Dear Dad

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Dear Dad 

How are you doing?  Is the sun shining where you are? 

Are you looking down on us and watching the craziness that has befallen the world since you left it? Are feeling glad that you are not part of ti? 

 I can imagine how you would respond to lockdown. Moaning and groaning about the ridiculousness of it all, saying what does it matter to you anyway if you get ill, that you are old enough and ready to die, that seeing people is all that matters.   

But secretly you would have been relieved to have an excuse  to rest your crumbiling body and watch TV all day  

But I know this too dad. If you are looking down and seeing mum, you will be aching to take away her loneliness.  She doesn’t live completely without you. 

Still, after a year  (in the days before lock down) I expect to see you half asleep in your chair. Expect to hear you rouse yourself to discuss the latest political issue. Just deaf enough not to hear any response and so hold forth without interruption.  

We are all of us lesser versions of ourselves without you, dad. The spaces you used to inhabit, reverberate with your absence and we are, each of us, unsure of exactly how we fit into a world without you in it.  

In this time when so many people are dying, it is easy to forget the pain of losing just one person  

“It feels as though I have been cut in half,” mum said at the beginning. She would wander the house at night, looking for something she had lost, looking for you. . 

And I try to imagine how that must feel. 

To lose the person you love. 

To lose the comforting warmth of someone breathing next to you each night. 

To lose your companion, your best-friend, your soul-mate of so many years. 

How can you even begin to get used to that? 

But somehow she has.  

Somehow we all have… 

It is not a wild grief, dad.  

Not an all-consuming, world-faling apart, breath-constricting, heart-stopping sorrow, not anymore.  

But our lives are forever tinged with sadnessOur edges are less defined,  the vibrancy of our colours dulled. We laugh  together with the knowledge that something intangible is missing. 

The world has become more beautiful in these strange Corona Virus days. You would like the way birds and other animals are reclaiming the spaces that are rightfully theirs. The roads are peaceful, the skies are clear. I sit and look at our garden and remember how you would always make me stand and stare at the flowers every morning before taking me to school.  

Then I used to be irritated, annoyed by the time wasting that made me late every day..now I wish I had lingered longer.  

We have learnt what it means to live without you dad, but I wish we hadn’t.  

But I hope you know that there is no part of your  annoying-always-rightness that we don’t miss. 

I hope you know that we are forever proud of all that you made of your unpredictable life,  

That we are unendingly grateful for your unquestioning love, 

We have unravelled our world and sewn it back together since you left us. But somehow nothing quite fits the way it used to. 

How can it? You are not here? 

I miss you dad.  

I always will 

All love always 

Beck x 

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Cape Verde and the Cure for Scurvy

We are sitting in a cafe on the beach in Boa Vista, Cape Verde. Above us is a sign telling us to drink rum because it prevents scurvy and boosts morale. And as I take another sip of my mojito, I am tempted to agree, I can feel the scurvy vanishing.

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But I’m not sure that the rum is the reason that my morale is improving. Perhaps it has more to do with the warmth of the sun and softness of the sand. Because the island of Boa Vista is one big windswept beach punctuated by clusters of brightly coloured buildings, matching the brightly coloured clothes of its people.

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Teetering on the edge of Africa, Cape Verde is full of the vibrancy of a culture that seems to demand little from life other than a chance to live, laugh, dance and hope. A message reflected in the T-shirts hanging in the souvenir shops

“Cape Verde, No Stress,”

And with miles of barely touched white beaches and a climate that is constantly warm, life is slower paced, there is time for everything. No stress is how we tourist would define each day.

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“ Does it ever rain.” I ask the Dutch owner of the Air B&B
He laughs, his face wearing the sun-weathered tan of someone who has chosen to be a permanent resident here.
“ Oh yes,” he says, “It rains for 4 days, in September. So you will be fine.”

And he is right, as tourists, no rain means days of unadulterated sunshine and clear blue seas, we will be fine. But for Cape Verdians, it means that there are no natural resources except for salt.  Nothing grows in the arid sands where it never rains. Only donkeys survive on the diet of  prickly bushes that grow here. There is not enough undergrowth to sustain cattle or chickens. All food and drink must be imported which keeps prices high and the water runs brown in the taps meaning that even this must be imported in bottles. Except for the silver fish hauled in every afternoon, food is at a premium, daily living is not cheap.

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That’s what chisel cheek-boned Mustafa tells us when we bump into him in the part -constructed, part tumbling-down, town of Sal Rei, He grins at us broadly from beneath tightly braided dreadlocks.

“ I am from Senegal” he explains. “ I am here to work. But it’s not good work. Just souvenir shop. When I have enough money I go back to Senegal. Here is too expensive.”

He shakes our hands and wanders on, trying farewell greetings in several languages before settling on “Shockran.”

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But his words ring true. Too expensive is a problem for many of the Boa Vistans. Not far from our Air B&B, the corrugated slums spread right up to the modern apartment blocks that have been built to accommodate all the slum dwellers. But gleamingly new, with incongruously pastel coloured doors and blinds, they remain empty.
The poor of Cape Verde cannot afford to live here officially.
Cannot afford the taxes and electricity bills.

