The Camino Portugués 2017… Take 3: Why a Pilgrimage… & So What?

Why in the world would one embark on an ancient pilgrimage in the early autumn of 2017… in a faraway country… with very little indication of whether you will even find a bed at nightfall to lay your weary body down on? Because frankly – in hindsight even more than in advance: it is an amazing, awesome and unforgettable journey.

The Camino de Santiago had started beckoning to me many moons ago. Not urgently, nor forcefully. Rather gently, nudgingly, compellingly. My psyche had embraced the call with growing warmth until it knew the time had to come for me to fill the shoes of a pilgrim crossing through a crucial passage of life…

Wikipedia’s description is apt:” The Camino de Santiago (Latin: Peregrinatio Compostellana, “Pilgrimage of Compostela”; Galician: O Camiño de Santiago), known in English as The Way of Saint James among other names, is a network of pilgrims’ ways serving pilgrimages to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth.”

I felt instinctively attracted to the Portuguese Camino (‘path / road’, ‘journey’, ‘way’). It is somewhat apart from the rest; it heads straight north, slightly inland from the Atlantic Ocean, ending at Santiago de Compostela in Spain as do all the others. I would walk along this way… and I am so happy that I did, for the Camino Portugués is perhaps the ancient route that is most intimately linked with the passages of St James (San Tiago) as he faithfully and persistently carried his Message of Hope into Roman and other heathen territory.

What was it I was longing for, hoping to find on my pilgrimage? I wanted distance – from all that is familiar and customary and un-daunting and sometimes stifling. I wanted solitude and new horizons. I wanted silence. I needed space. And – most importantly – I wanted to escape from my comfort zone in every possible way that would ‘qualify’ me as a true pilgrim.

Primarily I was intent on the prospect of taking on this adventure in a world away from my own, where I could see and smell and taste and feel and hear the colours and sounds and customs of other worlds. Yes, it meant I would travel abroad… but it would be somewhat different: no frills, no luxuries, no freebies, no guarantees. The perks and rewards would be those of the heart and the soul!

I needed a silence to settle in my head and my heart, while I would head for a destination with other, presumably somewhat like-minded humans from across the globe. Yes! This is one of the beautiful mysteries and powerful traits of the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St James: it calls and attracts pilgrims-at-heart from all the corners of the earth. They do not congregate or group. They rub shoulders. They share whatever the mutual moments and memories have to offer. They share the communal spaces offered at pilgrim’s prices by rustic havens. And they are like friendly, passing ships in the night.

I would have gone alone, if it had so happened. But I had joyfully embraced my daughter’s resolve to join me. It was good. We now have a priceless shared memory of an experience much more mystical than the mundane, and of a road less traveled.

My daughter, Nadia – my fellow pilgrim – is by no means a mirror image of me. But occasionally during our journey she held up an ever so essential mirror for me! On the Camino I could drop my guard and face my demons (without a trace of make-up!).  And maybe I did the same for her?

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What did I find?

Where do I begin? How do I define!

Perhaps bird song tops my list. It accompanied me throughout the pilgrimage and I was fascinated to think that Santiago and his companions, and those who came after them most likely heard those very same sounds so many centuries ago.

Church bells ringing! – a memory so vivid that it will surely remain indelible for years to come. In villages and valleys, on hilltops, in cities, towns, just everywhere we moved there was the comforting and compelling sound of chiming bells. And my pilgrimage was concluded with an ever so significant stay of two nights in an albergue in Santiago de Compostela in the proximity and within view of the destination Cathedral, whose quarter hourly chimes aroused in me a heightened awareness of the Camino’s significance: surely not only to me, but to each one who has joyfully found its co-ordinates!

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I found trees and forests, streams, farms, hills and valleys, vineyards, orchards, maize fields, flower boxes, ancient Roman bridges and cobblestone pathways, steep uphills and even more challenging downhill slopes, chocolate box scenery, stealthy cats, lazy watchdogs, delightfully down-to-earth cafés, delicious coffee, affordable beer and Brie cheese, delectable baked delicacies…

There were cathedrals! So many… so beautiful… so preserved. And around the corner from our destination cathedral we found the most divine drinking chocolate imaginable.

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Best drinking chocolate ever! Santiago de Compostela…

 

I discovered reserves of perseverance and endurance when feet and body ached so much that my mind found them to be almost unbearable. But I also found that I could cry without restraint and admit without hesitation how small and vulnerable I am in the comprehensive tapestry of the tenacity of saints.

