PILGRIM TALES 2017
23 Sep 2017
The Mystery of the Pair
It was a long day 45,909 steps which from memory was 33.7km. Arriving in Guemes was a surprise. I had heard that it was a large albergue but that was all I knew. The first thing that struck me was the hospitality: take your pack off, here is a glass of water, is there anything you need?
It has come to life because of Fr Ernesto an 80yo whose grandparents built the original building (still standing). There are volunteers who come from all parts of the world each year. He spoke in Spanish with an English translator (excellent), about the history of the place and the great debt owed to his grandparents. Inspiring.
Then a Danish couple led some singing (to be repeated after dinner). Wonderful night. Check it out Guemes Spain albergue.
One of the improvements on the Camino I have noticed is that most of them now have washing machines AND dryers. And so it was that I put my humble offering into this very large machine, deposited my 3.50 euros and presto come back in 40 minutes and clothes that were fit to be thrown out have been spared.
The problem occurred with the dryer with two washing machines and just one dryer. Too many in the queue; hang them on the line. In fortunately it rained during Fr Ernesto's presentation. Take them off the line and return to the dryer. A young Frenchman with a pile of clothes that absolutely dwarfed mine was in front of me, He kindly offered to include mine with his. An offer to good to refuse. "Come back in 40 minutes". Dinner intervened.
Fr Ernesto had blown my cover by announcing that I was a priest. You fill out a ledger on arrival on of the columns requests occupation. I considered "retired" but that would not be true so I wrote Catholic Priest.
I had a good dinner with a young Frenchman from Bordeaux and a young woman from Germany. It was interesting to me that initially I was frozen out of the conversation but we finished up wanting to linger. Only Fr Ernesto's second presentation terminated our conversation.
Before that I had to go back to the dryer, not knowing what to expect as I had gone well over the 40 minutes. There they were all folded just waiting for me. Back to my room to deposit the clean neatly folded clothes...and then I saw them another pair of blue underpants. Not mine.
Do we still call them underpants? If so why a pair. There is only one. What about a pair of pants? It is surely a given. What would be the use of pants with one leg? And why do we say a pair of rosary beads?
Perhaps something for Mr Bremner's class to mull over.
Not wanting the young Frenchman to be penalised by losing his underpants by helping me. With underpants in hand I set out to find him. There were 57 of us staying at the albergue, shouldn't be that difficult.
Most of you know that I suffer from face blindness. But few of you realise how severe this disability is for me. I have become even more conscious of my impediment during this walk when I am constantly meeting people during the day and not knowing them at night. It is a huge burden.
Then I saw him. Approached him and offered him the underpants. Wrong person. Twice more and I am not exaggerating with the same result.
What to do? Plan B neatly fold them and place them next to the dryer. After Fr Ernesto's second presentation about the paintings on the walls of what is called the hermitage building painted by a well known Brazilian, followed by more music and singing from the aforementioned Danish couple.
Back to the dryer, underpants remained undisturbed. Bed.
One of the first up, down to the dryer. Underpants slept soundly. Breakfast was at 7.30, I was first. A cup of tea and two baguette slices with jam. Then I spotted him...only it was not him. Had I asked somebody twice.
I set off. But after about 50m was not sure I was on the right track. Retraced my steps and asked someone who was also ready to set out. He said they were not your (gesturing by rubbing both his hands over his upper thighs) "I don't know what to call them", underpants I helpfully replied. He had lost his at a previous albergue and bought new ones. They had not yet bonded.
There is a postscript. Walking this morning I was passed by a young couple. The young lady said as they went by, he got his boxers back. But was him with her... I did not know.
Underpants, boxers, jocks, briefs, what do we call them. And why refer to them as a pair?
22 Sep 2017
I made a mistake; well two actually and all before it got light.
It had not been a good night for sleep. The room had two double bunks. I was allocated one on the upper level. Playing my ageism card I was able to exchange with an obliging Spaniard. However somebody snored loudly all night. I think it was the American. Awake I looked at my watch. 6.45am. I like to be on the road before first light around 7.15. I got up went to the toilet cleaned my teeth and then began to de-camp. Not an altogether simple process. With my torch on muted red I began transporting my things down a long corridor (the albergue was part of an old church, occupied by Religious Sisters), three trips did it the last being a final look over to make sure I had not left anything behind.
