I have written of Thich Nhat Hanh before, and I know many share my gratitude for his writing and teaching. Patty Fawkner is among his admirers, and she sent me these words of his. I’m indebted to her, because I hadn’t read them before, but feel they could have been penned just for me. Straight to the heart. I hope you feel the same way…
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle.
But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.
Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize:
a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves,
the black, curious eyes of a child —
our own two eyes.
All is a miracle.
Thanks to Patty for the reminder of everyday miracles.
And thanks, as ever, to my feet, for taking me to see so very many of them.
PS – I’ve updated the Events and Media page, so there are links to recent podcasts and videos etc. It has been a busy time. Gratitude for that too! For so much.
Rather like this morning in Melbourne, I woke to rain, but back then, I dressed in a rush and stepped out across cobbles made slippery by fallen orange blossom, to attend a service at the Mezquita.
If you’ve read the book, you know the rest of the story of that day…the marvel of poetry floating overhead, wonder at the city’s history of inter-faith tolerance, sorrow at the way it ended, hunger for the faith of the Spanish ancianos, gratitude for the sunshine that arrived to release the scent of neroli, pleasure at sweet treats in an Arabic tea shop…
And the breakdown suffered by my theologian.
“I am so afraid,” he said more than once.
Some readers tell me they found him difficult company, and were glad when we parted. I’m sorry for that. I suppose they’re experiencing him through my eyes, feeling my wish for solitude and freedom from his sadness. His breaking.
I’m grateful I was there to be with him that day in Córdoba. For all that it was hard, and I was not having the solitary camino of my dreams, what passed between us was honourable. Decent. He broke. I bore witness – and gave some small comfort. It was an exchange that cost us both, but also enlarged us, I hope.
It’s not always easy or pleasant to bear witness to the fullness of another person. It’s also hard to allow someone else to see the fullness of ourselves. The “Facebook selfie”, selected to give just the right airbrushed impression, has become ubiquitous, and we are in danger of becoming less and less able to sit in the discomfort of another’s full humanity – their contradictions, errors, ugliness and frailty. Also, and this may be more of a “sin” than we care to acknowledge, we become less and less able to reveal our own frailties and ugliness.
Or is that a confession?
I should know by now to be wary of speaking for “we” and “us”. Generalisations and sweeping claims are dangerous, and all I know is the compass of my own limited experience. Lately I feel that diminishing. Fear and doubt sidle up to me more often than I’d like. There are days when I can’t listen with care or patience as I did in Cordoba. There are days when I am not true to myself – to the person I was in Cordoba, for all her shortcomings. And there are days when I will only serve up the tidy, edited version of myself. For all of that, I’m sorry.
I suppose that does make this is a confession, then.
And I will try to do better.
Funnily enough, I’d intended to write of “good news”today, because there’s plenty of it.
“Sinning Across Spain” has just come out in a beautiful scaled-down B version that sits in the hand perfectly. It was released on April Fool’s Day, exactly one year after the original publication date. I think of that fool’s day as my day, so the serendipity pleases me.
And there is more to celebrate! I’m going to be at the Sydney Writers Festival on May 23rd, in conversation with the luminous Caroline Baum, and the remarkable Cheryl Strayed, who wrote “Wild”. Details are on the Festival website.
My intention when I sat down was to write about those two pieces of news, but somehow it didn’t seem right to pump out “publicity” here. I strive for something real in my community of subscribers and commenters, and feel I owe something to this village – fidelidad. As I learned with my amigo, it is in fidelity to self and others that we expand.
So on this rainy Melbourne day, let me confess that I’m not always walking with a sure step just now, and writing eludes me at times, but I’m doing my best and trying to live up to the faith that people have in me. That faith spurs me on, and lets me believe that the sun will reappear, and with it, perhaps even the scent of neroli.
A very belated heads-up, if you didn’t see it on Facebook…
Here is an article I wrote recently, turning some of these feelings into something like sense – for me anyway. Hope it resonates: The Gift of Sadness
I’m writing this from Albany in Western Australia, where a gusty southerly is shaking the treetops outside my window. Tiny honey-eaters flit from branch to branch, seemingly unfussed by the tumult. Whitecaps chop up the surface of the bay beyond and clouds race across the sky. The world is whirling, remaking itself before my bleary morning eyes.