I found brief companionship and kindred spirits.

I felt how good it was to be empty and still.

I rejoiced in simplicity.

And after reaching Santiago de Compostela with hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims who had, like me, patiently and persistently made their way there, I queued quietly and eagerly on aching feet for the certificate that would place the seal on my endeavour. That would declare me a pilgrim with mission accomplished.

We are all pilgrims in one way or another. To have been one in this Way of St James – the Camino de Santiago – was a privilege that I will long cherish.

Buen Camino….

(All photos by Nadia Krige)

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The Camino Portugués 2017… Take 2: Yellow Arrows & the Scallop Shell

The ancient routes followed by St James (Sant Iago) and the pilgrims after him throughout the centuries, are waymarked for those of us who long to walk in those footsteps. The yellow arrow and the graphic yellow portrayal of a scallop shell become the sole and only signs and marks that guide us on the way leading to Santiago de Compostela.

One of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago, the scallop shell (‘vieira’ in Galician and Spanish) is not only used to help travellers find their way, but is also embraced by pilgrims as a token to carry with them and you can find yourself one to attach to your backpack at practically any little café or outlet – however small and obscure – along the camino.

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It is well known that medieval pilgrims on their way to Santiago often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats. A practical use for the hand-sized shell was that it could serve as a bowl for food or a vessel for water when they paused along the way to have a meal or quench their thirst. File:Muszla Jakuba.svg

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A crucial waymark – the yellow arrow

 

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You will seldom, when walking through forests and farmlands, find the waymarks to be as distinct as these!

Sometimes the arrows are faded, few and far between. On a stone in a deep forest. On a concrete pylon. On the paved sidewalk. On a stone wall. But your eyes become trained to continuously look for the yellow arrow – to show the way of St James.

It is easy to get lost, whilst engrossed in a fleeting conversation with a fellow pilgrim; or whilst admiring the landscape: you miss a crucial fork in the way, or a turn-off. And it can be an agonizing exercise to retrace your steps and find the right way again, if your muscles are aching, sweat is pouring from your brow and your backpack is feeling like a bag of stones!

Many stories, legends and myths are told about the connection since ancient days between the scallop shell and the Way of St James (‘Camino Santiago’).

One of these narratives, which appears to make a lot of sense, claims that the lines of the scallop shell represent the various routes that pilgrims travel from across Europe on walking trails that all lead to the tomb of St James in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

‘…none more significant and soulful…’

Camino veteran and author of guide books John Brierly, who refers on its front page to ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portuigués’ as ‘A Practical & Mystical Manual for the Modern Day Pilgrim’ mentions the fact that there are many pilgrim paths to Santiago “but that there is none more significant and soulful than the camino portugués and none so intimately connected to the life and ministry of St James, as well as to his death and burial”.

As a symbol of the Camino, the scallop shell – together with the yellow arrow (for they are often found together) – has become inextricably embedded not only in the physical tradition of the pilgrimage, but also in the spiritual experience that is a mystical one, and unique for each pilgrim who embarks on it…

* “There are many legends trying to source this old association of Saint James with the scallop shell: one of those legends says the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallop shells, while a similar version of the same story explains that a knight’s horse fell into the water and emerged covered in scallop shells, while the remains of Saint James were being taken from Jerusalem to Galicia.

“The shape of the scallop shell also resembles the setting sun, which would have been an important daily event, full of symbolism in pre-Christian societies. It is probably not just a mere coincidence that the Saint James Way is a journey to the West, finishing at the ‘end of the world’ (the name given to FisterraFinis Terrae / Finisterre) and the setting sun”.

 

 

The Camino Portugués 2017… Take 1: ‘Passports & Certificates’

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This image is in fact of a ‘last page’ – with a final stamp.

It tells of the closing chapter and the final stages of my Camino Portugués, which was concluded at the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela at midday on the 28th of September this year. The coveted ‘last stamp’ I however only collected on the following day (as the date indicates), after queuing for more than an hour on tired legs and aching feet with scores of other pilgrims from all across the world. You definitely do not turn away from your experience and head home without that piece of paper with your Latinised name handwritten on it – certifying that you completed your pilgrimage…

Certificate issued by the official pilgrimage office of the Camino Santiago, stating that you (by Latin equivalent of your name) have completed the pilgrimage

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Actually the little pilgrim’s passport book that you carry with you all the way, keeping it handy at all times, tells the story in the end and threads together all the places where you put your backpack down to take a rest, enjoy a beer, savour a coffee, find a toilet, overnight and – ultimately – to collect a stamp! Of course it also verifies your status as a pilgrim… It makes you eligible for a bed for the night in one of the pilgrims’ albergue’s which, however rustic and basic they may be, are like oases and havens after a day’s travel on foot with a pack on your back.

