Tuesday, June 14, 2016

ENGLAND & WALES


I flew to Manchester, England on May 26th and going through Passport Control proved to be quite interesting. I thought it would take a minute or two at most, I mean I've done this dozens of times, but I somehow found myself standing in front of a very unhappy and surly young man. He looked at the form I handed him with my passport - name, age, home country, occupation, where and how long I'd be in the U.K. - and he started grilling me. His first question knocked me out and I started laughing. Not a good response to, "How can you travel like this if you're just a baker?" I thought he was kidding. His next question was delivered through gritted teeth, "What. Is. So. Funny?" Which made me laugh more. Oh my. I tried to keep it light while answering all his inquiries, but he was not happy. I didn't have definite plans and he wanted definite plans. At one point he told me that if I spent more than two months in the U.K., immigration WOULD find me and then something about knocking down a door and dragging me out...by this time I was more interested in the look on the face of the passport control guy sitting in the next booth watching the interaction with his mouth open. When he stamped my passport, I grabbed it quickly and hurried away. I laughed all the way to the parking lot. An older gentleman I passed addressed me, "Well, aren't you jolly!" 
My friend Brian met me outside and off we went through the outskirts of Manchester to Sale, a suburb southwest of the city. His house is in an older neighborhood with big trees and within walking distance to everything you'd need. We walked the canal that afternoon to downtown Sale then headed back where Brian made dinner and then I turned in early. I was in Sale for five days and everyday we walked. We'd drive out into the countryside and take off on trails that Brian was familiar with having lived here most all his life. The plants, trees and flowers were magnificent and we walked through more fields of sheep than I've seen in my lifetime. Many herds were held in their pastures by hawthorn hedgerows, such a natural and efficient way to pen small livestock. We climbed countless stiles to cross fences, went through "kissing gates" instead of opening full sized gates and traversed a countryside so ancient and storied, I could feel it to my bones. We ate fish and chips and I was introduced to Mushy Peas (yes, they're really called that), the traditional accompaniment to the meal. I met Brian's sister and we went to a neighboring town to see a working steam engine and to have coffee. Brian had a slumber party one night and all five of us enjoyed terrific Chinese take out in the back garden and then huddled around the outdoor fireplace drinking wine until the cold forced us inside. Being the lightweight I am, I was the first one to retire. The next morning a big breakfast was served in the garden again and then another walk through the countryside to a pub for a drink before walking back to the car. I became fond of a drink called a Shandy - beer and lemonade. My last full day there was what the English call a "bank holiday" and what we call Memorial Day. We drove to a huge lake and walked to a small cafe on the far side to meet friends of Brian's he'd known since he was a teenager, Mo and Fred. It was a great visit and Brian was a wonderful host. More than anything, I enjoyed the countryside - impossibly narrow lanes and small villages with funny names like Pott Shrigley. Northwestern England is the most whimsically poetic place I've ever been! Brian had suggested I visit Chester, on the border with Wales and so I took a train to this historic walled city and checked into a private room in a hostel for three nights close to the old part of town. I like the option of a non dorm room in a hostel as you have your privacy, but still have the use of a kitchen and get to meet other guests. Chester was lovely and quiet and a great place to decide my next move. I made reservations in Llandudno, on the northwest coast of Wales and within an hour received a message from Bev, the English woman I'd met in Evora, Portugal with a request to get together. She had friends in Cotswold, England where we could meet for the weekend. I changed my reservation and the next day hopped on a train to Banbury, where I met Bev at the train station as she had just arrived from Oxford. We spent a wonderful weekend at the beautuful home of Mandy and Keith in Hook Norton. Our first afternoon, Bev and I walked to the brewery in Hook Norton, took the hour tour, tasted many glasses of their wares, walked back to the house and promptly fell asleep on the grass in the backyard! That night Mandy made a tasty baked chicken with vegetables and a big salad, but the magic of that meal for me was dessert. Their backyard garden held the largest rhubarb plant I've ever seen and Mandy had made a rhubarb crumble, with a simple shortbread crumb topping and lightly sweetened fruit (rhubarb is actually a vegetable), it was the best dessert I'd eaten in a long time. The next day Mandy and Keith had a family commitment in Oxford, so they dropped us in Woodstock to play tourist. We walked the back way into Blenheim Park where, as we walked the grounds, we watched Lycra clad runners passing us. We figured, incorrectly it was a marathon. We soon found out the park was the site of a Triathlon that weekend! Blenheim Park is home to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace and ancestral home of Winston Churchill and one of the largest homes in England. We walked through the park being guided by docents through areas of the triathlon and then into the village of Woodstock where we ate lunch and window shopped, ending up in a great bookstore. We took a bus to Chipping Norton and wandered until Mandy and Keith picked us up for the ride home. The next day was a small birthday lunch for Mandy's sister and we had a feast in the garden before I coerced a guest to give me a ride to the train station to catch my late afternoon train back to Chester. What a restful weekend it had been! Great music and food and new friends! Back in Chester for one night then the next morning to the train station for the hour long train ride along the coast to Llandudno, Wales. My hostel in Llandudno was a block from the train station but I walked all over town looking for it. It was a pleasant walk though I was glad when I found the hostel and could unload my backpack. The hostel was an elegant old house with thick carpets, chandeliers and fancy cotton sheets. Not the usual hostel! I spent three nights there and my days were consumed with walking through town, sitting on the beach and hiking the Great Orme. When I started hiking up the massive peninsula of limestone that is the Great Orme it was clear and sunny and the cable car that creaked overhead was full of chattering and waving passengers. At one point, halfway up the mountain, I stopped on a bench to watch the sheep grazing nearby. I was a bit worried when I watched thick white smoke pour over the mountain into the valley below me. As it passed me I felt a chill and realized it was fog, not smoke, and within minutes the valley was completely obscured as were the cable cars above. I could still hear the creaking of the cars moving but could barely make out where they were.
I finished my hike to the top all the while in a thick, damp fog. At the summit, the promised views were shrouded in a white blanket. I took a different route down the mountain and it was magical to be walking that mountain as in a mist from another time. When I got back to town everyone was talking about the fog that had descended - I sat on a bench by the old church and watched the fog continue to roll through town. Apparently it was an anomaly and I was pleased I got to experience it, especially while on the Great Orme. 
From Llandudno, I took a train to Holyhead on the island of Anglesey where I caught a three hour ferry to Dublin. Once at the Dublin port, I boarded a bus to Ha'penny Bridge just a block from my hostel. No passport control, no security, just off the ferry and onto the bus. This surprised me as Ireland is not in the U.K. (Northern Ireland is part of the U.K.), but it is part of the European Union. My hostel in Dublin was a beehive, a young and active hostel. Not my favorite kind, but my small three bunk room was comfortable with two nice roommates. They moved me the next night to an eight bed room, and after a day walking around Dublin (which included a visit to the Guinness Brewery and getting caught in a big rainstorm), I was grateful to find no one else in the room. I was able to dry my clothes and catch up on mail and the news. As I was just about ready to go to bed, a young woman walked in. We started talking and I could tell she was American. She was from San Antonio on a month long work study trip from UTSA. She was heading to London the next day, but had stopped in Dublin because she'd never been. We marvelled at the serendipity of our meeting. My train the next morning to Wexford on the southeastern coast of Ireland was a slow, sleepy ride. I was looking forward to quiet before a whirlwind two weeks with my friend Kathleen coming over from Texas. I'd booked a B&B in Wexford and it was more upscale than I'd been used to. The hostess, Grainne, (pronounced Gron-ya) reminded me so much of a younger Mrs. Doubtfire, from the Robin Williams movie of the same name. Her full Irish breakfasts are legendary and I've never had so much food for breakfast - and on fine China and silver coffee service, too! I could live on her breakfast porridge with cream and I miss that more than anything. My first night in Wexford, Kathleen texted me that she had ended up in the hospital and was having to cancel her trip. I was sad and concerned. We've kept in touch and she seems much better, but I miss her presence all the same. With two weeks to fill, I turned to the WWOOFing (WWOOF=World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) site and after one night in Dublin, I'll head west to WWOOF for a week or two on the tiny island of Inishturk. Three miles long and one mile wide with a population of about fifty people, I'll be helping out on a small sheep farm. I'm looking forward to the one on one with the owner, Mary. After my time there, I may head back to the mainland to help with an organic garden behind a seafood restaurant on the coast or gardens at a holistic retreat center near the Cliffs of Moher. The WWOOFing opportunities are many and I'll be working my last two months in Ireland. I'm heading back to the States in mid August, but will be on the East Coast for a number of weeks before I head to Texas. Knowing I am so close to the end of this trip is bittersweet. I miss my family terribly, but yet it's hard to imagine being settled back at home. I'm enjoying being a nomad with all its uncertainty, it will be strange to have routine again! Yet it's one of the things I miss the most - hanging clothes on the clothesline, taking a walk with my dog, time with my grandkids. The little routine things I hope I never take for granted again. But for now there's a train to catch and an island to discover and more adventures awaiting. I'll leave you with this quote: "We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us." ~Anonymous

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

PORTUGAL MAINLAND & TERCEIRA

After the Camino, I must admit to feeling a bit lost. For almost three weeks I had a mission every day - WALK. And now I was back on vacation. I do much better with a mission (I've always known that) and, having almost three weeks before boarding a flight to the Azores island of Terceira, I had to find a way to fill my days. I started reading up on Portugal and settled on a plan of visiting small historic towns before spending one night in Lisbon where I'd catch a plane. I left Finisterre, Spain on a bus and ended up in Braga, Portugal where, when I checked into my "room" for a two night stay, discovered it was a spacious and stylishly furnished two bedroom apartment. It rained the entire bus ride to Braga, but stopped long enough for me to walk to the apartment, check in and make a run to the grocery store. I had the big bedroom with the spa bathroom accessible only through my room. Two French woman had secured the other bedroom with two twin beds and a bathroom in the hallway for one night. They were friendly and quiet and mostly not there. A perfect arrangement. It rained most of my visit and I used the time not to see the sights, but to lock in and write. Isabel, the owner of the apartment, lived with her college aged daughter across the hall. She taught in a preschool during the day and studied Chinese medicine in the evenings. She also sang in a traditional Portuguese folk music and dance troupe that performs around the country and my second night she invited me to join her for a rehearsal. It was spectacular with music played on traditional instruments accompanied by lively, intricate dances. For three hours, I tapped my feet and smiled so broadly my cheeks hurt! I was given a lesson on how to use the castanets (much more difficult than it looks) and a CD of their music. I left Braga the next morning by bus for Porto where I'd left a small box of possessions before my Camino. This trip to Porto was so different from my first visit when I had been there recuperating from shin splints. Pain free, I visited the farmers market, walked the bridge across the Rio Douro and wandered the streets of the old section of town. I tried to claim a spot on a tour of the Sandeman Port Winery, but they were booked solid. Although Porto is the second largest city in Portugal after Lisbon, it has the feel of a much smaller town with lots of cobblestone streets, small cafes and quaint hotels. Its historical core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A lovely and affordable place to visit. 
