Friday, November 11, 2011

So with metaphorical staff in hand, off I strode...

(17th September 2011)

Having been a week in Santiago de Compostela, I decided today was the day I would walk the Camino Trail. 

As many of you know, a sense of direction is not one of the senses I possess. I’ve never been able to shake off a belief in the bedrock of my soul that north is which ever way I happened to be facing.

But never fear, the clever pilgrims of old no doubt suffered from a similar disorientation, and came up with a cunning system. All along the track are images of scallop shells that guide pilgrims along the 800 kilometres of the Camino from France to the cathedral in Santiago.

They have a special meaning: scallop shells where once used by pilgrims on the walk as tools for eating and drinking, and their shape with their ridges fanning out to point the way to this holy place. For someone who’s built a career on semiotics and symbols, that’s a powerful image.

I decided a week of settling into Santiago, a week of shopping every day at the fresh markets for cheese, ham, fruit and bread, a week of sight seeing and stopping for tapas had set me up for the walk. Up to then my poor feet have been crying out for a long rest. It’s a month since I left home and I’ve walked on average six to 10 hours a day each day.

I’ve taken to drastic measures to soothe my tootsies, I’ve had four pedicures and reflexology massages in the four weeks. I still feel sorry for the poor beauticians in Hong Kong who had the thankless task the first time round. I’d booked in for both a pedicure and reflexology at the same time, sparking a turf way between the two women. That is of course until my shoes came off and they saw how swollen the heat and two days of pavement pounding had made my feet. For a culture that not so long ago was binding women’s feet to make them miniscule in the name of beauty, this must have been a horrific sight. At least I tipped them very well, despite their horrified gasps and giggles disturbing what was meant to be an hour and a half of complete relaxation.

Sight seeing isn’t the only thing that has been giving me a work out on this trip. There are a lot of stairs in the world. Why have I never realised that before? It’s something that is very apparent when you have a 20 kilo suitcase to get up and down stairs. So far this has included five flights of stairs to Nancy's apartment in Rotterdam and four steep flights to the apartment I’d hired in Paris. Not able to face the latter, I convinced a construction worker from a groundfloor site to carry my suitcase for me. I’m not quite sure what was actually said but I may have promised to marry him. He certainly seemed to hang around a lot after I kissed him on the cheek in thanks.

I was meant to walk the Camino on my birthday a week ago with my friends. But of course best laid plans, or more specifically a hangover, prevented that. You see I’d worked out that technically my birthday started at 4 pm local time, or midnight in Australia.

So Kath, Carolyn, Therese (wonderful travel companions all!!!) and I started celebrating early on, with a bottle of wine at a gorgeous terrace bar overlooking an ancient stone church. We moved on from there to a restaurant where I had the forethought to tell our waiter it was my birthday and at the end of a magnificent seafood paella (washed down with cava!) he came out with a creamy pastry with a candle in it and sang happy birthday to me. And then he presented us with shots of three types of local liquers. 

It was about 11.30 pm by the time we left and all being a bit drunk and disoriented (well I certainly was) we found ourselves wandering around the old town, around winding stone streets. We were close to the cathedral and as the bell tolled midnight, I span around and announced to the world that it was officially my birthday. This prompted four very handsome young Spanish men nearby to serande me with an impromptu Feliz Compulanos, at which point I danced with all of them and kissed them each on the cheek. With lots of good wishes and blowing kisses my friends and I headed home to collapse in bed. Turning 40 wasn’t completely painless, but it was a self-induced pain in the end.

This week in Santiago has been about resting after almost a month of almost constant travels, and today I felt I was ready for part of the walk, around 14 kms, following in the footsteps of Therese and Carolyn, who made the journey a week earlier.

I took the bus to one of the bigger towns along the trail, Melide, and as recommended by Therese who’d walked this a week earlier, found a café and watched where others where going to get the trail. I dipped my freshly cooked churros in a large café con leche and observed. Soon I saw a man go by who looked like Peter Garret shrunk in the wash.

So I followed his path and was soon striding it out along the ancient trail that wends its way through town squares, over brooks and stone bridges and around cow paddocks. Courtesy of my rural up-bring I was able to identify cows of the freesia and jersey varieties as well as merino sheep.

I didn’t need to worry about getting lost as the scallop symbol is set in flagstones and road markers along the track. And there are so many people walking it that you are rarely out of sight of anyone. In fact I had to suppress a strong urge to drawl out of the side of my mouth in a John Wayne accent “Howdee pilgrim…”

There was a steady stream of walkers with backpacks laddened with bedding, food, and spare socks drying in the air. Me with my vintage Paris-designed daypack, wasn’t quite in the same mould, but hey, we all have our own spiritual journey to walk. Mine happens to include a vintage daypack, and the vital travel essentials of a vintage silk Japanese kimono anda  black evening dress. Both of which have already been used several times, and will no doubt get an airing when I pop off to the San Sebastian Film Festival next week to catch up with my friend Bob, who is a guest there.