Cannot afford to be a legal part of the vibrant community they have created.

And perhaps the human spirit here is too strong, imbued with the spirit and pride of Africa, they are not people who want to be housed in impersonal and identical boxes.

The wind is warm as we walk through the slums, past corrugated-roofed homes and children playing in the rubble. Everywhere houses are overflowing with people and music and colour. And I can’t help wishing that we were part of it all instead of uninvited,  westerners peering into a life we will never understand. There is a sense, on this close-to-the-equator afternoon, that everything is happening where we are not. An unspoken consciousness that “joie de vivre,”  does not depend on wealth or possessions but on a sense of community and living for today. Or perhaps it is just that, unlike Cape Verdians, we have forgotten how to party

Founded on the slave trade when it was invaded by the Portuguese, Cape Verde is battling to re-define itself as a touristic paradise.  And it should have a winning combination: a climate that varies between 23 degrees centigrade in Winter and 27 degrees in Summer, constant sunshine, soft sand beaches and wind that makes wind and  kite surface a constant activity.  Independent from Portugal since 1975 and so close to an Africa that cannot seem to win its battle with corruption, Cape Verde is hailed as a true, untainted democracy. And there is something in that knowledge that seems to make its people rest easy. Perhaps that is why there is a sense that even the poorest amongst them have a hope for a better future. Men and women are regarded with equal importance.   Everywhere we turn, women in brightly coloured clothes are dancing away a Saturday afternoon, laughing and chatting with friends; children playing at their feet or running up and down the streets. In front of them are piles of  mostly western clothes that they try half-heartedly to sell. Compared to the vibrant colours of their dresses and the head-dresses that women use to carry baskets and bags on their heads, the Western clothes look like washed out, symbols of a less vibrant, cooler, less immediate world .

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IMG_0642And all around us in the slums and town, neighbours greet each other with cheerful waves and shouts and wander haphazardly into each other’s houses. The sense of community here is strong, the human spirit imbued with the rhythm of Africa without the raggedness.  We wander through the soft warm evening darkness and into a tiny cafe, near the slums, where the owner greets us with a wide smile.

“My wife is vegetarian,” says Ninesh.

“Veduras,” she nods, “come, come.”

We follow her up a narrow staircase to what feels like living room, except that it is full of tables laid for dinner. And true to her word, I have a plate of veduras, just that.  It is strange how a plate of boiled vegetables can suddenly become  so valuable in a country where nothing grows. Like water in the desert, fresh fruit and vegetables are almost sacred. And suddenly, a sign explaining how to ward off scurvy has more meaning, We wander back downstairs to the bar where they give us a glass of local grog and the daughters of the owner smile at us shyly.  There is a warmth to their conversation and laughter that wraps us in a sense of well-being as we stumble back, grog-filled and groggy, to our apartment.

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And so we while away our days on still-empty, white-sanded windswept beaches. The skies are endlessly blue. From our balcony, the sea is wild-waved but there are places where it is clear and aqua-marine and perfect for swimming. Cape Verde is full of the potential for a better tomorrow. Its fabric is woven with hope. But in the meantime, we can hear the musical beat and laughter from a corrugated-roofed building. And we are grabbing an anti-scurvy bottle of rum and heading for the slums. IMG_0647.jpeg

 

The First Step

For the last year I have been setting up a university bridging module which offers the chance for those affected by homelessness and, often, addiction, to access higher education.

It has been a path fraught with challenges and barriers

It has been a mountain that has sometimes seemed almost impossible to climb.

It has been a journey full of anxiety and worry.

But most of all it has taught me to understand the strength of the human spirit, the power of determination to beat the odds, it has reminded me of the innate kindness of the human heart.

I still remember the first day, the sense of trepidation with which I stood in front of a group of strangers who had experienced more in their lives than I could begin to fathom.

They walked together through the door of the University,  And I could see it in their eyes, the uncertainty of the welcome they would receive.

This group of people used to being judged and ostracised, misfits expecting to be labelled and  rejected

I tried to imagine the courage it must have taken to walk through that door, the demons they had to battle to take that first step.

We all of us struggle with imposter syndrome, the belief that any minute now someone is going to find us out and realise we are not who we say we are, but for those guys on that evening I can only imagine how alien the world of academia must have seemed.

But from the moment they sat in the lecture room, they were transformed. They became hungrier for learning and thirstier for knowledge than any  students I have ever taught.

And as the year progressed, they became more confident and with each week, I became more humble.

I was and still am, overawed by their ability to link the theories that we talked about to the lives they had lived.

I was, and still am,  blown away by their intelligences and quick -wittedness.

And I was, and still am, overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit, by their kind heartedness. From those who have been out in the cold, I have received more warmth than from many who have never known loneliness.

From those who have nothing, I have learnt the value of a kind word and a smile.

From those who are used to being invisible, I have learnt the difference that treating people with respect and having just one person who truly cares can make.

And so, on that first evening, we began a journey that profoundly changed us all. There were times when we cried together, times when we almost gave up.

