Saturday, August 10, 2013

Day 331 Arrived!!

Whew, don't much care for urban pilgriming, especially across one of the largest cities in the world, but I arrived a bit after midday today at the Basilica de Guadalupe and got the last stamp in my pilgrim credencial, walking an incredible 13,008 kilometers (= 8,083 miles) across 12 countries in 11 months.  Wow.  I'm a happy happy pilgrim, but have only a few minutes on the computer at the moment.  More later.  I'm safe and sound after this 6th great pilgrim walk.  ttfn

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day 320 Finding Posada

Awake any given morning with no idea of where you'll lay your head that night - this is the standard for the   off-piste pilgrim.  Every day's a new day and rare are two days alike.  Some days, finding accommodation is an event filled with excitement, like opening a Christmas present; other days, it's a foot-dragging, why-is-everyone-treating-me-like-this? struggle.  Frankly, on the rare days when everything seems to fall out of place rather than into place, I'm sure do a post-event review to seek out the root cause. The commonality's clear: I'm sometimes just tired and cranky.  Doesn't the world tends to reflect our own image back on us.  Whah.  So be it.  Most days are exciting and fun, fewer days are endurable bridges to the morrow.  Here's a sampling of recent experiences in Mexico:

Day 303  Arrive at the parish church at the first town in Mexico.  Priest not around, group meeting for choir practice figure out the solution - a missionary nun is in a village not far away - ten minutes by car - they'll drive me there and introduce me after practice, the nun has no phone, it will be a surprise, but it's the best and only solution we have.  I accept and later meet the nun who's happy to host me for the night.  We go to a neighbors for tacos, then chat over decaf coffee for a few hours;  Wash self and clothes in a cistern of rainwater and sleep under mosquito netting in a small concrete room bare but for a cot and folding chair.  In the cool dawn, make coffee, eat crackers, take some fruit left for me and let myself out hours before the nun will arise.

Day 305 Arrive after a long slog through scorching hot humidity - filty from the sweat and grime of the jungle walk.  Find the parish church, the office, no priest, a young man (Victor Hugo) arriving for choir practice.  Explain, show credencial; he confers with others and came to the conclusion that I should come with him to his home for the night, wife and small children agree.  Pile into the family tricycle pedaled by Victor Hugo for six blocks to the two-room hut in a family compound of various aunts and cousins living separately but together. Hand pump 5 gallons of water from the garden well for me to wash clothes and bathe quickly under attack of mosquitos.  Eat 'chinese empanadas' - known to us further north as potstickers - and white rice from the local take-away.  Sleep under netting on the children's bed next to the parent's bed the four occupants share for the special occasion of hosting a pilgrim.

Day 308  Fail to make it to the planned village for the day's jungle journey, not knowing the distance exactly and not having a map, relied on conversations with locals who know nothing of time nor distance, especially in the jungle where they're afraid to walk because of the 'tigres'.  (I've as of yet only seen harmless little pumas as far as felines go.)  Approaching darkness, find a collection of huts on a large cattle ranch and ask, almost beg, for posada.  Much discussion among the ranch hands and their families, each wanting someone else to take responsibility because the wives are reluctant to talk with a stranger - really? a lone tiny exhausted woman at sunset in the jungle... what are you afraid of?  Right, of course, sleep here on a spare bed a hut with a middle aged ranch hand who's a trustworthy guy, really, or here on a sofa on the veranda with a fan to keep the mosquitos away.  Accept the sofa option with glee.  Wash clothes and self in a cistern quickly in the near darkness.  Given a dinner of fried chicken and beans washed down with a tasty beverage made from hibiscus flowers.

Day 310  Cities are difficult places to find posada - too many possibilities, each often pushing me off to another, and the dreaded homeless shelter - euphemistically called 'Albergues de Peregrinos' in Mexico.  Ugh!  Parish church, priest not around, helpers insist I go to the 'albergue'; ask about religious houses.  Yes, only one is in town, given wrong address, ask repeatedly in the streets of the market, find the house at the Catholic high school.  Ring buzzer a million times, finally arrives a Sister who opens only a little panel within the door, above both of our heads.  She insists I go to the alberque, but I equally insist that it's not a good place for me because - having experience in several countries now - the other people are fascinated with the things on and in my pack and I can't get any rest because I have to guard everything, even my boots, all night long.  Other difficulties, too, such shelters are no places for pilgrims.  She understands but is on her way out.  I'll be back at 7:30 pm, she assured me, if you don't have another option by then, return and ring the buzzer with this pattern of three buzzes, so I'll know it's you, and you can stay here.  Plans fail.  From 7:30 until 9:00 I stand conspicuously on the dark street, buzzing with the pattern every minute.  She never arrived. Two elderly ladies walking arm in arm come to me with hesitation and explain the sisters will never open the gate after dark (this I know from loads of experience, too, but we had a plan...).  I explain the situation with a bit of desperation in my voice.  No fooling, I'm a pilgrim, look at my credencials, I need a place to stay, but not the homeless shelter, just until dawn, don't care about food... okay, sit tight, we'll figure something out... minutes later, they return, instruct me to come with them around the corner to a small hotel - Lupita (diminutive of Guadalupe), run by a woman from the church who's happy to give me a room for the night and dinner (you're so thin! eat! eat!).

