desert, my next destination.  They were adamant that only by paying a Bedouin guide 1,000 pounds could I even consider it, but because I'm a woman, it's far too dangerous... arghhhhhhhh
Uncooperative at every turn.... they wouldn't reason with me and I was far too weary to fight... the Ukrainians came to my rescue and took me there by their little tour bus.  I enjoyed St Paul of the Desert only as a tourist, not as a pilgrim.  Still too beaten down by mean monks to argue, I took the sympathetic and well-intended advice of the Ukrainians and carried on with them to Hurghada where I can get a ship across the Red Sea to Sinai and continue on.  I want to walk, really and truly, but no pilgrim can do it without help.  The sexist pasty monks who live in modern comfort and have never left their walls on foot were unwilling to help and the Ukrainians helped the best they could.  Ukrainians have so often been extraordinarily good to me =)

The Coptics in Hurghada are making up for the sins of their cloistered brethren (it's pretty sinful to deny hospitality to a pilgrim).  I'm being well taken care of now as I wait until the ship sails tomorrow morning.  Onward to the monastery of St Catherine, a Greek Orthodox community and I'm assured they have guest houses just outside the walls to accommodate pilgrims.  The great pilgrimage continues.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Days 69 to 102 Tunisia and Libya

069 Tunis again...
070 Tunis
071 Khladia 2053 kms
072 Zaghouan 2091 kms
073 Enfidha 2132 kms
074 Sousse 2181 kms
075 Monastir 2207 kms
076 Bekalta 2241 kms
077 Rejiche 2271 kms
078 Rejiche 2271 kms
079 Chebba 2306 kms
080 El Louza 2344 kms
081 Sfax 2391 kms
083 Nakta 2417 kms
084 Mahdas 2453 kms
085 Skirra 2493 kms
086 Akrit 2530 kms
087 Gebes 2567 kms
088 Zircene 2597 kms
089 Arram 2623 kms
090 Saadame 2659 kms
091 Chahbania 2695
092 Ben Gardene 2742 kms
093 Ras Adjir 2778 kms
094 Bukamas LIBYA 2804 kms
095 Zuara 2844 kms
096 Sabrata 2880 kms
097 Jadda'aim 2926 kms
098 Tripoli 2968 kms
099 Tripoli 2968 kms
100 Sidi Burrum 3008 kms
101 Tripoli 3044 kms
102 [flight to Egypt]

Day 118: Fits and False Starts

Thomas Jefferson said in reference to Grey's Rebellion that 'a little revolution from time to time is a good thing.' But the one here in Egypt is interrupting my pilgrimage =(

I'm still enjoying Cairo - the quarter called 'Garbage Town' - because today's the first aniversary of the revolution and the demonstrations against the interim military control has created a bit of instability among the citizenry. I've got a route figured out but need to be taken about 40 kilometers south of the city to a point where I can begin. Knowing the starting point with certainty is a key element of the successful arrival at the destination. Today's not a good day to travel, everyone among the warm Coptic community tells me. Tomorrow's better. Enjoy the Egyptian hospitality and cuisine. I can easily and enjoyably do that!

This pilgrimage differs from all the others I've made. Each time previously, I got up and walked each day, except the very few days I had good reason not to - head cold, boot repair, holiday... This pilgrimage my steady program of walking has been punctuated with extended time-outs... I've hunkered down for planning and thinking quite a few times now... would it have been the same if I had been able to start on the day of St Michael the Archangel instead of St Jerome the thinker? The point is moot. Tomorrow, inshallah, I'll finally be able to begin the desert trek - eastward up one long dry wadi to the top of a plateau then southward down another... Doh! it rained last night in Garbage Town... I hope my wadis are still dry!

Oh, and boot update... The durable, inflexible, heavy soles have been holding up remarkably well. The interior lining at the back of the heal have been troublesome having gotten warn and frayed cutting into the skin on my Achilles giving me blisters. Each repair has only lasted a short while. Calluses are thick by now, so it just doesn't matter any more. Sitting idle in Cairo, I thought I'd go ahead and have the extra heals I've been carrying put on for the last rather rocky 1,000 kilometers I face but the cobblers I've talked with don't have the tools to deal with molded soles. It's all been a folly. Lackaday!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 115: The Edge of Tranquility

Visiting the ancient monasteries of Wadi Natrum has been the sought calm after the storm - the fact that it's the placename for the sodium's symbol of Na is just a passing bonus. Both the approach to and continuance from Alexandria have been noisy and chaotic un-pilgrimy settings. I seek tranquility and nature during my daily walks; not much of it is to be found within the over-populated delta. Within the 9th century stone walls of the 4th century hermitages and monastaries where the Coptic monks carved little cells into the rock... finally, peacefulness. Ahhhh.

