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
Not a breath of air. A bird chirrups. A plane drones somewhere.
Out the window are grey clouds and the tin roof of next door’s house.
The sounds, and that view, feel remote from me.
Inside my study, I’m struggling. My childhood as a Catholic taught me that Good Friday is a day to commemorate a death – a solitary and agonising death, one that must have felt endless, given the way that pain can stretch time.
If I sit up straight, I catch sight of the top of an elm. Its branches form a skeleton against that grey sky. Autumn will finally have its way, it seems. Summer has been holding it at bay, but the season of the dying fall will be victorious. All week summer tried, pushing temperatures and tempers over the top, but the southerly buster came, and the rain with it. Woollens were snatched from cupboards and night closed in earlier. Leaves swirled from the trees and huddled against fences. Puddles formed in ditches and canals. Summer dusted off her skirts and took her leave, giving autumn centre stage.
And now, the world hangs in suspension. All is cool and still. In limbo. And my thoughts are of endings and deaths.
Three years ago I was in Rome for Good Friday, traipsing the streets of the eternal city with my friend Susan, trying to see if we could find an easter vigil to attend. There, Good Friday is a day of commerce and busyness, as you’d know if you have read Sinning. It was a shock to me to see all the activity and the spruiking. But now, I see that it makes sense for them. The focus in the northern hemisphere is on Easter Sunday. Resurrection. Why ever not? It is spring, and flowers are thick on the ground, their scent wafting from grasses and gardens. Blossom bursts from branches and wisteria droops. All is renewal and birth, in line with pagan celebrations of the season. Persephone returns, bringing new life and possibility. Spring gets sprung.
But here, easter falls in autumn, when the world hunkers for winter. Maybe that’s why my easter focus has so often been on Good Friday – and why my mind dwells on death.
It’s not an unfamiliar place. I go there often, and don’t find it frightening. But it is sombre. The contemplation of endings is serious business, and for me, must be undertaken in stillness and silence. I tried to play music just now, but to no avail. Not appropriate, even Arvo Part.
A crow caws. Again. He is insistent.
He seems appropriate.
Mortality. Death. Ending. Closure.
One day I will die. It’s good to have at least one certainty. I know of no other.
But I do hope to be given time to make over more days in beauty. I hope to be given hours to walk. I hope to be given days to work. I hope to be given months to live more consciously and with more compassion. I hope to be given years to continue to explore what it is to live “the good life”. To do better.
Maybe that is the goodness to take from today. The awareness that this will end makes me commit to love each minute to the full – even if the minutes are melancholy. I will give myself over to that autumnal emotion, and not judge it as less worthy than the summery smiling days. I will sit with it and honour it, knowing that it too holds promise.
And if I’m honest, I think the leaves of autumn are more beautiful than the summer greens. Maybe later I will go and collect some, and put them in a bowl on my desk, to remind me of the lessons of endings.
But for now, I will still my legs, and my mind, and be with autumn.
According to Wikipedia – digi-bible of our days – in Catholic theology, an indulgence is the full or partial remission of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven. According to the Free Dictionary – second on the Google search list – an indulgence is the act, or an instance of, indulging. According to me – pilgrim and self-confessed fool – an indulgence is a favour granted.
Which is what I’m asking of you.
Anyone who has read Sinning Across Spain, or who has browsed here, will know that my chief delight, other than walking, is poetry; the lusher the better, particularly if it is Spanish.
My lesser known delight is my feet.
I love them. They are my best, my favourite, bits. They have never given me blisters or pains or bunions. They make no complaint when hot or bothered, cold or wet, bruised or swollen.
They just go on.
This summer they have had some excellent times traipsing about in sand beside three great oceans – the Pacific, the Indian and the Southern. They have walked me far and wide on both sides of the continent, keeping me grounded but also kicking me through waters and over waves. They have skipped and they have played.
They’ve had a chance to loll, too; to rest and be admired. They’ve even had their toes painted red in celebration of their reliability and fortitude.
So what of the indulgence?
Well, tonight I found a poem by Pablo Neruda – one I’d heard before but had somehow forgotten. A bit like my feet. So in honour of the greatness, and the romance, of feet – indulge me. Please.
Here is a poem from the Spanish master. An indulgence if ever I saw one.
When I cannot look at your face
I look at your feet.
Your feet of arched bone,
your hard little feet.
