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Monday, October 31, 2016

Burgos the beautiful. or: How we lost two days without trying

From: Chilham, Kent, UK, October 31, 2016
About: Atapuerca to Burgos,  September 25-27, 2016.

Burgos was a big beautiful surprise.  A blessing.

The blessing begins with the decision to walk a labyrinth on the windblown high plain just above Atapuerca.  Ever since we entered the Atapuerca valley, we had been puzzling about the discovery of 1,000,000 years of human habitation in this location.   Plus, it is Sunday, and because we couldn’t stay at our hotel, we couldn’t go to mass at the little country church across from our hotel. Instead, we would make our way to Burgos, over the steep climb of El Alto del Cruz.

The climb is steep and rocky, with head-sized boulders tussled about.  Every step has to be managed.  We—and the two Italian mountain bikers who had to dismount and push their bikes---pick our way up, stone by stone, step by step, climbing the equivalent of 2000 rounded and uneven stairs.  The surroundings are beautiful, but it is hard, hard work.

On top, we can see in all directions.  A sign proclaims “This is the best view of the whole Camino.” It may well be. We can see Burgos in the distance, nestled in a lush river valley.  To the right, there’s a ridge of wind turbans. Behind us lie the long limestone ridges where humans have lived continuously for a million years.  To our left, tilting sharply away, a series of linked canyons, brown and gray on top but lined with trees below.

The bikers jump on their bikes and speed off, hoping, I’m sure, that the way down will not be as rugged as the way up.  There’s giant cross, decorated with peregrino prayers in the form of stones, prayer cards, ribbons and shoes.  We stop to mark the apex with a little prayer. 
Out of the corner of my eye, about 50 meters to the south of the standing cross, I spot what looks like a stone medicine wheel.  It’s not.  It’s a spiral labyrinth composed of 2 foot pathways passing through 8 or so turns to a circular center, in which stones form a Celtic cross.

“Let’s walk it!” I proclaim.  Wes doesn’t want to do it.  “Why add more steps?” he protests.  But I start. Soon he joins me.

I move through the spiral, sometimes facing a sharp wind, sometimes the blazing sun, sometimes looking at the shining city, sometimes at the ancient and nurturing caves. Round and round the spiral we go in faster and tighter circles, more and more aware of the infinite and infinitesimal turnings of life and the divine.

Creating, growing, sharing, ending. The maiden, the mother, the crone; the creator, the incarnate, the spirit; fire, earth, wind and water, always present, always changing, moving through the minute breaths of my life and within the circles and circles and circles of human presence in this spot, beyond this spot, beyond and within this time.  Through time, in time, within time, in the palpable presence of the creator, the creating, and the creation. Amen.

When I meet Wes in the center, we grab and hold each other, moved beyond words.

The way down passes a series of ridges, most of which are open range for grazing cattle.  We are still jubilant from our time in the spiral, and following a rocky two track. Ahead a couple of dozen placid cattle (big horns, humped and wattled like Brahma) munch on the thin and wispy grass.  There’s a few calves and few steers.  One young steer is standing in the track.  I figure I will shoo him off if need be.  A pair of young hikers, male and female, either Italian or Spanish, and urban by their clothes and haircuts, are walking up quickly behind us.  The steer is still on the road ahead of us.  I’m not concerned.  Nor is the young castrated bull.  But the young woman behind me is.  She cries out, almost in a panic, “Señora! Gardete!” 

At her screech, the steer bolts to the right, she and her partner dash off the path to the left, then rush away from the danger of loose cows.  Wes and I look at each other, “What was that about?”  Did she think we were about to be gored?  Couldn’t they tell a steer from a bull?  Who’s afraid of domestic cattle anyway?  Certainly not this daughter of a county agent.

We keep walking down and down into various steep canyons.  At one tiny isolated village, we stop for water, exchange a few words with some Italians resting their sore feet in a small stream and drink from a fuente that has been running since Roman times.  My feet are hurting as well. 

As we come to another big downhill, into a small town nestled in a steep valley, we see an ad for a new albergue.  We start the debate.  Should we stay or go?  Well, it is Sunday, and we try to take a day of rest on Sundays.  We have already come 10 miles.  It’s still 15 miles into Burgos.  This is the last chance to stay before town.  My feet hurt. It’s Sunday.  I don’t want to go into a city when everything is closed.  All right.  Let’s stay.

In the albergue complex, the first thing we see are a group of Canadians drinking beer and soaking their feet in a small blue wading pool.  In the reception room, we are greeted by a frenetic and slightly off kilter young man, whose speech impediment and habit of repeating sentence fragments makes the exchange of keys, passports, and information quite difficult.  

At last we are in our room: hardly bigger than closet, and painted bright orange, the double bed barely fits.  There’s no closet, no other furniture—and yet it costs nearly as much as last night’s beautiful and elegant room.

We have time to kill.  We visit with the other walkers, and watch the interactions of the family who built this complex.  Jaime, the young man who waited on us, receives a tongue lashing from his father for helping us. “Why didn’t you call me?” he asks over and over.  I want to intervene and say it was fine, but don’t. A little while later, two teenage males come up from the village and begin teasing Jaime, calling his name over and over, then sending him her and there on bogus errands.  This is an old and sick sport with them.

Later that night, at the communal dinner, I find myself angry when one of the Canadians starts making fun of his interactions with Jaime.  Only the young Argentinian, who has attached himself to the Canadian trio, laughs at the mockery.  Thank goodness, it ends.  Jaime and his mother expertly serve the 20 people at the table.  Canadians, Americans, French, Korean, Austrian, Polish, Argentinian, and Germans soon devour the huge bowls of salad, roast chicken, and potatoes.

The next morning, most are up before dawn, wolf down a pre-packaged and cold breakfast, and are off with headlights to walk in the dark.  All the talk is who is going to stay an extra day in Burgos.  Not us, we insist.  We are already running a bit late.

As we set out, we are joined by a young American woman, walking in short shorts, tennis shoes, and knee brace. She tells us she has been walking 35 kilometers a day, but is having a lot of trouble with her feet and knees. She is thinking of taking a day in Burgos.  We ask why she is moving so fast and she doesn’t have an answer.  Why wouldn’t someone move as fast as they can?

We part ways at a junction. The way following the river is slightly longer.  The other continues down the side of a busy highway.  We watch her power off down the highway, walking fast, though slightly limping.

But  who am I to judge, given the rotten state of my feet.  I had my boots repaired a few days back in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. I have the unfortunate habit of walking on the outside of my feet and destroying shoes at a phenomenal rate.  My great old Salomon hiking boots had reached the tipping point and were putting dangerous and painful stress on my hips, knees, and feet. I got new heels and insoles put on these old boots, but it didn’t work.  Every step hurts.  No combination of socks helps. I try the old insoles, the new insoles, both insoles. Nothing works. 
We follow the alternate route alongside the River, which runs for about 6 kilometres before dropping us in the middle of the city.  At first, it is heavily wooded with tall trees and heavy undergrowth. As the trail progresses, it slowly becomes a paved path in a groomed park. 
About 10 miles into our walk into Burgos, I stop at the high tension light post, pull off my boots, stuff them into my pack, and walk the remaining miles in my sandals.

There are people of every age out walking.  Some are toting briefcases and taking their lunch breaks. Knots of women in dress skirts and sneakers pace by in earnest conversation.  We pass many seniors walking in couples or small same gender groupings, moms with strollers, and numerous dogwalkers and their fussy, small dogs.  Nearly all smile and wish us “Buen Camino.”

We are struck by the difference in our river walk into Burgos and the one into Pamplona.  Here, people are strolling and visiting.  There are few bicyclists and even fewer aggressive exercisers panting and sweating their way down the path.  Is it because it is a Monday?  Or is it a change in the culture?  

When we leave the river walk and cross into the modern city, we notice two things.  At the small café bar where we stop for a quick bite, the prices are ½ what we typically paid on the Camino… and the people are extraordinarily friendly to us.   In the Camino bubble, because of the never ending crush of foreign pilgrims and the seven day a week demands of the hiking season, café workers can be a bit….perfunctory.  They just don’t have the energy to engage with all the strangers who bellow commands in English at them.  Here, we are a novelty, and the short-haired, long-nosed, big-bellied host is tickled to bring us little bits of this-and-that (olives, noodles, mushrooms) to add to our beers and bocadillos.