Day 313  Excruciating heat and humidity dragging alongside a small highway... a big SUV pulls up and a jovial fella named Oswaldo insists that it's too hot for anyone to be outside, get in the air conditioned car, here, talk to my wife on the phone, she'll tell you I'm a good guy, I'll drive you to the next town.  Okay, I agree, it's only a few more kilometers and a big town, a city, really, so I could use the advice on where to find a church with a priest.  Oswaldo offers me the hamburger he's been eating insisting eat, eat, but I reach into my pack for an apple instead (nearly baked)  It's too hot to eat... the wife on the speaker phone insisting that he stop and buy me food.  Delivered to the principle church, priest gone on retreat for the week.  On to the next church, priest getting ready to leave, but I beg five minutes of his time and explain my life.  Oh, okay, of course you must have posada.  I'll take care.  Let me phone a friend... oh, okay, the friend can offer a place to stay but not until 8 at night, meanwhile, I'm off to say a requieum Mass at a private home, so stay and rest here in my office, which is also my house because there is no other... nap on my hammock, help yourself to what's in the fridge, smell everything first, some of it may be off... I'll be back in a couple of hours, and if things don't work out with my friend, you take the hammock for the night and I'll take a pew in the church.  No water in the bathroom to wash; I enjoy flipping through the books on the shelf.  The friend turns out to be a medical doctor, married to another doctor, three grown children all away at university studying medicine... perhaps the wealthiest family in the town.  The uniformed maid takes my clothes and washes everything, I'm offered a guest room with ensuite spacious modernism, including hot running water, the first I'd seen since Colombia.  At dawn, far too early for the doctor or the maid, as instructed, I helped myself to kitchen like it were my own - organic drip coffee, yogurt and granola for breakfast, fruit for the road, properly clean clothes.  [A few days later, Oswaldo pulled up alongside me again in his SUV and hands me some fruit and a cold sports drink (icky) through the window, offering a ride but understanding I liked the walk.  Still more days later and he drives up again, this time with his wife at his side and insists we all stop at the next roadside restaurant for early lunch so his wife can hear all about the pilgrimage first hand.  Funny, unpredictable things...

,,, I could go on and on... every day's a new day, every day's different, now 320 days into this pilgrimage, it would be a long blog to describe them all.  The days in between the ones I've described here were more routine, find the parish priest, offered a cot or hammock or bed in a room at the parish house, wash in a cistern of cool water, usually on a rooftop, enjoy conversation... A taste anyway of what the end-of-day is like for a pilgrim.

So close now, only 11 days left, I estimate, and have a route worked out, higher altitude, much drier climate, heat yes, but the luscious dry heat, free of mosquitos.  I'm much less cranky these days =)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 309 Where are the Mad Dogs and Englishmen?

The midday sun seems to rise early and last until well after sunset here in the barb of Mexico.  People kept telling me that El Salvador and Guatemala would be the hot zones and things would cool off in Mexico. Liars.  Things haven't cooled off yet and I crossed the border 300 kilometers ago.  Every day in the week since I crossed into Mexico, by midday, the temperature has been past 40 - climbing beyond 105.  I haven't seen any mad dogs or Englishmen, but iguanas abound, and colorful lizards and snakes - bright green ones, like my shirt - beautiful birds with funky headdresses and flocks of great white herons, and on the toothier side, an uncomfortably close crocodile... lots of chattering wildlife with me out in the midday sun, along with the giant white humped cattle called cebú, yet I'm the only one dripping with perspiration.  The dryness of this particular rainy season hasn't helped.  In another week, I'll start climbing the mountains to Oaxaca, which is at 3,700 meters and can't possible be so hot, right? 12,200 feet?  I cherish the ascent.

Rivers abound, too, and as I've been following an out-of-service rail line, many bridges have been washed away.  On the first that I encountered, a steel trestle lay on its side in the water far below the sheered rails covered in jungle grasses.  I contemplated the alternatives, backtracking is always the very last option, and began to think that the dreaded highway would be the better camino here.  But, using my hiking sticks as machetes, I plunged into the thick with determination and whacked my way down the steep slope (a prime location for seeing snakes) to the water's edge and judged it passable if I could manage to stay on the big submerged rocks, otherwise it would be too deep for me and my backpack.  The trestle itself was more of a rusted danger than serviceable avenue.  Three rocks into the wide river and I realized I needed to rethink the method.  The clear and refreshingly cool water was running too swiftly to stand on a rock even with the water there up to my knees.  Back to the shore, I took a page from Huck Finn and constructed a little raft from broken bamboo and other branches lashed together with the vines conveniently hanging from high tree tops awaiting such a use.  How wonderful it was to doff the boots and socks and outer clothes and swim and lunge my way across the river, very much in over my head, tethered to my bobbing little raft.  I beached the raft on the far side and swam for another 15 minutes, rump-bumping through the whitewater.  Adventures like these are so fun to relate after the fact, but at the time, quite alone in the jungle, quite far from any village or vaquero or road, there was a bit of apprehension, to be sure.  With the success, it turned out to be a great way to beat the heat even for short breaks.  I've crossed many rivers each day, but now that I've seen the croc, I'm a bit more apprehensive again.  Prudence.

Twice in a week I've heard of another pilgrim!  An Italian on pilgrimage from somewhere north of Mexico to Brazil.  He passed through some months ago.  He's got a credenzial like I do, but pulls along some type of little handcart instead of a backpack.  I'm curious to know more about him, but we've so far only passed two places in common - Ciudad Hidalgo and Pijijiapan.  How exciting - in all this distance from Buenos Aires, I haven't heard of any other pilgrims.  Buen Camino, Pelegrino Italiano!

I've got a route pretty well worked out to Oaxaca, and based on distance, it will take 12 days more to reach the goal.  August 10th, looks like it.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Day 298 If it's Tuesday, this must be Guatemala...

I've been hiking quite a pace through hot and hilly Central America, but how can it be helped?  The towns the explorative Spaniards left behind are not spaced 40 kilometers apart, as is the norm for a colonial day's walk, but more consistantly closer to 50 kilometers.  It's a pleasant stretch of the legs I can't complain about, but by the time I get to a town, find the smiling assistance I need who will get me tucked into a parish house, convent or private house for the night, clean up and eat, there is just no time to even ask if there's internet available.  In these 18 days since my last blog, I've logged more than 800 kilometers, an average of 46 per day - and in such heat and humidity! though when I climb the shoulders of the dormant volcanoes, into plantations of coffee trees and rolling fields of corn, the cooler climate is welcomed.  Honestly, except for devoted sun-worshipping pilgrims, I can't recommend this area for long pilgrimages because of this brutish combination of heat and distance... It's hard to image why the Spaniards pushed forward to establish more widely spaced towns here.  Optimistically, I look forward to slightly cooler temperatures as I head northward into Mexico.  Another five days of walking and I'll be at the final border crossing of the journey.