I know that they support you,
and that your sweet weight
rises upon them.
Your waist and your breasts,
the doubled purple
of your nipples,
the sockets of your eyes
that have just flown away,
your wide fruit mouth,
your red tresses,
my little tower.
But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me.
Gracias, dear feet. You who are closest to the earth, you are my rhythm-makers. You are my markers of miles and smiles and tears. You are the quellers of my fears, dear feet that achieve such feats. You are my best bits.
PS – Lots of workshops and “doings” under EVENTS AND MEDIA. Click on the tab above. Also, you can subscribe by entering your email address in the box up top, and posts will come to you via email. No, there is no charge for them!
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 wake, draw the curtains, and that is the view I see from my refugio window.
The curving bridge is a distant frame with the harbour winking at me in the foreground.
Good morning sunshine, it says.
My breath catches every day. The beauty of these waters is ancient and natural, but also sculpted by man, bent to the will of creators and dreamers, yet still at the mercy of the winds and the water.
Sydney is working its way into my veins. My blood races as I walk the harbour trails stroking knobbled tree trunks and tracing the layers of paperbarks. My heartbeat speeds as a fish leaps from the water, then submerges for a time, then leaps again.
I’m doing that. Flying then deepening.
I’m here for four weeks of writing. Some of it is preparation for Writers Festivals in WA – Perth, Albany and Denmark – where I’ll be giving workshops, performing a monologue and enjoying conversations. Some of it is the next book – actually, I hope a lot of it will be the next book. I’m teaching a workshop, doing a poetry walk along the harbour, and will be in conversation with one of my favourite minds. I’m also dipping my toes into the possibility of two other projects – collaborations with Sydneysiders.
All that, and yet I get distracted.
On my daily caminos, frangipanis fall about me like scented rain. Bougainvillea drapes itself around my shoulders, a prickling purple scarf. Hibiscus blooms flash gaudy colours at me as I try to walk past with serious intent.
“My desk,” I say to them. “My desk.”
They know they will have their way.
When eventually I get to my office, I climb nineteen carpeted stairs before my feet reach the polished wood floor. It gleams. Gleaming even brighter from the other side of the room is the vista across Rose Bay to the city. It is all blue and white and light, except when it is bisected by the roaring red strip of a seaplane.
My desk is at a sideways angle to the view so I don’t lose myself. That harbour is trying to pour itself in through the open window, and I must resist it if I am to work.
How do I resist the fecund, primal vegetation of this place?
It won’t observe boundaries. Tendrils creep over walls and through crevices. Branches burst up from concrete, and trees form sculptures, avenues from my dreamscape. They call to me to wander further, to worship their mystery and history.
Oh, Sydney, I shout. Stop!
Then I round another corner and my knees weaken all over again.
Rocks frame the harbour pool where I swim. They are shaped like great grey whales, but their interiors are exposed to the air, blasted open by the winds and salt, and I stroke the spines, the veins, the coarse gold curves.
Rock and water.
All this beauty. All this wonder.
The new, the other, is always inspiring. But Sydney is not new to me. I lived here many years ago. I swam in the same pool. In the intervening years, I have walked the harbour and sighed at jacaranda time. But this is different. This is a work camino, and I can’t recall when a place last fed me with such riches. If I can’t make something here, then it is nothing but my own sloth.
After walking the Camino Mozárabe, I used to wonder if such intense kindness existed in Australia. Was it simply those roads? Leonardo and Ricardo, my Capitano and Soldato, the ladies pressing food and shelter onto me – was it particular to that experience?
This office, from which I write, has been made available to me by the good grace of Monsignor Tony Doherty and his village of parishioners in Rose Bay.
“Work,” Tony says to me. “Just work.”
I’m doing my best.
The door to my refugio-with-a-view was thrown open to me by Michelle Bartley. We met for the first time when she handed me a key and told me to make myself at home. When I try to thank her, she just shrugs and laughs, and tells me that if more people offered something of themselves, the world would work better. She laughs a lot. She is fair of hair and heart, it seems to me. People speak of patrons. Michelle knew nothing of me – only that I needed space and time. And she gave.
I am made over by their generosity. I am trying with every breath. Their kindness demands to be met with my best; their example calls me to rise.
So here, in my eyrie, I will dream a while.