When we cross a Romanesque bridge, the modern city disappears and we are in the midst of a prosperous 16th century city.  We are lucky to find a room on the fourth floor of lovely old hotel, overlooking one of the many busy cobblestone plazas.

We immediately set out to explore the old city, passing back and forth from the river walk to various squares, stopping for coffee or wine under enormous, but newly shaved sycamore trees. All along the marble esplanade of the river walk, there are stands of carefully manicured topiary.  At one café, just beside the 10 foot tall statue of El Cid on his horse, and just around the corner from the marble arches leading to the cathedral square, we drink red wine and feel like we are in a small, romantic, sophisticated…and friendly corner of Paris.  A lone accordion player sits beneath the arches.  We laugh when the first song he plays is “Hello Dolly!”  Of course, we sing along, “You’re looking swell, Dolly! I call tell Dolly, you’re still growing, you’re still going, you’re still gro..wing strong.”

(English language music---especially American pop music—has been omnipresent in Spain.   The bus driver in Logroño played Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cook, the bars pump out Beyoncé and Adele, old men a tiny Spanish village played an unrecognizable loteria card game while listening to “Move like Mick Jagger.”   And how could we forget the night we were serenaded by the world’s worst cover band with their endless catalog of massacred American pop-music?)

The Golden Cathedral of Burgos
We couldn’t visit either of our desired destinations, the Burgos Cathedral and the Museum of Human Evolution. We weren’t willing to pay the tourist price for admission to the cathedral. If we presented our pilgrim credentials, which were back in our room, the price would be halved.  And the museum was closed on Monday.  Darn.

This city has a tremendous pride of place. It is clean and well-kept.  We walk the narrow cobblestone streets, peering at the tiny specialized shops and wondering how a shop that only sells socks can survive. The scale is small, the service personal, and the specialization intense.

So we wander the streets, and tend to several restocking chores, replacing some foot and pain medicine, buying socks, toothpaste, and support hose.  Between their rotten English and my awful Spanish, we communicate just enough to make the transactions.

Wes has great fun taking pictures of all the statues in this city of sculptures. 
Near the Museum of Human Evolution
Every few hundred yards, there’s another lifesize bronze statue of someone at work or play.  Wes gets picture taken with a statue of peregrino.

Well... after our long, beautiful river walk, followed by the delightful walk around the many plazas, shopping calles, and sculpture-strewn streets, we are more than a little intrigued.  When the alarm rings at 7 AM on Tuesday, Wes says to me still in bed, still half asleep. “I think we should stay here another day.” I roll over, barely awake, and say, “Me too.”

On that extra day, we take an audio tour of the exquisite cathedral, during which it is presented as a giant piece of art.  It is a complex structure with at least 20 side chapels; but only two remain in use for prayer and worship.  During the tour, I experience equal parts of frustration at the egregious commercialization, awed contemplation of human achievement, and the sudden surprise of recognizing architecture as Christian pedagogy for non-literate congregants.

The Museum of Human Evolution deepens and extends those thoughts. In 1979, when the railroad was excavating a cut for a new track, they accidently uncovered a cave containing human and animal remains. Careful analysis showed it was adjacent to a sinkhole into which animals regularly fell and died, and which provided these ancient humans ( homo antecessor, a new species) a  perfect habitat: food, shelter, clothing with little effort. Homo neanderthal, habilis, and sapiens stayed in this valley, leaving a record of tools and technology, learning and transformation from the Stone Age to the present,  unmatched anywhere outside the Great Rift Valley of Africa. 

The museum examines evolution from multiple viewpoints.  At the end of many hours, we have contemplated changes in culture, in DNA, in tool building, and in agriculture.  We are overstimulated and exhausted…and happy.

Leaving Burgos the next day is difficult. As we wander our way out of town, Wes is still taking pictures of the sculptures, and my feet are still hurting.  Just as we reach the edge of town, Wes stops to take a another sculpture photo, this time of a woman in a wheelchair.  I sit at a bench, pull off my beloved but now ruined boots and leave them there, the new insoles poking out the top like sorry little flags.

I walk into the hot, dry, flat meseta in sandals and hope for the best.  

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Camino Bubble

About: Navarrete -Najera-Santo Domingo de la Calzada-Castildelgado-Villafranca de Montes Oca, Atapuerca, miles 144-200

From: Villafranca de la Bierza, mile 407

A note about process: Keeping the blog on the hike has proved a much bigger challenge than it was on the bike. We hike from 9am to 3pm most days. After securing our place, washing our selves and our one set of hiking clothes, and getting our dinner, there's little time (and often energy) to make notes about the day. Those notes are hand written into stories, which are then tediously entered into a document on my phone, which then has to be edited, then transferred to the blogsite.  That seems like it should be straightforward, but it's not.  There's another edit, and pictures to edit and add…then the whole process of posting on Facebook, Twitter, Google#, and emailing it…all on a tiny phone by screen with often sketchy WiFi.  Yikes.

I will keep posting, even as we are now within 120 miles of Santiago. I assume I will be writing about the hike even as we make our way back to Germany, then onto England. Let's hope I have all this writing done before we return  home mid November….
After our surreal visit to Logroño, there are days and days where we are completely encapsulated by the Camino bubble.  We are traveling in the hilly reaches of Rioja, day after day and mile and mile  passing through vineyards in one of the world’s wine producing regions. The vines are so heavy withfruit, the farmers pull off the excess, and
throw the grapes into the alleys between the rows. This, of course, attracts bees, flies, and birds. There is always a low hum around us.

The little towns  are defined by big grape warehouses, and little café/bars serving the Camino. The people in each sector don't interact. In Navarrate, we briefly step out of the bubble to be one of a few guests at in the enormous 19th century hotel, but mostly caters special events and weddings. It is just far enough out of town that most pilgrims don’t stop and too close to Logroño to draw the car crowd. The desk clerk laments, “ The tourists just drive on instead of stopping like they used to.” The bar and restaurant are closed , so we make our way to cafre recommended by Mei-Jing for it’s amazing tapas.

It is staffed by a vibrant young woman from the south of Nigeria, who Wes offends when he compliments on her English. She says. “You know, don’t you that Nigeria is an English speaking country?” On the way out to the table in the courtyard. I have an attack of clumsiness, drop the tray and splatter food and drinks everywhere.  One of the cooks taking a smoke break, rushes over to the mess, saying “No te preocupes!” (Don't worry!) over and over, patting me on the shoulder, refusing my attempts to help clean the mess, and rapidly moving to replace the food and no additional cost.

Across the courtyard, we spot a well-known Camino fixture, a large, blonde, bearded, burly self-styled holy man.  He has a little shrine outside Logroño and is in animated conversation with a woman in a long skirt and head wrap. The cook and the Nigerian counter clerk both know him and occasionally bring him bits of food or drink.

We spend the next day walking through vineyards, before going to Najera, where we spend the night in a lovely, but overpriced hotel, eat dinner on a courtyard by the river, where the Italian waiter has a bit of a racket going with his almost exclusively English-speaking clientele.  He sells food and wine from an unpriced menu for what he thinks the market will bear. We paid 2€ more for the same wine that young German couple, but 2€ less than the older British men at the next table.  I’m tempted to complain, but don’t want the scene or the hassle.  I am sure the waiter depends on that unwillingness.

The tourists pretty much stay on the north side of the river.  Occasionally locals and their children venture by the café on their evening walk, but they don't stop.  After dinner, we wander the streets, attracted by the doors and caves in the prominent sandstone cliffs.  These cliffs have housed saints and the penurious, this year's harvest, and today's outlandish party.  Just three caves down from the hermitage of a medieval nun, we pass one in which a young woman in impossibly tight jeans and high heels joins a throng of people dancing to pulsing lights and beat-heavy music.

The next day is beautiful and painful.  My wonderful, but 10 year old Salomon hiking boots are giving up the ghost. I ruin shoes at a phenomenal rate because I walk on the outside of my feet. Rare-oh-rare is the shoe that makes it a year under that kind of pressure.  But there comes a point when the mechanics of the shoes are destroyed, and they begin to painfully stress my hips and knees. 