Don't go thinking that I, the intrepid pilgrim, want the pilgrimage to end soon - no, no just the heat, and Central America is always hot, so it's unavoidable.  I had thought that walking through during the rainy season would be a bit easier than during the dry season - sound planning - but it's been a rather dry rainy season everywhere I've walked, one everyone is blaming on global warming and we're all somehow serving collective penance together.  Next pilgrimage will be deeply in winter where the world is covered in snow, so soft on the feet.

A highlight of my walk since the last blog has been the stopover at the Santuario de Esquipulas, the first night in Guatemala.  I stayed with the fellas at the Benedictine Monastery and Seminary and was lulled by the chanting within the stone walls.  Further on, I passed through a valley town called Mataquescuintla after a 2,000-meter descent and asked about a brilliant white church on the opposite mountainside.  A sanctuary, I was erroneously told, that compelled a visit.  There I found 32 nuns, with white habits and lispy northern Spain accents... quick to recognize the significance of the scallop shell on my backpack, they ushered me to a seat at the table, offered cafe-con-leche and bocadillas (little sandwiches) and to put a stamp in my credencial.  Their mission of the last 11 years since the house was founded has been perpetual adoration - for 24/7 a minimum of two nuns kneel before the monstrance to adore a consecrated host.  Perpetual anything is something to be admired... perpetual.  Eleven years may not be much, but someday, centuries from now, its significance will count for a lot, and they plan to continue for all time, eternity, without ever stopping.  You've got to start somewhere.  Something like the first pilgrimage begins with the first steps, and now I've tallied more than 30,000 kilometers (and at roughly 67 strides per 100 meters, that's...more than 20 million steps in this pilgrim life of mine).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Day 280 Tossing Money to the Wind

Strange place, Nicaragua.  Hot, for sure and the rainy season's been delayed, so it's much hotter than the usual oppressive levels.  I've just got a minute before a dinner of beans and rice in a humble little house of four generations... the secretary of the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe wouldn't hear of my sleeping on a bench in the very dirty parish hall (thank God!) and invited me to her home which she shares with her hoot of an octagenarian mother, her own kids and three of her grandchildren.  The delightful geriatric, wearing the local costume for women with an ornate lacy apron, told me that she was sure she had 20 or so grand children and 15 or maybe 20 great-grandchildren, who can keep track.  But she's proud of all of them, she announced.

I noticed right from the entrance to Nicaragua that there was an unprecedented amount of change on the roadsides, even along the dirt roads in this land of lakes and volcanos (two erupting gently nearby as I write this).  I pick it up, of course, to buy some bread that I prefer over the ubiquitous corn tortillas.  Only the large grocery stores will take the small change, the little shops give me the bread for free rather than take the aluminum coins.  Why is this? I've asked a lot of people.  We don't value the coins, preferring paper money. Nonetheless, the coins have value, I insisted to one vendor of bread along a village main street. Please take the money for the dinner roll I wanted.  He took the coins and literally threw them onto the street in front of a mototaxi.  Odd behavior.

Gotta run, but the border with Honduras in another day...

Friday, June 7, 2013

Day 267: Moving Ever Northward

The difficulties of Panama are far behind me now, more than 500 kilometers.  I've finally gotten all of the tale told and tallied, accessible either from the blog post or the list of pages to the right.  Forgive the typos and misspellings and roughness; conditions are never ideal for word processing during a pilgrimage.  I'll polish it after I get to Mexico.  I'm behind on updating the Route Day-by-Day on the right, but I'll get to it soon.  My little notebook took a beating through the jungle and though the pages haven't dried yet, the ink smeared quite a bit.

Funny thing as I traveled through the west of Panama during my stipulated 10 days to exit the country - at every one of the routine military checkpoints and again at the border crossing, every time they asked to see my passport and I explained my unorthodox entry through the Darien, it was always met with cheers and signs of pride and respect.  I was a bit nervous at the final encounter with the immigration authorities at the border as they demanded I enter the office rather than speak through the window like everyone else.  Uh oh, more trouble... no, an offer of cookies and coffee, sit, relax, pilgrim.  I got an exit stamp from Panama in my passport, absent its entry stamp which nicely balances the entry stamp from Colombia, absent its exit mate.  Ah well.

Costa Rica lives up to its name.  The lifestyle and culture reflect its relative wealth.  Still finding no other long-distance pilgrims, there is an annual pilgrimage to a shrine of Los Angeles near the capital of San Jose.  Every year, thousands trod along highways in early August to reach the beautiful old enormous church made of wood, though here, instead of being called peregrinos, they're oddly called 'romeros', and many establishments have signs out front offering free coffee to romeros on foot.  That's me =)

The heat of the morning is washed away with the violent storms of the rainy season afternoons.  I don't mind.  Costa Rica will be behind me in another week, then a quick succession of Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador before hitting Guatamala and finally Mexico.  Revised estimated arrival is August 7th, San Cayetano's day.

I had a small celebration this week as a downpour hit suddenly along a lovely mountain road through a national protected area.  A short distance from a town, a fellow pulled up in a jeep next to me as I was frantically pulling my raincover over my pack.  Jump in, there's a café a few kilometers ahead.  Get out of the rain.  You bet.  Over coffee and a giant pancake served cold and eaten with fingers, we celebrated my passing the 10,000-kilometer mark.  That's a big number.  Whoo-eee.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Hi Ann,

I met you on the road just after you left Tolé, I was on my bicycle.

I wish you a beautiful trip further on and I really think you are doing an amazing trip, which I have told the whole world I have met about :) 

Keep strong out there and enjoy every footstep, soon you will be in Mexico City... 

I have attached the photos I took. 

Best regards,
David Larsen


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Day 241 And the pilgrimage resumes!!

My detention was the cause of the long delay of this post, so it wasn't my fault.  Well, in fact, it was my fault, but it was unintended.  I've had a time of it.  In summary, the few days it took to cross the famed Darien Gap were a small adventure compared to the 19 days I spent detained in the system.  I spent my time productively and wrote about it in detail.  Unfortunately for the reader, the resumption of my pilgrim life gives me only limited computer time, so the story will be in installments for a short time.  It's all written, I didn't think to bring along an executive assistant to do the word processing duties, so give me a few days.  All is well.  I'm happy.  Free with the stipulation that I remove myself from Panama by the end of the month.  I promise to have the full story uploaded before then.

