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Unleashing change

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My new world of work requires me to wear shoes. Shoes! And makeup. I need to wash my face and put on clothes before I start typing every day. Hair? That’s still a bit deranged but there’s only so much preening I can handle.

There are no more early morning strolls along the coast, boiling the kettle for that third cup of coffee, putting on the washing machine, checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, a couple of news websites and WordPress before typing my first sentence. Then stopping mid way to have another quick peek at Twitter. My walking boots, fleeces and down jackets are currently… resting. Read more

Missing Jean

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I picked up the phone to share momentous news with my friend today.

A few days ago she was the first person I thought of  when I emerged from the first job interview  in …oh … 30 years. I knew she’d laugh and reassure me over my unpreparedness and my fashion faux-pas. She’d share the outrage over all the questions they didn’t ask and interrogate me on how I answered the ones they did.

Today she would have screeched with a mixture of horror and delight when she heard  I was becoming an employee after decades on the run as a freelance. But she’d “get” it; the security, the excitement, the trepidation, the adventure. She’d offer wisdom. And she’d throw a party to celebrate. The fizz would fly.

We shared laughter for years. Occasionally tears. Often shopping. News; always news. She partied at my wedding and ensured that I survived when the marriage crashed. She came to my mother’s funeral and my sons graduation parties. We holidayed in Spain and Sweden. And we made radio programmes together, although on one occasion we were so distracted by one another’s company (or was it the previous night’s gin?) we forget to load the recording equipment and had to drive miles to retrieve it.  There was fun.  Always food, drink and a bed when times were tough or tremendous. Unsuccessful matchmaking. The best of friendship. Legendary stories.

She wasn’t at the end of the phone today. And nor would she have been on any of the other times in the past month when I’ve reached to share a snippet or some nonsense.  Or check on grammar. There will be no Christmas carols round her piano this year, no Hogmanay get-together or walk on the beach at New Year. And I won’t hear her voice or her  laugh ever  again.

Life is different without Jean. I know she’d tell me – and everyone else who misses her – to get a grip. But we’re just a bit lost without her; our go-to friend who provided the sense and the sparkle.

And it will be a long time before I lose the urge to share.

 

Savouring the last leg to Santiago

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I ate Pimientos de Padrón in Padrón.

Of course.

And I enjoyed the little peppers as much as I loved the town of Padrón which is saturated in the legends of St James. It’s here he supposedly preached in Spain for the first time, in a quiet spot high up on the hill overlooking the town. I walked up to the simple statue and cross that marks the spot on the rock far away from the bustle of the town below. And I felt a peace there that’s been missing on most of this camino.

I felt it less in the Igrexa de Santiago church which houses another of the great legends, the original stone mooring post to which the boat carrying St James was tied at the quayside on the river. And, at the other end of the Saint’s story there’s a roadside monument showing the arrival of the his sarcophagus as it passed through.

In the morning, after breakfast in a pilgrim cafe by the ancient stone bridge, four of us set off to walk together on the last leg of our journey. There were roads and traffic and noise, but there were trees and bridges and peaceful places too. We weren’t in a rush for the walking to end and met friends who also stopped countless times before they took the last steps into Santiago.

And when I turned a corner on the medieval streets and the familiar sharp spires of the cathedral rose into view I felt the smile spreading over me. It felt like coming home.

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A Window on the World

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We were sitting in a remote village cafe when Albrecht rolled up his sleeves to show me the multiple red rows of bed bug bites.

“No more albergues for me,” he said.

Of course. A lightbulb moment. I knew at once that there would be no more albergues on this trip for me either. I needed sleep, peace, somewhere clean and time for all the blotchy bites on my face, neck and shoulders to heal. Late that afternoon I checked in to a small hotel in Caldas de Reis, peeled off my pack, lay on the crisp white bed and listened to the silence. It was the best 28 euros I’ve ever spent.

Later I drank beers and ate with my Canadian, German and Swedish friends. We soaked tired feet and legs in the public hot springs of this pretty spa town and when it got dark we drank hot chocolate in the bread shop and ate yet more pastries. And then I waved them goodnight and retreated to the calm of my solitary space.

All was well with the world when I set off next morning. And when my journey was hijacked it got even better.  A man called from the window of a school building as I was walking past and asked if I’d come in and meet the children. “It’s our window on the world,” he said. ” We invite pilgrims in to tell us about their countries. It’s our project. Please speak to the chicos in Scottish.”

Two Croatian girls came in too and I’ve no idea what they told the kids (in Croatian)  but I turned to stereotypes and mimed bagpipes, described shaggy Highland cows with long horns, did a little Scottish dance and – for the teacher – focused on whisky. And then the kids crowded round for photographs, we exchanged email and Facebook details, the teacher showed us his scrapbook of postcards from every corner of the globe, we all hugged and five minutes later we set off back on our journeys.

We hadn’t even taken off our packs, but it had been the most magical moment of the week. I’ve fallen back in love with the camino.

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Camino Confession

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I took the bus.

I know, I know. Call myself a pilgrim? A hard core walker? The same person who walked every inch of the 500 miles across Spain with a hanging-off toe and aching hips and knees?  Maybe I’ve gone soft, but on this occasion I just didn’t see the point.

The plan was devised late at night after reading the guidebook description of the next day’s route which runs through industrial estates and along the side of busy roads most of the way to Redondela. For me, the compensation for tired legs and feet, sleepless nights of neighbouring snoring, suspect mattresses, and the trials of bugs and living in close proximity with other people is the prospect of spending the daylight hours walking alongside ripening grapes, over old stone bridges, past churches and crosses or by the side of empty wheat fields. But on the leg ahead there appeared to be no promise of anything other than tarmac, concrete, noise and danger.

