A Travellerspoint blog

An interlude

And so I departed Spain and returned to Ireland, to my parent’s house in Lurgan. It was strange to be home, as well as surprisingly easy to morph back into old ways. I had expected it might be difficult to shift back into ‘normal’ life, however the only noticeable irk was that there seemed to be so much ‘stuff’ everywhere. When I packed up my home in Carlingford, the vast majority of my belongings went into the attic. I took with me some clothes, shoes, books and other bits n bobs which I thought I might need over the coming two years. I had been really strict with myself and felt proud of the limited frivolities I was keeping with me. However post Camino simplicity I was absolutely horrified at the unnecessary clutter I had taken with me. Half finished bottles of toiletries, CDs, hardback books; what the hell had I been thinking? So two thirds of my remaining belongings were packed into holdalls and transported back to Carlingford, where my tenants kindly added them to the stockpile in the attic. Phew, it felt much better.

I hung out with my parents for about two weeks. I hadn’t spent that long with them or in the family home since 1987, a mere 25 years ago! It was really lovely to be there. And although I needed to rest my weary bones, I soon noticed I had developed a bad dose of what my friend Roisin has named sleepy sickness. Sleepy sickness is a malady peculiar to myself, which develops when I spend more than a day or two in Lurgan. It is typified by a complete lack of motivation exemplified by Nora spending most of the day in her dressing gown, neglecting personal hygiene, avoiding leaving the house and doing absolutely nothing except chain drinking cups of tea to try and keep awake. Comfortable as that might seem, it was time to go.

And so it was time for more goodbyes. In my life I have been lucky enough to have gone on many an adventure; to places exotic and mundane, to places as safe as houses and places that some would consider not so safe. I have seen and done many wondrous things which have broadened my mind and enriched my life. I guess I am saying that I have been further than Bundoran . Also, that I have experienced many a goodbye.

I would say that at least eighty percent of those goodbyes have involved the other party putting on a very serious expression, tilting their head to the side and with great deliberation, uttering words full to the brim with encouragement such as “mind yourself”, “you watch yourself” or the very helpful “don’t be taking any risks”. Rarely is there an accompanying “ have a great time” or even “enjoy yourself” . If a person from another culture were to watch the exchange they might guess I was going off to an inevitable death. On occasions I have had to endure mini lectures on how I am likely to be raped/ murdered/ kidnapped/mugged (by a HIV positive, drug addicted black man)/be bit by a rabid dog/develop some limb withering disease/be sold off to an Arab for twenty camels etc etc.. Of course bad things might happen to me. Of course they want me to be safe, so do I. But if you are one of the head tilting brigade, next time you say goodbye wish me luck, good fortune and happiness alongside safe keeping. Please. The lecture is over now.

Posted by noratheexplorer 09:51 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

And finally, the final bit... to Finisterre! Thank f*&!

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I allowed myself the luxury of staying in bed till 8 the next morning. And then I had a new journey to begin, the Camino Finisterre. Dear God, I had hardly the energy to smile, never mind embark on something new and unknown. The Camino Finestere begins in Santiago and flows west for 90 kilometres (or 4 days walking) until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean at Finesterre. In Latin Finisterre means the end of the earth. Before Christian pilgrims began travelling to Santiago to honour and worship St James, the sun worshipping druids, were using the route to travel to Finisterre. The druids believed the earth to be flat and where else would it be fitting to worship their God, but the place when the sun went down at the end of the earth. Given I do not find God in churches or scripture but in nature, I thought Finisterre would be the perfect ending place for my journey. I had also decided I would offer up the Camino Frances in thanksgiving for the life I had lived up to the present moment. The Camino Finisterre was to be walked as a welcoming ritual for my life yet to unfold.

And so it began. I was tired, still fed up and I must say, a wee bit nervous about the whole escapade. I knew very few people walked the route, that the signposting was infrequent and watering holes were few and far between.