Now in the dining room I could switch the light on...5.53! I had mistaken the five for a six. The huge iron gate on the entrance to the church would not be opened until 6.30.
With time on my hands I set out to reorganise my backpack. In folding a second pair of shorts I brought this year something strange occurred to me. That fine blue and white lining seemed unfamiliar, no matter, just old age.
And then I noticed the mud. Impossible on my spare shorts. I had gathered up the shorts of the person sleeping above me. Aghast I put my torch to the muted red and scurried down the corridor for the fourth time. Entering the dark room I was immediately aware someone was in the bathroom. It was him the man who spent in the top bunk. I draped the shorts over a chair and left the scene of the crime.
One of the features of these coastal Spanish towns are the long promenades. The one out of Laredo was over four kms long. At the end of the beach I took a small boat ride across the estuary to Santona. Only about eight minutes but saved about 10kms. Just out of Santona I saw the biggest jail. The walls must have been 5m high and the length was about a kilometre.
After this there was a significant mountain to be climbed. Treacherous on the way down, if raining would be most difficult. As I remarked to a pilgrim from the UK if it was raining we would still do it.
21 Sep 2017
Correcting the auto-correct
I arrived in Laredo around 2pm, something over 40,000 steps. I probably have not given sufficient weight to the beautiful costal scenery. Walking along the coast many of the views are just breathtaking. Then happening upon costal towns snuggled ever so close to the ocean.
A question for mr Bremner's class should the water be referred to as the Atlantic Ocean or the Bay of Biscay?
Back to the dogs for a moment, or more particularly their bark. It does help if you hear dogs barking in front or behind you to work out if someone is ahead or behind.
For those few of you not familiar with the iPad I noticed some errors in my script. The most obvious was the pronunciation of al-ber-gay which came out al-Bernard-gay. It anticipates what it thinks you mean, sometimes incorrectly as in the case above. If I don't catch the error...
Days 2 to 6 were pretty tough, it rained and the mud on the tracks made things difficult. Sloshing through the slush to the sound of the squish.
I have just been asked how to fix a camera and a few moments later where the kitchen might be!
The photos I have sent are taken on my iPad. You might notice they are all in towns as it is just too difficult to stop and get the iPad out of the backpack.
All is well.
Terminated in the tunnel.... almost!!!!
20 Sep 2017
Things were going well. I had just made an agonising decision not to stop for lunch at what was really a nondescript cliff top restaurant about an hour from Castro Urdiales ( although it is hard to be precise, as it was one of those places that you never seem to get to) . But the cars in the car park heightened my interest. But no I will press on to complete the 37km journey.
It had been rather sedate walking by comparison to the first week, and was travelling well. The only problem I have is with my bunion challenged left foot. All the other toes are being squashed.
However. I came to this place and encountered a sign that even I knew meant the track was blocked. This presented a problem as the pilgrim never wants to retract steps. A couple coming the other way offered hope as I thought they said there was a way through ( this may not have been so but rather what I was wanting to hear). Onwards. Through an almost dark tunnel only made for foot traffic and then at the end the tunnel 9/10ths covered with shale and more forbidding the reinforced concrete slabs. Is it just me or Australians in general who are guided by our coat of arms, the kangaroo and the emu neither can take a step backwards.
I had to take off my pack and push it in front of me along with my sticks. The thought of being stuck was pleasant. Not to mention why the tunnel was closed in the first place. Unstable? Anyway with much effort I "wormed" my way through, completely exhausted. The problem still remained as to where the track and if I would have an even more impenetrable barrier ahead...and then where were my sun glassed? Back I went sans backpack. Found.
