Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Final Shake Down

Inside our dark room of four beds was a thick funk of musty B.O., the kind that is at first alarming but then tolerable, a hippie funk excused by the desire to be natural. We opened the window. A dog was barking and the seagulls were making seagull noises. The forth bunk mate continued snoring.

I woke up at 7:30am. The musty german was packing up and was out the door by the time my feet hit the ground. The snorer was still going. She was an older woman, which I discerned in the yellow light from our window during her midnight bathroom break. I had thought it was a man until then. I woke Ellen and we filed into the bathroom and each took one of two shower stalls, locking the door behind us. We didn't want someone to come in and drop a stinky deuce while we were showering. There were toilets down the hall for that. I finished before Ellen and waited around for here because the lock was an external slide type that had to be relocked once I left. Finally she dried off and put some clothes on and I slipped out to start packing.

I opened the door to find the spanish woman standing in the middle of the room clasping her bra. She was thick and in her fifties with a default, older lady haircut of pepper-gray. She seemed startled but I was used to those encounters at that point in the trip. I sat on my bed and started stuffing my sleeping bag. I noticed that she had slept under the covers of the hostel bed, sheets and all, and used one of the thick blankets. Gross. She continued dressing and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of her shoes, small blue moccasin types. I saw a few day packers wearing ridiculous shoes like those, they were usually the ones that took forever to cross the muddy sections. The spanish lady finished dressing and left the room. I looked up as she walked out the door and saw that she was only carrying a purse. I sat there for about thirty seconds before I began putting the pieces together. Oh shit! I quickly reached for my jeans that were folded behind my pack. Whew! My money was there. And then to my fanny pack that I had hid under my sleeping bag while I was in the shower. My money was gone. I ran out of the room. "Ellen my money just got stolen! Check your fanny!" I barreled to the end of the hall and down the stairs to the main room. There were two people, one on the internet and another on a couch "Did you see a lady leave? She just stole my money!" They pointed in the direction she left. I ran out to the street only wearing a shirt, underwear, and flip-flops slimy from the shower. She was gone. I continued running. The narrow street turned sharply to the left between two buildings, dumping out to a larger street. To the right was more housing, straight ahead was a sharp drop to the ocean, and to the left was the way to the main part of town. I ran left towards a steep set of stairs that hugged the rock cliff, shortcutting the road to a large sidewalk just above a small beach cove below. I still didn't see her and felt frantic. As I neared the stairs I saw her chunky torso disappear below the top stair. I continued running until I got closer and slowed down to quiet the 'smack, smack' of my pace. She was almost half-way down the long stairs before I quietly came up behind her, grabbing her arm and turning her towards me. "Give me my fucking money!" I demanded. "Me, no money, no" She pleaded, wiggling away from me. I squeezed harder like an angry parent, my voice was peaking in fury. "You stole my fucking money! Where the fuck is it!?" I screamed. I was freaking out and quickly losing control. I knew she had my money but I didn't know how to get it back. She continued muttering "No, no, no money" in a rhythmic, high voice like she was innocent. "You fucking bitch!" I yelled, squeezing her arm harder. "I know you took it! Where is my money!?" I started cramming my free hand in the pocket of her coat, and then her jean pocket. She tried to slip away and I took her arms with both hands and pinned here against the wall, shaking her as I yelled two inches from her face. Her eyes lit up like she was possessed and she growled "No, no, no!" My scream was weezy and maxed out "Shut the fuck up!" I went for her other jean pocket and she pulled out her clenched hand. I could see the orange and cream colored ends of a fifty euro bill poking out of her fist. I grabbed her wrist with one hand and tried to pry open her locked fingers with the other.

Ellen ran down the stair yelling at me "Don't fucking touch her, don't touch her!" but I was too far gone. I dug my fingers under hers and wrenched her hand open while I kept pinning her against the rail with my shoulder and knee. I freed the crumpled bill and backed off. I still thought she had more of my money, and hung onto to her jacket sleeve. "Marc don't touch her, you'll get arrested!" The lady tried to walk past me down the steps but I continued to get in her way. Ellen began taunting her out of nowhere "You stupid bitch, we know you took our money, we're gonna get policia..."

Down below was a large sidewalk where street vendors were assembling the frames of their tents. The lady continued down the stair with me close at here side. I yelled to the African men, "Polcia, Policia" We continued walking towards the sidewalk area "oooh yeah, policia, si, si." the lady taunted back as if she was somehow innocent and I was the criminal. Six or seven African guys emerged from the skeletons of their tents along with a couple spainards. They spoke a little english. "You need the police?" one asked. "Si, si, this lady stole my money." A spainard vendor got on his cell phone and called for us. At this point there was a small crowd and the lady knew better than to leave, that would prove her guilt. While the spanish man was calling Ellen and I stood on the sidewalk against the railing just above the beach. We explained to the African men what had happened to cause the scene they had just witnessed on the stairs. "Okay" the spanish man yelled a few minutes later, "They are on their way." After a couple minutes the African men returned to their tents putting the metal pieces together. Ellen and I stood there waiting with the spanish lady to my left, who would occaisionally look at me and point "loco, loco" and gesture with two hands shaking the air. That was her angle, she was abused by a crazy foreigner. Ellen began to worry. "What if you get arrested?" she protested. "I'm not going to get arrested. This is obvious, look at her, she's not even a peregrino." We both stood their silently, watching the African's set up, and imaging our fate when the police finally show up. The lady huffed and sighed looking at her watch. "Autobus, ocho trente, tss, tss" She was going to miss the 8:30a bus to Santiago. Ellen slipped back into her taunting again "oooh autobus, we're going to sit next to you on the autobus you stupid bitch."

Ten minutes passed. The morning was cool and gray. I was getting chilly standing there without pants. My knees began to shake. I wasn't sure if it was from the cold or my adrenalin.
"I need my contacts." Ellen blurted.
"Why? What do you need to see?"
"What if we have to fill out a police report?"
"Well you can't go back to the hostel now, that will look sketchy. We just need to wait."
"How much money did you get back?"
"Only 50, I think. I put it in my fanny." which I wore across my shoulder.
The spanish lady adjusted her blue shoes. I looked down and saw that the heels were folded over. "Look." I whispered to Ellen "Her shoes aren't even on properly. This is so obvious." Ellen took over once again. "Did you leave in a hurry you bitch? Why aren't your shoes on?" she taunted. I felt a little uncomfortable now as Ellen heckled her. I had settled down from my rage a bit, but I still though about ripping off the shoes from her feet to find more of my money. I was convinced there was another stash.