For the first few days the walking was very unremarkable, mainly through woods, like the week gone by. The only notable event was coming across a man at the edge of the trees, his trousers at his feet. I thought I had caught him having a wee, so I said ola and gave him an “oops this is embarrassing for the 2 of us” smile. It was then I noticed he still had his penis in his hand and was continuing to give it ‘a lot of attention’. Aaarrrrggh, another masturbating man. I had come across one about 5 days previously. He was waving from outside his house, a fair bit back from the path. I had thought his enthusiastic waving had seemed a tad over the top, but waved back nonetheless. That was until I noticed his other hand was engaged in some energetic activity way down his trousers. That incident didn’t phase me in the least, but this one did. I hadn’t seen anyone for hours and after the constant pilgrim traffic of the previous 5 weeks I felt alone and vulnerable. But there was nothing I could do about it except keep on walking. The landscape was unremarkable. I think my problem was that I had been expecting a landscape like Donegal or the like. Sure wasn’t I within 50 kilometres of the Atlantic Ocean, surely to God there should be mountains or bog or some indication of extremity or wildness. But no, lots of woodland and fertile farmland. Boring, boring, boring.

Evenings in the Albergues were very different to what I had experience on the Camino Frances. Amongst the Pilgrims, there was very little acknowledgment of each other, never mind chatting and friendliness. Dinners were eaten alone and in silence. We were also largely ignored by the locals. On day two I stopped in 3 bars to ask where the nearest public telephone might be; I needed to call the Alberque to say I would be late. This question was replied to by a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘maybe in the next village, but frankly I don’t give a damn’ look. Not one offered to use their mobile phone to make a 1 minute local call. It was also surprisingly cold. One late afternoon I took, fully clothed, to my sleeping in a bid to keep warm while I waited for dinner. Rather ironically I had a text from my friend Anne who was on holiday in Majorca. She wanted to know if I too was suffering with the heatwave that had been cursing Spain for weeks. Oh yes, steam came out of my ears again. That day officially became another ‘I hate Galicia’ day.

And then as always happens, everything changed. The sun came out at lunchtime on day 3, the terrain changed and at around 4 o’clock I rounded a bend and saw the ocean. I can’t tell you how exciting that was. It meant I had walked from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic Ocean, by way of the breadth of Northern Spain. I understood my achievement now, in a way that I was unable to comprehend in Santiago. But I was also so very excited to see the sea and to know that at last, I was on the final final stretch of this goddam journey. So one night before reaching the end of the earth, my form returned. Once again, life felt fantastic. It was so good to feel so good again.

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Next morning I departed from Cee knowing that I had only 10 kilometres to walk to journeys end. The sea was blue, the sky was blue, I could see beaches ahead of me and I knew that within an hour or two I would be there. I was on top of the world. Another headland was crossed and there finally we could see it, Finisterre. When the picture below was taken, we were all jumping with excitement. And then 45 minutes later we hit the beach. How utterly perfect is this? The last 3 kilometres of the Camino is along a golden sandy beach. So at about 11.30 on a Sunday morning, I sat on the warm sand, took off my trusted walking boots and walked along the waters edge to Finisterre. I couldn’t believe how symbolic it all was. My feet had carried me all this way, had endured the constant pounding, had taken the vast majority of the punishment. And now it was time for them to be cooled, to be refreshed, to be rewarded with the curative powers of sea water. It was perfect.

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And so I arrived in the village of Finisterre. I immediately bumped into a few of my companions who had travelled by bus from Santiago. I managed to bag a lovely room for 20 euros and gave myself a full five minutes to luxuriate on my comfy mattress before sprinting off to the beach. Although I had professed to having carried no unnecessary items in my backpack, I had a bikini secretly stowed away. And thus for the next 2 days I barbequed myself on a golden beach (of the Donegal, not Costa del Sol variety). I ate beautiful shellfish and drank lots more wine and generally had a wonderful time. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect end. Then the only thing left to do was to complete the final walk to the lighthouse at the end of the world. As the picture shows, zero kilometres to go. As Fred Flintstone would say, Yabadabadoo. I did it!

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Posted by noratheexplorer 17:03 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

At long last, Santiago here I come!

And then finally it was the last 3 days walking before Santiago. The elation gifted an extra spring to my step and I managed 30 kilometres on one of the days without any difficulty. After a terrible days rain on the way to Melide, the weather improved and I had the novelty of walking in my shorts and t-shirt again. It had been too cold and wet for such scanty items of clothing for what seemed a very, very long time.

Like many others, I spent my final night at the Albergue at Monte de Gozo. Really it should be called a mega albergue/warehouse, given that it can house 500 pilgrims at a time. Yes you heard right, 500 pilgrims in one go. That is just one indication of how popular the pilgrimage can be at peak season. This is apparently in August when the Spanish are on their holidays. Given the boiling temperatures I had experienced in May, I couldn’t think of a worse time to do it.

