Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Baza to Ayamonte . . .

After yesterday's slow escape from expatland, things have speeded up.

FIrst a note about my use of the term "expat". The proper definition is anybody living in a country in which they were not born, I suppose. And a hint that they are not fully assimilated into the new country.

This can apply to a lot of people all over the world. Movement of people has been going on since people evolved . . . and before . . .

In an interesting linguistic twist, one of the reasons many British expats, or emigrants, give for relocating is immigration into their beloved, forsaken, damp, Britain. They rarely identify as immigrants to the hospitable countries to which they escape. France, Spain, Portugal . . . USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand . . . Thailand . . . they are all over the place . . .

The subset of emigrant/immigrant I describe as expats, are retired folks, seeking a sunny, relaxed place to spend their latter days. Until medical problems set in and the NHS beckons. With all its immigrant workers.

Portugal, my next destination, also has its stereotypical expats, as well as the exceptions I have been finding in Spain. And I am aware that becoming an expat myself is an option. Maybe that's why I am experiencing a little of that life, its pitfalls and opportunities.

A Place to Be dreams of places of retreat, reconnection with Nature. In the North Pennines of the UK, and anywhere else. Perhaps Portugal.

Today, on the bus to Seville, I am thinking of walking into Portugal on New Year's Eve.
Symbolic?

It has never been my personal ambition to live in an intentional community. The little rented cottage by the river in Stanhope was just fine. Yet the vision persisted and wants to be followed, fleshed out a bit.
Since we can't story our lives looking forward, the way this trip works out in the bigger picture cannot be known. It is all flowing beautifully so far and I am content not to know exactly where, when or why it's going.

Rewinding to this morning, I took the Baza- Granada bus at 8, had 25 minutes to change to the Seville bus, on which I appear to have booked the last seat. It is holiday time and I have someone sitting next to me. Harith is 20, a first year student of mechanical engineering at Aix, planning to specialise in aeronautics at Toulouse. He is a Malaysian Muslim from Kuala Lumpur, fluent in three languages and thinking about learning more. I ask a few questions about Islam, a religion I know little about. They see Jesus as one of the prophets.
And decline images of Allah or prophets. Which seems sensible. Not so sure about the notion of one human incarnation to decide whether they end up in heaven or hell.

Seville is big, very big. It has a very big cathedral and a very big river. The Guadalquivir. After wandering with the tourists awhile, picnicking on bread and goats cheese by the river, I locate the bus station for Huelva and Ayamonte. A different bus station. By this time my idea of being a tourist in Seville for a day has waned. There is a bus at 3.30 pm for Ayamonte, on the border with Portugal.

I'm on it. Sitting next to Jose, 38, originally from Valencia, now working in Barcelona, visiting his girlfriend, Mafalda, and her mother for the holidays. He spent time in Nottingham and Southampton teaching Spanish, and his English is very good.

After wandering round town, enjoying a beautiful sunset over Portugal, scoping the options for the morning - longish walk to the road crossing or ferry from town, I find a hotel a couple of minutes from the bus station.

Some food in town and a early night, ready for some coastal walking in Portugal tomorrow.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Ventarique to Baza . . .

Well, we're on the road again.

The Helpx experience will turn out to be useful, like most of the experiences which are not comfortable at the time.

I had more or less decided to finish on Saturday. Maureen and Svein were planning their cruise, the work was dragging, the food average, the company unconvivial. And despite hot days, the evenings were cool and the only heating was in their sitting room.

After work yesterday (which was slightly surprising), I told Svein I was going early in the morning. He was friendly, offered to take me to Albox. I planned to walk down the rambla in the dark, get back in journey mood. I called up to say goodbye to Maureen. She asked if it was something they had done. A moment of self- awareness perhaps, albeit sharing any possible guilt with the blameless Svein. I kindly lied, thanked her for her hospitality.

This morning I left at 6 am, confident in the route, having walked it Saturday. The night was starful, though the half moon was hiding somewhere. By 7.15 I was at the hotel for coffee, then out of town with some options: bus to Granada, hitch a lift and go wherever the driver was going, Seville, Tavira . . .

At the bus stop, a woman told me the Granada bus had gone. I walked on, looking for a hitch-hiking spot. It was still too dark for hitching and too cold to stand about, so I walked along the road until it became motorway, then looked for the alternative. Wandered up a likely road, found a service station with bar. Another coffee and a chat with Andy, who gets his own chapter. He gives me directions, then I go back to the motorway slip road to try my luck. After an hour I decide to walk to Fines, 8 km away and a good spot to pick up a lift . . . or a bus.

Off route, I bump into Andy again. He drops me to the track I need and I soon reach a cafe for refreshments. Then over the motorway, as instructed, swing my thumb and a car pulls up. An old Spanish bloke. Cantoria? Sounds familiar, I jump in and we are soon there. Nice town. Spotting expats at a table in the sun, I get my bearings. Completely wrong for Fines. We'll drop you on the right road when we've finished our coffee. They have been to their Spanish class. Kevin and Linda from South Moulton, Exmoor, Devon. He installs damproofing for other expats. The Spanish don't bother. Just tile half the wall to cover it up. They are back in Exmoor next week to sell Linda's mother's house. She died. They have no plans to return permanently, they prefer it here.

They drop me at the spot the Spanish bloke picked me up. I've had two lifts, seen Cantoria and heard another expat tale.

In Fines, find a bus to Baza, on the main road to Granada. Options include a direct overnight bus to Seville, leaving at 00.45, hitching or bussing on to Granada, staying here. There is no rush, stories want writing, 00.45 is way past bedtime, Seville will wait. I want to take a look round there, maybe arrive tomorrow, stay a night.

The hotel here is a bargain. €20, warm room, hot shower with plenty of water, clean and comfortable. And wifi, of course.

Andy and Sandy . . .

Andy is from Leicester, in the Midlands of England. His career was as a prison officer, mostly at Parkhurst, a high security gaol on the Isle of Wight. And where David Icke lives. Also a holiday destination (the island, not the prison). It was "abroad" when I was a child, close enough to home for day trips. It was there, at Shanklin Bay or Sandown, perhaps, where I had my first attempted drowning. I don't remember much about it, only that I was going under for the third time when Dad pulled me out. Useful experience.

Andy had early retirement; arthritis. Damp climate, genes, stress? His pension of £1,600 a month went further in Spain, the lump sum helpful, sale of UK house also. The exchange rate caused some problems and his flirtation with the do nothing expat stereotype caused some more. Liver related. He started offering holidays at his villa in Paraloa, investing the revenue in improvements, offering transport, making friends with his guests. Who return, recommend to friends. Good business and not focused on money making, which comes along because he is doing it right.
An expat with something creative to do. A second life after taking care of criminals and others caught up in a system sometimes more focused on results than justice.

I tell him about the camino, the people living alternative lives there. Start on the story of the ex-policeman and the ex-ETA activist, now both hosts at albergues between walking the pilgrim routes. Start to tell him of my near miss with the prison life back in the 70s. My left wing politics, sympathy with the cause of Irish republicans. Something switches in Andy. Fear, I think. I have heard stories of IRA intimidation of prison officers, threats to their families. He becomes a little hostile, prepares to leave. With Rosie, the dog in the picture. I reflect on my clumsy attempt to relate an interesting story of human separation turning to convergence.

An hour and a half later, wandering off route, I see him again. With his wife Sandra. He has calmed down, invites me into his car, drops me at the track alongside the motorway I should have been on.

Here is the story I started to tell him. It is rather complicated and I am lucky to be here to tell it.

I was at teacher training college at Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire between 1969 and 1972. Nearby was the Joint Services Defence College at Latimer. Wikipaedia says it was bombed by the IRA in 1974. I thought it was earlier. In 1974 or 1975, I was working on an adventure playground in Hornsey, London. I had some calls from people at addresses I had lived, saying the police wanted to talk to me. Eventually they came calling at my workplace. Asked me some questions about my political sympathies, my student activities, invited me to visit their offices in Amersham. It was not exactly an invitation, but they were pleasant enough. In the car, things got more serious. It was well known that IRA bombings were hot political potatoes and people had to be put behind bars. Not necessarily the ones who did the deed. As the two detectives built up their case, I said, "Don't think you can frame me for this." The younger, more aggressive one turned round and said "Son, if we want to fit you up, we will do it, just like that." And snapped his fingers. Which was a little worrying. Back at the station their case against me emerged. The only lead they had from the bombing was a red Audi which had been seen in the vicinity. They were tracing all the red Audis registered in the country. My name was on one of them, although I never had one. I realised that the driving licence I had been tempted to sell to a small time criminal near where I worked (another story for another time), had been used to register the car. I told them I had lost my licence, that it had been used by someone to register the car. The "nice" cop drily observed that there was a market for driving licences. He wasn't interested in that petty crime. They sent a Metropolitan Police Officer to my flat and asked the landlady if they could search it for bomb making equipment. Imagine! Luckily, Mary was a liberal and asked to see the search warrant, which he didn't have. She phoned her solicitor, who said he was coming round. If they came back with a search warrant, they would be planting the evidence. Eventually they bailed me out, though declined to take me home. My small contribution to their effort was to suggest that when they had finished with the red Audis, they might start on all the other colours, which could have been resprayed red after being registered. The young "nasty" cop didn't get it. The older, wiser, "nice" one did. Went rather pale. I could have met Andy in Parkhurst if I'd had Irish ancestry or a more conventional landlady.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Maureen

Maureen is 74, from the valleys of South Wales. Father a miner, mother with aspirations.