If you have no identity, no documents to show who you are, then it is hard to prove you are someone.

If your default reaction to stress is to reach for a bottle or a needle, then writing academic essays when you have never really been to school, becomes more than just an annoying challenge.

But there were times when the room was warmed by laughter, when the sense of achievement was almost tangible.

Some did not complete the course but what I have learnt, is that the sum of what we are trying to do is greater than its parts. It is not about completing a course but about offering hope, about understanding your own potential, about maybe, just maybe, making the impossible seem possible. And even when the dream doesn’t quite come true,  honesty and self-awareness grow.

“Sorry, but I struggled with the essay…every time I worked on it, I really had a bad craving for a drink …I almost relapsed,” wrote one student ” My sobriety is more important than a uni degree…but thanks for making me realise I had a brain.”

They learnt how  to reference, how to write critically. They read academic journals and spent hours in the library, leafing through books. Guest lecturers kept asking me if they could come back, library staff told me enthusiastically how hard they were all working. Almost without any of us noticing, they became absorbed into the fabric of he University as hard-working, dedicated students.

“Can you think of a time when you have been labelled?” I asked them. And of course I expected everyone to tell me stories of how they were perceived  as “the homeless,”  or “addicts,” ….but that is not the story they told me. One by one, sometimes whispered, sometimes angrily,  they spoke of a time when they were children and a parent or teacher called them “thick.” or “stupid,” or “useless.”

Education is transfomative but  being described as uneducable is one of the most destructive things that can ever happen .

It destroys  self-belief and self-worth.

It destroys trust and  love.

It shatters everything you were beginning to believe about yourself.

It leaves nothing but a sense of self-loathing, worthlessness and emptiness. And the best way to fill that is often with drugs or alcohol.

As parents and educators we need to take some responsibility for that. We hold the future of every child and student in our hands. We cannot protect them from danger or injustice, but we can fill them with a hope that tomorrow might be better than today.

We can give them the tools to make better decisions.

We can wrap them in the belief that they can be someone.

Because if I have learnt anything on this journey, it is that homelessness cannot simply be solved by cheaper housing ( although that will help) and addiction is not something that ever leaves us.

” I will always be an addict,” says someone from the course,  ” But I can choose whether to be a drunk addict or a sober one. ”

It is easy to walk past figures slumped in a doorway, to cross the street to avoid the Big Issue sellers. We only need to turn our heads away from what we choose not to see. We all of us have a pre-conceived idea of homelessness. Drunks and tramps and self-chosen outcasts. But as I talk with the ex-deputy headmaster who is currently trying to fight his way out of addiction or with the ex-head of a department in an internationally renowned firm, victim of an abusive relationship that destroyed her,  I am struck by the precariousness of life, by the knowledge that it could happen to any of us, by the awareness that next time it might be me.

I am climbing the stairs in the education department, on my way to a meeting when my phone rings. I glance at the name, one of the students from the bridging module.

” Hi,” he says.

“Are you alright,” I ask immediately.

For a second he hesitates.

“That’s why I’m ringing,” he says, ” We are always ringing you because we are not alright, because we need something, But today  I’m ringing to ask how you are. I know your mum hasn’t been well and so I’m just checking that you’re ok. You have done so much for all of us and we want you to know that we are all here for you.”

And for a moment I can’t move, paralysed by the depth of emotion that such genuine kindness evokes in me. That’s who they are these unwanted dwellers on the edge of society, some of the kindest, most generous people it has ever been my privilege to meet.

And at the beginning of September the first 4 students started at University. They shrugged off their past and stepped into their future and so far… they are blossoming. Every time I see them, sitting in the cafe, wandering around campus or chatting with other students, I feel my heart skip. I watch as slowly, very slowly, some of the weight they have carried for so long on their shoulders, lifts. I watch as they make their way to lectures, just another student, stressed out about essay deadlines..

And for a moment I feel as though I can almost reach out and touch hope.

And on the same day that they started, the next group of uncertain bridging module students stepped through the university door and holding their heads as high as they dared, started their journey.

And I know however long it takes, each small step will make our lives, theirs and mine,  more meaningful.

And every time I walk past someone bundled in a doorway I catch their eye and smile.

Because sometimes all it takes is a smile to make people believe that they exist.

Sometimes a smile is the very first step.

 

 

 

 

Hard-Boiled Celebration….Camino Days

Vega de Valcarce to Fonfria   24 kms

So we climbed the mountain, which turned out to be at least three mountains. And I would like to say that I skipped on my newly strengthened Camino legs. But that would be a lie. I have come to envy youthful limbs on this walk. I look at the teenagers who get up late, feast on coke and sweets whenever they stop, who stroll in a relaxed manner through each day and who constantly overtake us, sweat free and singing, already showered and ready to party by the time we arrive. Perhaps this is the first time I have truly had to accept that I am middle-aged, probably beginning the descent (not yet aggressive) into old. And the truth is that I cannot help being jealous of their tomorrows. They hold the future in their hands, these young peregrinos who are choosing to walk instead of sitting at home on their computers, who laugh and cry with each other. We are leaving them a complicated world full of too much hate and fear, full of too much money in the hands of too few, full of uncertainty and unbalanced power. But I watch them laughing and walking and singing and I am filled with the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, they are ready and courageous enough to fight for what is right, not what is easy, to shout loud when they see injustice, to keep walking through the pain.