Buen Camino!
(Kids, don't try this at home.)

Crossing the Darien Gap

(How not to do it)

Rumba en la Jungla
Down one river...
...and up another

Into the Colombian Darien
Out of the Panamanian Darien

Military Post 1 - Paya
Military Post 2 - Boca de Cupe
Military Post 3 - Meteti

Chapter 4: Hell's Beauty Salon
Sweet Smell of Freedom

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Safe and Sound

The Great Silence was not my intention.  The Darien Gap is a veritable Grand Central Station of international travelers.  I passed safely with no wild adventures in two days.


I was poorly advised by not only Colombian authorities but also by a missionary priest – all helped me find the land route to Panama.  No one told me that I’d be taken into custody by first the Panamanian military, then the Immigration Authority.  I’ve been detained since May 2nd.  Lacking a phone or money for a calling card, I haven’t been able to contact anyone, much less update this blog.


I am well and should be liberated soon(ish) and on my way northward.  When possible, I’ll update the blog with the details of my “captivity” – much more adventurous than the jungles of the Darien.


This email is UNCLASSIFIED.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Day 222 On the Go...

Only a second here on a computer this evening...

Passing through Santa Fe de Antioquia was a pleasure - though it's about the same age and general history, I'm still surprised to see how similar it is to Santa Fe, New Mexico... the Plaza Mayor surrounded by two-story wood-framed thick-walled adobe buildings, park filled with local artesans selling their crafts, artist studios, restaurants galore, tourists abound.  Fascinating.

This part of Colombia has proven to be pretty comfortable pilgrim land.  Medellin is a clean and tidy city, modern and bustling, like Lima, and very livable.  I chanced to meet a family man who invited me to his daughter´s highschool graduation party at the house.  I accepted, of course, and enjoyed an afternoon's minivacation from the pilgrimage in such comfortable surroundings with pleasant conversation with the various guests.  Despite the temptation to stay the night in great comfort, I moved on instead to the convent of Franciscan nuns in Medellin in order to get critical information regarding the location of their missions in the Darian Gap.  Onwards, now, toward the thick of the jungle, three more days until I encounter the last town (or maybe four days) and then footpaths to the unmapped tribal villages.  Stay tuned.  I'll try to blog once again before I'm totally off the grid, but expect at least a week to ten days before I pop up somewhere in Panama.  A solid plan.

gotta run!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Day 212 Tour de Monde

With the half decent map I finally found, I can study the countryside placenames on my little breaks... What a world tour I'm having: I've passed through Florida several times, Los Angeles a couple of times, Pensylvania (sic), San Francisco, San Antonio and Las Vegas... plunged into Depresión and out again, then further afield into Siberia, Armenia and Palestina.  Maps are fun when they're accurate.

Unfortunately, the Colombian maps I've seen so far are only for the principle routes between the big cities.  I've yet to find something for the upcoming Darién region that stands between Medellin and Panama.  This will likely be the most difficult part of the whole pilgrimage, and I'm looking forward to it.  FARC activity seems to be at bay at the moment and the real dangers that exist are the wild animals, particularly the alligators that I dread, and getting twisted around in the thick jungle.  Controlable risks.

I've seen many snakes on my descending walk northward, but though as long as my leg, only as thick as my thumb... nothing to fear.  I've also seen many scorpions holding their little claws up as I walk by and scurrying sideways along the logs and ground vegetation, but I've asked often and always been told the same - they're harmless.  The ugly armor-headed vultures are the only creatures that have pestered me, but I'm just being prejudicial because of their red-headed cousins who plagued me so in the Atacama Desert.

Even with the Darién still a wild card, I can reasonably forecast my arrival in Mexico City as in the first week in August - 68% confidence between July 29th and August 3rd; 98% confidence between July 25th and August 14th.  I can't estimate the total distance until I'm through the Darién, but I'm more that two-thirds of the way along.  Hard to believe I've come so far.  The heat of the Colombian lowlands is offset by the beauty of the enormous flowering trees and the scents and sounds of the thickening rainforest.  What's not to love?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Day 202 Microclimates and Microcosms

Still bouncing between 2,000 and 3,000 meters (6,500 and 10,000 feet) of elevation on my daily strolls, I've crossed through a remarkable variety of weather and climate, even within a single day.  Snow-capped active volcanos within a degree of the equator... who knew?  Wool overcoats for the city-dwellers and wool leggings part of the various native costumes in the tropics... again, who'd have believed it?  Fragrant eucalyptus trees grown for firewood.  Love it.  Even a long valley of rolling slopes covered with cactuses and other desert vegetation, in the tropics?!  Variety and surpises.  Who could ever get bored walking through such a place?  (Maybe someone with small lung capacity would struggle a bit.)

Crossing the equator occurred without fanfare for me after Palm Sunday in the title-worthy UNESCO city of Quito.  I spent the night in the five-hundred-year-old convent of the Poor Clares, a cloistered order of nuns who were a real hoot and happy to host a pilgrim-ette.  After being fussed over during dinner and then breakfast (eat! eat!), I was sent off in the morning with several kilos of fruit and small loaves of bread with cheese and hard boiled eggs.  On the quiet secondary highway leaving the city, I sat for a sheltered picnic in a light rain where I judged the equator to be, though lacking an informative sign, and celebrated the 35° of latitude behind me, only 20° to go.  The overcast prevented any magical shadowplay.  Now, already 400 kilometers north of the equator, I absolutely appreciate that the sun is on my back far more often than on my over-pinkened face.  I'm confident that the frontal sunburn I've cultivated over more than 6 months walking northward in the southern hemisphere will finally fade to the normal shade of pink.  (I've overheard more than a few little children audibly whisper to their mothers 'but why do we call them white people?')