Finally the police car emerged onto the wide sidewalk. I anxiously waived at them as if I had been waiting to meet a friend. They got out of the car and approached the two of us. "haablay inglis?" I asked. He shook his head quickly and apologetically. " peregrino." I rambled on, accompanying every word with wild hand gestures and finger pointing. "My banyos...prrshhhhh" I scrubbed my head with my hands. Fuck. This wasn't working. "Amigo!" I yelled to one of the African men who came over and helped translate. Meanwhile the other officer began to question the spanish lady. I saw her do the double hand shake in the air. That fucking bitch, I thought. The officer took her ID. I explained the scene at the hostel, and the African man translated. I explained every detail, even mimicking the strenuous recovery of the bills with my two hands opposing one another in front of my chest. The African asked me to show the officer the money I had recovered. I pulled out the tightly crumpled bill and handed it to him. He inspected it as if it was forensic evidence and handed it back to me. "He wants to know how much money was stolen." The African said to me. "I don't know...100 or 150, I'm not sure." I unrolled the crumpled money and discovered two bills, not one. This was it, I thought. "I think this is all I had." The African man turned and began speaking spanish. Both officers began questioning the woman. The African man turned to me and explained that money leaves no trace, so they have no way of proving that she took it. "Well what's going to happen?" I asked. "They know she took the money, but they cannot arrest her." The officers spoke once more to my translator. He turned to me "They say if you want you can file a police report at the station." I thought silently for a moment "What would you do?" I asked. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders "If you live in Spain....maybe file the report, but you have your money back so just go." I looked at Ellen and looked at the officer. "Okay, nada, nada." and turned my palms as if I had given up.

Ellen and I walked away thanking the Africans and the two officers. "Mucho gracias, gracias." They also said gracias, even the spanish lady. Just as we were leaving a civil guard in an SUV rolled up. Two officers stepped out adjusting their gadget-covered belts. They each carried a lit cigarette between their fingers. Ellen and I stopped as if we might be in trouble. The four men began conversing, and one of the officers passed the lady's ID to the civil guard. A couple minutes later the officers turned to us and said "No problemo, adios." We were free and had been vindicated.

We walked back to the hostel in both shock and excitement at what had just happened. This was one of those things you dream about when something of yours is stolen, catching the thief in the act would be so great! This was the next best thing, or maybe better, chasing the thief down after they thought they had made a clean get away and reclaiming the goods.

Ellen and I continued packing, occasionally taking a break to inspect the crime scene, speculating on how it all went down. I figured the bra thing was a scam, and she thought I would stay out of the room after catching sight of her fat chest. We finished packing our bags and headed downstairs. We explained to the owner of the private hostel what had happened with the translation help of the internet user, still typing away. The hospitalero seemed a little surprised but not very sympathetic to our victimization. Then the officers showed up at the door and asked for our passports. We handed them over. One of them looked in the log book of pilgrim guests, finding the woman's name. Ellen and I figured that after the pow-wow with the civil guard the officers decided to file a report and needed our passport numbers. During the spanish lady's interrogation we heard pilgrim cities being called out like Pamplona, and Santa Domingo. We wondered if she had been the perpetrator in the other thefts we heard about along the way. That would have been the civil guard's territory, not the local police. The officers returned our passports and drove off.

Now fully clothed and packs on our shoulders, we walked back down the stairs heading towards the cafes. I saw my translator friend who now stood proudly behind an array of women's scarves, folded into neat squares covered in plastic. "Gracias" I said again "Nada, nada" he replied.

The sun was coming up over the bay creating a sharp line of white light between the gray sky and horizon. I stopped to take a photo and heard one of the Africans, whom I didn't recognize from earlier, speaking quickly in a foreign languauge, pantalon." and he laughed, smiling at me as I walked passed. No pants is all I caught. He was telling the story to one of his friends of the funny episode that just happened on the stairs. Ellen and I walked away, not sure if we should feel proud our humiliated.

Our analysis and recollection of the morning's events continued over breakfast and for much of the cab ride back to Santiago. We still couldn't believe what had just happened. I wanted to tell our spanish cab driver about the incident, but he spoke no english. I just stared out the window, still a little jittery from all the action. I kept playing the scene over and over in my head, wanting to recall every nuance for some reason.

I watched the green countryside blur past me. After awhile I had exhausted the playback of my memory, and tried to find closure. I concluded that I had just robbed a 50 year-old spanish lady in broad daylight, but it was okay because she robbed me first. Buen Camino!

Over and out.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Ellen and I took a day off in Finisterre, our first in 35 days. We slept in, and ate breakfast downstairs in the hotel just catching the last part of the 8:30-10:30a window. We snuck a couple small towels from the hotel and walked to the beach. The sand was crawling with what I thought were little gray insects but turned out to be tiny sand crabs frantically looking for the water after hatching. The sun was hot as we laid on our little white towels. The beach was fairly quiet with only 20 or 30 people spread out over the quarter-mile stretch. Our neighbors were mostly overweight spanish men and women, which seems to be the norm after age 40.

That night we ate dinner with Cathy and Courtney at a nice restaurant on the harbor. We all went for the pre-fix menu of 50 euro for two people. We were after a full on seafood feast. For appetizers: pink scallops, razor clams, and pulpo (octopus). The main dish was a giant skillet of galacian-style fish stew. For desert, we had flan, which was the best we've eaten in Spain. It was thick and rich, and didn't slide out of a pre-packaged container like we usually get.

The next morning Ellen and I packed up our bags and re-entered pilgrim life. We checked out of the hotel and headed into the city hoping to figure out how to get to Muxia. Our guidebook ends at Finisterre. The municipal albergue was closed, and when we asked a bartender he just pointed up the road and unloaded some spanish we couldn't understand. Our internet searches weren't coming up with any specific details, like how to get out of Finisterre. That was all we needed, once we were on the path we would be fine. I stopped a pilgrim I saw with a backpack, "Excuse me, do you speak any english?"
"Yahh." the german replied.
"Do you know how to get to Muxia?"
"Ahhh, let me see eeef eeet's eeen my guidevook." The german fished out a tattered book and found a few pages in the back explaining the route. "I don't need sthem" and he ripped out the pages and handed them to us. "Thank you! Buen Camino!" We were off.

The path to Muxia remained inland mostly, taking us up and down hills and through farms. At one point the trail crossed a small, shallow river. There were large, rectangular slabs of granite, spaced every 20 inches to allow the water to flow around. The first few slabs poked above the surface of the river and the remaining path was submerged about six inches below the surface. We knew this was coming, and it was talked up to be a treacherous crossing but it wasn't bad. We took off our boots and put on our flip flops and stepped through. The water was chilly but refreshing. The last stone had been washed a few feet away so we had to step off the rock fully into the water, which was only about knee-high at that point. The water was clear and flowed calmly.

As we came close to Muxia, the path picked up the main road into the city on the water's edge. We saw a bunch of spanish teenagers carrying scraps of wood and furniture to a grassy bluff on the beach. One kid had a small trailer hooked up to his bicycle that was loaded with cabinet doors. The shirtless teens had a huge pile. It was June 23rd. This must be it, but they didn't look like the happy hippies we hoped for. It looked like something we would have done in high school. We continued into Muxia and found the municipal hostel, which had just been built in 2007. It was the first real albergue-architecture we saw on the trip. It was a stark, rectangular building of cast concrete and large windows. Inside there were many interior courtyards where people could hang there clothes to dry. Some of these spaces were open to the air above, others were sheltered from the rain. A large stair case punctured a three-story high common room. The hostel slept 28 and the bunks were on the second floor. The space felt airy and clean. On the third floor was a roof-terrace with views of the ocean. Ellen and I watched the sunset again with a bottle wine, and this time in the company of an Australian lady, a young German, and a 40-something Belgian. It was a good way to end our last day of walking.