I wasn’t expecting a pleasant experience when I got to Monte de Gozo. In my head I had imagined a huge Ikea type warehouse swarming with smelly pilgrims. And as for the dorms, I didn’t dare imagine. But actually it was quite pleasant with 50 identikit blocks, each with a warren of dorms housing only 8 people. But the logistics are unimportant really, what matters is the location.. The joy is that Monte de Gozo is a hill overlooking Santiago; the city a mere 4 kilometres away. Thus on their final night, the weary pilgrim can rest with the end point in actual sight. Furthermore the final swoop to the cathedral can be on fresh legs (well, so to speak. My legs hadn’t been fresh for a long long time) and at a time when the city is just waking up to the new day; less crowded and business like and maybe, less jaded. How good does that sound?

I spent my last night in the company of Maria, a woman in her seventies from Argentina. I had often said hello to her as we passed each other in the previous weeks. All 5 foot of her was a bundle of life and energy and I often marvelled at her spirit. She was a tiny wee thing, obviously with bad hips and feet, who somehow was able to just keep going. Like many other of the Pilgrims in their seventies, she really was something else. I take my hat off to all of them, even Cornelius! We had a lovely meal, 4 courses and a bottle of wine for 7 euros. That would hardly buy you a cup of tea and a scone in Ireland. I returned to the dorm reasonably sozzled and at an early hour and slept soundly through the night, not wakening till 7.30. It really was a rather perfect start to the final day of my Camino Frances.

And thus I descended to Santiago. But where was the steeple of the cathedral to tantalise and guide me in my journey? Sadly, nowhere. Thus I found myself progressing deeper into the city, obviously still following the yellow arrows but having no idea if I was anywhere near my end point. I felt like a child on a long car journey “are we there yet, are we there yet?”. Unbeknown to me, I was probably only a hundred metres away from the Cathedral when I had a bit of a toddler temper tantrum. Wearing a very stroppy face, I asked a local where the hell the cathedral was. Hand signals indicated it was straight ahead and to the left. I thought I might start crying out of pure frustration. And then I was there, in a big square towered over by a dark gloomy cathedral. I thought “Is that it?” I was seriously under impressed.

Rather than even enter the Cathedral to pay my respects to St James (the whole point of the pilgrimage in bygone days was to visit his tomb in the cathedral), it was time for breakfast and room finding. My priorities always seem to be a full tummy and a dry bed, the spiritual can wait. I then sat twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the famous 12 noon Pilgrim Mass, where pilgrims from all 12 Caminos join together to celebrate the ending of their journey. I had been excited about being a witness to the ceremony for a very long time. However now that the moment had almost arrived I think I was more excited about what would happen after the mass was over, namely I would get the keys to my room in what looked like a semi posh hotel just off the square. And then to bed. My own bed, in my own room, oh joy of joys.

To be fair, it was quite emotional waiting for the mass to begin. I saw many of my pals of the last few weeks. I saw people from the very start of my journey who had obviously walked 900 km in the time it took me to walk 700 (ggrrhh). Dear God, even the South Korean trio were there. Some people came up to greet me and I had no recollection of ever meeting them, but I suppose I was flattered. Yes, I guess it was a pretty momentous occasion. But there was too much chattering and gabbling for my liking. Despite not knowing me from Adam, the woman next to me seemed intent on having a full blown conversation about all sorts of intimacies. I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up, but instead told her I would like to be silent. Oh I can be a pious one at times. My fury then descended onto a rather smug young couple who had already begun to kiss each other on various parts of their heads and faces, smiling inanely and then kissing each other some more. When it came to communion, many of the pilgrims used the lull as an opportunity to move off and find new people to chat to, dear God, it was like a drinks party. I tell you, steam was coming out of my ears. I never had myself down as a rampant traditionalist, however in that moment I wanted to grab the microphone off the priest and give the congregation a bloody good ticking off. A proper fire and brim stone sermon. Even now I feel that the behaviour of most people was utterly disrespectful of being in a sacred place.