We climbed and climbed. Sometimes gently, sometimes steeply but always upwards. Stopping for a moment, all there is to hear is cowbells and the long forgotten hum of bees. And sometimes there is just silence, a peace that wraps itself around you, calming the soul.  At the top of the first mountain, at the church of Cabreiro, we celebrate crossing the border into Galicia with a hard-boiled egg.

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Delicious because I believed we were triumphant mountain climbers. The Camino on this side of the border has more modern signs and better maintained paths.

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Galicia is the home to Santiago de Compestello and has much to gain from keeping its pilgrims happy. But mountain climbing is the same, whatever county you are in and our climbing is not done. Around every corner there seems to be increasingly vertical paths waiting for us. Sometimes it feels as though I am talking to the path my head is so close to it. But at 1505 metres we stop climbing and instead walk level with the clouds, astride the mountain peaks.

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All we can see is an ocean of mountain and all we can feel is our aching feet. It is not until we are sitting, beer in hand, in the tiny albergue in the working mountain village of Fonfria that we exhale. We watch as a herd of cows passes at the edge of our toes, modern day shepherd on his mobile phone as he brings them safely home.

We celebrate the fact that we are sitting at last with a tortilla Francesca – a spanish omelette sandwich. And I think that it might be the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. It tastes of freshly cooked, home-grown potatoes and freshly laid eggs, it tastes  of a day well spent and most of all it tastes of rest.
Tomorrow we have our last descent for this year – but for today our journeying is done. Like the cows, we are ready for bed.

 

Mixed Salad and Future Ex-wives…. Camino Days

 

Acebo to Camponaraya  31 kms

One of the hardest things on the Camino is being a vegetarian. The 10 or 11 euro 3 course pilgrim menus which always include a bottle of red wine, almost never include a vegetarian option.
“ Do you have anything for vegetarians ” we ask every evening.
The waiters smile.
“Of course, of course,” they say “ and point to the fish options.
“ Sin carne y sin pescado,” we say, “ without meat and without fish.”
To begin with the waiters/ waitresses look completely bewildered. The concept of “ not even fish,” does not seem to be anything they have ever had to consider. For a while they stare into the distance, trying not to panic. And then, with relief they say, “ salad  mixta y tortilla con pastas,”” and so dinner is sorted.
At the beginning of our walking, that seemed like a delicious dinner. Now, almost 2 weeks in, anything that doesn’t involve eggs, potatoes or lettuce sounds dreamy.

When we arrive in .Camponaraya we wander through the heat hazy streets in search of food. Round the corner from where we are staying we find a square, fountains shooting arches of cooling water into the air. Next to it is a tapas restaurant. We give our usual vegetarian speech.
The friendly “ too cool for school,” black -jeaned waiter tries hard to be unphased by the problem. and in the end points at the “ Russian salad,” option on the menu.
I am always suspicious of Russian salad since it usually contains ham.
“ Sin carne y sin pescado?” I check. He nods confidently and brings us over a basket of bread.
And I think, at last, something different.
And when the dish arrives, it is hard to find the salad beneath the piles of tuna.
We explain the problem to the waitress who has brought it to the table.
She listens apologetically
“ Salad mixta?” she suggests. Our waiter returns.“ Sorry. I forgot about the little bit of tuna,” he says.

We are back to being dawn leavers. As we close the door of the building we are staying in, the sun is just brushing the leaves of vineyards that surround the town.

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The land is greener now, as we head towards the (dreaded) mountains. The vineyards are interspersed with smart new offices, their shining windows and sharp edges incongruous next to the soft yellow bricks of the comfortingly shambolic houses around them.. We drink cortados and orange juice in sleepy Cacabelos and wish we could linger under its shaded arches.

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But we have a long way to walk and the day is too young for rest. So we walk on. We climb roads edged with trees orange flowered trees,

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walk through fields and lost towns folded into the hills.

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.Some  of the villages are so small, some of the cafes we stop in so much a part of a different and slower world, that it can feel as though we are dreaming them.

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And all the time, at the end of narrow streets or as we crest a hill, we see  mountains. Without completely knowing it, we have started to climb.

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I keep my eyes firmly on my feet and do not think about the “aggressive ascending,” that we will need to do tomorrow.. And as the sun burns hot on our shoulders, we arrive in Vega de Valcarce.

We spend the evening in a bar with Kirsty. She is a doctor and researcher from Edinburgh and  is cycling part of the Camino before starting a new job.
“How far do you cycle each day? “ I ask.
She turns her clear-as-fresh+spring water aquamarine eyes on me and wraps me in a warm and unassuming smile
“ Oh, about 85 kms,” she says.
Ninesh is so impressed he puts his glass of beer back down on the table.
“85 kms,” I repeat. “ is this actually a holiday or is someone making you do it? “
Kirsty laughs, a laugh that makes me think of  sunshine sparkling on calm waters.
“ I just love all outdoor sports,” she says,, “ especially mountain running and cycling.”