Muxia is a small town, probably half the size of Finisterre, which only has 3000 people. There isn't much going on in Muxia. The food options are limited to typical spanish bar / cafes several of which line the tiny harbor that serves as the main drag downtown. These are the places where spanish men can be found taking small shots of liquor at 7a along with there cafe con leche.

Ellen and I slept in and were the last ones to get out of bed. It was a quiet night with only 12 people in the hostel. We did our usual breakfast routine at one of the funny cafes in town: cafe con leche, pastry, and orange juice. We walked out to the tip of Muxia where a church was built on the rocks overlooking the ocean. I walked out on the sloping chunks of granite that were rounded and smoothed from the ocean. They looked like big, brown lumps. I edged down to the water where a few tide pools had formed and looked for creatures. I only saw a couple small fish and a crab.

We climbed up to the hill of the peninsula where a stone cross stood marking the virgin mary sighting. While we were up there a dense cloud of fog rolled in, we could literally see it blow across the hill like a race car in a wind tunnel. After fifteen minutes the tip of Muxia was engulfed in fog. "This is crazy!" I said to Ellen. She looked at the all the haze blowing in "No wonder someone had a vision. It was probably some drunk farmer that thought he saw the virgin mary appear from one of these clouds."

We decided to head back to Finisterre instead of spending the day in Muxia. It was a very peaceful town, but too quiet if you're a tourist. We walked to a taxi stand where two normal looking cars were parked. "How much do you think it will be?"
"What's our limit?"
"Are you going to ask?"
One of the men stepped out of his car as he saw us approach. I approached him and said "Ahhh Muxia a Finisterre" gesturing with my hand like I could touch the two places with my finger. "Quanto?" The taxi man replied slowly as he realized my deficiency of the spanish language "Vente cinqo". I turned to Ellen "That's twenty five?" We nodded, and got in the cab, making our first ride in a vehicle in over a month. It felt fast, especially when looking straight ahead. The cab driver took us to Finisterre, and did what took us 8 hours in 25 minutes.

He dropped us off in the central part of the city. We walked along the harbor, and up the hill to a private albergue and checked in for 10 euro each. They put us in a room with only 2 bunks. A german lady had taken the bottom of one bunk, and Ellen and I took the free bunk. This seemed good, even if a forth person showed up there was a decent chance we would have a snore-less night.

The haze had rolled into Finisterre too, making for a cooler day and nixing beach activities or another sunset. We went to dinner at the same restaurant from the night before, but scaled back. I had the menu del dia for 10.50 euro, which was a creamy soup, hake, flan for desert, and two glasses of red wine. The world cup was on television, Japan against Denmark, which was an amazing game. Across from us were five older spanish ladies who would occasionally break into quiet song as if they were in church. They were uninterested in the game. These ladies embodied the quintessential spanish-woman physique: short, broad shouldered with a thick torso that makes the arms and legs go stubby. Their necks blend into their chins and sink into their hunched shoulders. They walk without taking full steps forward, hobbling at a steady pace with a side-to-side motion like a big lizard, and one arm held to their side with a purse hanging from the forearm. It's all just a weight problem, but takes years to cultivate and seems more structural than external like a flabbiness. These ladies are hedgehogs.

Ellen and I walked back to the hostel and entered our dark room only to find a forth bunk mate who was happily snoring. Shit! We got ready for bed, and I crawled into my sleeping bag with my foamy earplugs wedged in.

To the Edge of the Earth

Mass ended and we filed out of the cathedral into the main plaza out front. We saw more familiar faces from the early days of the Camino. This was the season finale that we joked about, where all the characters showed up for one last episode.

Ellen and I checked into our hotel on the outskirts of the old city where 140 euro gets you some serious fanciness, like a free minibar. I would have cleaned out the cokes and fantas, but the glass bottles weighed too much for the heist to be worth it.

That night, at midnight I turned 28, entering an undisputed position of late-twenties, if that even means anything. I fee like I gave up on those mile markers long ago. But to celebrate Ellen and I went for the real meal we had been longing for this whole trip, a meal that really summed up spanish cuisine. We never found a restaurant that seemed like a winner, but settled on one with a moderately-pricey menu and white table cloths. We entered the restaurant in our 'pilgrim's best'; me in jeans, a fleece, and flip flops, and Ellen in a fleece, black wool hiking skirt, and flip flops. "Dos, por favor" I said hold two fingers in the air. They looked around at a few of the empty tables with concerned looks, and then motioned us to follow. The hostess led us into a back room where a family with three kids were enjoying dinner, loudly. And soon after a large group of 18 joined our special room. We were getting the pilgrim treatment. However the restaurant was accommodating enough to give us an english speaking waiter.

We set out for three more days of walking to Finisterre. Most pilgrims stop in Santiago, but the route from Santiago to Finisterre predates the actual Camino when it was more of a roman and pagan tradition to walk to 'the edge of the earth' and watch the sun disappear fearing that it might not rise again.

It was good to be walking again, not that we took a break other than from the hostels and typical pilgrim life during our stay in Santiago, but I wasn't ready stop walking yet. The path out of Santiago was rolling and wooded. We saw very few pilgrims all day giving the trail a calm and quiet feel. We did a 23K into Negreria the first day, and a 34K walk into Ol Veirora the next. We passed through farm after farm. This section of Spain is big into dairy cows and each little town carries a heavy scent of sweet, musty funk from manure, especially when used as fertilizer on the fields.

We arrived in Ol Veirora around 3p after a long, hot day. It was a tiny farming village just like the countless others we passed along the way only this one was completely dominated by the albergue. It was a compound, occupying a half-dozen little stone buildings on the only street through town. All of the doors and the window panes were painted turquoise blue signifying the takeover. There was a bar that was obviously fueled by the pilgrim presence. This was the only place to stop before Finisterre, which is why we walked so long to get there. There really aren't any other options.

The hostel was filling quickly by the time we arrived despite our 6a departure. Ellen and I quickly learned the details of how this place was being run, which is that its a free-for-all. Earlier, the hospitalero showed up, unlocked the place and said "okay, find a bed, I'll be back at 5p or 6p". Everyone shuffled into a frenzy. The only beds that were left for us were six mattresses on the floor of one building, and a random top bunk in another, and one more top bunk in a little house the michigan group took over. I moved into the michigan house and Ellen took the bunk in the other building. Three students still hadn't shown up yet, and we were worried that the mattresses would go fast, and they did.

