Day 32 – 18th October 2015, Foncebadon to Molinaseca.
La Posada del Druida conjures up images of mystical and magical beings, who are at one with nature and carefully tread the place between worlds. Where do druids sleep, I pondered? As in which world, do they rest their weary heads? As far as I was aware, no Druids claimed a bed in the Inn last night, but members of the Danish fitness possey certainly enjoyed themselves at top volume in the dining room next to my dorm. That, coupled with restless dorm mates fiddling with their smartphones, whose screens shone brightly, contributed to my disturbed night. I do find it odd how some pilgrims seem to be totally unaware of other folk’s need to rest. Their addiction to vocalising loudly or playing with their technical gadgets, grated on my shredded nerves after a few evenings of sleep deprivation!
There’s no getting away from tech on the Camino! But who am I to judge? Here’s me, a total hypocrite because I carry with me a Samsung Galaxy tablet to do my blogging on, take pictures and keep in touch with Brett and my Auntie. I am truly grateful for my tablet, as it has opened up a way of capturing my creative moments as well as reach out to those I love and carry in my heart. I wonder how different my pilgrimage would be without any modern trappings?
Roisin and I decided to leave before dawn to make our ascent up to Cruz de Ferro in the dark. I wanted to reach the cross to meditate there, before the early morning rush. Fiona would come on a little while later on and we hoped to meet up somewhere the other side of the cross, as we made our descent to Molinaseca. I rose and got ready quickly, remembering to pull on my low tech pair of beautiful, electric blue, woolly gloves. Yes, my hands were happy in their own mini-sleeping bags. I tried not to disturb my dorm mates, despite feeling the urge to switch on all the lights in mock revenge and I met up with Roisin in the courtyard.
Another piece of tech I am grateful for is my Petzl head torch for moments such as these. The early morning enveloped us in its, dark, indigo blue cloak and I could hardly see where to put my feet, were it not for the narrow beam of light, shining from the place where my third eye is supposed to be. Perhaps my third eye was shining out at the same time! I had a strong sense of anticipation. For some reason I felt nervous, that fluttery feeling in my solar plexus, which usually heralds something near, yet unseen, or a challenge or a change.
I walked on, gingerly, up the gravel path, mindfully avoiding the bumps and hollows as the Camino trail skirted around the hillside. I clutched my offering, a stone, cold and dense in my left hand. I took this small, piece of igneous rock from the summit of Mount Kenya in 1999, during my last epic physical challenge (shhhh don’t tell anyone). Mount Kenya (known as Kirinyaga, the mountain that glitters) is the highest mountain (although actually a massif) in Kenya and second highest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro. Lenana Point, the hiker’s summit, stands at 4,895 m or 16,355 ft above sea level. Its a long walk up!
The climb marked my transition from four years working in humanitarian emergencies in East Africa to returning home to support my family, while my Dad recovered from cancer. So I was at a crossroads and climbing Mount Kenya seemed as good a way as any to gain a perspective on where I had come from and prepare myself for new horizons ahead. Two of my friends, Matt and Jules, accompanied me. If it hadn’t been for them, I would not have reached the summit. I pushed myself to my limits, through exhaustion and altitude sickness, and flopped on my knees in front of the metal cross on the jagged, Lenana Point. Shedding tears of sheer relief and gratitude, I picked the rock up from that spot and carried it with me all the way down the mountain and back to England. My parents had always supported and encouraged me throughout my humanitarian work. They were my anchors, my wise counsellors, my cheerleaders and my friends. Of course they worried and fretted about me, but never once tried to persuade me to give it up. I presented the rock to them when I got home, so that they could share in this special moment on my journey of transition.
Why this rock? I brought it because it symbolised overcoming immense challenges at a pivotal moment in my life. To me, it seemed fitting to carry it with me along this present journey along the Camino and to lay it to rest at the foot of the iron cross. Cruz de Ferro, standing at 1,505 metres, was no where near as high as Mount Kenya but it marked a significant way point for me on my pilgrimage. I stood in silence at the base of the ever growing pile of stones, surrounding the plain and humble cross. I reflected on my recent physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of caring for my mum through her terminal cancer. While I accompanied her at her end of life, she had remained very brave throughout but I found it hard to watch and comprehend what she was really going through. Sometimes I felt anger rise up inside me and I railed against God (or the great unseen source), about her suffering, like I had nine years before when my Dad passed away from a stroke. Back then I had sensed one of my anchors had been cut away and I was drifting about, rudderless and lost, but my mother was my remaining anchor, keeping me close to a safe harbour.
Was I really angry at God or was I more angry with myself? I accompanied my mum as best as I could but felt I could have done more for her. Hot tears began to fall, running in rivulets down my cheeks. I had to face the void she had left behind head on. What was I going to do without her? My best friend, my confidante, my guide? How could I fill this void? What was I going to do next? After mum’s funeral I had felt a mounting panic. My remaining anchor to my safe harbour had been cut loose and I was now all at sea. My Camino pilgrimage represented my walk through my grief to reconnect with who I was, what my parents had given me, where I had come from and who I am now. Here. Alive. Present. In an instant I discovered, that I needed to re-dedicate my life, not really knowing where I was heading in the future.
Just as the souls of my parents had returned, once more, to join their divine source, I am reminded of a poem called the Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, a Catholic mystic from the sixteenth century. In it he passionately describes the yearning of his soul to be reunited with the divine. It is a profound work. I include one of the stanzas here, because the poet’s beautiful prose resonated with my heart and aptly describes my approach to the cross through the remnant of the dark night.
