Random musings of a wandering soul

Up In The Mountains

”Today you begin to enter the mountains in earnest,” said the guide book. “What else have you been doing the past three days?” I asked myself. The elevation maps in the book gave me a jolt of reality. All the struggle had got me up an elevation of at the most two hundred meters. I had been following the path of ‘Naaraanathu Bhraandan. Up, down, up, down, repeat. And I thought it was just up. Even thoughts could be deceptive, I realized. Today It would be a straight up of five hundred meters in the first seven kilometers then short climbs up and down again for the remaining thirteen.

None of these facts could dampen my spirit in that morning. Must have been the cognac in the coffee. The hotel had not woken up at seven. A few meters down the road, a cafe on the left looked welcoming with a golden glow. I pushed the door open, and was stopped in my track for a few minutes. Mother Mary was sitting at a table in blue jeans and a red jacket. A slightly older version, albeit. The face was a perfect heart with a sharp chin and broad forehead. Exquisite eyebrows crowned a pair of brown eyes that had just a hint of sadness and kindness exuded from within. A warm mysterious smile completed the picture.

“Mariella, from Mexico,” said she, extending her hands.

”Beautiful name,” I said, as if in a trance.

A gruff voice interrupted the vision, “Yes, beautiful.”

A slightly older man with a thick, graying mustache smiled at me from the opposite end of the table. He kept nodding, again saying, “yes, yes.” It took me a few moments to realize he meant not the name, but the woman. He did not know any other English. They owned a mango orchard somewhere near the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It was her third camino, she said. And his first. That look of absolute adoration and tender care for his woman is something I am not going to forget in a very long time. It takes years, maybe a lifetime for your eyes to speak like that I guess. Or, does it? Who knows? Maybe they do.

Ane and Sonya were peeping from outside. I waved at them to come in. Piping hot coffee and a piece of toast later, I was ready. The orange juice that the cafe owner offered was very politely refused. Not another bout of morning sickness, I had decided. River Nonaya on the right sang tenderly and provided the background music for a meditative walk. Others starting passing me by, one after another, nothing new. I was content, and this was no competition. Will walk till I fall, was the mantra for the day.

I was reminded of John Kaag’s words in ‘Hiking With Nietzsche’

“The dull ache of lactic acid building in your quads and calves slowly reminds you that flesh—your flesh—is still alive. The control that one has over the pain is strangely affirming: Can you make it to the next rise, to the next outcropping of rocks? Life is often painful or bothersome, but the hiker, at the very least, gets to determine how he or she is meant to suffer.”

The cognac seemed to have opened my eyes too to the wonder around. The past three days, the focus was inward. The rumbling in my tummy, the pain on my feet, the aching shins, the weight that bent my back, there was hardly anything else I could think of, in spite of catching a few glimpses of the beautiful views around now and then. Today, my world was being turned inside out.

 

Or was it the magic of the mountains? The air was definitely cooler, there was a gentle breeze to caress me, the paths were lined by trees on both sides and the tarred roads seemed to be something of the past.

6A459053-F539-4F51-9120-FD3EB90CAB40

It started drizzling slightly. The few pilgrims that I could see ahead had all stopped and were pulling their rain ponchos out. A tall hefty girl in a black turtleneck walked past in a hurry. She stopped, looked back and said, “raise your hiking poles a bit, your walk will be easier.” Her voice was so authoritative and that tone was something I was most definitely not used to.  I couldn’t do anything but obey.

It was the turn of a gypsy girl next. She walked by as though floating in air. Light brown hair, half of which was gathered in a knot on top of her head and the other half dancing in the wind, she introduced herself with a disarming smile that reached the depths of her warm brown eyes,

”Sada, Madrid. Little English.”

”Bindu, India. Very very little Spanish,” I replied.

“Degree, sociology. Now, work with mental people,” she said drawing a circle above her head.

”Buen Camino,” and she was gone.

The sun chased the rain clouds away and shined down in triumph. I stopped by a fence, looked down at the meadow in front and a took a deep breath. And plonked myself down on the grass.

8BABF66B-85DC-4A50-A987-177121E18A33

‘Hi,” said a male voice. Mark Ruffalo turned slightly plump. “From Holland,” he continued. An old man was coming up the path as we were exchanging pleasantries. Ruffalo introduces him to me, “Pierre, from Canada.” He had the most glorious smile and when he laughed, the earth and everything around echoed his laughter. I mean, the old man, not the Dutch guy. His smile was charming too. Pure joy lighted up the old man’s face and you could not but smile back at him. A lifetime of laughter had left a million crinkles at the corners of his eyes. Another old man and two young boys followed Pierre.