Walking northward through the border, I crossed into Colombia without much ado on the day before Easter.  The border is open for citizens of both countries so only the handful of travelers enter the immigration building for the passport control.  Onward to the first city, Ipiales, I found that not many of the shops were open except the innumerable restaurants, where guinea pigs roasted on sticks over hot coals marked the festive atmosphere.  Pass.  Finding no tourist information office nor any shop open for a map, I continued on mapless to the Santuario de las Lajas as planned, more gorgeous in person than even on the Wiki page.  The Franciscan nuns accepted me openly, put me to work helping with last-minute arrangements of the altar decorations, and then fed me abundantly.  Dyed Easter eggs, tender beef, crispy French fries... maybe it was just the holiday, but there appears to be more of a culinary interest in Colombia than parts south, the yen for guinea pig notwithstanding.

Finally, decent coffee, a beverage here treated with respect and reserve rather than a side thought involving instant dehydrated crystals.  After stopping for hospitality at the Franciscan seminary in Pasto, I can say that as much as I love the Colombian coffee, I find the Capuchinos much sweeter =D  (They took photos and promised to send them to the webpage.)

Continuing on the ancient path, now Panamerican highway, I'm wandering through great green mountains draped with patchwork parcels of coffee trees and banana trees, corn stalks and everpresent potato mounds to the soundtrack of waterfalls hidden beneath the oversized undergrowth and chatty birds hidden in the treetops.  Lovely pilgriming.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Day 187 Volcanos, lovely

How quickly the terrain changes with a bit of elevation difference.  Within days of walking, gone the lush jungles, arrive the clearcut pastures with picturesque Jersey cows grazing on broad verdant slopes.  It looks like Wisconsin.  Days more of walking and the scenery changes to tall picture-perfect volcanic cones dripping with waterfalls, cascades, and cataracts.  Active, too, emiting gases and glowing at night.  These have largely remained hidden in the puffy white clouds, yet from time to time, the bitten-off peaks appear.  The swirling clouds that shroud can be playful boas encircling the throats and shoulders of the mountains as I walk by.  I spent a day walking through rather fresh cinder, in areas plowed through as deep as a house.  Dusty grey powder and nothing but a fashion faux-pas to wear black pants as I do, freshly laundered, too.

The short daily distances I've got mapped out to reach the Santuario de Lajas exactly on the day before Easter have gotten to me - what do I do with the rest of the day?  Because it's not my comfortable pace, I gave myself a day off in the cute mountain village of Penipe where Franciscan nuns runs a shelter for evacuees from the local volcano, Tungurahua.  Despite the nightly glow, there are no evacuees at the moment, so I had the place to myself and three nuns attended me with diligence.  One of the nuns, a sweet babbler named Salvadora, insisted that I stay a week, and I compromised by staying two nights.  From a local indigenous group, she holds many secrets of the herbal world in her head and produced a tasty and effective infusion of several herbs to cure all complaints of the stomach: chamomile, lemon verbena, lemon balm, dandilion leaves, and corn silk, snipped fresh from the ear.  With the day of rest, I can now resume my comfortable pace of a marathon a day.

Funny thing, a good number of people have been offering me chocolate Easter eggs for the road =)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Day 177 On the Way

My full energy returned after just a few sluggish days in the soft rain and I'm a happy happy pilgrim once again.  Unfortunately, Ecuador doesn't have the through-going network of dirt roads connecting mountain villages that Peru has and I'm sort of stuck following the main north-south highway, which is never so beautiful as the countryside paths.  Elegant modern houses fill the clean villages and dot the hillsides... why?  I've asked a dozen different people the source of the prosperity that makes Ecuador look drastically different than the neighborhoods south of the border.  It's because of the US, they all agree.  People go and work in the US for some years and bring the money back here to improve the quality of their hard-working lives.  The US dollar is the local currency - they don't even bother to print their own parity equivalent.  Amazing.  Clean and tidy everywhere, the children in particular are extraordinarily well-mannered and greet me individually.  What a difference a border makes.

Here are a few fun statistics for the pilgrimage so far:
    • Argentina 32 days 1,326 kms
    • Chile 51 days 2,243 kms
    • <Atacama Desert 36 days 1,575 kms>
    • Peru 83 days 3,363 kms

      I'm heading for Colombia a little slower than my normal pace so that I can end up at the Santuario de Lagas for Easter, just on the other side of the border.  Pilgriming on major holidays is usually challenging, so finding a shrine or monastery is important.  I copied this image from the Wikipedia page... not a bad place for the Easter Bunny to deliver a basket full of chocolate eggs.  (Hope springs eternal.)

      Saturday, March 2, 2013

      Day 170 Forced Rest

      Finally, Ecuador presented itself beneath my eager feet, in a soft warm rain and a lot of mud in an oversized world.  At first, I thought that the leaves on some of the undergrowth were big enough to diaper a baby, then saw others I thought big enough to blanket a baby, then others big enough to blanket me.  Always interesting.

      My last night in Peru was spent in a village called San Ignacio de Loyola, my old friend from Spain.  I read his autobiography a few years ago and read of our commonality... severe stomach pain during a pilgrimage.  I experienced it first when I went to Santiago de Compostella, again in Crimea, and lastly in Istanbul.  I thought I had it beaten, attributed to Vitamin A D E or K deficiencies and affecting the upper digestive track.  I try to be careful about what I eat, but it's not always easy when you eat as the locals.  The Peruvian countryside diet is very meager in fat and meat.  When I arrived in Ecuador, an entirely different plate was presented - fresh whole milk instead of canned sweetened evaporated milk, 5 or 6 ounces of beef rather than an ounce or two of guinea pig or chicken in soup... richness.  I ate a rather small portion - the priest kept insisting 'eat, eat', but by nightfall, I was flat out with a rock in my stomach.  I made it through the night but in the morning, the folks at the parish office called the doctor (housecall!).  He gave me the magic shot in the rear, which arrested the constant vomiting, and prescribed rest.  I thought that would be that, as it was on the other occassions, and after a calm and restful second night in the same bed, I set off with the blissful satisfaction that it had passed.  Fooled!  Another small meal of beef and rice and milk in my coffee was enough to cause another fitful, painful sleepless night.  After walking some distance by foot, I moved ahead a town by bus at the insistance of the (rather frightened) parish priest to a hideous tourist town of expat Americans and Brits but with a regional hospital.  There, after a refreshing bag of intravenous saline, they diagnosed it as gastritis and sent me off with some tablets to set me right.  Poor Saint Ignacious, what was he to do when moving from one gastronomic palate to another?

