Monday, June 3, 2013

On gums and bums

5.00 a.m. It's something you have to get used to on the Camino, being woken at insane hours, grumpy at the chorus of nasal trumpeters who've kept you awake half the night. Every night I have the earplugs at the ready, and every night they get inserted, fall out, get taken out because I feel like I'm suffocating via hearing-deprivation, get cursed, and despite my best efforts, get lost or swallowed during the night by the angel of mercy! Your typical pilgrim hostel is dormitory style, which you share with anywhere between 4 and 100 people. Neither privacy nor modesty belong on a pilgrimage. They're first world luxuries. Being woken to the sound of backpacks being dragged across the floor, zips opening and closing, plastic bags being rustled, walking poles collapsing in a racket on tiled floors - it's not the kind of gentle introduction to the day I've come to expect and depend on. Not a morning person! I've had to process my resentment at being woken so cruelly. It doesn't get easier.

This morning I suffer the disturbance for 30 minutes, drifting in and out of sleep, and eventually get up around 5.30, my inner huff clearly audible, I'm sure. I sit on the edge of my bed, and drag my pack to my feet. If you can't beat them, you join 'em. The man on the top bunk, who I could particularly strangle this morning - the entire bunk was vibrating under the force of his gasp last night - is standing directly to my right, his hip virtually in my face, arranging something on his bed. He seriously needs to do something about the shock of matted hair on his back. Should I be the person to tell him? In front of me, at arms length, is a large German woman bent double, attending to her blisters. Her arse is almost in my face. I retreat a little further back onto the bed. To my right, another man, from the top bunk on the opposite side. Some people shouldn't wear lycra. He's emptying the contents of his pack all over the floor - why don't you take up the entire floor space you selfish sod? - while clearing his throat and flossing at the same time. I duck to avoid a projectile. Oh for God's sake! Add to this the passing traffic of people moving backwards and forwards to the dunny, and you've got a pretty clear picture of the normal morning routine in your average pilgrim hostel. I lower my head a little deeper into my pack, ferretting unsuccessfully for the bag that contains the electrical stuff, ipad and phone charger, uke tuner, batteries, and head torch. Suddenly I hear tinkle, tinkle, the sound of something light and metallic meeting tiled floor. I squint down onto the floor. A pair of dentures smiles up at me! Oh please!!!!! I look up, from one arse to another, but no-one seems to have noticed. On impulse, and wanting as little physical contact as possible with the 'visitor, I do what any empathic pilgrim would do and with great dexterity, and a further tinkle, tinkle, flick the dislocated smile back in the direction I presume it's come from. In an instant, a hand darts down into the semi-darkness and retrieves it.

I'm sick to the back teeth with it all!!

 

 

Friday, May 31, 2013

'Swing low, sweet chariot ...'

Maybe I'm cranky this morning because I drank more than my fair share of red wine last night. At $1.50 a jug, why wouldn't I (over) indulge from time to time? I stop at the first cafe I come to, only 2 kms down the road from where I stayed last night, for my second cup of coffee. The first one doesn't count cos it's from a machine. For the next 6 kms all I can think of is my feet, how much they ache, how sad they feel. It's walking on bitumen that does it; so unyielding. I keep reflecting on the fact I've grown muscle on my arms and legs, but not on my feet. They're working SO hard. Poor tired wasted feet!

So I arrive in the next village, having walked only 8 kms. I need a short day I say to myself, recover a bit, give myself a rest. But it's early, 10.00 am and nothing's open, apart from the cafes. I have my third coffee. I know. Bad! I send a text to a friend who's already reached the end of the camino, have a bit of whinge. I'm heard, and feel a bit better. I give the rose I've collected on the way to the woman behind the bar at the cafe, and feel virtuous!

I summon up the energy to keep walking. There are two options, one by the motorway, slightly shorter, far less mountainous, and one up and over the pass. 13 kms up and over the pass! I remember my note to self, no more bitumen if possible! Before I've even reached the edge of town, however, I get cranky again with a busload of tourists for monopolising the pilgrim statue and taking too long to say cheese to their respective cameras. I try distracting myself by drafting a ditty in my head to my sore feet but it lasts all of a minute. Breathe Catherine!