“The boys are catching a bus back tomorrow morning, “ said Mr. Holland.

”Why?” I asked them in surprise.

”We have a life, unlike these crazy old men” their love for the men was so evident in that light hearted banter. They had no inclination to stop and chat. Holland stayed on. And the bells on my inbuilt radar were ringing wildly. “Beware of this charmer,” they seemed to warn my heart. And its logical partner, the brain scoffed, “at this age?” “Shut up,” I shouted at both of them, silently.

”I need a break, you carry on,” I told him. Did his steps carry a sound of reluctance? I would like to believe so. Someone paying attention, anyone paying attention for that matter, at an age when you thought you were invisible was a bloody good feeling, now that I think of it.

Another water fountain…

2B4CCAC3-949F-4D3F-B322-5BE7F16E277D.png

….a couple of villages with a few houses in between, yet another stone church…

DF3A9053-126B-4D02-B25F-E506388D7148

…anothsteep climb and a sharp bend in the road, the most charming little cafe welcomed my tired feet and carefree soul.

F1D83631-D33C-41DF-8F54-483EB611A88F

Agua fria ,” I told the girl at the counter very confidently. Her smile betrayed the fact that she knew me for the fraud señorita that I was trying to be.

Ensalada mixta,” I added. That lovingly condescending smile could not dampen the spirit of this budding Spaniard.

177B0888-8C8E-47D7-9E55-90DAB0BA6B9E

When it came to asking for directions, I had to concede defeat. Out came Google translator. “Go down, turn right at the junction, then again right, and then on the left,” she gestured with her hands and eyes.

It was past five by then. A part of the town of Tineo lay in the valley on the left. Layer after layer of blue and green mountains stretched for an eternity beyond the box-like houses in the distance.

5EAE390E-1D63-4766-8239-60B29303F5B8

The old men and their young ones greeted me at the entrance of the same hotel. After a long day on the road, it felt like reaching home. How much ever far you run, it is home that beckons you at the end of the day. A hot bath, a warm bed, a few smiling faces, something to fill your stomach, you are home.

 

 

 

Agua fria – cold water

Ensalada Mixta – Mixed salad 

Pilgrim to Tourist

Being in a common room can make you feel quite guilty. About the random noises that you might make while asleep, getting up in the middle of the night and fumbling around because you have no clue where you are, turning on the main switch instead of the one for your bedside lamp, the list could go on forever. But then, sometimes the fatigue overtakes the guilt factor and you sleep like a log.

Most journeys start with good intentions. So did mine on the third day. Up by six, taking care not to disturb others, I sneaked out with my bag and all the items that were strewn around, the toilet bag, clothes that were out for drying et al. Someone had beaten me in the waking up game already. The Russian girl. She offered me a pack of biscuits.  She was ready and was off in a few minutes with a “Buen Camino,” the first one of the day.

The morning was gentle, the climb steep. But I was all set. Oranges instead of muesli for breakfast. Yesterday’s muesli had come out sooner than it had gone in. And today, I was careful not to have even a coffee.

Reading too much has its perils. Information overload, you know. Most of the hiking forums  said the third day would be the hardest. Some chemicals would start accumulating or draining off from the bones, especially the shin bones or some such nonsense. So even before my body grew tired, the spirit had. If that by itself was not enough, one by one the family started passing me by.

The vending machine with a few wooden stools was a welcome relief. By then I knew the discomfort was not just in my mind. The tummy validated it in a few minutes. Out came all the oranges, their flow abetted by the two liters of water I had consumed in the past two hours.  That emptied the mind as well. Not for nothing the experts say, ‘pay heed to your guts.’ Ane and Sonya joined me there. Alessandro came by after a few minutes. I said bye and walked on , only to see them pass me by again in a few minutes.

The Asturian mountains are famous for their spring water. You see water flowing incessantly out of taps into tanks all through the way. All the travel advisories recommend to make use of this facility. I even saw a villager arrive in a car with a few large bottles, fill it up and drive off.

I have this uncontrollable urge to stop by any water body, sit there in contemplation and pure enjoyment for a few minutes even on the busiest days. How could it be different on a day with no agenda and no specific place or time to reach. The bridge looked prehistoric and the stream, not much visited. Mel and Philomeno came by, waved and walked off. Spending too much time there was an excuse, I knew.

