Saturday, 27 March 2010

Different roads in Holy Week

Daybreak. Sevilla.

The noise of a door slamming woke me. I had fallen into a deep sleep having tossed and turned all night. I am leaving to walk the Camino to Santiago today and every time my eyes had closed either anxiety or excitement prodded me awake. My rucksack stood against the wall. I looked at it wondering if I should unpack and repack it again to see if there was anything I had missed or anything that could be left out. I laughed to myself. I’d done that a dozen times already. As I reached into the wardrobe to get the clothes I would wear I caught sight of the black robe hanging there. Memories.
This was what I wore as a Nazareno in one of the many processions in Seville during Holy Week. I had worn it proudly even although some of my friends taunted me that the tall hat made me look like a member of the Klu Klux Klan. I was proud to belong to the Hermandad de la Macarena, the brotherhood or confraternity which each year prepares and then carries the statue of the Virgin Mary called the Macarena through the crowded streets of Seville. There are 55 brotherhoods in the city and they carry over 100 pasos which are platforms with statues or scenes from Holy Week. This is the week when the Church remembers the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Some of the brotherhoods date as far back as the 13th Century. The processions of Holy Week are a long held tradition. It starts today.
Excited as I am about my Camino I have also felt the build up in the town over the last few days. Over 1 million visitors occupy every available bed and cram the streets. Every day there are processions leading up to Holy Thursday when La Madrugá begins. This is 24 hours of continuous processions to mark Good Friday the day of Christ’s death.

I was born into the Hermandad de la Macarena. It is the most important of all of them. The image of the Macarena is famous throughout Spain. My father, his father and grandfather before him were all involved in the brotherhood. People looked up to them. My dad had been the Capataz, the one who directs the paso and gives orders to the costaleros, the dozens of fit young men who carry the float on their shoulders. Often they are hidden underneath. I also performed various roles myself as I was growing up. When I was learning the trumpet in school I was in the band which plays la marcha procesiónal as the paso moves on. I have also been a monaguillo, an altar boy, and also a penitente. Penitentes wear somber robes to symbolize that they are atoning for their sins. In some brotherhoods they walk with their feet bare. Some others wear chains and manacles on their ankles.

The brotherhood meets during the year. The membership is only men. From time to time girls, usually students, have tried to join or even start their own sisterhood. They got nowhere. People just laughed.
Belonging to a brotherhood means learning the traditions. How things are done. There is a pecking order and families like ours who have been involved for generations are the most senior. Members of the brotherhoods each have a heavily embossed metal keyring which they hook over their trouser pockets. It is like a membership badge. Members drink together after meetings when the selection of who will do what next year is planned in meticulous detail.
The churches with pasos have a brotherhood and the local priest is the chaplain. I remember when I was very young the priest came to speak to us about our responsibility to keep the tradition of the brotherhood going. He said we were especially blessed to be brothers together and that what we did was important to God. My chest swelled with pride that year when I was chosen to carry one of the incensarios which sent billows of incense into the air. There were magical moments. We were processing through the narrow streets of the barrio when there was a strange whispering through the crowd. Then they fell to complete silence. From a balcony a man started singing a saeta, a soulful ballad about the Vigin Mary’s suffering as she saw her son put to death. Everyone was transfixed as his voice soared through the narrow streets. As we set off again the capataz whispered in my ear that one day I would be the Presidente of the Hermandad. I was happier than I ever remembered.
I don’t know when the change started to happen. I began to find brotherhood meetings boring. The arguments were petty. Debates about the colour of the ropes holding the canopy over the statue went on for weeks. The election of a new Presidente was like a general election. People took sides. There were rumours about the private lives of the likely candidates. Three of the older and most senior members approached me and asked if I would stand for election. I was flattered and I thought about it seriously. So seriously I decided to speak to a priest.

I hadn’t been to confession for many years. In fact apart from the one or two occasions when the Brotherhood went as a group I didn’t even go to church. In truth I wasn’t sure whether I even believed in God anymore and there were certainly things about the church I didn’t accept. As I waited at the door of the Cathedral for it to open a figure approached wearing a hat, a rucksack and carrying a stick. This was one of the pilgrims we see in Seville from time to time. He looked at the ground and I followed his gaze. There was an arrow inset into to pavement. It pointed across the road. I looked and there on the wall opposite was another arrow pointing right. I watched as the pilgrim followed the arrows until he was out of sight. I decided what to do there and then.
I told everyone that before I agreed to stand for election I would make the pilgrimage to Santiago. To a man they said they thought I was crazy. But I set out.

