Friday 16 December 2016

A Long, Slow Journey 3: Strangers in a Strange Land

Walk, eat, sleep, wake, repeat. 

What sounds boring, isn’t. It is testing though, and after a few days, questions are being asked; reserves are being called upon. The rubber is literally hitting the road, or the cobbles at least.

[The Portuguese city of Barcelos, on the Cavado River] 
We’ve greatly enjoyed our time in the city of Barcelos. As we leave, it offers us one final gift. On a cool misty morning – the first hint of autumn in the air following a spell of warm, sunny days – we walk into the city’s weekly market. As if prompted by the mist, all is mellow and fruitful. Brightly-dressed locals haggle and chat over brightly-coloured flowers, fruit, vegetables and assorted stuff that's spread across the large square. This is vibrant Portugal simply being itself, full of colour and joy in the simple things of life; warmly welcoming of these strangers who buy only what they can carry, mostly fruit. We leave reluctantly.

[Barcelos on Market Day] 
As I walk on I experience an odd sense of shame. It’s not that I wish I’d bought more at the market, although that’s true. Rather, hearing stories from home about our so-called “strong” refugee policy, I am jagged by the contrast to what I find here, being a stranger in a strange land. As an Australian in Portugal I have been welcomed, shown kindness, made to feel an honoured guest. I like to think that Australians as individuals would behave in the same way to the “stranger”. But I look at our refugee policy and see only backs turned, blindfolds pulled tight, headphones pumping other stories to blank out the cries for help.

[An open door welcomes us to Balugaes] 
How and why do we behave this way? Novelist/essayist Marilynne Robinson skewers it.

Where population groups are seen as enemies or even as burdens, certain nefarious traits are attributed to them as a whole that are taken to override the qualities of individual members.

Despite our government’s frequent appeal to Christian values, this is precisely its tactic. Of course in doing so it conveniently ignores the consistent message of the Bible in relation to caring for the “stranger” or “soujourner”. Deuteronomy 10:19, for instance, tells the people not to be forgetful once they are in the Promised Land: You are to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

A pilgrimage is supposed to allow time and space for reflection, to offer a fresh perspective on your inner life, and your life back home. This I had expected, but not the shame and anger I feel now. It is more than a spiritual match for the physical struggles of this long walk.

[Ponte de Lima's bridge by night] 
We walk on. If distance and hard surfaces have been our main physical obstacles up to now, after the town of Ponte de Lima we meet our first true climb. We leave town via the long and beautiful bridge, part Roman, part mediaeval. We pass a sculpture that wishes us a good caminho, and wind our way along the edge of the Rio Limia.

["Bom Caminho" on the bridge at Ponte de Lima] 
Once we leave the river, the contours tighten. For the first time in days we leave farmland behind, and start to climb through a resin-scented pine forest. Despite the “exotic” vegetation, it feels quite like Tasmanian bushwalking, as cobbles and gravel roads give way to roughish, steepish bush tracks.

[Getting steeper and rougher] 
And there is no town or village for lunch, so we’ve had to bring the makings of a picnic. After a 400m altitude gain we finally reach the top. We’re hot, sweaty and happy to flop down on some grassy open space. Lunch is frugal but satisfying, and we’re glad of it; glad too that our afternoon walk is downhill.

[A welcome spot for a picnic lunch] 
An hour or two later we’re even gladder when we come across a pop-up pub. It’s just a van in a pull-off beside a minor road, but it serves cold drinks. We’re waved in by some fellow pilgrims, and are soon sitting down to share some tales and a lemon beer with them. Yet again we feel welcome.

[Tim shares a lemon beer with a Dutch pilgrim]

Thursday 8 December 2016

A Long, Slow Journey 2: Into a Rhythm

I am searching for a rhythm; one that will serve me for a 250km long walk. The beat of my feet, the click of my walking poles, the in-pause-out of my breath, are its basic components. But there’s also the need for water, for rest, for food, for coffee, for toilet stops. And when I factor in time to get lost, and found again; time to find companionship, and to be silent; time to be open to all that I see, hear and smell around me, the rhythm of a long walk becomes complex, richly layered, unpredictable, mesmerising even.

[Finding our way through a eucalypt-lined lane] 
I further complicate it by carrying 1.4kg of camera gear around my neck; part millstone, part magic lantern. Before we’ve gone 50 metres, I’m the clucky parent trying to record those first steps, calling everyone to stop for a photo. It becomes a frequent cry, one the others will get used to, and sometimes choose to ignore.

[Lynne, Tim and Merran caught by the camera] 
We’re barely accustomed to following the yellow arrows through the cobbled and tiled lanes, when we reach a small café offering sellos (passport stamps). Pilgrims wanting their compostela (certificate of pilgrimage) need to have two stamps per day in their credencial to show they’ve actually walked the caminho. Not knowing where our next coffee or stamp will come from, we gladly stop for both. This too will be part of our daily rhythm.

[A beautiful example of Portuguese tiles] 
Early on Tim earns his stripes as our chief way-finder. We dub him Tim the Navigator, a nod to the 15th century Portuguese prince/explorer Henry the Navigator. Yellow arrows can only get you so far. Using his mobile phone’s GPS, Tim is able to point us to a suitable sit-down lunch venue. The village café is packed with locals, surely a good sign. Better still the locals, taking us to be pilgrims, make room for us and help us with our orders. We end up going for the “pilgrim menu”, a three course meal, including wine, for just 8 Euros each! A fine way to cap off a morning's work, we think.

But after that the afternoon grows harder. Part of that is in a literal sense, as a lot of our walking is on ancient cobbles. Picturesque they may be, but after 20km or more, their unyielding unevenness starts to tell. Our feet are gripping and bending at unaccustomed angles. Soon my smallest member – the little toe on my left foot – is paining me. The others too are finding aches and blisters in various places. Already the caminho takes a toll.

[Map of the long road ahead; courtesy Portugal Green Walks] 
Conversely we’ve also heard that the caminho provides. As we walk alongside a eucalypt plantation, we recognise some Tasmanian blue gums and I find a large five-lobed gumnut wedged between some cobbles. It feels like a personal welcome to us from Portugal. 

[A Tasmanian blue gum nut nestled in the cobbles] 
And then as we pass a farm gate in a crooked, stone-walled lane, a farmer calls out to us. He’s recognised us as pilgrims, and wants to pass on a small blessing. He signals us to wait, and hurries into a field to pluck some plump, ripe tomatoes. He returns and presses one on each of us, asking only that we remember him in prayer when we get to Santiago. The caminho provides indeed, asking for prayers instead of GST.

[A kind farmer, 2nd from right, supplies us with tomatoes] 
On that first day we’re very ready to stop by the time we reach the village of Arcos. Our hopes rise when we start to see pilgrim houses, and fall when Tim’s device tells us our accommodation is on the far side of the village, perhaps another 2km. That too becomes part of the rhythm: tempering hopes; managing disappointments; walking on regardless. But eventually humble, moving feet overcome the distance. And a hot shower and a good lie down help to heal any disappointments. Our first day done, we’re starting to find our rhythm.

[Walking towards Arcos, Portugal]