The Home Stretch and the Wisdom of the Feet: Amenal to Santiago

(The journey and the blog began on 4/12.  If you want to read about it chronologically, please scroll down to the beginning.  There is a logic to doing so, but the preference is yours.)

5/3         

The morning was cool but sunny, which augured well for our last leg to Santiago de Compostela, the destination of the pilgrim trail.  I felt a little electricity of anticipation, knowing that if all went as well as it had on the other days, this afternoon we would soon see the high, pointed steeples of the famous cathedral.  Still, we needed to approach the day as if it were any other day, meaning one step at a time, one after another.  We had 16km to go, and there was one more big ascent to overcome.

We were fortunate in several ways.  First of all, we had the opportunity to walk through beautiful forests again and see small churches and streams, and we even passed some farms.

Charlie and Vic lead the way.

Back in the woods.

Another precious stream.

Another small farm.

We also had the pleasure of meeting a very affable couple from Ireland, Phil and Eleanor Cussen of Tipperary, who quickly became friends.

With Phil and Eleanor from Tipperary, Ireland.

Vic and Charlie were in good spirits, eager to enjoy this stage of the journey.  Vic had been advised by a friend never to pass a church without going in.  The whole time we were on the Camino, we tried to follow his friend’s advice, and usually the church doors were unlocked.  Inside, we found peace and quiet, a welcome few minutes of rest, and inner calm.  The benefits of each of these pauses in the churches accumulated to make a worthwhile difference in the walking experience for us.

Small church near Santiago.

We also had the strange experience of walking past the runway of the airport that serves Santiago de Compostela, an airport made necessary because thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come here each year via the trail and need another way to return home.  It was a disorienting intrusion by the modern world, but we understood, and very soon we left it and a brief stretch of noisy highway behind as we entered more woods and hills.  We were headed gradually up to the hilltop town of Monte de Gozo, and the ascent reminded us of the countless hills we had climbed on our trek, especially the brutally steep and long ones of the Pyrenees on the very first day of the pilgrimage.  Because we were now battle-tested and our bodies had been naturally trained by the hundreds of kilometers that came before, this climb felt comfortable, and we found solace also in knowing it was the last one.

Pushing to climb the last big hill.

On the descent, alongside the trail on our left we saw a memorial for a pilgrim who had died at that point of the trail.  Sadly, it happened just a half day from Santiago, and the pilgrim was only in her fifties and died there only within the last few years.  It was a strong reminder of our mortality.  It was not by any means the first memorial of this kind we had seen.  I mulled this over as we continued, and I developed the conviction that a lovely spot on the Camino is a great place to end one’s life, especially if one is with friends or family, surrounded by beautiful trees, flowers, rocks, and birds—much better than a sterile hospital room of linoleum, metal, glass, plastic, beeping machines, and strangers.

After making it to the town of Monte del Gozo at the top of the final hill, we had a great lunch, which gave us fuel and rest.  From there, we began the descent towards Santiago.  First we encountered its modern outskirts, and the centuries-old city center that had the famous cathedral as its focal point was not visible yet.  Some statues and signs marked our crossing of the city limits, and that in itself was an important moment.

Walking on, we plodded through modern city streets and for the first time, part of the legendary cathedral came into view.

First glimpse of the cathedral's towers as Vic walks on in Santiago.

It was difficult to keep our normal pace and not accelerate from eagerness.  Eventually, after winding through more streets, still on the Camino trail but now in the old city center, we had our first clear look at the towers of the cathedral.

First clear view of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, burial place of St. James.

It was an impressive sight, made all the more moving because of all we had gone through to reach it.   Just then we noticed that the street we were on was Rua de San Pedro, another moment of synchronicity because for most of the journey I had been going by the name Pedro rather than Peter

A good sign.

There could hardly be a better indication that we were indeed in the right place.  This discovery was soon followed by the thrill of coming upon the Praza de Cervantes (in Galician dialect; thus, it isn’t Plaza de Cervantes), which included a bust of the great Don Quixote author atop a high pillar in the middle of a fountain.

In front of the bust of Cervantes on a pillar in the plaza that bears his name.

The next order of business was to find a place to stay.  We walked off the main street to a side street looking for a small pension, and within a couple of blocks we found the perfect one, the Pension con Encanto, a charming little place just two blocks behind the cathedral.

Close-up of the bust of Cervantes.

Pension con Encanto, our home for three nights in Santiago.

After dropping our gear, we walked to the famous plaza where the cathedral sat, the Praza Obradoiro.  It was a breathtaking sight in its spaciousness and architecture, and it was hard to believe that there it was in front of us:  the cathedral.

The cathedral.

With Vic and Charlie in front of the cathedral.

The Parador Hotel, at one end of the Praza do Obradoiro.

The other end of the Praza do Obradoiro, to the right of the cathedral.

The Pazo de Raxoi, across the Praza do Obradoiro from the cathedral.

