Wednesday, 30 November 2011

In print at last

Now available: A Very Long Walk is the published version of these articles and blogs, written while undertaking a 2,300-mile, 9-month long walk from my home in central London to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

While Rome burns

The tenth of October. I’ve just been sitting on the beach, mesmerised by the powerful white curls of rising waves that approach each time closer than the last. Around me people were stripped down to swimming costumes, stretched on the sand or tossing in the breakers. The wind was brisk but warm and windsurfers were showing off. We’ve been promised rain for days, but there was still no sign of it.

This scene is the reason we came to Barcelona: for late sun and warmth and a chance to test how small a pocket of the year my white fingers can be squeezed into.

Until we got here, that is. In this international city par excellence, English-language newspapers are everywhere with tales of economic implosion. Easy internet access leads to easy browsing of BBC headlines. And now our tenants are about to move out, leaving us rent-less. Can we really bury our heads in the sand any longer – especially in the coarse, gritty sand of Barcelona beach? Ought we really to spend the winter wandering the tapas bars where some Flamenco musician is playing the guitar – while stocks and shares burn all around?

Maybe we could, maybe we should. But in the first shocked days here, before we remembered the beach, we had already decided it was time to head for home.

Now, sitting on this beach that is warmer than many English summers, eating my ice-cream, I’m beginning to think we might have made a mistake.

10th October 2008

Sunday, 5 October 2008

PS: the statistics

  • 9 months / 274 days in total

  • 147 days of walking

  • 2289 miles / 3683 kilometres walked

  • 15.6 miles on average walked per (walking) day

  • 5 pairs of boots used between us

  • 0 blisters

  • 12 pairs of socks used each

  • 4 visits to doctors

  • 5 major bug attacks, assorted

  • 300-plus bed bug bites

  • 3 t-shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of trousers worn each

  • 17,660 photos taken

  • 11 notebooks filled

  • 10 items carried and never used

The end

There should be moments of great emotion; revelations about life, ourselves or both. Our way of behaving in the world should, Damascus-like, be transformed. Yet thoughts and emotions rarely occur at the scheduled moments, but at the right ones.

We had all the superficial milestones: the "last hundred kilometres" post; "only three more days to go"; the "last time I need to wash out this t-shirt". Deliberately we left ourselves a long last walk into Santiago, wanting to arrive tired and feeling like we had walked a long way to get there. We woke to a perfect shimmering sunrise and strange nerves, as if it could all still spoil.

It didn't. The sun slanted through eucalyptus forests right to the city's edge. The soft sandy track had kept back some steep ascents for a final fling, which we enjoyed in our familiar quiet. Only at the approach to Santiago did the scattered individuals become a stream of movement in a single direction. Most people stop at Monte de Gozo, a giant accommodation centre that permits them to walk the final five kilometres to the Cathedral next morning, refreshed. We didn't stop, and so our final five kilometres, like the first five months, we walked alone with ourselves. In the city streets school children and workers were heading home for the late Spanish lunch. They were indifferent to us: pilgrims in Santiago are like pigeons in London.

I had expected the Cathedral and its main square, the Praza do Obradoiro, to be a noisy circus ring of souvenir sellers, cafés and tour groups. But there were none, just a scattering of other stunned people with laden rucksacks or cycles and a beautiful, reverent silence. Inside the Cathedral, too, smaller than I'd imagined, a contemplative peace wrapped around us in contrast to the chattering museums that other Spanish cathedrals have become. When I later learned this was a short-lived drawing of breath during lunch, I was even more grateful that such was our arrival.

Even so it was impossible to know what to think or feel. Numb. Complete. Astounded. Relieved. Lost. Grateful. Sad. Not sad: we had finished where and how we had always hoped to finish.

But gratitude was overwhelming. In the dark crypt with its silvered coffin I muttered a spontaneous "thanks!" David was similarly moved by the centuries-old gesture of filing past the golden and jewelled statue of our old Saint Jack to give him the customary big hug and a kiss. The feelings continued through the next day's noontime Pilgrim Mass at which a nun sang with the voice of a fragile angel and American priests made the Botafumeiro swing with glee.

For a few hours I couldn't even look at the shop windows of jewellery and gifts, much less contemplate buying such unnecessary things ever again. But after an Australian-sized tapas bar-crawl with Paul and Kim, I achieved closure - or oblivion.

Then we came to Finisterre, the end of the once-known world, and in a much anticipated moment of symbolism out on the rocky headland each burned one item of the clothes that have done duty for nine months. It is here, in the tiny, ordinary fishing town with mild headlands and blue-green seas that we have found some of the silence needed to consider our journey.

I'm not sure I can claim we have changed at all. It's rare that an experience like this changes people deep down. A frequent comment from those who completed the walk a while ago is a melancholy "I did change ... for a while ...". Nor do I expect the people we have spent time with to remain friends for long. Camino friends are not for life. The experiences that bring you together are too intense and too different to sustain into normal life. Perhaps the most we can hope for is that inherent but previously worn out characteristics become strengthened.