We left the albergue before 7am, paid our 2.75 to the bus driver and sat in luxurious comfort in the early morning darkness for thirty short minutes, watching huge yellow Camino signs flash by, warning motorists to be aware of walkers. Any tingling of guilt that I should be out there plodding along to the accompaniment of speeding machines quickly dissipated. The journey was over too soon and it was still dark when we jumped down and unloaded our packs from the deep recesses of the bus then set off, making our way through the streets and out of town.

There were some bonny stretches today, but the last couple of kilometres before Pontevedra were along the edge of the  busy road into the city so I decided to take the alternative river walk recommended in the guidebook. This woodland route was longer, but I’d walked only 18km and it was still early in the day. I could see that everyone ahead of me stayed on the main road, but just as I turned left onto the quieter route I met Sheila and Dan, two Americans from Oregon, and a limping German girl who had also decided to follow the track.

It was still in the woods; shady and quiet among the trees. We chatted for a while but I walked faster than the others so eventually I left them far behind and walked on, happy to wander alone along the meandering path. There wouldn’t be much peace in the big dormitory which lay ahead.

A man suddenly appeared, running awkwardly towards me and straight past. I noticed he was wearing ordinary clothes and shoes rather than running gear. I walked on. Then a few minutes later he reappeared behind me, overtook me and jogged back into the woods in the direction I was headed. Maybe I have an overactive imagination. Maybe I’ve read too many accounts of lone women having bad experiences on the camino, but I had a sense that something wasn’t right. There was no one else around and I wasn’t happy about walking on.  I stopped in a clearing and waited a while then began walking back to find the others. The woods were quiet and I wondered if they’d changed their minds and returned to the shorter route but eventually they appeared, the German girl limping worse than ever. They hadn’t seen the “runner” at all.

We walked on together at a snail’s pace, all the way to the hostel. The man may have been entirely innocent but the experience unnerved me. Maybe the noisy edges of motorways are safer after all.

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Bugs-bed! Bugs-bed!

IMG_4038It’s an alarm that doesn’t sound good in any language or accent. And at 1.30am, when Tom the Finn found he was being bitten, he didn’t hesitate to share his horror. He issued the chilling warning, shook his sleeping bag and flashed his torch beam around the room while he inspected every bed for a bug-free place to lay his head. The snorers slept through the drama, of course, but everyone else immediately imagined an infestation that might or might not be real. And that was an end to rest for another night.

So we were a weary-looking bunch as we set off down the road from Rubiães in the morning. It was the first rainy day in a week and some people left protected in full waterproofs, but the rain was warm and gentle and I walked happily in shorts the 20km to Valença, the last city in Portugal. The arrows directed us through the narrow cobbled streets and up into the fortress which dominates the town then finally out through dark, mysterious passages and back into the light. A metaphor for the camino, perhaps? We crossed the Rio Minho on the edge of the high, long rail-road bridge, And entered Spain.

Rattling the doors of the tourist Information centre proved pointless. It was frustrating because our watches told us it should be open and we needed … information! Eventually we gave up and we wandered off to find our own way around town, all the while muttering about extended siestas. Only when we were sitting in a bar with tapas and vino tinto did we remember the time change between the countries, and by then we were comfortably settled in an albergue with  sheets and duvets – and I had a top bunk against a wall. Perfecto. The Quebecois girls turned up late after moving hostels when they discovered the Portuguese Snorer was in their room. Word was getting around. I wonder if he’ll realise there’s a problem when he has a whole dorm to himself by the end of his camino?

It feels good to be back in Spain though. We’re now half way to Santiago.

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Reaching the high (and low) point

Camino Portuguese Day 4

The map indicated a mountain of Himalayan proportions; a near vertical climb to the top of the Alto da Portela Grande. It was a route grandly described as a “high pass over the mountain ridge”.

And then I looked carefully at the contour lines and realised the summit was only 405m high, which in Scotland barely counts as a hill at all. However a heavy pack meant the rutted track through the trees was heart-thumpingly steep, and the Spanish cyclists who’d whizzed past me 30 minutes earlier shouting a cheery “Buen Camino” had to lift their bikes and manoeuvre them shoulder-high over the rocks. Their noisy machismo and bravado had long since evaporated by the time I’d caught up.

I took a deep breath, changed gear and left them in my wake, pausing for just a few seconds at the stone Cruz dos Francese in the woods near the top. The final push at last brought views into the Coura river valley far below.

But there was no time to linger. More bites on my face this morning meant I needed to reach laundry facilities where I could boil bedding and clothes then roast any lingering bugs in a tumble drier. It took some imaginative miming to explain to the Portuguese manager of the next albergue that I would only stay if he had the necessary machines. We went on a tour and found the essential white appliances then (since i was the first person at the hostel) I stood right there, removed my clothes and emptied them and the contents of my pack into the contraption and turned the dial to maximum. I scurried away in a towel to the shower to wait until they’d done their work.

And so to the bliss and peace of a clean bed.  I’d chosen a quiet corner away from the known snorers but when I returned to the dorm at 9.30pm I discovered the neighbouring bunk was now occupied by the notorious Portuguese Snorer, a man many people have changed hostels to avoid. True to form his bed was already vibrating to deep guttural roars.

I rammed earplugs deep into my head and pulled the pristine bedding over my face. The promise of peace was destroyed. This was going to be another long night .
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