Maureen married a sailor, Royal Navy. Spent time in Singapore when Britain was hanging on to empire in Malaysia and Borneo. Her husband was playing sailor stereotype, a girl in every port. She sacked him, brought up their three children alone. Ran three pubs in Maesteg and Bridgend.

Tough life, tough woman.

She is an entrepreneur, always alert to opportunities. When she first came to Spain she was bringing tea bags to Benidorm in a car. 25,000 at a time.
She met Svein in Spain 30 years ago, they moved to Ventarique 14 years after that.

In Albox, she ran a car boot sale for a while.

In Denmark, she and Svein buy and sell antiques. Maybe he is the artist, she the businesswoman, I don't know. But he is tired, wants to slow things down. She is still driven. If not looking for some work for me, Svein, herself, on the house, she is planning a cruise, with all the details that involves.

They have hosted volunteers here and in Denmark for years. I think they enjoy the company. Certainly, from what they say, they don't always get much work out of them.

There is also a little power game being played. Maureen plays the boss. Decides the task. Svein helps me get started. Take the painting job. We set up the ladder, I am ready to go. No, don't start that end. Why, Svein asks. Start this end she says, firmly, as if it makes any difference. We move the ladder.

On the cactus job, she tells me to throw the dead ones on the path, no-one uses it anyway. There are three good reasons why that is not a good idea. The path leads to the water tanks behind the house, which need checking from time to time. The clearing work itself will be much harder if the path is full of dead cactus. And it is a public right of way.

Svein comes with boxes. Put them in here, I will dump them in the rambla with the van. Better.
Raised voices from the house. Svein says, do what she says. She just wants to stop the neighbours using the path. He escapes the drama in the van. Off to the bar.

I plod on with the job. Throw the cactus the other side of the path. My walker won't allow me to block a right of way and my worker doesn't want to make the job harder. She doesn't come to check, I am happy with the work. Even get my shirt off for some tanning.

The Helpxer role may be to be a catalyst for the control game. Playing a small part in their drama. Low level bickering is common. Perhaps I am a distraction from that. Like a lot of relationships, love has turned to co-dependency, clinging to each other's wreckage. Neither seem very happy. She is also keen to get value for money from me. Not that I am a great house painter or cactus puller. Some Helpx hosts are clearly replacing paid staff with volunteers. It's not quite like that here, but it does enable Maureen to play the boss role.

I observe it all, smile sweetly, play my part as if it's real and begin to plan my escape. When I arrived, there was an option to support them with driving to Denmark, help there. I have tried adjusting the frequency to match, but clearly we are on a different wavelength. The metaphor is apt, since Maureen is not comfortable with silence, when not playing middle of the road music, she has the radio crackling with pop.

Her relationship with money is interesting. She invests in the lottery, talks about the big prizes a lot. I suppose she has plenty, if she is cruising in South America. I ask her what she would do if she won, that she couldn't do now. Get on the first plane out of here, she says. She could do that now.

I check the mirror. I still have over £2,000 in the bank and €12 a day from the pension. What would I do if I won the lottery? I don't know and I haven't bought a ticket. Alan Watts advised his students to feel into what they really wanted to do and do that. Let the money take care of itself. Trust in the universe. No reason to stay here, much longer. Portugal is calling. Lots of Helpx opportunities, the camino Portugues, Jan in Graca, the Rio Dao nearby . . .

Sometimes Maureen shows fear of losing money, other times spends freely. Sometimes she piles food on the table, other times uses up the leftovers. Brings instant coffee and baked beans from Tesco in the van. Despises the other expats, socialises more with Spanish locals with whom communication is simple, since neither party speaks much of the other's language.

Not sure what the Welsh stereotype is. Dad wasn't keen. When I went for interview for college, the English lecturer started off with, "Day, probably derived from Dai, Welsh." I responded, "I will have to tell my Dad, he can't stand them." "Oh yes, why's that then?" asked the Welsh PE lecturer.
I had a lovely Welsh girfriend once, Lynne, another vicar's daughter. Or minister they called them. Met her at Spanish evening class.

Maureen's mother died this year, now she has bought a house in Maesteg. Roots.

That's where they will settle. Fly off to warm holidays to escape the damp valleys.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Saturday in town . . .

It's the weekend and time off from cactus clearing. A prickly job.

I wander off down the rambla early, walking into the rising sun for an hour or so, getting warmer as we go. Musing that the rambla, being a river bed, albeit without water, is likely to run down to the sea. Or another river.

I catch up with Andy, funeral plan man's visiting relatives. Alan and Alan are father and son, living in Torrevieja, up the coast towards Alicante. Both showed interest in the free life last time we chatted and we chat some more. I ask what they do. Alan the father cheerfully says, nothing. It's a theme with hard working folks who retired out here. Actually he plays golf. Alan the son says he does odd jobs, recently painted a house. He was rather scathing of my attempts up a ladder with a small brush. A long handled roller is quicker, he said.
He seems wistful about my travelling. Too young for golf all day, maybe too old to live with parents. They are walking three dogs and soon turn back, returning to Torrevieja today.

In town I find a pasteleria. A cake shop with coffee. Have a chocolate and sugar fix. Next a haircut. The trendy young barber has a Brit in the chair, a young Spaniard waiting and chatting. His hair looks short already, so I wonder if he is just hanging out. The Brit gets his hair expertly done with clippers, no scissors to be seen. The young Spaniard has his hair rinsed, then gelled so the top stands up. Five minutes and it's my turn. The barber speaks English, number 1, 2, 3? Two please. He assesses my head. Maybe two for the sides, three for the top, he suggests. You're the expert I say. He shears the grey and white, shaves the neck, €8 please. Good job.

A Latin American dancing group goes by, a festive thing I think.

I find a supermarket for some vegetables, bananas, honey (thinking about the road), chocolate. Then to Wassy's Bar for toasted cheese and tomato baguette. And a warm encounter with Val and Chris. They retired here 12 years ago. I am drawn to speak to them by their soft south west accents. Cirencester. Chris was a carpenter and builder, employing twenty staff at one time. Spotted a barn with permission to convert in the Cotswolds, bought it for £100k, did the job, sold it for £500k. Those were the days. His back is knackered now. Too much heavy lifting. And football, semi-pro with Oxford. They have two daughters, grandchildren too. How about you, I ask Val, who has been quietly pretending to be the passive wife. Chris speaks for her, says she is too modest to tell it right. She was head of sales at Mitsubishi UK, based in Cirencester. Started as a temp, worked her way up. Lovely couple, interested in the free life too. They get it. I mention the villas with the fences, gates, dogs. Yes, they say, ours has a low wall, no dog. Though there was a crime wave here a few years ago: roaming Roma, Colombians, dodgy Brits too. Mostly moved on now. Dodgier Brits live in bigger villas round Marbella of course. Costa del Crime, retired gangsters. Back to Ventarique, weather changing, veggie dinner, work tomorrow, Helpx possibilities in Portugal. A few more days, then back on the road.

Friday, 26 December 2014

an adventure in Portugal . . .

Portugal is pulling me again . . . there have been some interesting experiences here over the years and there are more to come . . . maybe . . . this story I tell because it is not everyone's good fortune to look death in the face and return . . .

Three years ago, at Easter, I found myself with time and money to spare and had the idea to visit a friend in Portugal. She lives there still and I hope to see her again in a month or so.

Having booked flights to Faro, fifteen days apart, I recalled a community in the Alentejo, Tamera, and wondered about a visit. Checking their website, I saw they had an introductory week, starting the day after I landed. Participants invited to arrive the day before. Synchronicity.

Halfway through the week, on Easter Sunday, there was a free day. A group of us decided to take a taxi to the beach. Four German therapists, an Italian teacher of Biodanza, an Austrian manager of an arts centre.

At Zambujeira do Mar, the sky was clear blue, the sun warm, the sea wild. Alfred and I went to the waves, felt the exhilaration of diving through them as they broke before us. After a while I noticed my feet were no longer reaching the sand and Alfred was further away. I was in a current and on my way out to sea. I called to Alfred, waved . . . the poem, not waving but drowning, came to mind . . . off I went, using energy to stay afloat between the waves, knowing to swim against it was impossible, not knowing that swimming sideways sometimes works . . .

Back at the beach, high anxiety, as I later heard. Lifeguard alerted. I was unaware, focused on my own predicament.