Though there is much, much more to say on the subject, I will try to offer some concluding thoughts that I hope may be of value.  The cathedral was a great piece of proverbial icing on the cake of our journey, and that evening we celebrated reaching it with a paella dinner, but reaching Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral was by no means the end, or even an end.  I tried carefully in speaking and writing during the pilgrimage not to use the words end or final or even goal.  There really is no end or finish line.  We made it to the cathedral not on May 3rd but with every step we took with present awareness, with mindfulness, all along the way.  Moreover, we have the rest of our lives to live from the moment of standing in front of the cathedral and on into the next moment and all the moments after that.  Each moment is simultaneously an end and a beginning, and this moment was no different.  In some ways, its beauty and profundity lay in just that, in its being, at its core, really no different from every other moment.  Yet it tells us that every moment can be glorious like this one if we approach it wisely.  In addition, the peace we found and promoted along the way can be with us always, and can grow and grow if we approach our lives and ourselves in ways that help rather than hurt us and those around us.  As we walked across the beautiful country of Spain, we met people from all over the world, people of all shapes, sizes, and ages from Spain, England, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, Austria, Japan, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Sweden, France, Hungary, Canada, America, Portugal, Romania, and many other places.  All these people greeted and treated each other with kindness, friendliness, encouragement, support, sincere interest, patience, tolerance, and compassion.  They are living proof that peace and harmony are possible, that we can be peaceful inside and out, that we can get along and enjoy each other, that we can recognize the primacy of our common traits, feelings, thoughts, drives, wishes, hopes, needs, and even fears, and learn the perspective that tells us that the ways in which we differ shrink to nothing in comparison to the ways in which we are similar.  Any one of us can embody this, and if modern life and its penchant for distracting us from the truly important make it hard to live this, it’s comforting to know that all we need as one remedy for the problem is right there at the end of our own legs, those two simple feet.  We have the tools to find and spread peace and we carry them wherever we go.  All we need to do sometimes is to go the way of the foot and listen to the wisdom it whispers to us.

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Shaving, Firsts, and Uncivil-ization: Arzua to Amenal

5/2         

It was more than strange to wake up at 6:30 a.m. to a text message telling me that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  The feeling was a sense of unreality as I tiptoed around the dark room trying not to wake anyone yet.  When I finally woke Vic and Charlie, I told them the news, as smoothly as I could, and we wondered what it could all mean and what the consequences could be.  Surprisingly—to us, but probably not to Spaniards—there was nothing on TV about it.  Daily life here went on as usual, and there was a feeling in us that Osama was more of a USA obsession than anyone else’s.  We figured we’d hear and see more about it in the coming days, and while we tried not to draw any conclusions, there was general agreement that in some ways the world would be safer, but in the back of our minds we had to wonder if the reverse could eventually be the result instead.  Time will tell.

Skipping shaving again this morning got me thinking about the possible positive results if men shaved every other day or every three days instead of every day.  It seemed like an example of one small gesture a single person could make to make a big difference in the environment.  If we think about the resources and energy that go into the manufacture of shaving cream, razors, and any other shaving accessories, and the energy to heat the hot water men shave with, it seems that there could be a huge benefit to the environment with just a small change of habit like this one.  And sometimes the scruffiness felt good on the face and was a refreshing change to look at.  Again, just a thought.  🙂

While most residents were still asleep, we left Arzua by 7:30 equipped with fruit and bread for the road, and we walked through the kind of morning fog and chill to which we had become accustomed.  Our surroundings were tranquil. 

Arzua in the early morning.

 

Our goal for the day was to end up in Arca O Pino (Pedrouzo), about 20 km down the trail.  While the weather was still foggy, we walked through farmland that soon turned to forest, and the eucalyptus trees became more numerous. 

Eucalyptus trees awaiting harvesting.

 

 
We also saw palm trees in the occasional village. 
 

A palm tree.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Vic and Charlie hiking through "the occasional village."

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The day soon turned into a day of firsts.  For the first time, we were passed on the trail by men on horseback.  
 

Horses walk by with their riders.

For the first time, we saw a mushroom, and we wondered why we hadn’t see more considering the dampness of the conditions almost every day.  For the first time, we saw rabbits; there were three frolicking behind a closed trailside restaurant where we stopped for one of our ten-minute breaks. 

One of the rabbits we saw.

 

For the first time, we saw cactus.

Cactus by the trail.

 For the first time, we saw a basketball court at someone’s home (it was surprising we didn’t see more because Spain has a strong pro league and the sport is surpassed in popularity nationwide only by soccer, among modern team sports). 

A home court: its own advantage.

 

As had been the case now and then on earlier days, the trail went near or across a highway, and whenever it did, the sensations we experienced were strong. 

The trail moves near a highway.

When we saw a highway and heard its noises, we found it rather shocking:  the loudness, the speed, the danger.  It all seemed unnatural, unnecessary, and foolish, and we even felt like time travelers set down in the future, having left a very different world of footsteps, birdsong, and greenery. 

Modern madness speeds by a pilgrim crossing.