36 days later I sat in the Cathedral of Santiago surrounded by other people I had met on the way. With some I had formed life long bonds. These were my fellow pilgrims. Along the way I had realized that I wouldn’t find the God I had lost in a theatrical tourist attraction carried through the streets of Seville but in the kindness of strangers and the tenderness of new friendships.

I never did stand for election. When I got back everything seemed different and I felt I wanted other things, including walking another Camino. You see I’ve joined another fellowship now. I have no idea who the other members are that I have yet to meet but I know they will be there along the way.

This morning as the drum sounds and the processions start I wish them well. I have to go by a different road.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Camino Scales

Out walking yesterday. Skies grey and tepid air. Rain was never far away. The path was concrete and the 22 kms seemed a long way to go. There were few other walkers. Maybe they were sensible. Instead others took their place. All day a procession ran past in both directions. The runners moved smoothly and quickly. Baggy shorts, an old t-shirt, good shoes and defined muscles spirited their fit bodies past. But the majority were joggers clearly new to the enterprise. These came in all shapes. Mostly big. They sported yards of new lycra sometimes stretched impossibly in garish colours which matched the beetroot red of their faces. Sweat dripped. The joggers were uniform complete with high energy drinks in bottles which seemed to wrap around their fists like plastic knuckle dusters. Perhaps to fight off the fat? That was hopefully the objective of many of them. Why else would they put themselves through the obvious pain? All of their faces were set in an earnest panting grimace as they rippled along. Some grunted with the effort. As I strolled peacefully by the river I wondered why they do something which they clearly don’t enjoy and which appears to be very painful. How many just give up because it is all too difficult?

I’ve pondered that too about pilgrims. This week the question is back in my head as I’ve read a number of comments on pilgrim blogs and message boards from people who just didn’t like the Camino experience. Criticisms range from the litter on the Camino Frances to the challenges of sleeping in a busy albergue with 30 other strangers. No privacy, queues for the toilets, snoring are all listed in the case for the prosecution. One article I read complained that the local people weren’t welcoming and don’t speak English. Why this comes as a surprise in Spain bewilders me. I hope they never visit rural China. The food too is singled out for complaint. Too little choice. Too large portions. Too many fried potatoes. Too much meat. I’ve heard people complain about all of these things usually loudly in Spanish restaurants. I always feel like telling them to simply ask for the A La Carte Menu and to stop complaining about the quality of a meal which is going to cost them all of 8 euros for three courses included bread and wine. Maybe they usually go to nice local restaurants in New York or London where they pay $11 or £7 for the same volume of food and drink. Then there is the litany of more serious irritants. The clicking of walking poles on the trail, the hum of music from earphones as someone with an iPod passes or the heinous offense of being seen with a mobile telephone in your hand let along talking into it.

I suspect however that many of these negative concerns are inspired by the real challenges which all of us can encounter on Camino. Some people just don’t expect the weather to be bad, the hills to be steep or their feet to get blisters. These are among the real trials of the Camino. That’s why I think the documentary by José Alvarez has such an apt title - El Camino de Santiago: no un camino de rosas. Those of us who have walked know it isn’t a bed of roses.
Among those are some of my pilgrim friends. Rebekah is out there on the Camino Frances at the moment walking through those first days of pain and adjustment to being on pilgrimage again. I vicariously shared the recent Camino of the Solitary Walker as he walked the Via de la Plata. Challenging at the best of times he had to contend with the worst weather Spain has had for many years. Silvia from South Africa is amongst the most experienced pilgrims but walking in continuous rain brought blisters on a scale she had never known before. Andy walking the Camino Levante from Valencia had to cope with illness. Then there are the people I know who just gave up. Like me, a couple of years ago. With a chest infection flaring up again I was faced with two solid weeks of continuous rain ahead. I was outside of Burgos. Miserable. It was a Sunday. A bus came and I was back in London that evening. Best to live to walk another day, don’t you think?

Those who have walked know that after a long day our feet will be sore but these and all of the other difficulties are more than out-weighed by the benefits. The Solitary Walker says he tries to give himself to the serendipity. To the good things which happen. Vistas, a sense of freedom, meeting local people who are genuinely helpful, encountering other pilgrims also making the Way.