After five or ten minutes I felt my energy fading, found myself far out, no sign of help arriving, considered the options. There were none. I went to a neutral zone, impossible to describe. There was nothing. Not fear, not peace, no flashbacks of my life, no family, friends, no regrets . . . nothing . . . and into that nothing, one word entered my consciousness.

Surrender.

I laid on my back, arms outstretched, looked at the sky and waited to die. It was all fine. Zero. The only phenomenon to report was the sky was orange. No idea why. There I floated in timeless zone.

Francesco was on the cliff with the young lifeguard. They saw me coming round with the waves into the next cove. Twenty minutes or so, he said. Also, "look, he's fine, just floating". The lifeguard replied, " believe me, that's dangerous down there, people die." Which was why he was staying on the cliff, I suppose.

Then, suddenly, I was on the rocks . . . a moment to consider, the undertow took me back . . . either was fine . . . back on the rocks . . . hang on this time. A little blood, surface scratches. Lifeguard comes to guide me back to my friends. Every cell of my body is shaking, but I feel fine, lie down, the therapists get to work, I wonder whether I really died and this was heaven.

Then a half hour silent meditation, a reunion with the waves and that was it.

Beautiful.

Walking with the Austrians last week, Julia spoke about not knowing what the end of this life would look like. I shared the story. It spoke to her deeply. She cried. Me too.
A special moment.

When Sophie and Emily heard I was wandering to Portugal, they told me to stay out of the sea. Not likely. I know all really is well, life and death a continuum, to fear death is to fear life and to live without fear the greatest gift.

Water

Water wars are here.

Gaia has a sustainable water management system, delicately balanced, with forests, winds, rain, filtration, aquifers, springs, streams, rivers, sea . . . a cycle . . .

Humans chop down forests, poison rivers and the sea, use clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, fill swimming pools and, in Andalusia, once home to a huge oak forest, long destroyed to make the ships which colonised South America and to fight the British, who also chopped down vast forests for empire and wars over empires, huge amounts of precious water are sprayed on golf courses, of which there are hundreds.

Here, in the arid area behind Almeria, where the desert scenes for "Patton, Lust for Glory" were shot, the town up the valley dammed the river, refused to share the water.

When I was on my first adventure, 40+ years ago, I had a lift from an American actor, who said he would try to get me extra work on that film. I hung around Almeria a few days, but it never worked out.

There are springs, linked to irrigation systems and to fuentes, which translates loosely as fountains.

Water rights are linked to land up here. The mains supply has long been promised, but the locals are reluctant to pay for metered water, when they have the land and water to pump into the house.

Corrupt local officials promise to sort it, but nothing happens. Allegedly.

Svein and Maureen bought their house from a very dodgy agent called Gordon, who separated the land with water rights from the house. Hence the need to fetch water in containers from the fuente two kilometres away, pour it into a barrel and pump it up to holding tanks, from which gravity feeds it into the house.

It makes you careful with water.

This scenario plays out internationally too. The Nile running through Sudan to Egypt, the Himalayas, source of the great rivers of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan. And so on.

In Tamera, the community in the Alentejo region of Portugal, they are addressing the issue. Sharing their findings at government and international level.

In expat land, there seem obvious solutions unexplored. Catchment from rooves (it does rain sometimes); grey water re-use for flushing. And whilst we are on sustainable solutions, there are few solar panels considering the sunshine, and shit is collected from cesspits, instead of composted in situ. Perhaps jobs for the next generation of expats, who may learn Spanish, breed with the locals, keep off the booze a bit . . . judgemental? Stereotypes sometimes hold true, it's an observation, that's all.

Reforestation of the desert between here and Almeria would be helpful too. Sounds like a potential EU project to me.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Lithuanians . . .

I first met Augustus and Alphonso at Puenta La Reina. The Aragon Way joins the Camino Frances here. Well to be precise, at the village before, but it was here that Pep, Sergio and I joined the main route to Santiago.

I offered them food, they shared theirs. They spoke little English, less Spanish and Lithuanian was totally new to me. Cousin to Russian. We shared a dormitory. They snored in harmony, which was fine once you got used to it.

Next day they went on, I took a rest day.

I caught up with them in Astorga. Again we shared food, wine and more conversation.

Augustus was 64, older than me by 6 months. Alphonso was 74, the oldest pilgrim I met. He had spent 10 years in Florida, working for a relative, living in a tight Lithuanian community, finding no need to speak English. His son lives in Chicago, doubtless fluent in English, or the American version. His grandchild, due any moment, mother a Japanese American, will speak English and be encouraged to learn a little Lithuanian and Japanese. That's assimilation, it takes a while.

Alphonso was carrying the cross to Santiago, metaphorically. Big pack, travelling decent distances daily. He said his life had not been a good one. Drink, women. He still liked a few glasses of red. He said the camino was to expiate his sins. Not the general expiation of original sin, just his personal ones.

We spent more time together in Rabanal, made food together, became friends. I felt privileged to have penetrated their bubble. In Ponferrada we met up, shared food and wine again. I lost them the next day, as I pushed on to the Pequeno Potala.

Gordon, the Englishman I met briefly in Leon, emailed to say they had travelled into Santiago together Sunday for midday mass. I was almost in Granada by then. I hope Alphonso's sins are gone, such a nice bloke.

As for the Cathedral, I gave it a miss. Not my thing. Jesus is reported as saying, "Where two or more of you are gathered together, there am I in the midst of you". Still they kept building bigger, more ornate churches.

According to Reiner, he also said priests should have one wife (no reference to female priests and husbands in the version I heard).

And love one another. What happened to that?

Anyway, two Catholic Lithuanians and an Englishman of no fixed abode or religion, loved one another for a few days on the camino . . . which is nice.

At Ventarique with the expats . . .

Yesterday's walk was good. The first long one since Saturday and my body is ready for more. Mind too.

After testing the limits on the camino, 25 km seems right, enough. Ventarique to Albox is 6, 7 or 9 km, depending on the route. The rambla, the dried up river bed is most direct. I headed up through Llano del Espino, picked up the top road, wandered along in the warm morning sun, past villas with pretentious gates, big fences, fierce dogs. Fear. The curse of the rich and not so rich. All this is mine and bad people want to take it away. I say hello to the dogs, but they keep on doing their job, setting off neighbouring dogs. It is one of the soundtracks of the area.

Svein and Maureen don't have a dog, since they are only here in the winter and not all of that. They do have locks and bars though. And fear. They said they have been mugged three times. Not here, once in Madrid, pulled over by robbers posing as plain clothes police; other countries.

I reflected on life on the camino, travelling alone in the wilds, in villages, towns and cities. Without much stuff, but nevertheless with sometimes €300 cash in my pocket, card, passport. It never occurred to me that someone might steal it. There are warning signs in some of the bigger albergues, which saddened me, but fear?

One of the other soundtracks in the house, on the idyllic terrace overlooking the rambla, towards the mountains, is Maureen's music. She loves Matt Munro, Kenny Rogers, Abba, Harry Nielsen. Loves to share it. The only Nielsen song I know is not on her selection; the soundtrack to a heart-break when I was 20. Rosie was a vicar's daughter from Essex. Not the first woman I fell in love with, nor the first I slept with, but the first where both those delights came together. I couldn't get enough of her. Studies took second place as we embraced the joys of young love. She visited my family, I visited hers.
I don't think her father, the vicar, saw me as the ideal suitor for his daughter. Whatever, when she returned (I had come back separately), it was bad news.
Nielsen's poignant song "I can't live, if living is without you" infiltrated my grieving psyche. I made a half-hearted attempt to kill myself; pills and brandy. A dramatic gesture. Not serious enough to trouble the medical staff, or anyone else for that matter.

My heart healed. Scar tissue is stronger than the original and it took a while to happen again. Pema Chodron says, "Life keeps breaking your heart, until you leave it open."

From Ventarique to Albox was about 70 minutes stroll. The hotel bar was open, so I had a coffee on the terrace, sitting in the sun in t-shirt, watching the Spanish arrive in coats, seeking the shade; expats in shirtsleeves, seeking the sun. Parallel lives mostly. Expats happy with enough words to order beer, tapas and a few other things, Spanish hospitable, some speaking English, mostly not. A generational thing. The expats who settled here in their hundreds of thousands from the sixties on are getting old now. Andy, next door, manages the team selling funeral plans. The final choice - on ice here while relatives sort out flights over; on ice in a box, air freight back to their roots.

After Albox, a sign for Almanzora, 4km. Seems a good distance, there and back a comfortable Christmas Day walk.

At Geminis Bar, some tapas, a coffee, an hour writing. Recording some of the narratives created during the walk.

Back to Albox along the rambla, a rest in town, then back along the road on the other side, which we drove along on Tuesday, returning from market. Longer perhaps, more villas, gates, fences, dogs.