Got to Castro Urdiales completely exhausted. Asked at a restaurant along the promenade as to where the "al-Bernard-gay" might be. The waiter I asked had no idea but then this seemingly person of authority appeared and via his phone sais it was near the bull ring about a km away. I then in plaintive tones asked about a pension or hostel that might be closer. Bingo. Just 50m away. The reception was on the first floor and the very obliging lady said there were no single rooms available but there was a double. How much I enquired? 52 euros seemed like a bargain to me.
A room to myself, the first shave in 11 days, and best of all a towel that you can rub rather than dab.
My reflection on today is the danger of assumptions. I thought that woman said there was a way through the tunnel...but that is what I wanted to hear. I assumed the man at the restaurant was the manager/owner and I did promise to come back for lunch which I did, but of him "no appearance your worship". I think he was a customer.
Beware of making assumptions.
Now for Mr Bremner's class:
The most helpful weather site when you travel is yr.no, it originates in Norway. Play with it, even small towns are covered. Look up the town where you or your parents were born...anywhere in the world.
My task for you is to compare and contrast it to our own bureau of meteorology.
Shame about the spider-webs
19 Sep 2017
I was first away from the albergue (pronounced al-ber- gay) this morning and in fact no one passed me during the 12km walk into Bilbao. It was good to have a flat service to walk on. One thing the first person along the track has to do is break the spider-webs. I do feel sorry for the spider all that work overnight...
After walking through Bilbao I then followed the river (la Ria?) for about another 14km to Portugalete crossing the river from Getxo. The river crossing is achieved by a suspended ferry! I could have opted for the high-wire act by walking across the top but my fear of heights made the decision easy.
La Poste (The French Post Office)
18 Sep 2017
The French Post Office (now called La Poste) and me go back a long way. There was many a visit with Brian and Jen Bourke; waiting, waiting, and waiting. Frequently taking a position in the wrong queue only to be told at the counter to join another line, and as was once said on the wireless "no correspondence will be entered into".
Let me tell you about my experience at La Poste last Monday afternoon in Bayonne. Nothing too complicated just wanted to post a book back home that I had read on the plane by Cardinal Walter Kasper; known as the pope's theologian.
First mistake - went to the wrong counter - no damage done as there was nobody in front of me. At second counter found a very helpful assistant in probably her mid-twenties. She took me to a stand and selected the appropriate envelope, gave me a custom's form and then pointed in the direction of a self-service machine.
Immediately I sensed trouble.
The custom's form had some challenges such as the weight of the book, an address in France, nevertheless I approached the machine with resolve, which evaporated after a few steps when I observed an African woman perhaps in her 40s with one letter on the top of the "time savings device", behind her was a young man obviously "time poor" moving from one foot to another. Two older women arrived and stood behind me, making four additional pairs of eyes watching the performance playing out in front of us.
Help arrived. The helpful young assistant no doubt saw the queue extending, and unlike the two other older staff who chose to avert their gaze, decided to actually come and help.
A long conversation ensued in French along with gestures, the letter remained unmoved. The impatient young man in front of me was asked if he would like to go to the adjacent "time saver" that took credit cards rather than cash. With obvious destain he reluctantly moved to the other machine. Trouble. We now have two "time savers" doing the opposite of what some genius intended.
The helpful staff member decided that this may not be time or the right person for instruction 101, and proceeded to take over the transaction herself. Problems were not lessening next door. The important young man decided that the machine taking cards was no better than the cash machine. He moved in front of me and being in good holiday spirit I gave him a smile.
Problem solved on machine number one with just the cash to be inserted. Coins deposited, excitement dashed when either not enough coins deposited or one got lost in the bowels of the "time saver". This proved too much for the young man of importance, he had only been waiting for about 12 minutes. The helpful staff member directed him to the counter where two staff members were chatting to each other.
By now my queue had swelled to eight.
Success, stamps actually came out of the machine.
I was now first in the queue. With all the helplessness I could manage I looked to the young staff person who responded without a moments hesitation. My hopes soared.
The machine could not recognise the envelope containing Kasper's book. I was sent back to the counter where my odyssey began. Same result the woman with the expressionless face told me to go to the next counter. Was it Yogi Berra who said this was déjà vu over again?
