The Great Jawlk Forward

So, I’ve started jawlking. That’s right. I neither jog, nor walk exclusively, I jawlk. Basically, I start jogging, and then I stop at some lights and decide to just walk the next block. Or sometimes my iPod starts a crappy song, and so I slow to a walk, fix the problem, and then jog again.

I don’t know if I have just coined a new word for a new breed of exercisers or anything, but you know, maybe I have. Get on it.

Today was my second adventure home, jawlking. Last time – my first time at attempting the mammoth 8km back to my home from work – I walked 75%, jogged 25%, but tonight it was the opposite.

It wasn’t long into my jawlk that I realised that the thermal top, albeit short-sleeved, was not a good idea. Nor, was the lack of a sports bra. (Whilst possibly amusing/enjoyable for watchers on, for me it was a negative that could have been avoided.)

I was feeling great, and only slightly affected by a few odd stares or ogles by people on scooters/in cars/walking/smoking at tram stops. See – I have a bag. It’s not heavy, but it’s fairly bulky, and I tighten it up high on my back and hold each strap with my hands as I run. So, I look either seriously unco, or really, very hardcore.

But I’m not hardcore. (Maybe I should get some sort of gadget, like a pedometer watch/heart rate monitor.)

Last time I jawlked home, I took the footpath on the side of St Georges Road, avoiding the bike track that runs up the main road. It’s made for people who exercise and it can be busy.

Tonight, I headed straight for the Exercise Highway, the Expressway of Motivation – straight for the St Georges Road bike way.

I crossed the road, and let about 5 bikes and two runners go in front (they didn’t have bags – oh, and I’m slow), and some nice smiles hit me suddenly.

The whole jawlk home I had felt a bit self conscious, a bit out of whack, but here, here I was A PART OF A COMMUNITY! Everyone was doing something a little bit awesome! Sure there are some tools, but the people I saw today were nice. Some of them dinged their bells when they passed (I was meandering a bit too much on my side), some said “Thank you!”, and then there was that guy on the unicycle.

Seriously, there is a guy who rides a unicycle.

But here we are, some sort of crazy, liquid, ever flowing, always transient little group of like minded people, mostly travelling in the one direction. There are the seriously lycra-d up people speeding past all of us, the odd people like the guy on the unicycle, the easy-going hipster girls on their high-handled bikes with the flowers woven into their baskets, and then just the average Joes and Josies, travelling home from work by bike or foot to escape the traffic, the transport and the hoards of people.

I know what you’re thinking – two days of trekking home and suddenly she’s a usual, and part of a community? Fair play, it’s been two days, and I’m sore as hell, but I’m excited about the jawlking – and hey, I think it’ll catch on.


The Ultimate Sporting Moment

Sport has always made me cry. Be it James Hird’s goal against West Coast when he hugs the supporter in the crowd, or the winning shot in a tennis tournament when the player falls to the ground in joy, or witnessing efforts of sheer determination and strength – a marathon runner battling through great pain to continue metre by metre. Don’t even start me on the waterworks that occur when a sportsperson stops to help their opponent, John Landy style.

A sporting montage (especially with dramatic or inspired music) therefore reduces me to a blubbering mess. When the Olympics come around and every ad break is preceded by an amazing montage, or the One Day Cricket Season with those slow motion highlights – my eyes are welling up every 5 minutes.

Watching pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral Square is Santiago de Compostela is the ultimate sporting tear jerker. So, I know that completing a religious pilgrimage is not exactly a sport, but it is the final moment of a great feat – the Camino can be the most challenging thing in a person’s life – testing one’s endurance and strength, both physically and mentally.

I cried last time when I arrived at the Cathedral in 2007.

This time I did not.

At least not until I watched some other pilgrims enter the square. One large group came in clapping and cheering, some of them hobbling along, and then after this group (not on the video, I’m sorry!), one lady, being supported by two friends on either side of her, came in, crying.

And then I started.

(I even cried watching the movie about the Camino. The Way, 2010 – good movie).