I thought about how to describe all of these things which counterbalance the inevitable challenges of the Camino and alI I could do was come up with a long list of incidents which taken together seem altogether too magical. So in my search for what pilgrimage offers us I turned to someone whose prose is more descriptive and beautiful than mine. Hermann Hesse wrote in his little book Wandering:

“But I smile, not only with my mouth. I smile with my soul, with my eyes, with my whole skin and I offer these countrysides, whose fragrances drift up to me, different senses than I had before, more delicate, more silent, more finely honed, better practice and more grateful. Everything belongs to me more than ever before, it speaks to me more richly with a hundred nuances. My yearning no longer paints dreamy colours across veiled distances, my eyes are satisfied with what exists. The world has become lovelier than before.“

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A life in the day of Piers Nicholson - the Precise Pilgrim

It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible. -Aristotle
Piers Nicholson is the owner of the popular website which I visited many times while preparing for my first pilgrimage. This year it will probably get 2 million views of its pages. I didn’t know the name of the person behind the website but I became very familiar with its contents. Then through a coincidence I met the man who created what has become one of the most popular Camino resources on the internet.

One day I was chatting to one of my colleagues on a committee on which I serve. She was very interested in what I had been doing and when I mentioned the pilgrimage routes to Santiago she said, “Oh,the Camino!, I know someone who has done that. And he has a website about it.” She scribbled down the name of the website asking, “Perhaps you’ve come across it?” “Come across it?” I thought, “I’ve virtually been living in it for months”.

She told me the story. She had taken over the company she worked for when the previous owner decided to retire. To mark his retirement he had walked the Camino and then developed a website which she said, “had taken over his life.” She brought us both together for dinner in her house and I met the most fascinating Piers Nicholson, husband, scientist, researcher, pilgrim, businessman and designer of sundials and websites. That evening I knew we would meet again.
On his return from walking the Camino del Salvador with my friend Rebekah Scott he invited me to lunch at his London Club, the Athenæum. I was familiar with the place and his chosen venue gave me a clue to more of the man behind the bowtie. Some would consider the Athenæum as the most prestigious club. Originally for gentlemen it now thankfully also admits women. It is known as the club for bishops, cabinet ministers and members of the House of Lords. However its main characteristic is that you have to have brains to be a member and historically its membership is drawn from people who gained success or prominence through their intellectual prowess rather than inherited money or titles. Clearly that’s Piers and over that lunch and a reciprocal invitation to la Terazza his story emerged. Much of it is illustrated by his typical daily routine.
Piers and his wife are early birds and usually they get up at 5.45am so that his wife can go swimming. As if in sympathy Piers sometimes goes to the gym. Breakfast is usually muesli with grapefruit juice and a boiled egg which Piers takes from the fridge and boils for 8 mins exactly. No more, no less. It is always cooked perfectly. By 7am he is at his computer. The precise timings involved in his daily routine perhaps come from his scientific background and career where he developed a small company researching the whereabouts of rare minerals and metals used in complex industrial processes. Walking the Camino was very much a rite of passage from that when he retired. However with Piers the use of the word retired doesn’t seem appropriate. Booting up his PC at 7am every day he quickly becomes busy on a number of fronts. In one e mail account there may be orders or enquiries about sundials. Since giving up his company Piers has developed a business designing sundials. He has a lifelong fascination with them which he describes on one of his sundial websites Click the sundial to see his other website and examples of his work.
When Piers stepped out on his first Camino he had no idea that he would be inspired to start a pilgrim website which would become so popular, that his sundial business would flourish or indeed that one day he would be asked to give a lecture in Pamplona entitled, “The Sundials of the Camino to Santiago” in Spanish!
All of these things came to pass. When he returned from walking the first section of the Camino Francés to Logroño Piers started his website with a few of the photographs he had taken. He was surprised when he discovered people were visiting the site to look at the photographs so as his pilgrimage continued he posted more. And got more visitors. After the Camino Francés came the Camino Aragonés, the Via de la Plata from Salamanca, the Camino Portugues and the route to Finisterre. With each trip the web based photograph collection expanded. Piers is now proud that very soon people will be able to see photos of every main route on his website. All of this keeps him very busy and in fact the very day I met Piers at La Terazza he had been meeting local government officials from Catalunya to seek their support for his web site.

