30 July 2015

Some Post Camino thoughts!

It is one year to the day, that Hanna died. (30 July 2014) You cannot wipe out 25 years, three months and six days of relationship in the twinkling of an eye, but the Camino has taken my grief and mourning away. You could also say that I had laid my grief at the foot of the Saviour and or Saint, which is also true.

I don't believe in coincidences. There is always a reason for these events. I met many nice people on the Camino and some of them have become new friends for life. In their own way they helped me over my grief and loss. Some of these friends shared their own loss with me. Was this a coincidence, or were we sent to meet and help each other? I shared much of my life and adventures with Hanna, with Lisa, as we walked. I only hope I didn't bore her. Either way she is a true gentlewoman for she never complained. These conversations helped me to come to terms with my loss and in the end enabled me to think of Hanna without tears or too much sorrow.

I have kept in contact with these new friends and others I have met along the Way. One did admit to me that he had fallen in a bit of a hole after the Camino and had found it difficult to take up his old life again. I understood this, as it had taken me almost five years to settle after my circumnavigation. I had gone to England after the Camino, to visit friends and comrades before returning home, so did not fall into any hole. But neither have I any intention of just picking up where I had left off. 

I have not learnt anything new about myself on the Camino. I knew who I was and what I am capable of, before I set off. There are some who did not believe I would make it all the way to Santiago, but would give up before, for one reason or another. 

Since returning early to Germany and my home, I have started to get rid of stuff that cluttered up my home and my life. Six full large bin bags of suits and clothes and three large sacks of paper, the contents of old files and correspondence. This is only the tip of the iceberg I need to dispose of, but it is a start and will be a continual process from now on, so that when the time comes for me to move into a care home, the move will be easy to perform.

I have tried to get Hanna's family round my dinner table, but it has been easier getting 12 friends to come than  three couples together. We are unlikely to meet before Christmas now.

I went to pay my respects, to Hanna this morning and while sitting there, was "chatted up" by a widow woman. Not unattractive, for her age I have to say, and we had a very pleasant conversation. She had even walked two Caminos, she said! Was this a coincidence on this day of all days? She was clearly lonely and would like to have someone to care for again!!!!! So she said.............. I no longer have  a need to go daily to the grave, so it will be interesting to find out if I ever see her again!

There is a passage in the film, "The Way" where the son says to his father, "you don't choose a life, you live one"! Well this is what I am doing. Catch me if you can!

10 July 2015

It's official

Yesterday as we predicted Alan walked into St Jean to find a place to eat and to have an initial look around town. The very first thing he did was to go into the Eglise Notre Dame du Bout du Pont, which is the largest Gothic building in the Basque Country next to the cathedral in Bayonne. Here he said prayers for a safe Camino, for his family and for some friends that are poorly and sorely in need of God's help. This act alone he felt made us true pilgrims at last.
Then he wandered around town, stopped at bar for a beer and wrote in his diary, walked on looking at the sights until could sit in a restaurant  and order a meal.
It was while walking around town that he bumped into the Frenchman. They stopped to chat a bit and then parted. In the restaurant after another beer Alan ordered the pilgrim's menu.  This consisted of soup, chicken and chips and a crepe all to be washed down with 25cls of red wine and 50cls of water.
As he was eating the hot, filling and tasty vegetable soup the Frenchman reappeared, so Alan suggested he join him.
His name, now introductions seemed in order, was Jacques, he was retired and came from Strasburg. Imagine if you will an Englishman with very poor schoolboy French and a Frenchman with very poor schoolboy English and you have an idea of how the conversation went. Jacques ordered the same meal, but drank cider instead. After the meal the men went their separate ways.
This morning we all overslept, but as we were not going anywhere it didn't really matter. Breakfast was very French and we shared a table with a French couple. Large cups of coffee served with croissants which one dipped into the coffee.
After breakfast we walked into town to get our pilgrims' pass stamped, which you see above, so now it's official that we are on the Camino.
The route tomorrow follows Napoleon's route into Spain and is thus called the French Way.