Back at the house by 5. A gentle day's wander, plenty of pit stops, observing life, writing, getting the juices going again.
Maureen and Svein have eaten. Declined the invitation to lunch next door. A few brief words with relatives of Andy, visiting from up the coast. Interested in the camino and free life. Getting beneath the expat stereotype.

Maureen is looking for a cruise. January can be wintry here and she wants Burma, South America, somewhere warm for a few weeks. It is an organisational nightmare for her, co-ordinating cruise, flights to UK to pick up cruise clothes from Maesteg, flights to cruise start point. I think she thrives on the activity.

She makes my supper. I want to do some cooking, but she likes to do it too.
Persuading her to put her feet up and have a meal cooked for her may be a challenge too far.

Rested, I am exploring options. Across to the coast, wander west round to Tavira and Portugal, couchsurfing, Helpxing, hitch-hiking? Over to Seville, the camino route from there? Up to Santander with Svein and Maureen, Camino del Norte from there? That possibility is not until March though, which is a winter away.

Maybe post possibilities on Helpx, see who responds. See how the cruise plans develop.

Practicing patience, allowing the journey to unfold, is Life School's homework for the holidays. And compassion for Svein, wanting a peaceful life, and for Maureen always on the go, needing to be in control.

Happy Christmas . . .

Well, here we are, having tapas at Geminis in Almanzora.  . . 4 km from Albox, which was 7 km from Ventarique . . .

Since it is Christmas Day, when magical thinking is accepted in all the countries where the day is celebrated; a jolly old chap in red costume, with long white hair and beard, delivers presents to children, as long as they are good and their parents or substitute parents have paid into the illusion; a baby is born, the mother a virgin, her husband accepting, wise men with gifts, the real father an old man with long white hair and beard, not always jolly, firm but fair in some versions, dispensing punishments in others, kind and compassionate in others . . . in all cases supremely powerful . . .

. . . the images imagined by humans . . . the similarities remarkable, the effect on children and credulous adults similar when they discover trusted parents, priests, have been embellishing the truth . . .

. . . I want to be completely vague about this, so as to communicate something to credulous friends, whilst not alienating cynical ones . . . when I say "we", don't imagine I walked here with someone . . . but it became apparent along the camino, as I travelled mostly alone for 20,30,40,50 km a day, that I was not alone, and the more I relaxed and allowed the journey to unfold, the more interesting it became . . . the more I trusted that all was well, the weller it became . . . for family and friends who fear I have lost the plot: it's true, the plot, the plan, can be the problem . . . the best stuff is outside of it; and rest assured I have a friend who knows me well, reads the blog and FB posts, a qualified psychologist (she may protest that she is a cognitive psychologist not a clinical one, but a PhD impresses me, whatever the speciality), told me once I was one of the sanest people she knew . . . in the sense that I am at ease with my current delusions perhaps, but for me mental pain and anguish are symptoms of dis-ease, being content living in this mad, mad world is a challenge, and I am quite content, whilst doing what I can to build a world where love prevails . . . and peace on earth is not just for Christmas.

When I was a child, Christmas had that magic. We were four children, Mum and Dad, occasional auntie, random strangers Dad invited for dinner. Stockings first thing, then presents after breakfast and after Dad had milked the cow. A ritual round the tree, each present unwrapped while the rest watched and waited for their turn.

Big dinner, compulsory family walk in the forest before we were allowed to watch the circus or whatever on the television.

When my own children were young, we shared the magic, their grandparents too.

After the divorce, the children spent Christmas with their mother, New Year with me. Christmas lost the magic, though there was the reconstructed second family for a while.

After that, I lost interest, found the whole thing rather ridiculous and opted out, preferring a long walk in the countryside. One year I spent the time at a Buddhist monastery, which was different.

This year, in Spain, I sent messages to family and friends, then set off on a walk, calling in for coffee at the hotel in Albox, tapas in Almanzora, enjoying the solitude, musing on options ahead, returning to Svein and Maureen for dinner at 5, having left before they got up, at 10.

I make no judgement on anybody's version of Christmas. Linda was at one of her four sons' house for dinner with 17 people, Emily working at Baltic making delicious desserts, others doing family things.
It's a bit like Luis' description of the camino - life concentrated. Lovely families having lovely time, feuding families fighting, lonely people lonelier, depressed people too often pushed over the edge.
Separation and suicide statistics peak.

Lots of happy children and adults bask in the warm glow of a special day.

Anyway, it's done for another year.

I enjoyed mine and I hope you enjoyed yours . . .

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Svein

My Helpx co-host, Svein, is a Norwegian artist. Now 80, he is slowing down a bit. Operations for cancer and a hernia, the recent death of his brother, all reminding him of his own mortality.

He dreamt of being an artist. Applied for the art school. His mother schemed of him being an architect, pretended his application for art school was rejected.

In the end he became an artist anyway.

He married at 27, his wife was 16, a classical dancer in Oslo. They had two children, but the marriage didn't work out.

He moved to Denmark. Sold some work.

Thirty years ago he met Maureen and they have been together since, in Jersey, Spain and Denmark. They moved to Ventarique 18 years ago, the first foreigners. Now it's half Spanish, half English . . . plus Svein and Maureen.

The building bonanza pushed up prices to four times their current value. Many have no water and any illegal ones (there are plenty) cannot connect to the electricity supply.

In summer they live in Denmark and have been trading in antiques, though both are well past retirement age.

At the bar, I asked Svein what the expats do all day. One arrived, Svein asked him. He said some did bits and pieces of work, but had promised himself he would not do anything. Which was what he was doing, or not. Apart from smoking and drinking. Others came in, though the subject was not pursued. They pass the days somehow.

In groups, they play the stereotype expat. I am hoping to talk to some individually, find out more about their lives, their hopes and dreams.

What is the Norwegian stereotype, I ask. Svein starts to explain the differences between Norwegians, Swedes and Danes. Between Norwegians from the north and the more sophisticated south. Maureen becomes animated. They are all selfish, she says. Too much money. I am not clear if Svein is included in this tirade or not.

My observation, despite the smiley photo, is morose. Friendly enough, mildly depressed, taciturn. Wistful for a life that might have been.

Svein still wants to see more of the world, though most of all to return to Hobart, Tasmania, of which he has fond memories.

His fate appears to be an imminent cruise somewhere warmer . . . expats afloat . . . angst selling houses here and in Denmark, a base in the valleys of South Wales and package holidays abroad as long as his health holds out.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Granada to Albox . . .

. . . approaching Albox by bus allows me to position myself in the landscape . . . a long way to walk too . . . in Olula the bus stop places the bus almost on a roundabout and across a pedestrian crossing . . . a little late too, should be there by now . . . see a sign: Albox 11, think 2 hours . . . walking . . . 10 minutes perhaps . . . and a powder blue Nissan Micra . . . a slight pang of nostalgia for Rosy, who served me well and is now serving Rachel . . .

. . . Svein meets me at the hotel, as arranged; he is Norwegian, an artist, 80 years old, looking ten years younger . . . drive up to the village to meet Maureen, also looking younger than her 74 years . . . they live half the year here, half in Denmark where they have a gallery and a house, plus a little time en route either way in Maesteg, South Wales, Maureen's roots, where they have another house . . . Svein and I go for water (about which, more later), call into Angelita's Bar, where the Brit expats are gathered, for a glass of wine . . . back for a meal and wifi borrowed from next door . . .

I have a room and bathroom, sun terrace and the rest to share, food, in exchange for 5 hours work a day, weekends free . . . terms of engagement to be clarified, but the welcome is warm and a wealth of material to be processed, from the camino and from here, in the hills behind Almeria . . .

Tao

I touched on Tao from time to time already.
The title of the blog refers to it, the direction of travel being Rio Dao in the hills of central Portugal. Not the destination.

The first and only thing to know about it is this, from Lao Tse:

"The Tao that can be explained is not the immortal Tao."

He follows this fundamental point with another 80 verses, in the Tao Te Ching. I already mentioned the three treasures:

Simplicity, Patience, Compassion . . .

Other wisdom traditions share the basic ideas, yet somehow cannot resist trying to explain the inexplicable. Rituals begin, to try to point towards the truth. People mistake the ritual for the indescribable, fall in love with that. Label things and fall in love with the labels. Identify as Confucian, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Jain . . . sub-divide within these labels too. Then fight over whose label is right. Throughout thousands of years of human history we have killed and tortured in the name of love.

For a while, I proposed no labels but Love.
Even that was a barrier for one friend for whom the word had negative connotations.

I still avoid the "G" word, much to Reiner's disgust. Any word, label, that separates is not serving. Even Tao perhaps. If I ever identify as Taoist, you will know I'm not.

In the last century millions of people professing belief in the same God and the same rituals, more or less, went to war, with their respective archbishops, bishops and priests justifying the madness.

No wonder millions took a new label, wanting none of it, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Atheist.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said that attaching to any national or religious identity was an act of violence. Separation inevitably ensues. After that, wars. The camino is a good place to overcome all that. Many nationalities, many religions and none. The commonalities, mutualities shared daily.