So between dispatching two or three sundials a week to customers in various parts of the world and spending around 2 hours a day on his pilgrim website Piers’ day whizzes past. He fuels this with a coffee at two hourly intervals accompanied by a ginger biscuit and lunch is often two sticks of celery, one with humus and the other with taramasalata, peppered mackerel and salad. This is followed by 2 pieces of chocolate. “Never three?” I enquire. “Always two” came the reply.
Most afternoons are punctuated with a 1 hour walk and Piers looks forward to his wife arriving home from work as he avidly avoids cooking. One other hand his wife is an excellent cook and he enjoys nothing more than when she cooks his favourite Steak au poivre. Piers reads a lot and proudly produces he E Book on which he can store several hundred books. He is currently reading short stories by H G Wells and recently read the Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogerson. Whereas his wife relaxes by watching period detective mysteries such as Poirot and Sherlock Holmes it isn’t surprising to find that scientist Piers prefers programmes about Natural History. Nor is it surprising when Piers tells me that he goes to bed at 9.55pm and is asleep by 10pm.

Piers’ seemingly meticulously worked out daily routine apart our conversation over lunch touched on the nature of pilgrimage and the way it seems to get into the blood. We both reflected on our contact with established religions Piers having been brought up in a Jewish household. Then on the question of faith we both agree that we will be astonished but delighted if we meet each other in an afterlife. Several times in that conversation we touched on the impact of pilgrimage on believer and non believer, on the rational scientist and incurable romantic. Piers shares about the poem he was inspired to write on his pilgrimage. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did talking to this fascinating pilgrim:

The Camino

When we started, we did not know - exactly - why we were doing it
We had lives which were - more or less - satisfactory
We had friends known much of our lives
We had children - changed from chrysalis to butterflies
We had things:
things like machines
things like music
things like pictures
things like shelves full of books
things like money and pensions and security
We did not have one thing - and maybe that was why we started

When we started, we put one foot in front of the other
We still did not know - precisely - why we were doing it
The miles passed - many of them pleasantly
Our feet blistered and were slow to heal
Our ankles turned on loose stones
The rain beat its way through our clothes
The cold chilled the marrow of our bones
Some nights, refuge was hard to find
Some days, miles of hot dust had no fountains

When the first few of many long days had passed
We found - without words - that we no longer walked together
That together we spoke in our own tongues
- and often of things we had left behind where we began
That together we shut out new experience with the wall of our togetherness
That alone we spoke in other tongues and of our common experience
That alone we were open - open with interest and curiosity.
Often we met - with gladness - at the end of the day
To know our paths went on together was enough

When we got to the cathedral we sat down
We saw - through the eyes of those long before us
The blinding faith, the crucial thirst for salvation
The tower slowly closing off the sky
And we counted our blessings - several hundred of them
Starting with the kindness of ordinary people on the way
And with the warmth of other travellers on the road
Travellers not at all like us - not in age, not in origin, not in interests
But warm across all these distancings
And ending with the friendship and love
We had left behind where we began.

When we got to the sea at the end of the world
We sat down on the beach at sunset
We knew why we had done it
To know our lives less important than just one grain of sand
To know that we did not need the things we had left behind us
To know the we would nevertheless return to them
To know that we needed to be where we belonged
To know that kindness and friendship and love is all one needs
To know that we did not - after all - have to make this long journey to find this out
To know that - for us - it certainly helped

Written near Sanguesa, Navarra, September 2003

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Practical Pilgrim…a word about preparation

I was recently sorting out some folders on my computer when I came across a file of packing lists. I had collected these from different websites and people. Then I made my own. In fact I made several including a list for warm weather, a list for hot weather and of course a list for winter. I remember the hours I spent looking at these then assembling the gear on the list then laying it all out on the bed. Over and over again.

I’d read all of the advice given by more experienced pilgrims. There was a great variety. However one thing on which everyone was agreed was that rucksack weight should be kept to a minimum. Having read the advice I promptly ignored it. Not consciously of course. It was simply that I considered everything in my pack to be essential. Within a few days of starting my first pilgrimage I got blisters. Very painful, can’t walk another step, type blisters. Only then did I review what was in my rucksack. Before leaving I had been self-righteously proud of the fact that even although I had bought a sleeping mat I had decided to leave it behind.

What I hadn’t realised was that in my caution to prepare for all eventualities I had too many of EVERYTHING - including 2 torches in case one broke down and of course extra batteries. A thermos and powdered soup (for those bitterly cold days in Extremadura which were 2 weeks ahead of me!) That got left behind on the second day. A tin cup - for the soup of course!