Pilgrims you meet on the Camino don’t necessarily tell you their reason for walking. Some may not have a reason for walking. But there are many, many stories behind pilgrims’ journeys, and just hearing one or two gives you an idea about the motivation driving some people along The Way. Some walk in memory of people they’ve lost, some walk to get away from their ‘normal’ lives, some walk because they want to test themselves, some knowing that they are injured or sick, and will perhaps have to stop before the end.

So watching the final moments of the Camino, even those of someone you have never, and will never meet, is an emotional thing to see. Even walking the path between the Cathedral and our hotel while in the city, pilgrims would pass us, mere minutes away from the end of their immense journey. Even this I could not watch without some dust getting caught in my eye. (One day, an amazing Opera pair were singing under the archway at the entrance to the Square, turning the scene of entering pilgrims into a brilliant, tear-jerking, real-life montage.)

And who knows, when I walked into the square, with my beaming face and excited steps, and grabbed Troy for a hug and a kiss of congratulations, maybe, someone, somewhere in the square – another pilgrim, or a tourist on a guided tour – might have been watching, and reached for a tissue.

P.S.  I nearly even started crying when I was editing this post, thinking about the crying.

Stories from the Camino – Part 1

We were of the few pilgrims that day who put our faith in the Yellow Arrows, and went the ‘true way’, as opposed to a shorter, new coastal route. As we trekked inland, up and down hills, around and through people’s farms, through dense bushland and then onto the highway, we were beginning to regret that choice. But, faithful that something would make that decision worth it, we pushed on happily.

And what did we find on that remote and unpopular route? Homegrown cider. All natural, and at $2 for a litre bottle, a bargain! Another pilgrim was leaving the farm house as we were discussing purchasing the drink. The skinny Spanish man reassured us it was worth it, and that he had had many a bottle with the producer during his stay on the local’s farm.

We chucked our money in the honesty box, popped a bottle with the opener that was connected to the bucket for the empty bottles, poured the golden liquid into our water bottle, and off we went. We chugged that cider as we walked, and later on passed the same pilgrim contentedly sitting beneath some trees enjoying a late lunch. We wished him to enjoy his meal, and he wished us a buen camino.

The same skinny Spanish man we found to be staying at our hostel in Deba that night, and he told us that he had been travelling for some time, staying on working farms, in religious communities, and now walking the Way. His English was good, and sing song like, and like many ESL speakers, he carefully chose his words so that sometimes his sentences seemed like prose. He gave off an aura of someone who had been wandering around the world his whole life, never static, never tied down, and always waiting for life to choose for him the way that he would go – not the other way around.

One of the other pilgrims with us, Lovely Austrian Girl mentioned her home town, and of course he had a story about there. “I met a woman from there once,” he said, “At the Vienna airport, while I was waiting for my plane. I had spent many days there waiting, and I met this woman – she was very beautiful – but she was waiting for her daughter to come off the plane. I met her, just before I had to leave, and I didn’t know whether to leave, or to stay with her… And I think she was a very important woman… when I met her, she asked me if I knew who she was, and I said no. Her daughter was my age! And there I was, talking to her mother, who told me more and more about herself as we talked… she told me that her daughter was coming back from Saudi Arabia because her husband had died, and he had been killed by the Secret Service – not the CIA, maybe another Secret Service –he was someone high up in the Saudi Arabia Royal Family. And so this woman, she was looking around the airport, and she believed the Secret Service was watching her… You know, she spoke true words – from her heart, and I was very happy then with her.”

He stopped to draw on his cigarette, and the three of us sat, quite enthralled by his story.

“I had to make a decision, in maybe two minutes, whether to stay or leave… She liked me, and – you know – I liked her, and had a proposition for me, to stay with her, but I had to decide so quickly, it was the final call for my plane!”

He looks reminiscent, but not regretful. “I didn’t stay with her. But you know, I believe that when you think there is nothing for you to do, something appears. An opportunity, a chance. I was going home, and I did not know where I would go next, so I thought, maybe this is my new turn of my life, and I do believe in God and things happening for a special reason. But I thought I better go home on my plane. But when my imagination takes me away, I think of what would have happened. Maybe I would move to Saudi Arabia, with a beautiful life, I would never need anything… But I do not know.”