I work, and it is good – even when it isn’t! I am in safe harbour and I am grateful.
Gracias, Tony and Michelle. Gracias, Rose Bay. Gracias, Sydney.
It surfaces in myriad ways. One is that I’ve always prided myself on not looking over my shoulder. I live in the present, I tell myself and others. I move forward, I say, I move on.
Well, today, I have a confession. I’m looking back.
Unfortunately, not entirely without pride!
I’ve been trying to imagine how to honour this amazing year, and those who have travelled it with me – for a day, a week, a conversation, a glimpse, or for the time it takes to read a book. Images swirled: my friends holding up copies of the book; faces shining at beachside festivals; blinking into stage lights at the end of the Sinning monologue; the profile of a hero-writer in conversation beside me; singing Gracias a la Vida when I didn’t know I dared sing; holding hands as a confession was made; laughing as a secret was told; crying as pain was shared; asking other writers to sign their books for me; thrilling at coincidences and serendipity…
It was a glorious mental collage, but I thought I’d best be methodical, so I came here to the blog and made a pilgrimage through the posts to my first entry, written with trepidation, about entering the cyber-world. I was a Luddite and afraid. I don’t know why exactly, but I felt I would be exposed in some uncomfortable way.
Stepping forward through the posts, I marvelled at things forgotten in the melee of the months, and I began to see with clarity how very much the sin-walk has given me, and continues to give. That first inexplicable impulse to carry for others still takes me into wild places, and still introduces me to members of my village – a village that has grown and grown, and asked me to expand with it. “Get bigger,” the book has kept shouting to me as it has pulled me after it down new roads and by-ways.
This blog, begun in doubt and nervousness, is now a village all its own. Its history is right here, in the posts, but even more so in the comments, which I think of as the village square where we meet at day’s end to sniff the breeze and check in on each other. No relationship is one-way. They all require exchange of one sort or another, and it is the richness of that exchange that I see when I look at the comments. Such wealth. Such generosity. Such humour. Such tenderness.
I thought I would compile a list of thanks, but it would go for days. I’ve shared stories in Aireys Inlet and Carlton, the Wheeler Centre and the Grumpy Swimmer, Byron Bay and Eltham, Strath Creek and Hampton, Thornbury and Leichhardt, Paddington and under the spire of the Melbourne Arts Centre. I’ve sung the praise of Spain at the Cervantes Institute and with the Spanish Consulate. I’ve been welcomed and championed and – most amazing of all – given away as a gift. I have been applauded and belittled – and learned that neither matter as much as the moments when someone tells me the book has helped, offered an insight, or illuminated a moment. Nothing thrills me more than that the book has given pleasure to some and been useful to others. It has even been re-read. Imagine!
Every day of this miraculous almost-nine-months, I’ve had cause to consider the road, the sins, and the sin-donors. Every day I’ve been grateful. It seems more incredible to me now, after the book has its own life, that people trusted me with their intimacies back in the beginning when it seemed like lunacy. When people tell me secrets now, they know that I can be a vault. It doesn’t make it any less of a privilege for me, but I’m aware that my first sinners took a leap, and I salute them again for their bravery and trust. The book could not have been a book without them.
To share one’s self to that degree is rare. They didn’t give me their air-brushed, curriculum-vitaed, rubber-stamped glossy selves. They gave me their scuffed, tarnished, worn and wept-over bits. Those stories are the most precious cargo I will ever carry. They taught me so much.
I’ve been asked often whether the road changed me. I think it’s an impossible question to answer, really. I hope it did. It certainly asked me to expand, every single day. It still does. And I hope I’ve been able to meet its requests when they have come to me. I try. I try really hard.
And I fail.
I fall too, as witnessed by a post on this blog!
But I like to think that the sinners, my road companions, my angels from Barcelona, the readers of the book, and my subscribers here, are behind me, propelling me up the hills when they’re steep and watching I don’t fall on the shale of the slippery downhills. When I remember all of them, I know there’s no failure, only expansion. Only growth.
So at this curious time of endings and beginnings, reflection and revelry, I come with no pride at all, only humility and wonder, to offer thanks. Gratitude. Which has the same beginnings as gracias and grazie. And grace. I have known such grace on this journey.
I trust that it will continue next year, when I will be sinning across Sydney, Perth, Albany and Brisbane at festivals and events. I know it will continue to take me in, deeper and deeper, and out, further and further, to my limits. And that is good. I am still a pilgrim.
