Wednesday 23 November 2016

A Long, Slow Journey 1: A Preparation of Sorts

[Walking through rural Portugal] 
I am walking. Just walking. I did it yesterday; I hope to do it every day that God sends. Under a clear blue sky, dressed in regular walking clothes, wearing regular walking shoes, carrying a regular day-pack, I am simply putting one foot in front of the other.

But every now and then I hear a small clinking sound, almost a ringing. A scallop shell strapped to the back of my pack intermittently knocks against a buckle. And it reminds me that I’m on a pilgrimage. I am walking in the footsteps of thousands who have trodden this same path over many centuries.

[The pilgrim shell on my daypack]
I know there’s more to pilgrimage than a symbolic shell and a well-trodden path. The Macquarie Dictionary, for instance, calls it

a journey, esp. a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of devotion.

While that’s partly true for Lynne and me, we have also chosen a pilgrimage as a way of marking a significant birthday. And we’re hoping that a long, slow journey on foot might prove an antidote to what writer Marilynne Robinson calls the ‘joyless urgency’ of our times. There are other reasons too, some we know about, some we’ll discover.

Of the many pilgrimages available, we’ve chosen to walk the Caminho Portugues. It is one of a dozen different caminos* (“ways”) that converge on Santiago de Compostela, a city that’s sacred to some because the relics of St James the Apostle (Santiago in Spanish) are said to rest in its cathedral. The best known camino, the Camino Frances, leaves from France and travels across the Pyrenees into northern Spain. Our lesser-known pilgrimage travels north from Lisbon in Portugal to Santiago in north-western Spain.

[Typical waymarks on the pilgrimage: photo by Lynne Grant]
Given the time we have available, we’ve chosen to shorten our caminho by leaving from Porto. It is a journey of around two weeks, divided roughly 50/50 between Portugal and Spain. Our friends Tim and Merran, who have previously done an Italian pilgrimage, are excited to be joining us on this journey.

We’ve each tried to prepare physically and mentally for the walk. But as is so often the case, life has intervened. In Lynne’s case, a dose of the ‘flu before our departure has cut short her physical preparations. And Tim and Merran have had to squeeze too much work into too little time just to be here for the pilgrimage. 

[Pilgrims outside Porto Cathedral] 

[Preparing for a pilgrimage?] 
The day before we leave, we spend a few hours walking around Porto, noticing pilgrim waymarks, visiting the cathedral, practising our walking ... and eating. As preparations go, it’s not ideal. But as we’ll come to hear from many-a-pilgrim over the coming weeks, it is what it is.

[Porto on a busy Sunday]
So, ready or not, on a blue-skied morning in early October, the four of us are transported to the village of Mosteiro on the outskirts of Porto. It’s a nondescript starting point for our 250km journey. The cobbled village square doubles as a car-park. It gives onto a few private buildings, a public laundry (open) and a public toilet block (closed). A few cars are parked there, and some elderly men chat together around one of them, while two women outside the laundry carry on a loud conversation. It sounds like they’re having a serious disagreement, ‘though we will soon learn this is how many Portuguese conversations are carried on.

[Leaving, ready or not.] 
If our farewell party is a little preoccupied, at least we have each other. With smiles to counter our apprehensions, we tighten our laces, shrug on our daypacks, exchange blessings, and start walking.

* In Portuguese, the word is spelled caminho.

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