She tells us of her time spent travelling and working as a doctor in isolated villages in Africa. “ We had a mobile surgery in a jeep. When we couldn’t find a floor to sleep on we slept in the jeep. It was hard, really hard.”
Not only is she slim, beautiful, very clever and incredibly fit, but she is also a good person. I wonder if she is  perhaps an angel in human form.
The next time we see her is at the top of one of the mountains where she is sitting at a table surrounded by a crowd of men, all searching for a chair so that they can sit with her. Even angels have sex appeal.

But she leaves us at the bar when Alan joins us. We met him over breakfast a few days ago where he told us he was so tired  he was going to take it very slowly for a few days ..but here he was,
“ Yes,” he says when I ask him if he is still tired, His pale blue eyes never quite settle on anything as he talks. , He tells us how he has walked all through one night with a group of soldiers he met on the Camino. How he got lost and wandered into a police station where they let him rest and then led him back to the Camino on a horse. “ I think I will take a rest day now,” he says.
“ You definitely should,” I say. “ You”ve aready had a lifetime of adventures and it’s onl Monday.”
He doesn’t laugh,

“ The thing is,” he says,” I have a problem. My future ex- wife is walking the Camino and I’m scared if I rest she will catch up with me,”
“ oh,” I say,”I’m sorry. Did you come with your wife and split up while you were walking. That’s so hard .”
He looks confused.” What, no, … we met on the Camino and I told her she was going to be my future ex -wife and she got very upset and stormed off. So I just walked on.”He gives a lopsided smile and for just a second his eyes land on mine.”
“ But now that someone so wise has told me to rest a while, perhaps I will.”

It is impossible to know on these hot walking days whether what we see and hear and remember is fact or fiction. We have stepped outside our normal world into a place where all things are possible. Finding your way back to the path on a police horse is just as possible as me climbing a mountain or walking 31 kms on one hot day.

Alan doesn’t rest though. When we see him next, he is sitting in a bar at the top of a mountain. He is sitting alone drinking a beer. And I like to think that he is just waiting for his future ex-wife to arrive.

Korean Cool

Acebo to Camponaraya 26 kms

We sit round a comfortable table in our  albergue enjoying an early morning breakfast and chatting with our host Jaime.
“Do you live here all year,” I ask.
Jaime smiles his gentle smile.
“ We do. I have lived here 20 years. I come from near Barcelona but in 1999 I walk the Camino. I guess I need a life change because in November that year I come  back and started building this house. I like the peace.”
I look at him as he sits in an armchair sipping his coffee, his dogs at his feet
He looks content,  peaceful, as though he has found what he is looking for.
“ And was it the same 20 years ago ? Has the Camino changed?as it is now,”
He looks away for a minute, considering.
“ Then it was all young people, singing and sleeping anywhere,” he says. “Look, in this village. When I build this house there was one other hostel  with 35 beds. And our house with 3. Now there are 4 hostels and 200 beds. In every village on the Camino it’s the same, like this, 200 beds.”
His eyes stare into the distance and I can’t help thinking that he misses those quieter days.
“ And were there people from all over the world then too.”
“ Not like now,” he says, “ Then we were mostly Spanish Perhaps some French. Now  there are pilgrims from America, from England, from Japan and Korea. The people from Korea come sometimes And stay here . And even in the Winter, they never sleep under the blankets, only on top. We tell them, “it’s ok, they are clean. But never they do. Always they lie on top.”
There are many people, from Korea walking the Camino,  . And what is amazing about them is the way they dress for the walk. It is often 36 degrees or hotter when we finish walking each day. We, like many of the walkers, are trying to wear as few clothes as is decently possible. But the peregrinos from Korea and Taiwan have very different ideas. Every single inch of other bodies seem to be covered except for their eyes and sometimes their mouths.They wear tight walking trousers, usually with a pair of baggier trousers on top, long-sleeved tops, usually a raincoat, however cloudless the deep blue sky, sometimes a mask to cover their mouths and almost always gloves.

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As we sweat our way through the day, they seem to remain constantly cool , calm and relaxed. I find myself imagining secret cooling devices inside they clothes, controlled from inside the gloves. When we ask Gin ( who introduced us to the wonder of watermelon) about it, he seemed to think the benefits were too obvious to need any explanation. . “ it’s cooler that way,” he says  with a shrug, “ people dress like that to play golf too.” And with that he changed the subject and showed us pictures of his dog.

We leave our Jaime chatting to another guest and wearing only T- shirts and shorts and continue our aggressive descent.. The path winds through lost villages with tumbling cottages

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and balconies overflowing with the radiant pinks and reds of geraniums.

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We wander through narrow woodland paths, slide down shiny grey rocks and balance on the edge of tree-covered sheer drops. Descent feels not just aggressive but precarious dramatic. Until suddenly we arrive in picture-postcard perfect Molinaseca.