The highway was a harsh reminder of “civilization and its discontents.”  Is it any wonder that modern life is plagued by mental disorders, violence, rudeness, and more?  What is the hurry? Why do we do what we do, whatever it is we do?  Where is it meant to lead?  How often do people even ask themselves these questions and follow the sequence of questions further and further to come to the core of the matter?  If we keep asking why, we end up seeing that much of what we do is silly, fruitless, unhealthy, and even crazy.  For us as pilgrims encountering a highway, instead of hearing birdsong and gurgling brooks, we were assaulted by the roar and scream of cars, trucks, buses, and vans, and the fumes that went with them.  Their speed was frightening, but it was hard for us to know if they were speeding or if our having grown used to a walking pace made even vehicles abiding by the speed limit seem outrageously fast.  Our perspective certainly had changed, and with it came the realization that our walking pace as humans was our true natural pace.  The pace of mechanized vehicles is an unnatural pace and is undeniably a factor in the afflictions that ail us.  (One of the best things Gandhi ever said applies here:  “There’s more to life than increasing its speed.”)  Thus, when the trail wound its way back to the meadows, farms, streams, or woods, the feelings were relief, peace, and joy.

A natural place for a natural pace.

 

When we reached the outskirts of Arca O Pino, we saw another first, a full-sized grass soccer field inside a small stadium.  Until this point, the absence of soccer fields was very conspicuous to me, for Spain is currently the dominant soccer country, reigning World Cup champions and the home of the best professional league, La Liga, and the fiercest rivalry, the one between Real Madrid (the most successful soccer club in history) and Barcelona.  These two teams, by a strange coincidence but marvelous quirk of scheduling, were playing each other five times in a six-week span, and three of those games were taking place during our time in Spain.  The third time would be tomorrow night, the second leg of a two-leg home-and-home sequence in the semifinal of the UEFA Champions League, and every one of the two teams’ meetings so far had had the whole country, including us, transfixed by the spectacle.  It was a memorable privilege to be in Spain when these games took place and to see these games, even if we only watched on television and not in the stadia.  The renowned historian Jacques Barzun once said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” and it is no big step at all to alter this to read, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of a country in Europe or South America had better learn football” (the term soccer is only used in America, as you may know). 

Campeones del mundo.

 

Oddly, the trail did not go into Arca and also provided no view with which we could determine where Arca was.  We kept going thinking it would, and soon we realized that we might be putting Arca behind us, which was not our intention.  I stopped a woman out walking her dog and asked if she lived in the area, and when she said yes, I asked if Arca was behind us.  To that she also replied yes.  Indeed, we had missed the town.  The weather was warm and pleasant, and we felt strong, and so we decided to press on and simply stop at the first pilgrim hostel we saw and spend the night there.  About 4 km beyond Arca (making the day 24 km total) we came upon a nice little inn in the village of Amenal, and stop we did, the end of another full and enjoyable day.

Accommodations in Amenal.

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Eucalyptus, Yogi Berra, and the Honor System: Melide to Arzua

5/1 

 As we were leaving Melide, we saw people setting up farmers markets, one part of town for potatoes and another for green vegetables.  It was a lot of activity for a Sunday morning, we thought. 

One of Melide's main streets.

 

Setting up the vegetable market in Melide.

 

On we walked, leaving it and Melide behind.  Before too long we found ourselves hiking through gentle woodland punctuated time after time by brooks and streams.  I never tire of the soothing, hypnotic sight and sound of flowing water, and these streams were clear and sparkling; one could sense them as the circulatory system of the forests and fields we traversed, giving them their health and fertility. 

Each one we forded differently, either by walking on stones, crossing wood bridges, or crossing stone bridges dating their origins to the Middle Ages or to the Roman Empire.

More and more we began to see eucalyptus trees in the woods, sometimes in random clusters but more often in neat rows planted for wood harvesting.  The smell of the eucalyptus was wonderful. 

Eucalyptus through the oak.

Their contrast to the pines and oaks was very noticeable, though the scattered acorn caps on the trail made it impossible to forget the presence of the oaks. 

There were a few places where the trail forked, and it reminded me of one of Yogi Berra’s famous sayings, “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”  We took it, but usually we had the friendly yellow arrows to tell us which branch of the fork to take.

We came to a fork in the road, and we took it, Yogi.

 

At one point when we started to feel hunger and thirst, there appeared beside the trail an unmanned food stand offering free water for pilgrims and a variety of fruits and cakes for just 1-2 Euros each.  It operated on an honor system whereby one dropped the money in a coin box next to the food. 

Vic examines the offerings of the "Honor System" food stand.

I bought a piece of homemade pound cake that had a fruity flavor to it, and it was one of the best pieces of cake I’ve ever had, moist and flavorful, as if it had just come out of the oven.  It was just what I needed.  I was struck by the generosity and sensitivity of the people who created and supplied this food stand, and it seemed like a hint at a better world that is truly possible if we do something as simple as giving of ourselves to others and trusting them.  I remembered some houses from childhood that left Halloween candy out with a sign saying, “Take one or two and leave the rest for others.”  At the time, no one really thought twice about doing just as the sign said, even though there was no one to stop someone from grabbing huge handfuls.  This stand in the woods on the Camino was the same opportunity to spread generosity and honesty, a great and simple prescription for a better world.  It gave me an emotional lift that made the next few kilometers a bit easier.  And I wasn’t hungry anymore.

