Saturday, 31 October 2009

Unknown territory

My first Camino I walked alone on the Via de la Plata. When I got nearer Santiago the presence of the other occasional pilgrim was a nice diversion from the solitary weeks before. My jaunts on the Camino Inglés were almost all alone and only once I encountered a group of Spanish pilgrims with no rucksacks who took tourist pictures of me and shamefacedly boarded their air conditioned coach a couple of hours later. When I stepped out one November morning a year or so ago from St Jean de Pied Port on the Camino Francés I walked into the dawn mist alone. Not for long. Soon I encountered a procession of other pilgrims. This was quite a culture shock for me but there was no way of avoiding contact and I fell in with a small group of much younger people who were astonished I kept up with them. We ate lunch together and shared chocolate huddled on the windswept Alto de Perdón. Gradually in this wee group people got to know each other. Sometimes we would walk alone going ahead or lagging behind the others. Sometimes we walked as three or four and sometimes in twos. I met Donald MacDonald, a man slightly younger than me who was Norwegian. His grandparents had been Scottish. I’d never have guessed.

On the Camino Francés I was even drawn to consider joining the others in the albergues. Never my first choice for a number of good reasons. But I found I didn’t want to leave the group whose companionship I was enjoying.

Many pilgrims make lifelong friends with those they meet. Some meet future partners. Most enjoy the fellowship, although like every other situation in life normal rules of caution apply. There are strange and odd people on the Camino too. But walking together, sharing the purpose, the difficulties and the joys encourages an intimacy more quickly engendered than elsewhere in life. Many people choose the Camino Francés because they will experience this fellowship.

Marion Marples describes one of her experiences: “Give a hug to the Apostle,” strangers cry as I pass. I eventually arrive at Santiago’s shrine and, taking a deep breath, climb up behind the seated silver St James. My hug of gratitude encompasses all the people, known and unknown, whose efforts have ensured that I arrived safely after my 500-mile walking pilgrimage.
Later, in the narrow streets of the old town, I am surprised to hear my name shouted out. A friend has calculated my arrival date, waited for me to appear and now races towards me to give me the most enormous warm hug. No explanation, just a hug.”
Sitting in the Pilgrims’ Office looking at the daily stream of pilgrims seeking the Compostela, the friends are obvious. When called forward one by one they are reluctant to part as if realising the last stamp is the end of the journey and the closeness they are enjoying.

This is particularly true of the couples, some just married, some celebrating a long time together, who make the pilgrimage together. Like Hans and Gretel (I’m not joking) who walked out of their home in the Netherlands and kept walking all the way to Santiago. They stood hand in hand beaming as they told me their story. They had planned to arrive on this day and the date on their Compostela was very special to them – their 40th wedding anniversary. They were brimming over with all that they felt the pilgrimage together had given them. The time they had together, meeting other people, just being. I asked them if it had all been good. “Like marriage a long Camino like ours has its difficulties but overall it has been wonderful,” they answered. I couldn’t resist telling them the story of the older married couple who were asked if during their life together they had ever thought of divorce. After thinking for a moment they replied, “Divorce not ever, but we did think about murder from time to time.” They laughed and like two teenagers they almost danced out of the office to celebrate their anniversary.

For me most poignant of all are the parents with children, mothers with daughters, fathers with sons and vice versa.

Father and Son, Steve 45 and Paul 17 took 3 weeks to walk the last 250kms of the Via de la Plata, the 1000 kms route from Seville in the South of Spain. I asked them how it had been for them. Steve said “Though I masked it as best as I could, I boarded that plane gripped with fear. “What have I gotten us into?” I wondered. “Will we be safe?” I slept poorly the first couple of nights precisely because of those fears, but the Camino led me to confront some fundamental spiritual issues in my life: the fact that I am not in control of circumstances, that I need to be more faithful in my daily life, that I need to be a better steward of the environment. I also grew closer to my son in lasting ways. It is my hope that, in 25 years, he will look back on our Camino as one of the building blocks of his spiritual life.
Paul said, “I remember vividly what I was thinking as I stepped onto that airline flight to Spain: “Why did I ever agree to leave home for three whole weeks just to walk on some stupid trail in a foreign country?” This is also what I was thinking for the first few days of actual walking. However, one day, when my dad and I were standing on a small bridge in a beautiful section of forest, it suddenly hit me. There was no place in the world I would have rather been than right there at that time, not even at home in my own bed. And even now there is still nothing I would rather have spent those three weeks doing. “
Last week I met Kate and her dad, Gene, who had completed all of the Via de la Plata from Seville and were travelling home through London. The two of them looked great and simply exuded serenity. 7 weeks of living life in the most simple way does that. How was their pilgrimage? How did it feel walking with your dad? How did it feel making a pilgrimage with your daughter? Both took on a faraway look that I have seen before. I could see that the experience had been so powerful it was difficult to describe. It would have sounded trite in any other circumstance but they said they had left as parent and child and returned as life-long friends.

