Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Auschwitz



I was unprepared for the vastness of it; for the endless acres of barracks. I was expecting but still shocked by the things I knew well: the mounds of shoes and the mountain of human hair (bought, knowingly, by fabric companies for half a mark per kilogram with the deaths of 20 women needed to make one kilogram. )

There were the gallows. The courtyard where political prisoners, alone and naked, were  shot in the back of the head. There was the cell where Father Maximilian Kolbe died. There were the remains of the long rooms where people were gassed and burned.

I saw the famous gate at Auschwitz with its cynical slogan, and the place in Birkenau where the people were sorted for death and a kind of living death. I stood in the place where people, clumped together, we're gassed. I touched the bunks where men slept packed so tight they could not turn, with diarrhoea dripping from above and rats feasting on the corpses in the mud below them.

But what moved me; what gave focus to this industrialised slaughter was a photograph. A crowd of Jews after the selection. A woman of about 50 in a headscarf looks directly at the camera. She holds the hand of a boy of about eight, her grandson I presume. I know the feel of those clasped hands; one large, one small, giving and receiving assurance.  They look calmly at the camera, worried but not panicked. They have about 30 minutes left to live.

There is no more to be said.


Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Camino in Snatches From 40 Conversations



Buen Camino. Good walking

!Nueva Zealanda! The Antipodes! So far!

No Hablo Espanole. I do not speak Spanish

Is this your first camino?
It's my second. Or third, depending on how you count them.

Last year I walked from Irun to San Salvadore. This year I am walking to Oviedo. I will complete my camino in about 5 years time.

I started in Irun. You?
Le Puys.
Wow! How long have you been walking?
Since the middle of April.

Are you taking the hospitales route?
It looks a bit foggy don't you think?

Perdon senor/senora. Donde es el Camino Santiago? (or el albergue de peregrinos; or el supermercado; or el bano)
Excuse me sir/ madam. Where is the Camino Santiago? (or the pilgrims hostel; or the supermarket; or the toilet)

We have made pasta. There's plenty. would you like some?

I got my arrow in the albergue in San Sebastian. The hospitalera makes them and gives them to pilgrims.

Spain is so beautiful. We love it.
Yes. But how are you finding the Basque Country?

Senor! Senor! Usted va por el camino equivacado! Sir! Sir! you are walking the wrong way!

The Mass is at 7. You wish to go? Really? Oh. Come, I will show you the way.

I'm not religious. But if there is a God, then God told me to walk the camino

I'm so sorry to hear about your wife. From what you have told me of her I know she was a very special person indeed.

I would like to come to New Zealand. But not yet. Perhaps when I am older. I am going to Cambodia soon. Some people there are working with orphans and doing really powerful work. I wish to be part of it.

I am not religious. But for me the camino is a spiritual journey.

I too have prostate cancer

That last 5 km seemed more like 15 to me.

The best thing for blisters is a syringe. You can get one at any farmacia.

Aloe vera cream works very well. Here, take some. I have plenty.

Your passport and credencial please. Name? Nationality? Ah! New Zealand! Such a beautiful country! You have come so far!

Are we still on the Camino?
I'm not sure. I haven't seen a yellow arrow for a while.
Look on your app.
Oh darn. We're quite a way off.
Look. The Camino runs through that village. If we follow the N-634 we'll rejoin the Camino in about 2 km. And we won't have lost much ground.
But we've lost a nice walk through that woodland.

Yes. The camino is an addiction. I have walked the path 32 times.
32!
Yes. 32. And I am not finished yet.

Bon jour!

Hallo! Guten tag!

Ciao! Buon giorno!

Where are you stopping?
Guemes. I have heard the albergue there is wonderful.

Elasticised bandage works well for swollen ankles. I think I have some to spare in my pack.

Would you like a beer?

Dos cafes con leches por favor. Y dos boccadillos tortillas. Two coffees with milk please. And two omelet sandwiches.

Tiene una cama?
Si. Adelante. Ponga su mochila ahi abajo.
Oh. Muy bueno.
Do you have a bed?
Yes. Come in. Put your pack down there.
Oh. Great!

I think there is purpose and order in everything.

I have been practicing a form of meditation for a while now. But you are a bishop. Maybe you wouldn't approve?
I too meditate. I use a practice called Centering Prayer.
Really? What sort of practice is that?
I guess you might call it a surrender practice. What is your way of meditating?

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of the living God
Have mercy on me
A sinner.

When my daughter died I couldn't believe in God anymore. All I could do was sit in the church and look at the statue of the Holy Mother. Her child, also, suffered a violent death.

Hail Mary full of grace
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for me a sinner,
now and at the hour of my death.

Thank you for walking with me today.

Gracias.

Muchos gracias.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Camino in 40 pictures.

