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]

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