I’m told that Albany is the oldest permanently settled town in W.A.
The weather patterns today seem intent on reminding me that everything is new and changing. The town wraps around King George Sound, which opens onto the Southern Ocean. Next stop is Antarctica. This is a place of extremes and edges.
I came here after three days at the Perth Writers Festival, which took place on the University of WA campus. While I was there I performed my Sinning monologue on a stage I last trod thirty years ago. Big time palimpsesto. It was privilege to be back, surrounded by family, friends, new friends, and a few heroes too.
I had the oddest sensation at the opening of the monologue. I was sitting in my “Spanish cafe” section of the stage, wrapped in a bubble of warm light, as the audience filed in. Gracias A La Vida was playing. I wrote in my journal. I sang along under my breath. I was introduced to the audience, my biog read out, the music came and went. House lights dimmed…
All normal. All to plan.
Except that I felt something completely new: I was in Spain and Australia simultaneously. I was in a bar on the road, and I was in Perth in my student days. I was a pilgrim and a writer/performer. I was present to both, yet also, curiously, outside of both, writing about the experience in my journal. Later, I realised that it was not unlike what happens to me sometimes when I’m walking – that sensation of being out of body, watching the small dot moving along the road.
Whatever it was, it was right. The monologue had a life all its own. Maybe it was happy to be on a stage, or to be back where it all began, or to be given to such a welcoming crowd. No matter. It was joy. The whole Perth experience was joy. Days of laughter and talk and folly and wisdom.
And then, a group of writers was flown south to Albany for the Write in the Great Southern Festival. A gift, because Albany sits at the end of the Bibbulmun Track, a 1000km bush path I’ve long fantasised about walking.
On Monday, I lead a workshop along a stretch of it. Sand got into my boots, salt spray into my lungs, and I was claimed. I’m not sure how or when, but I think I must return. Thank you to those who braved the workshop. It was a little unbalanced – rather too much time spent on the outward leg, because I didn’t know the track – but it was magnificent to watch you all out there writing.
Writing and walking and working. What else?
On Tuesday, I was fortunate to be lead in conversation by Sue Lodge-Calvert, the local Anglican Minister, a deeply thoughtful, light-hearted woman. On several occasions I was surprised by turns in our talk, but never more so than when she asked me to read the following section from the book. I’ve not looked at it since publication – I’ve always read other sections. On Tuesday, it shook me. It is a journal entry, immediate and unshaped, and maybe that is why. Or maybe it was just that it felt very true, here in Albany where I have walked with such gratitude and hope. Regardless, I am glad to have been reminded…
For me, prayer is walking. Every step is a prayer. And if there are sacred places, then the ones I have seen are roads that stretch to the horizon, empty of all save perhaps a fellow traveller, dotted in the distance, walking a separate but connected way.
A saint is a tree beside a road, the branches wide enough to
give comfort and solace in equal measure.
A sermon is a story told at sunset, two spirits meeting to pay attention, to listen, and to learn.
Divinity is the moment when heartbeats and footsteps
align, find each other, and mark miles together.
Miracles ask little and give much. Like a woman tucking homemade food into a stranger’s pockets, miracles quicken the step, light the way in the early morning dark, and are the first star of the evening cool. Miracles are journeys from emptiness to fullness, from heartbreak to heartache to heartburn to heart’s ease. And back again.
Heaven is a place where good people do bad things and bad people do good things and somewhere out on the miraculous road, good and bad people look into each other’s eyes and realise there is no separation. They are the same.
And ‘buen camino’ is a blessing.
Good road. Good path. Good way.
Perhaps it is the only blessing.
Now, this morning, I am off to Denmark!
No, not Hamlet’s place! I’m going about 40 minutes down the road to another festival, where we will share stories in the wetlands, and try to crack open some of the mysteries of words. I hope I will walk, too.
Meantime, the wind is still howling, crows are cawing, a pelican soared overhead, and those clouds keep racing from right to left across the windows. Out on the cliffs above the Southern Ocean, the wind farm’s mills will be whirring. Nothing stands still. Time is on the road, stepping out, calling us forward.
Buen camino, my village. I’d better get packing. Gracias for walking with me.