      I now have a map of Ecuador and am working out a route that includes the famous sanctuaries and historic places and will rest for the day before continuing on my pilgrimage tomorrow, after days of interruption.  Life's still good, of course, loving the pilgrim way.

      I can't say for sure, of course, but I think I'm at the halfway point at just over 7,000 kms.  In Peru alone, I passed more than 3,400, more than any other single country I've walked through.  Immediately in Ecuador, the ugliness of 'gringo' is gone and people are far more inclined to smile and greet me as I do them.  Nice.

      Saturday, February 23, 2013

      Day 163 It's a jungle out there...

      Funny how in one day months ago, I rose up out of the beige desert and into the green high Andes, and now, in one day, I've dropped down out of the green high Andes and into the green lush jungle. Passing through some unknown altitude, I hit a wall of humidity that made my hair curl so fast, my hat fell off.  The change in vegetation, birdsongs, and crawling insects seemed to happen over a single ridge.  There'll be no more shivering under a mountain of heavy blankets at night.  And, bonus, among the new verdant vistas are coffee and cocoa trees.  How fascinating the world is by foot.

      Just a few days from the border now, a level of sadness hits me every day as the racial overtness is harder to ignore.  As I pass through a village, nearly everyone stops what they're doing and stares at me with silent vague intensity; someone invariably and anonymously barks 'grin-go' with ire, and often then spits.  From every car or truck that passes, a sullen shout of 'grin-go'.  Here, the term simply means 'white person', and clearly used as a racial epithet by many, though not all, people.  This is added to the general nonverbal communication devices such as whistling to get my attention (as if I'm a dog being called to come), banging incessantly on car door or tabletop, and most irritating, wailing on a car horn.  Could they really hope that once they're hailing me so rudely - and never with a pleasant smiling 'hola, señora, buenos dias' - I'd have any interest in a conversation.  It tries on one's patience and has become more aggressive as I've traveled northward.  Few people will utter a word to me until I offer a greeting first.  Still, I manage to ignore the morons and find cheerful and better mannered people to banter with every day and haven't had any difficulty in finding accommodation every night.

      Even I am surprised at the distance I've traveled in nearly these 6 months.  I don't know yet what the total distance will be, but I've been figuring that the border with Ecuador will be about the half-way point.  I estimate that I've spoken directly with somewhere close to 8,000 people since I started this pilgrimage, not counting the impossible-to-know number of listeners to the various radio stations I've given interviews.  In terms of global population, it's nothing, but in terms of the efforts of one little pilgrim, it incrementally contributes to the betterment of the world, no?  And what a great adventure I'm having in the process.  The world needs more pilgrims.

      One amusing comment on my northern Peruvian sojourn... the ending 'bamba' on many of the placenames signifies something like 'town' or 'ton' in English placenames and is used so commonly paired with other onomatopoetic syllables that it's utterly confusing to follow conversations regarding directions (which, of course, I have to have every day).  Piscobamba, Pomobamba, Cajabamba... My frustration totally evaporated when I passed a village called - and I could never make this up - Shitabamba.  Laugh out loud.

      Sunday, February 17, 2013

      Day 157 All's Well

      The high country of Peru persists underfoot.  It sometimes seems as though a strange tectonic event keeps pushing Ecuador ever further from my last stop, but it's the serpentine nature of the footpaths and roadways that makes progress seem snail-like.  I'm walking happily every day through long valleys and over high passes.

      I wonder what the classic poets and authors of the Age of Enlightenment would have produced if they could have walked through the Peruvian Andes... in any given day, I climb and descend thousands of meters of elevation, mostly along the Inca Trail, but sometimes along the dirt roads where mines have cut through the ancient trail or it's otherwise obscure.  Along the bare rock face of one enormous mountain, I counted 27 sharp switchback turns for the unpaved 'highway' on the opposite side of the valley; I prefer climbing on foot than driving that oversized zigzag.  At the top, over 4,000 meters, the temperature is cool and the air brisk; at the bottom, over the roar of a rocky, muddy river, less than 2,000 meters, the humidity is oppressive and temperature soaring; somewhere in the middle, an horizon of clouds separate the extremes.  Plodding up or down on foot, there's little time for changing clothing layers - hot below, cold above.  It's a workout, and a great one, too!  What would Dante have written?  It's like traveling the seven levels of the heavens, with villages at every horizon.

      Two slightly untoward and unprecedented events have passed since the last update.  One day, I failed to reign supreme in the routine battles with dogs.  One got me in the ham.  I was high up along the Inca Trail, populated by isolated clusters of two or three rock huts.  The trail is so easily obscured in the rocky country above the treeline, that I go pretty far out of my way any time I see a person to talk with and confirm direction.  In this way, I approached a hut, smoke rising through the grass roof, and a big dog barked as usual.  Two small children were outside playing in the mud, so the dog was doing its job.  I was shouting hellos to the hut occupants, but before an adult could come out, a second big dog came running from behind the hut - and ignoring all rules of battle - noisily passed under my waving trekking poles and grabbed me full force on the back of my thigh.  What force it had!  Such strength!  I whacked it across the ribs and it released its grip just as the mother of the kids came running, spoon in hand.  The dogs ran off, the kids cried, the young woman had no idea what to do.  I dropped my pants expecting gushing blood, but though red and quickly swelling, there was thankfully no penetraton through the skin.  The woman said the dog was old and had lost most of its teeth.  A nasty bruise lasted a good long week and the soreness did little to interupt my gait, so all's well that ends well.  I can't blame the dog for doing its duty.  I hope it doesn't happen again - better to get bitten by no dog than even a toothless one.