So on Camino we can encounter new friends and deepen older relationships. It seems that parents and children can discover each other in quite new ways. There are no statistics to prove how many couples, families or parents and children travel to Santiago together. There is no evidence of the effect on relationships apart from the many stories. But when you walk you realise how could it not be so?

Which leads me finally to a quote from Ben Okri which has become a favourite:

Most of us are pretty astonished when we feel love, and discover to our amazement that it’s not like what we thought it was, nor how the films tell us it is. It is different; it is richer. It’s very troubling and very chaotic. It turns our world upside down. It challenges many of our belief systems and our prejudices. But love also inspires the confidence to take risks with one another. You just don’t know what trust in another person can lead to. And love is about courage. Do we have the courage to smile at somebody we meet for the first time, the courage to be friendly and warm, the courage to venture into unknown territory and encounter other people, with common sense and a clear, awakened mind?”

Sunday, 25 October 2009

You get more out than you put in

For those who moan, including me from time to time, about all that could be improved for pilgrims, I offer this short film which was made for a campaign I was running some years ago:

In that vein,I’ve been thinking a lot about the people the Camino has brought into my life. And they keep coming. In my in-box this week there were several emails from pilgrims who have been using the on-line guides. The master copy of Laurie Reynold's new Guide to the route from Lisbon to Porto also arrived. There were one or two birthday greetings from Camino friends who caught up with last week’s post and I exchanged birthday greetings with another pilgrim pen friend resident somewhere in the Baltic Sea. I also got a note from an American lassie I met on the Camino Frances one cold November. She was walking with her German boyfriend who had been a Triathalon competitor who left her frequently to walk ahead 40 kms! I never saw them again after Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Kate struggled, got blisters, had to go ahead by bus. I wasn’t sure the whole Camino thing was for her. They had a light hearted website which was never updated and they drifted off my radar.

Leap forward 18 months and the note read (heavily paraphrased): “Hi John this is Kate from the bar in Santo Domingo, I’ve no longer got the boyfriend but I’m going to walk the Via de la Plata from Seville with my Dad”.

We corresponded. They arrived in Santiago last week despite Dad’s bad knee and set off for Finisterre. They had hoped I would be in the Pilgrims’ Office so we could meet when they arrived then realised they travel back to the US via London. La Terazza here we come!

The last week or so also saw the conclusion of Laurie Reynold’s most excellent Guide to the route from Lisbon to Porto. It is written as a pilgrim walker for other walkers. I enjoyed doing the final edit and laughed at Laurie’s honesty “It was here I got lost…could future walkers send further information please”! That plea goes to the heart of these on line Guides. Have a look - they are growing in number. People are downloading them and using them. More importantly as I learned from my in box in the last week they are sending really helpful suggestions and observations. Those of us who write the Guides put in place the basic architecture of a very useable Guide but it is only through up-dates from pilgrims will these guides always be accurate. Guides written for pilgrims by pilgrims up dates by pilgrims – free to download. But please make a donation! That’s the spirit of pilgrimage.