I have felt the problem growing for several days.  I don't know what to do. The bed and fit of these boots is flawless and so rare for square feet like mine.  Can I get them repaired? Can I find something that will fit?  Do I want to break in new boots on a long distance hike? Ugh.  As we walk through valleys and canyons, up steep hills and down sharp drops,  each step makes my feet, knees, and hips ache.

We arrive in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, named after the “engineer of the Camino,” (whose statue bears an uncanny resemblance to Wes’ brother Jay). He was largely responsible for improving conditions on the medieval Camino.

We end up staying at the Hospideria de la Camino, which was originally established in the 15th century.  The sprawling complex in which we are staying was built in the 19th century and must have housed hundreds of nuns and pilgrims. That night, at dinner, we are served by 3 sweet faced African nuns in modern habits, who both prepare and serve the food.  The dining room is mostly empty, save a big group of Austrians, a few frail retirees, one French speaking couple, and us.  Despite the attention and kindness of the nuns, there is an air of mournfulness.

We had spotted a zapateria just outside the complex grounds. I ask for my boots to be repaired.  The shoe repair man speaks no English, but with gestures, drawing, and a few words, I think we have an agreement.  He tells me to come back the next day around noon.  That's well after our regular our regular departure time, but if it means walking without pain, fine.  

The next morning, after picking up my partially re-heeled boots, and getting new insoles, we run into the same Google staffer on holiday we had seen a few days ago.  His name is Kevin; he is ethnically Korean, lives in Los Angeles and speaks fluent Spanish. He has been using this skill to help the many clueless Americans, Brits, and Aussies on the trail. 

We had first met him in a small café off the main trail, where he, a fit red-haired German named Tomas, and we had a conversation about the glories of green Spanish olives. As we each told the story about why we are taking this walk, Tomas told about having to leave the company he founded after it was sold to ADP. The new owners told them they were moving operations to Poland to save money. He couldn't  stand by while more than 1/3 of the employees he had worked with and developed were let go.  So now he is walking the Camino. Kevin, on the other hand, told his bosses he was taking six weeks to walk the Camino.  He could come back to work or not. They said fine.

These curious syncretic encounters are part of the Camino bubble. We never know, when we have these intense personal conversations, whether or not wewill see these people again.  Because we are all following the same trail, but moving at different speeds and taking different stops, reconnecting with people days or hours apart is not uncommon, yet always surprising and delightful.

After a quick stop at the cathedral, which houses a live rooster and hen in the walls in tribute to a medieval miracle, (don’t ask) we are on our way through a landscape more given to corn and wheat than grape vines. We have a restless night at a truck stop that advertises itself as an artisanal chocolate maker.  Its town is mostly falling in on itself and the artisanal chocolate is actually chocolate covered doughnuts, but it will do.

The next morning, a few kilometers away,  we find an exquisite and expensive restaurant/hostel such as we had imagined our previous lodging to be, where they make and sell meats and cheeses for 21€ a pound.  While we are enjoying our coffee, a German couple next to us argues about where they should spend the next night. 

All of a sudden, an older American woman comes in, spots the Germans as someone she knows from the Camino, then rushes over to them and begins sobbing.  She has just received news that a dear friend had died back in the US.  The slender, red-haired German woman, so recently fussing with her husband, immediately begins comforting the distraught American.  Just as we get ready to leave, the American gets an email.  Her daughter just had a baby.   More tears.  A little while later, the two women pass us, still deep in conversation and counsel.

My repaired boots are not working.  I try new insoles, old insoles, both insoles, changes of socks to Wes’ increasing irritation and impatience.  Nothing is working. 

We are beginning our trek into the Montes de Oca, a band of small sandstone mountains cut by rushing streams and littered with hermitages carved into the cliffs.  We are looking forward to a stay in the San Anton Abad Hotel, a renovated 12th century pilgrim hospital.  When we get there, footsore and beat, we discover that we actually don't have a room and they are sold out.  When I show the host our confirmation, she thrusts my phone back at me with an emphatic, “Diez no nueve,”

Another booking error! This time I booked for October instead September.  Most peregrinos just walk until they are done walking, then find a place.  That's beginning to look like a better idea. 

Thankfully, the host connects us to a nearby pension.  We arrive just at the same moment two biking peregrinos arrive.  Later, at dinner, we find out they are Pieter (the father) and Peter (the son). Dad is big and burly, with a shock of still blonde hair falling across his broad forehead. Son is also tall, but narrow in face and body, and nearly bald though he is in his thirties.  They have ridden modified mountain bikes from the northern Netherlands. Dad has been diagnosed with cancer, and they are doing this big grand trip together while they still can. 

The next morning, we make our way over the top of the Montes, where the first battle of the Spanish Civil War was fought. At the peak, the dozens of hikers who passed us on the way up are taking a break. I stop to decipher the monument and realize it is the first and only positive view of the Republicans we have seen on this trip. 

At our lunch stop, we are shocked to encounter Lauren and Isabella, with whom we walked to the hilltop town of Chiraugui (of late night cover band fame).  Lauren is a tri-athlete from Crested Butte, Colorado, her mother, a game sixty something from Chicago.  Isabella had some leg problems that stopped them for a few days.  Although she didn't say it, the implication was that pace set by Lauren was just too much.

We are excited to get to our next stop.  Not only does it mean we are very close to the halfway point of Burgos, but we are anxious to know more about the archeological discoveries in Atapuerca. We hope to stay a day to visit the sites where they have found human fossils dating back 1 million years, and evidence of constant human inhabitation since that time.  This 1979 discovery and excavations have  completely re-written the early history of Europe.

We were lucky enough to walk up and get a hotel in Atapuerca, where the preponderance of guests were American or Canadian. Unfortunately, one big group of Americans is the kind that makes me cringe.  Not only were they extraordinarily loud, without a good thing to say about anyone or anything, I can hear their derisive laughter in our room, four doors down.  They mock the service, décor, and food in English, assuming they are not being understood--even though they ordered everything in English and expected to be served in English. The 17 century doors are tricky, and at one point, I heard an abrasive American voice demanding her money back because the doors were hard to open. Wes tried to engage them a conversation about the amazing archaeological area. No interest.

Later,  I heard them calling the backpack transport service demanding service that morning they were supposed reserve the previous night. When the phone disconnects, one woman said to the other,  “See, I told you they hate Americans who speak English!”

Well, we can't tell why they are on the Camino, but I do know one thing. Life in the Camino bubble is unlike any experience we have ever had.  All the concentrated  blessings and curses of being human are making their way with us, inch by inch, step by step, paso a paso.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Best Laid Plans...

From: El Burgo Ranero, October 5, 2016
About: Estella to Logroño, September 14-18

We are in a tiny bungalow on the banks of the Ebro in the northern Spain town of Logroño, after a comedy of errors. We have had 2 long days of hiking and are now more than 100 miles into our journey. I thought I was such a smarty pants, booking our place to stay 2 nights in advance….but…

We are depending on an online app to provide inf about distances and lodging. It requires flipping back and forth between various screens and keeping the distance on the maps clear in my head. Once Again, I have misread/ misunderstood/misused the maps.

After our lovely 2- day stay in an apartment in Estella, where I was proud to have negotiated the purchase of new boots, socks, and underwear for Wes, as well as the makings of our dinner—in Spanish.  It was fun stepping out of the Camino bubble and moving through the city like residents. I  It was nice to experience simple, homely things like cooking and setting the table after being on the move for nearly a month.

Outside Los Arcos
We had again booked an apartment in Los Arcos. It was more expensive, but OK, we liked our last apartment the day before.  The walk is fine: high, dry fields in which we walked in the company of older Brits on holiday, traveling without packs.   The high point of the day, however, is watching 30 griffin buzzards, with their 4 feet wingspread, fly in from all directions and squabble over a dead something (probably sheep) at the base of the sandstone cliffs across the valley.

When we finally get to Los Arcos, we can’t get in. The landlady has to come 20 miles to work the glitchy electronic entry system.

As we are finally getting in the door, who do we see but the Asian women with whom we had been traveling. It was really exciting to see them. The apartment, however, is not so exciting. It was about one third the size of the previous apartment and cost more.  What the hell?