Sarah, Cathy, and Courtney rolled in about an hour later, the hostel was completely full and beginning to stack up with other bedless pilgrims. Ellen and I talked about sharing my bunk to free up hers for Courtney and Cathy to share and I could let Sarah use my inflatable sleeping pad. We tried it out, she and I lay there on my bunk. No way. Okay, option two: "Let's just gather all the thick blankets nobody ever uses because they're gross, and pile them on the floor of the michigan house. We could make two beds for Cathy and Courtney, and Sarah can have my sleeping pad. We'll put them upstairs and no one will ever know, and even if they do who cares, this place is obviously loosely run." Done. We crammed three three girls upstairs in our little stone cottage, and Ellen slept in her bunk over the 'garage', which was really a former stable.

More pilgrims continued to pour in, until 10 bed-less people remained into the night. They tore apart cardboard boxes that were in the stable and turned it into one big sleeping mat. When we left the next morning at 7a, bodies in sleeping bags were all over the stable floor like some sketchy homeless shelter.

The walk into Finisterre was great. We climbed gentle hills until we couldn't see anymore land in the distance and the sky blurred into the distant haze of the ocean. It was almost indistinguishable, but we knew it was there. After another 12K or so, we could really see it and it looked fucking amazing. This was how to end a walk, not in some spanish city but where you really can't walk any further. We dropped down the steep hills and descended into the bay of Cee, walking through the town along the water. The sun was hot and the breeze off the water felt cool and smelled like ocean. We climbed another hill, crossing over the ridge and back down to Finisterre. Ellen, Sarah B, and I stopped at one of the sandy beach coves off the main road to dip our feet in the turquoise water. We found Cathy and Courtney at a cafe along the sidewalk to the beach, and they joined us. The water was freezing, too cold for my limited tolerance. Ellen and Sarah de-robed into their underwear and went for it, I stood wading, holding their belongings with one arm and taking photos with the other. Courtney ran in without hesitation like a character in baywatch. Cathy cautiously followed. All four of them fully submerged. They're hardcore.

After they stopped shaking violently and dried off, we continued for another 5K into the main part of Finisterre, winding through the city, and then climbing a steep hill up to our hotel. Ellen and I ordered the special room with bay views for 80 euro a night with breakfast included. It was an amazing deal, the room was great.

That evening we bought a bottle of wine and walked to the lighthouse on the tip of Finisterre, and watched the sunset on the longest day of the year. Ellen and I found a rock on the steep grassy hillside to perch on. Other pilgrims were scattered throughout the steep cliff on little perches of their own, drinking wine and staring off into the orange glow of the sun. I could hear the french man and playing his wooden recorder a hundred yards away. Everyone was there.

We walked back into town and headed towards the large stretch of beach on the bay. We were in search of the giant solstice party we heard so much about. We had been looking forward to a crazy party of spanish hippies and new agey pilgrims, but the beach was silent. It was just a rumor. We passed other pilgrims under the dim glow of the streetlights, "Hey do you know where the solstice party is?" I asked. "We're looking for it too." We later learned that June 23rd is considered the real spanish solstice, or at least a crazy and mystical day. Legend has it that the virgin mary appeared floating in a stone boat (a popular vessel with the romans) from Finisterre up the coast to Muxia, which is another pilgrimage route of only 30K. Ellen and I settled for a sidewalk party with three other pilgrims who offered us a bottle of wine. There was a guy from Australia, a girl from Sweeden, and a young Spainard who couldn't speak any english. We sat on the ground with the dark bay to our backs talking about what pilgrims know best, the pilgrimage.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The service continued with more readings and group songs. I had some crazy gurgling pains in my stomach from a santiago cake, fresh OJ, and a café con leche Ellen and I scarfed down before. I turned to Ellen "Leonard, I've got the troubles. Do you think they have a bathroom in here?"
"No. Can´t you wait?"
"I don't think so." I grimmaced and adjusted my posture. "Am I allowed to leave?" I asked looking around.
"I'll tell you when..."
Ellen gave me the cue and I b-lined out the door. I headed into a museum and with inflection in my voice said "Servicos?" The lady pointed me through a couple doors and I found relief. At the door to the cathedral there was a guard turning people away. Shit. I had heard that pilgrim credencials allow you to skip the line into mass but I wasn't sure about how to get in if mass is already underway. I flashed my peregrino passport and he whisked me in.

I re-enterd at a moment where everyone was hugging one another and giving kisses on each other's cheeks. I weaved through the loving crowd back to my bench and of course my seat had been taken. Ellen looked at me like 'oops I didn't think you would make it back.' Communion started and everyone began to file out of the benches and take a little neco waffer from the priest. Most people let him put it in their mouth and it looked like there was some tongue touching of his finger on each delivery. I'm not a germaphobe (I despise hand santizer), but this seemed obvious. As the seat-stealer filed out to get her waffer I filed in. Hey, I was there first. I saw other people getting up from their seats during the service, usually to take their turn at confessional, so how would she know that I had to exit the cathedral for nature's calling? There was no protest when she discovered my return.

Five alter boys unhooked a rope from a large column that held a massive incense burner that hung 100 feet from the dome. The rope was freyed at the end branching into five smaller pieces for each person to hang on to. The priest lit a bonfire inside of it and the boys started yanking on the rope that thread through a winch mechanism way up high. The large, shinny metal lantern billowed smoke and the five boys started getting the rythym of the swing until it was flying hundreds of feet across the entire cathedral, back and forth. They whipped it higher and higher on each swing like a mischeavious pusher on the playground, until it seemed nearly out of control, maxing out and freefalling for a moment, and then 'snap' it jerked back into the smooth swing. The cathedral filled with a smokey haze that smelled like a mix of burning sage and pine needles.

Simultaneously as this ritual began every worshiper pulled out a camera. Arms lifted high holding a little LCD screen, many of the pilgrims lived the experience through their camera, present company included. It was a funny moment where we all said 'yes, this is why I'm here, to see this crazy spectacle and prove it to others.' It was a scene of digital worship as we all clung to our cameras in complete agreement.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I slept like shit that night in Barbadelo. I was on the top bunk and my lower bunk mate was a skinny old spainard with a snoring problem. His skin was translucent gray from smoking and his jumbled teeth were yellow. When he choked on himself in the middle of the night, the coughing that followed wafted an ashtray smell up from below. I hated this fucker. When his snoring would get intense I started rocking my bunk violently like it was a canoe I wanted to capsize. This worked half of the time.

We set out around 7a after Ellen attended to her blisters, draining and dressing them. We climbed the hill to the restaurant where we ate that night and were told to come back for breakfast, however the door was shut and a scruffy german shepard lay on the steps. We continued with empty stomachs; there were no provisions to buy the day before in Barbadello. We walked about 5 or 6k before finding a cafe for breakfast. This was the 100K mark and things started getting crazy. There was a tour bus that dropped off about 40 pre-teens, and spainards with tiny backpacks started showing up.

The pilgrimage is part of a catholic tradition where upon successful completion of the journey you receive a compstella in Santiago. This is a 'get out of jail free' card allowing catholics to skip purgatory when they die. In order to get the compestella you have to walk the last 100K of the Camino de Santiago. Many people time it so they end up in Santiago on Sunday for church. We were on schedule to get there Friday for 12pm mass.