But the final act of the circus had yet to begin. The show stopping finale of the pilgrim mass is the swinging of a giant incense burner across the nave of the cathedral, The ritual requires half a dozen attendants to hoist the burner up high and then to keep the swinging going. ‘Botafumeiro’ was originally used to fumigate the sweaty (and possibly disease ridden) pilgrims, although I think its usage has become increasingly infrequent over the years. I had heard about it, but hadn’t really expected it to happen when I was there. But it did! And it certainly was a sight to behold. As I might add, was the rush to pilgrims to the front armed with cameras, i phones and video recorders. To me, it was the final flamboyant act of the circus. And so, rather than throw myself onto the floor in disgust, I promptly got my camera out and became just as ill behaved as everyone else. Oh how the mighty can fall. (I am attempting to put a video onto the blog, it will probably take me a while to figure it out)

I hung around for a few minutes after the ceremony and then quietly nipped away. Two minutes later I had checked into the hotel, had ascended in the lift (can you imagine, a lift!) and turned the key in the door. Unfortunately what awaited me was not a suite at the Waldorf. It might be best described as a cross between a prison cell and a nun’s bedroom in an old convent. It certainly hadn’t been done up since the 1930’s (nor would it have been the height of fashion in the 1930’s). I flung myself onto the bed (a bit lumpy with a white sheet and prison blanket) in a huff. Then the rain started to bucket down outside, I took out my supply of chocolate bars and within twenty minutes I was as happy as larry. And so having finally made it to Santiago, I decided that I wasn’t in the least interested in seeing the place and stayed in bed all day. I emerged at 8pm, only because I was famished. It was dark and gloomy and the rain was still pelting down. I was dark and gloomy and certainly had no desire to bump into anyone for an evening’s socialising. In the end I did bump into probably the most grounded woman I had met on the Camino. We had a wee bit to eat, a glass of wine and then early to bed. Not quite the rock n roll ending eh? .

Posted by noratheexplorer 13:53 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The last 100 kilometres to Santiago

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A further days walk took me to Sarria. Sarria is 100 kilometres away from Santiago. This makes it momentous for multiple reasons. For those of us doing the long haul, it meant 100km to go and the end our journey. For some people that probably meant huge relief, for others sadness and a sense of needing to prepare for a return to the 'real' world. However Sarria's 100km from Santiago status also means it is the starting point for a hoard of other new pilgrims. Certainly most of the people I know who have walked a section of the Camino, began in Sarria. Sarria meant nothing to me, nor did it spark my imagination or fondness. Part of this was because Santiago was not my final destination; I had a further 90km to walk to get me to Finestere. But it was also because I had descended into a gloomy space. I was tired of the cold and the wet and I had heard this last week would be crowded with groups of over enthusiastic greenhorn pilgrims. Oh spare me the enthusiasm of others. I also assumed that the best of the scenery was over and the landscape to come would be boring. Why? I don't know.

So I was rather surprised to be very charmed at the new landscape which greeted me. It is best described as a gentle landscape of woods and oak trees and small villages with a lovely gentle pace of life. I think it reminded me of parts of England; like something from a Turner painting or a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel. In Ligonde I watched at the side of a road whilst an old farmer, umbrella in hand lead his ten cattle down the road, as if out for an evening stroll. In another village the window of the bar opened out onto a field where a herd of very happy and healthy looking cows hung out and enjoyed life. It was really lovely; small, quiet, low key and gentle. I found the people lovely too, the old men, often in berets were especially welcoming, always on hand to wave and wish us buen camino. My negative mood remained however. My approach to reading the sky in that last week was a good reflection of my mood. The skyscape was very much of the Irish variety; cloudy, mainly of the grey and black variety but with the occasional splash of blue. The threat of rain was always there. I constantly looked at the black clouds to assess the potential for rain. Constantly. I knew that all I had to do was shift my focus, to direct my gaze at the blue, the potential for good weather. But I couldn't do it and it made me more and more and more frustrated with myself.