After our trip to the alimentacion to get supplies for a simple dinner, we are just settling in, when we hear a knock at the door.  It is Jian, Mei-jiang, and Fan-yi, come for a visit.  They bring a photo of me coming up the Hill of Forgiveness, which they had made in Estella.  As it turns out, they had been  in the same apartment complex we were in Estella. We never saw them! 

We make plans have dinner together, and begin sharing travel arrangements.  There are surprised we planned to get to Logroño the next day.  Upon further inspection,  we discover I have once again made a mistake with the confusing route maps.  Viana, where our friends will be going tomorrow, is a manageable 11 miles, but Logroño is 8 miles beyond.  Rats!

We have already booked a bungalow on the river in Logrono for tomorrow.  Now what? 

Even though the news upsets me, I don’t want to interrupt our conversation with these charming women.  Mei-Jing is clearly the leader of this trio.  She tells how Jian came to be traveling with them.  Mei-Jing, Fan-yi and her uncle (Waun-ju?) are all from Taiwan, and had been planning their Camino for some years.  They had booked an albergue in Pamplona, the first time they had stayed in a dormitory. 

Jian, a tiny, sweet faced Korean, with pale silken skin and wide smiling eyes that look perpetually surprised, was traveling alone.  She had the bad luck to be sleeping on the top bunk above a freaky male pelegrino who not only masturbated in the dorm, but also stood over Jian’s bunk and made sexual gestures and approaches.

From the adjoining bunk, Mei-Jing jumped into action, putting herself between Jian and the freak, shouting in his face, “No Touch!  No Touching Her!”

From that point forward Jian began traveling with the Taiwanese.  They communicate in English, as best as they could.  They are good hearted and funny.  When we are with them, we laugh a lot.  I am touched that they made a photo of me with hopes of seeing me again.

We make plans to have dinner together.  Not in Viana.  Not in Logroño, but we should all be in Najera in a couple of days.  Great!  We exchange numbers and look forward to sharing a home cooked meal together.

The next morning, we send our bags to Logroño and set out to walk to Viana, 11 miles away.  We will need to figure out how to catch a local bus to Logroño, then get to our little cabin.

We walk nearly alone on the chilly damp pathway, most of yesterday’s group of bluff Brits driven onto mass transit by the discouraging conditions.
However, we like the walk a lot; the vistas are opening up and we enjoy the rolling environment with views of the mountains all around us.  We are also grateful that we not walking through these fields of  grapes, olives, figs, and almonds in the beating sun.

When we get to Viana, Wes is surging ahead of me—for the first time of the trip.  His new boots are working well and he is no longer hobbling along, every step a pain.  In Viana, we need to find the bus station and my phone is dead.  Wes walks up to various strangers and says “Autobus?” A French worker from one of the albergues comes out and tells us in almost comprehensible Spanglish, “Go left, then right by the big wall, it’s there.” (or something like that.)

We go left, then right, and there are two big walls. Wes asks another man, who answers in rapid Basque/Spanish. I don’t understand anything but his gestures.

We get to a corner which seeks like it should/could be a bus stop, but there’s no sign.  I say go down to the main highway.  Wes says, “Go up to the main town.” We try the highway, but still don’t see any bus stop.  We are now getting nervous because the bus comes at 4pm and the last time my phone worked, it was 3:25pm.

We are making our way to what may be a stop, when a young man (double earrings, drooping skinny pants, and short hair) comes tearing along, being dragged by a 100lb Rottweiler.  Wes hollers, “Autobus?” and the young man, unable to stop the dog, points us up the many stairs of the escalera, to the street leading to the town center.  We thank him and off he goes, running after the massive black dog.

Up about 50 steps, then a climb to the center of the town leads us to a group of people with luggage sitting on a concrete bench.  No sign, of course, so Wes asks, “Autobus to Logroño?” and gets a  “Si!” and a bevy of words and a sign to “Sit, sit!” Before long, the modern bus arrives and we pay just 1.30€ for our ride to Logroño.

As soon as we get off the bus, we can tell there is something going on.  We hear lots of noise and there are all sorts of people on the street.  Oh, well, what do we know?  Maybe it’s market day.

We follow our map to the center of town, where a big gathering is just ending—perhaps a concert in the park.  There’s a big group of people dressed in red and white following a brass band.  There’s all sorts of energy in the air and all of the restaurants and cafes are jammed.  My plan for a long awaited lunch in Logroño is thwarted.

We start making our way to the park where we will cross the river and get to our little bungalow.  As we move that way, the streets become more and more crowded—and more and more rowdy.  All sorts of young people are drenched in red wine and the drunkenness in the crowd is frightening.  

We have to move through the packed, agitated, inebriated group with our backpacks and walking sticks and not lose each other.  Most of crowd are very young and very drunken.  Many look like teenagers.

In the distance, we can see a bridge blessedly free of the drunken mob.  Just as we clear the crowd, I ask a drunken fellow, “What is this?”  He shouts over a young man bellowing into a bullhorn,  “La Fiesta San Mateo!”

We finally get to the park where we can cross the bridge.  It is now raining in earnest. There’s a knot of drinkers lurking under the pediments.  We give them a wide berth.  Next, we see a young man trying to get sexual with a young woman who clearly doesn’t want it.  She pushes his hands away, and tries to move him back towards the crowds.

Near our crossing, we spot a desolate restaurant just about to close for the day.  It’s only customer is an exhausted, dark-skinned vender still dragging his stack of hats and helium balloons.  We get a couple of cafe con leches and two tired sandwiches.

Across the bridge, we don’t know how to get to the bungalows, so I drag out my emergency power and call the office.  We are close….but….

Our reservation is for tomorrow.  What? 
I check my confirmation and sure as hell, the reservation is for Sunday!

It is now 6pm on the biggest day of the biggest harvest festival in the capital of Spain’s most famous and celebrated wine region. We scan, TripAdvisor, all of the listings in the guidebooks. Of course, there is nothing available.  The woman at the desk apologizes and suddenly…  We are in Screwville.

The manager tells us she will check on one thing. Call her back in a few minutes.

Now what?  Our choices are less than limited.  Plus, we don’t even know if she has our sent-ahead backpacks. 

A few minutes later, I call her back and she tells me the only she has is a big dorm room with 12 beds, which she can let us have for 100€-more than twice as much as we had planned on spending.   And she tells us that our Sunday booking is non-refundable.  I tell her we will call her back.

A quick analysis of the situation tells us that something is better than nothing, and that we should take the next night in Logroño, as well.  So it's two nights in Logroño, the first night in wooden bunk beds in a big cold and empty dorm. And our dinner plans with our new friends are ruined, too.

We crawl into bed early and fall fast asleep…until I am awakened in the middle of the night with digestive upset from the tired sandwich.  The next morning, we are up early, with a Sunday ahead of us. We walk the riverfront, spot a stork on a nest at the top of tall brick chimney, and make our way to a perfunctory mass with no music, no deacons, no altar servers in a huge double spire cathedral with a sculpture by Michelangelo and yet another Baroque altar. 

By the end of the mass, we can hear a brass band playing. When we step outside, we are right back in the middle of the festival. A big group of revelers, dressed in traditional maroon and white outfits, circle a small combo playing some kind of improvisational jazz, held together by a walking bass line played by a profusely sweating sousaphone player.

We wander a bit, until we come across the big town square. Yesterday, it was the site of a concert; today, it is covered with small white tents. Hundreds of people are going from tent to tent, getting tapas and wine in glass goblets and small white plates. Wes tries to get some, but is rebuffed. An older  man explains in slow Spanish that we have to buy our glass and plate, then we can get as much wine and food as we like.

Just at that moment, we get a call from the park manager, telling us our bungalow is free. We have to come right now to vacate the dorm and move into the dorm.  It is noon. As we make our way back across the river, we hear the sounds of the crowd increasing.  By the time we cross the river, the sound has become a roar.

Remembering our frightening traverse through the bacchanal yesterday, we decide to spend the afternoon sleeping, reading, and writing in the tiny bungalow.  We ask each other, “Do you want to back over there?” Not so much.  But we do think we will have a glass of wine.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Ants Go Marching

September 30: From Boadilla del Camino

about Estella, Navarra, Spain, September 15, 2016

I am sitting in a spacious apartment in the lovely small city of Estella. It is the 1st place where I thought I could live in Spain. It is personable with lots of small shops crowded around numerous squares.