I’m indebted to so many people for these last days: Katherine Dorrington and Del Robinson at Perth Writers Festival; Jo Smith at Write in the Great Southern; Anne de Courcy for friendship and shared stories; Sue Lodge-Calvert for waking me up; Jon Doust for catching me when I swooned; Maree Dawes for walking and poems; Phillip Adams for the hero moment; all at the Stella Prize for the laughter…too many people. Too much kindness. It has been another master class in generosity.
OK. Hi-ho. Close the suitcase and wash the dishes. The road is opening…
I’m back in Melbourne for a fleeting visit, just long enough to plant my feet in the familiar sand of Port Phillip Bay, and dunk myself in waters bordered by bathing boxes.
It has been hot. Egg-baking-on-pavement hot.
But today there is an Irish mist, the temperature has dropped, and I’m donning scarves and warming my hands on my teacup.
That’s my Melbourne.
Never assume you know her. Never get complacent!
My Sydney stay came to a poetic end. To say gracias to those who made my work there possible, I lead a poetry walk along the Rose Bay foreshore. Paperbarks, sandstone and the harbour’s depths inspired me to reinvent the protagonist of my next book, so I dreamed an hour of rhythm and rhyme, and offered it to the beaches and sky in gratitude.
We were pilgrims walking a camino – joining for a verse and separating to play I Spy, alone to make a wish and united to strew the water with flowers. We made our own bay of roses!
It was a camino of gratitude, and a chance to salute a remarkable piece of land, with its history of plenty and pain, beauty and loss. Rather like all camino roads…
And this poem, this beloved poem, was at the Rose Bay camino’s heart.
Just as it stays at my heart. Every day.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
If the angel
deigns to come
it will be because
you have convinced
her not by tears
but by your humble
resolve to be always
beginning: to be a
And now, in this brief Melbourne hiatus, I’m prepping for Perth, Albany and Denmark, and their festivals. I’m going back for a celebration of words, writers and the wild west.
Perth was where it began for me.
I was born there, on the edge of the Indian Ocean, where the sun waves a final salute before it drops off the edge of the world. Wherever I walk, if I see a body of water, I expect the sun to dive into it at day’s end, leaving a trail of fire glistening on waves.
Sunrises over water still seem strange to me, as though the world has upended itself. Sunsets without oceans seem wasted – they can’t admire their reflected glory.
Considering that my early years were spent in the red desert of W.A.’s Gascoyne, it’s ironic that water has come to be so significant to me. Like this country I love, I am all duality and contradiction.
But aren’t we all, those of us who love this land with its wind-etched rocks, its salt-sculpted cliffs and its blasted desert centre? We live on the edges and dream of the heart. We cling to the wet and sing of the dry. We are flood and fire, drought and drowning.
And we are home, even if we don’t understand its ways. We come home over and over, for it’s in the not-understanding that we live fully. For me, anyway. That’s where mystery lies, and mystery is full of possibility.
Mystery is for beginners. For fools and children. Mystery is humility and softness.
Certainty is hard and unforgiving. Perilous.
Give me the mysteries of this ancient island, with its wide skies that send messages of love in all languages – if we just remember to look for them.
If you are able to come along to any of my sessions at the WA Festivals, please stay and say hello afterwards. They are all listed on the EVENTS AND MEDIA page, up there on the top of the blog. In particular, my monologue performance on Friday morning means a great deal – I last performed at the Dolphin Theatre when I was a Uni student, back in…well…another lifetime!
The wide brown land is baking today. Fire warnings abound, as all creatures great and small look for caves and cool. Tomorrow, rain and storms are predicted, along with icy southerly blasts. A change, they call it at the weather bureau.
Spring is exiting stage left, but she is not going gentle. She is burning and raving, raging, hurtling to her end, free of fear or doubt. “Adios”, she calls over her shoulder, kicking up dust as she leaves me behind.
When that dust settles, I look down and see the rose, a shock of crimson, past its prime and out of place. This is a lonely path. I chose it because no-one ventures through these ravaged gullies where thousands once excavated for gold, and trees whisper of disappointed avarice. The foot-width trail, made by kangaroos through spindly burned gums, yields wonders sparingly, demanding a walker return over and over to its flinty surface before it reveals a snuffling echidna or a native orchid.
So how did the rose get here?
I want to pick it up and see if there is still any scent to be had, but something stops me. Its stem is short. Was it worn in a lapel to a dance where things did not go to plan? Was it nestled in the upswept hair of a girl as she swayed and dipped across a polished floor? And what befell her, that her rose ended here, at my feet?