The new pilgrims are easy to spot. They wear common clothes, carry small sacks like the ones that come with nike shoes, and are more impressed with what has become mundane to us. The new pilgrims take photos of everything, including themselves. They are loud and look very clean. The trail feels very crowded like a long line at a store that happens to be moving at a brisk walking pace. There is an urgency with these shoppers, anxious if it were black friday. They seem like sellouts to us, and their camino ettiquette is sloppy. The trail has more wrappers and trash on it, the yelling and loud conversations are impossible to block out. This is snoring of daytime.

At one point the trail became very muddy and only stepping stones were a safe bet. This was the first time i wasn't able to walk at my own pace. The sloppy section created a traffic jam of careful new pilgrims in clean shoes. I just wanted to pass them all. Eventually the trail quieted as we out-walked the new pilgrims, who stop after 15k to stay on schedule for Sunday.

That night we stayed at a municipal hostel. There were only 28 beds, and we were worried it would be full given this new trail condition. We were relieved to find available beds and learn that they had been turning away the 'camino-lites' to give preference to the pilgrims who actually carried weight and had been walking since France.

The next day we found the trail quiet for the first hour or so, and then it picked up again. Ellen and I came to a section of trail that was flooded from the rain last week. There was a giant group of new pilgrims jammed up at the water, however they were attempting to go around it. It looked like a herd of cattle stomping a new trail through brush and over a stacked stone wall. Ellen and I approached the water and discovered an easy path of stepping stones spaced every couple feet. We carefully hopped through. We couldn't understand why they were going around. On the other side we passed a herd of people waiting for the rest of the group. Holy shit! These were special pilgrims, mostly downs syndrome kids / adults. The helpers were carefully coaxing them along the new path they had created. It looked dicey. We threaded our way through and kept a steady pace to ahead of this group. In front of us was a group a loud spainards. We figured they were drunk the way they carried on. Their pace was fast, but Ellen and I were determined to pass them. One man in particular kept hanging back and would almost begin to urniate as we approached. Once we came into sight he took off again. This was the loudest one, the guy we thought was a drunkard. After a few more attempts we finally got by he and the rest of his group, and realized they were part of the special pilgrim crew. We made it to Melide and checked into to a provisional hostel.

The regular municipal hostel was currently being renovated. They relocated all the beds to a makeshift hostel inside a giant warehouse expo center, the cobo hall of Melide. It seemed okay, so we checked in. That night turned out to be the worst hostel experience yet. The day packers were there and it was party time for them. They drank and smoked in a far corner of the giant air hangar-like space, chanting soccer fight songs, yelling, clapping, and laughing. At 10:30p they were still going strong but we figured it would cut out as all hostels have quiet time at 10:30p, but our hospitaleros were gone, it was a free-for-all. The giant space echoed their party chatter into the partioned area of bunks. We had walls but no ceilings. I tried listening to music in hopes of falling asleep, but by 12p it was no use. I was disappointed at the other spainards who passively stayed in their bunks during all the partying. It was obvious they could not sleep either. If I could speak the language I would have tried to intervene, but as a foreigner I was at their mercy. There were many shhhing noises but the group of twenty crazy spainards kept going until they quit at 1:30a. Ellen and I had our alarm set for 5:15a to get an early start on our 33k walk the next day. Damn them.

I thought of all the awful things I could do in the morning to sabotage these fuckers. I could shake their beds violently, splash water on them, and pour my liquid laundry detergent all over their packs. Maybe I would just hide their packs in the dumpster outside. But by the time 5:15a came around I didn't care anymore and just wanted to get the hell out of there.

It was dark when we started walking. We continued for about 7K until we found the first open coffee shop. We kept walking, making it to Arca by 2p. We checked into the municipal hostel again, but this one seemed more supervised. We were in a little nook with 4 bunks. The bathrooms were co-ed and the shower stalls didn't have curtains, so it was anyone's guess as to whom would be surprised. Ellen and I both showered without any strange encounters.

In Arca we caught up with many of our original camino friends who gained a day on us back in Astorga when the students took a day off. We still had 20K to Santiago and hoped that we would find more people there. We were avoiding the giant hostel of 400 beds just outside of Santiago, but figured many of our long lost friends would have stopped there instead of Arca.

Ellen wanted to get into Santiago early to take care of the housing arrangements for the students. We also needed to get our compestellas and make it to 12p mass. We calculated the distance and our pace and figured that we had to wake up at 4a.

We started walking at 4:45a after eating our breakfast provisions. We found our way through arca with the yellow glow of street lamps, and then the trail veered into the woods where we used our headlamps. Two of Ellen's students, Cathy and Courtney, were twenty minutes behind us. I wanted to hide in the woods and wait for them to get close and then start making strange snorking and grunting noises along with some twig-snapping. The woods were freaky, and that was the most frightening thing I could imagine hearing in total darkness. If they started running, then I would take off running too, amplifing the snorking / grunting. I kept walking instead but kept laughing just thinking about it.

We made it to Santiago with plenty of time to spare and found the Pilgrim office and got in line. It moved quickly and I was at the counter within 15 minutes. I had to fill out a few boxes on a sign-in sheet. There was a section that asked why I did the pilgrimage and I could check: religous or no religous. I put an X in the no religious box. The lady took my pilgrim passport and looked up at me. "You checked no religious" she said.
"I have to tell you that you will get a different certificate. Once I write this I cannot change this, do you understand?"
"Does the other certificate look different?"
"It shouldn't be a decision about aesthetics"
I peered over the counter and saw two piles of certificates on the desk. The no religious certificate was plain looking with less frills than the religious certificate.
"Hmmm, that one looks better". I said. I looked around the room to consult with Ellen who warned me of this, but I wasn't expecting the pressure of the decision. I thought they would just give me the no religious certificate. The other one was clearly the obvious choice, but I felt like a cheat. "I'll just take the no religious one, and if I want the other certificate I'll do the walk again." The lady looked at me flatly and didn't get the humor.

I watched her write my name in fancy caligraphy on the boring certificate. I walked out with a small poster tube that housed the 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. We checked our backpacks at luggage check stand a few doors down. They put our bags through an airport security x-ray machine, and without looking at the monitor took our 2 euros and carried our packs away. We wound our way through the city looking for the two hotels where Ellen had reservations for the students. The people at the front desks seemed confused that she was checking in but didn't want the key, and just wanted to pay and leave. "Ummm my amigos..." arms flailing "come here, peregrinos..." pointing to herself "teacher, my students..."

They finally got it, but the biggest mix up came at the next hotel where there was supposed to be three single rooms. The students decided amongst themselves who would get the singles and who get the doubles in the other hotel. Cathy and Courtney volunteered for one of the doubles, then Zack and Sam (the recently formed camino couple). Three other students were quick to take the singles, as it was said to be the ideal scenario. The rest of the students were mixed in doubles. Ellen and I showed up to the hotel and discovered that the three private rooms was actually one private triple. Oh shit. This will be great. There was some bickering when the students showed up, but it was only for one night.