I am happy because I was able to renew my phone with the help of a very patient young female sales clerk. Her English was limited. My Spanish is a shallow mess. But somehow we got it figured out.

I now have a Spanish phone number with plenty of text and data. This means I am no longer flying blind. Last night was a perfect example of why following the pelegrino route without a working cell phone is a bad idea. I understand that millions of people have followed this route for a millennia without a cell phone.  I am happy to not be one.

I had purchased a pre-paid SIM card in Amsterdam—to my endless consternation and confusion.  I conducted the transaction in English. But every communication after that was in Dutch. I could never figure out how to establish my account or upgrade my service. I would get come on messages, “Gebruik deze surprise deal alleen vandaag door’m te claimen op HTTP:// xxxx of bikijk een van de andere deals.” Even with the help of Google translate, I couldn’t quite understand what was being said. (Every effort to add more minutes to my card reminded me of the joke Jean-Marie Allion about the Dutch language. “The Dutch must gone have to the Czech Republic and stolen all their vowels.")

I cannot check ratings, make reservations, or look at the town’s website with a dead phone.  Had I been able to do any of these, we would not have ended up where we did.  We follow the guide book …and the crowd to a Pilgrim hostel on the lovely hillside town of Chirauqui.

It had been a long walk from Uterga, where we really enjoyed our accommodations and company but felt somewhat taken advantage…7€ breakfast, anyone? (away from the Camino, a great breakfast costs 2€.)

Many, many of the hordes with whom we are marching choose to stay in the lovely river town of Puente la Reina. They line up outside the door and around the corner of the cobblestone streets waiting for a chance for a bunk bed in a crowded room. The city was built in the 11th century to serve the medieval trekking hordes  making the same hike we make today.  

We make our way through the narrow streets, punctuated by ancient thick wooden doors set into arched foyers, little shops selling high priced wine, sausage, books or tobacco. What are some sage for books or tobacco. 

We step into a square and squat church built  long before the efflorescence of Gothic spire churches. Inside, it is dark and quiet and there is a strange little man there to stamp our pilgrims' passport—for a small donation, of course. But we are taken aback by the sight the massive bronze baroque main and side altars….so incongruous, so unexpected, so dusty and neglected. We sit for awhile and just look. There’s no stained glass. There’s no organ, just  these strange middle European altars. They would not be a surprise in an 17th century Austrian church, but we can't fathom how they came to be in this tiny Spanish village.

On the way out of town, we cross the eponymous 11th Century Bridge. We  stop on the high second stone arch to have a conversation with bright red parrot in a cage on a  fourth floor terrace cage. Our short whistles back and forth capture the attention of  spaniel on the second floor terrace, and the chickens on the ground.

We leave  the town built for pilgrims to make our way to our hilltop sanctuary. I had noticed even before Puente la Reina, but especially afterwards, in the hot drylands above the river, a curious ant phenomenon. About every 25 to 50 meters or so, there is a big, busy ant superhighway. They are going from the nest, to the drying fields across the path-- hundreds of ants are picking up chunks of straw many times their size and making their way back to their nest.

Big ants, little ants, on hills and on flats, have gotten some message  and are making their back and forth across the path?  Why are they getting the straw in such a committed, communal effort?  Do they feel the touch of fall in the air? Do they perceive the black and threatening clouds on the horizon?

We make our way through fields of grapes just turning red, grey green olive trees with masses of small green olives, and the occasional fig tree.  The air is scented with ripe anise, from which I pluck and savor small yellow blooms.  The ancient village glows on the top of its hill in the afternoon sun. We are tired.  We have been walking a week and Wes is now wearing his sandals, having thrown his boots away, not only for the pain they were causing, but also because the soles were flapping away from the body of the boot.

After climbing all afternoon from the bridge crossing, we are ready to stop and concerned about the dark clouds and lightening in the distance.  We follow a maze of alleys to the top of the rise, where the first thing we encounter is a group of drunken young men dressed in red and white.  I try to warn him off, but Wes asks them for directions…in English… They surround him, laughing, poking, and prodding,  until we make out one is pointing to a nearby sign.

Near the top of the town, we spot a massive tent with any equally massive sound system.  It is the local festival. In a nearby bar, white and red clad young adults dance and roar to the thump of techno music.

At our albergue, our landlady is all business, hectoring like a seventh grade gym teacher. “This is your room. Don't lose your key. Dinner is at for 11 euros. We don’t provide breakfast. You need to get your own food from the store when it opens at 6pm; lights out at 10 PM. You must be gone by 8 AM.”

Our room is functional. We are glad for the private shower and that we are not sitting glumly in the crowded dorm waiting for a chance to clean ourselves and our clothes. There’s no common room, no  place to tarry, so people crowd on the porch and sit cross legged on their wooden bunks.

At 6 PM, the crowd makes its way to the little carneceria, where we buy sausage, yogurt, juice, bread cheese, and a Coca Cola(!) for 6 euros. My stomach turns a little when it hits me have paid for 2 meals what we have often paid for one crummy breakfast. We rush back to hostel just as the rain begins to pelt.

At dinner in the low slung basement, we are seated with 2 male Brits, and two Spanish women. The women speak almost no English. The older male Brit has no Spanish and apparently no interest in acquiring any either.  His partner, perhaps brother or cousin, has been living in Barcelona for 6 months and has passable conversational Spanish.

But he is neither prepared nor interested to serve as Mr. Instant Translator. I try to say a few sentences. Wes talks loudly and slowly. ..In English...But the stories are too complicated and the room is too clangy and loud, so conversation is a challenge.

The food is passable. I have no idea what the watery, bland bright green soup is, but the salad is fresh and delicious, and the spaghetti is voluminous and tasty. But no one is having much fun.

We beat a hasty retreat to our small room. As the rain subsides, the music begins.  At first, we  are tickled by the brassy sounds of folkloric music, followed by brassy, well rendered big band Jazz.

Then the cover band starts. We are less enthralled by imitation Frank Sinatra and Elvis Pressley, interspersed with Adele, and warbling corridos. By the time the lights are turned out at 10 PM, Wes and I have put in ear plugs.

We sleep fitfully, while the sounds of the party roars into the night. At 2:30 AM, I wake to the sounds of the band wailing Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive, I will survive” followed quickly by Queen’s “We will, we will rock you!” The world's least skilled, but most prolific cover band plays unrelentingly until 4 AM.

At 6 AM, the albergue wakes, if it has, in fact, slept. There's no coffee nor any place to get any. We pack and get out, just as the dawn is starting to peak over the eastern hills.  We make our way through the detritus of the all night party --plastic glasses, spilled beer, piles of vomit, and corners reeking of urine.

The road out of town follows a derelict and rocky Roman road, then over and even more derelict and  dangerous Roman bridge. As we march through the cool morning light, I see stretching before and after me dozens of hikers.

What brought them from Italy, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Greece, Japan and who knows where?  I cannot say, but like so many ants, we march towards a goal not seen or understood, but driving us ever onward.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Yin and Yang

From: September 28, Castrojerez, Spain

About: September 22, 2016--Pamplona and the Hill of Forgiveness

After our lovely stay at the Iriguibel Sercotel in Uharte, we return to the Camino and almost immediately face a choice: follow the Camino on busy suburban and urban streets, or follow the shaded Riverwalk on the River Arga all the way to town.  Despite the extra 5 km, we choose the river and don’t regret it all.

It is a Sunday morning; there are lot people meandering, skating, walking their dogs,  pushing their kids in strollers.  Lot of bikes go by …pelotons of speeding racers in logo drenched jerseys and shorts, families on comfort bikes, sweating weekend warriors on mountain bikes.

The greenway links numerous parks on which 3 features stand out, like the number of parks which have extensive community gardens. In addition, Spaniards are mad for handball and its Basque variation, pelota. All but the tiniest of towns has a semi-enclosed handball court. We also walk by 4 big public swimming complexes, with indoor and outdoor pools, slides, and wading pools. As the day heats up, the crowds at these pools grow and grow.