The Coptics, lacking the concept of pilgrimage in their culture, have been wonderful to me. More than cordially listening to my pilgrim tales, there has been a lot of knowledgeable referencing to biblical citations and historical records making for lively discussions. Though many have urged me repeatedly to stay for days or weeks - even in the ancient monasteries of men that otherwise forbid women within the walls overnight... exception made for a pilgrim =) - I'm residing for a few days in the strangely serene noisy carved-in-a-quarry monkless modern monastery of Saint Samaan the Shoemaker while the little team of workers here help me prepare for the next stage of the adventure.

In order to arrive next at the first ever Christian monastery, that of St Anthony of the Desert, I must cross the desert. (Truthfully, I could take a significantly longer route alongside a major highway along the right bank of the Nile, but I prefer the shorter and quieter approach through the Egypt's Eastern Desert.) I've calculated 5 days, perhaps 6 on a route with no water and thereby no towns. A few Bedoin families, I'm told, but the roving type who live in tents and therefore not marked on the map. I'm looking forward to this stage and have been from the time I left Santiago. I agree with the advice of the cautious Coptics that walking out of Cairo will not only be urbanly unpleasant but rather dangerous through the suburbs on the fringe. I'll accept a ride therefore to the edge of tranquility - not fully into it out into the desert, just to the edge so that I can enjoy all of the serenity on foot.

Carrying water is a necessity; food advisable, though who eats much when they have to carry it? Earlier, I thought about using a donkey for this stage but have leaned against it lately. I know nothin' 'bout donkey husbandry, and for just a short duration, I think it may be more effort than it's worth. I'll either bond with the wee animal and not want to part with it or resent it and not want to endure it. The die would be cast. A camel's out - they prefer being part of a train rather than a lone beast of burden. So I'm having the boys fabricate a little sled of my design that I can leash to my hipbelt and tug across the sand. Very simple to anyone who was a four-year-old in the snow but oddly exotic here. They're all a-tither about the idea of a woman venturing off into the desert but they're all in awe that I've walked here from Spain, so this 150ish kilometers of effort pales in comparison. Lots of support, lots of companionship in this chaos that is very smoggy Cairo.

Please note that there will be no opportunity for me to update the website, so my faithful e-visitors, don't get your undies in a knot if a few weeks pass without a new post. I'll try at the earliest opportunity, really. The monks at the monastery are aware of my plan (no one, it seems, would consider walking there from here). Everything's fine fine fine! =)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Day 112: Bedoiun Bedfellows

Wandering around in a strangely lawless post-revolutionary society has its challenges of course, but I'll find the silver lining in any situation - I've had many glimpses at ancient monuments, pre-Roman even, and all to myself. The police are gone and the military guard the shoreline... there's general immorality in the towns and when I get frustrated at the young boys throwing rocks at me, the mothers only say boys will be boys and if there are no police to stop them, then that's what they'll do. Every other society I've visited has had the parents stepping up a bit more actively in cultivating their son's behavior. Odd. But the Bedoin families have been taking me in with open hospitality and smiling friendliness under their black face-covering veils. The desert is nice when I can find it and the shoreline duney and tranquil, though absent gulls, seashells, or fishermen. Unexpected. I've passed through Alexandria and am heading toward Cairo visiting the oldest Christian sites I've seen. Otherwise, lots of date palm farms and fig orchards and noisy tuk-tuks careening along sand roads. Computers are hard to find... I'll look again in Cairo in a short week or so. Safe and sound and occasionally up to my ankles in da Nile =)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Day 105: Flight to Egypt

Rats rats and rats again, an issue of security as I approached Misrata... lacking a official visa, I was invited to leave the country 'immediately' by the Minister of Internal Affairs. Detained, deported on Day 101, onward to Egypt by minivan. The overland flight lasted 16 hours and though I saw a good deal of the Sahara in the area of Ben Waid, the mountainous, more interesting parts passed me by during the frigid moonlit night. Heavy sigh. The Libyan people I met were all very nice. The country has a lot of patriotism, a lot of natural resources, a lot of potential. One day, the political climate will be better suited to a pilgrim by foot.