The forest is silent. It broods. Would it yield up a body to me if something terrible had happened? We are remote enough to speak of shallow graves.
There are no marks in the dirt to speak of struggle, no indentations or footsteps in dried clay, no signs to tell me how a cultivated, blood-red wonder has been transported to the goldfields rough, its petals in danger of being crunched into the quartz by my boots.
A shard of sunlight finds the rose, exposing it as dry, its stem withered. Done.
“Rose…” I whisper into the eucalypt-scented silence.
I walk away, straining to see or hear something that might explain it, but there is only the creak of a trunk against the branch of a neighbouring tree, and the scrunch of my feet. This forest does not give up its ghosts, but they are out there. Somewhere to my left, the thump-thump of a wallaby; overhead the shriek of a cockatoo; somewhere very close, the slither of grass parting at ground level.
Feet on earth. Marking out time. The scrunch. The rhythm. The passing. On.
To the cemetery.
Coming out of the forest into grazing land, there it lies, framed by grandfather eucalypts and pines, introduced and indigenous standing sentinel around the bones of other grandfathers. And children.
I walk through the creaking metal gates and up the central avenue, passing the century-old plinth where only one word of the inscription remains intact – SACRED; past purple thistles rising out of the earth and marble crucifixes crumbling back into it; past the granite stone for Laurel, “Giver of love and joy”; and past the holly bush that has grown on the still-tended grave of an infant who would now be a woman more than a century old.
On the high ground, under a row of whistling pine trees, there’s a slab of red stone for Norman, who died almost twenty years ago. Neighbour Norm, a flirtatious bear of a man who used to joke that he joined the Progress Association to ensure there was no progress, and whose inscription tells me that the greatest of all is love. To Norman’s right is a matching stone for his grandson Michael, whose life was taken by depression over a decade ago. I’m glad Norman went first.
I plant myself between them, looking over the field of the dead to the young eucalypts planted across the road. They will be harvested for commercial use. Their fate is known.
Norman, Michael and I sit on the hill. Norman reminds me to feast, to laugh and to love well. Michael reminds me to relish the days of sun, because the dark ones can claim us. The eucalypts speak of the honour of usefulness, and the imperative of remembering that the end will come.
Except of course, the end doesn’t come. Why do we assume “it” ends when we do? “It” goes on. “It” keeps turning, and feet keep walking, roses keep growing, and we keep remembering.
The sun is high and the pines smell like Christmas.
Time to move. The road is waiting.
I walk back down the central path toward the eucalypts.
Some of them have been burned.
Their trunks are charred black, but at the base of one tree, silvery grey leaves have sprouted, thick and determined.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that, and I understood the question. After all, walking is just…well…walking. It’s slow, repetitive and not particularly cool or sexy.
All I can say is no, it’s never boring for me. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s exhausting. But I’ve never found it boring. My mind, which can judge activities and label them as interesting or dull, is lulled by walking, and even at times released by it. Walking gives my mind a freedom it achieves nowhere else, as I describe in the book.
My compañero from the Camino Francés sent me the following words from teacher, poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. I love them because they describe a state I long to achieve in all areas of my life. I trust that it might one day be possible, because I can achieve something like it when I walk. See if you can get your mind to attend to every word. It’s not easy.
To my mind, the idea that doing the dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in warm water, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to go and have a cup of tea, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! Each bowl I wash, each poem I compose, each time I invite a bell to sound is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while washing a bowl, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with a bowl.
So, in direct answer to the question about walking, and begging forgiveness from the wise teacher, please consider the following, knowing that your mind will try even harder not to attend!
To my mind, the idea that walking is unpleasant can occur only when you are not doing it. Once you have put on your dusty boots, and loaded your pack onto your back, it really is not so bad. I enjoy taking each step, being fully aware of my foot on the earth, the landscape, and each movement of my chest as I breathe. I know that if I hurry in order to get to the finish line, the time will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The steps themselves, and the fact that I am here taking them, are miracles! Each kilometre I travel, each song I sing, each time I let my arms swing past my hips, is a miracle, each has exactly the same value. One day, while walking, I felt that my movements were as sacred and respectful as bathing a newborn Buddha. If he were to read this, that newborn Buddha would certainly be happy for me, and not at all insulted at being compared with walking.