I begin the climb, my mind a monkey, jumping from one thought to another without the slightest effort! What's with the three married men who've propositioned me so far? How very un-Christian pilgrimage! Am I giving out the wrong signals? (fyi fellas, a woman travelling on her own, whether she's 18 or 60, is NOT an open invitation to have sex, so pull your heads in!) Why haven't I had an epiphany yet? I'm only 150 km from the end! What if I haven't had one before I reach Santiago? What then? What will have been the point of the pilgrimage? Should I continue walking? Another Camino? Will I have enough money? Why are the pilgrims who catch buses from village to village and then walk the last 100 kms entitled to the same 'certificate' at the finish as those who walk the whole 800 km? They're fake! Why are the lycra-clad pilgrim cyclists allowed on the same path as the walkers? Why don't they use their bloody bells? Will I find an albergue with a kitchen tonight to cook the big slab of fresh salmon I've got hanging off the back of my pack (thank God it's a cold day!)? Will there be wifi? Where's my Australian friend? Has she reached the end? Blah, blah, mind is out of control!

I hear the church bell chiming from the valley floor. I stop. Look back down the mountain. It stops.

Walking again, I hear the sound and stop to listen again. Nothing. For the third time I begin walking and hear the sound again. I concentrate on it for a moment, and with a start, realize the sound is coming from my pack. It's my uke. Something is moving against one of the strings inside my pack, producing what sounds like the 'C' note. As soon as it occurs to me I'm making the music by the movement of my body, something shifts in me. In musical terms, or should I say in my simplistic musical knowlege, the note 'C' is what is variously described as the 'home key', the note songs sung in the C major scale often finish in, the comfort key. I'm struck by its significance. Coming home, in the realm of a spiritual practise I've followed for years, is coming home to the present, coming home to right here, right now. In the right here, right now, I begin to practise walking meditation, breathing in, breathing out, one foot in front of the other. It's astonishing how little emotional or physical pain there is when you focus on your breath. I walk on, aware of the birdsong, the wind on my face, the sweetness of the jubes I'm tucking into, the pink clover at my feet, the smell of the wild lavender, and come back to my breath, back to one foot in front of the other.

I look down from the mountain and see the highway snaking its way through the valley. The small dark moving shapes are pilgrims moving along, risking life and limb in the traffic. In three hours I've seen no other pilgrims on the mountain. I made the right decision.

Through the ancient chestnut grove.

'... coming for to carry me home'.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thank You

Thank you for the wild red poppies and tiny daisies, the hyacinths and even the genetically-engineered canola flowers. They are my ground-dwelling rainbow.

Thank you for my fellow pilgrims, from every nation on earth, including Herman the German, Pavarotti channeller extraordinaire, whose full voice on the mountains and in the valleys brings tears.

Thank you for the chill wind that still blows from the late snow on the mountains surrounding the path, for it cools and comforts the workhorse that is body.

Thank you for the yellow arrows, those trusty hand-painted signs found on trees, rocks, the road and pavement, telegraph poles, houses, hospitals, everywhere. Priceless.

Thank you for the countless sculptures dedicated to the pilgrim. They are a reminder that this is no ordinary walk.

Thank you for Ibuprofen! What remarkable good sense to make the Spanish version three times more powerful than its Australian equivalent.

Thank you for frozen peas, nature's astonishing cold-pack!

Love, Stumpy

 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bob and Bloo and the province of the mind


A few days ago I met Bob and Bloo, two Scotsmen, also travelling solo. We've been walking together.

Bob's 73, a grandfather, salesman, and extraordinary storyteller. His stories of the personal lives of European nobility from last century have restored my faith in history.

Bloo (don't ask!) is 62, an ex military pilot, with 35 years experience in the army. Last year he had a stroke, lost his power of speech, but with dogged will and support, has regained it.