Grazie. Gracias. Merci.
That is Bahasa for “thank you”. It translates as “receive love.”
So here is the last poem for 2012. It’s an original this time.
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?
Not something to proclaim without thought, but there most definitely are things in which I do have faith.
I believe in the power of forgiveness to transform, in the ache to be better, and the impulse to serve.
I believe in the wispy promise of mornings like this one, when the fog lifted itself to reveal a fierce, determined sun.
I believe in confession with all my heart, telling the true story of ourselves, eye to eye with another human being.
I believe our stories shape our lives, so the more honest we are in those stories, the more freedom we will gain.
I believe in personal accountability, staring down my self in the personal mirror that is an unflinching and constant observer.
I worship in churches where silence prevails: barren plains, rocky hilltops, burnt-out forests and squelching paddocks. Places where the hush of humility has fallen.
I believe in kindness. I believe in kindness. I believe in kindness.
And in the goodness that wants to prevail.
I know there is nothing more sacred to me than the act of putting one foot down on a dusty road, and then putting down the other.
Again and again.
For as long as it takes.
Turning up and doing the work.
And I know that the work never ends.
I know there is beauty in effort.
I believe in betterment via example.
I know snails are gurus.
I know that via example!
I know we are all connected, whether we like it or not, and we owe it to this astonishing planet, and those we hope might come after, to acknowledge that fact in our actions as well as our words.
I believe in possibility over certainty.
I believe in the hope of rain on parched soil. When I smell that unmistakeable waft, I am reminded that miracles have occurred, and that they will again.
Paso a paso. Step by step.
That’s my mantra. My rosary.
And “buen camino” is the prayer I make for you.
Good road. Good way. Good path.
May it find you, especially on the hard days…
Those pictures were taken on a long walk last Sunday along the Great Dividing Trail and back toward Glenlyon, near Daylesford, in Victoria. Country that makes my heart sing. Thanks to all those who came along to the Glenlyon General Store for the Tapas night. It was a celebration of the warmth of community amid the chill of a goldfields winter night. Gracias Tania and David – and all in that humming kitchen.
A combination that enthralled locals and tourists alike, in spite of tonight’s rain. We gasped and clicked away as this projection of a lithe young woman rolled and somersaulted across those famous sails.
That’s how this whole visit has felt. It has been a camino of wonders.
I’ve laughed and cried, reminisced and rollicked with friends old and new. I’ve talked sins with the charming Richard Glover on Sydney’s ABC 702. I’ve sat in the dark, awestruck and mesmerised, at The Clock – a 24 hour film installation at the MCA. I’ve seen two plays – Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Under Milkwood – at the Sydney Theatre Company. Both of them were peopled by actors I know and love, who gave such pleasure. Yesterday I sat in a rehearsal room down in the Rocks and heard a reading of The Duchess of Malfi, the script I adapted with Hugh Colman. Such delight! It was fast, funny, very furious and charged with linguistic energy that ripped off the page in the hands of a gifted cast. I walked out into the evening and saw this bouquet of wonders, dancing over my head in the Argyle Cut….
I wandered down to the harbour, gobsmacked by Sydney’s beauty, and my good fortune. I had that old camino feeling of being connected to every person I saw, grinning into the darkness for sheer wonder at the convergence of miracles. I thought too, of those I love who have been travelling every step with me in my head and heart. My stepfather, who came through his heart operation with flying colours. My friends – two of them – who are in the middle of cancer tests and treatment decisions. And my huge-hearted “landlady” here in Sydney, who is mourning the one-year anniversary of her beloved’s passing…
This poem rolled about in my head. It was given to me by Dennis, a fellow pilgrim – one who is much in my thoughts as he walks a difficult road, just now. I post it here in his honour, and to remind myself of connection. Oneness. We are all walking together. All our lives are Japanese…
My life is Japanese
My life is Swiss
My life is German
Today I am Italian
and the food I eat
is from Spain.
Today I feel
I feel Dutch is
I feel Australian mate
Today I walk in
A bit of Britain
I sway my arms
My heart beats with the US
But mostly for today
My life is Japanese.
Dennis’s poem is one of those featured in the ABC’s Sinning Across Spain Poetica programme. If you’d like to hear it, and others that inspired the walk, please click here: