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).