On the banks of the Rio Douro in Porto
Next stop, Tomar. Considered one of Portugal's historical jewels, it was founded by the Knights Templar and the Convento de Cristo monastery and the Castle sit on a hill overlooking the town. The grounds surrounding the castle are a maze of paths through tall trees and beautiful plantings. At breakfast the first morning, I joined a few folks who were walking the Camino (Tomar is on the Camino route from Lisbon) and also Red, a man on vacation from Oregon. As we traded stories, I mentioned I was considering catching a bus to Fatima, a religious shrine about 40 minutes west of Tomar. Red told me he also was wanting to visit Fatima and he had a car so a plan was made to meet after breakfast. A pleasant ride brought us to a very built up Sanctuary with a massive blacktop plaza capable of holding over 60,000 people. We observed some people doing penance by traversing the plaza on their knees. At the entrance to the sanctuary is a 5,732 pound chunk of the Berlin wall behind glass. There were quite a few people there in preparation for the huge celebration on May 13th, when the plaza would be filled to capacity (I watched the proceedings on TV in the train station cafe on my way out of Tomar). On the 13th of every month from May to October in 1917, it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children on this site. So those days draw heavy crowds of the devoted. We walked back through town, past tourist shops full of religious icons, ate lunch in a small cafe and headed out to Santarém, a town on the Tagus River. We wandered through town for hours, walked the gardens on the grounds of an ancient Moorish citadel and got caught in a wicked thunderstorm. The architecture is an amazing mix of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque! Back at the hotel hours later, it was obvious the storms had hit Tomar also as the Nabão River, which cuts through the town was swollen, muddy and running fast. The next morning I walked the Castle hiking trails and while on a very overgrown, mostly unused trail that intersected with a paved trail I came across a young couple with backpacks who I assumed were Camino walkers. I said, "Bom dia!" (Good day in Portuguese) and they nodded their heads at me. I next asked, "Are y'all doin' the Camino?" (Don't know why I turned Texan all of a sudden). They looked at me oddly and replied in broken English, "We don't speak Portuguese!" That afternoon Red and I paid a visit to the Matchbox Museum. I was thinking Matchbox cars and was less than enthusiastic, but no, this was the world's largest collection of actual boxes of matches. Six rooms full. Really. Some dating from the late 1800's and categorized by country. It was more interesting than it sounds. Not the highlight of my Tomar visit, but it held a strange sort of fascination. The next day I was back at the train station to catch a train to Evora, a town I'd been wanting to visit for months. The train took me to Lisbon where I'd catch another train to Evora. I had a two hour wait, so I went to a cafe I'd been to more than a month earlier when I was in town to start my first attempt at the Camino. My phone connected to their Wi-Fi immediately, having stored the passwords weeks before. I really appreciate this feature! I caught up on mail and news while I nursed a coffee and then walked to the platform to catch my train. My ticket listed the car number and seat number so I walked to car 22 and tried the door, but it was locked. It was fifteen minutes till the train left, so I sat on a bench on the platform to wait. Soon the platform filled with people but the doors remained locked, which seemed odd. At 5:02, which was the time the train was scheduled to leave, the front three cars of the train headed down the track. I walked up to a couple sitting on a bench and pointed to the train locked up tight in front of us. "Evora?" I asked. They pointed to the train disappearing down the tracks. Damn. I walked to the ticket booth and they gave me a ticket for the next train, two hours later. I felt only marginally less an idiot when I noticed a few other people who'd been on the platform with me, getting new tickets too. I caught the next train without incident and pulled into Evora around 8:15. It was still light, but not for long. I followed an elderly lady out of the train station and watched as her husband walked up, grabbed her bag and gave her a big kiss. I took the opportunity to stop them and ask the direction to the old part of town. "You walk?" She asked me. "Yes." I replied, "No problem!" But they wouldn't hear of it and grabbed my bag, opened the back door of their car and motioned me in. They drove me into town and then walked me to the door of my hotel - about 2 blocks! This is the sort of kindness I experienced throughout Portugal. Amazing people! The man at the front desk showed me to my room and my heart fell. It was a dingy closet with a twin bed and a sink. The bathroom was a half mile down the hall (not really, but it seemed that far when I got up in the middle of the night to use it...). It was late, so I just crawled into bed and went to sleep. The next morning I availed myself of the free breakfast and left to see Evora. A visit to the Chapel of Bones was first on my list. A small chapel attached to the Church of St. Francis, the interior is covered with skulls and bones dug up from the town in the 16th century. The Franciscan monk who built it intended it to create contemplation on the transitory nature of life. Indeed, a motto carved in marble above the door says, "We bones that are here, for yours await." Pleasant. The chapel itself is lovely - clean and hushed. I expected grisly and got reverence. 
As I walked out of the chapel, it began to sprinkle, so I walked towards my hotel. By the time I reached it, the rain had picked up. I grabbed my key at the front desk and walked to my room which, with dark skies dumping rain outside, seemed even gloomier than the night before. I decided I couldn't do it...I couldn't have this room be my base for the next three days. It was 11:30 and checkout was by noon. I packed my backpack and headed to the front desk, my stomach doing flips with every step. I had never checked out of a hotel because I didn't like it before. I approached the desk clerk, the same one I'd joked with the night before and put my key on the counter. "I'd like to check out. My room just isn't what I expected." He didn't say a word, just sat there and looked at me. "I'm sorry." I added. I hadn't paid my bill yet and the hotel only took cash so, as he changed the booking and printed my bill, I went online and booked a new room I'd scoped out that morning. And just like that, I was out of there. I walked in the rain to the new hotel and sat downstairs waiting for reception on the third floor to open. The new room was just that, new. They had only been open a month or two and it was spacious and clean and furnished with painted furniture typical of the region. Once again a room without a bathroom, but it was directly across the hall and even had a bathtub. What's more, I was the only one staying there! When the proprietor left at seven in the evening, I had the whole place to myself. The next morning I walked to the train station to buy my ticket to Lisbon and realized I could've walked to town my first night as it took me less than 20 minutes. But I got to experience the kindness of strangers. I then walked back to the old part of town, within the ramparts (Evora is a walled city) and walked around the wall observing the difference within - cobblestone streets, traditional building techniques, huge trees - and without - modern hotels, traffic going through roundabouts, billboards. I sat on a bench carved into the ancient rock wall at the edge of a garden. I watched a lady walking towards me and I estimated her to be about my age, a tourist like me and maybe German. Beverly turned out to be English, not German but I hit the mark on all the rest. We sat and talked for two hours and when the rain started, we ducked into one of the tiny stone guard houses that were at every turn on the rampart. We walked to a cafe for soup and sat for 90 minutes more. We agreed to meet for lunch the next day. Bev had been traveling solo for about 10 weeks, mostly in Africa, (Gambia and Senegal) doing charity work and was heading to the Algarve in southern Portugal for a week at the beach, then to attend a wedding. We were leaving Evora the same day, on the same train. The next day as we ate lunch she bemoaned the need to dress up for the wedding festivities. Traveling in Africa, she'd not needed fancy clothes. Like me, she saw dressing up as a chore. Throughout Spain and Portugal, I'd been taken a few times to what are called Chinese Stores. Kind of like a dollar store on steroids. Some are small with just clothes and jewelry, but some are like super Walmarts crammed into 2000 square feet. On a trip to the grocery store that morning, I'd passed three of them. So off we went to find Bev a dress. We had a fun and successful afternoon and made plans to meet on the train the next morning. I arrived at the train station early and had a coffee in the cafe before boarding the train as soon as they opened the doors. I stood in the doorway of the train watching taxis drop off passengers, but never saw Bev and I started to worry. It was almost 9:00 and the train would be pulling out at 9:06. I finally went to my seat and Bev came walking down the aisle. She had been waiting for me inside the train station with the same concerns I'd had for her. We made plans to reconnect in England as she arrives home a few days after I get there. I had one night in Lisbon before I caught my flight to the Azores. I'd booked a room at the same place I'd stayed when I was starting the Camino and it was nice to be back. A comfortable five bedroom, two bathroom flat in a great part of town, the owner a dynamic woman named Maria Theresa. Maria's 19 year old son, Francisco, would be picking me up in front of the apartment at 5:00 the next morning to drive me to the airport. There was a futbol match that evening and afterwards celebrations exploded around town. Singing, horns honking, explosions that sounded like cannons...hours of raucous partying. At 2 a.m., after just getting to sleep, a series of messages came in on WhatsApp. Francisco had a fever and had yet to go to sleep. He would be unable to drive me to the airport, but had arranged for a taxi to be waiting downstairs at 5. I messaged him back, thanking him for arranging it and wishing him a speedy recovery. I do hope he got better, but I've heard futbol fever is pretty easy to sleep off. 
