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.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

VaughanTown Belmonte, Spain

I am lounging in my hotel room in El Puerto de Santa Maria in southwestern Spain recovering from a week working with VaughanTown in Belmonte, Spain. It was an extraordinary week, one I won't soon forget. 
First, let me explain Vaughan Town. It is a program started by American Richard Vaughan (I'm told he's a Texan!) in 2001 to help Spaniards improve their English skills. We all meet up in the Spanish countryside, far from the distractions of the city to spend most every waking minute talking. We take walks and talk, we eat sumptuous meals and talk, we pick up the phone and talk, we sit in the bar and talk. And in the evening we have programs -  presentations, skits (all of us take part at some point), music. Every night was a surprise. Most of the Spaniards come at the behest of their companies or because of a desire to advance in business. We Anglos (and the Anglos this session included Englishmen, Canadians, Americans, Scottish and Australians) come for a myriad of reasons I'm sure, but its a nice perk to spend a week for free in a 4 star hotel with meals and wine included! We are responsible for the cost of transportation to Madrid and any extras like between meal snacks. I can't imagine how anyone could have needed extra food as the meals were wonderful and the servings large. But it was nice to sit in the bar and have a cafe con leche for an afternoon one on one session! VaughanTown has a number of venues in Spain, all within a few hours of Madrid. The program I attended was in Belmonte, about 90 minutes from Madrid. Belmonte is in the province of Cuenca, region of Castile-La Mancha. Yes, the Don Quixote La Mancha.
Tilting at Windmills
The village has a population of just over 2000 people and is basically an agricultural town. The Palacio del Infante Don Juan Manuel Hotel & Spa housed us all in grand style. The hotel is set in a 14th century palace and partial ruins of the palace are left untouched on the ground floor in stark contrast to the opulent hotel.
This area is a walkway from Reception to the spa and outdoor pool.
Every window of the hotel frames a spectacular view.
The view from the stairwell by my room.
The 15th century Belmonte Castle stands watch over Belmonte and also over the hotel. The 1961 movie, El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, was partially filmed at the castle. I was also told a battle scene from Lord of the Rings was filmed there, but I can't confirm that. Mid week, we walked to the castle for a tour.
The crew in front of Belmonte Castle.
Every morning at 9 we would meet in the dining room for an expansive breakfast buffet and look over the schedule for that day. We usually sat at tables of four - at least one Spaniard at each table, but sometimes more. 
The breakfast room, not to be confused with the dining room!
At 10, we began our day with one on one sessions (50 minutes of talking wherever you wanted), conference calls (3 Spaniards and an Anglo in a meeting room on a speaker phone and an Anglo in their own room on the other end with a script), one on one calls (Spaniard and Anglo each in their own room talking on the phone) or in Rehearsal for the evening program. No Spanish speaking is allowed! In my one and only conference call, I was sitting on my bed listening to the Spaniards responding to a question I'd asked, when I accidently poured a glass of water over the phone while taking a drink. When I asked another question, I was told they couldn't understand me because, "It sounds like you're under water."! I loved the One on One sessions for it was the time you really got to know the Spaniards. You could talk about anything - although it was recommended to stay away from politics and religion. Of course, as soon as they knew I was from the USA, they'd ask about the upcoming election. Made for some lively conversations. As the week went on, our conversations got more personal and it was at that time that connections were made. Every day there were also one or more 50 minute "free time" sessions for Anglos, which were opportunities to walk into town, take a nap or pal around with another Anglo. Lunch was served at 2 and the seating arrangement was the same as breakfast - 1 or 2 Spaniards at each table of 4. Meals were lively affairs with lots of laughter and loud conversations. And lots of wine. I believe I drank more wine in my week at Belmonte than I did in the previous year! We had siesta after lunch for 60-90 minutes, then back at our 50 minute sessions until around 7 when Programs began. Carlota Romero was our Master of Ceremonies and she was a Master indeed. An actress by profession, she was like a firecracker and always had hilarious -and usually bawdy - skits and activities. We also had some Anglos give informative presentations - one on Niagara Falls and another on Guatemala as well as a funny explanation on the rules of the game of cricket! Dinner was at 9 (9??? That's WAY past my bedtime!) and we usually sat around talking till well after 10. Sometimes there was an optional event after dinner. On our last night, the Program consisted of each Spaniard presenting a 5 minute talk on a topic they had been given that morning. Some were comedic, some were touching, one in particular had quite a few of us openly sobbing. After dinner that night, we all headed to the on site bar and danced to loud Spanish music as well as Olivia Newton John singing songs from Grease (?) and some Abba (??). I mostly watched and enjoyed it immensely! There were some impressive dancers! I headed to my room a bit after 1 a.m. and at 1:30 was drawn to my open window to watch the diehards in our group raucously heading into the village to a small bar that was open till 4. Needless to say, some folks weren't at breakfast the next morning and the ones that made it were not very perky! 
So here's my take on it. VaughanTown is a remarkable program that gives Anglos an opportunity to really get to know the Spanish culture and Spaniards a unique way to experience English language immersion. But it breaks your heart. I spent 6 days with 25 other souls in a glorious setting where we connected in an extraordinary way. And then, just like that, you disconnect. Friday afternoon I wrote in my journal, "It is a week that will change you and heal you and give you courage if you open your heart. It will fill you with laughter and tears and more love than you can hold. It will leave you oh so grateful and wanting more. It will fill your memory bank to overflowing and you will fall in love over and over and over again."
Some photos of a few of the participants. I wish I had a pic of each and every one! Especially our Master of Ceremonies, Carlota! I can't believe I missed taking a pic of her!
Fernando and Diego from Spain. Fernando is every bit as happy as he appears and Diego is not at all as serious as he appears!
The artist Elin from California. She and I are heading to Morocco together in a few days!
Enrique from Spain. What a smile!
Diana from Guatemala. The completely amazing Program Director, she kept us in line and focused...mostly.
Sandra from Spain. She was shy, but so dedicated!
Renee from Los Angeles and Suna from Washington state. These were the first two people I met the day before the program started and they are both terrific dancers!
We broke into groups and were given a photo project. This is Jose as Vincent Van Gogh.
Frank was Australian and loads of fun!
A group selfie from the photo project. Clockwise from top left: Martin from England, Paco from Spain, Afzar from Canada, Elin from California, Fernando from Spain and Rhona from Scotland.
Brian from England. Like me, this was his first VaughanTown. Some Anglos have been a dozen times!
David from Spain and me!
The whole group! The only pic I have of Carlota - she is in the front in the middle with the red stockings. Viva Carlota! And Viva VaughanTown! Until we meet again!