Our route is the red one on the left above and the profile of what we have to climb is as shown!! We are only going as far as Orisson tomorrow which is some 10 kilometres from our pension, but we have to climb some 2100 feet to get there. The highest point on this first stage is quite a bit higher than Snowdon! But even then it is not the highest point on the route to Santiago.
This you can see from the sketch above is over 1400 metres or 4200 feet! This is also where the Cruz de Ferro is, the iron cross where pilgrims leave the stones they carry. But more on that when we get there.
Alan is off out again to find a place to eat and to buy some victuals for the journey.
Buen Camino.

And He saw that it was good.

Some times we find the technology a bit too difficult for us bears. Some of the above photos were transfered from the camera to the phone and then to the iPad. So none of them are in the order they  were taken. Dawn on the second day is at the bottom. The bridge is in St Jean Pied du Port and we crossed it to get on the Camino outside of town.

The first picture shows the weather as we climbed up the mountain on the first day. It was cold and cloudy but thankfully it did not rain.
It was a steep climb to our first hostel in Orisson. The second picture shows the view of the hostel and the view of the mountains.
We slept  in a room with three sets of bunk beds, so six humans, two were from Australia and three from the USA.
Alan showered and washed his clothes then sat and waited for the evening meal, talking to the two nice young Aussies.
The humans all sat at long tables for the evening meal which was served at 18:30hrs. It was a three course meal with much red wine and water as they wanted to drink. Then after the meal they all had to introduce themselves and say why they were there. Alan enjoyed it and it was a great introduction to the camaraderie of the Camino.
In the night Alan got up once to look at the stars which were very bright, and of course we were all a whole lot closer to them.
The next morning the dawn was fabulous as you can see from the last photo.
After a light breakfast of coffee and toast we set off at 08:00hrs to climb the rest of the mountain. Though it was sunny it was quite cold as there was a stiff North wind. But the views were terrific.
Alan took a number of panorama pictures as we got higher and he was so taken with the views he was reminded of a passage from Genises Chapter 1 verse 31, and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
The world certainly looked good from up high. There was snow on the mountain in places and after the picture of us all at the cross, we crossed the ridge and went down the other side into Spain.
There were many large piles of snow along the way.
The climb Alan, says was much like the Miner's Track on Snowdon and he was thankful of his walking poles, particularly on the down hill side into Roncesvalles. The silly bugger took the really steep path which they had said we should not use! It would have been impossible without the poles.
In the monastery of Roncesvalles we were pleasantly surprised at how modern the accommodation was. Again we had the lower bunk, but this time there were cubicles of four along one side of a long corridor which led to the ablutions. We shared ours, with a German, a young woman from Maine and an English Chaplin! Alan enjoyed talking to him.
They went together on a guided tour of the monastery at 18:00hrs were late for the meal at 19:00hrs, but punctual for the mass in the medieval church at 20:00hrs. Alan said he did not understand a word of it as it was all in Spanish, with three very ancient monks/priests who officiated. Alan was, however, easily able to follow the ritual as it is the same everywhere. He took communion and then all the pilgrims were asked to come to the alter to receive the blessing. As he stood there deep in prayer and thought, his mind was centered on Hanna and he said when the blessing came he felt a tremendous sense of joy which almost made him cry!
It as off to bed then and he slept through till 05:30hrs when most people stirred. Today, Saturday 25 April we walked a more leisurely walk through the hills to Zubiri. It was up hill and down dale, but not anything as steep or as hard as the first two days.
We now have another bunk bed in a larger room with about 14 bed spaces and it is all unisex including the ablutions. There is a Brazilian couple in the next bunk bed to us. We have not met the person who is occupying the top bunk, but that's because we are sitting in the reading room writing to you lot.
Our meal will be at 19:00hrs and breakfast is at 07:00hrs. We shall be a early to bed tonight too. 
Buen Camino!