      The second unplanned event happened because of bad advice.  What can be done?  A priest told me it would take 10 hours to walk from one small town to another.  The maps I have are unreliable at best, so I always ask.  Even though the distance on the map looked a lot longer than a 10-hour walk, I liked what the priest said, so I believed him.  The Inca Trail led upwards from the village through another, and another, but was then in high country (4,400 meters) across a broad wet valley, marshy with lakes and barren of trees.  I wasn't sure what pass led to the inhabited valley on the other side of the mountains and what passes led to more unoccupied isolated valleys.  Beautiful country, nonetheless.  Knowing I would be alone for most of the day, I made of point of asking everyone I saw in the morning to clarify directions.  Everyone seemed to indicate the distance to the next town was very great, but no one offered a time estimate.  After 12 hour of steady uphill walking in the rain, I came to the end of the path - it just ended in the grass.  Getting dark, I eliminated the idea of continuing without a path.  The last people I saw were hours and hours below.  I came to the end of a day without a village or even a house for the first time, and in a cold rain.  Poohey.  A few kilometers below, I remembered having passed two abandoned stone huts.  I made it to them just as the last glow of rainy twilight faded.  Shelter, fairly dry, musky smelling, but adequate for the situation, even comfortable.  In inspecting my home for the night, I shone the flashlight across the inside of the framework of the grass roof and startled a bat hanging upsidedown from the main beam.  Uck - not a fan of bats, though I appreciate their role in the foodchain, I'm offput by the erratic flying, which it began immediately.  Quick inventory of the cupboard which is unavoidably my backpack - can of tuna, small pot of beef, tube of sweetened condensed evaporated milk, instant coffee, tea bags, saltines, a pear, an apple, and an orange.  I wouldn't starve.  I attempted to make a fire from wood from the little doorframe, and succeeded enough to heat water for a cup of coffee, but the funny thing about altitude, low oxygen makes for a poor fire, blue flames, in fact, and not very hot.  I gave up after the cup of coffee, changed into dry clothes, made a bed of some of the soggy grass from the interior of the roof and passed a rather uncomfortable night with my unwelcomed bedfellow flying the length of the little hut erratically until dawn.  (Just as the flame of the last candle flickered out, the thought popped into my head - don't vampire bats live in South America?)  In the morning, rewarded with a glorious view, thick white clouds below, of the reflection of a thickly snow-covered mountain across the lake.  I retreated to the last family of shepherds I had seen, got coffee, hot food, and instruction on how to find the footpath to the right pass and how to find the elusive village that was 18 hours distant by foot, not 10.  The priest must have gone on horseback.  Another pilgrim adventure.

      Still headed toward Ecuador... another week? 10 days?  Less sparsely populated, so hard to gage.  I'll try not to let so much time pass before the next update.  Thanks for the comments!

      Saturday, February 2, 2013

      Day 142 Incan Trunk Road

      'Thus said the Lord: Stand at the crossroads and look.  Ask for the ancient path and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.' (Jer 6:16)  But Lord, what if there's no one to ask?

      I retreated successfully to the old Incan trail to use as the corridor to Ecuador, but it's not always easy to find and it's taking me a bit of time to make forward progress with the interruption of roundabout searches when the way becomes obscure on the rocky flats.  Nonetheless, I've climbed into some of the most beautiful valleys I've ever seen - green and lush (a bit too lush at times and rather overwet), adorable square or round stone huts with shaggy grass roofs, a step back into time that hasn't been compelled to modernize much beyond an occasional solar cell sticking above the shaggy grass roof, no doubt to keep cell phones charged.  Every few hours, I pass some shepherds or llamaherds, or people sowing rows of potatoes in stone-walled plots on steep slopes.  Quetchua is the dominant language.  Some people are reluctant to send their kids to school claiming there's no need to over-educate shepherds.  In these cases, I struggle to learn much about the whereabouts of the Incan trail, though my vocabulary has improved over the last week.

      The Incan trunk road construction tells a lot about where the Spaniards colonized.  Many sections of the road include stairs cut into the white limestone formations.  While the Incans, lacking beasts of burden, lacking therefore the need for carts, lacking the need for wheels, built their roads for people to walk along, the Spaniards, dependant on their horses and carts stayed far away from the stairs of the Incan roads and to this day these sections are populated sparsely by people living in stone huts accessed only by foot or, now, horse.  These places haven't changed; no car or even dirtbike have entered these areas.  Tranquility abounds.

      I'll try to continue along the Incan trail, though towns are very few and very far between.  Internet access is difficult to find, so updates will also be few and far between.  Loving the pilgrim life, difficult as it is.  Sanitation in the little stone huts is just what it was when the Spaniards arrived.  The inhabitants are friendly and accommodating, insisting I stay as their guest, sharing a meal of mutton or llama soup with rice and toasted corn kernels, sleeping on a makeshift bed of lambskins piled on the dirt floor, the guineapigs scurrying about all night long, and washing in the cold mountain springs.  Primative but peaceful.

      Europeans come through in pairs every three or four months, several have told me, walking the length of the Incan trail, but carry big backpacks and camp out, never entering their homes, and rarely even speaking with them.  The Quetchuan limitation I can understand, but they say that the Europeans don't speak much Spanish and seem unfriendly and afraid of the locals.  What a wasted opportunity.

      Monday, January 21, 2013

      Day 129 Flurries in the Updraft

      Just as I climbed into the uppermost bowl of the high valley, the clouds parted to reveal the heavenly blue sky and the warmth of the sun.  The panorama of the rugged Andean arêtes dotted with grass-roofed stone huts would chime yet another successful advertising campaign.  It lasted moments and then the wind blew more stinging flurries in the updraft of the deep pastural valley full of lakes and llamas and I was again enclosed in the billowing white clouds.  Altitude (5,000 meters) trumps latitude (12° S), even in summer.

      In this mining district, the ground littered with sparkling pyrite and chatoyant cuperiferous minerals, I chose to pass through the last of the high ranges toward Lima by way of the railbed rather than the muddy highway ladened with oversized haulers, tires taller than myself.  Snow falling and in the company of late-season snowmen, the idea of walking the last kilometer through a rail tunnel rather than take a few hours to scale another arête on a narrow trail was marginally appealing despite the obvious dangers... hot soup and coffee with three outpost workers responsible for the tunnel stalled the decision until it presented its resolution with the arrival of a service cart just as we finished the midday meal.  Motorized rather than operated with the hand pump depicted in old cartoons, it was still a bit of an adventure passing through the long, dark tunnel in a tiny open cart, and much safer than passing through on foot to the arid environment on the Pacific side.