I caught my first flight to Ponte Delgado on the island of São Miguel, the largest and most populated of the nine islands in the Azores. After a 20 minute wait, I boarded a prop plane to Terceira, my final destination and my home for a week. A taxi took me to the Sawmill hotel in the parish of Aqualva, about a 15 minutes ride. The island of Terceira is the third largest of the nine islands and the land that time forgot. Less than 20 miles long and 12 miles wide, it is mainly an agricultural, livestock and dairy economy. Oh, and did I mention Paradise? This time of year the island is in bloom with hydrangeas, giant purple alliums, geraniums and wild nasturtiums growing everywhere. I checked into the Sawmill complex which rents individual bedrooms in one building with a shared bathroom and a large living room and kitchen or individual apartments in a low slung building across the driveway. I rented the smallest apartment with a small kitchen, a bathroom and a large bedroom. But I spent lots of time in the big kitchen across the driveway. It became a meeting place and lots of plans were hatched there along with some pretty good meals cooked in the well equipped kitchen. Sergio, the owner, is from Lisbon and met his wife in college. She grew up on the island and they now have a sweet 6 year old son. The day I arrived I walked into town, a 10 minute walk, and visited the one small grocery store to pick up supplies for a few days. There are no restaurants in Aqualva and with the big kitchen, I had no need for one. I then took off on a walk through a neighboring parish to find the ocean. The roads were narrow and many without sidewalks, so when I saw a side road heading toward the ocean, I took it. Just a few hundred feet in, the pavement ended and I was walking a dirt road between waist high volcanic basalt rock walls. The island is crisscrossed with these stacked rock walls, used to delineate tilled plots for crops or paddocks for animals. Fencing is almost non existent.
Rock walls as far as the eye can see
Some of the paddocks had cows, but most were simply plots of lush grass. I could see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance, but I never reached it, my forward progress ultimately blocked by, you guessed it - rock walls. I headed back to my apartment and made myself a light dinner. I met a few women staying there, Hannah, a German woman who was heading back to Düsseldorf the next day and Mia, a young college student from Helsinki. They had gone whale watching that day on the south side of the island and recommended the experience. Sergio could make the arrangements. The next morning Sergio delivered Hannah to the airport and returned with a new guest, Nancy who hailed from St. Augustine, Florida but arrived in Terceira from England. Her husband was in a boat race from England to Terceira and she would be at Sawmill until he arrived in 3-4 weeks. We became fast friends and, on her first full day at Sawmill, we decided to take one of the many hikes on the island. Her map said "4 km. Easy hike." A 2.5 mile hike? No problem! We headed out mid morning and figured we'd pick up bottles of water in town. Since the hike was so short, we decided to walk a big loop around the outskirts of the village of Aqualva to reach the trailhead. As soon as we left the village proper, the road headed uphill with, once again, stacked rock walls on either side of the road extending up and over the mountain. It was a couple miles of pleasant walking to reach the trailhead and we completely forgot to pick up drinking water.
When we reached the start of the trail we could see the ocean ahead of us down a long dirt road. I was determined to put my feet in the water at some point that day! We walked and talked and soon the trail started heading down into the woods. I had pictured the trail remaining a nicely tended trail, but we started clamoring down and over boulders and steep narrows that we had to walk down with our feet sideways to keep from sliding. It was actually kind of thrilling to be physically challenged again since I hadn't done any strenuous hiking since the Camino. The land flattened and we came upon a tiny rock house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by small plots of plants I later discovered to be taro. And just beyond, the rocky shore of the ocean.
I climbed over the rocks and stood at the waters edge. A wave soaked my shoes, socks and the bottom of my jeans. The water was surprisingly tepid, I'd expected it to be cold. I walked back to Nancy and we headed back out to find where the trail would lead us next. It took us a few minutes to realize we would be walking over the cliff we'd walked beside to reach the ocean. Crude steps had been dug out of the mountainside and we followed them up and over the mountain.
The view from the top was magnificent and we stopped frequently to take pictures. Some of the paths were piles of jagged rocks and others were sections of paved roads, but everywhere the views were of the craggy Terceira coastline.
We'd been hiking a few hours by this time and we were feeling the lack of water. Nancy had some almonds with her, but I thought they'd make me thirstier so I ate some wild nasturtiums growing on the side of the trail. We came to a marker by the side of the path that showed we were close to the end. A half mile more and we were sitting by the side of the road sharing a chocolate bar Nancy had found in her pack and waiting for the bus to take us back to Aqualva. 
The next morning at 8:00 the van showed up for the 30 minute ride to Angra for whale watching. Nancy hitched a ride with us although she wasn't joining me because, as she put it, "When my husband gets here and we're sailing between the islands, we'll probably see lots of whales!" So she took off to run errands while I boarded a small rubber dinghy with seven other folks and two crew. We motored about four miles out into the Atlantic Ocean and let the motor idle quietly. They have strict rules about whale watching...no closer than fifty meters, no approaching from the front of the whales and no more than thirty minutes in one spot. Almost immediately, we saw a small blow of water in the waves ahead of us followed by a blackish gray mass that kind of rolled over the top of the waves. A whale! A fin whale to be exact, the second biggest animal on the planet. 
It was pretty magnificent and it swam a bit closer before it disappeared. A few other smaller fin whales swam around the boat before we moved on to another spot. On shore, a spotter was on one of the highest cliffs on the waterfront and would radio coordinates to our boat. We motored around for over two hours, stopping to watch the whales swim and spout before heading closer to shore to see dolphins. They swam right up to the boat, some jumping out of the water completely and others swimming under the boat.
A dolphin under the water off the side of the boat
They were playful and energetic and it was a nice way to end the excursion. Back on shore, Nancy and I took off for a restaurant she had seen while running errands. Off the tourist route, it was obviously a spot for locals. We were hoping to have a traditional dish called Alcatra - Portuguese pot roast - and this was the place. For 5€ each we had delicious Alcatra with boiled potatoes, bread, a half liter of local red wine and coffee. After lunch we ran a few more errands, walked through the spectacular gardens and did some grocery shopping before catching the bus back to Sawmill. The next day poured most all day and I stayed in reading and writing and catching up on laundry. We were renting a car the next day to tour the whole island, eat seafood and see a Tourada de Ropa. Sergio arranged our rental car and did the research on the best Tourada de Ropa on the island that night. A "sport" that takes place in Terceira only May through October, it is particular to the Azores, most specifically the island of Terceira. After securing our car, we drove to a waterfront seafood restaurant, Beira Mar, in Sao Mateus and made a reservation for lunch. We then drove to the west side of the island (Aqualva parish being in the northeast) and I was amazed by how different the geography was. Extensive plantations of Cryptomeria Japonica covered the hills and roadsides and the huge hydrangea shrubs were just starting to bloom. It was lush and green with tiny villages dotting the landscape. We made our way to Biscoitos, a village on the north coast marked by coves surrounded by black lava. Platforms have been built with sunbathing areas and stairs down into the natural pools of seawater.
Despite being barely 70 degrees, there were quite a few sunbathers out and even a few people in the water! I could've stayed all day, but lunch called so we headed back to Sao Mateus. When we arrived at Beira Mar, every table was full except one - ours! We started with local bread, cheese and wine; then our entrees of wreckfish and octopus. The wreckfish (so called because the massive fish weighing upwards of 200 lbs frequent deepwater caves and shipwrecks) was a huge slab of broiled fish almost an inch thick. The octopus was the best I've ever eaten (and I tend to eat it frequently here), the huge tentacles being so tender you could cut them with a fork. The meals came with salad and vegetables, which we hadn't seen much. We were stuffed as we headed into Angra to do some grocery shopping. Finally we headed to Praia da Vitória to catch the evenings entertainment of Tourada de Ropa or Bull on a Rope. Two blocks were marked off with chalk and all the ground floor doors and windows partially barricaded with plywood. 