There are some things they don't tell you!

Los Arcos at Dawn 30 Apr 2015

We have decided that we are not going to give you a blow by blow account of our journey, but rather some thoughts and impression we have gathered along the way.
Firstly you need to know that our BBF, Alan, is doing quite well. The first couple of days are the hardest and he did not drink enough going up the mountain. He realized this when he got to Roncevalles, as his urin was quite dark, but by then the damage was done. It took his muscles a couple of days to recover from this, but now all is well. The only problem he has are his knees and his big toes, which his GP said are showing the onset of arthritis! So it is that after a long day walking up and down steep hills, the knees ache and the toes hurt. The other interesting fact about the Camino, is that the mountain paths go straight up and down, they do not zigzag up the way they do in America or Britain. Part of Alan's problem we think, is that he walks too fast! He says that in his head is a young man who remembers how to set the pace and the old man is doing his best to keep up. Then he adds that he has an image as a roughy toughy to maintain. What would the lads in his Regiment and Corps think of him if he were to slacken? We felt like telling him that a real roughy toughy does not travel with two tiny bears, but he might not take us if we did!
Then again he knows that we are the introduction to all the Chicas he meets along the way, and many have those dark eyes that make him go weak at the knees!
Our routine is to get up when all the others do, generally around dawn and set off, without coffee or breakfast, we should add, and walk till we get to our next destination, which is generally around 13:00-14:00hrs. We stop more or less for ten minutes every two hours or if there is a cafe where we can have coffee a bit longer. There are not always cafés at just the right time and place to cope with calls of nature? They don't tell you this in the guide books, so what do you do then? On some stretches of the road there are no bushes to hide behind. It is a problem which occasionally really occupies Alan's mind.
There are many pilgrims on the road and some we know by name. Today's walk was a good one where we chatted to new friends we had met and made along the way. We even shared victuals for our lunch break. A pretty Chica from Wurzburg had bread and we had the cheese for example.
When we get to our destination and we have been allocated a bed, Alan makes the bed, then showers and goes and washes his sweaty clothes. After that we are free to wander around town. Our BBF goes into the Church and says his prayers as a good pilgrim should, then does the touristy bit.
We tend to eat early and so end up in bed around 21:00-22:00hrs. The nights in the hostels can be noisey depending on how big the dormitory is. The snorers are not just the men, but also the women over 40 we judge. The bunk beds are low too and Alan has already almost knocked himself out because he forgot.
So life for us is simple, if tiring, yet we are rewarded by the camaraderie of the pilgrims and the fantastic views of the countryside along the way.
A human donkey

Us on the Camino

A typical bed space 

Our BBF at the Puente la Reina

The fellowship of the Ring.

On our journey we have met many pilgrims from different lands. Those that started with us in France and are still walking are special. These it is a pleasure to meet again and share our experiences of the Camino. Some we share rooms with along the way. Sometimes we walk a little together, then part and meet again in an Albergue for the night. Often we will share meals with them, which makes the Camino so special for there is this camaraderie that does not exist in our modern life.
Our BBF cannot always remember the names of these pilgrims, so has taken to greeting them with the name of their country. "Good morning France!" for example!

A few we have met we have enclosed in our hearts. These are very special friends. Like S and M from Australia. They're a handsome young couple, not long together  and clearly in love with each other and life. Then there is J and S from the US of A. These four have all started with us in France, and now they have become Alan's "Fellowship of the Ring!"

It was while we were in Najera that Alan found the ring in the Monestery. The Ring of the Way, is inspired by what the ancients called the rings of the earth or the black grooves. Supposedly man absorbs the force he needs to attain health from these black grooves. The ring is therefore black and has the scallop shell inscribed together with two stars, representing the Milky Way, which is also the Way of St James. Each ring is unique and is numbered. Alan's is number E587. The ring will be an alliance among those who feel the Way and is a talisman and a protection against difficulties and it will be "the Force that will accompany the wearer for ever!" To increase the power of the ring one is encouraged to find a pilgrim with the same size ring as yours in the Cathedral in Santiago and exchange with them the ring thus summing their strengths and experiences of the Way.