This was a journey of 40 days. So here, corresponding approximately but not exactly to those days are 40 pictures. I took a small waterproof Panasonic camera with me and both Clemency and I took pictures with our phones. The gear, in other words was pretty basic though I am pretty impressed with the wee Panasonic. These pictures are not in order as resources for blog writing are limited but I hope they give a sense of the journey.

Stop for a snack, sunrise on day 3, on the way out of Zarautz

Winding up in the Camino Primitivo

The top of the Hospitales Route, Camino Primitivo

Bay of Biscao on the Camino del Norte

The last day. Four routes: the Norte, the Primitivo, La Plata and the Frances have now joined and there is a teeming crowd of pilgrims. Walking through a forest in the early morning, we felt like the elves leaving Middle Earth

Windmills infest all the high places. they're pretty impressive: huge and noisy, but it's hard to capture that in a photo. On the Primitivo I climbed through fog and suddenly was above the clouds. Across a valley from me the windmills were on the same level as me, with the jetstreams of aircraft streaming above them. 

A tiny chapel at dawn on the Primitivo

The infrastructure of the wind powered electricity system runs all over the place. It's ugly but, of course, I took this picture on a camera which was charged using this very system so I can't really complain.
The Hospitales Route is the highest variant of the Camino Primitivo. It is named for the ruins of 4 medieval pilgrim hostels which dot the ridge. This one is in such good repair that local farmers use it to house stock. The Spanish have a much more matter of fact approach to ancient buildings than we do. They have such a lot of them and some of their antiquities are tens of thousands of years old.

Cows are everywhere. Often kept inside but sometimes also outside, generally with bells around their necks

A couple of young Hungarians funding their journey by selling homemade cakes.

In the middle of a forest I came upon these guys doing this. What exactly? Your guess is as good as mine.
Much of the Norte is urban

And much is rural

A view from the window of the 9th Century Iglesia San Salvador in Valdedios (The Valley of God)

The church and associated monastery is the spiritual centre of Asturias. It was, when it was built considered huge and innovative. 7 bishops consecrated it and it was where the kings of Asturias worshipped.

Outside one of the 35 or so albergues I slept in. They were varied and often wonderful places of refuge and community

A relaxing ten minutes on a fairly typical stretch of the Camino Norte

Cafes aren't as plentiful on the Northern routes as they are on the Camino Frances so when we found one open we made sure it was put to good use.

Boats at rest in San Vincente de la Barquera

Beautiful though it was, the Norte had too much pavement for our tastes. 

Te Harinui made the journey though not without sustaining a small but repairable injury

Queueing for one of our three ferry crossings

An early morning shot...

...and another one. I loved being up early enough to be walking when the sun rose.

The wonderful albergue at Guemes was home to a group of people dedicated to justice for the third world. And in equal measure, hospitality to pilgrims and protection of the environment of Northern Spain.

We spent a night in a private hostal built in a 15th Century palace in Santilla de Mar. This is known locally as the town of the three lies; the name references a saint, a plain and the sea but has no connection with any of these things. 

The route presented us daily with beauty, as well as trials.


We attended mass whenever possible. this is a Saturday evening mass in the church of a tiny village.

Our whole world was contained in these small bags. And neither of us would have made it without our bastones: ie walking poles.

Camino Primitivo

Journey's end. At Muxia here was a wedding in Nuestra Senora de la Barca, Our Lady of the Boat. It was a wonderful, brooding, powerful place. The beach i mean, but also the church.

A mirrorglass selfie taken from the 1700 year old Roman town wall in Lugo. This wall is completely intact, and is a world heritage site.

Pilgrim meal. It's the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Each offers, from their pack, what small portions of food they have, and soon a bountiful meal is shared. People talk in various languages (in this case, Italian, Spanish, English and Polish) and translate for each other. After a while, as the conversation deepens, there is another miracle, that of  Pentecost, as each hears in their own tongue the marvellous doings of God.

Santiago de Compostela. We arrived in the rain and were immediately reunited with a dear friend; a member of our camino family.

A day after arriving we travelled to the wonderful city of A Coruna.

A pilgrim friend, from Majorca

The Camino is often beautiful...

...but sometimes it is not. Like life, for which it is metaphor and sacrament...

It leads us onward, surprising us with it's grace and wisdom.

Monday, 17 August 2015

At The Round Earth's Imagined Corners

It was my call and I decided that whatever happens next we do together. None of this one of us bussing while the other one walks lark. We walked into Santiago. Embraced the apostle. Prayed before his relics. Went to a pilgrim's mass. We queued at the Pilgrims Office and got our Compostela certificates. And then made a decision about Finisterre. There was 85 km still to walk, Clemency's ankle wasn't great and the forecast was for 3 days of rain. So we hired a car.

