A Flip-Flopping Peregrino On Camino
My friend sent a photograph of her amazing knitted patchwork blanket, a gift to her grandson, the other day. I am in awe. You see, I started one too. Years ago. On all our wanderings I’d sit in the car and knit, miles of strips and squares I’ve done. Haphazard they are, not all exactly square, no rows counted, none of the colours, textures or threads match or co-ordinate. Certainly not a masterpiece!
But, for the life of me I can’t finish it. It is so large it’s almost too heavy to lift and could comfortably cover two king-sized beds. What I have managed to do is square three sides, I’ve sewed them up, but the bottom end is a nightmare. Long strips, funny squares and a few patches that need lengthening.
Unlike her beautifully crafted masterpiece, an heirloom which will be cherished by her grandson and probably his son too, mine tells a completely different tale and I shudder to think what a shrink would make of it!
My problem is: finishing it off. That is just way beyond my abilities as a knitter. I don’t do unpicking. It simply overwhelmed me. Now it’s stuffed into the bottom shelf of a wardrobe. I loathe defeat. Guilt ridden is how I feel.
My point being? Oftentimes things are bigger than me. More complicated. Even when it’s just something simple like a knitted square. That’s how I find myself at times, even now when I think of our Camino. Some parts are just too difficult to revisit, write or even talk about. It was only a hike with a backpack you might think. Believe me it was far more than that.
I have made a commitment to my family, to write about our experience as honestly and as interestingly as I can. Fortunately I have photographs to back up the funny parts, the beauty and the landscape. I fear my expertise at being a wordsmith is certain to let me down now. But, even if it kills me I will finish our story.
Preparation, they say, is half the battle won. Sometimes. I smile as I read blogs, Twitters and Spoilers written by forthcoming journalists, writers and hikers who are preparing for the Camino. Nothing can prepare one for the psychological Camino, the physical one maybe.
In my Diary for this stage I wrote “Pre-Menstrual – Not good!” We were on our way from Barcelos to Ponte de Lima. It was going to be far and difficult. I wasn’t pre-menstrual thank goodness, that ship has sailed for me! My poor child suffers from it and I know her pain. Pain intensifies when one’s hormones are out of kilter, I can remember how I cringed when I had leg waxes or eyebrows plucked back in the day. My skin was electrifyingly sensitive as was my mood and my tear glands became aqueducts and my good humour would be devilishly blunt, unsympathetic and often cruel. She has it all in her blood.
But, enough about me. My companion on the other hand became sullen, quiet and dismissive. With swinging bananas and breakfast hampers we set off early. I just knew that for a day or two I had to keep out of the line of fire! An uninvited hormonal dragon had hatched. I would talk to the hand a lot!
By now we knew we would have a long day, trusting our guidebook was pointless, so once we found our yellow arrows we chucked it into the deepest recesses of my back pack and put our faith in the painter of the yellow markings and our fellow human beings along the way.
We'd just put one foot in front of the other and follow in the footsteps of hundreds of peregrinos who've done this in the past. We'd leave our footprints on the worn-out flagstones and make our own indentation in the granite. Fortunately we were never disappointed or lost.
The cool avenue of hundreds of year old Plane trees were a fine welcome when we eventually traipsed into Ponte de Lima. Hot and tired. Situated on the river Lima. Ponte de Lima is Portugal’s oldest city. Like the Romans we would dip our toes into the Lima and forget all our memories.
We spent two nights there, enjoyed the listlessness of the sluggish river as it meanders through vineyards and the city making its way to the ocean. I walked around with my camera enjoying the amazing art dotted along my paths, took a stroll through some of the many gardens, Roman Gardens, the Renaissance Gardens and the Baroque Gardens and parks and a formal herb garden adjoining the Historic Cathedral. On bicycles we criss-crossed the river over ancient bridges enjoying another form of exercise as we rode along the Ecovia, a walking and cycling path. But, at times I’d just sit on one of the many benches under a Plane tree and watch locals promenade.
Our Guesthouse Mercearia da Vila was perfectly situated in the centre of town, near shops, eateries and the river. We were thoroughly spoilt by our hostess who served a delicious breakfast each morning and baked the nicest, richest cakes and treats for us to enjoy. The building, still belonging to an old Ponte de Lima family once was a Grocery store. The family lived upstairs. On display in the dining room are ancient bottles of red wine from the region, toy motor cars and other memorabilia from a bygone age. The owner, retired, still helps out in the Hotel and served us breakfast on our last day.