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The water is clear and still, the buildings no longer tumbling, the cobbles perfectly distributed on the streets. And that is the wonder of the Camino. In one day you can be on a mountainside, walk through almost-forgotten villages, pass through towns and cities, walk along narrow paths, along main roads and on shop-sided pavements. You can pass through scrubland and farmland and banks of bee-buzzing heather.

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We pass flourishing vineyards and deserted factories,  grand houses with long driveways, and front doors where the owners greet you from their doorsteps. It is not just a path, it is a way.: a way towards Santiago, a way through Spain, a way to celebrate community, a way to enjoy the simplest of pleasures, a way to discover dreams, a way to let go of sorrows, a way forward.  And for just a short while, it becomes a way of life – whatever clothes you choose to wear to walk it.

Aggressive Descending

Santa Catarina de Samoza to Acebo 28 kms

I don’t like mountains. I am more of a glass-smooth lakes, long sandy beaches, very- gently undulating-landscape sort of person. I am not keen on the dramatic craginess and high peaks of mountains. They make me feel uneasy, as though rocks or people might tumble down them any minute. And I especially do not like the steepness that comes with walking up them.
“ There are some mountains,” Ninesh reminded me yesterday.

I put my fingers in my ears and pretend not to hear. He consults our Michelin Camino bible “ not until Saturday though,”.
I take my fingers out of my ears.
“ That’s tomorrow,”
Ninesh looks surprised.
“ So it is,” he says“ but it’s only 1515 metres,”
I wonder if that is meant to comfort me.

At dinner we discuss the mountain with Florian. He is German, studying in Vienna and about to research for his Masters in a football charity in Columbia.

“ I am walking the Camino with my father,” he explains.” He has been married 3 times. I am from his second marriage. Usually we just text each other about football. It is very good to walk and talk… Tomorrow on the mountain you will see the Cruz de Ferro. It is a big cross and everyone brings a stone from home to leave there.”

i remember this from the Martin Sheen film “ The Way.”

” We have been wondering where that is,” I say. “ You must climb the mountain to see it,” he smiles. I’m still wondering if it’s worth the climb as we head back to our perfectly floor -cooled room and extraordinarily and luxuriously comfortable bed.

We begin the day with a candlelit breakfast in our Camino Palace.and I try hard to enjoy the fresh coffee and homemade jam and not to think about the steep climb ahead.

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“ I don’t like mountains,” I explain to Daine, lingering over my coffee. She is from Latvia with blonde hair, calm blue eyes and is wearing a rustic, red dress. She carries herself with a smiling serenity that is almost angelic. But even angels can’t move mountains. But she cloaks me with sympathy and advises me to eat another piece of cake.

Before the climb we stop of at a tiny, wild-west cafe with an eclectic selection of objects and tools hanging from its ceiling.

 

The owner watches us sleepily as we drink cortados and it feels as though any minute now the cowboys will  ride in. I’m wondering if, perhaps, if they did, I could catch a ride with them up the mountain.
But the only other customers are walkers like us and there is nothing left to do but begin the climb.
“ I don’t like mountains,” I explain to a fellow pilgrim from Canada as he slows his pace to walk with us for a while.
He is a little older than me, wearing baggy black trousers.
“ It’s fine,.. ,” he laughs, “it’s quite a gentle climb, lots of hairpin bends, it’s not so steep.
I look at him dubiously, I know hair pin bends, they are only used when the path too steep to climb.
“ How do you know?” I ask.
“ Oh,” he says,” I’ve done this Camino about 12 times, and the Portuguese one 3 or 4. The way down is steep though. Be careful.” He gives a I’m-just-one-of-those-cool-sort-of-multi-Camino-walkers shrug and speeds up again so that he can help push struggling tandem riders up the steep part of the road.
We meet him again in the steep, mountain side village of Foncebadón.
He is standing chatting to a group of girls wearing baggy trousers that match his and bikini tops.
“ It’s the English,” he shouts when he sees us coming. Then adds “ Wow you guys are doin’ well. I was really cookin’ it and I haven’t been here that long. You got this.”

He gives me a motivational smlle and returns to his gaggle of girls. The Camino is full of motivational messages from those who have walked the path before. I’m not usually big on motivational speakers but it is strange how the simplest message here can bring comfort, always appearing when you are at your most exhausted.

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It is part of the Camino spirit, this mutual encouragement, this giving of hope.. In towns at night it is easy to spot fellow peregrinos, we have the stiff walk of aching-limbers, and even in that shared knowledge there is comfort – or at least sympathy and understanding.
At last we reach the Cruz de Ferro. The cross stands tall and thin on its pile of stones, that pilgrims have apparently left there – freeing their dreams or discarding their sorrows. We stand and stare at it for a while.
We read the sign that explains its religious significance and its ancient beauty.
We turn to stare again
“ Looks like a digger has just come and dumped a whole load of rubble,” I say.
Ninesh points at a broken piece of concrete that has been placed at its base.
“ That must have been heavy for someone to carry in their backpack,” he says.
There are though, many beautiful crosses, simple memorials or more imposing monuments on this Way. While we have yet to meet anyone on this trip who is walking it for religious reasons, it hard to forget that it was and often still is, a holy pilgrimage.