As well as reading Laurie’s Guide I’ve been reading Hape Kerkeling’s book about his pilgrimage which is titled I’m Off Then. I decided before I opened the cover that I wouldn’t like it. The cover reads:
“I’m Off Then has sold more than three million copies in Germany and has been translated into 11 languages. The number of pilgrims along the Camino has increased by 20 percent since the book was published. Hape Kerkeling’s spiritual journey has struck a chord”.
As I started this book resentment piled on resentment; he took buses, slept not in albergues or hostals but in 4* hotels along the way and being the German equivalent of Billy Connelly he laughs at the other pilgrims he met along the way. But as I read, his very gentle style began to calm me down. It was HIS camino and I realised he poked more fun at himself than anyone else. And after all…I’ve stayed in my fair share of good hotels along the routes and I have met some very odd characters. So I began to enjoy it and as he talked more and more about his “search” I became increasingly intrigued as to what he was searching for. From being a couch potato he got fitter after walking many days. He was pleased about that but that wasn’t enough. He met friends and companions who drifted in and out of his journey. He had splendid end of day dinners but they weren’t enough. He reflected on his background, his sexuality, his fame and success but these reflections weren’t enough. Then a page turns and he describes how he saw a child write on a wall with coloured chalk the phrase Yo y tu, (you and me). He obviously thought about it deeply because when I turned the page to the next day what he wrote came as a complete surprise:
“Then it happened! I had my own encounter with God. Yo y tu was the motto of yesterday’s treck, and to me it sounds like a secret pact. What happened there is between Him and me. But the school wall bore three words: me and you. The bond between Him and me is an entity unto itself.
To encounter God, you first have to issue and invitation to Him; He does not come without being asked – a divine form of good manners. It’s up to us. He establishes and individual relationship with us. Only a person who truly loves is capable of sustaining this relationship.
I am getting freer by the day. My emotional seesawing on the Camino has eased up and I am seeing things clearly. After running the gamut of emotional frequencies, I’ve come to settle on a single frequency and I get great reception”.
As I’ve written before this type of God happening has never been for me but I recognise that others do have powerful experiences. But I have to be honest the Camino has made me pause and reflect about deeply personal issues in a spiritual way. One such experience was sitting on the bank of the Rio Esla having a picnic in perfect companionship. The sun shone, the water was clear, the air was as still as can be. In that moment I realised that despite difficulties my life had an abundance of good things in it. Maybe more than I deserved. So when I got back I decided it was time to share. And so I was introduced to Brendan.

Brendan Barry, actor, gentleman and my friend was my guest for lunch in La Terazza on Thursday. It was a special day, his 91st birthday. He was born in the year the First World War ended. The same year Billy Graham was born. He was to grow up in the roaring 20’s and witness the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War. He saw gas lamps become electric and homes get telephones. He loves colour television but still doesn’t understand computers.

After a period as an engineer which was the profession his parents chose for him he got his first job as a stage hand in a theatre, then soon a walk on part, then he got to speak. Getting an agent followed and he then embarked on a career during which he worked non-stop for 50 years.
He played many famous parts, became expert in Shakespeare and worked with some of our most famous actors. He was in his 80th year when Myasthenia Gravis struck and he had to give up the role he was playing in the West End. He lives in the most modest of circumstances in Clapham and he allows me to visit him usually once a week. During these visits he talks a lot! He recites Shakespeare in a deep, rich and booming voice. He goes out every morning for his daily shopping and every evening he has a glass of wine. We had more than a glass together on his birthday!
He is full of wisdom about this pilgrimage of life we are all on…”accept what you are given and decide to enjoy it”…”if you think about getting old you WILL get old” and on his birthday he quoted Abraham Lincoln, “It isn’t the years in your life that are important, it is the life in your years”.
As for drink…”I used to drink champagne from a bowl I loved it so much. I drank at least a bottle a day. But on my 80th birthday I decided it was time to be a little more abstemious”. Brendan is quickly becoming by role model. He continues to give me more than I give him. Thank you Brendan,happy birthday and continuing Buen Camino!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Viva Santiago

What a powerful force this Camino has.

I’ve been really busy recently with a number of things. I’ve been helping out a small local charity that has been going bankrupt, I’ve been dealing with family things in Scotland, I’ve been playing the organ at more things than I should have agreed to, I’ve been proof reading Laurie Reynold’s most excellent new guide to the Route from Lisbon to Porto. I’ve been corresponding with pilgrims on camino and at home. I’ve been visiting a 91 year old Shakespearean actor. And I’ve been lunching a lot.

What I haven’t been doing is writing this blog. And I’ve been missing it.
I haven’t been short of ideas or stories. In fact I had the most fascinating lunch with Janet, a pilgrim from Adelaide who was visiting London having completed a Camino of 2000 kms from France to Santiago. I recorded our conversation so I could write some of her stories. She taught me yet again that the simplicity of life on pilgrimage is what draws us to it in the first place and it is what keeps us going back for more. I really enjoyed meeting her. More of that conversation later.
I also had lunch with Piers Nicholson. We met in the Athenaeum one of these old, splendid London gentleman’s clubs although nowadays they admit women, of course. The membership of the Athenaeum is exclusive and is reserved to the refined, dignified and intellectual. Piers is all of these things. He is also a well walked pilgrim and he developed the website which now receives 1.5 million hits every year.
Piers is a retired scientist who now spends his time making high class sundials and he recently walked the Camino del Salvador with my friend Rebekah Scott. I have enough stories from that conversation to fill several blog posts. But I’ve got to write them!
Being away from the blog for a couple of weeks has been strange. Too busy to think about it and too busy to write I still felt strangely guilty that some of the stories going round in my head weren’t being written down.
I resolved to put that right on my birthday. Today!