 Soon we approached the village of Ribadiso, and it might have been the most beautiful approach to a village yet.  It sits just beside a stream crossed by a medieval bridge, and the buildings are made of stone in rich earth tones sometimes contrasted with recently painted blue window frames. 

Medieval bridge into Ribadiso.

The stream, the bridge, and the farmhouse inn made a perfectly composed, colored, and lit picture.  We stopped to eat lunch at the inn and proclaimed it another Camino success for us Three Amigos.

First glimpse of Ribadiso.

First glimpse of Ribadiso.

 

More of Ribadiso.

 

Wandering through farmland rather than forests, we drew closer to Arzua. 

Farmland past Ribadiso.

 

As had happened before, occasionally we came upon a palm tree.  We ran into a few different varieties here and there, and it was always a surprise. 

In a couple of hours, Arzua’s suburbs came into view with their more contemporary buildings, and though tired we pushed on to the center of town and our accommodations.  Arzua has a population of 7,000, but to pilgrims like us it seemed much larger.  After hours of walking in peace and quiet among the forests, fields, and tiny villages, any town inhabited by more than a hundred people seemed like a huge, noisy metropolis.  The older part of Arzua was hard to find.  Moreover, rain was moving in.  We settled in at the hostel and relaxed before walking in the rain to dinner and then returning for a good night’s sleep.

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Slow Going and More: Sarria to Melide

(4/27, 4/28, and 4/29 appear below after 4/30.)

Bread, Pulpo, and Language:  Palas de Rei to Melide

4/30 

It has been very, very difficult to find internet access because we have been in remote villages, and the internet here in Melide is slow and cranky.  Suffice it to say that reading on the internet about additional violence in the Middle East is disheartening, especially after seeing people on this trail who come from countries all over the world making friends, treating each other with kindness, and making harmony look easy.  For me, this is supposed to be a peace pilgrimage after all.  I hope everyone will do whatever he/she can today and in the days to come to be good to each other.  I pledge to do the same.  Thank you very much.

The rest of the walk is dedicated to the people of what has come to be called the Great Migration, the millions of African Americans who moved in the 20th century from the American south to the American northeast, midwest, and west to escape racism, oppression, violence, and the denial of basic human rights and find a chance at a better life.  The recently published masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, is a great way to learn about this.  I think you´ll love the book for many reasons.

On this day we left Palas de Rei early in the morning and headed toward Melide, a town renowned for its octopus dishes.  Octopus in Spanish is “pulpo,” and it is available in many forms across northern Spain, but the most common version is pulpo a la Gallega, incredibly tender octopus–much more so than tako sashimi or sushi–seasoned in a truly delectable way.

Pulpo a la gallega. Delicious.

Our departure from Palas de Rei was early enough that we saw a bakery that had been open since before dawn.  We peeked into it and asked for some bread fresh out of the ovens to carry with us; we knew it would be many kilometers before we ate again.

The freshest of bread.

We crossed from the province of Lugo into the province of Coruna today. One of the real highlights was seeing an adorable newborn sheep in the arms of a farmer, and we have also seen small, lovely medieval bridges over rural streams.

Look closely and see the farmwoman carrying the baby sheep.

This medieval bridge enters the town of Furelos.

The familiar yellow arrows point the way to Melide.

One subject that deserves attention is language.  Walking the Camino shows us how important having some ability in languages that are not our native tongues can be in creating peace.  It is so much easier to understand, enjoy, and help other people if we can speak their languages.  The languages I know besides English have made this journey incalculably more meaningful, and it is much easier to make friends with these tools.  Most Europeans can speak more than one language (sometimes four, five, or six), but if their English is poor, it is very valuable to be able to speak Spanish or Italian or other languages.  The difference this can make in building peaceful connections between people is impossible to overestimate, and Americans as a rule lag way behind in this skill.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Two summers ago in China when I was there with some `Iolani students for a peace project doing community service in Xi’an, one of the brilliant bilingual Chinese staff members we were working with told this joke:  “What do you call someone who speaks two languages?” “Bilingual.” “What do you call someone who speaks three languages?”  “Trilingual.”  “What do you call someone who speaks one language?”  None of us could guess the answer, but it was:  “American.”  Though I can converse in four languages (which I mention only to make a point here and not to boast) and thus did not fit the stereotype, still I was very embarrassed for my country.  However, the way things are changing and becoming more interconnected in the world now, we have a golden opportunity to change Amercan attitudes toward foreign languages and our methods of teaching them to become much more adept at making friends wherever we go rather than enemies, and at solving problems rather than creating them.  🙂

Fatigue is with us almost all the time, but Santiago de Compostela, our destination, is only about 50 km away.