Humans endeavour to understand the fundamental truth beneath all the complexity. Mystics bring insights from beyond. Scientists examine the material world, piece by piece, often losing sight of the fact that the pieces don't operate in isolation from each other. And sometimes forgetting the findings of quantum physics that there is no reality observable not affected by the observer. Which is tricky. If true.

I love the concentrated wisdom of the mystics and the brief summaries of the intellectuals that resonate. Sometimes I look behind, to see how they came to them. To be honest, I struggle with the detail. Joseph Campbell, J. Krishnamurti, David Bohm, Alan Watts . . . they dug deep, sifted the gold from the sludge, polished it and presented it. I am grateful.

I had enough of the Bible at school. Some of it stuck, especially the Golden Rule, shared with every other religion I think:

"Do unto others as you would have them do to you"

There is a sound reason in the underlying structure of the universe for following this rule; separation is an illusion, therefore what we do to others we also do to ourselves anyway.

I found Buddhism helpful in understanding the worlds. So multi-layered. Many of my role models are from that tradition. Matthieu Ricard, Thich Nat Hanh, Pema Chodron and the Dalai Lama. I was with Gary and 1800 other people in the Eden Theatre in Inverness a few years ago, when HHDL was on tour in Britain.

Russell Brand shared a platform with him on that tour (Birmingham I think), redeeming himself after his disgrace with Jonathan Ross. Russell Brand seems now a prophet for our times, the younger generation. A new Bill Hicks maybe.

The presence of the Dalai Lama was so powerful that day. Later, driving to Findhorn for a couple of days, we picked up hitch-hikers, including a Tibetan musician who had been on stage earlier and received a blessing from HHDL.
My main memory, amongst many, was of the Dalai Lama linking arms with schoolchildren, singing Auld Lang Syne, enjoying himself immensely, with no clue what was going on. The audience joined in, of course. Tears were running down my face. I was not the only one.

These role models attract us, sometimes affirming the role we are playing, other times drawing us to drop a role which no longer serves and create a new one.

Following the crowd, parental or peer  pressure, conditioning, and playing a role that doesn't suit, pretending adulation for role models that no longer inspire, insults the soul, distorts the psyche. Ancient and modern role models tempt you to try a more authentic role; not to copy them, but to be inspired by their example.

You know when it is working; life is flowing, unfolding effortlessly. Your performance is compelling, the supporting cast willing, the audience appreciative.

The key, for me, is to see that all the world really is a stage on which we play out our interconnected dramas. Each of us simultaneously the lead in our own play, supporting actor, minor player, extra, critic, audience in others' . . . with the opportunity to co-create our story.

The art of living: to use the gifts we come with to help create a beautiful act within the whole amazing, ongoing performance, to play it as if it were real, knowing that at the end we will go home, take a rest before it starts all over again . . .

What's all this got to do with Tao?

I don't know - it's a mystery . . .

Across Spain . . .

Jaca to Santiago on foot . . . Santiago to Granada to Albox by bus . . . changes gradual on foot and remarkable by bus . . . Galicia, familiarly Gallic . . . Andalusia more Moorish . . . too soon to comment on the character of the people . . . and perilous too, interplay of commonalities and difference a delicate dance . . . national, regional, class, gender, generational stereotypes, a fascinating field to mine for material . . . a minefield . . .

Madrid, I missed, except for an hour and a half between buses. Too big for me. City energy is different. I lived 15 years in London when I was young and tuned into that energy, drove red buses through the centre, played red politics, regularly visited Highbury to watch Arsenal in their red and white shirts, their 1-0 wins . . . boring, boring Arsenal they called them. Before Wenger arrived to entertain the crowd. When I went, the fans made their own entertainment, with witty songs, banter with visitors, occasional warfare.

This acceleration south was not in the plan, inasmuch as there was a plan. I was walking on to the Atlantic, south to Ourense for Helpx English teaching, on to Portugal. Chelo in Ourense postponed, having found a teacher for January, Maureen in Albox offered a couple of weeks in Andalusia. It felt right.

More walking in Spain and elsewhere is more than likely. I know now what is possible and what is enough.

For now, let's experience a little of life amongst the expats . . .

transport . . .

. . . has been a thread running through this life . . . mostly buses, minibuses . . . and playbuses, which are not transport as normally known, more mobile facility . . .

Speaking at the du-it (Durham Integrated Transport) conference some years ago, I said I was not really interested in transport per se; du-it was about social justice. Yet somehow I had found a niche amongst the transport experts: Penny Marshall from Government Office North East and the Department for Transport, Professor John Nelson from the Transport Operations Research Group at Newcastle University (subsequently at Aberdeen University), Brian Masson, once a manager at National Express, now an independent consultant, collaborating with John on EU research projects; sometime advisor on integrated transport to the Scottish government and the US Transportation Authority . . . Cameron and me, social entrepreneurs with big ideas . . . Penny, John and Brian good friends with common interests and values . . .

. . . then there were the folks who loved transport too much . . . went to bus rallies in their spare time . . . somehow found themselves in charge at transport departments of local authorities . . . they had a grudging respect for my experience driving routemaster buses in London (not realising that was only a cover for my mission to infiltrate a key industry, ready for the coming revolution - I took my self more seriously in those days). . . they never understood the du-it concept, which was not over attached to buses, but started from trying to understand who needed to go where, for what, then seeing who was providing what for whom and how . . . examining public budgets, looking for duplication (triplication often), identifying the gaps . . . John and Brian's research suggested 30% savings on the overall public spend, with a much improved service . . . Brian presented the idea to the County Treasurer in Durham, we shared it with senior executives at the councils, health authority, bus companies . . . elected representatives at all levels, including the local Members of Parliament, all of whom supported (some even vaguely understood it) . . .

. . . power, however, was held not anywhere accountable, but in the stodgy middle of it all . . . not a forward looking power, but a reactionary one, trying to keep things as they were, with the power brokers able to stop change for a while, through their nefarious networks of opaque obstruction . .  and not understanding that in a world where change is a constant and each new form moves remorselessly to entropy . . . standing still is to move backwards . . .

. . . the trigger for revisiting the subject is not to dwell on any perceived injustice, though the transport system in County Durham is still in need of transformation, but the observation here in Spain that the bus system is working well . . . after a month of walking, this is my third day of bus travel, fourth bus . . . well laid out bus stations along the way (the ones observed and not on the English leg of the trip - Winchester ready for demolition, Southampton, Salisbury, Bournemouth gone, Plymouth going, Poole and Exeter hanging on) . . . modern buses, clear systems, friendly and skilful drivers, and punctual so far . . . at Baza after a 5 minute comfort break, the driver counts us, not happy with the result, asks, looks around a bit, leaves . . . punctuality and potentially absent passengers incompatible . . .

. . . none of this is about the broader picture of integration, which may appear later, as I settle down for a while . . . not that I wish to play the role of transport expert again particularly, I was typecast in that role long enough . . .

. . . and in this morning's role of bus passenger/writer, I had fun finding the way from the centre of Granada to the bus station on the edge of the city, seeing the holiday activity, snowboarders off to the Sierra Nevada, Spaniards going home to family, tourists looking for buses to Madrid, Barcelona, Benidorm (why?), Valencia . . .  buying my ticket to Albox, standing back whilst the other passengers hurried for the seats they wanted (maybe reserved, mine was not), played the game of hanging onto both seats even though they only paid for one (this game is played on trains too) . . . my game is to wander down the aisle, trying to catch a gaze, see if anyone wants my company . . . they don't, but there is a double towards the back . . . sit down, reverse roles for latecomers, look at them with inviting eyes . . . a middle aged woman sits next to me, though there are other options, albeit blocked by bags and coats, or the sole occupant sitting in the aisle seat, eyes averted . . . she is Spanish, speaks no English, I tell her I speak no Spanish, but in clear Spanish . . . anyway, she chooses not to help me improve in the time we have together . . . the driver re-inforces the seat belt information with an announcement . . . clunk-click all round; my new friend fastens her belt, helpfully hands me mine . . . I smile, whisper "no hablo Espanol" conspiratorially, she understands . . . health and safety gone mad and even Spaniards comply . . . not me, I'm playing rebellious Englishman, writing about transport between taking in the view . . . and, dear reader, if you ever wondered where all that olive oil comes from . . .

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Santiago to Granada

Santiago turned out better than expected; tourist tat less tatty than Lourdes. In summer, they say, it's different . . . thousands of pilgrims arriving every day.

The overnight bus to Madrid retraced part of the camino, which was weird . . . waking up to see signs to Samos, in Ponferrada bus station . . . I was in that different dimension I observed when walking . . . rushing along . . . trying to sleep . . .

This was my first visit to Madrid. An hour and a half to wait for the Granada bus and I decide to skip the Prado. Finding a cafe near the bus station proves impossible and the one inside is a hellhole . . . mostly for the staff, who have it all day . . . I finally get a coffee there . . . work out where my bus is leaving from and that's Madrid. It's big.