Issued in my and Nadia’s cases to us by the #Confraternity of Saint James of South Africa (#CSJofSA) before our departure from South Africa, the so-called passport states on the cover page that it is a ‘Pilgrim Record’ (Credencial del Peregrino), and goes on to say the following inside:

“This Pilgrim Record is issued by the Confraternity of St James of South Africa on the understanding that it is to be used only by pilgrims making their way to Santiago de compostela on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, and that it is their desire to make the pilgrimage in the spirit of spiritual discovery and renewal. The purpose of the Pilgrim Record is to identify the pilgrim. It gives no rights, but serves two objectives:

“(1) Access to the refuges that offer Christian hospitality of The Way. These refuges are not free. It is proper to leave a contribution, even to those who ask for nothing.

“(2) Submission for the Compostela issued by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which is the authentication of the completion of the pilgrimage. It is only obtainable from the Pilgrim Office of the Cathedral authorities in Santiago de Compostela. Minimum Requirements: Pilgrims on foot or horseback must have complete at least the last 100km and cyclists the last 200km, in one stretch, to qualify. Two stamps per day are required.

Pilgrims who start their journey outside Galicia require one stamp per day.”

We are proud to have completed the Camino from Porto to Santiago on foot, which covers a distance of around 240 kilometres, within 14 days.

At times it was arduous. At times it was exhilarating. Always and throughout it was amazing. Enlightening. Enriching. Life-changing. Rewarding. Unforgettable.

The lilting bird songs that accompanied me on my way – be it in forests or alongside streams, crossing ancient Roman-built bridges or passing one of the many farms with their vines and orchards – not only sustained me when fatigue and foot-ache called for rest; but they also reminded me that St James himself and pilgrims through the centuries heard those very same sounds and were more than likely also uplifted and cheered on by them…

the leonard cohen factor

I have this Brazilian classic guitar, a Di Giorgio dated 1974 – with the crafter’s signature and telephone number still perfectly clear on the sticker in the cavity. It is 40-odd years old and looks it. But when I stick my nose into the sound hole (yes, that’s actually what it is called), shut my eyes and slowly pull in my breath, the memories roll in.

I am 19 going on 20 again and relive the indescribable thrill of becoming the owner of this magnificent instrument, purchased with my own earnings in my home town. My boyfriend from teen days is impressed and shares in my excitement. He presents me with the sheet music of ‘Marianne’ and says I should practise it so we can sing it together.

The chords progress from A major to B minor… to D major, to A major. To G major… Soon I have mastered it and it sweeps me along. “I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy, before I let you take me home..” “We met when we were almost young – deep in the green lilac park. You held onto me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark..”

Leonard Cohen’s name became irrevocably engraved on my timeline. His lyrics arrested me; and the tunes tugged at my fragile heart.

Whenever I picked up my guitar in years that followed, “Marianne” was invariably the first song that would come to mind.

Sunday 27 November, 2016:

The early evening, less than a month away from Christmas, is hushed in the small coastal village of Pringle Bay and daylight is reluctant to depart. Inside the crowded little theatre with its low lighting and a few red-glowing solar lanterns dotted around, the chatter is cheerful and the anticipation is tangible. We are waiting for ‘Leonard Cohen Live in London ‘ (2008) to begin. Not exactly a live show! But for all who are gathered to share in the experience, time and space become irrelevant. It is almost three weeks since his passing.

When he appears on the screen – large as life, wearing his fedora low over his eyes and addresses us in a low, sonorous but barely audible voice, the magic begins. He clutches the mic in his right hand and shields it with his left as he lives in the sounds we have learned to love; he drops down onto one knee as his own words and music demand; then again rises and shyly removes his fedora to reveal the close-cropped grey hair and generously pours out his inimitable style…

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The inimitable, the one and only…

“The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring …

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.”

(Anthem, released in 1992).

He sways us through the passionate plea of Dance me to the End of Love; touches our souls with Hallelujah; stirs our imaginations with Suzanne; draws us into his honesty with Bird on a Wire…

We cheer. We are swept away. We see and feel what he does. An enigma who is no more; but who lives on in his legacy of hauntingly human agonies and ecstasies.

