Big ideas

from Littlehuan


1 Comment

The Young Ones?

One of the most memorable encounters of my journey was with Jorge and Alfonso, who responded with generosity to a Couchsurfing request that I made before I set out. When they heard about my stolen gear and passport in Ponferrada, they were the first people on the phone to me. They offered all they had to help me. These two people have shown me more beauty than the great cathedral of their city, the snow-dusted Picos de Europa or all the art in the Guggenheim at Bilbao. This post is dedicated to them.

The Lads in Leon

The Lads in Leon

Jorge met me in the big cathedral square in Leon. I’ve spent a little time since I encountered him waiting in public squares or bars for hosts I don’t know. In Bilbao I sat for maybe half an hour, wondering if the long winter shadow which preceded the next arrival would be that of a generous soul who had offered me shelter that night. Guessing that it wasn’t from the gait, pace and deportage of a shadow was perfect entertainment for a people-watcher. A insistent but unhurried arrival, with openness in the shoulders is a good clue. In Bilbao I had a better one- Pintxa arrived on an unloaded touring bike, commanding the streets with aplomb.

Jorge and I arrived at a fairly central flat, and secreted the bike in the basement. Living arrangements seemed fluid. My arrival rang more changes, as I was to take Jorge’s usual room, and he would take the couch. So perhaps he’s the couchsurfer, then, I joked. Though I couldn’t have been happier to be there, Jorge was full of apologies. The place is small, your room is cold, it’s not so clean, there is no hot water… In fact the modest nature of the place made me more grateful, not less. I loved it, but ‘lived in’ is a euphemism too far. Knowing it was guys sharing a flat, I chose my welcome gift well. As the beers were passed round out of my pannier, everyone seemed to relax.

With flat mate Alfonso acting as translator when needed, Jorge explained his life to me as we sat in the smoky front room on comfy, well-worn sofas. He found what work there was in Spain as an occasional swimming teacher. But his passion was clearly poetry. His gestures were magnified, his narrow facial features animated whenever the subject arose. We talked of my songwriting, and of looking for meaning in the seemingly mundane. I mentioned my poet friend Seamus Kelly’s blog Thinking Too Much, an affliction shared by Jorge and I.

(Though this ride promised so much time for reflection, I found that the bike is a better tool for quieting the mind than opening it. Practical tasks of finding food and shelter, and so many new stimuli from the environment have led me to satisfied slumber at the end of each day, not creative energy. So I’ve not written much since I’ve been out here, though I thought I would.)

Jorge’s Magnum Opus is a work of love for his girlfriend, which comprises a verse of poetry for every kilometre which separates their respective homes in Leon and San Sebastián. I’d ridden each of those kilometres. I felt their distance, and mine, from home. Each short verse paints a deep image, some of hope, of loss, or of love. Love beyond distance, time, or even death. Jorge’s work had inspired an artist friend to create some of the images the poems inspired, and in the true spirit of art for all, fly-posted some around the city. Please, visit the collection here, to see them all.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

I am grey, and you have all the blue of the sky.

image

We beat as one.

Alfonso seemed the more brash and streetwise of my two companions that night. He’d lived in Ireland, spoke with easy humour and had an excellent command of English. He walked his big old dog around the streets of Leon as if he owned them. He and Jorge made a good double act. I can’t help thinking that the world Jorge inhabits is a little harsh, given his gentle nature. With Alfonso around though, I think he’ll be ok.

It turned out there were more than two guys sharing the flat, but one was away at his stall in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, at the seemingly famous Christmas market I’d passed through a couple of days previously, selling his artisanal soaps. It’s likely I walked past his stall. I’d been enchanted by the costumes, music and juggling. I was even invited to join the piper with my penny whistle at a gig that night, when he’d exchanged his local pipes in the key of C with Ulilean ones in D to match my whistle. Sadly I had more distance to cover, so I declined.

When I thought back, the itinerant, bohemian occupants, the lack of hot water and the ‘lived in’ feel (I felt I must rise earlier than the residents just to clean the kitchen…) all gave the place the feeling of a squat, and it did feel like I’d stepped into a Spanish version of The Young Ones. But lazy caricature says nothing of the warmth and generosity of these people. In this little place, amongst the spilt tobacco, and in the local bar, I never felt more welcomed, or at home.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

There is a time.

“There is a time for all things, and a season for everything under the sun” Ecclesiastes 3:1

There is a face and a place which will always be imprinted on my memory. The place is the vast, flat plain between Burgos and Leon. For the second time I had the feeling of a pathway laid only for me. The N120 was a companion for much of my trip, its kilometre markers counting ever upward from 1 to 320 as I slowly passed by and finally turned off its course at Astorga. This original road had been superseded by a motorway, but instead of widening the existing carriageway, they simply built a whole new road a couple of fields away, leaving me with acres of Tarmac beneath only my wheels.

It could be argued that my paved Camino was a more authentic one. Walkers tramped an unsealed path often adjacent to the road, but it is likely that the original camino (it simply means Way) was built and improved until it became the surface along which I often rolled. At times of heavy traffic, to reach a village or just for a change of scene I would join their Camino. Andromeda, my trusty bike, seemed equally at home on both surfaces.

Yes, this was an empty place, but not one of solitude, as for a glorious 24 hours I had the company of Eyke. (Pronounced Ike. Yes, his sister is called Tina) A jockey, who worked in his home of Bremen, around Germany, and for a time in Newmarket; he possessed the drawn, hollow face of a man for whom food is an occupational hazard and tobacco is a meal replacement. Its lines told tales of pre-dawn waking and a life spent outside in harsh weather. I shared with him the song of the Jolly Plougboys which Kate Rusby had sung at a gig I was at a few weeks before. As a young, pony-obsessed girl the 4am starts it details put her off horses for life. Other creases betrayed a man who smiles easily and frequently. His journey had taken him the length of Germany, across the Alps and from France into Spain by foot and by bicycle. His wander without end required bags and a Croozer trailer, two tents, and quite the largest sleeping-bag I’ve seen. A couple of miles on his bike taught me the lesson of the old woman in Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, that Andromeda was indeed light, fast and nimble, and not at all heavy or slow.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Eyke and his bike in typical pose.

Perhaps because of his racing life he used expletives more frequently and effectively than anyone I know. He railed most at the lack of woodland. “What kind of a country cuts down all the f***ing trees!” We were both puzzled at the “Private Hunting” signs. “COTO PRIVADO DI CAZA” they exclaimed, in a landscape that seemed to support only bare, brown soil and weak, pale grass. Perhaps the red kites and kestrels which soared and hovered above us all day knew differently.

Our sometimes buoyant but often deep conversation, his aptitude for ignoring hunger and the empty villages, closed for business meant that it was 5 o’ clock before we stopped for lunch, and it was then we decided to camp together for the night. We slept soundly and comfortably as tent twins in a narrow strip of ground between a wall and a drainage ditch. The moonless night provided stories that sparkled like the stars. As morning dawned and the sun made stars of every frosty surface we both knew that the time for this relationship

Tent twins

Tent twins

was at a close, and the season for new ones was beginning. Perhaps that very day Eyke was making the decision to finally turn his wheels toward home. A hugged goodbye, a snapped picture and an exchange of addresses proved only the penultimate act of this brief friendship, as our shared ritual of the morning espresso stop saw us meet at the next village! But onward I pressed, to the next encounter…

image


Leave a comment

Hot water, helping hands.

As usual when heading towards a host, the road seemed long and strewn with minor obstacles. I’d ridden under the Milky Way the night before to leave myself a little less to do, but this was still a journey that would take me from the deserted forest of Les Landes, through the urban conglomeration of Bayonne and Biarritz, and into a village nestled beneath the towering, snow-clad peaks of the Pyrenees. It was raining, and frequent stops to check my direction slowed me. At times all roads seemed to lead to the motorway, or something that looked scarily like one, as all living, working and transport must be squeezed in here between the mountains and the sea. Eventually my climb above Saint Jean de Luz was rewarded by my final descent into Urrugne, and my first warmshowers experience with Ingrid and Jon.

Ingrid and previous guest http://www.mundubicyclette.be/

Ingrid and previous guest http://www.mundubicyclette.be/

The first thing that struck me was that indeed, this was a warm shower. After a week in the woods, endless buckets of hot water poured over one’s head is quite some experience. Instantly as belongings that were dirty became clean, what was wet became dry and what was cold became warm I knew that these were people who understood the needs of a soggy cyclist. Jon and Ingrid have travelled Vietnam by bicycle, and plan to do more in Iceland. But it’s Ingrid’s love of not only travel but travellers which has led to them becoming a popular stopping point for so many voyageurs-a-velo. One even arrived by unicycle. This multilingual home in which five languages are regularly spoken and daily commutes cross borders, was a fascinating place in which to spend time, and once more I took an extra day to stop, to write, and just to be still in comfortable surroundings.

Ingrid, originally from Belgium, showed me around her adopted city of San Sebastián/Donostia, and instilled in me her love of a beautiful place with a unique Basque culture. I ate with the family and felt totally accepted and included. Ingrid’s is a gentle curiosity and a generous, listening ear. She shared with me the many stories and blogs of the other travellers who’d shared her home. I felt inspired by their big journeys and world tours, if a touch intimidated that my trip, ambitious though it is, was a bit little in comparison. Her photography of people and their places at times arrested my train of thought and I found myself returning a gaze from a far-off land.

image

Ingrid’s images from afar

On Ingrid and Jon’s advice I took the hilly road south to Pamplona, to benefit from another night’s hospitality with a different host, and to join the Camino de Santiago there, where hostels would be plentiful and the way would be well signposted. I was to take a disused railway line up the valley which without Jon’s local knowledge would have been impossible to find. And with the thought of a second warm shower in as many days to motivate me, I set out once more.

As it happened I wasn’t the only touring cyclist who would be accepting hospitality at that time. A gentleman I know only as @specialized_guy needed a place to take stock and book passage home after a WWOOF that didn’t work out. As we were both leaving Jon passed us both a business card, saying that we ever needed any help while in Spain we should pop into an office of his company, MAPFRE, or contact him directly. I accepted it, never thinking I would need to. However, Ingrid and Jon’s generosity, thoughtfulness and multilingual negotiation skills would soon come to my aid in an hour of need. (more hot water…) Our paths would cross again much sooner than I’d anticipated, but no sooner than I’d hoped.


Leave a comment

The parable of the stone.

A funny thing happened on the way to Compostela. It was either a perfect storm of coincidences, or a biblical parable played out before my eyes. If anyone would like to interpret it, as Joseph of the Technicolor Dreamcoat did for Pharaoh’s dream then you are welcome to.

I pulled up my bike at the village green at Relegios, a place named for religion, when a scene more akin to biblical times played out before my eyes. I’d stopped to phone my girls, as I do every Sunday, and my mobile phone appeared anachronistic against the vision before me, that of a shepherd grazing his sheep on the green. The gentle sound of the sheep bells filled the air, and two thin dogs patrolled the sheep. The old, weather-worn shepherd seemed to be shouting instructions directly to the sheep as much as to the dogs. (The sheep  know my voice…?)

A couple of other dogs approached, in curiosity as much as anything, and with a word from the shepherd, the sheepdogs saw them off, leaving the sheep free to graze some more. Then, the funny thing happened…

…a dog took a rock from a ditch, walked past me and placed it gently and poignantly at the foot of a statue of a pilgrim, recently erected in the green. That morning, my companion for a day Eyke, from Germany had showed me a photograph from his guidebook, that of a tall cross, surrounded by stones which pilgrims had taken and left there, at the highest point of the Camino, as a symbol of leaving behind baggage, things that hold us back and stifle our dreams. It’s a concept I’m familiar with, I’ve used it it may work with young people over the years.

So I took the rock and put it in my bag.

image

Today, as the sun rose above the mountains amongst which I slept I left the rock at the famous cross, some 1500m above sea level. I know what the act meant to me, but the mysterious circumstances which led to it remain a puzzle. I’m making this pilgrimage not as a fervent believer as I once was, but as a questioning soul. And here I have another enigma with which to engage on my journey. All part of life’s rich carpet, as an old friend often told me.

image


Leave a comment

Reasons… Part 1

I’m surprised that not many people have demanded to know why I’m doing this. Some have asked “Why now?”* but it seems most people who know me know what I’m like, and that this is simply something I need to do. Cycle 2500 kilometres to the edge of Spain in 26 days with only my tent and the Atlantic for company. Typical stuff. But despite the persona I like to portray, (that of a grizzled outdoorsman and expert cyclist) ’til now I’m merely an armchair expert. I really have never done anything like this before. And that is one reason in itself.

The challenge of the elements, coupled with the terrain appeals and frightens in equal measure. If I was making this trip in summer I’d start from Amsterdam, and cycle through Belgium and across northern France. As it’s winter, I start in Brittany and hug the Atlantic coast to avoid the severest cold and iciest roads. Yes, I know this means I’ll get wet. I’m fine with that. As my Dad says, (precious morsels these- he doesn’t say much…) “It only goes to the skin, then it runs off.” And there’s always the Human Condom to climb into at the end of the day.

The Human Condom

But it’s the Cantabrian Mountains which have me a little nervous. I plan to skirt them to the south on the way west to Cape Finisterre, and follow the coast back to Santander for the ferry. But there’s no doubt- there will be hills. One author at the highly useful Freewheeling France suggests parts of the Camino Di Santiago route I’ll roughly follow are closed November-March. Not to worry, I’ll leave the true mountains to the bears (yes, really, there are bears!) and ride round anything I can’t ride over.

The solitude of a long bike ride punctuated by stealthy wild camps really appeals to me. Time to think. Time to write songs (more of that in a later post)  Time not only to ask the big questions of life, but perhaps to answer them too. The luxury of so much time to replace that of a warm bed or the arms of a loved one. Time to go.

* Why now? It’s the time I have available. Between episodes in my life and my work. At a crossroads. On the bike, as in life I’m awful at crossroads. Indecisive. Instictively knowing the way, but lacking the faith to take it. Self-doubt wins again. I check the map with cold hands and a heavy heart. I tell myself that next time I’ll roll through with confidence and trust myself. Trust the road. But I never do. Now it’s time to learn.

Reasons… Part 2 is here.