 

And for those of us who seek other forms of comfort, there is art. On doors and walls and unexpected buildings, there are always pictures, feeding the craving for creative beauty that is never far from the Camino heart.

 

There are times when the path is wide and flat and times, especially on the mountains when it is barely wide enough for one.

 

As we begin to descend, we stop talking. It is not only climbing up mountains that is hard. The paths down are water-ravaged, pot-holed and covered in loose shale. Coming down can be almost as hazardous as climbing up. It is hard to find the positives in mountains!

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As our resting place comes into view we see a lone man, where the ground plateaus, shading himself under an umbrella.
“ Free coffee or cold drink at the first bar in town or the hotel right at the end. You can stay there. Best hotel on the Camino”. He thrusts a voucher into our hands. We do not tell him that we have already booked a place to stay. Instead Ninesh asks how far it is.
“ About 500 metres. But it’s an aggressive descent.”
And that is the best way to describe our slightly dangerous, extremely unsettling slither and slide into Acebo.
“ Bienvenu,” smiles our hostess, kissing us on both cheeks as we climb over their sleeping 3-legged dog and collapse on the chairs in their living-dining room.
“ No, no,” She pushes the proffered passport away. “ Later,” she says, when we pull out our pilgrim passport to add to the stamps that are collected from each place to show you have truly walked it all. She points at the front door, “ No key. Open always “Now rest.” And she takes us up to a beautiful room, with a view of the mountains ( and their very own digger)

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Now that we have climbed it, my mountain phobia has diminished. I can view them with a sense of quiet triumph.
We have a 6 km descent to finish tomorrow. But the climb is over.
“ Just one more mountain to climb,” says Ninesh casually, “ but not until Tuesday and it’s only a little bit higher/than today’s.”
And before I can comment he turns on his side and seems to fall fast asleep.

Pilgrims and Kings

Hospital de Órbigo to Santa Catalina de la Somoza  28 kms

We set off  along empty roads and early morning sprinklers.

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As always,  we are heading for our first cortado and freshly squeezed orange juice of the day. There is nothing like the thought of strong coffee to put a spring in your stiff legs.


But before we reach the first bar, we walk for a while with a husband and wife from Japan. They are covered from head to foot on this hot morning, long trousers, long sleeves orange rain ponchos. They wear scarves wrapped round their heads and incredible straw hats.

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“ The symbols say Camino Santiago,” explains the husband, ( we never learnt their names) pointing at each symbol as he says the words “ original design,” he adds proudly.
“ You made them yourself?” He nods and grins.
“ We are walking the Camino very slowly. Just 15 kms every day. I like walking but my wife, she doesn’t,” His wife smiles at us and I smile back.
“ We climb Mount Fuji, 3,700 metres,” he adds “ I like climbing hills, but my wife, she doesn’t.”
I want to say to his wife, that 3,700 metres is more than  a hill. I want to say if you climbed that and you don’t like climbing, you must love your husband very much. Instead, she and I exchange another smile. We leave them trying to take a picture of a wall, while we head towards a bar to find love and solace in coffee and juice.

For a while we walk with Claude from Marseille. Tall, thin and tanned, he takes long strides towards Santiago. He does not know what he will do when he gets there and he has not thought about how he will get back to Marseille, But he is not worried. He possesses the calm certainty of one who knows that there will always be a solution if you wait long enough.
.” I travel around Scotland in a camper van,” he tells us.  “In Scotland many, many moutons,” He adds a few baa’s to make sure we know what he means.
“There are cows too, in Scotland ,” says Ninesh.
Claude listens with patience, smiles wisely  and says “but many more sheeps.” And with that he stops to take off his jacket.
“ You don’t have to wait,” he says in French. And it is clear that our time together is over. Conversation is not for everyone.

We cross wide open scrubland

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and walk through carefully planted pine woods

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And as is the way with the Camino, we suddenly come upon a memorial to the soldiers who have died in the war. It is surrounded by a rose garden where a musician, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sits and plays his guitar, changing the words of his song to match the peregrinos as they pass by.
“I call that entrepreneurial,” I say.
“ I call it milking the spirit of the Camino,” says Ninesh, as I put a Euro in the hat.

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The musician stops playing and looks at us .
“Souvenir,” he says, “Inglaterra? “ And from his guitar case he pulls out paper money from other countries to show us what he means.
Ninesh doesn’t need to say anything. I hear the  “I told you so,” in the crunch of  his Boots on the gravelled path.