I quote Norman Lebrecht from “The Moral Strength of Leonard Cohen” as posted on The official forum of Leonardcohenfiles.com and SpeakingCohen.com , in September 2014:

“Cohen manifests a moral strength rare among the butterflies of ephemeral fame. No musician has maintained a more assured equilibrium through good times and bad, riding the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune and misfortune without falling prey to the temptation of an easy fix.

“Cohen’s lyrics hint forever at alternate meanings. His bird sits on a wire, perhaps the peaceful fence of a domestic property but also a front line, a prison camp, a place of extermination. In conditions of extreme privation and existential threat, Cohen sings of an inner liberation: ‘I have tried, in my way, to be free.’ He described the song with customary duality as ‘a prayer, and an anthem’.

 “…the consistency of purpose is astonishing and the fundamental faith is unchanged. He wears the hat and the suit of a regular shul-goer. He is a Jew, first and last, a traveller, a seeker, eternally homeless. ‘I just move from hotel to hotel and by the grace of the One above sometimes a song comes,’ he said.

“…Leonard Cohen stands above his generation as a seer of lasting things, of values received and passed on. Other musicians have emerged richer, more famous. Some still twist and shout on stage, escorting their mob of semi-retired fans into a seventh age of twilight care.” And especially this part: “Cohen stands up there unchanged, addressing his audience with unfailing courtesy and curiosity, with a sense of continued discovery. At that desperate end-of-tour concert in 1972, having wept into the shoulder of every member of his entourage, he blew his nose, wiped his eyes and walked guitarless out onto the dark stage. “I just want to tell you, thank you and good night,” he said. Along with all that he had said and sung, it sounded like a blessing.” (Norman Lebrecht, 2014)

The slipping away

IMG_4900 - CopyThe mountain in her austere aloofness and rocky splendour, rising abruptly from sea level and allowing between herself and the ocean only a narrow strip of earth for human habitation and movement, today wears that softening, unhurriedly shifting veil of low cloud cover that renders her mysterious and shy.
‘Tis a favourite sight for me. It soothes. Reassures. Allows for quiet nostalgia and solitary reflection. Hushes.

Today it allows me an inward glance that urges me to contemplate life in the wake of a death. Not just any death. That of my father. But still – death.

Euphemisms have no place when the topic is death, nor do they serve a purpose, for to postpone or avoid the naked truth is to simply miss the opportunity of coming to terms with finality.

Often we use this word in everyday communication, to describe something commonplace like a conclusion. Or an outcome. We confidently or impatiently declare that we want to reach or gain ‘finality’ on a matter.
Death is the epitome of finality.

Perhaps it is the irrevocability that sets it apart from other matters of so-called finality. Once it has set in, there is complete and utter silence – never to be broken again in this realm of awareness.
There is, after all has gone still, no way of prolonging warmth; or conversation; or mutuality; or eye contact, that mystical merging of a moment or many moments in time by securing a shared channel of visual, sensual, emotional awareness of other. There is no way of prolonging anything known or unknown in a three dimensional world – once there is the termination of life as we know it.

What is however strange, is that when expected, death is presumably always preceded by waves and surges of hope, even in the face of the inevitable. This is one of the mysteries of life: that hope lives on while life lives on…
When not expected, it most likely deals a blow that is so devastating that it is oftentimes denied and mistaken to be an illusion – for a while at least.

We know of the awakening of Lazarus from death even after a few days; and the raising of Jairus’ 12 year old daughter; and we cannot help but wonder intensely if our own loved ones’ eyelids may start fluttering again and their blood vessels start pulsating with restoration.

When they are no longer here, we continue to see them coming towards us… and then we don’t. We hear their voices. Their laughter.

The familiar fragrances of their hair, their clothes, their after-shave lotions and perfumes remain in our nostrils.
The film of Tabac on my father’s skin even in his final hours still emits the beloved manly and reassuring fragrance that I had come to know as a child. I may simply not ever have noticed it on any other man; but in my reference framework it is unique to my father. And will remain that way.

In the last days – sweltering midsummer days during which the heat also causes unease for my dying father – I am aware of the contradiction of seeing and feeling him slipping away, yet willing him to hold on and stay. Heart and mind are in conflict. The one knows; the other is aflame with senseless hope against all odds.