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I was also very tired and weary. Quite a number of my fellow pilgrims also felt the same. For me it showed most in the mornings. No longer was I awake and alert before 5am, waiting for the bag russlers to begin their morning ritual. These days I was sleeping through not only the bag russlers, but everyone else. I not sure where exactly it began, but I awoke one morning at 7.50 a.m to find that the entire dorm of 30 people (minus 2) had gone. How the hell had that happened? I put it down as a fluke. But then it happened again and again. What added to my amazement was that the dorms in the Municipal Alberques in Galicia were piled to the rafters with beds. In the photograph below you see the grey bit on the right is my sleeping bag. And then the man on the left, right beside me with no break between his bed and mine. We could have rolled on top of each other That was the situation. And yet in the very dorm I slept solidly and when I woke up the entire dorm (including yer man) was gone. I was very very proud of myself. What a rapid conversion from a neurotic light sleeper to one who could sleep under a noisy motorway. Although I am loathe to admit it, one of the advantages of the cooler weather was you could keep walking well into the early evening with no fear of turning into vapour. Hence there was no need to sprint out of bed at the crack of dawn, although the majority of pilgrims appeared to choose to retain their barbaric regime.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 09:12 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

A wee bit about being a pilgrim

Ok, let's start off with the superficial. What does a Pilgrim look like? The answer is very simple. Bad. Often very bad. A pilgrim spotter would initially notice that both male and female pilgrims are decked out in similar outfits; a pair of khaki or grey trousers and a shirt or t-shirt, both in quick drying fabric. For the female pilgrim, this outfit instantly erases any sign of your femininity and transforms you into a character from a movie about German lesbian road sweepers. This is the outfit you wear day after day after day. When the sun comes out you don a rather silly looking floppy hat to keep the sun out of your eyes. When it rains, it's the rain coat and waterproof trousers which are added, items specifically designed to keep you dry from the rain and simultaneously soaking wet from the sweat they induce. If the rain is particularly bad, many a pilgrim including my good self, add a 4 euro plastic sheet/mac on top. The coat is a sight to behold. It completely covers your upper body and your ruc sac, thereby creating the impression that you are a very tall hunchback. Groovy. Footwear is either walking boots, trainers or the most hideous of all, the plastic sandal thingey which I have just learnt are called teeva sandals. I know they are supposed to be fantastically comfortable and super-dooper in every aspect of their existence, but dear god, they are utterly hideous. Especially, when they are worn with socks. Yes, you have heard correctly, they are worn with socks!!!!! Roisin, I know you have collapsed in horror at the very thought.

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I have no idea why I have given you all that detail, it's not really that important. So what am I trying to say? Yes, I am saying you look a mess, really that everyone looks a terrible mess and you know what? It’s bleedin great. When vanity is removed from the equation, life suddenly gets a lot lot simpler. People leave behind all the ‘stuff’ they associate with (and often hide behind). So no fancy clothes, no fancy cars, houses, qualifications or professions to dress up in. For some, I reckon it was hard to be stripped of these defences, but for most, including myself it is wonderful.

So what makes you a Pilgrim rather than a walker or a holidaymaker? It’s a good meaty question which I have no desire to answer it in a comprehensive fashion. I think the La Faba poem at the end of this section will give you a flavour of my sentiment around it. My thoughts about what made my journey a pilgrimage rather a holiday are relatively simple. My 'belief' system is that I think there is some central creation force, whether that be a God thing (bearded or non-bearded) or a collection of atoms vibrating together. I don't find a connection with that creation force through prayer or being in a church, I find it through being in nature. It is when I am in nature that I feel the closest to joy that I am able to feel. So, I suppose each day on the Camino was like being in church for 6 or 7 hours each day. That's bound to be good for the soul! And yes, one of the main reasons I did the Camino was to nurture my soul. I also did ‘pilgrimage’ by making an active attempt to 'love thy neighbour' and to treat everyone with love, dignity and respect (except for Cornelius of course). I know that most of us try to do this in our everyday lives, but my attempts were more active on the Camino. Finally I hankered back to my catholic upbringing by 'offering up' the pilgrimage up, in thanksgiving for the life I had had thus far. That’s all. Amen.

La Faba poem

Although I may have travelled all the roads,
crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
if I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have shared all of my possessions
with people of other languages and cultures;
made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths
or shared albergue with saints and princes,
if I am not capable of forgiving my neighbour tomorrow
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
and waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing:
if upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have had food and water each day,
and enjoyed a roof and a shower every night:
or may have had my injuries well attended,
if I have not discovered in all that the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have seen all the monuments
and contemplated the best sunsets;
although I may have learned a greeting in every language
or tried the clean water from every fountain;
if I have not discovered who is the author
of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.

If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
searching for and living according to what I have learned;
if from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
a companion on the Camino;
if from today I cannot recognize God,
the God of Jesus of Nazareth
as the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

Posted by noratheexplorer 07:38 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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