I hope the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, and my compañero, will not feel at all insulted at my rephrasing of that beautiful text.
Chop wood. Carry water. Wash dishes. Bathe newborn Buddha. Walk.
Peace was the wish made by my amigo in Baños de Montemayor.
It was a wish made by many of us at last week’s conversation with Tony Doherty. If you’d like to view the YouTube clip of that, please bear in mind that we take up the first 75 or so minutes of the 100 min total. Also bear in mind that our conversation took place the day after George Pell’s press conference about the abuse of children within the church, and as a result the talk is coloured by that.
The last thing I ask you to bear in your wonderful mind is gratitude – to all who read these offerings, and in particular, to all who attended that night. It was humbling – and painful – to hear some of your stories afterwards, and I am walking with you in my heart.
Some say it was the name of an Italian princess, but for me it’s spring in Andalucía.
Neroli is the essential oil distilled from the flowers of Seville oranges, and it was the scent of Granada, Córdoba, Mérida, and most of the pueblos between them when I walked the Camino Mozárabe. The streets and squares of my stops were lined with citrus trees in blossom. The air smelled fresh and pure, tangy, a little sharp, and full of the promise of summer.
Like a princess, perhaps?
Probably not like a pilgrim!
This morning I stepped out the back door and stopped in my tracks. I was in Spain. Late afternoon. Road’s end. Treading on cobbles strewn with white petals, inhaling the name of a princess.
The lemon tree is in flower! It’s not quite neroli, but it’s close.
But then, Melbourne isn’t quite Granada…or Córdoba…
It’s late spring here at the bottom of the world, but if I close my eyes, that scent and its associated memories can almost make my toes throb as though I’ve walked 30kms. Almost!
My memory of those days is becoming like mobile phone photos.
Hazy and soft focus.
I’m glad I had a journal and my sister’s camera with me when I walked. Now, when I look back, those photos and scrawls balance my tendency to romanticise. They are there to remind me of the hard yards, the bigger pictures and the non-pastel days; the harsh light and the cold winds; the fear of failure; the sombra that is the contrast to all my remembered sol.
I’m in conversation with Monsignor Tony Doherty next week – do read his guest post here if you haven’t already, and check the Events and Media tab above if you’d like to come. My prep for that event has made me reflect on my amigo, and our time walking together. Always, when people enquire after him, what they want to know about is my wrestle with desire. Rarely am I asked about the secret he carried, and the pain it gave him. Rarely does anyone want to discuss the shame that he felt, for himself and his brother. That may be politeness and good manners, but I wonder sometimes if it is more about a collective unwillingness to dwell in those places because we feel helpless. I certainly did, in the face of his story. Nonetheless, while I know that conversations about suicide and abuse are difficult, I do believe they are vital for understanding, and hopefully, for change.
So I’m glad that Tony’s dialogue with me comes now, in spring, when thoughts turn to horse racing and pretty hats; to lazy afternoons and cricket whites; to roses and wisteria. I want to remind myself to check the shadows sometimes, when all this sunshine can dazzle and distract me. I feel safe to do that in Tony’s company, because his generosity, humour and compassion make it possible to walk into any shadow and know that there will be a yellow arrow waiting when we walk out the other side – which we surely will, with him guiding!
It was lovely to surrender to that moment of citrus recall this morning. Seductive, enticing, sensual – and completely sin-free. But I owe it to my amigo, and to all of those who carry loads that cost them dear, to remember that the camino was not always painless – and that it would be foolish to expect that of any road.
I’ve just been told that bookings are now full for the event with Tony. Sorry if you missed out. If you were really really keen to come, I’m told that you can call the number on the booking form and explain that you are a subscriber here and they may put you on a waiting list – but for now, registrations have closed.
And while I’m talking about subscribers, a hearty thankyou for the valuable feedback after the previous post. All of it has been noted, and I’m feeling less like a serial stalker, and more like a contributor to a village conversation. I’m very grateful.
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.
Exactly three years ago, I was in El Ganso, just past Léon on the Camino Francés.
If I close my eyes, I can still smell cut grass on the warm evening air, and the sprig of lavender on my pillow as I drifted into sleep in a mercifully snore-free albergue. I can hear the dog’s bark ringing across the field below the town, reminding me that some creatures were working while I rested.