The streets were full of participants and onlookers both, the latter (like us) looking for someplace safe to watch the proceedings. We asked a few people the protocol for securing a spot and were told to just keep asking. As we walked past a low balcony with a few people standing there, Nancy asked if we could join them and they told us to come on up. Yes!
Our perch to watch the bull
I had watched a few Tourada de Ropa videos online and had seen the bulls actually leap into the stands. I felt fairly confident this balcony offered safety as well as a good view. A cannon shot marked the beginning and the crowds surged to the spot where the bull was let loose, two blocks away. "Loose" is not really accurate as the bull was secured by a heavy rope held by four to six men (pastores) dressed in white shirts, grey pants and black hats, although a few times I saw them drop the rope allowing the bull to roam freely for a minute. Sometimes, when the bull came after them, the pastores would jump inside a barricade for protection. The crowds behind the barricades would wave their jackets at the bull as he passed and sometimes he would ram the door to try to reach them. Participants on the road would whirl red umbrellas at the bull, encouraging him to charge, then run like hell when he did. Sometimes, from my spot on the balcony, I couldn't see the bull but knew he was coming when the throng began running our way. At one point, with the bull probably twenty feet away, a few teenaged boys parked themselves on the road under our balcony taunting the bull. When he headed our way, the boys climbed the wall to safety.
Nancy took this photo and I thought the composition was great!
The bull's horns are capped to diminish the risk if he does make contact with someone. We stayed for two of the four bulls before we headed back to Sawmill. The next day was Sunday and a big celebration was held in town. 
We encountered this man on our walk to church.
It started at 10:30 mass at the church in Aqualva, which we attended although we were terribly underdressed. Every man there, young and old alike wore a suit and the women were dressed to the nines complete with heels and hose. We stood in the back as every seat was full and we saw a few folks check us out. When it came time to shake hands, many came to shake ours. It was sweet although we didn't understand a word of the sermon. Afterwards, everyone assembled on the street outside the church as the philharmonic played and a procession of parishioners wearing elaborate crowns paraded by. Men bearing huge baskets of bread began walking through the crowd handing out loaves. When their baskets emptied, they replenished them until everyone had a loaf, Nancy and I included. 
We left soon after for the ten minute walk back to Sawmill and everyone we passed was carrying a loaf of bread. Every single one. It was good bread, too!
Black clouds rolled in and when Nancy knocked on my door a few hours later to invite me to join her for the afternoon celebration, I declined. I was writing and packing and rain was threatening. I'm so sorry I didn't go as Nancy reported it was a food feast with the townspeople making their specialties including some traditional Azorian dishes and spirits. 
The next morning I flew to Horta on the island of Faial, where I stayed for one night before catching a morning flight back to Lisbon. I was so sad to leave Terceira as it had stolen my heart. The simplicity of the island - even the cities were laid back - and its natural beauty is addicting. You can so easily become accustomed to the pace, being on "island time", that heading back to the mainland felt jarring. I actually perused the real estate ads to see what a tiny one bedroom, one bath house would go for (ridiculously cheap). It was the most affordable island vacation ever and I hope to visit again for much longer than a week!
So tomorrow morning I head to Great Britain and Ireland for a few months, being banished from the European Mainland for the remainder of my trip (don't ask...just google Schengen). I'll visit a few friends, hopefully make some new ones and see places I've never seen. So many times in the last few months I've had experiences that I think I can't possibly top, but then I surprise myself. So with an open mind (and a bit of a heavy heart), I'm leaving this part of my travels behind. It will be good to see friends and understand the language. Looking forward to some good hikes. I've been suffering from a bit of homesickness and am REALLY excited about two weeks in Ireland travelling around with my friend Kathleen from Texas. So onward and upward, adventure awaits!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

SANTIAGO & FINISTERRA

My last post finished in Ponte de Lima, a picturesque town on the Rio Lima. When I headed out the next morning, I found myself walking in the first clear day in almost a week. The daily rains had swelled the river tremendously though and, as I walked across the bridge and out of town, a waymark sent me down a back country road where my progress was stalled because a bourgeoning tributary had rendered the road impassable. 
I backtracked a bit to the main road and walked through a small village until I found an arrow again. I met a young woman named Francesca (from northeastern Italy, but living in England) that morning. She had not let the water over the back road stop her and had maneuvered her way through a vineyard to go around it. We walked together on and off most of that 11 mile day and what a day it was! In addition to navigating trails with ankle deep mud and others that had become small streams, we climbed more than a thousand feet up the steep Alto de Portela Grande. The path abandoned us on the mountain and we were left to scramble up boulders and washed out cuts through the eucalyptus forests. 
Francesca climbing ahead of me
It was an incredibly strenuous day and climbing down the mountain, though not nearly as steep, proved no easier because the massive amount of rain created slippery mud everywhere. 
One of the "paths" down the mountain. I was aiming for that small beige slice of road at the bottom!
It was slow going, but I felt triumphant that I'd conquered the highest point of the Portuguese Camino. After parting halfway up the mountain, Francesca and I met up again on the level last miles into Rubiaes. She walked on another mile while I stopped at a pension for the night. After a shower and a short rest, I got a ride to the nearest restaurant for dinner and was happy to see Francesca sitting at a table with two French men just finishing her dinner. She invited me to join them and we enjoyed a spirited conversation - at one point I made an offhand comment and the older Frenchman that was sitting beside me laughed uproariously and grabbed my face in his hands and planted a kiss on my lips! The restaurant was full of pilgrims and I saw a young blonde boy gathering everyone's credentials and bringing them to the counter to be stamped. I also watched an interesting looking older couple a few tables away not knowing how instrumental they would become in the remainder of my Camino. 
The next morning was clear again and, although much of the path was still extremely muddy and wet, it started out walking through vineyards and forest trails. On the outskirts of a small village I came across the blonde boy from the restaurant the evening before. He was accompanied by an older woman I thought might be his grandmother, but he called her Margaret. We walked together about a mile, navigating mud and creeks, and he kept up a stream of conversation as he jumped over puddles or clung to a fence line along the edge of the road to avoid the deepest mud. I never got his name, but discovered he was from Washington state and started the Camino in Porto like me. 
This was going to be the last day walking in Portugal as the next morning I would cross the bridge over the Rio Minho into Spain. My plan had been to stop at a private albergue halfway to Valença, but when I arrived there it was early and I still felt pretty good so I forged on. By the time I got to Valença, my shin hurt and I was beat. I'd walked two eleven mile days in a row and it had aggravated the shin splint. I decided to stay at the municipal albergue in Valença and as I waited outside for it to open, up walked the older couple from dinner the night before. We started talking and I found out Derek and Liz were from England and also walking from Porto. I liked their calm manner immediately. We signed into the albergue soon after and claimed our beds. After a shower, as I laid in my bed with my aching leg elevated, I heard an American woman speaking to someone. As she walked past my bed, I asked where she was from and she told me Virginia. After a brief conversation, Erica and I decided to head out for dinner together. The first couple places we tried weren't serving food yet (they eat so late in Europe!) and we finally stumbled into a small bar and convinced the owner to make us something. A lot of questions were bantered back and forth and it was decided Erica would have spaghetti and I'd have fish. Something got lost in the translation and we ended up with a platter of spaghetti with fish. It was not great, but filling. Erica had finished college a few months early and, while waiting to graduate, decided to do the Camino Portuguese. She had started in Lisbon and readily admitted she was completely unprepared. Her description of the first week or so made me cringe remembering how hard it was, yet she forged on. She told me how she thought of quitting just a few days in and how she cried herself to sleep in her sleeping bag on the floor of a fire station when she couldn't find someplace to stay. This young woman had grit and I was so inspired by her! She was now walking long stages every day (sometimes twenty miles or more!) and I lamented the fact I might never see her again. That night I was in such pain I thought I might have to stop for a few days again to give my shin time to heal. I texted Lily how bummed I was and she sent me an encouraging text back plus instructions on how to tape my leg. I'll admit that I cried that night so frustrated this wasn't going as smoothly as I planned. The next morning as I hobbled to the bathroom, I passed Liz and she asked where I was walking to that day. I told her I didn't think I could go far and was thinking of simply crossing over the bridge into Tui, Spain and staying there, but I felt guilty. She stopped and looked at me a long time before she spoke. "Guilty?" she asked. "There is nothing to feel guilty about. This is your Camino and you can walk it any way you choose. Everyone's pace is different. Everyone's path is different." Those words carried me all the way to Santiago and may just be my mantra of sorts for the rest of my days. As it turned out, they were only going the few miles into Tui also, maybe we would meet. I went out for coffee and then walked through the quiet cobblestone streets of the fortress in Valença instead of the busy city streets. I saw Liz and Derek at one point and we sat at a cafe and had coffee together. My leg was warming up and feeling a bit better, but I wasn't going to change my plans. We walked through the fortress to the bridge crossing the Rio Minho and crossed into Spain together. 
Quiet conviction is stronger than the loudest boast.