It is clear that his race is almost done. He has run it superbly and all we can do – all we are able to do – is to remain by his side, day and night, in relays: encouraging; reassuring; accompanying;  knowing that finally he will have to cross the threshold – the Jordan – alone. Knowing that our journey with him will be over.

* * * *

Here I interrupt my halting thoughts to cycle at dusk; to breathe and reconnect with the new reality of only weeks.
What I see, is a manifestation of light and shadows and colour in nature… It makes me gasp.

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In the last hours his unease deteriorates into severe and painful discomfort. Almost visibly his body transforms. Racked with the painful agony of the terrible disease, what remains is the silent dignity I know so well. I cannot do anything to help and it tears me apart. When his eyes focus, they pierce ours pleadingly; his blue gaze, now fading, mirrors ours. He recognizes this. He does not want to leave us, we sense.

He is thirsty, but can no longer swallow. We drip cool water into the corner of his mouth and brush it across his lips. We sing. It makes him peaceful. We sing more. We pray. I clasp two of his handkerchiefs in my helpless hands. They are soaked with the tears I cannot hold back. I cry for my own imminent loss. And for the sadness and seriousness of my father’s condition. But mostly we tell him with strong voices that he has been and given more than we could ever have hoped for. He has been larger than life.

The shape of his face becomes less and less familiar as physical resilience ebbs and the threshold approaches.

We hold his hands. Amazingly, he holds ours.

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The spasmodic breaths are further and further apart until almost impossible to perceive.

The last one… oh… It is so faint and so final. Or is it? How can it be?

The line is so thin. Only the double-edged sword can penetrate to divide soul and spirit.

 

 

 

 

THAT UNSPEAKABLE JOY

HOW proud I used to be to be called a ‘bookworm’. That was many moons ago. When I had deserved and earned the title – by reading whenever and wherever I could! Regrettably things changed with time. For many years I could no longer claim to be… that worm…

Today (8 September) being International Literacy Day, and this week being National Book Week here in South Africa, my thoughts cannot help but turn to this most desirable pastime that I now struggle, but am determined, to pursue. It is through no-one’s doing but my own!

I read like a caterpillar chewing on a green leaf long before I went to school! It continued into my early teen years. I knew the magic of the smell of a new book, the thrill of receiving a wrapped birthday or Christmas gift in the undeniable size and shape and feel of a book, I loved (still do!) the hush of a library and the wonder of shelf upon shelf of potential pleasure. And indeed not only pleasure, but also new insights, new worlds of wisdom, new ideas!

Oh, the joy of picking up a substantial hardcover book and turning the pages one by one, all the while immersing yourself deeper and deeper into other worlds and spaces; making your own pictures of places and faces! The reward and satisfaction of growing a collection, a selection, of books: your own library.

ALIVE & WELL

Mine exists. It is alive and well. It is thriving – mostly in neat stacks beside my bed and I have the doubtful habit of trying to browse more than one copy at a time! Frantic to make up lost opportunities, maybe? Daily my eyes dwell lovingly over the titles in shelves – also by my bedside! – that are waiting to be read or re-read. And on the landing of the stairs there are more enticing titles and volumes calling out to me. I AM a potential bookworm. I can convert again! I still experience the delight of ownership; the sensation of possessiveness.

Why the habit ever dwindled?

Late teens: boys… schoolwork… piano practice….

Early twenties: university studies… romance….

Late twenties: career obligations…neglect…marriage…

Thirtysomethings: motherhood…part-time (full-time!) professional writing practice…fatigue… neglect…burn-out… (the latter temporarily brought my concentration abilities to a nasty and grinding halt).

Fortysomethings: self-employment…life coaching (of my own, precious offspring)…writing (for additional earnings)…

All the while I knew, however, that love of reading, the hunger for solitude and silence with written words, had never died or gone away. Thank goodness for that!

And now – I am trying with a passion and a vengeance to put right what went wrong. I still yearn for books, for reading time. I nurture and cherish the time I manage to spend losing myself in a book. Autobiographies, philosophies, family sagas, thought-provoking non-fiction with one of the requirements being that the reading matter direct my thoughts to higher and worthier things than the mundane and the ridiculous.

Book Week! What an excellent campaign: there are few better ways than reading, to boost your vocabulary (for everyday use!), stimulate your thought processes, satisfy your need for knowledge and insight (to be able to think on your feet!)

Literacy is indispensable. It empowers. Period.

I really hope and trust that SA Book Week will see many, many converts! Here’s my pledge: I’m jumping on the bandwagon – watch me!