Most of all, I remember the contentment and internal quiet I felt in that town at the end of a tough and sometimes confusing day.
If you’ve read Sinning Across Spain, you may recall the story of Domingo, the old gentleman, or gentle old man, I met there. With all my heart, I hope he is still alive and well, and that he and his town have not been too much troubled by the economic crisis. I hope one day that I might return to thank him for the gifts he gave me.
The following passage from the book, and these photos, are to honour him and El Ganso. I hope that you, my village, will forgive me for posting something you may have read. But as Arthur Miller wrote – “Attention must be paid.”
And gratitude must be given.
Gracias, Domingo. Gracias, mi compañero.
At the end of a long hot day’s walking, I’d arrived in El Ganso, a pueblo my guidebook called “hauntingly crumbling”. It was dozing, and yes, perhaps a touch melancholy, with its Cowboy Bar at the entrance decorated in saddles and cowskins.
El Ganso means “wild goose”. I didn’t chase any.
I wandered out of the albergue as the sun flirted with the horizon. A lone dog barked and a bird fluttered among the beams of an abandoned adobe building behind me. To my left was the handful of houses that made up the town. To my right was the road out. Opposite was a narrow dirt lane between two tumbledown buildings, and walking towards me up that lane was a man with broad, open features. His eyes were surrounded by deep lines. He leaned on a walking stick and waved with his free hand.
“Buenas tardes, peregrina,” he called, his face creasing into a grin. That smile was my introduction to Domingo. We stood in the main street, talking about the weather, how far I’d walked, and where I was from.
Australia got a good response.
He held out his free arm and suggested a little walk–un camino pequeno.
We set off at Domingo pace, stopping to sniff the wind, to look and listen.
He gave me the grand tour of El Ganso, where he had spent his entire life. We saw the houses of his brothers and sisters; a big two-storey house–not so nice as the low ones; the vacant land, just waiting for a nice lady from Australia to buy it and build a new home; the abandoned houses, falling into disrepair and back into the ground; the edible rose hips; and the scratching chooks with their scrawny chicks.
Stories everywhere. The house where he was born. The families who went away. The home that waits for his son. The flowers he planted for his sister. The figs, so good, so good…
Then he took me to his house and ushered me inside. He showed me his kitchen, and the kettle his wife favoured, their bedroom and bathroom, both modern and cool; the guest room–for next visit? Then his shed, with its tools and folding garden furniture. His backyard, where he picked for me white roses tinged with softest pink, and two perfect pears. He had sons in Seattle and Madrid, he told me. They made a lot of money but they didn’t come home much.
The whole tour took maybe an hour. Details, affection, the wonder of his almost-abandoned town…
“Te gusta mi pueblo?” You like my town?
I did. I still do.
As the sun set, he walked me back along the empty main street to the albergue, where he left me with a stiff bow and a sweep of his free arm, saying, “Ésta es mi pueblo.”
This is my town.
I watched him walk away, the scent of pears and roses wafting in the warm air as the church steeple turned orange. All around his retreating figure, the stones of the houses glowed. His home was radiant, radiating. I saw how full it was of loves and losses, and how much richer I was for him having stepped into my life to tell me of them.
I took my fruits and flowers to adorn my table at the Cowboy Bar. Cowboys were a disappearing breed, and I wondered about the future of those pueblos. Would they survive the rush of the young to the cities and beyond?
First to Perth, on the banks of the Swan River, at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Another Finisterre – the most isolated city in the world, they say.
It’s where I went to school, and where I still have childhood friends and a sister; two brothers, a stepfather and a father; and other relationships that are complex and enduring.
It’s where I walk under a sky of a particular blue, my feet locating themselves on known, but now strange, earth. I smell childhood fantasies on the breeze and catch glimpses of teenage willfulness around corners. I taste the longing for movement I’ve known all my life.
I always want to be my best self in Perth, to make an offering that is pure and generous. I have moments of success, but too many of failure. My patterns run deep there. I settle into them without knowing, then try to escape them. I struggle to create new shapes, new ways of being, and to lay those over the old patterns.
I succeed. I fail. I walk away again.
This time I went to Ubud in the hills of Bali, in the shadow of Mount Agung.