They were staying at the municipal albergue in the center of Tui and I had decided to try a private one a bit further on and we parted at the riverfront stairs to the Cathedral. As I walked on I got lost and walked almost two miles past my albergue into the next days stage. I backtracked until I found my albergue and what should have been a walk of about a mile and a half that day turned into five, but I felt better and had a large four bunk room to myself. The next morning when I awakened, I heard a man's voice say "Buenos dias!" and across the room I saw a young man sitting up in bed looking at his phone. I learned he was from Russia and had finished the Camino Francés (almost 500 miles!) about a week before. He dug his Compostela out of his backpack to prove it to me. He loved the walk so much he was now walking Tui to Santiago, a distance of just over 100 kilometers and the shortest walk you can do to be eligible for a Compostela. I've come to realize that this is not as uncommon or as unimaginable as it might seem. A young English man I met at the albergue in Valença, Nathan, walked the Camino Francés and then left Santiago to walk the Camino Portuguese BACKWARDS! He didn't know if he would stop once he reached Lisbon. 
The next days walk was over eleven miles before there was a place to stop for the night. I walked with a Korean woman most of the morning. She was 39 and wanting to accomplish this walk before her 40th birthday. A few miles in, my shin splints started demanding attention and I stopped numerous times. She reached in her backpack, took out a small packet and handed it to me. She told me her husband was a doctor and had supplied her with these for pain. I had no idea what it was but unwrapped it and stuck it on my leg. Not long after, she moved on ahead as she had only a few days to reach Santiago before she had to fly back to Korea. I never saw her again. That days walk took me twice as long as it should have because I had to stop so often. At one point I was sitting beside the road on a big chunk of granite and a group of women walked by. Two of them stopped to talk. They were from Australia and one was in her early 60's and the other had just turned 70. They were so cheerful and loving the walk. I felt better just talking with them. They moved on and soon I did too. When I reached the next town, instead of walking through city streets, I took a detour described in my guidebook that followed the river to the albergue. It was a cool shady dirt path beside the Rio Louro with lots of benches to stop and rest. The albergue was closed when I arrived (they seldom open before 2:00 and this one didn't open until 3:00), so I sat on the big deck overlooking the river. Soon Derek and Liz showed up and I was so glad to see them. I discovered there was a laundrymat right on the Camino going out of town so I decided I'd do all my laundry the next morning before I walked that day's short stage. As I sat in the laundrymat the next morning, I watched Derek and Liz walk by. I hoped we'd catch up down the road. It was drizzling that morning and after repacking my backpack with all clean clothes, I headed out to Mos, my stop for that day. Just a note here on laundrymats in Spain and Portugal - all the washers dispense detergent. You don't need to bring your own! Brilliant!
I walked in the drizzle all morning, the group of ladies with the two Australians passed me with hearty good mornings as we walked by a lumberyard. I reached my albergue at 11:00, but it was closed till 2:00. There was supposed to be a cafe across the street, but all I found was a dilapidated bar that looked abandoned. I walked the street beside the albergue and was enthralled by a beautiful garden behind a fence. There was something hanging on a small rope over the garden and I couldn't figure out what it was. I saw many of them hanging and upon closer inspection I realized they were rabbits. Whole unskinned rabbits, their innards removed and stuffed with straw. The rain started coming down harder and I walked to a covered bus stop nearby. A Canadian couple where there getting out of the rain also. I asked them if they'd seen the garden with the hanging rabbits and the man replied it was a way they cure the meat. I was skeptical, but he said they do it that way in France also. I've asked around and have found no one who corroborates his story. I found it really creepy. I walked back up to the albergue and stood under the awning reading my Camino book when I realized I was not at the albergue in Mos! I really wanted to reach Mos that day so I headed out and walked another few miles and the sun came out and it ended up being a beautiful day. Mos was a sweet small village with a fabulous cafe where I ate lunch and dinner with Derek and Liz and a German woman my age named Bridgette. Another short walk the next day (about 6 miles) and I reached Redondela and just over 50 miles left to reach Santiago. I saw Derek and Liz in town and also Bridgette who said she was walking on but would see us all later. I was going to stop halfway through the next stage as it was a 12 mile day, but when I got to the town of Arcade, about 4 miles in, I decided to walk on. I saw Derek and Liz at a cafe and sat with them for coffee. They were staying in Arcade for the night, meaning they would be a days walk behind me. We decided we'd see each other in Santiago in just under a week. Although I spent three days in Santiago and went to the square at the Cathedral every day looking for them, I never saw them again. The next stage was over 13 miles and I split it up by staying at a private albergue in the deep countryside with nothing else around it but a church. When I walked in I heard a "hello" from somewhere inside and followed the voice to the kitchen, where a man about my age sat in a wheelchair painting on a small canvas. He checked me in and showed me the facilities. If I wanted dinner, I was told, it'd be an additional 7€ on top of the 6€ for the bed. I agreed as there was nowhere to eat nearby. I showered, washed a few clothes in the washtub outside and hung them to dry. By this time a few more people had checked in and when I walked into the kitchen, saw that the man had begun prepping dinner. In halting Spanish (northern Spaniards - Galicians - speak a different dialect of Spanish) I offered to help and we soon had a big pan of seafood paella on the stovetop and a fresh salad waiting in the fridge. I discovered my host had been wheelchair bound since he was 14, yet had done the Camino twice - once the Camino Francés and once to Finisterre. Astounding! He'd been painting about 8 years and the albergue was filled with his paintings.
Dinner was wonderful that night. Before we ate, a prayer was read and sent on to the pilgrims who had stayed the night before, their names read off the previous nights check in sheet. It was nice to think the next night whoever sat at that table would bestow a blessing on all of us.
The next day was a long walk of over 10 miles but the walking had become easier and I was feeling better every day. My shin splint had all but disappeared and the only thing that hurt was my feet, which didn't surprise me. I was less than 35 miles away from Santiago! I stopped for the night at a small hotel which my Camino book said had rooms for 25€. When the proprietor filled out the check in form, he handed it to me to sign and said, "Fifty euros." I showed him the guidebook where it said 25€ as I handed him a 50€ bill. He just shook his head, went to the register and brought me back 35€ in change! It was 15€, not 50€! It was a great private room with a huge terrace and and I sat outside all afternoon doing a bit of yoga and reading. 
The next day was an 8 mile walk into Padron, which put me less than 16 miles from Santiago. I had reserved this hotel under Elin's recommendation and it was quiet and elegant and only 30€, which left me some money to eat tapas for dinner in the hotel restaurant, where I enjoyed pulpo (octopus) and seafood rice. I was excited as I left Padron the next morning. It was cold - upper 30's - but it would be an easy six mile walk. I checked into Glorioso hostel and it was, by far, the worst place I stayed the entire Camino. For 10€ I had a private room with the bathroom across the hall, but it lacked any sort of comfort or cheer. Since dinner was served so late, I decided to eat a huge lunch and go to bed early for the 10 mile walk to Santiago the next day. I went downstairs to the restaurant and looked at the menu. First an Ensalada Mixta, then a Tortilla. And how about an order of calamari? She looked at me like I'd lost my mind as I'd pretty much ordered three meals. The mixed salads had been great, I'd eaten them every chance I'd had. Piled with tuna, olives and lots of vegetables, it was the only veggies I'd seen on menus. The tortilla is a cross between a crustless potato quiche and a potato omelet and they're terrific. The calamari was tender and tasty. It was all cooked well and I ate every last bit. While I was eating, two women walked in and were speaking English to each other and Spanish to the proprietor. I asked them where they were from and I found out they were Androula from Canada, now living in Crete and Sharon from Canada. We talked for awhile and I joked that I was so glad it was my last day tomorrow because someone was sneaking rocks into my backpack every morning as it just got heavier and heavier! "Why not send it on to the next stop? Its only 5€!" What??? They set it all up and the next morning I put 5€ (about $5.75) in an envelope and attached it to my backpack with a tag stating the name of my hotel in Santiago. I have to admit it felt strange to be walking without my turtle shell, but my back really appreciated it. The almost ten mile walk into Santiago was filled with awe for me. I had done it! When I reached the outskirts of Santiago I came upon this way mark:
What wise guy thought THIS was a good idea?
I headed right through an older neighborhood instead of left into a part of town that had new high rise apartments and it was a good choice. When I got into Santiago proper, I got lost. This close and I lose my way! I had to pull up Google maps to head in the direction of the Cathedral and finally followed a bunch of people wearing backpacks until the square in front of the Cathedral opened up in front of me. And just like that, I was there. I sat on a stone bench and tried not to cry. I texted my sister Dawn in Connecticut and she in turn called my mom. I watched pilgrims arriving and tour groups being led around and just marveled at it all. I found my hotel and my backpack was waiting in my room. I took a long bath and texted friends and family. My grand daughter Natalie texted me, "Congrats Gramma! Now come home!" The next day I went to the square to watch for Liz and Derek. I went to the noon pilgrim mass and saw Herbert and Khiuk, a couple I met from Tucson. At the evening mass they swung the Botafumeiro, the massive incense burner. Pretty impressive. There's a point in the mass, which is all in Spanish, where you turn and shake hands with those around you. At the evening mass it was packed shoulder to shoulder (I never got there early enough to get a seat) and when I grasped the lady's hand in front of me she turned and it was Sharon from Canada. We hugged warmly. I went to the square for a few hours every day and watched reunions and celebrations of completion. My last day, I was sitting there lost in contemplation when someone called out, "Miss Texas!" It was one of the Australian ladies and we sat and reminisced for a bit. She told me she'd been to Finisterre and had seen Erica. Oh how I wish I could've said good bye to her! Just then, Erica walked around the corner and I could've cried! She filled me in on the rest of her walk and told me she was catching a plane to London that afternoon and then home to Virginia the next day. We went to lunch and reflected on what the Camino meant to us, how we felt it changed us and what was next. She was heading home to walk across the stage to receive her diploma and then move to D.C. for her new job. She was such an inspiration to me!
The next morning I took a bus to Finisterre and it was a perfect place to rest and think. Considered the end of the world during Roman times, Finis = End Terre = Earth, it is also considered the end of the Camino.
0.00 KM at the lighthouse
There were fabulous secluded beaches and bright, sunny days. 
I ate seafood and walked the back streets of this beautiful seaside village full of pilgrims. I was on a beach having a private moment of contemplation standing in the knee deep surf. When I turned and walked a few steps back to the sand, I found this. 
Would I do the Camino again? I'm already planning it. I'd like to do the Portuguese Coastal route or the Porto route again. I wrote in my journal: "How great/difficult/fun/painful/exciting/crazy/ joyous this has been!"
Physically, the Camino was the hardest thing I've ever done, but incredibly rewarding. I feel strong and proud of my 150 mile accomplishment. It has enriched me in so many ways and I have renewed faith in my personal fortitude. I am so grateful for all the magic of the Camino. I am so grateful for this life. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

CAMINO: TAKE TWO

I am on my second Camino having abandoned the Lisbon route after developing shin splints after two and a half days (and 30 miles). The Lisbon route was brutal with little support and a poorly marked route. After three hours of city walking, the arrows led me to a raised path beside the Rio Trancao, where I slogged through mud for over two hours and continually wondered if I'd missed a turn. I fell twice, the second time losing my glasses down the steep wet bank. I was grateful I had another pair tucked in my backpack. When I saw a village in the distance, I almost cried. However, upon entering the village I discovered there were no accommodations and had to walk on. I walked sixteen miles that day before I found a hotel-a four star one at that-and wasn't sure they'd give me a room with my wild eyed look and mud caked almost to my knees. But they gave me a good deal and threw in breakfast, too. And stamped my Pilgrim Passport! A very auspicious beginning to my Camino and my birthday to boot! The second day out of Lisbon was a significantly better trail, a boardwalk through a marsh and then a waterfront running trail and I logged ten miles that day before checking into a hostel. But the damage had been done the day before and I felt pain I'd never felt, specifically in my right hip and left shin. When I left the hostel the next morning, the kind morning manager Paolo, suggested I stay one more night. But being my stubborn self, I pressed on. After three miles I knew something wasn't right and I decided to take a train to Porto at the next train station I found. I had met no other walkers in my two and a half days aside from a German man at the cathedral in Lisbon who I walked beside for a few hours through Lisbon's city streets. Now, on a sandy path following the train tracks, I had to rest my leg and leaned up against a fence. Within minutes I heard voices and a couple about my age with backpacks and walking poles came down the road. They stopped to talk and, when I told them about my leg, diagnosed shin splints. "Maybe the most common Camino injury!" The man, Robert, told me to get off my feet as soon as possible and let it heal. When I mentioned my idea to take a train to Porto, rest up and start again, they concurred. When I lamented my poor start, Robert told me this was his seventh Camino and he'd never seen such poor conditions as the route outside Lisbon. He himself had fallen three times!
The train to Porto was a sad ride. I felt defeated and wimpy. Was my Camino over already? I found an inexpensive hotel in the center of Porto and booked three days. I went to a farmacia (pharmacy) and spoke with the pharmacist. His English was pretty good and he looked at my shin and pressed from just under my knee to my ankle. He said that I needed to elevate my leg frequently, apply ice and no long distance walks for three to five days. I hobbled back to my hotel with a tube of Reumon Gel in my pocket. I spent five days in Porto and every day my leg and my attitude improved. The Reumon Gel was a big help with my hip as well as my shin. I ventured out on increasingly longer walks every day. Finally making my way to the cathedral of Porto to get a new Pilgrim Passport. And on Monday, April 11th, I took off from Porto determined to walk short stages every day. The difference between the start in Lisbon and the start in Porto was stark. Porto is the much more common starting point and the support is phenomenal. The route is way marked so frequently, I can't imagine how one would get lost. 
Common Waymarks
The first day I logged a bit over six miles. I was glad to see the sign for Casa de Laura at 1:30 in the afternoon and was the first to check in. I elevated my leg for two hours before any other pilgrims arrived. In no time the albergue was full. (An albergue is a hostel that provides beds to Camino pilgrims-usually in a dormitory type setting- at a very reasonable rate) A south African couple, a Dutch couple, two elderly Frenchman and a French woman about my age took the other beds. There is a wonderful camaraderie that occurs in the albergues. I was the newbie and everyone offered advice and suggestions. It was all welcome. The second day I had planned to stop at a albergue six miles away, but I arrived so early (11:15), it was closed for cleaning. I bought a few bananas and some yogurt at a small mercado and moved on. I was a little nervous as there were few places to stay in the next leg, but by 2:00 I'd arrived at the next stop and checked in. Within two hours, three German men checked in to fill the remaining beds in the small room. The albergue and bar (a bar here isn't a bar per se, but a cafe of sorts serving coffee and meals as well as alcohol) was run by a dynamic man named Antonio Ferreira. His bar was a shrine to jazz and jazz musicians with old instruments on the walls and countless framed photos of jazz legends. Terrific jazz music was always playing in the background. He served an equally terrific Pilgrim's meal of vegetable soup, cod fritters (a traditional food here) and brown rice and beans. I went to sleep that night to the snores of my bunkmates, but happy nonetheless. Wednesday was another short day, six miles, and at 11:30 they let me check in to the albergue early. I took a shower, washed my clothes in a washtub and hung them to dry in the courtyard and put my leg up while writing in my journal. Other folks began showing up around 1:30 and soon this big albergue was almost full. I had grabbed a bed in a room with only three beds and the French woman from my first night at Casa de Laura was one of my roommates and an American woman from Boston, Jackie. The first American I'd met! We ate dinner together that night in the bar next door-vegetable soup, a huge piece of perfectly cooked salmon, a salad and French fries along with half a litre of local wine. Jackie and I discussed the next days walk and decided on a small albergue that slept ten almost twelve miles away. I was concerned I couldn't go that far although my leg and hip were feeling pretty good. If I got there too late and all the beds were taken, I'd have to walk an additional two to three miles to the next place to stay. Jackie, a fast walker, promised to save me a bed when she got there. I arrived 40 minutes after her and claimed the ninth bed. An elderly Englishman, Dennis, arrived minutes after me and took the last bed. This particular albergue is run by a woman and her husband, Fernanda and Jacinto, who have lived on the Camino Portuguese trail for many years. They began welcoming pilgrims to stay quite a few years ago, sometimes just offering floor space to throw down a sleeping bag. A few years ago they built a timberframe bunkhouse. Ten beds, two full bathrooms with a big welcoming porch. Fernanda served a huge meal in the evening in her home and it was a rambunctious affair. She started off with appetizers of codfish fritters and homemade wine. Then the ubiquitous vegetable soup, rice, chicken, sausage and vegetables with more wine. There was a lot of laughter and sharing of stories. I couldn't help but think about what kind of person it takes to open your house night after night to groups of unknown pilgrims. To shelter and feed them and all on a donation basis. Fernanda's huge garden provided all the vegetables for the meal with the exceptions of the carrots because, as she explained, hers had been tiny this season. 
She was as warm hearted as anyone I've met and her husband was just as kind although much more in the background. Their 14 year old daughter Mariana, was in and out and acted like a house full of strangers was nothing new, which of course it wasn't. That night was a symphony of snores and made me glad I'd actually booked a hotel room for the next night. The next morning, after a nice breakfast in the main house we all said our goodbyes, sad to leave such a wonderful place. Every day this week it has threatened rain. A few times it would shower for five to ten minutes, but it was never a downpour. Yet most every night it poured, frequently with thunder and lightning. It seemed at dawn, the rain would stop in time for us to begin our walks. But that morning at Fernanda's the rain kept on. Not hard, but persistent. I was the first one to leave that morning and it wasn't too bad. The rain was gentle and the temperature mild. The first mile was through vineyards and so lovely I couldn't help but stop frequently to take pictures. The paths were sandy trails or narrow cobblestone roads and it was pretty easy going. After four miles I congratulated myself on still having dry shoes and socks. Then the skies opened up and dumped torrential rain down on me. After twenty minutes I gave up trying to walk around puddles because the cobblestone path I was on had turned into a stream. I was soaked through my raincoat and three layers of shirts. The temperature dropped a bit and all I wanted was a hot shower. The heavy rain continued the rest of my walk into Ponte de Lima, another five miles. Surprisingly though, it was one of my favorite days thus far. The landscape was magical, vineyards and orchards, eucalyptus forests and waterfalls. I was entranced. In previous days, when I had to walk down a rocky or moss covered cobblestone slope, I'd tense up afraid I'd lose my footing and fall-maybe remembering my falls outside of Lisbon. But yesterday I decided to loosen up and relax as I walked down the wet trails. I was still very careful where I placed my feet, but let my body slacken. It was a revelation! I arrived in Ponte de Lima yesterday at 12:45, soaked to the bone but free of any pain! When I saw my room (a bathtub!), I asked for an extra night to have an opportunity to dry all my clothes and my backpack (even though I had a rain cover, my backpack took on some water). So today I went to the farmers market, the farmacia and the ATM. I had coffee and a croissant at a bakery and will cook myself dinner in my tiny kitchen. Tomorrow morning I'll cross the Medieval bridge (rebuilt in 1368 on Roman foundations) over the Rio Lima and head on. I'm now less than 100 miles from Santiago. In a couple days I'll cross over into Spain. I can only hope the rest of my walk is as magical as it's been so far. It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it is satisfying and fulfilling. 