S and M each have a ring and S's ring is number E588. Alan and S intend to exchange rings when they get to Santiago. The power then must surely be stronger as each ring will reside on opposite sides of the earth. We think it will bind them in a friendship for life.

Pilgrim's Progress 2

 I am glad I do not have to wear his shoes.

My Pilgrim's Pass with the stamps collected so far.

While the Bears are squabbling over what they should write about next, I thought I might give you my review of the Camino so far. In fact it is exceeding my expectations. I had imagined it would be much like my circumnavigation you sail/walk alone but meet up with folk in the anchorages/albergues. You all have respect for one another as you are all doing the same thing and suffering the same sort of pains. With most of these folk you become friends easily and quickly, particularly if there is something you have in common; culture, language starting time and point. With a few there is a meeting of souls and you become friends for life. Where the language and culture is different, there is still this respect, but there is distance, you see each other again and again and greet each other, but there is more effort needed to begin a real friendship. As you are both weary at the end of the day this seldom happens and you retreat into your shell and your own comfort zone.
What I did not fully appreciate is the true religious and spiritual nature of the Camino. It does pervade all and adds a certain spice to the mix which makes it all so very unique and special. In one particular case I have met a young man who like me suffered the loss of a partner last year. If I were this man's father, and I am old enough, I would be immensely proud of him for the way he is recovering and living his life. As it is I feel a sense of pride in myself that we should become close friends for life. Call it "Karma " that we should meet! Well I must, must I not?
Walking up to 25-30 kilometres per day, day in and day out, while carrying a pack of 15 kilos or so, some carry more and a very few less, is hard on the body and does require a certain determination. I was surprised at how many end up with some very poorly feet or other real problems like tedonitis, and yet they carry on. Only a few do the whole journey in one go and even less walk back again. The majority do it in stages and those who attempt the whole Camino in one season are generally the retired generation. There are a number of young people, either in a gap year or having finished study, before starting to work for a living and they too try to do it in one season. I have met a 77 year old woman doing it for the third time, she has her pack sent ahead for her, and a 74 year old man on his third trip.
I have done my level best to stop in all the churches in the towns where I stop for the night to pray. After all that is why I am here. Most of my life, I'd admit to being a doubting Thomas, not really believing in the power of pray, and yet I have earnestly prayed this time, perhaps for the first time in my life; for my adopted family and friends. In one case I have a dear friend who had been diagnosed with one form of cancer, and it sounded horrid what he was now going through, so I prayed every day for his recovery, or at least for the surgeons skill to cure him. Now I give thanks for the fact that my prayers were answered! Facit: do not underestimate the power of earnest prayer.
Most who know me well, know that I am an incurable romantic and I seem to get worse the older I get. I firmly believe in love and what it can achieve and think that is the reason for our being, to love one another. My desire to do a pilgrimage from Farnham to Canterbury was born out of this romanticism. As a boy I went to school in Farnham and I know the south of England well and thought it might be fun. Yet the experience here in Spain has shown that it is not practicable. There is no pilgrim infrastructure in the UK for example. There the churches will all be locked up. The overnight accommodation instead of costing between €5-8 per night will cost around £40 per night. Where in England can I get a three course meal with a bottle of wine and water for between €10-15? Nowhere is the answer, it will cost me around £25 instead. So I have decided not to attempt it. Instead I now will walk back down the Camino as far as my time will allow and possibly to Leon, before crossing over to England. Then next year I will come back to where I left off and walk all the way back to St Jean Pied de Pont in France. Such is the pull of the Camino. Inshallah!
Buen Camino!