We hurried back into the center of the city to the cathedral, which is a giant building covered in bright orange lichen and growing weeds from the lintels. I liked seeing an enormous, dirty cathedral after experiencing the immaculate cathedral in Burgos. We found seats with views of the giant incense burner that hung from a rope connected to a winch at the top of the dome in the center of the church. We were early, but this was a smart move because the cathedral was packed by noon, standing room only. Mass started promptly at 12p with a nun singing prayers that the audience responded to in a monotone song. There was lots of sitting and then standing and then sitting again. People repeatedly drew an upside down cross over their chests, but I just stood there unsure of the actual move. Ellen told me this mass was a very big deal because there was a cardinal there. When a cardinal gives mass he has other priests as helpers instead of alter boys. These preists were cloaked in bright red robes like kings, and they walked in form up to the alter. One of the red-robed men was 'Ultreia' the 82 year-old white bearded brazilian man. "Holy shit, it's Ultreia'" I whispered into Ellen's ear. "He's a priest!" Ellen whispered back. We were both shocked. We thought he was just some crazy old dude. We later learned that this was his seventh camino. We were blown away. be continued.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hostel Luck Part II

(continuation from previous post)

I remained stubborn and stayed put in my hostel. This was like owning a loser stock...jumping ship seemed like a loss. Even though the parish hostel was donation only I still felt like I had something gain.

Outside the door we heard the jingling of bells, which are tied around farm animals necks. In this case it was a family of goats, several females, a half dozen kids, and one billy. The babies were wild, jumping all over the old stacked stone house runis and making goat noises. Just like a petting zoo we instinctively approached the little ones until the hospitalero poked her head out of the other door warning us not to get too close the billy goat. "He´s mean" she said. The male goat had a big boner that he seemed preoccupied with, licking it incessantly. We turned around and headed back to the porch, and the goat followed. Oh shit. The door we had exited from only worked one way. Oh shit. The porch had only one set of stairs and railing around the perimeter. We were cornered. Courtney, Cathy, and Ellen began making high pitched noises of uncertainty as they huddled together at the far end. I climed onto a row of chairs. The goat slowly closed in on the three girls. The door opened and one of them quickly disappeared and then another. Boom the door slamed as the goat tried to follow. Now it was just Cathy and the goat. She turned away in fear and the goat started pressing her against the railing. The door opened again and she slipped away as the goat had the door slammed in his face again. He turned back passing me on his way down the stairs, and finally the door opened for me too.

Once the coast was clear I headed back to my hostel for the pilgrim meal I had prepaid for. The hostel was strangely rowdy. I sat across from a drunk spainard man who was infatuated with Sarah B. to my right. Drunk spanish man couldn't speak any english, but kept looking at her with puppy eyes and saying 'Bonita, bonita'. We were only on the salads. By the end of the meal he was offering her his desert. Sarah was completely uninterested and at this point very annoyed. I decided to accept the desert of fresh sliced fruit over yogurt on her behalf. Besides a lot of noise and love struck men the hostel was okay. The pilgrim meal was great.

I left the next morning after my prepaid pilgrim breakfast: coffee, yogurt, a pear, and cereal. I felt like I got my money's worth. I hit the road at 6:45a and with the heavy fog and rain it was nearly dark outside. It was cold and the wind blew hard, sending the rain sideways. It felt like an ocean squal. I walked alone and given the conditions it seemed erie as if I was heading into certain death. There is definitely something unnatural about subjecting oneself to weather like this, but I had gear. The only thing that was getting wet was my shoes and gloves. After two hours I hit the first town and stopped in for a café con leche, orange juice, and danish. I changed my socks and put on another layer under my rain gear. The rain died down and the air warmed as I descended into Mollesecca. I made it to Poneferrada around 1:30p, and checked into a giant Municipal hostel on the edge of town. They put me in an end room with 9 other beds on the first floor, a few of which were taken by Ellen´s students. The room had windows on three walls. The mattresses were bright blue from a pleather-like coating that was peeling off the middle from wear. I took a lone bed with a normal fitted sheet. Ellen showed up around 3p and was put in the basement room with 45 beds...the tables had turned.

I thought I lucked out with my set up but the few remaining beds were taken by snoring spanish men. After listening to them for an hour I grabbed my sleeping bag and pillow and headed upstairs to the internet room and slept on one of the futon-like couches. There was one other person up there who had the same idea. At some point in the night another joined us, and one of the two was started snoring. God damn.

That night the bed bugs paid me a visit. They were either in my sleeping bag or pillow, and possibly lived in the futon although it was sterile looking like office furniture with few places to hide. Bed bugs bite in bursts, making a string of one-two-three or one-two. I had a series on each knee, my right elbow, my right wrist, my forehead, and another just under my waistline. I became the lepper.

The only person I told was Ellen. She could be trusted with my fragile social condition. That night in the basement had fed her up with hostels too. So we when we got into Villafranca the next day we checked into a 'boutique hotel' recommmended by the guidebook. I needed some quarantine time. All of my clothes had to be washed including my sleeping bag.

The hotel seemed so pure and clean, a puffy white bed spread with and fancy bathroom. There was a toilet, bidet, and the shower rained from overhead along with body jets. It was the perfect santizing tank, and scrubbed like hell even though bed bugs don´t live on people. I just felt soiled. The hotel had a laundry service for 6 euros. They gave me a black garbage bag and I filled it with every single thing I had brought on the trip. I delivered it to the front desk wearing Ellen's shorts and low-cut shirt, which fit awkwardly in some areas. The next morning the bag appeared at our door with my clothes folded, but damp. They warned me of this. They said the dryer takes three times as long as the wash. My wool stuff was the driest along with my rain gear and fleece. I was good to go.

We ate the hotel breakfast, which was a nice buffet of fruit, meat, cheese, yogurt, and pastries. The hotel lady brought us café con leches and fresh squeezed orange juice. We really tried to fuel up because we had one of the biggest hikes of the trip that day, the alternative route through the mountains called dragonete. According to our guidebook the path is not very well marked and the route takes you over three mountains with a total elevation climb of 6000 feet. There aren't any services for 26k. None of Ellen's students wanted to do the walk. It was the first day the weather looked promising after all the rain so we decided to do it. We left at 9a after breakfast, a late start compared to our usual departures. The route started with a steep climb up an asphalt road for 5k. We came to Dragonete the town, which was one narrow street lined with stone houses. We had our first encounter with a loose dog that wasn't used to strangers. After a lot of barking and our attempts to yell "vamoose!" like we had heard spanish people say to their dogs, he relaxed, and it was clear he was more interested in the chocolate we had stopped to snack on.

The walk was amazing, easily the best one of the whole trip. The farming villages we passed through were so remote it almost felt creepy. The path was muddy at times, and by looking at the tracks of mostly farm animals and 4x4´s, we were the only pilgrims to walk that day. At the first valley we came to a section of trail where the guidebook had warned that we might get wet. The path became a creak for about 150 feet. We took off our boots and wore our flip-flops. It was 10 feet wide and only ankle deep, but damn cold. We then climbed the second mountain, which took us through a chesnut forest. These trees were crazy looking, huge trunks at least 500 years old it seemed, covered in moss and sometimes partially hollow with new growth coming out of the top.