Excerpt from ‘The dark night of the soul’, by St. John of the Cross.
In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(well I knew who!) was awaiting me
— A place where none appeared.
The poem sounds even more beautiful in the original Spanish:
Excerpt from ‘La noche oscura del alma’, by San Juan de la Cruz.
En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que naide me veía
ni yo miraba cisa,
sin otra luz y guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.
Aquesta me guiaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía
adonde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía
en parte donde naide parecía.
Dawn broke through my meditation, in soft pinks and oranges, through the tree-line. I sensed my heart lift a little for I was able to express, in quiet whispers, my sincere gratitude for the precious time my mum and I enjoyed together right up to the moment of her soul’s transition from this world. I realised how important and valuable end of life care is and yet not many people talk about it, and nothing can really prepare you for it. I had been drifting in uncharted territory. I hope that when you read this blog, your heart may be so moved towards accompanying your own parents or another loved one, precious to you, at their end of life. I know you will not regret it.
Whooosh,whooosh, voom. Whooosh, whoosh, voom. All at once, the sounds of bicycle tyres braking on gravel, their lycra clad riders slicing through the air, pierced the tranquillity of my special moment at this sacred spot. The Danes had arrived and instantly crawled all over the mound of stones like an army of worker ants, clammering to take their selfies at the foot of the cross. They seemed to hold little regard for those pilgrims on foot, who like Roisin and I, wanted to spend some moments in quiet reflection and meditation. Selfie-ing the sacred seemed to be a common phenomenon along the Camino.
Roisin and I took this as our cue to begin our descent. There was no sign of Fiona yet, but I felt sure she was not far behind, it was still very early in the morning. We picked up the Camino pathway once more and I stepped carefully up, over and around the slippery rocks. Sometimes the path snaked alongside the road, at other points the signs indicated we could walk along the road itself. We walked in single file for a good hour or so. I reflected in silence on my magical experience at the cross and the feeling of release that came over me. I filled my lungs with fresh, cool morning air as I tramped on and on, down and down through the curtain of clouds, which hovered over the striking blanket of autumn colours. The scenery was magnificent. I was glad to be alive.
Up ahead I spotted a jumble of colours by the side of the road. As I edged closer, I thought my ears were deceiving me. Had the angels popped down to regale us with a heavenly chorus? I could hear Taize chants, which emanated from some loud speakers in a haphazard wooden shack, decked out in flags and ribbons. I could also hear a solitary bell ringing out. This was the quirky, as well as colourful, refugio at Manjarin, a pilgrim rest stop. I stepped inside and marvelled at all of the pilgrim messages, photos, prayer cards, news articles and a thousand other knick-knacks, which decorated the walls and ceiling. Hospitaleros had prepared tea and coffee and biscuits for the visitors. One of the hospitaleros, Tomas, appeared as though he had stepped out of the pages of a history book. He wore a long, knight’s costume with the familiar red cross that symbolised the Camino on his tunic and sported a grey and white beard. Tomas is a present day Templar night, who is keeping the tradition of hospitality towards pilgrims alive and very much kicking! Whenever a pilgrim approached, Tomas rang the bell. A simple ritual, but one that moved me to tears as I was very honoured and privileged to be counted among the many faithful pilgrims, who had walked the route before me. I poured a cup of strong coffee and munched on a couple of biscuits, while I observed the line of pilgrims coming slowly, but surely down the hillside towards the shelter.
Ultreia! I pressed on down the slopes, chased by the clouds and the mist. Parts of the rocky path were incredibly steeps and slippy and I was glad I still had one of my trekking poles, to help me balance. At times the trail took me away from the road and through sparse woodland. Suddenly, I noticed something in my peripheral vision, darting here and there. I turned and locked eye with a fox. Wow, what a beautiful sight! He or she, padded on ahead, as if to lead the way for a few more moments and then disappeared into the undergrowth. The constant pounding downhill took its toll on my knees so I was happy to reach the little village of Acebo. I walked through, avoiding the busy and already full, cafes until I came to La Casa del Peregrino, where I stopped for a quick breakfast and to enjoy the uninterrupted views. The breakfast was overpriced though but I guess the views from the terrace were worth paying bit extra for.
Next, I came to the pretty village of Riego de Ambros, which was a picturesque collection of timber and stone houses nestled into the hillside, brightly decorated with geraniums. Not far beyond there, the pathway came to a clearing, where ancient, spreading sweet chestnut trees stood. They took my breath away. It was a timeless and magical spot. I immediately felt a different kind of energy there, that made me want to linger there, absorb and recharge. I was struck by the intricate, patterns of the bark on their trunks and I reached out to touch the surface. The Camino de Santiago is full of surprises, if only you have time to stop, look and listen.
After that brief, refreshing pitstop, I continued my descent into Molinaseca, at the Puente de los Peregrinos. The weather had closed in again and the drizzle, made the slate roofs glisten in the last of the afternoon light. Once over the bridge I couldn’t walk another step further into town. Even though the distance walked today was around 19 km, so not as long as some stretches, the steep descent hurt my joints and I was still recovering from my second Camino cold, which had got onto my lungs. Fortunately, Roisin found a good deal at the Way Hostel, where Martin Sheen stayed during the making of The Way film and I booked into a room and promptly crashed out for a while, to give some time for the swelling in my knees and feet to go down. Later on, I managed to stagger across to the restaurant in El Palacio to enjoy a pilgrim meal but it wasn’t long before I crept into bed and drifted into a deep, deep sleep.
Find out what happened next!
Peace, love and light,