So I hope we continue to loosen the ties that bind us to shops and acquisitions. I hope we can lighten our load in the world.

I hope we continue to have increased respect for the environment and its resources, especially water and fuel. My repulsion in the face of some of the squalor we have encountered, even here in western Europe, makes me sure that no one anywhere should have to live with squalor. Yet I have learned that I'm not the sort of person to carry out development work overseas: better to increase the support I can give to those better able to do it.

I hope we can continue to lead a slower life with more time, daily, for each other and for other people. Even without the regular terrors and exhaustions that bred my prayers for help and sighs of thanks, I hope I'll still take time to look beyond myself. Whether you call it prayer in a Christian, Jewish or Muslim mode or the power of Buddhist positive energy, the knowledge that people were wishing me success was sometimes the only thing keeping me going. So I hope I'll find space to stop and cast a thought or two in the direction of people, known or unknown, who need the extra strength. And the first person I'll direct those thoughts to is Alan, a teacher from Kosi Bay School in South Africa. He has decided to take time for reflection by walking from Cape Town back to the school in north eastern South Africa. With nothing like the infrastructure surrounding the Camino de Santiago that is a challenge indeed and there will be times he'll need the thoughts and strength of others to help him through. Believe me, I know.

4th October 2008

Monday, 29 September 2008

The cycle of the seasons

Cut logs are stacked on the back of a lorry in a lay-by on Sunday night, waiting to be hauled to a sawmill in the morning. They are eucalyptus logs, clean-smelling and exotic. But in every other was they could be lengths of pine or beech trees from the commercial forests we passed through in northern and eastern France. I watch the morning sun slice through the dangling eucalyptus leaves and a breeze move the fronds of bark, and behind them see the intense blue eyes of the woman in a wood in Normandy who first told us of the eucalyptus forests that accompany the last few days into Santiago. I've been imagining these forests ever since.

The last week of our walk, partly no doubt because our minds are tending that way, has offered us sights and smells that link back to so many moments in the past nine months. As my breath forms clouds around me, wrapped up in layers as we set out with the late-rising sun, the certainty of a warm and sparkling afternoon carries us back to the magical days of the Pays de Bray in February. Then, we rejoiced at 16°C afternoons. Now, we luxuriate in 28°C.

The acorns we saw sprouting red in the dark earth of February and March have reappeared on the trees and now are falling again to lie freshly at our feet, where carpets of autumn crocuses have replaced the spring ones we were so excited to see.

A few days ago in the last real vineyards of the trip the grapes were black and heavy, still covered in grey bloom as the crates were stacked ready for the harvest. It is surprising to realise how the seasons have passed since we walked through the dead-seeming twigs of the Champagne vineyards or the green but flower-less ones of Chablis.

In a rare excursion into a Spanish bed and breakfast in Samos, we once again find ourselves sharing a chatty breakfast with our hosts and, in an echo of Les Avettes, our hosts are beekeepers and serve up their own honey along with tales of bees confused by the weather and mobile phones, dying in their hives.

Echoes of the Auvergne lie in wait in the tiny hamlets behind herd of cows for whom we have to linger patiently for them to return to their fields from milking. Like in the Basque country, the old farmers of Galicia want to stop and chat with us, for the pleasure of meeting strangers. And yet the drinks vending machines and even outdoor internet points outside farmyards make me laugh at my surprise over the vending machine adaptability of France.

There's almost a third spring here in Galicia. In the Auvergne we welcomed foxgloves, honeysuckle and clover that we had last seen around the Lac du Der. But here they are again in late September in the allegedly damp and cool north west of Spain. There are raspberries too, piled on tables outside houses for a few centimos a punnet.

The season is definitely cooler. Although the maize is fattening in fields just like under the oppressive heat of the Gers, we've often returned to our cosy way of spending later afternoons and evenings under the blankets on our beds, once the sun has dipped and we're waiting for the dinner hour. No doubt the climate here helps make it feel like home: in the green, wooded hill we walk along sandy tacks under trees, between centuries-old stone walls, and spontaneously remember the lanes of the North Downs Way.

Other things are very different but still recall the year. Where French villages are so often devoid of their cafes, Spanish village bars are alive each afternoon with old men playing cards. We always thought that Spanish dogs would be even more of a problem than French ones, as they are rarely behind fences or tied up. But freedom brings wisdom: Spanish dogs, free to roam, are peaceable creatures. They rarely bark, being mostly asleep, often in the middle of the road. And in their breaks from sleeping they meet up with friends in two or threes and take themselves for walks, along country lanes or through city parks. Meanwhile, Spanish cats procreate, and kittens abound.

The biggest contrast, of course, is the people. Just once of late we have eaten in a restaurant alone, freakishly given the hundred of people still walking the Camino at this late but lovely season. Nothing could be further from our splendid isolation in walking in England and northern France in January, in February in March. And yet, just like in south west France as we approached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we are drawing close to Santiago de Compostela with a small, amoeba-like group of people who we've come to know, in a way, and whose company has enhanced our awareness and enjoyment of these final days.

29th September 2008