The weather held for most of the day, only sprinkling a couple times. We emerged from the mountains onto the main trail at 6:30p, and got a text from one of Ellen's students that the hostel was full. We had three more towns in between where we hoped to find beds. The first town was too small and didn't have an albergue. We started another climb and 5k later got to the second town, La Faba, and stopped at the German Confreternity Hostel. It was nearly empty and looked awesome. We were welcomed in as number 15 and 16 (out of 60 total beds). Other pilgrims were cooking in the kitchen and Ellen and I received an invitation to dinner, to be served in 15 minutes. I quickly showered and she ran to the market and picked up a bottle of wine and a santiago cake (a thin, almond cake) for desert. The hostel had a dryer, and for 4 euros the hospitalero took all of my damp stuff and had it dry by the time dinner was finished. I slept great that night, and wasn't bitten again.

The next day was a serious walk because we had to stop short the day before. We had a 37K hike to Samos. We left at 6:30a. It was cold and there was dense fog, so thick I felt like Michael from The Lost Boys when he and the other vampires are hanging from the train truss. Beyond the edge of the trail that snaked up the mountain there was nothing but white. The air was full of moisture, you could see it blow past in the wind. I had to put on my rain gear at the first town we came too, which was really spectacular but difficult to see. We were in Galecia, which is basically irish country, irish decendants and irish weather. The orange tiled roofs we're used to seeing are now slate, and the stucco buildings are stacked stone.

We finally reached Samos and the weather had improved. It was still cool but we had some sun. We checked into one of the largest (by sheer size, only 11 monks actually live there) monasteries in Spain. The hostel was sunken a little below street level off a side street. Inside was a long vaulted room with a plaster ceiling covered in strange cartoon-like murals. It felt cold and dank. The white bunk bed covers were nappy like terry cloth and dirty. We ate a peregrino meal at the restaurant across the street with one of Ellen's students and a lone german lady who spoke very good english. We lamented the funky hostel and talked about switching to a private hostel that had just opened on the other side of town.

Again, I held out. Ellen and Sarah B. went and checked it out and returned with remorseful looks on their faces. They packed up and moved, and for 12 euros each got a clean room of five bunks that never filled up after they checked in. Damn this hostal market. I took a shower, timing it for later in the day to insure hot water. The water was great, but I had forgoten my towel on the bunk. I had to mop myself with a little orange tote bag I use carry my supplies.

The next morning I picked Ellen up at the fancy hostal. The door was locked and I stood out front for a few minutes before another pilrim, Bob from Maine, noticed me from above. "hey you guys leaving already" he said jokingly. Bob is a scruffy grey and brown, and reminds me of an over-enthusiatic high school science teacher. He is in his late 50's and when he shakes your hand he does an extra move at the end that seems left over from the 60's, like "hey man, I really feel you, brother." I like Bob. His wife is Nancy, an asian-american lady with pepper grey hair. She is really relaxed and seems like Bob's opposite.

Ellen was upstairs, popping a new blister she developed. This one was huge, and the first to actually require a needle. It just didn't seem smart to cram it into a hiking boot. We started walking around 8a. The sky was grey and looked at bit threatening. The path followed rivers and streams that snaked through the valleys. We had a short walk of 18k to Barbadello, which was nothing more than a municipal hostel and one restaurant. We all waited for the hostel to open and our group quickly filled the 17 beds. We purposely stayed at this town and not the larger town to get out of sync with the other pilgrims. Most pilgrims follow the schedule in the guidebooks pressurizing the hostels in the destination towns. At this point we were nearing the 100k mark of the walk where the pilgrim population nearly doubles. be continued.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hostel Luck

There has been a string of good hostels over the past few days, which can spoil you. The first was in Villar de Mazariffe. It was a private Albergue run by a father and a daughter in a newer building on the edge of town. It was essentially a ranch-style house with a walkout basement. The house was set back from the street with a nice green lawn in the front. Ellen's students sunbathed in the plastic lawn chairs making it look like some weird frat house in the middle of a Spanish town.

The highlight of this place was the peregrino meal they served for 8 euro. Downstairs they had a commercial kitchen and a large dinning room. The father cooked. He had a rough face with grey stubble, and a long grey pony tail braided into a thin rat tail. They served a vegetarian meal, which is a happy thing after all the strange meats we encounter. The meal started with a fresh salad, then it was a pureed onion soup, and paella for dinner, followed by flan for desert. The meal was awesome. Then, a french pilgrim busted out a wooden recoder (I called it a flute, but was corrected) and started making hobbit music, and proceeded to sing. This must have fired up the old man in the kitchen because he brought out a bottle wrapped in rope with clear liquid inside. He began setting up a table with a bunch of small glasses. He poured the liquid in a bowl along with 5 coffee beans, a lemon rind, and two heaping laddles of sugar, and then lit it on fire. He laddled the flaming liquid up and down, raising it high above the bowl while reading a hand written prayer on a piece of crumpled paper. I´m not sure what the translation for this cocktail is, other than the italian name: grappa. After the prayer, in one puff, he blew out the flaming bowl and poured us shots. It had a stinging smell and it tasted like sweet sugary moonshine. We all went back for seconds.

Last night Ellen and I stayed at an English (as in British) hostel in Rabanal, which is a tiny, one-road town. The hostel was in a recently converted barn, which is far from the barns we think of the US, and more of a large stone house. It had a secluded courtyard with stacked stone walls and a garden. It had rained the whole day from Astorga. Our feet were soaked when we got there and it was cold out, about 48 degrees. The British people that run the hostel serve english tea and biscuits (round crackers) at 5p. In this small room the pilgrims gather at a large table across from a fireplace that was raging. The chimney continued upstairs in our room where it gave off warm, dry heat. It was perfect on a cold, wet day. The hostel was donation-only, which included a breakfast in the morning of coffee, bread and jam. Ellen and I each gave 5 euros.

The hostel rotates volunteers on two week shifts to run the place. Not everyone was a brit, you just have to be a member of an english confroternity, or something like that. There was one volunteer who stood out. His name was Chard, as in Richard. I guess he didn't like the alternative. He was from San Franciso. Chard was kind of chubby, in the way that partying through college and into your thirties does to you. He had blond hair and tan california skin. Chard was a bartender. He could lock you into a conversation in passing, making quick one liner comments that would cause him to erupt in laughter. His laugh was like an on-off switch. There was no variation, like something that was kind of funny versus something that was tears-in-the-eye-funny. Chard always laughed at full tilt, and his face made the same curdled expression each time.

Chard liked us. We got to talking about burning man, which really fired him up. He had only been once before and planned on going this year, but he said his plans could change. Chard had met a pilgrim girl a few days before and they had big plans to spend a week together in Santiago. Chard said that anything could happen, and this just might affect his burning man plans. He insisted that we write down his email address and the name of his friends theme camp.

The next morning, after the english breakfast, Chard gave us a big hug and thanked us for stopping in. He was a good guy.