Finally, after about 6 miles, we are nearing the center of Pamplona. We need to cross the river and go up a steep bank to get to the city center. The riverwalk continues, but right at the junction of the biggest garden, and another swim complex, I spot a stepping stone pathway across the river leading to a traverse  up the hill.

We are right under a 17th century garrison and steeling ourselves for a climb in the hot midday sun
I see a family of swimmers appear through double glass doors not connected to any building. Upon closer inspection, it is an elevator to the top of the bluff. Well, all right..

Upon exiting  the elevator, we walk  past the ramparts overlooking the river and are surprised to learn that these too are the work of the estimable and ubiquitous Monsieur Vaubon. Just past the barricades, we walk around the most of the circumference of the world famous and disappointingly active bull fighting ring, where big red and blue banners advertise past and future events.

We make our way through the city, where everything but the bars, cafes, and churches are closed. The many squares are full of people. There are quite a few times when we have to make our way through crowds. With our backpacks, walking sticks, and walking clothes, I feel like the world’s biggest mark. In Camino-lore, Pamplona has a well-deserved reputation for pick -pockets, so we keep our wits and our wallets about ourselves.

We go deeper and deeper into old Pamplona, past the ritzy shopping districts, past the tourist- thronged antiquities, past the sensible shops of the Calle Mercaderes until we find the “street” of our lodging.  Down a street no wider than a narrow alley, the establishments and the patrons seem downright seedy.

When we find our “gastropub,” where no one is eating, the chunky, short-haired bartender greets us enthusiastically, while also giving us the once over.    He grabs a set of keys, and hustles us outside to an adjacent door.  Just before he opens the door, her grabs a young blonde woman with long, frowsy hair, leather jacket and tottering boots, and gives her an enormous, full-on kiss on the mouth.  He lets go of her without a word between them and takes us into a narrow hall, up a flight of stairs to gathering room in which numerous four foot tall bags of laundry are thrown in the corner.

The whole thing seems shady and weird. We agree, then immediately worry when we pay for the room with our credit card.  The bartender gives us a key and tells us our room is #10 upstairs,  “Arriba!  Arriba!” he says, pointing up.

We start climbing the narrow, turning stairs.   1 flight,  2 flights, 3 flights—5 flights to an utterly bereft and charmless room.  Dull grey walls, two small single beds, a flat screen TV, and a small bathroom with a small window overlooking the neighbors’ cracked tiles and hanging laundry.  We have stayed in hermitages with more personality and better amenities.

Well, no matter.  We will be gone tomorrow. We spend the evening exploring the town, trying and failing to find the open Carrefour's supermarket.  My mapping app kept saying it was right by us, but several circles of the area never reveal it.

It was getting toward dark and even the pubs were beginning to close. We stop for a bite not far from our  “D-luxe accommodations” and ask the Basque bartender about the Basque name for the city.  He tells us “only Castilians (said with disgust) and tourists call it Pamplona. To the real people, it is Iruña.”

As we return to our lodging, we see the same frowsy blonde with the leather jacket and towering heels wobbling down our gloomy street.  She is very high or very drunk and is being followed by a thuggish fellow who is whistling repeatedly at her. Two creeps up the street watch this scene with amusement. It hits me this young woman is probably a prostitute.

We climb the stairs to our cell, noting there would be no escape if this old building caught on fire. As far as we can tell, we are the only people in the building.  Finally at the fifth floor, we lock ourselves in, then watch bad Spanish television until we are sleepy.  Around 11:30pm, we hear people coming into the building.  Raucous voices filter up the stairs.  There’s all kinds of activity, doors opening and closing, people shouting—well into the night.  I listen and worry. Wes manages to sleep with help of  sleep mask and earplugs.

The next morning, we are out of there as soon as possible.   There is no sign of life in the lower floors, except an abandoned, not quite empty, cognac bottle in the hall.  We are glad to leave and can’t agree whether this was a house of prostitution or not.  Shaun: yes.  Wes: maybe.

We make our way to the new part of town with its stacks of apartments and wide streets.  We drink coffee in the morning sun and look west to the big ridge on the horizon—El Alto del Perdon (Hill of Forgiveness).  We will be glad to return to the quiet by-ways and highways of rural Spain.

We follow the trail out of town, past a few small towns with their red tile roofs and pelota courts and city wells.  It is full hot now and our climb over the ominously named ridge has begun.  Under the shade of a tree, Wes is visiting with the same Asian group we had seen the other day.  As I arrive, a rangy dog with a full loaf of bread in his mouth runs through the group, then stops in a newly plowed field to devour his purloined breakfast.

The group, three of whom are from Taiwan, and the other from Korea, ask us to sit, but fearing our legs will seize up if we stop, we trudge on.  The hill is steep, the path rocky, and the sun hot. We move from one shady spot provided by overhanging brambles to another. 

Up ahead, we can see bands of new apartment blocks lining the ridge. It looks like a desolate place to live, even though it has good views of the valley below.  We stop for a moment and watch the trucks and traffic disappear into a tunnel under the ridge.  That seems like a better idea than sweating our way up the Hill of Forgiveness.  At least in the short term.
Up the hill in the heat, Pamplona in the distance

When we enter the little town near the crest of the ridge, red-faced pilgrims are sprawled in whatever shade they can find.  Some offer their beers in toast to our effort. It is not long before we have one as well, to raise to the next overheated climber.

We don't tarry, however. The sun is not going to get less fierce.  So it’s the classic 25 steps, breathe, 25 more assault on the summit.  We are welcomed to the land of rock, wind, and windmills  by a large iron sculpture and multiple signs donated by the movie The Way

Just over the top, a skinny,  smoking blonde peers out from a food trailer that must have been hell to pull up to this desolate spot. Nearly every pilgrim rushes over to by something cool to eat or drink.
Before us, a new valley and the end of the Basque homelands. 

The climb down is as hard as the way up.  The path is a tumble of fist-sized rocks which roll beneath our feet. We gingerly place each pole on the steep decline, and try not to slip, each step smacking our tender toes.

We have just a few kilometers to our next lodging, the aptly named Refugio del Perdon. After presenting our dusty, stinking selves at reception, we are soon whisked away in a small SUV to a new apartment block just up the hill.  In the door, our young host shows us around.  Here is the fully equlped communal kitchen, here the attached eating and sitting room, beyond is an enclosed back yard.  Up a couple of flights of stairs, here is our room: Queen bed, wooden furniture, a loveseat and coffee table, a big bathroom with whirlpool bath, shower, bidet, and toilet.  Out on our private balcony, the  reds and golds of a desert twilight begin to glow.

After washing ourselves and our clothes, we walk back down to the inn for our dinner. We share a table with three Norwegian women and two American women from Tucson, Arizona. The Arizonans have just completed their first day and are a bit shell shocked by the heat and the difficulty.  The Norwegians are on holiday, eating, drinking and walking sans backpacks from Roncesvalles to Logroño. 

The food is simple but good, the wine exceptional, and the conversation stellar.  We laugh and talk about work and life and politics until all the other tables are cleared and the staff is standing there, rag in hand, staring at us. We take the hint, and go our separate ways.

Back at our deluxe accommodations, we have to laugh at the yin and yang of our lodging adventures.  Who knows what tomorrow will bring.  Lo veria.  We'll see.
Pamplona Riverwalk with stork nest and community gardens

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Jumble

September 20, 2016: Najera, Rioja, Spain

The first few days on the trail are a blur of steep ups and downs, interactions with “peregrinos” (pilgrims) of all ages, types, and ethnicities…  the dislocations of adjusting to Spanish language and culture…and of course, physical exhaustion.

Our first clue we have entered some other reality happens in the little town of Viskarret. After our climb over the Pyrenees, we could only make 6 miles the next day. We ended up staying at a posada (inn) notable for a few things: shutting down the electricity at 10 PM (too bad for people who need to get up in the night), and intense conversations with the British, Canadian, American, and Austrian guests around this high-priced communal dinner table.

Earlier in the day, we discovered that the Brits who commented on my socks are in fact, Scottish and more than a little dotty.  They are here in their motorhome, driving to various locations on the trail to offer advice,  tell stories, hand out yellow and blue yarn flowers, and parade their fat little Jack Russell about.  This is their twelfth or fourteenth trip to the trail.