78DCDB25-F485-48DF-A15D-E5EBECFA5AE9.jpeg

The sun was up in the sky and shining bright. And I dragged myself up, literally. It was almost noon when I reached the outskirts of a small town. Ane and Sonya waved from a bench, they looked worn out too. Slowly walking into the small town, by the sides of yet another ancient church, I saw Mel and Philomeno with happy smiles on their faces, “we just had some lunch and is going to visit the church.” Oh, I hated them with unbridled passion, right then.

”This is it or the day,” I told myself. Ane and Sonya walked by again. “We’re stopping here,” Sonya said. And that was it. I was on the verge of giving it all up.

The town had a couple of albergues and a few hotels, all a couple of steps away from each other. Now that the pilgrim spirit was broken, the penitent soul had also taken flight. The indulgent self kicked in. And I walked into the most beautiful, comforting sight in a few days. All stone and wood. A place that looked like an old Kerala home with a central courtyard. The ‘Castillo de Valdes,’ a sixteenth century villa and a member of the ‘Historic Hotels Of Europe’. When you indulge, do it in style should be the policy, you know.

72B04CC1-4750-4060-B819-A694DB59B384.jpeg

The best thing about being a pilgrim is the meals the hotels and cafes on the way serve you. A ‘pilgrim meal’ that starts with a bottle of wine, a starter, a main course, dessert and coffee. All for ten euros. The girl at the counter had shown me to my warm and welcoming room and now placed a hot bowl of rice in front of me. Mixed with some sauce, vegetables and pieces of chicken, the meal infused life into my irritated  and tired nerves.

Then came the beef and potatoes,

ACE73A74-4A90-44AD-8D7E-260F2D98A130

and this glorious dessert.

A9641563-3CD7-4CB5-8F62-EAACBFDF540A

 

A cup of coffee and a couple of hours of sleep, the pilgrim had turned into a tourist.

Salas is like any other small town in Europe. An ancient church at its center, the town, its shops and restaurants around it and people who keep to themselves by and large.  I was in time for the evening mass. A few old people and  a young girl in a dark chapel. The cool stones calm not just the limbs but the mind as well. A sense of well being and peace descends into you as you step in and out of these age old churches.

54D4B1FE-26DA-4676-8F3D-2BD28BBF144F

“What would you drink?” asked the waitress in the small cafe opposite the hotel.

“Cafe Liqueur,” I said, glancing through the menu.

“Whiskey or Cognac?”

”Cognac”

I sat there watching a few young ones playing soccer and browsing the bus schedule to Santiago. The coffee was potent enough to make a fool out of me again. The pilgrim spirit was back. There is something about The Way that just doesn’t let you lose spirit, I guess. Browsing window closed and the mind made up for another day of walking, I went back to the hotel for  a good night’s sleep.

But there was another lesson too, now that I think back. Take that break, when your body and mind tells you to do so. Pamper yourself if you can, with food, drink and rest. Spend what you have earned, at least some of it. You will wake up refreshed, ready for another day, to fight if need be. You are your own caretaker. Pay heed.

425F87A6-D5AD-458A-A6E8-FBA7A513B688

 

A Family Is Born

Epiphanies come out of the blue, not when we are eagerly  looking for it all around. Focused on each ounce of the weight on my back and the slightest sign of discomfort on the feet, I missed looking around and losing myself in the glory that was unfolding all around, the first couple of days. I realize that in retrospect, while trying to gather the memories together. Just as in life. Our pains shift our focus so much, sometimes we have no clue what we  might be missing on the way. Anyway, let me get on with the journey.

Day 2. Morning.

The first sight that greeted me as I came down, Captain Sparrow.

“Did you sleep here? he asks, without words.

”Si,” I answer. One word I know in his language.

We smile and wish each other, “Buen Camino”

Buen Camino, ‘Good Way’ – a greeting that you will hear a million times on the walk, the meaning of which may take a lifetime to grasp.

The breakfast area reminds me of a women’s hostel. Ladies, behind the counter, in the kitchen , at the tables. A South Asian looking girl with a huge smile on her face, extends her hands,

“Hi, I am Melissa. Call me Mel. From Austraaliyah.”

The accent would have given her away anyway. She seem to be a human glue, binding strangers together. She knows everyone by name, reminded me of my younger self. When did I start closing myself in, I wonder for a moment. And then notice the next table. Mother and daughter? Yes. Sonya, from Germany and her mother, Ane. Mother’s third Camino, or was it the fourth? Daughter’s second. Both on the Primitivo path for the first time. Ane’s gentle face and frail looking frame obviously conceals nerves and bones of steel.

“We like to start early,” and they were off.

The next were a totally unmatched looking pair. Sisters, from Canada. Anne and Manon. All of us were off soon. In  pairs, by ourselves. At our own pace.