When you're walking for up to 8 hours a day, every day, the heat burning down on you, the wind chilling you to the bone, your feet navigating the rocks on the path and screaming 'rest', it tests the fibre of your being, it tests the fibre of your doing. Out on 'the way', in conversation with the other, your common day-to-day censor, fried by the sun or buried underneath the old meat and peas in the deep freeze, becomes inaccessible. Camino Dementia! You become very personal, very quickly.

Keeping pace with the two B's has meant walking faster and further than I normally would. Two days ago, while walking the longest straightest stretch of nothing to date, a 16 km gravel road with no shade, no villages, and nothing to occupy the mind but mind itself, I asked Bloo to tell me what a soldier might be trained to 'think' in similar circumstances. He contemplated the question for a little while and replied 'see that puddle ahead? How far do you think it is?'. Make a guess, then step it out, he suggested. A bit later he continued. 'The horizon, do you want to know how far it is?' Math was never my strong point, but for the sake of conversation, I nodded. His response included words like height, square root and multiplication. Try it, he said. I spat the dummy. 'I'm not playing' I replied. 'That kind of game reminds me of questions thrown at me as a child, questions I could never answer. You remind me of my father!'. OUCH! He stopped, looked at me, and the offence was obvious! Censorius Unavailabilius! What a bitch!

Some time later, falling back to walk separately, my mind attached itself to how strong I was becoming, how powerfully I was walking, and, wait for it, comparing myself with the cripples on the path. Sure, I'd had some blisters but they'd healed. Fifteen minutes later, striding along confidently, my foot suddenly, and momentarily, went numb. I was concerned for half a minute, then not. A kilometre down the road I was crouched on the grass by the side of the road, shoe off, pain searing my foot, the two B's at my side offering comfort.

'4 days, no walking' said the doctor. Tendinitis!

Bye Bob and Bloo. Thanks for the lesson.

 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Day 15: Reflections on the Camino

This morning I left the albergue (pilgrim hostel) feeling a bit flat. My right foot was sore because I'd taken lots of skin off my little toe yesterday - ten mins after my blisters had healed! - by stubbing it while enthusiastically photographing the phenomenal stork's nest on top of the church.

I walk on. Along gravel paths, through zucchini-green wheat fields and canola crops. In the past few days, as soon as you leave one village, the next is visible in the distance by its not-so-silent witness, the church bell-tower.It came to me. I was feeling lonely and full of self-pity. I had no-one to walk with. I walk at snail's pace and everyone I've made a connection with so far has long since passed. In 'Sinning Across Spain' Alisa Piper would say I'm carrying too many sins in the heavy pack on my back.

As I turn the corner on the narrow cobbled road of the next village, I'm struck by the familiarity of the woman walking in front of me. Her hair, gait, body. It's my sister. Not literally of course but I'm immediately reminded that before I left home I told friends and family I was walking with them. It's a sign. Back on the path 30 mins later, walking toward me in the opposite direction, are a woman, man, three young children, and three heavily laden woolly donkeys. My first impulse is to reach for my camera, my second, intrusion. I stop by the side of the path to let them pass, and call to the woman leading the way 'peregrina (pilgrim)?'. Si, is her response. Another sign. I'm not alone.

My loneliness passes. I contemplate ending my day's journey 4 kms further down the track, a short day's walk. There are three mountains to traverse today, and I'm not feeling particularly energetic. I reach the next village which involves a short walk along the national highway. As I walk on the narrow culvert, trucks overtaking each other, I feel vulnerable, small and quite fearful. My protection mantra gets a good work-out.

At the village, I sit with an Irish woman who was at the same albergue three or four nights ago when I played some uke. I've become known as both a witch (the woman who carries the homoeopathic first aid kit and likes to share it), and loco (crazy, for carrying a ukulele). After a short conversation I rise to leave. She gestures for me to sit down, she has something to tell me. The evening I played, she tells me, was the first anniversary of her husband's death from a violent heart attack. 'Down by the River to Pray', and 'I'll fly away', songs I led that night, were songs played at his funeral and she wanted to say how moved she was. I'm brought undone.