Leaving at 8, we drive south in the dawn, full sun . . . 30 minute rest stop in Andalusia service station for coffee outside in the warm . . . then Granada . . .

Another big city, but manageable . . . the Alhambra towering over it . . . a meal in a vegan restaurant . . . find a hotel run by a German woman, Maria, who married a Spanish man from Mellilla, the enclave in North Africa. €30 for the ensuite room and a base to wander awhile then sleep ten hours.

The Camino de Santiago de Compostella is over for now. The camino of Wear and Dao continues, though diverting from Portugal . . . it has its own life and will not be tied down . . .

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Santa Irene to Santiago

A good night's sleep alone in the albergue and awake early, ready for the 23km into Santiago. I set off at 7.30. in the dark and aiming to have breakfast in the next town, 3km down the road. Yesterday's roadside walk was rather risky, lorries rushing past a metre away in places, so I go for the camino, which is well made up hereabouts . . . since Sarria it wants to be cycle and wheelchair friendly. The municipal albergues may be soulless, but they are accessible. Parts of the route less so, even where public works have made a concrete surface through small villages, farmers with their tractors have laid mud, laced with cowshit for authenticity. A good off-road wheelchair would cope with most of it, but any accessible route is only as good as its weakest point.
Cafe con leche grande comes with generous helpings of cake . . . other pilgrims are setting off . . . dawn is coming slowly and I set off again, through woods and villages . . . fall in with Julia and Matthias, who have walked from Austria and still holding hands. We share philosophy until the village before Santiago, where they are staying. They are seeking a community of like minded folks, God and Jesus, though not stridently so . . . we find love is enough for half an hour . . .

On the way in a pilgrim hails me: Antonio from Portugal, walking to Lourdes, looking for work. I share the food I just bought for the bus, give him some change for a coffee.
Later, a beggar asks for money so he can eat. I offer him food. No, money. Another one the same story. Living without money is an art; if you want money for food, accept the food. Harsh?

In Santiago, I see the signpost for the bus station, go there first, already thinking of getting out of Santiago . . . nice enough, but not the point of my camino . . . for the last week or so I have seen it as a camino touristico and switched from pilgrim/writer to long distance walker, pushing myself to 40, 45, 50 km a day . . . see what's possible.

Dear reader, you may have noticed the writing has suffered. Never mind, there is plenty of material stored up for later . . .

The direct bus to Granada turns out to be a summer event and I leave for Madrid at 21.30, arrive 06.30, Granada bus at 08.00, arrive 13.00 . . . after that, we'll see.

I find a pilgrim centre for credential stamp, which may open a door in Granada . . . decline the certificate saying I walked the camino. Then, a pilgrim welcome centre run by American missionaries. Lovely people, helping without preaching. I give them some J. Krishnamurti anyway.

Leaving the rucksack with them I find a restaurant, then back for coffee and wifi, some conversation with Maggie, working on a documentary - Walking the Camino, www.caminodocumentary.org

One month since starting out in France, over 900 km and it's enough. Lots of folks are addicted to camino life. Not me, I'm off to Andalusia and Helpx adventure. With lots of life enhancing material to share, when I get back into writer role.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Palas de Rei to Santa Irene

Up early after a cold night. No blankets and the heating wasn't very good. The poncho doesn't really work as a duvet.

Since I was up, I decided to go early, get 5km done along the road in the dark, then see how I felt. I am thinking about the overnight bus to Granada tomorrow and wanted to have a short day to Santiago, look around, then get on the bus at 16.25. No idea if it's running, if they have a seat, how much it costs or what time it arrives.

Anyway, my long day, 45km, has left me with 23km for the morning. Perfect.

My last night in a Galician municipal albergue, and it's better. The hospitaliera (not sure if that's the right word, nice women, but I don't think they have walked the camino), as expected has no blankets, but she offers me her sleeping bag. I am the only one here, so will soon be catching up on my sleep, having dined on maize bread, sheeps cheese and tomato. And some sweet water from the last fountain.

With luck, my next bed will be on a bus.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Portomarin to Palas de Rei

Last night, with 90 km to go, there were a
few options: two more 45s, three 30s, three 25s and a nice 15 to finish . . . depending on albergues, of course. Having confirmed with Maureen in Andalusia that I would arrive Monday or Tuesday, I was also thinking about hitch-hiking down.

Waking early, ready for a longish day, I realised I had left the adaptor for the Tablet charger in the restaurant where I had sought food, drink, electricity and wifi . . . the journey wanted to slow down. Yesterday I had pushed myself and discovered what could be done on a long day's walking. It was more than enough.

I wandered round to the restaurant at eight, but no sign of life, had a coffee in a bar and returned to the albergue. A brief and uplifting conversation with Jean-Pierre, on his way out. German, with a French name, gypsy. Living free, wandering.
Henning, from Heidleberg, has a different perspective. He takes this talk of living free as a criticism of his more traditional life. It's not. Just different. I first met him in Najera and was surprised to see him here. He started in Pamplona, saying his fitness level was not up to crossing the Pyrenees. He said he had hitch-hiked some of the way. Previously a finance director, he finds himself out of work at 56. Difficult, especially when you have a family and a comfortable life.

Then a longer connection with Alexis, from Nantes. He is going the other way, heading towards Perpignan, some work to sustain his travels. The camino is revealing a parallel world, where people live a different life from the mainstream, and seem to enjoy it.

Finally, having retrieved the adaptor, I set off at 10.30, looking at a 25 km, 5 hour day.
There is high cloud and easy walking. After two and a half hours, I pass a restaurant, sit down outside an albergue, make jam sandwiches with the last of the bread, and enjoy a quick lunch. Tania, the hospitalera from Portomarin drives up, opens up. I fill my water bottle, wash my hands, say goodbye, head off up the trail. Looking behind I see last night's albergue residents, five Germans, two French come out of the restaurant and follow behind. The French two pass, but don't pull away, the Germans are close enough behind to be heard too. I feel a little crowded after all day yesterday and this morning walking alone. I prefer it that way. I find a wall to sit on, take a rest, let them go on.

After an hour, arriving at a bar, everyone is there, enjoying the sun. I stop for a coffee, sit with the French two, find out about their camino. Aude is a special education teacher, Theotim her student. He had the choice: prison or camino. Some enlightened body is funding this amazing opportunity. If it changes his life it will be money well spent.

And so to Palas de Rei. After two Galician municipal albergues, I look for an alternative. They are soulless. Designed by bureaucrats, with no sign of any input from pilgrims. The regional government is in charge. In other areas the municipal albergues are run by local councils, with voluntary hospitaleros.
With these the heating is on all night, but no blankets are available. The first had no kitchen, the next a kitchen but no pots, plates or anything to make it useful.

In the end, after only briefly considering a room in a pension for €30, I fall back on the municipal albergue. Same format, but this is older, the rooms smaller. The kitchen has two pots and three plates. Anselm, from Germany, invites me to the shared meal he is preparing with Henning, Aude and Theotim. Which is nice.

On the wall is information about ALSA buses. They run every day from Santiago, taking pilgrims home, or wherever they are going. Except those walking on or back, of course. The Granada one leaves at 16.25, so an overnight trip . . . Saturday or Sunday?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Triacastela to Portomarin

Out at 6.15, planning 10km to Samos, on the road, in the dark. Then 11km to Sarria with the light and see what happens after that - Portomarin 24km on from there, a possibility.

It is drizzly again, so not much help from the stars. New moon briefly appears, with misty aura, to say hello. The information from yesterday that bears are in the woods is slightly unwelcome now, but it's just two hours, following the white line at the side of the road, ignoring camino offers to divert . . . a long walking meditation.

Coffee at Samos, beside the massive monastery, then off again, dawn having arrived damply. Soon there is a choice: straight on alongside the road or divert into the hills. My mind says road, heart says hills. Which adds an hour to the stage, but it needed slowing down. Up and down along tracks and quiet back roads, through woods and past camino facilities closed for winter.

Outside Sarria, a picnic lunch of bread and cheese, the apples I picked at Rabanal. Drier now and mild.

In Sarria I consider the options. A German pilgrim says Portomarin is a long way; he is staying here, waiting for the albergue to open at two. The bloke who serves my coffee says it's not so far, four hours walking. Either way, it's 24 km, the weather is fine, it's 1.45, and if I keep going I will be there before dark. Anyway, there are a couple of open albergues before.

After a steep climb, the route becomes easy. Level, good surfaces, made up lanes and back roads. Looking rather like Teesdale, albeit with a motorway viaduct in the distance.

At Ferrieros an old woman selling raspberry jam. I buy some. How far to Portomarin? 12, she says. I believe her, plan afternoon tea with the jam at 3, and push on. She was optimistic, but it lifted me and the jam, bread and cheese energised me too.

The last 5 drags, I can see the town, but have to go down and up again. Finally, I find the municipal albergue. 5.30 pm. Eleven hours on the road, nearly ten walking, 45 km. Only 90 to Santiago, then a long trip south, though not walking.