We also learn that many people walk a short distance, don’t carry their luggage and feel no compunction to get to Santiago de Compostela.      We also witness a rather heated political discussion with the London Sunday Times reporter, his sister from Canada,  and American from California, and the 2 dotty Scottish. 

When the conversation turns to Brexit and the Times reporter makes sure we know he has spoken to all the key players in the recent events. It wasn’t long before the topic was Donald Trump and his bigotry and shortly thereafter, Maggie Thatcher and her bigotry.

The Canadian sister makes a case about Maggie’s support of white supremacy. The dotty Scottish either do not hear or  understand her point,  and make a full throated statement of support of Margaret Thatcher.   To the Californian and Canadian sister’s ears, it sounds like they are in support of white supremacy.

Jim the Californian slams down his unfinished beer, stands up, and pronounces,  “I didn’t come all this way to hear this,” then leaves. The Canadian sister churns in her seat. When the Scots try to explain themselves, they only make it worse by saying,  “I’m not a racist. We have a black deacon in our church.” The wife thinks she is helping when she say, “We have a black friend and he’s a grand fellow.” It’s clear they don’t know the difference between white separatists, white supremacists, and racists.

After a bit more of this, the Canadian sister leaves, disgusted. The journalist then interrogates the poor, dotty Scots who haven’t the intellect, language, or skills not to be skewered time and again by the cynical Londoner. “Do you mean that you thought Maggie’s policies benefited the lower class people? How do you account for the increase in unemployment?” To which they reply, “We liked her, she brought back strength to our country when we needed it.” He asks, “How do you account for the Falklands War?” It was like watching a cat knock about a flustered and increasingly frightened mouse.

Later that night, the journalist entertains the whole table with a long story of his uncomfortable night sleeping in a bunk bed in the massive dormitories of Roncesvalles. He is witty and well spoken… and used to being the center of attention. But he is also plainly unnerved by the Camino experience. He is furious the next morning that the electricity was out. He is angry butter is not served with the bread and the scanty breakfast is so expensive. His sister will not walk that day, overdone by the trip over the summit. He sets out alone, a beginning hiker with almost no Spanish and little tolerance for difference and ambiguity. Wes and I bet he won’t make the full week he has set aside for this walk.

After our short day, we decide we better have a full day. Because we are not feeling so great, we decide to send our bags ahead to our next lodging. We pull out a few things from our packs and place them in small carry sacks.   It is a joy to make the steep ups and downs without the 20 extra pounds on our backs.

We are jaunting along.  I am moving somewhat faster than Wes, and waiting across the highway when a car pulls up.  A young Spaniard /Basque, his girlfriend, and his parents jump out of the car, and pull Wes over to ask him why he is walking the Camino.  Wes relays that he doesn't know, but that something spiritual is calling him.  The group ends up interviewing him on a small camera and by the time he re-joins me, he is crying.  I try to determine why, but all he can muster is that is made him think about the enormity of our undertaking.

The trail is full of pilgrims —on bikes and walking.  They range from 3 young Spaniards who make a sport of throwing rocks at trees to an elderly British woman with painfully swollen legs, hobbling up the steep hills, a small open umbrella attached to her pack and bobbing with each step.  Her companion is murmuring constant encouragement.  

When I pass two young American women, who have stopped to tend sore feet, I hear one say, “OMG, I can’t believe it.  This is only the 2nd day!”  Later, they pass me by, in intense conversation about a Danish fellow they had met in the dorms.

By the time we get to the little town of Zubiri, it is full of pilgrims on this hot fall day.  It is also clear, we have made two significant mistakes.  When putting together the light pack, I have brought neither my Camelback water bladder, nor any way to deal with pain. 

I grow increasingly thirsty after a big climb.   I am happy to join the throng of pilgrims visiting a food truck strategically placed at the top of the hill.  I order a juice and get some fruit, and am trying to recover my equilibrium, when I am enthusiastically greeted by none other than the dotty Scottish.  They mournfully tell me they won’t see me any more because they are now going over to the other big mountains on the trail…to offer their brand of comfort and encouragement, I suppose.

The walk into Zubiri includes a drop of 300 meters in just few kilometers.   I try to “walk slalom” down the hills, but my injured toe is banging against my boot, and every step is a searing throb.  My “medicine chest” is back with the backpacks, so there's no way to arrest or mediate the pain.

When I get to Zubiri, I have to walk to the far side of town to the town’s one “farmacia”— the only place one can buy ordinary drugs like ibuprofen.
When we sit down to lunch after my pain pill detour, we realize we have made another, even worse mistake. 

Our lodging is still more than 8 miles away!  I had had a great deal of trouble finding lodging the previous night.  I finally found one in a town called Uharte, which was far, but seemingly not too far, if we aren’t carrying our packs.


I had misread the map and miscalculated the distance by 5 miles… creating a walk with a total distance of 16 miles.  With my throbbing toe, we would have happily called a stop at Zubiri, but we couldn’t.  Our bags are on their way to Uharte.  We have to get there….somehow.

When most sensible Spaniards and pilgrims are taking their siesta in the hot afternoon sun,  Wes and I are walking down a treeless trail, next to a massive manganese mine, going through his one bottle of water at an alarming rate.  We are about to clear the mine tailings when we hear a voice from behind call out, “Are you from Michigan?” This was startling until I remember that I am walking advertisement for UM School of Social Work.  I am wearing a maize and blue string pack emblazoned with a big block M, a remnant of hosting social work interns at Matrix.

Diane is an American now living in South Carolina, but whose husband is from Gaylord, Michigan.  She is traveling alone, on the 2nd day of her hike.  We are on the 4th day of ours, even though we had all started at St. Jean Pied-de-Port.  She is walking fast and light, but getting tired, and glad for some English conversation.  We walk together for a while, but she soon finds our pace too slow and is soon out of sight.  In the meantime, we cross and are crossed by a small group of young looking Asian woman, traveling with an slightly older Asian man.

At the town of Larrasoaña, it is already starting to
be late afternoon and we still have 4-5 miles to our lodging.  We are beat and will never make it.  Perhaps we can find public transportation or take a cab.

Once in town, there are distressed pilgrims walking up and down the streets.  Most  of the bars and cafes are closed and all of the lodging, albergues, and hostels are full.  Before long, we spot the reason.  The town is hosting its annual fiesta.  Hundreds are seated at long tables under a big white tent. 

Larrasoaña is a quaint medieval town in a cool mountain glen.  Many of its stone cottages are 2nd home for people living in nearby Pamplona.  Cars line the 12 foot streets, and more villagers, relatives, and part timers are arriving by the second.

After wandering the town and realizing there is no option but a taxi, we start trying to figure out how and where to get a cab in this country town. We are hot, tired, and worried. As I sit there, messing with my phone, a small car with 3 young people finds a place to park just in front of us. 

Wes jumps up, runs over to them and says “Taxi?” Then signals making a call.  Without any more  interchange, the driver pulls out his phone, calls a cab, and tells us in broken English a cab will pick us here by the church in about 15 minutes.  We are stunned and grateful.  Our benefactors are gone in a moment.

While we wait for the taxi, we see Diane again, moving with a group of 10-15 pilgrims, none of whom has any place to stay.  We tell her about our choice to take a cab, but she says no.  She clearly thinks we’re cheating.

Well, maybe we are, but we are glad to.  We never could have made it to our hotel, which as it turns out, is a wonderfully put-together and run old-world hotel on the outskirts of Pamplona, right beside the cool lush banks of the Arga River.

In our room, we collapse on the bed, take cool cloths to our faces, take long, cool showers, change into our “evening clothes,” and happily drink the complementary juices.  An hour ago, we were in a mess.  But once again, guardian angels/kind people/Wes’ impetuosity /dumb luck has seen us through. 

With the sunrise tomorrow, we will walk into Pamplona and leave the Pyrenees' part of our journey.  As per usual, the trip is taking us.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

You is Here

September 9th, 2017: Burguete, Spain

We made it over the top last night. By the time we crawled into the Hotel Loizu in Burguete, we were beat. We had come 12 miles and we were aching and sore all over our bodies.

Yesterday, we spent a lovely night in a fully a furnished apartment in Valcarlos, Spain.. We made a cheap, but effective dinner, which required a visit  to 3 stores in 2 walks up the hill.

