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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To Walk the Camino or Not to Walk the Camino?

Torte de Santiago
When I started the Camino in early August I wondered if I would enjoy it this second time around. Now that I have completed it a week ago and have had time to reflect I would say an absolutely YES. 
It was very different this time around, many more hikers, probably 5 times as many, but also much more infrastructure to support the pilgrims. The last week of the hike it was so busy that at times I wondered if I was walking down the Camino or the Kalverstraat in downtown Amsterdam or Robson street in Vancouver. 
At times, that last week, I wondered if the entire world had descended on the Camino. However overall it was the same experience I had the first time around, one of solitude, sometimes loneliness, but one of simplicity and peacefulness. At times I was very tired, but satisfied that I had completed another section. Sometimes there was boredom because the terrain was not very interesting. Other times it was awe inspiring because the skies or the landscape were so fantastic. 
Sometimes it was the people you met, or the fact that you did not talk to a soul for 12 hours. It is so different from what we are used in daily life, that it was fun most of the time and boring at other times; always different and exiting and challenging. 
So would I do it again???? YES, at the drop of a hat I would do it again. But first I would hike some more trails in Holland because those are flat and not so exhausting :-)
Hope to see you on a trail somewhere!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Random Observations Along The Camino de Santiago

Random Thoughts Along the Camino de Santiago

"How hard can a week be?" I thought. Kees had talked about walking the Camino again ever since he did it 15 years ago. Five weeks of walking with a heavy backpack, day in, day out, were not exactly my cup of tea but I thought it would be fun to experience the last week of reaching Santiago together. I wanted to encourage him to do it. "Go!" I said.
I had good hiking shoes and walked on them much at home, into town and whenever I went for a hike. I took the bare minimum so my pack wasn't terribly heavy. But oh.. The slogging wasn't easy. Up hill, along muddy paths... I did 112 Km in a week. Compare that to the 720 Kees completed. And he faced real mountain ranges, and heat, lonely plateaus and cities. I just trudged through tiny villages and cool forests. A couple of days of rain but, in the end, also blue sky and sunshine.

It is always interesting to me to notice tiny little cultural differences in countries. Nothing earth shattering but interesting nonetheless. Here in Spain that includes pillows. In a double bed, there is one long pillow for two people. Why not two smaller ones so that you can each stomp and pummel and turn your pillow. But one long skinny one to share...

The menu de diaz, day menu, for hikers along the Camino, is also interesting. For 8 or 10 euros you get to choose from one appetizer: soup, salad (a very large mixed salad) or a large plate of pasta. After this comes the main plate: usually very pale fries, a very flat piece of pork or chicken or a piece of beef. No vegetables. Dessert is cake, pudding or icecream. The meal also comes with large, dry chunks of bread. No butter. And a glass of wine or water. Along the Camino, the specialty is Cake de Santiago: a fairly dry but tasty almond cake. I find it interesting that we can't get bacon and eggs for breakfast but for every other meal. Lunch is often bacon and eggs with bread. And hamburgers have a big fried egg on top of the meat. Most meat dinners also come with fried eggs. But breakfast is mostly just bread and jam or a croissant.
I was surprised to learn that a 'tortilla' is not at all the tortilla we know in North America! It's not a rolled up flat tortilla shell with meat and cheese etc. inside. A tortilla here is an omelette. A tortilla quaso is a wonderful, soft cheese omelette.

The villages through which we pass are very tiny, sometimes not more than 2or 3 houses and a barn. Many citizens living along the Camino have realized the pot of gold in their backyard. They have put plastic chairs out and offer coffee or lunch. They must make a bundle because the stream of pilgrims seems endless. People from all over the world hobble along, carrying packs and nursing their feet. Many have joined the Camino in Sarria, like I did. But the real ones come from much farther away - like Kees who passed the 700 KM mark today. There's no way I would do that...

We're picking up many Spanish words as we go and can order meals, ask for a room, etc.
I enjoy seeing the many farm yards as we pass. Flowers like fuchias, hydrangias, sunflowers. And vegetables like zucchini, pumpkins, Brussel sprouts, kale, carrots and potatoes are in abundance. We pass under grape vines in small villages and hear roosters crowing. Once in a while a farmer leads his cows down the road or we let a flock of sheep pass. We do a lot of slip sliding on the cobblestones...