Waterfall beside the road
A woman walking her goats
Lots of medieval bridges...
and cobblestone lanes.
The lively group at Fernanda's.
The peace of wild things.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

MOROCCO


I was going to title this post, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" because Morocco was like another dimension. Indeed, if I hadn't traveled there with a companion, I'm not sure I would have lasted past the first day! Traveling with Elin was a huge asset, yet it also threw me off balance a bit. By the time we reached Morocco, I'd been traveling alone almost two months and then, all of a sudden, I had a companion 24/7. Yes, VaughanTown had been a social week, but I'd had my own room and alone time. I'd become so comfortable with the silence of solo travel that it was jarring to carry on constant conversation and share my time with someone else. But what a partner Elin was - up for any adventure and laughing through our screw ups!
When we landed in Ceuta on the African continent we were lost. Ceuta is actually a tiny Spanish autonomous city on the northern coast of Africa and at its western border lies Morocco. As we stood at the port looking confused I'm sure, a Moroccan man approached us and asked where we were going. When we told him Tetouan, he said that was his hometown and he would help us get there. He was pleasant enough but quite insistant as he maneuvered us through the crowds to a small office where he asked the man seated behind the desk for a sheet of paper. He drew a crude map of Morocco and in the corner wrote "€40". He would get us to Tetouan for €40. I had heard about these guys. David Anderson, a brilliant man from England I'd met at VaughanTown, had told me he'd experienced the very same thing at the port in Morocco - they'd approach you at the port, help you with your paperwork and get you where you were going...for a fee. I asked him, " How much do we pay for your help?" He paused for a smile before answering, "Ten euros only for both. Just ten euros." Elin and I looked at each other - do we trust him? We decided yes. The negotiated price (we actually didn't negotiate at all, just agreed) was fair, comparable to what any taxi would be. We filled out our paperwork and followed him outside. He first walked us to a hidden area around the side of the building where a man stood beside a car that was backed into the corner so tightly he could hardly get back there to open the trunk. I got nervous and started taking pictures of the car, the license plate, the men. Another man walked over and a small discussion took place, almost an argument. Elin and I stood far back from the car and the men, ready to run if they tried to stuff us in the trunk. We were then walked to a different car, this one in plain sight of the port where we loaded our backpacks into the trunk. Elin kept up a constant conversation while I took more pictures of the new car and license plate. We were in this together. We got in the car and headed toward the border. I know the men were laughing at our anxiety as the man who aporoached us at the port, Said, handed us his passport to prove he was from Tetouan. I took pictures of his passport and then texted my sister Doreen, "Keep this info for a bit. Tell you why later. License plate of vehicle -######. Passport of man in my pictures. Said B from the province of Tetouan. All is okay, just being cautious. Love U!" Soon the driver also gave us his passport and I took more pictures. I think of this now and it makes me laugh as Said was so kind and helpful. He got us through border control and all the way to Tetouan, called our hotel and sat with us in a cafe drinking mint tea until someone from our hotel/riad retrieved us.
Me, Elin and Said
The hotel I had booked, Hotel Riad Dalia Tetouan, was magnificent and I don't think we were fully prepared for our room. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house (or palace) built around an interior garden or courtyard. The roof above the courtyard, sometimes three or four stories above, is usually glass and some of them open partially. It provides lots of light to the courtyard and to the rooms which line the exterior on each floor. After the customary mint tea, we followed Meriem to our room. When she opened the door, I'm pretty sure Elin and I gasped. 
Beautiful tile work, thick rugs and elegant textiles greeted us.
Meriem then escorted us to the roof where we had a view of Tetouan and the surrounding mountains. 
Meriem and Elin on the roof terrace
From that point on, Tetouan was a blur of sights, sounds and smells under the expert guidance of our almost constant companion, Nasser. He collected us from Said at the tea house and put us in a cab the next day to catch a bus out of town and in between he gave us a grand tour of Tetouan. He maneuvered us through the narrow streets of the Medina. 
Nasser the Magnificent!
A Medina is a section of a city in Morocco (and other North African cities) that is usually contained within walls and is often the historical, ancient part of the city. Usually they are free of car traffic (I'm talking REALLY narrow streets), but sometimes wide enough to accommodate motorbikes and bicycles. A lot of commerce takes place here - kind of a cross between a massive farmers market and a flea market. There were sections for foodstuffs (including live chickens in pens behind booths selling butchered chickens hanging by their feet), craftsmen (incredible woodworkers as well as textile artists and so much more), household goods (plumbing supplies, pots and pans), sweets and breads (a small bakery where locals brought their pans of breads or trays of cookies to be baked), jewelry (lots of fine gold and silver work), rugs...I could go on and on. It was overwhelming and we kept close by Nasser so as not to get lost. Nasser kept up a constant dialogue about the historic aspects of the Medina. I cannot imagine what visiting Tetouan would have been without his expertise and knowledge. He took us through the tannery (thank goodness it was March and still cool as I'm told the smell in the summer is unbelievable. Pigeon poop is used as a tanning agent in the beginning of the process), and explained the process start to finish. Some pics from the Medina in Tetouan:
Chickens awaiting their fate as dinner
Me with the man who kept the wood fired oven going at the bakery
Part of the tannery. These cement holding tanks are big enough for men to stand in while working. Each set of tanks is a different part of the process.
After hours in the Medina, we came back to Riad Dalia to enjoy a delicious traditional dinner of tagine and fall asleep under piles of blankets in our sumptuous room. The next morning after a big breakfast, our dear Nasser loaded us into a taxi headed to the bus station and our next stop, Chefchouen - the blue city.
At the bus station we bought our tickets - 20 dirham each, about $2 - for the 2 1/2 hour ride. A handsome young man asked if we were heading to Chefchouen and when we answered yes, he took us to the correct bus and found us seats. The bus was pretty full by the time we got on, so we sat in the next to the last row. Our friend sat across the aisle. He and Elin talked almost the entire way while I worked to keep breakfast in my stomach where it belonged. The ride was mountainous and curvy and the bus was humid. Our friend kept sucking on a lemon to keep from getting sick. Elin gave a boy sitting behind us on the last row a large ziplock when he began to look green. Our friend (I think his name was Hussein) told us he lived in Chefchouen but went to school in Tetouan and endured this ride three days a week. I was glad to climb off the bus on wobbly legs and hike through the town square to get a taxi to the Medina where we were staying. Our Riad, Dar Gabriel, was close to the gate (or Bab) where the taxi dropped us. Within minutes we were inside the cool, blue (in Chefchouen, always blue) courtyard and shown our room. I had booked a room for 2 with twin beds. We were shown a room with one double bed. Sorry, we told them, we are not such good friends as to sleep in one bed. Next came a room on the top floor with the roof top terrace steps away. Twin beds, but the shower was a sprayer attached to the wall of the bathroom. We stayed in that room one night but moved down a floor to a twin bed room with a real shower the next night. The terrace was lovely and I watched the full moon rise over the mountains that night. 
Chefchouen at dusk
Part of the terrace
Elin washing our clothes in the bathroom
Our first full day in Chefchouen we asked Rida, the manager, if he could arrange a visit to a hammam - a Moroccan bath house. He gave the job to Ahmed, his co-manager, to arrange. Ahmed is a soccer star on the Chefchouen team. He's been featured in ads for soccer clothes and is as motivated as Rida is laid back (At this point I THOUGHT Rida was laid back). Those two made quite a team. Ahmed made a few calls as he walked us through the Medina and after buying a scrubbing mitt and some traditional soap (it's sold out of big washtubs, is the consistency of greasy pudding and is scooped out and put in plastic bags), we were handed over to the care of a woman at the hammam. Little did we know we would be the entertainment for the group of women taking baths that day. We were led to a wooden bench in a tiled room and after watching a few other women undressing, did the same. Soon we were sitting on the bench naked except for a pair of underwear and our belongings were tucked in a cubby in an adjoining room. We were given plastic shoes and led by a woman dressed like us (or UNdressed like us) through a door into one room, then another. The second room was quite warm - not like a sauna, but close. She placed two plastic mats on the cement floor and instructed us through pantomime to take off our shoes and sit on the mats. The room had maybe 6 other women in it and a few very young children, all stripped down to their underwear. They all bathed using the super hot water in buckets around the room. They watched as the attendant soaped us up, rinsed us off and scrubbed us with the mitt Ahmed had purchased which Elin likened to a brillo pad. Then we both received a rather cursory massage and had our hair washed and rinsed. Everyone else in the room took care of themselves. It was a bit embarrassing. We were given towels and led back to the changing room where we proceeded to get dressed and leave as quickly as possible. Elin, who has traveled extensively in Turkey and has been to many hammams there, assured me it was not the usual experience. We would discover later what a Moroccan hammam is REALLY like.