My idea of the perfect Pizza changed irrevocably here, those things we get delivered in cardboard boxes are not pizzas, what they are I don’t know because we enjoyed our first authentic Italian Pizza in Portugal! Thin, with a crispy crust, and a good swipe of Pomodoro with a real delicate flavour and a proper topping of Parma Ham, Mozzarella and field mushrooms, simple, understated yet, flavoursome and delicious. We concluded that the flour used must be organic and stoneground as we never suffered our usual bouts of indigestion.
On our second evening we dined out at Taverna Vaca Das Cordas, an excellent meal we had in this cosy restaurant surrounded by walls covered in old posters and photographs depicting the city's rich equestrian and bullfighting history. Interesting.
Before we set off to our next destination we went to the grocery store around the corner to stock up on fruit and snacks. The old fashioned stores reminded me so much of my childhood, when customers had to ask to see the goods they wanted to purchase and wouldn't dare venture around the back of the counter. On the pavement all the delcious summer fruits were on display, I would always look to see whether any produce was imported from South Africa. Sardines in olive oil are very popular and the colourful wrappers make this simple tinned product look like an exotic gift. Embroidery is still done by local ladies and clogs are still very much in vogue it seems!
It would be all uphill to Rubiaes we were told. We were ready for almost anything. The landscape is beautiful as we made our way over ancient Roman cobblestoned roads and flag-stoned lanes and paths.
I was not going to be outdone and decided I’d also while away the hours listening to my music. My rendition of “Hello! It’s me” rang out in jubilation. BUT. It wasn’t long until the forest fairies decided they’d had enough of me and without any ado wiped every single song off my iPad. It was bizarre. How it happened baffled us as I was not online, had full battery power and the instrument was safely stowed in the pack, and I was set on my personal library. I had spent literally hundreds of hours copying all my C.D’s onto my laptop and saving them in iTunes on a Cloud for this reason. To have my library of music on my absolutely-fabulous-apple iPod, iPad and iPhone!
I could’ve committed seppuku. Or cried. Instead I thought maybe I wasn’t meant to have a distraction. Maybe I was meant to listen to the voices in my heart. I did and realised I was carrying a lot of unnecessary baggage. Who on earth schlepps an iPad around the Camino! A better person might’ve tossed it right then and there. I didn’t.
Lise had the bunch of swinging bananas and extra shoes dangling from her pack. I had my pair of boots swinging too, making it difficult to balance as they swung irritatingly like a metronome behind me. That was it. We’d had it with our boots. I had been walking in my flip-flops since Barcelos anyway and found I was coping a lot better.
It was while we were enjoying our last espresso and pastel de Nata before our long climb to Rubiaes that we unanimously decided that we’d get rid of our boots. That’s right. This was not an easy decision for Lise, firstly, her hips were in agony and she didn't know whether she would last in flip-flops with only one other pair of shoes as a back up. Secondly, the boots came with a history, to leave them meant she was closing the door on a very important part of her life. No more pain, no more guilt, no more flogging that dead horse. We left them on the side of the road. Lise ceremoniously tied their laces together and with a smile on our faces we shrugged them off. They could become pot plant holders for all we cared.
Relief. A lightening of our spirits is what we felt. Not since that day have I had any regrets. I can count the occasion as one of the most liberating events in my life. They were the last straw and we had the courage, knowing they couldn’t be replaced, to walk away. We had every reason to be proud. We also ate all the bananas in one go.
With a lightness of being we set off giggling each time a Pilgrim passed us and made a comment about our footgear. Although we couldn’t understand German, French or Spanish we knew they were discussing our weird ways and probably thinking we would repent at leisure. We didn’t.
The moral of this story was: get rid of baggage. Whether it’s emotional, spiritual, real or imagined. We are so inclined to keep things for various reasons. I keep things for sentimental reasons, financial reasons, guilty reasons and silly reasons. I hang on to things because I don’t want to disappoint my parents, friends or family. I have polished, cared and filled and filed my drawers with things other people “discarded” and tossed unceremoniously my way.
I’ve even filed away my acrimonious divorce, although not very often anymore, at times, it still rears its ugly head in my heart and mind. But, I am reminded of the liberation I felt at the time, when I was at my lowest, weakest and most vulnerable; I felt free, light and transparent. I was weak and strong simultaneously.
Lise and I recounted this and she realised it in her life too. We may enjoy the freedom of weightlessness when we make the effort to unburden those heavy, debilitating, bloody albatrosses around our necks. How often don’t we find “wisdom” and enlightenment at our weakest point? I am going to learn to crochet once I've finished my blanket. A colourful crocheted throw will look great on our bed.