“So who was she?” The Austrian girl asked.

“She was a congresswoman. Very powerful and wealthy woman.”

We are all smiling, taken away by this man’s story. I ask him what he will do after the Camino, which seems to be like asking him the meaning of life (although he would probably know that). He is taken aback – “After the Camino? I don’t know that. I will get out of the Basque country, and when I cross the border, I will decide. I do not know.”

We hear from all the pilgrims that took the new coastal route today, that the way was difficult and tiring. They commend us on choosing the ‘true way’, and we delight in the fact that we spared ourselves a rough hike. If we had not followed that route, we would not have found the cider, and not have met this fascinating man, and perhaps not have heard his remarkable stories.

Day 4: The Yellow Arrowed Road

“Follow the arrows, who knows where they will go… arrows go up! Arrows go down. Arrows take you to an octopus! (da na da na da da) they take you to your hat….” – Play School song, in my head – a lot – on this walk.

This morning we lost the Arrows. And thus, momentarily lost our Way. The entire Camino is marked out with yellow painted arrows, some big, some small, some are curved or angled, some on poles for signs, some on fences, some on trees, houses, roads – they could be anywhere. But they are always there, somewhere. We are literally following the Yellow Arrows across the Iberian Peninsula. Is that weird?

The Yellow Arrows are reassuring. They comfort us, take us on the right road, turn into an A for an albergue and a bed, and into Yellow Crosses when we think about turning down the wrong way. Importantly, they have rarely been sabotaged in the decade or so that they have existed along the various Camino routes that can be walked. Sometimes you wonder: how did they get here? Did someone walk the whole Camino with a yellow spray can? Why did they choose yellow? Did they consider a reflective material? Did the residents mind? How often does someone check the accuracies of the Arrows? Are there inaccuracies?

This morning though, we left a little early, (being motivated to get our big day underway) and in the dark, we lost them. We found them eventually (after walking half a kilometre up a hill and then back-tracking to the last one we saw) but made the joint decision that we will never set off before sunrise if the track might be dark or overgrown.

Sometimes it is like a scavenger hunt, and especially in the cities, turns into a “who can find the Arrow first” game. You walk a little slower, looking from street sign, to store wall, to the path and to the light posts, your heart beating a little faster as you suddenly feel a tad lost and disconcerted, where’s the next Arrow… where have they gone? Have they stopped…?!

But then, “There it is!” you or your walking buddy says, and you walk with more certainty, reassured that the journey continues. All you have to do, is follow the Yellow Arrowed Road, and you will get to where you want to go.

Day 3: Basquing in National Fervour

Why can’t Australia have fun like they do in Spain? The festive atmosphere has taken a hold of this country and filled it with love and fun that is a contagion that quickly infects travellers, and certainly makes me envious. I loved San Sebastian when I first visited here when I was 21, and it seems I still do. The people party from whenever they feel like their first wine or beer, they stay up until they fall down, and they spend their siesta time between their split shifts basking and swimming at the beach. To be here now though, in August, has been a blessing, to let us truly see the character of San Sebastian at its best.

The festive season has brought the best of the best street performers to the beautiful coastal city, and throughout our day of roaming the streets, we witness incredible dancing, stunts, musicians, artists and even a man who is at least 50 showing amazing Pele-esqe soccer skills that enrapture anyone walking past. (I watch three fathers each with their daughters in prams completely mesmerized by him, like three schoolboys watching a sporting idol.)

The festivities are set off with a National Holiday, and everything is about National pride and love, and the music, literature, sport and traditions that make this country unique and wonderful.

What I must clarify, of course, is that we are not in Spain at all. We are in the Basque country, the fiercely patriotic and proud region that covers a heart shaped area of the North of Spain, and some of France. The people in this region, who have their own distinct culture, language and history from the country they are governed by, will not rest until they are made independent, and remind the travellers within their borders that they are independent, at least in spirit. Posters and stickers on walls, light posts, windows and doors warn us: “Tourist remember, you are NOT in SPAIN or FRANCE – you are in the BASQUE country.” Basque flags hang off flagpoles, boats, and house windows, and many a person wears the Basque colours, or T-shirts demanding independence. San Sebastian, one of the biggest cities, is known as Donostia.