First action of the day. Off went the sleeping bag, in the hope that someone in need would get it. The weights we carry on our back, just in case. Thinking, what if we need it some day.

The wild path climbed slightly up on to an asphalt road, crossed a bridge and then turned into a village by lane. Stone houses on either side, not a single soul in sight. This was a peculiar phenomenon through most of the journey. You would pass through houses next to each other that were obviously inhabited. Chained dogs,cows, sheep and chicken inside the fence, well tended flowering plants, clothes on line, but hardly any human in sight. At any time of the day. Maybe elves lived there. The kind that came out at night.

It’s amazing how you find pieces of your homeland thousands of kilometers and a couple of continents away. ‘Horreos,’ the wooden granaries are so similar in looks and structure to the traditional ‘ara’ back in Kerala.  Both used for the same purpose, to store grain and other produce of the land. The only difference seem to be that these are raised from the ground on four pillars. The pillars are capped with ‘staddle  stones’ to keep the rodents out, says Wikipedia.

63D9FDAC-E60B-4F6C-A052-0738C16CFC83

The morning slowly turned not too different from the previous one. Climbing up and down, cursing myself and setting myself down by the roadside in sheer exhaustion. Seriously considering the option of hitch hiking, I happened to look up and across the road. My soul animal, definitely a sign.

449A8478-FA69-45AE-9EF4-C416CB85AB59

Snails on trees was something totally new.

Another hour, another stop. They had passed me by some time ago. The man and his dog. He knew no English, I knew no French. No worries. In a day and half I’d learned  that you didn’t really need words to communicate. He was French, started his walk twenty seven days ago from Irun, in France.  Most of the Albergues on the way do not allow dogs. They walk on until they come across a stream or even better a river. Pitch a tent, take a bath, wash clothes, cook something, sleep, get up in the morning and walk. They looked an extension of each other, the lean man and the even leaner dog.

”Buen  Camino,” they were off.

Solitude is refreshing, some human connect in between even more so, I was yet to realize. A lunch of some left overs from day one, and I followed his path. Melissa had gone ahead long ago, Ane and Sonya later and the Canadian sisters too.

The sun was shining bright and the wind had picked up. The path looked refreshing.

A57C3852-C98C-4997-8415-E2B0B8E033C4

The path crossed a tarred road  and  continued. The sisters were sitting in the middle of the road, their jackets spread on the ground serving as mats. I had company, obviously. Take a break, when you feel like it, where you are at.

Another hour, the cycle of exhaustion was repeating. “Where are all those voluntary refreshments?” I wondered. I had seen pictures of jugs of water or juice, bowls of fruits kept in front of houses or on picnic benches, for the pilgrims to take as desired. In less than five minutes, a miracle appeared to my right. This was only the first of the many in the days to follow. I think of, long for or need something, it appears. Not for nothing they say, “the Camino provides”.

B914CC16-1583-40B9-914C-64B21303371E

Tea, coffee, the place even had organic soap on offer.

24F33436-6FC5-4FF8-B39B-3C801752DC64

All they asked for was a donation, whatever the pilgrim could.

The path moved onto a sidewalk by a road, and finally turned left to a long bridge. It was evening by then. The bright yellow of daylight had turned into the golden glow of twilight that reflected on the river bed below. This pilgrim had to stand and stare, drink it all in.

9C018891-4624-40AE-8138-9E644FDF1194

The sign by the road pointed me to another left, ‘Monasterio de San Salvador’. I’d reached Cornellana. River Narcea flowed by gently on the left. The church spire could be seen through the trees, somewhere by the riverside. It took another kilometer and half to reach the gates of the 11th century monastery. Founded in 1024 by Infanta Cristina, the daughter of King Bermudo II and Queen Velasquita, this was donated to the monks of Cluny in 1122.

F57C1F0E-9574-4FDD-9115-4E024B73722F

The place looked run down but soothing. Must have been the stones and the church bells that struck six.

AAAAB1AE-4F67-46CD-A25D-A5BB597A3AF1

A sense of peace descended, that turned into delight as I saw some of the people who had checked in already. Mel, Philomeno, the Italian man in the Albergue from day 1, the man and his dog, Ane and Sonya, an old man from Canada that had passed me by the previous day, it felt like reaching home. An hour later, the sisters walked in. Beginning of the Camino family. Some would fall on the way, some would go ahead, new ones would be added. Just like any other normal family.

”You can cook here, there is a supermarket down the road if you want to buy some stuff, “ said Mihael, the host, in perfect Spanish. I understood it, in perfect English. Cook? On my vacation? No way!