Sun, Talking to the Universe, and Age:  Gonzar to Palas de Rei

4/29 

Early the next morning we took off from Gonzar, our goal to make it to Palas de Rei.  The weather cleared very quickly and we welcomed the first fogless morning in awhile. Rain had been forecast, and thus we felt extremely fortunate that the was already sunny.  The trail cut through more small towns and farm fields, and soon we saw sheep here and there.  It was another beautiful area. For much of the walk from Sarria to this point, the rural countryside was so similar to images I had absorbed of the French countryside through pictures and movies that I had to remind myself that I was in Spain and not France (the 18 hours I spent in St. Jean Pied-de-Port to start this pilgrimage are the only hours I have ever been in France).

Not France, but Spain.

The warmth of the shining sun felt very soothing and was a very welcome change from the chill of the last few days. Even when the trail moved into forested stretches, the air was warm enough to keep us comfortable. Whether we walked through fields or forests, the surroundings were always wonderful to look at. Naturally, we heard cuckoos and songbirds wherever we went.

Traditional milepost, between Sarria and Morgade, with the Camino's scallop-shell symbol, shows 109 km to go to Santiago de Compostela.

In the middle of the afternoon, Charlie started to grow hungry and decided to ask the universe for a place to eat. We hadn’t seen a any place to eat along the trail for quite awhile and were wondering if it might be hours before we did. Charlie spread his arms wide and shouted (not too loud) to the sky, “I want some lunch!” Seconds later, the trail curved around a grove of trees and there in front of us was a farmhouse that had been converted into a restaurant, with tables and chairs out front in the sun and someone barbecuing ribs and sausages under a tent next to the building.

Lunch provided by the universe here after Charlie's plea.

It was not a mirage, just the Camino working its magic yet again. The barbecued ribs and sausage were incredible, and the portions were generous, the ultimate fuel to power us the rest of the way to Palas de Rei. When we arrived there, the clouds that were supposed to drop rain on us much earlier started to move in. The town was much larger and more modern than we had expected.

Rainy night in Palas de Rei, as seen from our pilgrim hostel.

We hurried to our pilgrim hostel and settled in, just in time to hear thunder and lightning and see hard rain fall. After it let up, we were able to walk to dinner (pilgrim menu) without getting soaked and then had a very good night of sleep in our bunk beds.

Vic’s style of hiking/walking on this day and every day really started me thinking about age. He is 74, but he looks 60 and has the energy of a 25-year-old. His reservoir of energy seems almost inexhaustible. Every day he’s out there on the Camino with his steady pace, intentionally not fast in order to soak it all in better, but very steady and tenacious. His mind is overflowing with creative ideas, and hearing them along the way is an education in itself.

Charlie and Vic sharing wisdom in the chill.

He is a living embodiment of agelessness, and his modus operandi tells all of us quite clearly that age as a number has no meaning. If we are physically active and push ourselves skillfully to do our training and athletic conditioning and challenging sports of any and all kinds, we really are young. Even more, if we keep challenging our minds and hold on to our intellectual curiosity–and act on it–we retain our youth even more effectively. (There is no shortage of material in literature and philosophy that supports this, but that is another discussion for another time.) All of us have met people who are 48 but seem 28, or 60 but seem 40, or 30 but seem 20. At the same time, we’ve had the experience of meeting people who are 30 but seem 50 or 40 but seem 60, and so on. It’s really up to us, and there seem to be unlimited resources and opportunities out there waiting for us that can support us in a worthy endeavor like this one. And if we support each other in it, even better.

Textures, Seeds, and Cuckoos:  Morgade to Gonzar

4/28 

When we left Morgade in the morning, it was almost as cold as it had been the previous morning, and the fog was heavy, the heaviest yet.  We had very little visibility, but it lent the way an air of mystery and peace.

Through a village in the fog.

Birds were singing, which added good cheer to the morning despite the fog.  On both sides of the trail there were walls of stone or of bushes or of trees.

Traditional yellow arrows marked the way and stood out in the dim light.  Together with the fog it all created a subdued, ethereal beauty.  The texture of the wood (farmhouse doors and tools, for example), of the stones in the walls, and of the greenery, as well as the lighting, made this stretch of the Camino a photographer´s dream.

I think that for every day of walking we did here, it would take a photographer at least a week; he would be stopping every few feet to take another picture.

The old Romanesque church in Portomarin.

The third member of our team, Charlie Spooner from Vancouver, who runs a hockey development business there, is a great addition, fine hiking company.  He has a fantastic sense of humor–he is wickedly funny–and has had so many different professions (everything from chicken farming to owning a bar to owning oil wells and more) and has traveled so much of the world that there is never an uninteresting moment of conversation with him.  In addition, he has a good heart.