The customs form was examined inscrutably, my omissions were noted and additional information provided. I was asked if I was sure that it was ok for delivery to take 10 days. I would have settled for 10 weeks.
Money paid I departed from the Bayonne Post Office. Déjà vu over again.
Birthplace of Maurice Ravel's Bolero
18 Sep 2017
Fitbit tells me I have walked 210,000 in the last six days. It has been every bit as tough as I anticipated. None of the mountains are particularly high 300-500m (with a 1000m one thrown in today), however they are relentless one after the other, hard to remember a flat km.
The other thing is the mountain tracks are sodden with pooling water a constant navigation hazard. Going up is ok but coming down is treacherous. All signage is in the Basque language. I do not have a map, and the 2013 guidebook is next to useless. I am simply following the yellow arrows.
These are just some of the problems, however they are more than compensated by some truly amazing sights. Viewing the Atlantic Ocean from the mountains constantly surprises, along with some truly gorgeous valleys and farms. Then there are the coastal towns. Magnificent.
One of the first towns I walked through in France was St Jean de Luz (pronounced something between looz or lose). Who knew that Maurice Revel composed Bolero there in 1928?
I am in a very noisey bar but they do have Wifi.
This week I have stayed in Bayonne, Irun, San Sebastián, Getaria, Deba, and tonight in Markina-Xemein. Hope you are all well.
What makes your hair stand on end?
18 Sep 2017
A question for Mr Bremner's class. (Mr Bremner's grade six students are following my pilgrimage). Yesterday I was attacked by two dogs. At first there was only a small to medium size brown variety (and from my morning paper round of 63 years ago hold a view that you can gauge a dog's intent by its bark) no problem. But then appeared from under a fence a large black companion. Problems. I was startled and took up a defensive posture. All finished well. The thing is I could feel the hairs on the back of my scalp tighten.
Now my question: Is the saying about hairs standing up on the back of your head actually true? And if so how does it happen?
Had my first fall today, in the mud. Head, hands, right knee coated, however the only thing damaged was my dignity.
Just had a nice salad at a nearby bar. Only two of the three obligatories present 1) loud music, 2) TV surprisingly not on soccer. The one missing the poker machine. Although I can't recall seeing anyone playing them in any of the bars I have visited. I wonder if making available rather than restricting might be a better way. Gambling, alcohol, drugs, not a palatable thought but the reality is what is done now is not working.
Enjoy your vegetables back home they are hard to come by as part of a meal in Spain.
17 Sep 2017
Are true pilgrims allowed to carry an iPad?
Notwithstanding, I remembered overnight that I had not sent you my reflection on La Poste. Problem was that the noisy bar that had WiFi connection would be closed. But what if I went and stood outside? Would the connection I had last night sill work. Worth a try even at 6.45am and pitch black.
I had my answer as I was de-saddling my pack pack. There was a ping in fact more than one. I felt very pleased with myself.
Footprints are very important to the pilgrim. Sometimes when way-marking signs are scarce if you follow the footprints all will be well.
You hear the sound first before you see them. The sound you hear are voices, coming quicker and louder than the pilgrim on foot. So it was this morning, I heard the voices and then looked back to see four mountain bike riders approaching. I was delighted because I had not seen bike riders for three days. I figured that it was a combination of the rain and the terrain. Seeing the bike riders promised some more friendly tracks ahead. And so it was arriving in Gernika to give Guernica its Basque spelling with FitBit telling me I had walked 49486 steps which translates to 37.07km. There was still plenty of ascending and descending but mixed with a bit easier going.
It's amazing how much more difficult (and dangerous) descending is compared to climbing. I must say I am reduced to picking my way down and going at a very slow clip. I can remember Andrew O'Sullivan (who lost his right leg in a trail bike accident) saying that it was much easier for him going up rather than down. One of the problems I have is my left knee which I was told years ago was "severely arthritic". Going down I do feel it and when it comes to stairs (there was a timber staircase today descending into a valley that must have had 500 stairs) I put my left leg down first every time, slower but safe