One of the stories I was going to write about is the Priest and Altar Boy. I’ve been mulling it over for a while. The world is in such a sad state that the very title nowadays has a sinister flavour to it. Whereas in fact the Priest and the Altar Boy or Crego e Monaguillo in Gallego is one of the finest white wines of Galicia. It is produced in a vineyard owned by the family of Galician Priest Padre Ernesto and his godson, who used to serve as his altar boy, is the manager of the winery. Hence the Priest and the Altar Boy, a delicious award winning wine.
I was introduced to this wine in a Galician Restaurant in Clapham. I’ve been going there for a few years now. One day I was at my office in the City in London and I hailed a taxi to get me home quickly. London taxi drivers are notorious conversationalists. Usually extremely opinionated on every subject under the sun. My driver that day was no exception. As we drove through Clapham he asked if I went to any restaurants in the area. “Oh yes” I said, “ I’m fond of Spanish food and I usually go to La Rueda”. “La Rueda?” he asked incredulously, “ Oh you don’t want to go there…you MUST go to La Terraza on Bedford Road, that’s where all the Spanish people go.” He went on to explain, “My dad is Spanish and he almost lives there, they even have a Menu del Dia!”That started a fine tradition of Saturday lunches after rehearsals and dinners on high days and holidays. Don Antonio the Jefe de la Cocina is a man of profound wisdom and gentleness and all of them from owners to waiters have the warmest of welcome and the liveliest sense of humour.
On Saturdays the “boys” congregate. 15 – 20 middle aged men drinking beer, eating Menus of the Dia, chatting, joking at the bar. Families arrive in considerable numbers. Children run around smiled at benignly by the adults. Frequently regulars have to squeeze in because there is a party of 80 odd people eating and dancing to celebrate a first communion or a great anniversary. La Terraza is home to many. It is so Spanish even the most English feel compelled to try and speak in Spanish. My scallop shell hangs proudly on the bar. But more than that it is truly Galician. Caldo, delicious stews and copious fish and sea food constantly flow from the kitchen and more than a few local Scots and Irish people have made the Celtic connection and their accents can be heard amidst the Spanish and Gallego. This is where the Confraternity of St James celebrated a 25th Anniversary lunch and will do so again on 28th November.
And so last night having played for the Feast of St Gerard me and the big man who was singing hastened to La Terraza for a pre-birthday supper. They were delighted to see us. “Caballeros, we have a surprise for you this evening!” they said, and a few minutes later we were introduced to Padre Ernesto in the flesh. During the introductions it was established we were pilgrims. He was delighted with my concha brought from Santiago hanging on the bar. “What’s that you’re drinking?” he enquired. We explained it was the white wine of the house. “Not nearly as good as Crego e Monaguillo” we explained with a smile, “but cheaper!” He laughed and went off to join a gathering crowd of people. The next moment the waiter placed a bottle of Crego e Monaguillo in front of us. “A gift from the priest” he explained. Well I have to say that’s the second time a Spanish priest has bought me a drink. That’s twice more than Scottish priests ever have!

I was delighted. What a nice introduction to my birthday. I was in mid sentence when I stopped speaking. My jaw dropped. I looked over my friend’s shoulder at the figure in the doorway and I thought I was seeing things. The last time I’d seen the man standing there was on the feast of St James, sitting on the throne in Santiago Cathedral as the representative of the King delivering his greeting to the Archbishop and all of Spain. This was Alberto NÚÑEZ FEIJÓO, the President of Galicia. In La Terraza. Well you could have knocked me over with the cork from the bottle of Crego e Monaguillo.
More so when as if on a state visit he was introduced to us as pilgrims and friends of Santiago. He was genuinely delighted and having toured the restaurant to meet various people he returned to give us a final embrace before he went to dinner. Giving us both a hug he declared “Viva Santiago”. Indeed.
“So señor,” said Don Antonio, ever the joker, “this is only the evening before your birthday…tomorrow we have the King of Spain coming to lunch.”

I can’t wait. Viva Santiago.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

With a little help from his friends - Eirik's story


This spring in April – May I walked my third Camino, the Via de la Plata from Sevilla, and I promised Johnny Walker to tell him how it was.

I don’t know how many among the pilgrims walking to Santiago suffer from handicaps or serious diseases, and how that affects them. Maybe that was more common in the middle age than today. Myself, I have Parkinson’s disease, trying ever harder to cripple me since I got it 17 years ago, involving me in an increasing struggle to control my own life. And then I got something called GBS 4 years ago.