And then, 6 days later, we arrived in Santiago. Suddenly there were major highways and many houses. We walked through the outskirts into the old heart of the city. More and more pilgrims congregated here but it was not the stream of people we had expected. Blue sky and sunshine made for a glorious last day. We reach the Cathedral - an emotional moment. We did it. Tomorrow we pick up our certificates as we show the many stamps we collected along the way in our pilgrims' passports. For now, we will drink a glass of wine to our accomplishments. I will nurse my two blisters and then?... We will have to come up with the next plan!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Smuggling Librarians!

Bienvenidos! Welcome in Venezuela!
I am learning many interesting things in Venezuela.
Did you know that the country is officially called 'the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela'?
The currency is the Venezuelan bolívar (popularly called "b's" (as in 'bees' not b.s.) and how many you get for a dollar depend on wether or not you buy them at the black market.
People are very friendly and outgoing. I always love being at an international school and listening to teachers who have lived and worked in so many different countries. They teach children that speak 3 or 4 languages, even in First Grade. And they aways have interesting stories of all the places they have lived.
I am staying with the librarian and we get along famously. We have pina coladas every night and enjoy many of the same things. Every morning we get picked up by taxi to go to school. The school has verandas and a large green courtyard. The children are so sweet. We eat lunch in the outside cafeteria and I go home in another taxi. Her condo has a beautiful pool and since the temperatures are a balmy 34º, we use it a lot. I'm doing presentations all day for students, parents and teachers. The kids are so lovely and excited. They all want their picture taken with me :-)

On the way through the city it feels a lot like the Philippines: half finished concrete buildings, lots of potholes in the roads, sidewalks that end abruptly. Palm trees. Stalls selling bananas or coca cola.

Food remains important. I've sampled many wonderful things: the warm fried cheese bread remains one of my favorites. We've had pastas, salads, barbecued meats.
Yesterday, to go for dinner, we got picked up in a huge SUV, some kind of heavy Ford. One teacher said to the driver "Tell her how much it costs to fill this thing up with gas!" I was thinking, 'Hhhmm... 100, 150 dollars in the US..' when the driver smiled and said, "Oh... about 20 cents." I wondered what kind of joke this was. But no, seriously, gas is practically free in Venezuela. The other person said he just paid a dollar for 75 gallons.... How can this be? Well, apparently it is one of the few perks that the government provides for the people. They produce gasoline here and provide it for next to nothing. In North America we think that this is an amazing, lucky perk for the people here and that their government is wise to provide it instead of sell it overseas. Here, however, people tell me that they would be happy to pay more for gasoline if that meant that roads would be fixed and other services provide. But, they say, if more is charged for gas we're not so sure the extra money actually goes to roads. It might end up in pockets.

I was told that, whenever people here want to protest something - high costs, or lack of products, power outages or political ideas - they gather in the streets and bang on pots and pans. Often a tweet will get more people together at a specific time and a pot-banging crowd gathers in no time.

Products can be very cheap here. Today I bought 2 cinnamons buns for breakfast, a 1.5 liter bottle of freshly squeezed orange juice and 2 pastries. Total cost was less than 4 dollars. But there is also a huge lack of some necessities.
The librarian who is hosting me asked if I could please bring a bottle of shampoo, because there is no shampoo or soap available anywhere. Some people were grading big old bars of soap with a cheese grinder to make detergent.

But the most hilarious story was that the librarian ordered my books from the States. She asked the bookseller to please pack the books in toiletpaper rolls, rather than in useless packing paper, because there is a serious shortage of toiletpaper here. The bookseller was happy to oblige.
But when customs opened a box of books, in addition to books they found toilet paper. They quickly went through all boxes and labeled the rolls as contraband. The librarian was fined for smuggling toiletpaper!
Can't trust those librarians one bit...


BUEN CAMINO that is what every pilgrim wishes every other pilgrim when we meet on the trail or passing a pilgrim resting somewhere. It sounds like 'BON CAMINO' and is usually the second greeting after 'Ola!'. Hola is used to greet any person, pilgrim or not, and is primarily used in the afternoon because morning greetings are usually Buenos Dias (good day) which is often shortened to Dias or even Das. Even if you know little or no Spanish, as I do, these words you'll learn pretty quickly just walking the camino. 
Other than that it depends on how much you want to learn or how much you rely on the Spaniards to speak English. I found in 1999 that people under 25-30 would usually speak some English because they apparently learn it in school.
Today that age group has grown to 40-45 and it makes communicating a little easier. In the beginning of the hike you can figure out some of the words on a menu, later on, after having seen some English language menus you even start to recognize the Spanish words for certain dishes. Although a few times I have been surprised with what they put in front of me. Not to worry, usually you are hungry enough to be brave and try it and most of the time it is a pleasant surprise. 