A Camino business idea . . .

The Camino is big business for small businesses. Albergues, cafes, bars, all making a living from the 300,000 a day pilgrims walking the ways to Santiago.

There is a niche product waiting to be produced and marketed. It will retail at under €5, be manufactured in Spain and be the must have camino accessory next year.

It is so simple, it will be copied, made in China, sold cheaper, so it is important to be discreet, set up the investment, design, manufacture and distribution (through the albergues).

Proceeds will be used to finance new forms of living sustainably, in harmony with nature.

If you have skills and experience which can be applied to this project and more important the heart for it, get in touch.

steve.placetobe@gmail.com

pilgrims

What does it mean, to be a pilgrim?

There are many different people walking towards Santiago, some walking home or somewhere else. The generic name is pilgrim, though several folks I have met are critical of others, saying they are not "proper pilgrims". It is not a label I am always comfortable with to be honest.

This is a centuries old catholic route and the catholics are very generous towards those of all religions and none. Of course, pilgrimages have gone on all over the world for a long time. Muslims to Mecca, various destinations for Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and what have you. Canterbury in England.

For some, the destination is important, for others, not at all. For many, the daily, moment by moment, experience is the thing.

Jose-Antonio, the Spanish Air Force Colonel (retired), has strong views about it. A pilgrim lives simply, walks mostly alone, respects the people and places along the way. The couple we met in Carrion he called "tourists". In the summer there are hundreds of thousands on the road. Many young people see it as an adventure and, Juanma, Luis and others pointed out, a cheap holiday.

With the warning that judgement and discernement are different; one about the person, the other the behaviour, I venture my own views as a part-time pilgrim.

The graffiti along the way, in the albergues, on the bunk beds, is one of my personal dislikes, along with the litter. Neither was apparent in Aragon, but both are increasingly evident as we near Santiago.

I also consider folks walking all the way in company, chattering, may be missing something. I have aways enjoyed solitude, never more so than on the camino. Adrien regretted missing the opportunity. He is very gregarious and it can be hard to tell people you want to be alone.

Maybe another generic word is needed - caminoisto/a . . . clumsy . . . caminard, more French . . .

The tourist trade is full on with it, pilgrim menus (Juanma joked: do they charge non-pilgrims a different price?), pilgrim accomodation, not just the simple albergues, TV if you want it. A bath would be good after a long day's walk; there is always a hot shower, but not a bath. Swimming pools along the way though.

Luis said the camino is "Life concentrated", I see that. Juanma called it "Pure Tao". I'm not sure about that. It seems the pilgrims (whoever they may be), are being swamped by the tourists. Maybe the authentic caminos would be made by each pilgrim or caminard as they wandered, finding pure connection of hospitality to strangers, which is lost as tourism takes over.

"With each step you take, your own path you make."

theology, history, philosophy

Last night at the Pequeno Potala, I talked with Veronika and Johannes before supper. They were students together, studying theology. They belong to a Swiss based, free church. Service in the community is part of their work. We got into the question of religions and where they go wrong. Neither were convinced by the Catholic or Protestant mainstream. They do hold a key place for Jesus though. I'm picking up pieces of information and conjecture suggesting the Jesus story has been doctored by power players. That he was married to Mary Magdalene, never crucified, perhaps a prophet, like many others. Visiting from the ascended masters' realm, with the same message in a contemporary context. I consider raising the questions with Veronika and Johannes, then see that it is not going to help. They are fixed in their belief, like Reiner.

At dinner, Jose-Antonio, retired Spanish Air Force Colonel, tells a story from the Peninsular War of 1812. The British troops discovered Bierzo wine. The planned battle with the Spanish had to be postponed for two days, while they sobered up. Which shows something interesting about warfare, codes of honour.

His attention turns to World War 2. The head of German special operations was labelled the most dangerous man in Europe. He was captured by the Americans, who didn't know what to do with him. The British head of special operations, who was on good terms with the German, advised him to escape, which he did.

We drink a toast with our Bierzo wine, two Spaniards, two Germans and a Brit: No more wars.

And the philosophy I already mentioned. Luis and Carlos, holding no particular religious views, just taking care of the pilgrims. A beautiful dinner, a warning to stay quiet until 7am, and on the dot of 7, Ave Maria blasts out of the speakers, followed by Abba's I Believe in Angels, then Always Look on the Bright Side from Monty Python's Life of Brian; the sacred, saccharine and sacriligious working in harmony.

Then the best breakfast I've had in Spain, to send us on our way.

Ruitelan to Triacastela

A head in the clouds day. I expect it is spectacular, but it was drizzle in the dark at the start, low cloud and light rain in the middle and only clearing for the last hour down into Triacastela.

Last week it was heavy snow, so the drizzle is better than that; at least we can walk.

8 hours walking, head down, one foot in front of the other, a brief stop after 3 at a tourist trap called Cerbreiro, where the five from last night briefly re-assembled. I haven't seen them since.

My focus now is on Santiago, in four days. It's 130 km, so if I put in a good 35km shift the next couple of days, I should be there Saturday. That would a month of walking from France. Let's see.

There is an invitation for two weeks Helpx in Andalusia, so I will give the Atlantic a miss and head down to Granada on Sunday maybe. Winter further south sounds good, though it is mild here now.

The albergue is quiet. Three Koreans in one room, me in another. Planning an early start, get five or more kilometres done before daylight.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Ponferrada to Ruitelan

An early-ish departure from the beautiful albergue at Ponferrada.

Breakfast with my room-mate, Patrick. In August he was in England, visiting the ancient sites, Stonehenge, Avebury and others. Like Reiner, he is a God and Jesus man, not impressed with the subsequent organised version. Like Reiner, rather serious too.

Yesterday I showed him the large bar of chocolate with almonds, my daily energy boost. The 30 km walking transfigures a guilty luxury into a delicious staple. Except when I gorge on it, which happens.

Chocolate is my sin, Patrick says. Want some, I ask. Oh, no thank you, he says, without conviction.

This morning I fry the end of my bread in butter, offer some with honey. No, you have it, he says, maybe just a little chocolate. I press the bread on him anyway, then the chocolate. He is salivating before the packet is even open. Strangely, chocolate for breakfast is not my thing. I tempt him with a little more. He struggles briefly, accepts. More? I am playing the devil now, but we laugh at the game, and there is still chocolate for the road.

Jose-Antonio, the 40km a day Madrileno, gives me a tip about avoiding unnecessary diversions to villages with spending opportunities. His target is Ruitelan and the Pequeno Potala albergue.

Xavier has briefed me about albergues open after Villafranca, so I have options, and an idea for Ruitelan, over 40km away.
Juanma mentioned the albergue as being Buddhist and I am intrigued.

I am first out at 7.30, pass the Templar Castle, ignore the yellow arrows taking me round it, head through the city asking locals for directions, picking up the Calle de Camino de Santiago, which looks promising, becomes the local road and after a few kilometres the camino joins us, suggesting I probably took a short cut.

After an hour and more on the straight road, with village after village without open country between them, I cross a motorway, this time on a pedestrian bridge. On through vineyards - Bierzo is the local wine and I think about a glass with lunch. Which I do at Villafranca, four and a half hours from Ponferrada. Agatha, the Polish woman at the bar offers garlic soup, tortilla, tomato, bread . . . and the wine, which is not the best idea on a 40km day.

The camino follows the main road most of the way after Villafranca, winding under the motorway which has supplanted it and made it very quiet. At 3, I consider options to stop at 30km and 35, and keep going, walking through the wine induced tired-ness, finally reaching Ruitelan and the Pequeno Potala at 5pm.

Nati, Veronika and Johannes are already here. Jose-Antonio arrives later.

The albergue is run by Luis and Carlos. After the four course meal they serve us (with a carafe of Bierzo), I ask about the Buddhism. Luis explains it is not Buddhism or any other religion, just serving the pilgrims. The camino, he says, is life concentrated. They are doing their thing here and it's a great experience.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Rabanal to Ponferrada

It was dark and drizzly leaving Rabanal at 7 am, Augustus and Alphonso thinking about breakfast. Warm hugs after our Anglo- Lithuanian bonding session of the last two days and a separate blog to describe it.

The road was without cars this early on a Sunday. Anyway, it's a local road, not a motorway. The camino follows it, with opportunities to divert a while.

My rambling post exploring the topic of research yesterday conceptually is now enriched by Life School. A poster in the Rabanal albergue shows Gaudi's fine building in Astorga - the museum of the Camino. Quite a good place to research the topic, but I missed it. Since I do not know whether the road and the path go together to Ponferrada, I have to find out for myself. When I asked Fernando about the 33km stage he only said it was hard, with the climb and very steep descent.

After 15 minutes or so of contentedly plodding along the white line in the centre of the road, the camino goes off to the left. I consider and follow it, which is trickier in the dark, watching out for rocks and puddles. Torch is helpful. A little excitement, then returned to the relative security of the road. Hard to lose, not sure to go to Ponferrada yet, but heading up and west; good enough and I am enjoying the interior journey, easier when the walking takes care of itself.