The week long fiesta here is a strong and sure demonstration of the strength of Basque pride. The first firework set off is the lighting up of the Basque name for their country, “Euskal”, and the celebrations are sponsored by the phone company “Euskotel”. More than a few of the fireworks are in the Basque colours – an explosion of red, green and white. (Upon seeing a house decked out in a pattern of red, green and white flowers, I muse “I’m surprised their amber traffic lights aren’t white!”)

The Basque country will most probably never gain full independence (it is an autonomous region, but movement for its independence was knocked back overwhelmingly by Spain’s parliament in 2005, and then a proposed petition for 2008 never took place). Spain will not let it go, and it is a contentious issue all over Spain – although here, what is wanted is very clear. And what is sure, is that for Basque pride to wane or be forgotten, a complete turnaround in the psyche of the people here will be necessary. And if they continue to raise their families rich in the history and traditions of their country, and continue to speak their language so proudly as they do now (there is no other language that Euskadi has been found to be linked with) then at least unofficially, the Basque country will always exist.

And where there are people who still have faith (just like Dumbledore says) then there is always hope.


Day 2: Sore, but in San Seb

The trek today was quite difficult; we leave San Juan at about 8, and after a coffee with Funny Spanish Man and our German friend, we set off over the mountains. Along breath-taking coast line we trod, and meet an interesting local out for a morning jog. The sweaty man entreats us to take the coastal option – the cyclists’ route – when we reach an upcoming intersection. He mentions that some pilgrims choose not to believe his suggestion that the coastal path is the most scenic and beautiful. He leaves us, going the opposite way, but then he miraculously appears, even sweatier than before, at the intersection of paths where we must choose which way to walk. We go his way, but, as suspicious as any tourist that has travelled through Asia can be, we keep looking behind us in case he and his mates are actually bandits ready to rob gullible pilgrims.

No bandits come, just some more locals out for their morning jog, and we feel silly having doubted the lovely man. The scenery is amazing. We cross a semi-ruined Roman Aquaduct, and muse over the direction of Greenland, and the location of the ill-fated Titanic.

8km later, we are trudging into San Sebastian. Tired and weak, our bodies still adjusting to the conditions of walking and carrying our gear. Everything hurts. I am grumpy and sore. An amazing peach brings me back to life for a short time. We once again gain the last two available beds in the Youth Hostel. We could have stayed in the Pilgrim Hostel, but this doesn’t open until 4pm, and we would have had to endure a 4 hour wait with our bags and no freedom to explore. The beach was calling, and the town seemed to be buzzing with excitement about something. The hostel staff informed us that the building was open until 4am –because it was a week-long fiesta (a curfew that many of our roommates would make full use of).

Just before 11pm, we venture out of the hostel and find the beach front so packed with people it is difficult to move, and we know something big is about to happen when we see a man hosing down a fenced off area – wetting the gardens, park benches, and basically anything within the barriers. The palm tree fronds are tied upwards, tucked away from whatever was going to happen. It dawns on us that we are in Spain – either it’s fireworks, or something is going to be set on fire. Just as I figure out how to ask the woman next to me when something would begin, BOOM! It starts.

A massive explosion rocks the thousands of people gathered along the beach front, and the fireworks dance in the night sky. The crowd shows their satisfaction by applauding in the brief pause that ends each set of the display. I have never seen such amazing fireworks – but if anyone knows how to impress using lights and fire in the sky – it’s the Spanish.

There is so much joy in the air, and when the show is over, we disperse with the rest of the crowd into the city centre. The buskers start up and we watch an impressively implausible breakdancing show, as young children dance around as if it’s not midnight at all.

As we walk home along the beach, we pass groups of backpackers who have found themselves homeless with all the city’s hotels and hostels completo, and they are fashioning small backpack and sleeping bag ‘camps’ on the sand, huddling together for security and warmth. (The next morning we pass a couple on their mats, hidden inside their sleeping bags, but we can’t see their backpacks and hope to God that they weren’t stolen during the night.)