The dormitory was spacious, the ceiling, high. There were eight beds, bunk style. The man from Canada was on the bed across. There was a cute boy on the next. I would come to know later that he was Alessandro, a medical student from Rome. Taking a walk before he starts his post graduation course. A beautiful girl sat on the chair outside. She looked up from her phone, gave me a smile that I could keep staring at for ever, extended her hand and introduced herself in perfect English, “From Russia, I am…..” Alas, I have forgotten her name. Not her smile, though.

An hour later Mel came looking, “Come, have dinner with us. Philomeno  is cooking.” The Camino provides, oh yes.

8C906EC4-3693-461E-8F15-E16F4859B95E

There is something about Italians, I have to say. Do they have some magic in their soul that seeps out through the tips of their fingers? How else can a simple dish of pasta turn out to be so tasty? And those tomatoes, again. The stomach was full, so was the soul.

“Where are you halting tomorrow?”  asked Mel.

“Where my feet halts,” I replied.

After all, tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett O’Hara would have said. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alleppeeyyahh!

8D8E59DE-046A-40D4-9D9E-2C2D48B14916

I do not remember when was it exactly that I met them first. There they were at the next dinner table one day. He was smiling broadly at me, as though we were old friends. We didn’t talk that day.

It was raining the next morning. I saw his wife pass me by first and then him. As is the norm on The Way, I caught up with him some time later. He had that broad smile again.

“India?” he asked.

“Yes, India,” I replied.

“Country? India?” he asked again.

“Yes, yes. India,” I told him again.

“No. India, country?” he repeated.

Ah, I got it now. “Kerala,” I responded.

His face lighted up as if a thousand watt bulb had been switched on inside.

“Kerala, Allepeeeyah!”

“You have been to Alleppey?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. For someone who had been searching for a fellow Indian on the path for the past few days this was like divine manna, straight from heaven.

He rushed to his wife who was waiting ahead and said something in a language I couldn’t comprehend. Later they told me they are French and is from Bordeaux.

The wife translated in halting English, “ Yes, we were in Alleppey many years ago. Beautiful beach.”

Now my face lighted up in reflected glory.

More French.

”We were there again two years ago. By the beach, huge bridge. Ugly” They were shaking their heads in disapproval.

Uh oh!

Some more French. He was gesturing at my face now.

“Your face told me you are from Alleppey.”

😳😳😳😳

Well. You can take a girl out of her town, but not the town out of her, I guess 😀😀

p.s.

They were there again, a few bends in the road later. A pink phone in hand, taking pictures.

”I got myself a new phone just before the trip. The pictures come out so beautiful,” she said as if a magician had creeped into the phone and was churning out something wondrous.

”Can I take a picture of yours?” she asked.

”Why not?” I replied.

I had to agree with her. The pictures were coming out  beautiful indeed 😉

C2780ABB-02E8-4A4D-A0A0-1779E004480F

Where You Fall, Is Your Bed

Oviedo to Grado, 25.5 kms, said the guide book.

I knew I was doomed even before I started. Out of Oviedo at about 10.30 in the morning, there was no way I could do that twenty five kilometers unless I walked until late night, that much was obvious. But there is the town Vega de Ano at 18 km, said the book. That I could do.

The stone pavement in the city turned to a gravel path as I passed the statue. A rustic signpost and a large sign next to it told me I was now starting the journey in earnest.

3A61EA09-4FDE-4E62-8BE6-7E5D213E7405

The first sounds were the cow bells, then birdsong. Cautioning myself not to be over enthusiastic, one step at a time, I marched forward. To be fair, the climb was gradual but in less than two hours, I was panting. The ‘training’ I had done for the past few months was no way enough. A small stone chapel came into sight, the first of many that I was to see in the coming days.

Two energetic women were already there, airing their feet and refreshing themselves. The church itself was locked, however there was a small patio with a bench, a table on which there was a stamp as well. Now, this is an interesting part of the Camino. As a pilgrim , you are supposed to keep a passport with you, it has pages similar to what you would see in a normal passport. You are supposed to get it stamped on the way, in churches, tourist information centers, cafes, albergues, in short anywhere  you stop. This acts as a confirmation that you have passed through all these places. At the end of the journey this would be verified before a certificate of completion could be issued in your name. More about that later.