And I use the term "car" in its broadest sense. I thought I was renting a Fiat 500 but what I got was a Smart Fortwo which is actually half a car; a whole car cut in half just behind the front seats and fitted with half an engine. It's ugly. It's noisy. It's slow. With its tiny wheelbase it handles bizarrely. There is nowhere to put anything  But it's surprisingly comfy and oddly endearing and we've put a fair few km on it. The first day we drove it to Portugal. Then A Coruna (Oh my. What a city. What a city!). And then Finisterre and Muxia.

I don't know what I was expecting at the end of the earth but it's not what I found. Finisterre is a quaint seaside town with a marina and a nice beach. It looks for all the world like the village where Doc Martin has his escapades in the TV series.  It has cafes and ice cream stalls. There are tour buses and people taking selfies everywhere. There is a 3 km walk out along a headland to the lighthouse which we managed easily. An obliging Italian snapped a picture of us at the last Camino marker. We paid (!) To have someone put  the Finisterre stamp into our credencials and we walked back.

Then we drove to Muxia. The town there isn't a tourist trap so it's one of those gritty working fishing villages which dot the coast of most countries... well not Switzerland, obviously, but you know what I mean. There is a headland to walk along here also, and at the end is a beach strewn with enormous boulders upon which the Atlantic crashes and roars. There is a large church - Nuestra Senora De La Barca ( Our Lady of the boat which is evocative for a fisherman's church) - at which a wedding was taking place. It is a powerful, majestic, brooding place which seemed a far more fitting final destination for this pilgrimage than Finisterre.

Except I suppose that the whole point of pilgrimage is that it doesn't end. That what happened for me over this past 40 days or so is a part of  a bigger process and is held within a bigger journey.  Finisterre is no more the end of the earth than any other point on the surface of this small wet ball on which we live. I travel here to learn the truths which can be seen anywhere if only I will look. And like all spiritual practices pilgrimage is a means to help me do just that.

Today we leave Spain and I doubt we will be back. I have a hankering to walk the longest and hardest Camino of them all, La Via De La Plata, which begins in Cadiz and walks 1100 km across two mountain ranges and the hot dry centre of Spain. But really, at my age, who do I think I'm kidding? 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Hospideria

So here we are in the Hospideria; a sort of upmarket pension built into the old seminary, just across the square from the great cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. We've made it. Both of us. I'm writing this on my phone. Don't expect technical accuracy.

A lifetime ago, on July 14 we walked from Irun on the first day of our intended journey along the Camino del Norte. Of the approximately 800 or so fellow pilgrims setting out on the Camino Santiago on the same day, 700 would have been starting somewhere on the Camino Frances and the rest of us were scattered over the other dozen or so routes. About 30 started the day on the Norte.

The temperature rose during the day from the early 20s to the mid 30s and the path climbed and dipped alarmingly. I sweated. I swore. We climbed through a forest and down through a fishing village of simply ridiculous quaintness. We caught a tiny ferry across an inlet and climbed a set of steps. Then a hill. Then another one. And another. The path underfoot was concrete and was casting back almost as much heat as the sun overhead. I staggered into the shade of a tree and stopped, knowing that nothing but nothing could shift me from that tiny dark oasis of almost cool. And then I threw up. It was an Olympic gold medal display of power expulsion,  a physical emptying of my self and a harbinger of the emptying on all other levels that his camino was to become. And much improved by my relinquishing I picked myself up and walked on up the hill. As you do.

The Camino Frances proceeds mostly through impoverished rural Spain while the Norte, for the most part is through affluent Coastal Spain. The path moved from town to town along a stunning coastline of beaches and coves and bays. The Bay of Biscao is an accessible playground for much of Southern Europe so the seaside towns and cities were full and well groomed and pricy. And paved. We ventured into the hills and forests and walked a few soft tracks  but mostly we walked on concrete. After about 500 km of it Clemency's ankles began to give out. We changed her shoes which was helpful and we changed track.

The Norte is very developed. The old villages have been restored and the small holdings have been generally carved up into upmarket subdivisions. Even walking the cliff tops above the gorgeous beaches we were usually in sight of some large town or other. And in the hills the native forests of oak and sweet chestnut have long gone, being replaced by more profitable eucalyptus or pine. At Sebrayo we made the decision to turn left and follow the Camino Pimitivo through the Pico Europa. At this stage Clemency caught the bus to Lugo to rest her ankles.

So for eight days I walked alone. And it was truly an experience of aloneness that was as deep and rich as my recent silent retreat at Snowmass. Few enough people walk the Primitivo and most of those that do are Spaniards or Italians. Although many pilgrimz had a smattering of English and I have a few words of Spanish, I met not one native English speaker. There were a  one  or two pilgrims in their 40s or 50s but almost everyone was in their 20s or 30s. Everyone was friendly and inclusive but separated by age and language  I generally walked and ate alone. I kept company with a small group of Hungarians, one of whom spoke some English. I was alone but not for one second was I lonely. This struck me with some force at 6 one morning when I was walking alone in the pitch dark in the middle of a thick and tangled forest and suddenly realized how ludicrously happy I was to be there. Three times in the very early morning I faced down large farm dogs on the loose and vigorously defending their respective patches. Apart from the initial startle of an unexpected bark close at hand in the half light I can't say I felt vulnerable. Mind you a couple of well placed bastones (walking sticks) were pretty helpful.