That afternoon Rida walked us through the Medina and up to the Spanish Mosque. No longer used for prayer, it is a spot high on a hill overlooking all of Chefchouen and a popular place to watch the sun set and see the changing light make the blue city glow. Did I mention that Chefchouen is the hashish capital of Morocco? Maybe that accounts for its laid back atmosphere and its popularity with young tourists. It was pretty evident everywhere we went. The next day Rida said we should visit Akchour in the Talassemtane National Park. There, he said, were beautiful waterfalls, good hiking trails and monkeys in the trees. We left after breakfast and with Rida as our guide took the 40 minute taxi ride through the mountains to the park. It was Saturday, the day before Easter, so there were quite a few people out to enjoy the clear, sunny day at the park. We started the walk on an unimproved path that was not very easy going. At one point we had to hop across pillars that once held up a bridge over the small river. Elin uses walking sticks when on uneven ground and she lagged behind us as Rida hurried me on. Every now and then he would slow down enough to help Elin over a particularly rough area. But he was on a mission. I still don't know what that mission was, but I experienced it full throttle. When we got to the small waterfalls (Petit Cascade), about 40 minutes in, Rida suggested Elin stay there. He said the path got considerably rougher, so he ordered Elin some mint tea (Moroccan's cure for everything) and we took off leaving her at a table in the shade. After 45 minutes of following Rida up steep, gravelled hills and hopping rock to rock over the river, he proudly showed me a sign written on a tree stump - 55 min to big waterfall. At this point I thought I might die out there in that park. The sun was beating down, I had already consumed about three quarters of my water and Rida was raring to go. I followed the best I could, but mostly lagged way behind. Every time we crossed the river, he'd wait for me and was thrilled every time we passed other hikers. A few times, as he stood at the top of a hill urging me up, I'd tell him he was killing me. He'd just smile and watch me pull myself up by grasping the tree limbs. Honestly, there was no other way to get up there. There were small places along the way to get lukewarm drinks or candy bars. How they got stuff up there, I can't imagine, although I saw a few huts off in the woods where the vendors lived part time. Some even had small gardens. At one point, Rida turned to me and said, "Five minutes more, I swear!" And then as we turned a corner there, in all its glory, was the BIG WATERFALL!
Yes. I walked 10 miles for this.
Rida insisted we walk over the wet, mossy rocks to get behind the waterfall and I was glad he did because a fine mist filled the air back there and the shade was moist and cool. We hadn't been sitting there five minutes when he took out his phone and exclaimed it was already four o'clock and we'd have to hurry back to avoid walking out in the dark. I finished the last of my water, ate a handful of peanuts and followed him from behind the waterfall. As he hurried back the way we came I decided I'd had enough of this marathon. When we came to the first river crossing I started in on him. "It's not the destination, it's the journey, Rida!" He just looked at me and smiled. "You are 23 years old and impatient. Someday you'll realize how to go more slowly and ENJOY life instead of hurrying through it!" He smiled some more. At one of the small drink stands (not much more than a handmade wooden table with plastic bottles on it) I bought an orange juice only to discover it was orange flavored sugar water. I sucked it down in seconds. When we came upon a group of eight or ten hikers, he got even more impatient. The path was narrow with few spots that allowed passing. When we reached another river crossing, he and I stood on the bank watching them s-l-o-w-l-y make their way across the pillars, even stopping mid stream to take selfies. The water was ankle deep, so I just started wading across and he followed. The hikers stopped to watch us and when we got to the other side one of the girls gave me a high five. Rida slowed down a bit after this and, although he complained that his feet were freezing (the water wasn't that cold), he commended me on how well I'd done. We reached Elin soon after and found she had done art, waded in the river and made lots of friends (she is incredibly good at making friends). We headed back to the park entrance, with Rida staying behind with Elin helping her over the more treacherous parts. I took every opportunity to sit and wait for them to catch up. At the edge of the first bridge where you enter the park, we sat and had tall, cold glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice. 
As it turned out, Rida had read his phone wrong at the Big Waterfall. It was not four, but two thirty. I thought he did it on purpose so we wouldn't linger. Laughing, he denied it.
That night Elin did some Healing Touch massage on me and we both dosed up on Arnica. We didn't even go down to dinner, but ate Elin's amazing homemade Hommous in a Bag and bread. We were sharing a taxi with an English couple to Meknes the next morning and had to be up early. 
Elin, Rida, Ahmed and me
The taxi ride was uneventful. The English couple, Neal and MariaElena gave us some good tips on visiting Meknes such as "Don't stand too close to watch the snake charmers or they'll expect you to pay." Good to know! They also gave us a few restaurant recommendations. By this time we knew the drill. Have the taxi take you to the Bab (gate) closest to your hotel (the Medina has many Babs) and have the driver call the hotel. Someone comes to the taxi to walk you into the Medina to your hotel. The walk through the square was enlightening. Besides the snake charmers there were tiny costumed monkeys on leashes and all manner of salespeople hawking their goods. Ryad Bahia (Riad/Ryad, no difference) was wonderful. It had been our hosts family home for four generations. Each floor had sitting areas and the top floor, in addition to having four or five rooms, had some terrific spots for lounging in the sun or having lunch outside which we did both days of our stay. One reason I'd booked this hotel was that it had a hammam on site. Yes, we were going to try again. We were nothing if not intrepid! However, after booking the hammam for the day after our arrival at 10 in the morning, we were told the hammam at Ryad Bahia was not working! No problem! They made arrangements with another hammam outside the Medina. We would be picked up at 10 and have the full treatment and be returned to Bahia afterwards. After a wonderful dinner at the Ryad that evening (the best meal I'd had in Morocco up to that point!), we went to bed anticipating the next days adventure.
My bed at Ryad Bahia
Breakfast was a feast! And at 10 sharp, an older woman in a headscarf and a jilbab (a robe of sorts) was waiting for us downstairs to take us to the hammam. She was very kind and had a sweet smile. We liked her immediately. She first took us to the open air market to buy two scrubbies (the aforementioned "brillo pads") and then we caught a taxi into the big city of Meknes. When we pulled up in front of a fancy salon, Elin and I knew our experience was going to be vastly different from the one in Chefchouen. We were the only people in the salon except two employees. Our friend took us upstairs and began the preparation of the " sauna" room. It had a tile floor and wide tiled benches and two brass faucets on one wall with big brass cauldrons underneath them. As before, we stripped to our undies and our friend stripped to a tee shirt and underwear. It was then we realized she was not an old woman, but younger than either of us! She poured very hot water on us first as we sat on low stools by the cauldrons. Then she had us lie down on mats set on the heated tiled benches. We were covered in mint scented mud, scrubbed, then covered in argan oil, scrubbed, then covered in a powdered red root and scrubbed again. She had Elin look at all the skin sloughing off me. I wondered if any bones were showing through. The benches were so hot I thought I could hear my fat sizzle and pop like a steak on a grill! She flipped us from top to bottom with each new treatment. The last treatment was plain soap, although I'm not sure what was left to clean. We then moved from the benches back to the low stools and she washed our hair, scrubbing our scalps thoroughly. I don't think I've ever been that clean in my life. She handed us heated towels and we sat in the outer room while she cleaned up the treatment room. 
Scrubbed to within an inch of our lives!
But wait! There's more! We were taken downstairs for the employees to do blow outs on our hair! Elin came in with naturally curly hair and I came in with straight. We left with the exact opposites. I am almost embarrassed to post this pic, but what the hell...you only live once.
Three hours after we entered the salon, we left looking like this. 
There is a bit more to our Morocco trip, like a fabulous meal made by this woman (that's her son with her):
And a chance meeting in a Syrian restaurant in Rabat of a young woman named Mackenzie Ritter doing a semester abroad from St. Mary's Hall in San Antonio! What are the odds of that??? And the fact that, even though we took the early train, we missed the ferry in Tangier and stood on the dock screaming and pleading with the crew to let us on the ship as it headed out to sea. And the series of buses we took to get across Spain. I said good bye to dear Elin in Seville as I took the midnight bus to Lisbon. I miss her every day! Morocco was the most intriguing travelling I've ever done and I hope to go back sometime. 
But now I am heading out with only my two feet and a much smaller backpack. Yes, The Beast has been cleaved. My stuffed to the gills day pack will stay here in Lisbon and my relatively light big pack will travel with me the length of Portugal to northwestern Spain. My Camino starts tomorrow morning. I'm giving myself 43 days to walk about 390 miles. I have no idea what I'm doing. Every day I'll just walk and hope in the evening I get where I had planned to be. It is a giant leap of faith. It is a Holy Year of Mercy. Right now it is the only path I know.