98996FE5-037A-4632-A57F-621241BB033B

The slow climb, again. First of all, I was totally out of shape. Second, even though I’d been walking quite a bit in preparation, I was no way equipped to climb, that too with a backpack on.  The gravel path gave way to asphalt somewhere in between and I started to feel exhausted, my legs and back were aching and I started cursing myself. I went and sat down in a side lane, walked again and then stopped by the side of a main road, totally exhausted. The backpack came down first and then me. The vertical position that my body was in slowly turned horizontal, the backpack turned into a pillow, the sun hat provided the anonymity that I thought was needed and I dozed off. By the side of a somewhat busy road, with vehicles going up and down, I slept. In abandon. What a liberating feeling it was, in retrospect. No one, literally nobody even slowed down to check who this vagabond was. Maybe they had seen way too many.

I woke up to see a familiar face dragging himself up the hill. I’d seen him in the Cathedral in the morning, he too was attending the mass. With a dirty bandanna around his head, he looked like a slightly less glamorous version of Johnny Depp as Captain Sparrow. He knew no English, and I knew no Spanish, the story of my life on the Camino. But his expression said it all, “tough climb.” That was enough to spur me on for the next few kilometers. Says a lot, doesn’t it? When you have fellow sufferers for company, life turns better all of a sudden.

Next stop, another church. Captain Sparrow was already there, on his back on a wooden bench. The sweet abandon of the Camino. The true pilgrims who find solace and rest wherever they can. Not wanting to break the tradition, I rested my back against another wooden bench there.

E499CC86-2CFA-4904-85FD-302B82C606A2

It was past two and twelve kilometers behind me when a welcome sign came into view, ‘Albergue Esclampero’. The mind gave in immediately. This is it for the day. A character with a face that could have come straight out  of the Old Testament was sitting at the entrance. He knew no English, I knew no Italian. Same story, different language. No words were needed. The manager was not there, he himself was a pilgrim, I would have to wait. The body didn’t want to halt just yet. Ultrea, we went. The mind along with the body.

The breeze had turned slightly cool, the nature around was waking up from the afternoon siesta. And there were nectarines and peaches all around. It was like being back home during summer holidays. Trees full of green and ripening mangoes and the floor strewn with them in various stages of rottenness. No one seem to bother the fruits, they were left to their fate, to be picked or fall.

6AED9EDB-F8FC-477D-9CF9-C58DCE1C2372

A long forgotten ‘fragrance’ was getting familiar by now. Dung. Cows and horses. In a crowded city it would have been repulsive. Not here, it belonged to those country paths. The path was more or less level, vast green meadows on either side, a few cows, some sheep here and there and I was alone. Did anyone pass me there, I don’t remember. All that comes to mind is a sense of peace and resignation. There was a signboard for a hostel at every bend in the path that finally ended in an arrow that pointed in the opposite direction. A kilometer and half extra in the evening and next morning. The feet kept moving on.

Somewhere in between a crest and the next fall, a lone horse stood staring at me in solemn seriousness, a white mark on its forehead. It seemed to say, “why hurry, you will reach where you need to be. In your own time, at your own pace. Go slow, placidly. Enjoy the views and feel the breeze while you are at it.” How could I ignore something that sounded so obviously sane?

72E314E9-0F22-45EA-8926-FDFCA0CF3FFE

The breeze was getting stronger and definitely cooler. Captain Sparrow passed me again by a brook with a muted ‘Buen Camino’ and a gentle smile that seemed to say, “this is just the beginning, my dear.” The legs had started aching, but the spirit was fresh. It had no choice. Forget about an albergue, there was not even the tiniest of village in sight. I had passed Vego de Ana somewhere behind, must have missed some sign, maybe a bend in the road. Going by the guidebook, I would have to reach Grado to find a place to sleep. The other alternative was what I had mastered that first day. Where you are, can be your bed.

The village path led to a fork where it joined asphalt again. There was music to the ears and sight for sore eyes. A glorious river rushed beneath on one side. A slow climb up, a turn and the most welcome sight – a few houses, surrounded by a riot of flowers. One of it had a board outside, ‘Villa Palatina.’ A new hostel, right on the way.

6A94B71E-657E-4484-860F-0BF0D5010BB9

The hostess, a beautiful grandmother, who dragged her naughty grandson along wherever she went. She knew no English, I knew no Spanish. Some sign language and google translate. We were set. A bath, clothes washed, I was ready for dinner and my first encounter with Asturian tomatoes.

69A2AD67-D994-45DA-AF20-B44B3E6267E7

A little more than 21 kms. Not bad for day one.

 

 

1BDF916C-9424-4378-8728-149E644125B2

The official history of the pilgrimage goes that the body of St. James, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus was discovered in a field in Galicia by a local shepherd , back in the 9th century. The Apostle gives the route its name: Camino de Santiago means the Way Of St. James who is also known as Sant Iago or Santiago.