The first village appears after an hour, yesterday's destination for most of the Astorga crew. The road offers an alternative route for cyclists, I don't want coffee, stay on the road. After another hour, a mountain refuge, soon after a Spanish couple putting on capes against the drizzle. We talk briefly. They stayed at the mountain refuge, just starting their day's walking. A warm connection, then a camino option. They seem reluctant to offend, but prefer the path dropping down. I prefer the road. We part. I ask their names. Angel and Amor. Angel and Love. I smile, they smile too, though they must have this reaction all the time. Perhaps we will talk more later. For now, it's a perfect moment, maybe from another dimension.

And so on, lifted by the trees and the mountains.

Francisco said the first part of the Camino was for the body, physical; the second part for the mind, mental; the third part for the soul, spiritual. He has researched it, so maybe it wasn't his thought, but I am starting to see it.

After three and a half hours, El Acebo, La Casa del Peregrinos and another angel - Ana, from La Casa del Peregrino, not to be confused with another one on the way out of town, with a swimming pool and looking very touristy.

Ana greets me with a sincere smile, serves my large cafe con leche and chocolate muffin, points me to the log burner, turns on the lights in that part of the bar. I spread out my wet clothes to dry by the fire, then start to write, post to Facebook.

Since I am nearly halfway, I take my time, request a carahillo, another muffin. Ask for photos for you to see. Ana brings a complimentary Oruja de Hierbas, a local liqueur, which is delicious.

On over the top, down towards Ponferrada, clearly visible below, though a long road with hairpin bends to follow first. The rain stops, sun tries his best and the road is easy. After yesterday's rest and food, I have plenty of energy and barely stop until Ponferrada, having dreamt up a brand new idea to share later.

The albergue here is church run, very peaceful, without wifi. I fetch food from the supermarket attached to the service station with bar, all called La Peregrina . . . the (female) pilgrim. An unlikely name for a place for cars, but the pilgrim theme wants unpacking soon. I am grateful for the food, now cooked and shared with Patrick, who brings rice, my French room-mate tonight, Augustus and Alphonso, who arrived just before 6 and go for wine, bread and cheese and Amor and Angel, who come in as we are eating our international meal. Angel does the dishes. . . . grateful also for the pastries and wifi . . .

A great day in the mountains, lots more stories under construction, a great idea for a new product and, after two days practicing to be a hospitalier as I would like to see it, buying olive oil, salt, coffee and leaving what we did not use, Xavier, Catalan pilgrim and hospitalier here has done just that.

Tomorrow, up into the mountains again, and a forecast of a sunny day. An intriguing offer from Almeria via Helpx too . . .

Saturday, 13 December 2014

research. . .

Some people like research. Going very deeply into a specific subject. I prefer to wander across, picking up the pieces of the jigsaw the researchers discovered, trying to see the big picture. Shallow.

Readers may have noticed I did not research the Camino much before setting off. I am discovering it day by day. Or this part of it anyway. The routes are all over the place. Like a parallel universe. This thought hung around yesterday, as I plodded along the path from Leon to Astorgas, the N120 on one side, the motorway on the other. The cars, lorries and buses, their drivers, might as well have been in a different dimension.

I will probably read more about the whole camino thing when I finish. Perhaps watch the film that has encouraged lots of Americans to come.

I didn't consciously not research it, but I enjoy it better with some surprises. Early on, it was important to know where the albergues were. Now they are every 5 or 10 kilometres.

And, of course, the best researched plan still has to respond to changing circumstances day by day.

hospitality and tourism

It is interesting to observe how the impulse to offer hospitality to visitors can become corrupted by the lure of money.

It happens all over. The camino is not immune. There has always been an economic element; routing the way through particular towns brought prosperity. For every pilgrim travelling simply, there were two or three spending freely.

Arriving in Leon early in the morning, I found a bar near the cathedral for a coffee with complimentary churro ( sausage shaped doughnut, traditionally dipped in chocolate). I added a pastry. The young woman serving had a sincere smile. €3.50 seemed fine, especially as I had half an hour of free wifi too.

Later that day, I returned for a late lunch. Not wanting meat, I went off the tourist menu and had a salad, some chips (which turned out to be the ready made variety), some tortilla, a glass of wine. With the basket of bread, it was filling. When I went to pay, the young woman went to ask her boss how much to charge. He sent her to ask his boss. Maybe her father and mother, I don't know. She looked unhappy, brought the bill. The tourist price, plus the wine. I smiled, paid, left her a good tip. Her soul was insulted and I wanted her to know I knew.

The next day, on the road, at San Martin, I called into a bar for a coffee solo. Another young woman with a lovely smile. Tortilla, cake or biscuit, she asked. Cake please. She filled a small glass with orange juice. €1 for all of it. She asked about the camino, said she would like to do it one day.

This morning in Astorga a similar contrast. In search of an early coffee. I found a back street bar. The owner looked grumpy, served my cafe con leche. I asked for two churros. €2.50.

Back in the centre, I felt like more coffee, maybe a better experience. In the Sonrisa Bar, two smiley young women. Coffee solo, with complimentary churros, €1. Also asked about the walk, offered a cheery "buen camino" when I left. After packing at the alberge, I was tempted back to Sonrisas. A carahillo please. The coffee solo arrived, complimentary churros, two small bottles with pouring spouts. Which do you want, conac or aguedente? I pour some clear spirit in. Warms me up for the wet walk ahead. €1 for all of it. And another "buen camino" to set me on my way. Churros for breakfast, faith in humanity restored.

As the Camino Frances gets closer to Santiago, the alberges and bars multiply. Special pilgrim menus. ( Juanma joked: do non-pilgrims pay a different price?) Yet there is still an underlying respect for the tradition. At the risk of stereotyping, I think it is stronger back in the mountains than on the plain.

As for the pilgrim menus, the best food has been collectively bought, cooked and shared by the pilgrims in the alberge kitchens.

Yesterday's lunch of bread, sheep's cheese, tomato washed down with water from the fountain outside the church in Hospital de Obrigo was special too. Simplicity.

Astorga to Rabanal del Camino

. . . light rain and a forecast of snow as I headed out at 8.45. The road was easy, the climb gradual. At El Ganso a coffee stop and a good chat with Grecia from Chile and Hassan from Lebanon, both now living in California and rather sceptical about the American Dream. Like many of the current camino crew, pressing on to Santiago and home for Christmas.

At Rabanal, a steady four hours, the municipal albergue is looked after by Fernando, who lives nearby. All very relaxed, beds instead of bunks, a wood burner the only heating, so likely to be chilly in the morning. Augustus and Alphonso arrive, to make it a geriatric trio. They are from Lithuania and both older than me. The others from Astorga have gone on 7 km to the next albergue. My legs wanted a rest and if I get started early tomorrow, the 33km to Ponferrada should be fine. The snow hasn't come yet, maybe by morning and sun to follow. That will be very nice.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Leon to Astorga . . .

. . . nearly 50 km if you don't get lost . . . which I did, briefly.

Last night I saw three options: stay another day in Leon; walk 20 or 30 km; push past my known limits and go for Astorga.

Since I woke early, fresh, alert and legs ready to go, I set off at 5.30 with options 2 and 3 still open. Walking out of a city in the dark is not as easy as walking in. All roads go to the centre. Following the yellow arrows from the cathedral was fine for a while, but I soon lost them. A helpful local put me right and I plodded through the suburbs in the clammy cold mist. No moon to light my way, stars to enchant me,sunrise to amaze me, nor sun to warm me.
Following the N120, which the camino does all the way, I came to a junction with the Oviedo motorway, having missed the yellow arrows taking me round and under. After a while I realised I was heading north, on a local road alongside the motorway. To turn round or cross the motorway and pick up the slip road back to the N120? The safety folks had built a shoulder high fence to prevent option two. I climbed it anyway. The motorway was quiet and I was soon back on route and soon after the camino emerged, then invited me to cross the four lane and busy N120. Do they think I'm crazy? I stay on the hard shoulder, my reflective vest tied to my rucksack letting the traffic know I'm there.

That was about it for excitement. The path was straight and mostly flat and it was a question of one foot in front of the other for ten hours. I took four brief rest stops, got into my head, plodded on and arrived at the beautiful city of Astorga around 4.30.

Collecting a bag of vegetables from the supermarket and a bottle of red for €0.75 (drinkable for someone with my rough palate and a great addition to the cooking), I made a tasty stew, shared with and appreciated by three Korean women, who seemed surprised that vegetables chopped up and cooked became dinner.

A sign at reception opens opportunities I have considered, to be a hospitalero . . . now I have a contact . . . all those pilgrims with their stories . . .

Tomorrow looks like a half day, 20 km, uphill . . . finally off this interminable plain.
And some tourism in Astorga before setting off a little later than the last few days.