Because the minivan to Egypt passed across the border at 4 in the morning, the driver wouldn't let me out until either I was with a man (no volunteers among the other 4 passengers) or until it was daylight. I finally descended about 250 kilometers over the border in a town called Fuka and resumed my walk without a hitch. New culture, new food, new atmosphere entirely, and only Arabic is spoken... I'm learning quickly; immersion is really the only effective way to pick up another language.

More later... I'm safe and well along the Egyptian coast heading toward Alexandria - 3 more days, I reckon, and not many internet opportunities.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Summary of Days 37 to 69 Morocco to Tunis

037 Tanger 1377 kms MOROCCO
038 Tanger 1377 kms
039 Tetouan 1434 kms (arf!)
040 Amsah 1464 kms
041 Taryah 1500 kms
042 Znasniche 1542 kms
043 El Jabha 1567 kms
044 Tazayrt 1617 kms
045 Raoud 1657 kms
046 Al Hoceima 1687 kms
047 Ouled Amrad 1730 kms
048 Dawar Chabe 1768 kms
049 Nador 1818 kms
050 Zaio 1925 kms
051 Tefaghalt 1963 kms
052 Oujda 2017 kms
053 Algerian Border/Nador 2032 kms
054 Aboardship 'Wisteria' back to SPAIN
055 Almeria
056 Murcia
057 Benidorm
058 Hospitalet de l'Infant
059 Barcelona
060 Aboardship 'Barcelona' on to ITALY
061 Civitavecchio
062 Aboardship 'Sorrento'
063 Tunis, TUNISIA
064 Tunis
065 Tunis
066 Still in Tunis
067 Tunis
068 Tunis
069 Tunis again...

Day 97: Taste of Freedom

Now literally on the shores of Tripoli... rainy shores with flooding in the streets... and a few minutes on the computer of the underused library of the sole remaining Catholic church in Libya.

The weather for weeks has been pleasantly in the upper teens (60F) but for the last few days downpours. I plod on, of course. People continue to be kind - finally recognized as an athlete, they drive by slowly to hand me a bottle of water, a banana, a juicebox, a Snickers bar out the window, coffee with too much sugar, when it's been particularly wet, and a hot sandwich or two... really terrific. The beach has become too interupted with industry to walk along for the final approach to the capital city, but the typical urban unpleasantness is spiced up here with colorful graffiti capturing the new found freedom of expression.

The graffiti alone is an expression, but that some of it is written in English - Libya Tastes Freedom! - and some in the heretofore oppressed Berber language with an amalgam of Greek and Cyrillic letters with what look more like Phoenician characters, is a secondary reality of the moment. It's no longer forbidden. There's a sense of law and order; I've not seen anyone with sidearms or other weaponry except for the clearly marked citizen patrols, their outfits looking more like the pages of a Cabela's catalog than Soldiers of Fortune. The citizen patrols are patriotic, dutiful, and accepted as an interim solution - so many of them told me (always offering me a chair for a rest, some cigarettes (don't smoke, thanks), and some food) - a dentist in real life, an office worker, an accountant, a mechanic... One fellow told me that the remaining outbursts are only the result of alcohol being now more widely available to people unaccustomed to it. Frat-boy behavior.

I still see fragments of the Roman road lacing together time and distance... onward and eastward...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Day 96 To the Shores of Tripoli!

And I'm in =)
Lots of negotiations at the border, hours and hours of champion-building, finally, an unrestricted stamp in my passport free to travel through Libya for up to 3 months. I'm one happy pilgrim. The people have been terrific - scores stopping to take their photo with me, happier to find out I'm an American. All the men telling me 'I'm your brother' in a warmly protective manner. It's been terrific. The only trouble has been getting internet service as the country transitions from free service for all to privatized capitalism. So, I apologize for the delayed update. I've been walking for three days, mostly along the quiet beach, popping out to the road from time to time, but to do so is to be politely and tactfully approached for a photo op. People calling out to me 'welcome to Libya!' 'thank you for coming!' 'tell the world we're free!'. Really, though I've only got a minute here on an i-phone, it's been a grand three days... yes yes yes, I'll be prudent in the unpopulated stretches, but be assured civil order exists, no violence, calm commerce, everyone's getting on with life. I'll try to update at least once a week, but the reliability of the internet service isn't a sign of bad tidings, just positive transition. Happy New Year!