The Primitivo was tough. I climbed to about 1200 metres with steep ascents and descents most days. My girth shrank. My strength increased. And the path faced me with my limits and in the dark quiet spaces of myself, unaided by words or images, much was resolved and set to rights.  Then after a 39km walk I climbed a hill into the Roman city of Lugo and was reunited with Clemency. The Primitivo had done it's work with me but there was one last, pleasant stage to follow.

Over 5 days I walked to Santiago with the one who has shared my life for over 40 years. It was an unhurried ramble through 100 km of the Galician countryside with the person who knows and understands me best in the world. We talked. We laughed a lot. We slept in some fairly memorable albergues. And yesterday we walked in the rain into this holy centre of La EspaƱa Bonita. For me it was anticlimactic. The height of my pilgrimage - physically, emotionally and spiritually- was at the top of the Hospitales route on the Camino Primitivo, and yet I still wept to see the towers of the Cathedral rising above the shops on my left.

Last night we had a meal with our dear friend Catherine (that's French Catherine as opposed to American Catherine or daughter Catherine) with whom we had walked and connected at depth. We sat at a full table of new friends, drank good deep rich fruity Spanish wine and ate things we would never even try at home. We listened to Galician folk songs and an incomprehensible Galician play. Then went to bed to process this, one of the greatest experiences of both our lives.

I can never hope to explain what this encounter with the path of miracles has wrought in me. Over the next few weeks though I will post a few things which perhaps might give a taste of it. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Anticipating

So I fill my pack. The buckles snap shut with a familiar click. The textures of clothing and folding metal; the rounded shape of the top pocket; the light press of the straps on my shoulders ; the weight of it; they are all so known and so redolent with the feel of senda under my shoes and the heat of the Spanish sun on my back.

I am longing to be there, where each step is a simultaneous welcome and farewell. To hear a dozen different languages everyday and have my English met with uncomprehending stares.  Where everything I encounter will be seen for the first and for the last time. Where I am surrounded with antiquities and walking with familiar strangers.

This time I wish to enter as fully as I can into the path. I have a deep sense of call to this journey. I don't know what it is going to mean but I know that it is something about endings and that will be significant.  So I don't intend to blog or tweet or facebook. It was difficult deciding whether or not to take a camera: in the end I decided I would ( a little waterproof Panasonic) but not so much as a way of making a record or sharing the experience as a way of helping me to look and see.  Unless you share DNA or office space with me you won't have contact details. My children will have them, as will Debbie, but for anybody else I will drop off the planet on July 5 and reappear virtually in August sometime and in early September in corporeal form.

Packing

This morning I assembled the gear I will be taking with me on the Camino del Norte in just under 2 weeks time.

My gear list is:

1 Osprey Talon 44 pack, with hydration bladder, pack liner and pack cover
1 pair Salomon Cosmic boots.
1 pair Teva sandals
3 pair socks
2 pairs lightweight hiking pants with zip off legs.
3 T shirts (1x merino, 2x polypropylene)
3 pairs underpants (polypropylene)
1 lightweight merino pullover
2 lightweight hiking shirts
Waterproof jacket (lightweight Marmot  Goretex )
Waterproof overtrousers
1 season sleeping bag (packs down REALLY small)
Oilskin hat
2 neck scarves
Large enamel mug
Folding cutlery set
Headlamp
Clothespegs
Lightweight hiking towel
Toiletries
Cell phone and charger
Waterproof, shockproof camera and charger
Small notebook and pen
1 copy of Perazzoli and Whitson's The Northern Caminos
Various documents
Small medical kit to treat blisters, headaches and other ailments I might be prone to.

I also need a knife big enough to cut bread and sharp enough to slice tomatoes. Obviously these characteristics would lend themselves to my slaughtering the crew and flying the plane to Baghdad, so I'll need to buy that in Spain, probably at the same time and place when I get the large stick suitable for leaning on and scaring dogs - and also of course for jihads.

After getting all this stuff together, I set aside what I intend to wear on the plane and packed the rest.
So far, so good. Now for the moment of truth. I weighed it.
Darn! 120 grams over. I want it under 7kg so it can go as cabin baggage on planes. EasyJet who we will be using in Europe are particularly fussy about this.  I can easily solve the problem by wearing my raincoat on the plane  and putting the notebook in the pocket. Just the thing for a Spanish summer.