The apartment had a washer and a coffee maker, both of which seemed incredibly luxurious. So we washed our clothes the European way, which takes a full hour for each load, while we make several cups coffee in a tiny espresso maker.  We flavor the coffee with thick, sweetened evaporated milk from a tube.

Afterwards, put our clothes out to dry in the blaring heat. (on thoughtfully provided drying racks) while we drink our delicious coffee in a tiny back courtyard defined by a 20 foot stone cliff and the gray walls of the apartment. A metal spike fence separates each apartment’s courtyard and makes the scene look like a prison yard. However, it was about 20 degrees cooler than the front terrace where we were our clothes were drying, so we didn't mind the austere greyness.

The next morning,
Wes and I are awake before 6, planning to get started before the traffic does, as part of the day will be walking on a curving, climbing, shoulderless road.

We don’t make it out until 7:30 AM, just as the sun... if there were sun... was peeking over the steep canyon walls. Instead, it is misty and a bit foggy.  We are grateful to be wearing lights. Wes is wearing a mini lantern on the back of his backpack and I have rigged up a pin headlight on the front of my shirt.  The barrelling lorries and cars see our lights in the mist and slow down.

Just before we turn to take a forest track, we come across two Americans, from South Carolina, Steve and Alice. They had missed the turn to the side track yesterday and so had mostly walked on the road to this point.  They are about our age and laugh when we commiserate about the 60 year old pace.  But they also do not seem like experienced outdoor people or travelers. Steve has his enormous pack off and is rooting through it to find the guidebook instead of keeping it ready reach in one of the pack’s exterior pockets.

Our goal for the day is clearing the Ipañeta pass, which will bring us to the south side of the Pyrenees. We are glad to leave the highway, which has grown increasingly busy as the day progressed.  It is unnerving to walk on the shoulderless road, where one side is a guardrail over a cliff and the other side abuts a mountain wall.

We enjoy ourselves on the forest track, where ferns and stinging nettle abound. The trees are a mix of beech,  sycamore, and something like an alder. We walk past many ancient farm buildings,  made of stone and roofed with mossy orange tiles.  They perch in little openings on the canyon floor and often climb to 3 or 4 stories. On some, we can see that the older stone has been covered with a white lime plaster.

The designs of these white houses are far more variable than those in the Loire Valley, where square houses and hip roofs dominate. These houses seemed to have begun on the  chalet model, one or two stories with a center front entrance under steep eaves.  But over time, they twist this way or that, add dormers, extensions, floors, and additions following the lay of the land and the whim of the owner.

Our ever climbing path wanders in and out of the farmsteads and compounds. Sometimes we are on a wide path beside a creek. Other times, we make our way up a single track on a narrow and steep path where I must warn Wes about overhanging, face-slapping stinging nettle.

By 11am or so we leave our little stream, and enter the pass region of the hike. We are following a line of high tension power poles, on a rough track that grows increasingly steep and rocky. I am very grateful for stick I found to supplement my single trekking pole. Very often, I need four limbs on this rough and treacherous terrain.

We are panting, heaving wrecks, about to enter the steepest in remote part of this hike. I am waiting for Wes puffing his way up the hill, when two Francais come jaunting by in sneakers, and the lightest of day packs. She is about 45; her pendulous breasts are swing braless under a light T shirt. The young man, probably her son, has a significant pronation on his left foot, so much so, it looks like his ankle nearly reaches the ground with each step of his wet tennis shoe. They trill a cheery “Ca va?” at us, and are soon out of sight.

No one could accuse us of jaunting up the path, but we make steady progress, although our too scanty breakfast is long gone and we are getting low on water.

The last few kilometres to the top are a real grind, made more challenging by the misty rain turning to light,  then not-so-light rain. I insist we cover our packs with their protective rain cover. Wes doesn’t want to make the effort. It takes me a few seconds to cover his, but when Wes fumbles to remove the cover, but when Wes fumbles to remove the cover from its pocket at the bottom of my pack, I holler, “Do have to take this pack off and do it myself?” Thank goodness,  Wes does not return fire and soon this hunger and exhaustion fueled snappishness slips into the mist.

We are glad to make it to the 1055 meter summit, but the view is just a few 100 feet. The ancient stone chapel looms in the mist and nothing tells us to stick around.  A skinny Spaniard in a short poncho appears in the mist, and almost starts walking back down the mountain until we shout him back on course.

Once again, we are glad we did not take the upper route, whose chief virtue is panoramic views and whose is chief vice is a steep 500 meter descent.  As it is, each step of the descent hurts. 

At the sight of the ancient monastery, now pilgrim haven at Roncesvalles, my heart leaps. When I see its square tower and long dormitories,  I start looking forward to some coffee and real food.  The handful of raspberries plucked along the way were helpful but not sufficient.

When we land at the pilgrim office, we are suddenly in a sea of soggy backpack wearing…or shedding... travelers. A big group huddles on a bench in the corridor, eating sandwiches and apples. More than a few have the same hollow-eyed look of exhaustion we do.

There is a big circle of pilgrims lining a tall table in the pilgrims' office.  I move to an open spot where I am informed in curt Spanish by a sweet faced 20 year old woman, “This is a line and I have just cut in place.” It takes me a moment to process what she saying and ask her in French,  “Where is the end of the line?” About 20 pilgrims back. I don't have the mental or language capacity to explain that all I want is the pilgrim stamp, while most people are trying to arrange lodging and breakfast in the vast dormitories.

One hale and hearty Spanish woman is managing the whole affair in bad English, moderate French, and rapid fire Spanish.  One big, young, damp American asks for lodging in careful Spanish and stands blinking and shocked at the torrent she returns in response. He then begs, “mas despacio, por favor” (more slowly, please).

I wait and wait. Wes comes in several times to see what on earth is going on. The line begins to snake out the door.  At last the volunteer calls out, “No dormir?” I wave my pilgrim passport in the air…it  seems I am the only one in this giant line not seeking lodging.

She moves me to the front of the line, stamps my passport in one second. Then we are gone, across the courtyard and straight into a bus load of elderly Spanish tourists huddling under umbrellas in their straight skirts, neat trousers and sensible shoes.

The rain increases along with our need for some food. We find an open restaurant/bar. The bar is jammed, but the dining room is nearly empty. We take seats to discover all they are serving is a 3 course meal with bread, wine, and water...
€18 each. Eeek. Oh, well, better that than a cold sandwich and beer for 10 euros.

The food is delicious. I have lentil soup with sausage and peppers, trout and flan, while Wes revels in his fruit and cheese salad, stuffed pepper, and chocolate gateau. We drink a whole bottle of wine, fuss over our lodging arrangements for the night and meet a threesome sitting next to us speaking flat Midwestern English.

He looks like he walked, but the 2 women are much too pristine to have braved the rainy trails. When we announce we are from, they say they are from London, Ontario. We say we met another group from London, Ontario, staying at the same apartment complex we were. The champagne blonde on the left starts, then stares, then says, “That was us!” 

Neither group recognized each other out of context. We visit a bit. They will stay in the town just beyond where we will, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing them again...

Just outside the restaurant, Wes talks to a couple of Brits in ponchos and their fat little Jack Russell terrier, who is sporting a Camino seashell on his collar. Wes asks if the dog is walking.  He isn’t…too old at 14 years, but they’re all back again after many trips to the trail.

They correct Wes on his pronunciation of "Buen Camino" and teasingly point out that one of my pant legs is up and the other down. The wife says, "Well, it’s just to show that her pink socks match her pink blouse, isn’t it?”

The path to our lodging is flat and lovely, through a thick forest once noted as a haven for witches…(as the Inquisition would have history believe, more likely non compliant Basque women, I sniff to Wes.)

We stop to read the town’s signmap, which proclaims in English. “You is here.” and we surely are. We make our way through this charming Basque town where Hemingway spent so much time, and find our lovely hotel.  It takes seconds to shed our wet clothes and heavy boots. In minutes. I am soaking, then snoring, in the deep cast iron tub.

After muscle rubs, healing ointments, and ibuprofen, we snuggle into comfortable but adjacent twin beds. We are glad to be over the mountain and truly started on our pilgrim journey.