The other thing that made me stand out from the other pilgrims were the iPod speakers in my ears. I strode out to songs I’ve always found inspirational for travelling, including ‘All Star’ by Smash Mouth. I particularly like the bit about:

“Well the years start coming and they don't stop coming
Back to the rule and I hit the ground running
Didn't make sense not to live for fun
Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb
So much to do so much to see
So what's wrong with taking the back streets
You'll never know if you don't go
You'll never shine if you don't glow”

Music has been an important part of this trip. The second day of our drive across northern Spain, I remembered I packed the cunning device that transmits the catalogue of an iPod through a car radio. This was important as by now I’d had that awful song “Never been to me” running through my head since the day I’d popped over to Monte Carlo from Villefranche on the Riviera. You know the line: “I’ve been to Nice and the Isles of Greece, while I sipped champagne on a yacht. I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed em what I got!” I rather thoughtfully transmitted this to Therese and Carolyn in Barcelona too, just so I wasn’t the only one suffering.

So like 15 year olds with credit cards and driving licenses, we chose the soundtrack of our road trip according to which band's members we wanted to marry as teenagers. That meant there was a lot of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, the Cruel Sea, the Specials, Chris Isaac and Hugh Jackman. Kath, who is one of the most awesome chicas I’ve ever met, is already married, but she said for Tex Perkins and Hugh Jackman, she’d come to some kind of arrangement.

Kath has showed her awesomeness throughout this whole trip, particularly in Paris when buying day tickets for us on the metro. The lovely young man at the ticket counter looked over at me and said to her “we have a special deal for people under 25.” Kath quickly translated this for me and as I did a dance of pure happiness that someone thought I was possibly 25, she told him he’d made my day.

Music on the Camino can only get you so far, and there are times when you need the quiet. It’s odd the thoughts that come into your mind then when you’re pushing yourself. “It looked like chicken in that paella the other night, but I bet it was rabbit. Does Spain have myxomatosis and caleesi? Bruce Leaver once told me he was the one who introduced caleesi into Australia to get rid of the rabbit problem. Bruce taught me a lot, ‘hate and wait’ being one of his best ones. I wonder what Bruce is doing now? I’ve been to so many of his work farewell parties. Ah Bruce, the true B.Leaver. Wait, why am I thinking of Bruce Leaver while I’m walking one of the most spiritual trails on Earth?”

Realising I was probably delirious with hunger, the morning’s churros now being far far behind me, I quickened my pace to get to a town. Salvation had started to form in my mind’s eye as a vision of a very large, very cold cerveza and a plate of croquettes, and this holy grail spurred me on.

The next town was still half an hour on, and when I reached it I gratefully sank into a chair. At a couple of tables up was the pre-shrunk Peter Garrett, who turned out to be German, talking to someone, who if I blurred my vision, was a bit like a shorter George Clooney. They were both indulging in cerveza but feeling my continued light-headedness I decided beer was perhaps not the best option for someone who still had another hour to walk in the increasingly hot day, so I opted for a cold coke and a plate of calamares before resuming my, now slower, stride.

The girls at the café weren’t the friendliest but that’s been a rarity. I’ve been constantly delighted and overwhelmed by the kindness of people. Like in London, where I’d flown from Rotterdam just to see David Tenant and Catherine Tate (aka Dr Who and Donna Noble) in Much Ado About Nothing. I’d bought my tickets in February as soon as I found out they were performing and it’s been one of the things I was most looking forward to.

I’d gone shopping with Nancy in Rotterdam and found the perfect outfit, and found it with the help of a really lovely sales assistant in a very very funky shop. I love their clothes so much that I’ve made Nancy promise she will visit every three months and take photos of new things in the shop I might like.

So I was really looking forward to the play, knowing I had a kick-arse outfit to wear. You can see what’s coming can’t you? Ah yes, good ole British Airways lost my suitcase enroute to London. There I was at the Gatwick carousel waiting in vain. I alerted staff to its absence and they assured me it would be found and delivered to my hotel. So I made way there and a couple of hours later I got a call saying they’d found it and it would be with me by 4.30 pm, plenty of time to get ready for the 7.30 show. Relieved, I went out for a wander around London’s Covent Garden, enjoying the sights and sounds.