Three thousand metres of volcano, rising out of the mist and smoke. It last erupted in the sixties, changing the island and its terrain. It is worshiped and revered. It wears pale cloud to great effect.
I slept in a house made of bamboo, looking across ripening rice and paradise flowers to palm trees and kites. I woke to footsteps on stone, treading a path to the temple outside the window.
As frog croaks gave way to cock-squawks, and before whirring motorbikes on the road took precedence, they would come, those gliding dark-haired women, preceded by the smoke of incense sticks. They placed offerings at the door, at the family temple opposite, and at the compound gateway. They placed them on the paths to warungs, and at intersections of three roads. Kadek told me that she makes dozens each day. They are like birds’ nests made of bamboo fronds, filled with flowers and rice, fruit and biscuits. The air fills with perfumed smoke as the neighborhood is dotted with these gifts. At every doorway, statue, shop entrance and tree.
They are infinite in variety and content.
They make me wonder about the offerings I make; the moments when I pause in the day, as they do, to stop and acknowledge ancestors or history, or to give thanks. Kadek told me that the Balinese “work so we can have enough food and make our offerings.”
Last Saturday, friends cooked lunch for six of us at their home in the rice fields. We sat at their table and ate a mix of Balinese and western flavours. We laughed and told stories. We spoke of gratitude for such beauty and good luck; for peace and generosity.
As ducks went about their business, filling the neighbourhood with racket and making me laugh out loud, we shared news from the wider world. Boats of refugees. Casualties of war. Carping and insults in western politics. Intolerance. Vindictiveness. Such things seemed impossible, at that table. Unthinkable.
On the narrow path home, the women ahead of me carried tiles and cement to a construction site. They all smiled and greeted me as I passed. A Balinese man who had worked in Dubai for two years spoke of his relief at coming home. In Dubai, he said, they told him not to smile all the time because people would think him foolish, or grasping. For a Balinese, he said, this was heart breaking. He was relieved to be home where his smile could be free.
Overhead, elaborate woven banners swayed in the breeze, ready for Galunggan, when the forces of good and bad do battle. Good will win, Wayan told me, as he plaited palm fronds into intricate patterns. The tall banners arched like the backs of the elegant women bearing building materials.
I took myself on snail-pace caminos, hours of early morning hills and ridges. Everything thrives there. Grasses sway and palm-trees tilt. The green got higher and deeper as I walked. I kept stopping to marvel at the bigness of their bumblebees, the scale of their snails, and the wealth of species. The density of the undergrowth. The patterns. The beauty. The growth….
There seemed to be order among all that wild sprouting. As though the winds had worked in concert with the grasses to produce artworks to rival any old master’s. Wisdom at work in the landscape spoke, as it always does to me, through my feet. Again I heard it, the repetition, in all languages, of the mantra I must try to remember….
Tidak apa apa. No pasa nada. No worries.
Of course there are problems. And things must matter out in the wide world where people are disputing boundaries, rights and entitlements. But for a brief interlude, I de-twitted, read few newspapers and listened to another kind of broadcast. I walked and walked at the pace of a tropical snail, and when I returned to Perth, old patterns could be seen for what they were. Building blocks. Attempts. Offerings. Steps toward understanding – of self, family, friends. Of journeys and mistakes made.
And now I am back in Melbourne, where the air is chilly and the magnolias are showy. Home. Reflecting…
In Ubud, I looked into a rice field and I saw the sky. Sometimes, if we go slow, we can look into the past and see the future – or at least a glimmer of what might be possible.
A POSTSCRIPT OR TWO
On the 16th September, I will be reading at Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire’s latest Women of Letters afternoon. They sell out almost immediately, and raise money for a wonderful charity, so do get in quickly if you are keen. Marieke wrote…
For your records, the breathtaking lineup is as follows:
Intrepid writer, actor and walker AILSA PIPER
Esteemed playwright, thespian and all-round awesome lady KATE MULVANY
Doyenne of Australian literature HELEN GARNER
Editor of Meanjin and associate publisher at MUP SALLY HEATH
And adored chanteuse SARAH BLASKO.
Doors open at 2:30pm for a 3pm start. Rock up early and have a glass of wine and marvel at the mirrored walls in the Theatre’s downstairs ballroom.
The topic of your particular letter for September is ‘A letter to my unfinished business’.
Get in fast to get your tickets!
And for all visitors….
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