      An astounding 16,000-foot descent to coastal Lima in little less than 130 kilometers - 3 days on foot, in the updraft snow above and cold rain a bit further down, into the coastal fog.  Steep and rugged the mountains, deep and narrow the valleys, phenomenal the engineered hairpin turns and pigtail loops for both road and rail... and lovely little villages compelled by curiosity to help a pilgrim.  I'm always well received.  Again, I appeal to pilgrims: flock to Peru, shrines, history, chewy meat and Incan trails await.

      Lest I oversell, the reality includes a dearth of showers, or even hot water, or even any water for washing except the cold streams, and of any source of heat.  The last ounces of excess body fat burned of long ago and up above, I shivered myself to sleep under piles of weighty Alpaca blankets most nights.  The locals, accustomed to the year-round cold of the high country are heavily padded by adulthood and wear layer upon layer of Grandma-knit wool sweaters - rarely idle are the hands of the country woman of Peru.  They scoff at my thin synthetic clothes, which keep me warm as long as I'm moving but do little when I'm sitting still; yet, bulky sweaters don't fit so well into a backpack quickly headed for vast tropical jungles...

      Northward now, back into the cooler high country and colorful cultural history... Ecuador in 3-ish weeks, with fresh soles on my hiking boots =)

      Thursday, January 10, 2013

      Day 119 Calling all pilgrims...

      Calling all pilgrims, Peru is a great place for an adventurous foot pilgrimage, for Spanish or Quechua speakers, in really good physical condition, who can comfortably divorce themselves from giant yellow arrows, and can come to enjoy/endure the ubiquitous bone-in guinea pig that appears at every meal. (Describing without cultural judgement: these guinea pigs are generally raised in the kitchens, free-range on the packed mud floor, reproducing at will, dozens scurrying around, pooping, cooing incessantly, nibbling grass strewn about twice daily, and suddenly, a few are missing and it's time for dinner...)

      This region either side of Cusco stands out from all the other places I've walked because there is a sufficient number of villages for periodic rests and reliable potable water supply, the people are kind and welcoming (though not so inclined as to offer refreshment without first being asked), and the history and culture rise to meet your feet.  The altitude and daily elevation changes add challenge.

      Before the pilgrimage, I had the idea that Peru in particular would be a place similar to Mexico, since they share a common history of having a strong empire and complex culture in place when the Spaniards arrived - the Spanish colonials arrived in Mexico City in 1521 and in Cusco in 1531.  However, other than the similarities of the general appearance of the colonial-era towns, they're quite different from each other.  I have the sense that the divergence of the Spanish cultural impact was the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The experience of the Native American, baptized as Juan Diego, in 1531 in Mexico City sparked a mass conversion of the natives.  Once converted to Catholism, the Spaniards intermarried and established a firm mixed culture.  In Peru, there were several apparitions in diverse localities before the end of the 16th century, but none had the widespread impact as OLoG.  While the work of the missioneries resulted in many conversions, there wasn't the emotional devotion in Peru as in Mexico.  Today, not many people in Peru know who OLoG is, there are relatively few practicing Catholics, few shrines, annual feast days aren't centered around a patron Saint.  The present culture of Peru is fascinating and diverse, but not as similar to Mexico as I had thought it would be.  Interesting.  And for this reason too, a particularly savorous place to make a village-to-village pilgrimage.

      Walking village to village as I do, without a map to speak of, I tend to show up in unexpected places to the shock and amazement of the locals.  I ask the shepherds for the footpaths and sometimes just take their vague advice - 'over the next mountain is another mountain, over that mountain is a stream...follow the stream down to the village, there you can meet my cousin and stay in his house for the night, or better, rest there for a week'.  Though in this sea of mountains, over every mountain in another mountain, but good enough direction for me, and off I go - the worse that can happen is not so bad.  Often enough I find remnants of the Incan trail - a properly engineered path wide enough for two to pass, zigzagging up and down the high mountains.  Sometimes, though, the non-Incan paths aren't engineered beyond a hoe-scraped line traversing a steep slope making for a rather daring passage.  Don't look down.  I climbed one a few days ago, in a light rain, passing a young goatherd... the little boy and I had to take hold of each other as we delicately passed so neither would risk the 1,000-foot can't-see-the-bottom deathdrop - ok, so on the list of quals for the appeal to pilgrims above, add that it's not a place for acrophobes.

      And I walk with joy and happiness...

      Oh, and just when I'm comfortable speaking Spanish without having to think about it first, I'm now in a region where Quechua is so engrained that not everyone I meet during a given day remembers their Spanish from their schooldays...I'm picking up some words, can ask for water and almost discuss the location of paths, but to my dismay, the language apparently lacks a word for 'pilgrim', so it's not possible to say 'Hi, I'm a pilgrim!' in the local idiom.

      Friday, January 4, 2013

      Day 114: Ups and Downs

      I'm high in the mountains again, making my way toward Lima along the old Incan trail.  Ups and downs like I haven't seen since the Atlas Mountains along the Moroccan coast.  It's beautiful here, and more densely populated than the area southeast of Cusco.

      The only adequate map I was able to find in Cusco lacks the detail necessary to find a route each day, so I'm still asking the locals.  It's inefficient, but really pretty on the verdant mountains with the steep patchwork of fields ripening with corn, wheat, potatoes and other veggies unknown to me.  I rise and fall thousands of meters every day along footpaths and dirt roads with locals toiling in the fields, plenty of livestock - though now too low for alpacas - misty humid valleys, windy crisp mountains, afternoon thunderstorms... Try as I could to avoid the inevitable, guinnea pig is the most common food among the mountain families.  Not at all like chicken.  The pilgrimage continues happily, though slower than I sketched out, so Lima is weeks away.  Beautiful.