Going back to the hotel I realised my suitcase was conspicuous by its absence. A frantic phone call to BA ensured, where I was told yes it was on its way but it wouldn’t be there before 9 pm, no they didn’t know why I’d been told I’d have it by 4.30. Somewhat teary and over tired (caused by having been out dancing in Rotterdam till 3 am and then being up at 6 am to get my flight) I bombarded the customer service rep with a tale of needing a decent outfit for theatre. He gave me one small sign of hope, that BA would probably reimburse me if I bought a new top. I only won this small concession because I’m a Qantas Club member.

So, then followed a frantic dash to a high street boutique, and here I encountered great kindness. Somewhat tearily I told the shop assistant what happened and how long I’d looked forward to this play that I would now have to go to with mad hair, walking shoes and a travel worn jeans and top. Condemning BA soundly, they put me into a change room and brought in pretty, floaty evening tops to try on, correctly judging I wasn’t in a state to make my own choices. We all settled on a dark blue organza blouse with dramatic sleeves that would be at home in the theatre.

Suitably attired I made my way to the Wyndham Theatre, stopping only for a couple of glasses of reviving champagne at a near-by lounge bar, that by coincidence just happened to be right outside the stage door.

The play was everything I hoped for, although it was a bit disconcerting to see the Doctor and Donna in a passionate clinch at the end. Although not more disconcerting than seeing David Tenant in drag in one party scene. In drag. Dressed as Miss Piggy. I won’t forget that in a hurry.

Sitting next to me during the play was a lovely Austrian woman, Maya, who is also a big Dr Who fan. Naturally this universal bond meant we got chatting before the show started and all through the interval, and it was only natural that we sprinted to the stage door together after the show.

A huge crowd had already formed for autographs, but Maya was undeterred, getting a CD of the music from the play and my program signed by the stars. Good work Maya, you are a legend!!

It was the perfect way to restore my equilibrium and I headed off for a drink with an old friend from Canberra, Dr Julian Kelly, who’d been off ice-skating that night. And eventually my suitcase turned up, and I was able to wear that vintage kimono the next night for an evening of burlesque movies with another good friend, Olivier Jolie.

So I’ve been bolstered on this trip by kindness of so many people. Particularly Therese who calmed me down last week when I started to have a panic attack at the thought of being on my own in a place where I could barely communicate. Giving me a big hug she talked me through my options, helping me settle on an intensive language course in Spanish. I start it next week for two weeks, although I am planning to skip out for a couple of days to head to San Sebastian (yep I’m already playing hooky. Well turning 40 had to have some privileges).

And there is another example of great kindness that I experienced today, at the end of the walk. I made good time to Azua, another large town on the Camino, and I planned to catch the bus back to Santiago. I stopped for a juice at a café and confirmed the bus did indeed stop at the bus stop opposite, and headed out for the half hour wait. Sure enough the bus arrived in 30 minutes but ignored my signal to stop.

Being hot and very tired by now, I didn’t take this well. I also knew the next bus wasn’t for another two hours! I had no intention of just waiting, particularly since I didn’t know why the first one wouldn’t stop, so I set about finding a taxi, prepared to pay the fee to get home quickly.

Walking along I couldn’t see a cab, so I stopped at a small hotel to ask for directions to a taxi stand. The hotel owner was horrified that I was prepared to fork out 37 euros for a cab so offered to take me for a reduced fee. I agreed, we settled on a price, and we set off to Santiago.

Now my Spanish is limited, I won’t deny it. But there are some things I know, so I introduced myself and said I was from Australia. I even worked out that after the introductions he was asking what did I work at in Australia (so far it was rather like the introductory chapters of my Spanish exercise book), and I was able to tell him, “soy periodista” being one of the few things I can say (although it’s not strictly an accurate description of my profession but I haven’t learnt how to say PR professional).

On hearing that I was Australian he said there were many kangaroos, and I replied that there were many kangaroos where I lived, although I didn’t mention the name of my hometown.

And now happened ones of those coincidences that makes you question the inter-connectedness of the universe. He said he’d been to Australia once, to visit someone who owned a restaurant and there were many kangaroos in this city. It turned out that his friend had a restaurant in…wait for it…Canberra!

Now “I live in Canberra” is one of the few things I can say well in Spanish, and I made good use of it. He then said there were many good restaurants in Canberra and suddenly there I was, sitting in the van of a complete stranger, talking about the high-quality and variety of Canberra’s restaurant community! Life is a strange and beautiful thing.

With another adventure under my belt and finally rested, and more importantly showered, life is back on track. 

So if you’ll excuse me now, I’m off to find myself a very large, very cold cerveza and a plate of croquettes…

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