We would need to go back to the 1st century to know how the Saint’s body came to be in Spain. As per Christian legends, when the Apostles divided the world into missionary zones, James’s lot fell for the Iberian peninsula. Apparently, he went back to Jerusalem after spending a few years in Iberia and was duly beheaded by Herod Agrippa I. Popular belief has it that his body was carried to the coast and put into a boat by his followers. An angel guided the boat to somewhere near Finisterre, in northern Spain. The local queen had the body drawn from the boat and had it buried along with the bodies of two his disciples in a tomb that was provided by her. And they lay there undisturbed, until the shepherd stumbled upon them a few centuries later.

The Way, and the significance of Finisterre  goes back to the years even before the bodies were found. There is evidence of a route that is thought to have been made following the Milky Way to the end of the Earth, which is what Finisterre was supposed to be. The name literally means end of the earth, ‘finis terrae.’

Coming back to the Apostle and the bodies, the discovery was first reported to the local bishop, Theodomir, who straightaway declared it to be the sacred remains of Santiago. He then reported it to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II. He had his capital in Oviedo and thus commenced the ‘Original Way’ or the ‘Camino Primitivo’. The king is supposed to be the first pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the Saint, walking the path from his capital city of Oviedo.  He is also the one who built the original shrine to St. James.

Providence that I decided to start my walk from Oviedo, for it is said,

”Quien va a Santiago y no al Salvador, visita al lacayo y no al Senor” 

(He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador, visits the servant and not the Lord.)

For that is where the Camino Primitivo starts, the San Salvador Cathedral. The original one was built by King Alfonso II, the current one is the version that was rebuilt in the 14th century.

Over the past few months, I’ve been a frequent visitor of a couple of Camino forums on FB. The most prominent caution there was about the weight of the backpack. Whether to add the weight of a book to read was a constant argument with myself that I’d been having during these months of preparation. The book lover in me had finally relented and added one, ‘The Crossway’ by Guy Stagg to the pack. There were a few knickknacks as well that I thought would be needed. And Devaky had sent her love in the form a few packets of spices. While flying from Marseille to Oviedo the previous day, I’d realized that some weight had to be offloaded. So the first visit on 18th September was to ‘Correos,’ the Spanish post office.

The infrastructure and the facilities on the Camino are amazing. They have factored in for all kinds of pilgrims and their requirements. The main one, of course are the Albergues, or the pilgrim hostels in the villages that typically mark the end of a stage, or the day. Many of the villages in between also have these facilities so that you can decide where to make a halt depending on how much you feel like walking each day. The other facility is the transport and storage of your luggage or backpacks. You can chose to send your luggage straight ahead to Santiago. People who have extended holidays usually chose this facility, for while on the Camino, it is three pairs of hiking dresses and a jacket that you carry long. Lesser the weight, easier the walk. I assessed the stuff in my backpack and decided to send a few things ahead upfront. Off went the book, the spices and  few other unnecessary stuff that I didn’t want to throw away.

For the official start of the walk, I walked into the cathedral that was still dark inside and deserted. Walking around inside, I noticed a small chapel on the right side. A mass seemed to be in progress, there were a few people on the benches and six priests at the altar. Glorious organ music  welcomed me as I gingerly opened the door. What a blessed way to start my journey, I smiled.

FC35C79D-02B7-439D-A4BE-7A239B33D08C.jpeg

You notice the official start of The Way as soon as you get out of the cathedral and turn right. A sign and the legendary shell on the floor.

8C1CEE89-9421-41DE-9876-386ECBF3669D

Another legend, the shells. Apparently, after reaching Santiago, the pilgrims of the past would continue their journey to Finisterre. They would collect scallop shells from the beach as a proof that they had completed the journey. And the shells thus became an icon for the journey.

59977B8E-70FC-4275-8E21-F12BC121AF31

The entire Camino, whichever one you chose to walk, is marked by the signs of a shell or an arrow or often, both together. You find this almost anywhere, on the pavement on the streets in cities, on trees, on official stone markers, on the walls on the way, on trees, I found a couple even on trash bins. They work as an effective GPS. In fact, I walked almost the entire way following these signs, having decided to avoid technology as much as possible.

B2AAD997-8A7A-4A9A-BC83-24E1130BCA8D.jpeg

 

Trudging across the street with my eyes down, searching for the next shell, I finally reached the last square on the outskirts of the city of Oviedo to this beautiful statue. The hills were in some distance, peeping out of the clouds. Having adjusted and readjusted the backpack a few times, I was all set. Little did I know what was in store just a few hours later.

