Can I ask a little advice? I don’t want to overload the Inboxes of subscribers, so this is a quick straw-poll to get a sense of how often you welcome a post. I’ve been writing something every week or so in the past couple of months, and would like to know if that is about right, or if you’d prefer fortnightly.
Most event news is now up on Facebook, so these posts are a chance to reflect more broadly, to share writing about things other than the book, and to engage in conversations with those of you who comment.
Any feedback would be most welcome.
By way of news, if you are an early riser and radio listener on Sunday mornings, a short monologue of mine will air on Australia All Over this Sunday, November 4th. It’s about the Gascoyne trip.
OK. That’s all.
No. That feels too bald, just an ask of you.
Here is an offering, sent to me by Sue Murray. A new poem. Short and very sweet. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And thanks for you time and thoughts, as ever.
The photo is taken on the property where I spent my first five years, in the Gascoyne in Western Australia. I flew across the country, drove north with family for company and stories, and travelled back in time over decades, to find another kind of meseta in the outback.
Now I’m home in Melbourne, beginning to try to make something like sense from the pilgrimage. Time will tell whether or not that is possible. I hold onto the words of T.S. Eliot…
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
It may take forever to find sense, or to achieve any kind of knowledge, but exploration is surely the vital thing, and in one of those curious serendipitous occurrences, we were back on the land where my mother’s ashes are scattered on the very day when the Fairfax newspapers published this piece I wrote months ago. The photo is theirs. I wish I’d looked so glamorous out on the camino roads! You can read the article online in situ, with ads, here if you prefer.
Sun and shadow
When Ailsa Piper made a walking pilgrimage across the length of Spain, her late mother was a constant companion.
In lock step … the author often felt her mother walking beside her. Photo: Getty Images (posed by a model)
I write this on my mother’s birthday. Mum loved an occasion. Christmas was a day-long fiesta that started at dawn when she woke before we did. Mother’s Day was tea with toast burned by us as she pretended to sleep. Birthdays were top of her pops; she insisted they be celebrated. Her last wish was that every year we raise a glass on the day she was born.
Often I slip up when toasting her birthday and refer to it as the day she died. It’s as though her birth has become inextricably linked in my mind with her death – as though I can’t think of her beginning without remembering her ending. Maybe it’s because I can’t recall her full-force gales of laughter without immediately seeing her reduced to a coiled spring of suffering in a hospital bed.
Mum died almost two decades ago, her hair still dark, and with few wrinkles, although cancer had begun to etch itself into her face. Now, when I think of her, she is birth and death, pleasure and pain, joy and grief, simultaneously.
After a city birth, I went home with Mum to the family sheep station, where my world was bounded by the fences my father regularly rode out to check. Desert country. Unyielding. But Mum gave me other possibilities. Each night, she recited Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat to me until I fell asleep. She did it for years, until I could recite it back to her.
Surrounded by drought-afflicted soil, she whispered of a pea-green boat bobbing on a star-lit sea. In a place where every drop of water was as precious as platinum, she described lush Bong-tree woods, and a runcible spoon scooping slices of impossible-to-imagine quince. Strange fruits and lands, exotic and enticing. And, of course, there was that impossible couple, owl and cat, dancing under a distant moon.
I know the poem by heart. By my heart and her heart.
Just after I decided to walk 1300 kilometres across Spain from Granada to Galicia, I heard a psychologist talking about the importance of the tales we’re told as children. He believed the best any parent could offer was The Owl and the Pussycat. Think about it, he said. The central characters celebrate their differences, and set out on a great quest, with plenty of all they need: honey and money. The decision to marry is instigated by the cat, and the owl loves her strength. Not a bad template for life.
Some people were dismayed when I part-financed my Spanish walk by selling the two paintings I’d bought with my modest financial inheritance from Mum, but I think she’d have approved. I used her legacy to take myself out into the world, whispering our poem to unfamiliar skies.
One day on the road, in a one-burro pueblo called Laza in the mountains of Galicia, I hobbled with a possibly broken toe into a supermarket and struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. We talked about mothers. When I told her that mine had been my best friend, and how I missed her, the woman’s professional face cracked. She said her mother had died only a year before, at the age of 80. I said I often walked with mine; that I still felt her absence, after all these years. Suddenly, we were both crying, hugging like intimates.