When I left the hospital July 2005, it was with a wheel chair. The doctors had told me that my nerve cells, destroyed by the rare Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) would repair themselves, but it might take a year. Further, they could not in any case guarantee my recovery because of Parkinson, there was little or no experience with the combination.

There and then, I estimated that I had about 15% strength. I could not eat on my own, somebody had to feed me, I could not lift the toothbrush to my mouth, I could not raise from a chair or bed, I needed assistance at the toilet, and a row of other problems. I could not walk properly. I had no balance, if someone came closer to me than half a meter, I was sure I was going to fall.

I got home from the hospital with a comprehensive training program, the doctors having said that recovery could take an additional year or two after the repair of the nerve cells. But I suffered “muscular atrophy”; if muscles get the idea that there is no use for them, they start disappearing. So there was not much left to train. And bodybuilding at the age of 61 is in any case difficult.

I needed strong motivation to train 26 hours a week, starting each day before 0700. Then in the spring of 2006, Norwegian Television showed three programs from the Camino. That was tempting, and at a party, when I still needed assistance to get up, I told about my decision to walk the French Route early spring 2007. They excused me by probably having too much to drink. However, I had a year for training, planning and preparations. I soon fixed the starting date to April 28th 2007 from St.Jean, I planned to walk the French Route to Santiago de Compostela.

First thing I realized was that I needed a companion. Mainly for minor things, which most people don’t understand can be a problem. Like coordinating my fingers for tasks like doing up my shoelaces, or picking up something, like coins. Or for support if crossing a stream or passing through rough terrain. Friends and family were very helpful, but as they had their jobs to attend, they could only be away for a short time. I therefore used five of them, changing “crew” in Logrono, Burgos, Leon and Ponferrada.

For a Parkinson’s patient, control of your two legs is a major issue, for a Camino walker, good legs are essential. It is not easy to combine those two, but a lot of daily walk training over long time makes a remarkable difference. Still you frequently risk getting stiff legs and using much more energy than other people, also by reduced length of step. I struggled a lot with this on the French Route, and I was especially anxious for the mountains after Ponferrada, with Alto Pradela at 930m and O’Cebreiro (photo) at 1300m. But following several days with stiff legs and strenuous walks, and some experiments with the medication (eight times a day), the stiffness was as “blown away”. After Ponferrada it felt like I was “flying” and able to walk any distance. As for Parkinson, I almost forgot his presence. I remained “flying” the rest of the way to Santiago, where I enjoyed my own triumph and the incredible atmosphere of the city for a couple of days.
September 2008, following the same recipe, we set course for Porto, the Portuguese Route. I felt that Parkinson’s was demanding more of me. Especially I struggled with speaking, and also a little more with the balance, a fundamental skill. But it was very successful, and in fact I walked it twice, with three days in between. “Again” the receptionist in Ponte de Lima burst out when she saw me again after two weeks (I don’t know why she remembered me).

The success with two Caminos gave me the spirit to try the presumably biggest challenge, the Via de la Plata. I spent some effort trying to find out what to expect, and if I had a chance to make it. I studied the guide books and contacted the Confraternity, who handed my questions over to Johnny Walker. I got quick and relevant answers, and I was very encouraged, and promised him this report afterwards. So I stepped up my training and went ahead with the planning, also based upon five companions, changing in Caceres, Salamancha, Benavente and Ourense. We also put in amply time in the beginning, to enjoy the rich archeological and cultural treasures on our way.
We started from Sevilla April 3rd, turned west at Granja de Moreruela, (photo – Rio Esla on this section) walked in solitude the “southern route” between A Gudina and Ourense, and ended up in Santiago de Compostela May 27th.

Another personal victory to celebrate. Not only for making it, but for the remarkable effect it had on my Parkinson’s. The stiffness, which had given me trouble on the French Route, was almost non-existent. And even better, on the Via de la Plata, the effect of my medication was stretched two hours a day, which is a significant improvement, and makes my life quality considerably better. Some of this effect still remains, as I am careful to keep up training.

After this, one should think that my Parkinson’s problem is “solved”. But it is not. Even if you are able to keep it at arm’s length for a while, it comes a little stronger each year. I want to walk a new Camino in April 2010, but ought to find a way to improved control, especially for balance and speech. I’m working with it. And it is so much more fun when you can talk to people. Yourself.

If my experience can be of any help to anyone else I’m glad and anyone who wishes can write to me at