Tomorrow we will stay another day, to explore the city properly, so we settle down to sleep and wait for the other travellers to stumble in at 4am after a wonderful night’s revelling in the celebrations.

Day 1: Weighing up the Way

I am literally swimming in my own sweat. My arms are glistening, my fringe is stuck to my forehead, and my T-shirt is drenched.

Our plan was to go to the Post Office this morning, and send onwards to Santiago all our unnecessary belongings that are filling our backpacks to the brim. But alas, today is fiesta, day off, public holiday, can’t-find-food-to-save-yourself-day. So, no post offices open.

We could have put off starting the walk a day, but instead decided to head to San Sebastian, the next big town, over two days, and send the stuff from there. That means two days of walking with in excess of 15kg on our backs.

15kgs you say? Easy peasy! Easy if you are walking to the shops, easy if you are jumping from aeroplane to hotel and to a train and maybe a ferry. But for the run of the mill Pilgrim traipsing up and down mountains and over undulating hills, anything over 10kgs is really ridiculous. Last time I did this, I carried maybe 8kg. Two tops, two bottoms, a sleeping bag, a jacket, sandals, soap. Today, being all tech-savvy, I am also carrying a laptop, an iPod, an eReader and all the related chargers. On top of that, I have at least 3 other outfits, a Yak shawl and a small umbrella that I might need after the walk, but definitely not during it.

People look at our massive bags – did I mention I have a small guitar in mine!? – and give a glance that says, “ooh, they haven’t figured the whole Camino thing out yet. Novices.”

Somehow though, despite the extra weight – and perhaps through eagerness to get to our first night’s stay and take the bags off – we set an absolute cracking pace. Even with the detour to the closed post office, and the stop for discussion over coffee about a possible course of action, we soon overtake people from our Irun hostel that had left an hour before we did. We pass the Dutchies and the German Pair, a Slovakian man whose pilgrim staff is actually a traditional wind instrument, Chain Smoking Drunk Pilgrim, and the excitable Michelle from America.

Along the way we meet a funny Spanish man, he is over 60, who lifts my bag to feel the weight and tells me I have good legs. After a short chat – he is from Andalusia, where they play fabulous Flamenco he says, noting the tuning pegs sticking out of my backpack – we leave him behind, only to have him pass us on a break. He asks the time as he can’t read what his phone says. It’s 11:50. “11?” He asks in Spanish. “No, no, not on-ce,” I say, searching for the word for 12… “It’s a little bit before midday!” I say. “Muy bien!” He says, commending my Spanish, which he can see impressed myself more than him. We pass Funny Spanish Man once more, with him calling out an English “See you later!” after us.

Still powering along – although the steep parts deflate me immensely – and with an energetic push through the last few kilometres, we arrive early in Pasaje de San Juan, looking out over a stunning fishing village, with the small gap of the bay offering a glimpse of the ocean beyond. A venture into town provides us with a few cold beers and a sandwich, which we enjoy in the main square and watch some of our pilgrim acquaintances arrive. The Dutchies, the German Pair and Funny Spanish Man all join us at the town’s pilgrim hostel.

The lady hospitalero takes some of us for a tour of the church (to which the hostel is connected) and lovingly shows us the bells that are run by a 300 year old contraption that keeps time by a series of cogs and wheels. Funny Spanish Man spends most of the time babbling about his shoes (the lovely girl translating the Spanish explanations for me looks completely confused/amused) and then he animatedly instructs me to lock the door when he and the other girls are up the bell tower stairs.

It is now bed-time (“don’t make noise before 7, but everyone’s out at 8!” the lady in charge tells us) and all the pilgrims are slowly retiring to their beds. “Goodnight” is whispered in many a language and accent, as we curl up on our sleeping bags and mats and hope to God the bed bugs are not out.

This is why you do the Camino: to meet women passionate about cogs, Slovakian men who carry metre and a half-long flutes, and elderly Spanish men who, even if they were speaking English, you know you wouldn’t understand a word of what they are saying.