I also took a little short wave radio to listen to the BBC on those long winter evenings when it gets dark early rather than spend all evening in the bar - whilst this was a good idea it soon became apparent that the rhythm of each day didn't work like that and I could work out my walking day so that I arrived at 6pm just before dusk.

I also had far too much in my first aid kit - in case I needed field surgery! And of course that little bag of "spares" - matches, clothes pegs, sewing kit etc. That actually took me another couple of Caminos to dump. The ubiquitous but in fact redundant and expensive Swiss army knife; a pencil AND a pen.

But to keep my weight down I planned to meticulously rip out the pages of the guide book and dispose of them at each stage!

Blisters are powerful teachers and I soon learned that light is best. But I could have avoided a lot of problems if I had just walked with my pack more in the weeks before my first pilgrimage began. Although I had been out walking for a couple of long walks, these couldn’t prepare me for the 8 hours walking day after day I was going to undertake with a fully laden pack. I now know that only regular walking including spending some full days with a rucksack on your back is the only way to build fitness and stamina and get your legs, joints and feet ready for the trial in front of them.

There are many ways to prepare for a walk such as the Camino. I recommend for people living in the UK. This website is ideal for charting walking routes around the major cities of the UK. There are equivalents in other countries. Then there are the many routes popularised by the Ramblers Association For those living near a UK or other European airport there is the opportunity to practice in Spain itself. If you have 3 or 5 days holiday you could walk to Santiago from A Coruña or Ferrol. Madrid is another obvious option. Spain’s capital is readily accessible and the Madrid route presents a very straightforward way of preparing over a few days for a much longer journey on another route. The slideshow at the top of the page will show you more of this wonderful route.

Wherever you live there will be walking opportunities. I keep discovering them. Although I’m a foreigner living in London for the last 10 years I still haven’t visited Windsor Castle or Hampton Court Palace. But I discovered a walking route that would take me right past them. The Thames Path is a 294 km trail from the source of the great river on which London stands. I’ve been exploring it recently and I think it turns out to be one of the best practice walks ever. For those in the UK this is a very accessible route which would be great practice for the Camino. For those travelling through London on their way to the Camino a stop-over in London would give time to try out the Thames Path.

To conclude. Practice makes perfect they say. When it comes to long distance walking, practicing walking including with all the kit you are going to take is the best way to ensure a pain free Camino.

I was impressed with the Thames Path trail. Here are a couple of stages to give you a flavour of it:

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Becoming a pilgrim - the call of the Camino Francés

Having walked the Via de la Plata and then the Camino Inglés two or three times I knew that I would eventually walk the Camino Francés. But I kept putting it off and walking other routes instead. So for a while the Camino Portugués and the route to Finisterre and Muxía took my interest. Both are wonderful but increasingly I felt the call of the Camino Francés. For a considerable time whenever I spoke to people I met about the pilgrimage to Santiago they assumed I meant the French route. Each time I patiently explained that there are many other routes and that I had not yet walked that particular one. Each time was also a prompt that it was time to get going from St Jean de Pied Port and walk over the Pyrenees into Spain following the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before me stretching back to medieval times.

I had to sit down and work out what had been holding me back. I had a mental list I worked through. Was it the fact that it was a popular and busy route? Was it the commercialisation I had read about? Was it the albergue industry which has grown up? Was it the amount of young people or New Age pilgrims, or itinerants I had heard populated this route?

Truth is, it was none of these. I was used to walking routes where I had long periods of splendid isolation walking alone often in the most glorious countryside. I had journeyed on lesser walked routes at times of the year when it was unlikely there would be many other pilgrims around. I had walked where it was still a novelty to meet pilgrims. I had to be honest with myself it was the fact that it was inevitable I would meet other people on the Camino Francés whether I liked it or not was what made me reluctant.

I looked at postings on pilgrim forums: Question, “Should I plan to walk with a friend or will I meet other people on the Camino Francés?” Answer, “You will meet other pilgrims even before you start walking. At the airport. At the bus station in Pamplona, within a few yards of setting out on the route”.

This typical dialogue filled me with apprehension. But it had to be done. As a last attempt at appeasing my fears I chose to walk in deep November. There were three or four of us in the Pilgrims’ Office in St Jean de Pied Port. I slept peacefully. There weren’t many others around, I thought. Indeed as I set off the next morning I seemed to be alone then as I walked with the road rising to meet me I spotted pilgrims in front and behind…well click the slideshow above to see and hear what happened.