We fill our water bottles at a fountain with a sculpture that drinks real water

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and we begin our ascent into Astorga. It is a bustling city, full of life and laughter and most surprisingly, a building designed by the Catalonian architect, Gaudi. Half fairy-tale, half wild dreams, his unmistakable style is always acceptably incongruous wherever you see it. But here, it seems a fitting reflection of  the buzz and energy of a city that few have heard of,

It is tempting to linger in the crowded, shaded streets, full of bars and  echoing with the chatter of friends but we are determined pilgrims and our journey is not yet done for the day.
The sun is high overhead when we arrive at last in Santa Catalina de Samoza. It is a 2- street village, once deserted because of the Plague, Ruins of the  past, muddle in with the pretty blue and green-doored houses of today

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We are tired and hot and foot-weary when we knock on the door of the “hotel rural Via Avis. By the end of each day, wall we want to do is pull off our boots and collapse onto the nearest bed. But Via Avis is like a little piece of magic, like one of those places which only ever seem to exist in Hollywood films. The building is 300 years old and the owners, Carlos and Daina, spent 6 years rebuilding it. Amidst the heat and constant movement of the Camino, it is a haven of cool, calm, tasteful beauty. There is a living room with an enormous sofa that seems to absorb our aches and pains as we fold into it., The floor to ceiling window overlooks rolling mountain foothills while its cupboard shelves are packed with herbal tea and dark chocolate.

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Tomorrow we have a mountain to climb. But for just one night we are hanging up our dusty boots and pretending that we are kings.

Living a Life… Camino Days

Leon to Hospital de Órbigo 33kms

Sometimes the walk is not as pretty as we whimsical pelegrinos would wish it to be.. Once again we spent much of the day walking next to hot tarmac roads. Still there are always creatures that join us for a while

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and crumbling, one brick-thick towers, standing so flat against the sky, they seem almost 2 dimensional, to look at.

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It takes more than an hour to walk through León. We weave through suburbs and everyday lives. On one lost corner we find the African Colonial Bar, covered in pictures and sporting 2 leopard heads on its right hand corner. Probably to help any Africans to feel at home

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Such Camino days as these are thinking days, days to dream and follow thoughts all the way to their conclusion. Often there is graffiti, messages from Camino goers who have walked this way before us. Under one bridge are words about life,

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And I’m thinking, that is what we are doing, isn’t it.? For a little while we are just living life, learning again to worry about only the most basic of things: Distances take on a different meaning when you have to walk them, your goal is not to sit, staring at a screen while you reply to just one more email. Instead, after a while, all you think about is arriving, finding a place to rest your aching legs. You know where the sun rises and sets, You learn to sleep early and rise with the sun, life is simple and more satisfying because each day we reach our destination, finish what we started when we woke up. Days have a rhythm, a beginning, a middle and a definite end..and that brings a sense of peace. We sleep well on the Camino…and not just because of our aching limbs.

And when the freshness of the early morning air wraps itself around us and we watch the skies change from purple to blue, I am sure that this is living.

Rooftop Musings….Camino Days

Reliegos to León. 27km

We leave Reliegos while the moon is still doing battle with the sun

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.. We watch a group of storks breakfasting in a field

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and pass rows of carefully planted thistles, and arrive in Mansiiia de las Mulas in time for our early morning cortado and freshly squeezed orange juice.We are in the Sunflower hostel which has life-affirming sayings scribbled over its walls. Next to various enormous legs of ham hanging from the ceiling and piles of dried meat, are pictures of fairies, explaining that we should all believe in magic. And it is hard not to wonder if the pigs were thinking that before they became ham.

By the time we reach León it is 30 degrees and rising. It has never felt so good to take off our boots. We are staying in an Air b & b right in the centre with a roof top terrace that looks out over other red tiled roofs.

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Even at 7 pm the ground is too hot to stand on barefoot. But it is time to explore León. It is a surprisingly big city, taking us an hour to walk from the outskirts to the centre. We are on a mission. Ninesh has packed so light that when his one pair of walking shorts split, he has nothing to replace them with.
Just round the corner from the apartment is a Camino pilgrim shop. We are confident that they will have walking shorts because they always have everything. The Camino provides, after all.
We are confused at first because the entrance to the Camino shop is through a shoe shop.
“ 3 minutes ,” says one of the salesmen “ or maybe 4,5,6,” We smile and nod.
“Ninesh tries on several pairs of shorts, some it turns out, for women, but shorts are shorts.
He is unsure so we think we will wander the streets of Leon for a while to see what else it has to offer.
“ What time do you close today,” asks Ninesh.
It is 6-30 but in true Spanish style, shops have only just re-opened after slumbering through a 3 hour siesta.
“ We are open until 10 past 8, 10 past 8” explains the salesman.
And as we wander the sun- burnished streets, Ninesh and I wonder why 10 past 8.? What happens at 8.15 that makes 8.10 so important.

We find some more suitable, less feminine shorts and return home to rest our weary feet.

It is good to be back in a bigger city. Good to listen to the buzz of laughter and chatter that drifts up from the cobbled streets through our open window. But after 5 camino days, we seem to have lost our desire for that urban edge. Already I find myself craving the peace of the open road. We are out of synch with city life. As the bars open we creep wearily to our bed. Guilt-free early nights are one of the Camino perks. It is still light outside when we close our weary eyes  and dream of fields of sunflowers and the wide open blueness of cloudless skies.

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