Charlie Spooner

As we walked along, it was hard not to notice all the different forms of beauty around us.  Putting aside for the moment Nietzsche´s claim that “there are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena,” there seems to be little doubt that there is a great deal of beauty and goodness in the world, and it takes many forms.  At the same time, there is little doubt that ther is also ugliness and evil, as we normally define them.  I find myself speculating about whether using the power of beauty and goodness can eventually reduce the amount of ugliness and evil to a point where there is enough to help us recognize and appreciate goodness and beauty yet not so much that people and the planet suffer more than they need to.  There is some connection also between this and the insistence by the Dalai Lama and others that within all of us are the seeds of good and the seeds of evil, and we must nourish the seeds of good so that they grow and flourish while we avoid watering the seeds of evil so that they wither and die.  Just a thought.

The trail went up and down gently today, and after a couple of hours, the fog cleared and the sun came out.  We removed our jackets and switched also to short sleeves.  As we had yesterday, we heard cuckoo birds calling out across the meadows (owls, too, sometimes); in fact, every day for the next several days (these blog posts are lagging behind the hiking days, as you know) we would hear the cuckoos, wondering if they were describing us and our activity.  If they were, they were a couple of weeks late because we were at our most cuckoo level when we were climbing the Pyrenees the first day.

Cross-section of Day 1 two weeks ago!

Ironic that they would be calling out to us during one of the forgiving sections of the trail´s topography.  We stopped in the town of Portomarin, where we saw a remarkable 13th century Romanesque church (see photo above) with a stork´s nest on one of its ramparts, with the stork itself visible.

Eventually we came to the village of Gonzar, where we would stay in a pilgrim hostel in a renovated old stone farmhouse.

Right:  Stork in its nest atop the Romanesque church in Portomarin.

Casa Garcia in Gonzar.

There wasn´t much to the village besides the inn and the farm buildings around it, and the smell of cow manure was strong everywhere.   Since there was no internet available, there wasn´t much to do after dinner besides organizing our equipment to prepar for an early departure and go to sleep, which was just what we should do and just what we did.

Hills, Beauty, and War?:  Sarria to Morgade

4/27 

We left Sarria at dawn and it was so cold that we could see our breath.  It wasn´t long before some of my toes were numb and I couldn´t feel them very well.  But that´s part of the game and we walked on.

Because it was Vic´s friend (soon to become my friend as well, as it turned out) Charlie´s first day, our plan was to go only 13 km instead of our customary 20-25.  We kept the same slow pace.  It seems we´re the slowest pilgrims on the trail, always letting others by.  (We often meet up with them again at food stops where they have been resting quite awhile by the time we arrive.  If we resume before them, they pass us again.)  We really like our slow pace because it allows us to walk with awareness, without stress, and with less pain.  And we continue to be lucky in the blister department.

A heavy fog clung to the ground and visibility was very limited.

Walking in the morning fog.

The countryside we could see around us was the most beautiful so far.  There was a patchwork of low fieldstone walls criss-crossing rich green fields and meadows.

We could hear all kinds of birds from every direction and distance.  Fortunately, the sun burned off the fog around noon and gave us our first legitimately warm day in a long time.

Periodically along the trail there were quaint villages that consisted of loose clusters of stone farmhouses; stone barns; old, small churches, and occasional albergues or cafes.

Beautiful view behind Casa Morgade.

Instead of reaching our destination around 5 or 6 o´clock, as we often had done, we arrived at Casa Morgade, the pilgrim hostel in Morgade, at around 2:30 while it was still very warm.  The hostel was a stone farmhouse with very green slopes that fell away behind it.  Though a village, Morgade was not much more than a wide spot in the road consisting of the Casa Morgade and a couple of other homes.  Pilgrims who weren´t staying at the Casa stopped for lunch and then took off for destinations further down the trail.  We were able at last to spend some time sitting in the sun behind the Casa to warm our weary bodies and enhance the process of recovery.  The view of the hills was very, very pretty.

Recuperating in the sun on the first clear day in awhile.

We experienced an amazing coincidence when an American and a Jamaican stopped by and it turned out that the former, living temporarily in Spain, had spent some time walking the trail earlier this year with a friend of mine and Vic´s from Hawaii, and the Jamaican had just recently moved from Hawaii to Miami and knew other people Vic and I knew in Hawaii.  When coincidences are afoot, the world can seem really small.  In the evening, we had a chance to watch the UEFA Champions League semifinal showdown between Real Madrid and Barcelona with a man from Spain and another from Italy. Barcelona prevailed 2-0 on two brilliant goals by Lionel Messi and will meet Manchester United, whom we saw in Sarria the previous night defeat Schalke, later in May in the finals.

I haven´t been able yet to confirm whether there was any fighting in this area in either the Spanish Civil War or World War II, but the countryside was so beautiful that it was hard to believe, even though I could push myself to visualize it, bombs could drop on the fields, roads, and houses.

I could understand someone wanting to fight to keep this beautiful region from being taken away, but it was still hard to imagine that people could turn such a tranquil, lovely place into a battlefield.   There are many places like this around Europe, and I suppose that anyone walking through them on a sunny spring day would find it difficult to see how places so peaceful and happy could become the site of violence and destruction.