Through her tears, she said life is sol y sombra – sun and shadow – and you don’t value one without the other. She kissed my hand as she gave me my change and I walked into the late afternoon oblivious to the pain in my toe.
Sol y sombra.
I wondered about it as I limped to the town’s cemetery and looked across the gravestones to the surrounding hills. I remember thinking how Mum would have loved it all: the silent grey-stone town, the quince paste I’d bought in memory of the poem, the donkey grazing on lush grass studded with white and yellow daisies, the clouds whizzing ahead to road’s end. The swishing sounds of Spanish. The moss and lichen on granite fences. The mists. The otherness.
Mum never got to go to Europe. Sometimes I think my yearning for the road is in part a wish to wander on her behalf, a quest for Bong-trees.
“Sol y sombra,” I whispered, my bones aching for heat in that cemetery swirling with winds blowing chill from the north.
Sun and shadow.
I think the lady in the shop was right. We do value the sun more when we have known shadow. Why is that? I refuse to believe suffering is necessary for happiness, but it certainly puts it into sharper relief. I don’t want to believe I love my mother more for having lost her, but it makes the love, all loves, more precious.
Later along that road, I learnt the Spanish have a drink called sol y sombra. It’s equal parts brandy and anise. Not for the faint of heart. Maybe next year, on Mum’s birthday, I’ll shout myself a glass of sol y sombra and drink to the sunshine Mum gave me to navigate through shadows. Maybe I’ll raise a glass on the anniversary of her death, too.
No. Why wait? Loss teaches us to seize our days. I’ll find a sol y sombra tonight and raise it to love.
They always make me feel that I’m in the right place, even if that is nothing more than projection of my own hopes. No matter. It was a camino, I was a pilgrim, and I think the road is leading me somewhere. I’ll keep you posted!
Meantime, there are a few events coming up between now and Christmas, all of which will be listed on the “Events and Media” tab above, and updated on Facebook.
Did I just write Christmas? Ay caramba!
Thanks as ever for subscribing, and for your support and comments. And if you are a first-time visitor, welcome! Bienvenido! You might like to click on the “AAA – my favourites” link on the right to get a sense of the journey so far.
At various times since Sinning Across Spain came out, I’ve been asked about preparations for walking the camino. What did I do before I left? What would I recommend?
I’m loathe to suggest I’m in any way an expert, but I’m happy to share my experiences. Sometimes we fools who learn by trial and plenty of errors can be useful to others. Please remember that time has elapsed since I walked, and I’ve no doubt others can provide more up-to-date advice, so do take all of these suggestions as just that – suggestions. Everyone does it differently, and you will find your own way. That’s part of the joy.
The simplest way to go about this seemed to be to annotate a section from the book, so here we go, from Chapter 3, Flying Sola.
For the Camino Francés I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover…
The guidebooks of the Confraternity of St James are no-frills and concise, and can be bought via their website.
The CSJ are the English-language experts on all things camino, and their site has pointers to lots of other great information, including history, discussion forums and getting the credencial. No matter where you look, do start with them.
Ultimately, although it weighed more, I decided to carry John Brierley’s guidebook, because I enjoyed his snippets of history and spirituality, and I also loved the topographical diagrams and photos. I annotated it with extra info from the Confraternity’s book. I also used Mr Brierley’s guide when I walked from Oporto along the Portuguese route.
For the Mozárabe, I carried Alison Raju’s guide from the Confraternity. Back when I walked, it was very hit and miss, as it hadn’t been updated for a few years. I was glad of my Spanish, because I had to ask directions often between Granada and Mérida. It was pretty accurate once I joined the Via de la Plata. I think there is a newer version now – and as far as I know, it is the only English language guide.
The web is an astounding resource, and these days there are literally hundreds of sites, bulletin boards and discussion groups about the camino. If you want to dream in advance, simply Googling “camino” will help you find the sites or blogs that resonate.