4CFEC21C-F6B2-4922-A456-943420EB8094

 

 

 

 

Just Another Pilgrim

32E28DA3-9CAD-40D7-84D5-5CED4EF8088D

serendipity (noun) : the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for (Merriam-Webster.com)

October 2015. I checked one off from my list in the bucket – Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris. In the rushed one hour that I had, one book fell into my hands – ‘Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way Of Saint James’ by David Downie. The first time ever I heard of this beautiful pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. People travelling over several weeks, even months, from different places in Europe on foot, by cycle, even on horseback to the Cathedral of Saint James there. Interesting, I thought. One day, was the soliloquy and the plan went into storage, somewhere in the deep recesses of mind.

A few years of roller coaster life rides, the longing for some alone time had turned visceral. And there was this special friend calling from the shores of Mediterranean, “come, visit.” ‘The Way’ had not come into the forefront yet. On one of the routine visits to the local library, the daughter unusually picks up a book from the shelf and hands it over, “maybe you should read this.” Out of the blue. ‘Two Steps Forward’ by Graeme Simson and Anne Buist. Another book on the Camino. Serendipity.

Life has taught me by now to pay heed to signs at least when it is stuck right on my nose. Three weeks of vacation from work sanctioned, the search for the route started. Both the books were on the French route, the Camino Frances. That would take me at least 35 days, if not more. The other option would have been to take it in stages, two weeks this year , a few weeks whenever an opportunity comes next and so on. But then, life has also taught me that opportunity seldom knocks twice. If I had to do a complete Camino, it had to be the Primitivo, the Original Way and considered to be the toughest. Statistics say less than 5% of the pilgrims take this route. Good, I’ll have my solitude in abundance. People complete it in thirteen days or even less, so I should be able to, at least in fifteen days. As for the ‘tough’ part, how tough can a walk be, especially if I train for a few kilometers daily for a couple of months before that, right?

To keep a long story somewhat short, I took a leap of faith even before thinking of looking. And what a leap it turned out to be!

15 days and 315 kilometers. On foot.

224CEB2A-0057-4F4F-8337-F36012170E32

Yes, this inanimate human being that can be found crouched on a couch or in some form of contortion on a chair, huffed and puffed, up steep hillsides, even steeper downs over loose stones, held on to hiking poles for dear life, watched wild horses frolicking, almost got swept off her feet in winds that battered the mountain top, learned to sleep by the roadside in broad daylight, peeped into centuries old ruins that once sheltered ancient pilgrims, listened to the cool wind making music on the leaves and branches of age old trees, lay on her back on wooden benches peering through rustling leaves at clouds passing by in a hurry, stayed in bunk beds in rooms shared by other seven strangers, ate Italian and Spanish dinners prepared by real life chefs in communal kitchens, met some wonderful people from around the world , watched a beautiful ballet performance in a cathedral square, was taken for a Portuguese, Brazilian, Mexican and at times Indian and finally reached the Cathedral last Wednesday.

E1529115-492A-447C-81DD-5EBCE9CA4ED1

 

On the way back, looking for a place for dinner I walked into a Spanish palli perunnaal (church festival) with beer counters, DJs, processions with witch like figures and a mind blowing music show by a Celine Dion look and sing alike. Winding up with a one day visit to Avila, the home of St. Teresa of Jesus. That nun and I have a history, but that’s a story for another day.

The experiences? I am still ruminating  over it, distilling it in my mind, gathering the random scribblings, collecting the rainbow of emotions and will share it slowly and surely.

Was it easy? Half way through the first day and all through the second, I was cursing myself, loudly. There was hardly anyone on the path to hear me, anyway. What masochistic streak in me had set me on this way, I berated myself. By noon on the third day, I checked myself into the best hotel in the small town of Salas, having given it up for good. A couple of good meals and a coffee with cognac, I gave myself another day and just walked on from there.

A4851540-8B37-4F7A-BF14-8771F2EA853F

The die hard foodie in me keeps ruminating over all that I had. The first and the best that comes to mind – the Asturian tomatoes. Seriously. You pick a piece with your fork, keep it on your tongue, close your lips and scrunch. An explosion in your mouth – the luscious center, the crunchy outside and the sweetness. Oh my God, the sweetness!

The ultimate afterthought so well encapsulated in my current read,

“How little we need to be happy. How little we need to survive.”

– ‘The Crossway’ by Guy Stagg. A walk from Canterbury in England to Jerusalem. Serendipity? You never know 🙂