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Sarria and Flow

4/25

We’ll be spending this night in Sarria and tomorrow hiking less than usual (13 km) because a friend of Vic’s named Charlie flew in from British Columbia to meet us in Sarria and walk with us and we don’t want to tax his system too much on the first day. Today the weather finally became sunny and warm again; the day was beautiful, although once the sun went down it became cold again. All the weather reports tell us that the next two or three days will be great, which is a relief after the rain and the cold, but there may be a relapse after that.

The terrain between Burgos and Sarria is quite varied. A long stretch of it consists of the meseta, vast flat areas of farmland that truly are flat in many parts, like the American Midwest.

           The flat meseta.

This relatively featureless landscape is interrupted by occasional cities and towns, like Leon, an interesting city of 130,000 with a castle at its center overlooking a river.

Right:  Leon and its castle.

But soon thereafter the meseta gives way to mountains, first dry mountains that resemble the American west, with scrub and reddish soil, and then higher ranges of very green mountains that look almost alpine not only because of their lushness and their rivers, but also because the houses in the towns that are scattered on the hillside are not as close together. At this point we are no longer in the province of Galicia but in Lugo.

Sarria also dates back to medieval times, a city now inhabited by about 12,000. It has a rich pilgrim history and traces its roots back to the Celts, oddly enough. The city is bracketed by two rivers, the Sarria and the Celeiro; we ate local seafood across a short promenade from the Sarria River and it was great.

Church of Santa Marina in Sarria.

Many pilgrims actually start in Sarria because the distance from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela at the end of the Camino is the minimum distance to hike to qualify officially (as indicated by a certificate of completion called a Compostela) as a pilgrim who has hiked the Camino.

Recently I read an amazing book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and experiences of the last few days brought it to mind. What Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state” is a state we often call, in the vernacular, being “in the zone.” The Buddhists have long called this state “mindfulness.” Whatever one calls it, it means being totally involved in what one is doing while one is doing, with total focus and attention. In this state, consciousness of self drains away and so does consciousness of time. We all feel it when we are involved in an activity we love. Three hours can feel like three minutes. I was thinking about this the last few days because hiking with friends and talking along the way sometimes is so enjoyable that 15 km can seem like 2 or 3; they go by so quickly. This is like being in a flow state, hiking becomes a flow experience. These times complement well the times one hikes in solitude, silence, or both, another of the gratifying ways to experience the Camino in particular and life in general.

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The Power of 1 and 47: Burgos

 
Exterior view of pilgrim hostel.

 4/25

Last night we arrived in Burgos, the seat of Franco’s government until 1938 and also the birthplace and burial place of the Spanish hero El Cid (1040-1099). We are staying in a pilgrim hostel in a restored 16th-century building.

Sleeping quarters inside the pilgrim hostel.

Today we wandered around the city on the first of two days of rest that are highly recommended to any pilgrims who are walking much or all of the trail. To go such distances without a day off would mean continuously tearing the body down without giving it any chance to recover. (Also, Vic’s friend Charlie flew in from Victoria, B.C. to meet us here and finish the walk with us. The three of us leave Burgos early tomorrow morning.)

Burgos has a long, glorious history that predates the Middle Ages, and it is filled with amazing architecture, the centerpiece jewel of which is the stunning and enormous 13th-century cathedral, Catedral de Santa Maria. It is one of the largest and most beautiful in Spain, and the medieval streets that surround it have been designated a World Heritage Site.

          
 Interior view of medieval section of Burgos.

El Cid and his wife are buried in the cathedral.

The incredible Cathedral of Santa Maria, as seen from in front of the pilgrim hostel.  Below is a different view.

We sat through a service inside that lasted about half an hour, and as I looked at the people seated in front of us, I found myself wondering what sorrows they might be carrying in their hearts and heads and hoping that their Catholicism would truly bring them comfort and wasn‘t just something they did under obligation. Looking around at the extremely ornate interior of the massive church also reminded me of the impact just one man–in this case Jesus, but we could also apply this to Buddha, Gandhi, and even Gutenberg–can have all over the world for centuries. How many churches must there be in the world? As large as this one is, it is just one, and through it we see the almost incalculable influence exerted by just one humble man and his twelve supporters. Because any one of us, with an idea or approach that grabs others, could have this kind of influence, I hope none of us underestimates the affect we can have–to do good, I hope–even though each of us is only one person.

Nearby the cathedral is the truly beautiful Plaza Mayor, ringed by pastel-colored buildings of various hues, giving it a look almost like a blend of Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, Vernazza, and typically Spanish urban style.

                  In Burgos’s colorful Plaza Mayor.
          

 

Just a block or so from it, we had a lunch at a restaurant called Bocaos, in the midst of which the owner came over to our table to thank us for being the first customers in the restaurant’s history; it had just opened for business about 15 minutes before we walked in! This is the second experience of this type that Vic and I have had. We were the very first guests to stay at a hostel back in Estella a few days earlier. Strange coincidences or moments of synchronicity keep happening to us, including meeting two Austrians who had studied with Sri Chimnoy, whose inspirational words Vic listens to (he once interviewed him for a radio program) every day. Vic quoted Sri Chimnoy to the two Austrians and they were flabbergasted that he had quoted from the very sage with whom they had studied. It was a remarkable moment; one of the Austrians, who was standing when Vic said he had once interviewed Sri Chimnoy, had to sit down to deal with the impact of the coincidence. Things like this happen all the time on the Camino.