If you speak some Spanish, the equivalent of the CSJ site is probably Mundicamino and I heartily recommend it, as it has amazing detail about every pueblo and waystop. It’s worth a look even if your Spanish is very basic, because the layout is so clear.
The other site I particularly enjoyed was a camino planner that lets you get an idea of timing your walk – for the roads from Seville, Roncesvalles and Le-Puy-en-Velay. When I was prepping for the Francés it was helpful to give me an idea of how many days I’d need. And it is fun. That said, the road kept reminding me that plans were futile, and to submit to its will.
…grilled camino veterans…
I guess that’s what you are doing by reading this! Nothing beats chatting to someone first-hand, and if you live in Melbourne, feel free to check the EVENTS AND MEDIA pages in case I’m going to be doing a talk near you. I’m always happy to natter afterwards. There are camino organisations in most states, and they have regular meet-ups, where much of the information will be more recent than mine.
All that said, I would just keep reminding you that it’s YOUR camino, and in my opinion there’s no right or wrong way to do it if you are going with an open heart and respect for fellow pilgrims – and as you will know from the book, even that can fail you when the camino tests you! There is a lot to be said for the path of the fool with open eyes and ears, but the road will have its way.
…downloaded Spanish podcasts…
I studied French and Italian from school age, so when I was preparing for the Francés I decided to take a few basic Spanish lessons – only a term, as I couldn’t afford more than that. They were wonderfully useful, and if you have either of the other Romance languages, you will find many similarities. Mind you, the differences and peculiarities are intriguing enough to make you want to learn more! I also downloaded many free podcasts from the web, and when I was walking, walking, walking my training paths, I loved to listen to them. I’m sure you could get by on that road without a word of Spanish, but if you can learn some, please do. It will enrich your experience ten-fold – and again, it’s fun!
For the Mozárabe, I’d definitely recommend a good grounding in some Spanish basics. It is now over two years since I walked it, and I’m sure that there may be more facilities, but it’s still unlikely you’ll encounter a lot of English speakers between Granada and Mérida, at least. I gather there are still not many walkers along that road, so you can’t rely on other pilgrims.
…replaced my heavy boots with lightweight Merrells…
That’s them in the photo up the top of the page – their work done. They were such stars.
I’d always hiked in much heavier, all-leather boots in Australia, and had never done more than one or two hundred kilometres in a week. The camino roads and distances demanded something lighter, and for me, more breathable. Some people walk in heavy boots, some in runners, some even walk in sandles and Tevas. I considered myself lucky to find the Sirens, as they performed magnificently on both roads. I didn’t blister and I was happy to get cold or wet feet occasionally rather than have them become swollen and overheated.
Again, a disclaimer: boots are highly personal. No feet are the same, and you must devote time and energy to getting the right boots. Don’t buy the first pair that feels good. Test them when your feet are hot, with different socks and at varying times of the day. Do make sure there is enough ankle support for you when you are carrying an extra 8 to 12 kilos on your back.
The other indispensables, for me, were my walking poles. As you will know from the book, they became an extension of my body, and I can’t imagine making the trip without them. They offer stability and support, as well as letting you test terrain. They’re also washing lines, shoulder-stretchers and coat-hangers. I’d never used them before the camino, and now I can’t countenance hiking – or distance walking – without them. And they are not necessarily expensive. Mine were about $20 each from Ray’s Outdoors.
…and sourced a smaller backpack…
SO personal. Like the boots. Try many. Test and re-test. Load weights into them. Stand and move in a pack for at least fifteen minutes before you begin to form an opinion. Go back several times. The fact that I am completely obsessed by the Aarn does not mean it will work for you, but it is super-light and fits my body like a glove, and they are two vital considerations.
It was great to have a pack that didn’t need extra rain coverage. The Aarn has an interior sack that is waterproof, so when it rains, you have only to make sure there is nothing problematic in the outer pockets. No flapping or billowing is a fine thing in blustery conditions.
There it is. A pilgrim’s whole world, on a sunny walking afternoon in autumn in the Bierzo.