The town I am in right now, Sarria, is the starting point of the camino for about 25% of the people who walk it. It shows because the town at times looks like it is overrun by people who seem unprepared for the 100 km hike. They either have huge packs, or no packs and use a taxi or 'porter' service to have their luggage moved to the next place. I met a few of them and in some cases I wonder if they will make it beyond the second stage, however I hope I am wrong because some are spending a lot of money to get here and to stay in expensive hotels along the way. Four elderly people from Australia admitted that they rarely had walked more than 15 km a day and never for a whole week every day. You just hope that they don't get themselves into trouble. A friend with whom I walked at the start of the camino for a few days, arrives in Santiago today or tomorrow and reported that after Sarria de trail got a whole lot busier and she was seeing a lot of white legs walking ahead and behind her. Anyway, I'll find out for myself in a few days. Tuesday we hope to start tackling the last 110 km. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

All The Way to Sarria

I have been falling down on the job I guess, because my last blog was from 175 km ago: the day after I left Leon. I am now in Sarria, only 110 km to go to Santiago. I am waiting here for Margriet who is teaching in Venezuela and should be here in about 5 days or so. 

Two days out of Leon I arrived in Astorga, one of the typical, cute Spanish towns in north western Spain. Since I was ahead of schedule I decided to stay an extra day there and found a little hotel on the edge of town. I explored the city and then discovered that I was extremely lucky to have decided to stay there. I was having dinner on the edge of a large plaza when someone stopped in the middle of the plaza and installed a sound system. 
I had seen a stage on the edge of the plaza, but no activity. However that changed rapidly. Within an hour there were hundreds of chairs set up and people came from all sides. It turned into a huge dance festival that entire evening. What a shame that I did not have my camera with me! Beautiful colorful, traditional clothing was worn by the participants, exciting Spanish music with dances on the stage all evening. How lucky I was!
Enough for a few bocadeos, ham sandwiches

After Astorga the terrain stared to change and become much more interesting, more hills, more greenery, more small scale farming, more small villages you walked through, what a difference with the days before Leon. 

The following nights I stayed in some of the nicest little cities Spain has to offer: Rabanal, Molinaseca, Villagranca, Triacatela and finally Sarria. 

Again, the terrain changed more and more, higher and higher hills, more different green colors, steep terrain, difficult hiking through villages where the cows moved through the streets with the resulting slippery surfaces. 

I walked into one of the nicest provinces: Galicia, absolutely gorgeous views down valleys and across hills high enough to be called mountains by some people. Until the last day before Sarria the weather was great. Only the last day I got soaking wet after 6 hours of rain and more rain. 

Sometimes the food is good, sometimes not so much. Last night I had a terrific pizza in an Italian restaurant, a few nights earlier I looked forward to pizza which was advertised on a large sign out front of the restaurant, but it turned out to be a 'Costo' frozen pizza warmed up in the microwave, what a disappointment.  

A few days ago I walked up to one of the highest points on the camino: La Cruz de Ferra, it is a large pile of rocks that is created by the pilgrims. You are supposed to bring a stone from your home area and leave it on the top of this mountain. It was started around the year 1000 by a monk called Gaucelmo. He erected a cross on the site that was an original altar built by the Romans for their god Mercury. Since the 11th century every pilgrims and there have been many millions have brought a stone to put on the pile. Of course it has grown into a large pile over the centuries. Several months ago my grandson Nico gave me a rock he picked up from the beach when we were out walking one day. I told him that I would take that rock with me to Spain to put in a special place. And carry it I did. I did put it on the pile of rocks and made my wish as you may when you bring a rock. Unfortunately that day my ipad refused to take pictures and I could not sent him a picture of my putting it on there. However with my other camera I did did pictures and as soon as I get home I can show him. 

So now I have landed in Sarria. I found a cheap hostel where I can stay this week, found a bookstore with a few English language books and will be just fine holed up for awhile. I"ll check and see if I can catch a bus to Santiago to pick up Margriet from the airport and then we'll take the bus back to Sarria to walk the last 110 km of the camino together. I can't wait to see her after 5 weeks on my own. 
So for about a week there won't be much to report on this blog, hopefully Margriet is experiencing some interesting times and can report on it.
Talk to you next week,
Galicia before the rain

Sunday, September 7, 2014

I'm Leaving On a Float Plane...