To have come this far, about halfway, with no blisters means we must pay homage to “The Power of 47.” In an earlier blog post I mentioned Vic’s system of 47 minutes hiking followed by a 10-minute rest. When we rest, we remove shoes and socks, inspect our respective feet, restore their veneer of Vaseline or coconut cream if necessary, apply preventative pads if any spots seem to need them, put socks and shoes back on, drink plenty of water, stretch a little, and then step back on the trail. 47 has become a magic number that has kept us from exhausting ourselves and kept blisters away. Just as important is its psychological effect: when the way is steep, either up or down, or difficult in some other way, we can tell ourselves that we only have to endure for 47 minutes, and anyone can do that. If we take on any task small piece by small piece, we can accomplish anything, we can overcome anything. If things are going wrong for us, we usually just need to persist just a little longer to make it through. I couldn’t resist chuckling to myself because my mind connected this new motto “47 is a Magic Number” to De La Soul’s famous song “3 is a Magic Number”; I chuckled because “De La Soul” means “of the soul,” and most definitely the magic and power of the number 47 for Vic and me help to sustain our souls along this challenging route. For any one of us, there are magic numbers all around that can help us not only endure but flourish.

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Finding the Good in Rain and Mud: Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada

 4/24

After a small breakfast at the hostel in Najera, we set out in the pouring rain and the cold, rejoined by our friends Peter and Bill. As we began walking out of town, we saw many pilgrims who had already decided that the miserable weather wasn’t worth braving and they were at the bus station waiting for buses to take them to towns on the Camino further down the trail. Most of them were doing the trail in 20-25 km stages as we were.

It didn’t take long for us to learn that those who had decided on buses had made a wise decision. It was raining hard, and although our rain gear worked very well, it was impossible to stay completely dry. We stopped in the town of Azofra after about 3.5 km and warmed up with tea accompanied by a snack. Warm tea on a cold, wet day was yet another miracle.

The rain cleared a bit and we moved back out on the trail at noon. However, almost immediately the trail turned out to be a quagmire. And then it began to rain again; we hurried to put the rain gear back on. From that point, we slogged through mud for a full 12 km. The mud slowed us down, made us very messy, and even made it more likely we could slip and injure ourselves, but because there were no towns or even signs of human habitation or construction–only farm fields–for the next 12 km, we had no choice and walked on. There were times when we could look ahead to the hills that blocked the horizon, and look back to the hills that blocked the other horizon, and not see a single person anywhere. We realized, though, that there was a reason no one else was around. No one else was foolish (or tough?) enough to be out on the trail in weather like this.

      
Beautiful but desolate between Azofra and Ciruena.
Now, normally, walking in the cold, the rain, and the mud kilometer after kilometer, with water but no food, would seem like an entirely negative endeavor. However, I noticed that my knees, which sometimes ached from years of volleyball-induced wear and tear, felt much better than they had the past few days. I figured out that the muddy trail provided a walking surface so soft that the trail became easy on the joints: a saving grace in the dreadful conditions. It was like walking on wrestling mats instead of stones, and anyone who has ever had pain in the knees or ankles can relate to the improvement the mud provided.

We ended up going 80% of the distance from Najera to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, which was almost 80% more than any other pilgrims went in the awful conditions, reaching the town of Ciruena. Vic and I were already scheduled to catch a 6 p.m. bus from Santo Domingo to Burgos to meet a friend of Vic’s flying in the next day from Canada, and thus it was decided that Peter and I should grab a taxi to cover the last 4 km to Santo Domingo and meet Vic and Bill there. After a late lunch with Peter and Bill at a hostel run by Cistercian nuns, Vic and I said our farewells to those two, who are now friends for life, and, rather wet from our wait at the bus stop, we took the one-hour bus ride to the city of Burgos, a picturesque city of 170,000 with one of the largest and most exquisite cathedrals in Spain, where we walked through the chilled streets to our hostel, checked in, and cleaned up for a good night’s rest.

The medieval section of Burgos upon our arrival.

Our feet were in good shape because every morning we put  moleskin pads and Vaseline on the places that could be susceptible to blisters. It is dull, tedious work, but it works, and it teaches us, just as UCLA basketball coach John Wooden did when he taught his astonished college basketball stars on the first day of practice every year how to put on their socks and shoes properly, that attention to small details can be of tremendous importance. Even Lao-tzu tells us in the Tao Te Ching (“Even the biggest problem could have been solved when it was still small”), and Antoine de St. Exupery’s Little Prince tells us that it is crucial to uproot the baobabs before they become so big that they destroy his planet. Take it from them, rather than from me, that if we take care of the little things each day, we are much more likely to have success with the big things.

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