And no, I don’t use a camel back. I carry bottles. That one was a beauty – hard clear plastic, so I could see how much was left. I’m a guzzler, so visual monitoring of my water allowance is important. And you probably don’t need to have a vase on your pack, but it made me happy!
…I rehearsed saying por favor and buenos días as I hiked favourite sections of Victoria’s Great Dividing Trail…
I guess the most common question I’m asked is how much walking I did before I set out. Again, this is personal. I walk every day in my normal life, for at least an hour, and regularly walk 25 to 35 kilometres on one or both days of a weekend, so I knew that distance and stamina were not issues. I did need to walk with the pack to learn how my body adjusted to carrying it for hours on end, and how best to pack it. My advice is to do as much as you possibly can in the lead-up to the walk, but not to panic if you haven’t achieved your goals in that area. Life takes over. The main thing is not to go at the camino as though it is a competition. It will teach you what is best for you, and the main advice I can give, based on my own painful experience (!) is to listen to your body, to slow down when it tells you to, and to stop if need be.
Also, remember that you are the expert on your body. I had knee problems on the Francés for the first and only time in my life. I exacerbated them by not stopping or slowing down until I was literally brought to my knees in Burgos, but I also made a critical error before I left. I was told by a man in a hiking store that I should have insoles, and so I bought a pair. I have never used an insole in my life, yet I listened. When I returned and went to my osteopath to check why this had occurred, he was aghast at me putting an insole into my boot, because my feet fall evenly and I have no need of them!
That said, I think they served, finally, to slow me right down, and that was a good thing. But it was painful, and I should have listened to my own history and body, instead of giving over to a well-meaning expert.
Which is what I would implore you to do with all of this well-meaning advice. Take what sounds right. Discard what is not you. Walk like a snail. Listen to your feet. And stay open to the road.
I’m not going to list the contents of my pack, as this post is already getting too long, but remember there’s a packlist chapter in the back of the book.
Do remember that you absolutely don’t need to buy the most expensive things on the market.
I’m always on a tight budget, and there’s no room for glamour or vanity on camino anyway. There are shops along all the roads, so you can buy almost anything you’ve forgotten or might suddenly need.
The only times I didn’t skimp on price, or on legwork, were when I was sourcing boots and pack, and luckily my feet liked reasonably priced boots!
If you have other questions, feel free to leave them here, or on the Facebook page where I’ve been posting snippets and photos of camino news. Also, if someone has better information than mine about any of this, do leave your thoughts for others. I’m happy for this post to stay up a while so that discussion can be facilitated.
As always, thanks for visiting, reading and contributing. I hope that your road is headed somewhere fulfilling, and I wish you my favourite wish, over and over…
Buen camino, peregrinos, amigos, compañeros.
On Sunday 14th October, Melbourne’s Sunday Age and Sydney’s Sun-Herald will publish an article of mine in their Sunday-Life magazine. I hope you enjoy it.
On Monday 15th October, if you are in Melbourne, Channel 31 are screening a show called Behind the Words at 7.30pm, and I recorded an excited chat for it around the time of the book’s release.
I wrote the first version of this some time ago, for a friend who was getting married. Then I returned to it and re-worked it, because I realised I’d actually written it as a reminder to myself to try to do better…
To the stirrings, the whisperings, the demanding of your heart. Listen for change. Listen for needs. Listen for desires. Listen for the unspoken. Listen for fear.
To the silences, the bellows, the hints, the demands, the pleasures of those you love. Listen for the unexpressed. Listen for change. Listen for the ordinary. Listen for fear.
In the spaces between you and others. Let them expand. Let them contract. Let them be landing places and points of departure. Let them be returns and beginnings. Let them be attended to with care and attention.
On waking. Before sleeping. When tired. When angry. When alone. When in company. With respect. With humour. Without fear.
With the same wonder and stillness you had as a child, when you pressed a shell to your ear to hear the roar of the sea. Let that wonder support you and carry you, far and wide, and always home.
And when you have finished listening…
Take a deep breath.
A note of thanks for the thoughtful comments and reflections that have been left on the last few posts. I am so appreciative that these offerings spark dialogue. My subscriber-village constantly surprises and inspires me. I listen with humility and gratitude.