Buenos Diaz from Venezuela!
Climbing into the little floatplane, that held 4 other people, I started on my amazing race to Venezuela. 
Salt Spring Air is fabulous. Halfway across the water to Vancouver, the pilot spotted this incredible tall ship. He circled it low so that we could get a good look of the wooden decks, the masts, the sails.  Check it out:
I took some nice aerial shots with my phone but the photos wouldn't send once I got to Vancouver - so I can't post them here. 

View from the condo
The next flight took me to L.A. and from there I was on a midnight flight to Miami. Slept like a log all the way. In Miami airport I had many hours to wait but found a great little coffee shop with wifi. Then the 4th and final flight took me to Barcelona, Venezuela. It was cool to fly over the Atlantic and then the Carribean - seeing the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti/Dominican Republic. I'd never been to South American so am learning more geography as I go. For instance, I didn't know that Costa Rica and Venezuela are basically at the same longitude rather than north/south of each other.  
Making arepas.

It is a balmy 34ºC here and quite humid. I'm staying with a wonderful teacher/librarian who feels like an old friend (she did visit me on Salt Spring this summer!). I booked a few extra days so right now it feels like a holiday. Turns out that today and tomorrow are Virgin del Valle Festival, a religious holiday. First, her library assistant came over to cook a traditional Venezuelan breakfast. She made scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes, with arepas (Ah-ray-pass) - round bread made from corn flour and baked slowly on a special flat baking sheet. We had sliced avocados, fried plantains and freshly squeezed orange juice with it. Pretty awesome, what a welcome!

Coast of Venezuela
Then we spend some time in and by the pool under the palm trees (while Arnout emailed a photo of the first snow fall in northern Canada... heehee). We walked to the beach where the festival was in full swing, with lots of people, music and stalls with food. At the first stall we bought the most perfect pina coladas I've ever had.. Good festival.

Next we sampled warm tequeños, deep-fried breadsticks with melted, white cheese inside. Yummy. And of course we had to take home tres leches cake and torte de chocolate to eat on the balcony in the warm breeze after our bean soup and wine. I must say... I like Venezuela so far! But.. things could deteriorate once I have to go to work...  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Did You Pack This Bag Yourself?

This is Margriet - interrupting Kees' regular blogs from the Camino. I am now 'on my way' to join him there. But first I have to do workshops at an international school in Venezuela. I've never been to South America. Costa Rica was the closest. So I am looking forward to arriving there soon.
I left home yesterday for 2 months... (Nico put his arms around my neck, at the float plane dock and said "I like it better when you are home." THAT did not make leaving any easier...)
After Venezuela I will join Kees to hike the final week of the Camino. Then I'm happy to be speaking at a conference for international school librarians.
Then we'll fly to Amsterdam and from there to Zambia. I've never been to Africa either, so that's two check marks on the bucket list.
In Zambia it's volunteer work with the book bus and at an elephant orphanage.
So... what do you pack for 2 months, in which you need to have some dressy clothes, some old clothes, mostly hot but also cold (the last week of October in the Netherlands).... I need to carry my Camino pack for a week. AND I do not want to check luggage on any flight... So what do you do?

First of all, I found the perfect luggage. One small wheelie suitcase was already living in my basement. It's small enough to be cabin luggage. I'm allowed a second piece so a small pack. I still have a small purse around my neck. If anyone argues that this is a third piece, I can pack it inside the large pack.

For the pack I decided on 40L as the ideal size. It needs to hold everything for a week including a sleeping bag. And it's not as huge as the pack I'm wearing in the photo above. Carrying that on our last 2 hikes was too heavy.

So what's inside?
Most people tend to take their best things. I take clothes I'm ready to part with. Sometimes I even buy something specific at the second hand store so that I can leave it behind when I don't need it anymore. I packed one very thin, very light silk jacket that makes anything look dressy. One lightweight dress and a blouse I can wear as a jacket on it. 2 pairs of capri's, both of which I can leave in Africa. A pair of long pants for the last week. A fleecy, some tank tops. A nightshirt. One pair of flip flops that will stay in Africa, one pair of sandals and one pair of sturdy hiking shoes. Not boots but shoes - much easier to pack.
A large scarf - which I've already used as blanket in the plane.
Books - yes, I can't travel without books. But I selected titles I can part with as I go. A toothbrush that folds up. 2 small tubes of toothpaste. One cream that is also medicinal - for chapped lips, disinfectant, etc. All in one.
I also have a fair supply of pencils and bookmarks for kids in Africa. And a small photo album to show them my home town and grandchildren.

So.. we're off. Stayed tuned for Kees' next report from the Camino and mine from Venezuela!