Ellen and I continued to the next town through a steady cold rain, and could only think about how great another fireplace would be. This was our day off, it was only a 6K day. We showed up in Foncebadu at 9:30a, too early to properly check into the hostel, but they let us pay and leave our bags. We had to wait until noon for beds. Ellen got a bad vibe from the place. I thought it was fine. We walked another 4K without packs to a cross where pilgrims deposit rocks from there hometown. This was a giant heap of rocks with all sorts of things taped and stapled to the pole that stuck out. It looked like a big grave. The rain started getting heavy and we hurried back to the hostel.

We found a bunk, and discovered some mold in the corners of the ceiling and walls. This is not that uncommon. These structures don't have much in the way of insulation, and temperature changes cause condensation to build up. The hostel had only one shower and toilet on our floor, making Ellen even more remorseful. Once we had settled in and upacked our bags we walked down the street to the restaurant and ordered garlic soup to warm up. The restaurant was also a private hostel and Ellen decided to send her students text messages directing them here. She thought this place was better. Her students rolled in, filling the remaining beds. We loitered here for awhile, and just like the internet computers that need to be fed, we ordered more food every hour to maintain our customer status -an ice cream bar, another coke, then two cafe con leches.

Ellen went back to the hostel to take a nap and I followed about 45 minutes later. I woke up to the sound of a noisy german looking for a bed. I was sleeping on the bottom bunk and Ellen was up top. I could hear another woman saying that she thought that the bed was taken. I pulled my sleeping bag off my face and joined in on the conversation. I pointed up at the bed "It's taken. My girlfriend is sleeping up there." The german chimed back "They said there is one bed left."

I looked up at the lady who was napping on the next bunk over. "There was a girl here ten minutes ago gathering her things, but I think that is her bed". I got up and looked at Ellen's bed, it was empty, her stuff was gone. I figured she relocated to the top floor because of the mold. "Okay" I said to the german "It's all yours". He derobed and clamored up there, commenting how hot it was today. I didn't get the humor, and couldn't tell if he was sweaty or rain-soaked. I didn't like my new neighbor.

I sat back down on my bed and started collecting my thoughts. I noticed a note that Ellen had left for me. It explained that she got a bad feeling about this place and decided to change hostels. There was a parish hostel 100 yards away that was donation-only. They had a fireplace and served a free dinner. I turned to the lady and said "My girlfriend left me a note. She switched hostels." as I waived the piece of paper in the air. Then I felt strangely awkward because the lady probably thought my girlfriend had just abandoned me, which was true to some extent, but not in a permanent way, just for the night. "She didn't like this place, she got a bad feeling" I said in an attempt to restore my dignity. "She thinks the parish hostel is better" In a soft voice the lady turned to me "But all of the other hostels are full." I didn't have an answer.

I put on my rain pants and went downstairs to the common area. It was busy with pilgrims and I decided to go back to the restaurant. I could order a coke or something. Ellen would be there at 5p to meet with students and I could get the full story then. The rain had stopped and only fog remained. I decided to switch directions and head to the parish. Maybe they would let me in. I peered into the church area and saw Ellen's stuff on a lone mattress on the floor. They had put her in here as overflow (very typical if a hostel is full) Inside she was with Courtney and Cathy (two of her students) in front of the fireplace. I told them about the german and my break up letter. They encouraged me to move hostels, but I felt planted; my sleeping bag was out, my bag was unpacked, and besides I had already paid for the pilgrim meal that night.

"Come on this place is better. They already gave us rice and vegetables" Courtney pleaded.

Hostel Remorse.

Monday, June 7, 2010

walking strategies

The snoring is getting out of hand. I´ve developed new strategies to cope with the noise, but you must overcome the fear of the bunk bedding. We speculate that they only change the fitted sheet of the mattress every week or so, and the same could be said about the pillow case. Sometimes it gets really warm in the hostel, and you have to unzip your sleeping bag all the way, and then at some point in the night you peel out of it like a bananna fully in touch with dreaded fitted sheet. I´m over this now. Some of the rooms we stay in are so hot that I pair down to only my boxers, joining the ranks of spanish men who casually lounge in their briefs throughout much of the hostel. So when I make enough turns in my sleep, it´s full contact.

To combat the snoring I deploy the head-taco, which consists of wrapping my head in the potetially nasty´s the only way. This is in addition to the little ear plugs I wear as well. Another technique is identifying potential snore-ers during ciesta, and either moving far away from them or falling asleep before they do. My observations of snoring during ciesta has fascinated me even more. First, I think its such an amazing human condition that the culprit is completely unaware of, you don't hear yourself snore. Second, a person only knows that they snore through word of mouth and then their subsequent judgement of the rumor. It has been interesting to watch this play out amongst Ellen's students, several of which snore, some worse than others. But they are easy to manage because we can wake up the culprit. There doesn´t exist an etiquette among strangers for this strategy, and certainly not across language barriers. When I imagine waking up one of the heavy-set spainards who is happily snoring the only thing I can think to do to get the message across is let out a big snort and point.

We're about 22 days in, and have covered more than 300 miles on foot. The community of pilgrims is still tight, but sometimes it loses it´s luster, sometimes it feels more like a big family with a lot of aunts and uncles you could do without. The best way to describe the scene in the hostel at night or in the morning is to imagine the locker rooms at the YMCA, and then to populate that space with bunkbeds. The nudity, the not so shaply figures, the odd smells of body odor and shower-fresh soapy aromas. It´s all there.

There is also a lot of gossip that goes on; which group is where, who has blisters, who shipped their bag ahead, rumors of thievery, etc. I think this is largely from what Jason Young would call 'action bias', the propensity to keep conversations light and moving along.
"hey how's is going"
"Good, and you"
....(this is an important lightness in the covnversation, you don't want to tank it by saying 'not so good, my uncle has cancer' or something deeply personal. Keep it light and keep it afloat.
"how was your walk"
"oh, very beautiful"

After so many of these conversations it seems like the walk as a subject of action bias gets exhausted, and pilgrims move onto to other subjects within the group. The most scandalous of them all is bed bugs. Several people have been bitten by something, most likely bed bugs, and the rumors spread like wildfire. One girl from Australia felt so weird about a string of three bites on her face she went a day ahead of the group, which is like leaving one family for another. One day puts you in a completely different wave of pilgrims.

In my immediate family circle there is Ellen, whom I walk with each day, but now we're trying new ways of walking, you could say. When my knee was bothering me I would walk backwards down hills. This worked well, releiving the pain on the joint, but ultimately stressed the achiles tendons quite a bit. Now I solomon down hills, zig-zagging to reduce the steepness. Ellen thinks this is funny and joins in like a skier trying to make perfect figure eights. Lately we've been doing solo walks, where we split up through a big chunk of the walk to clear the air of our thinking. It's pretty interesting how the stream of consciousness changes when you get out there by yourself. When you walk with someone it's easy to keep breaking the dead air with observational outbursts...."look at that bug!". When we reconnect, usually at a small town cafe, we report on our thinking:

For me, I started thinking about how cheap this trip is. If you think of the hostels in terms of monthly rent, I only spend about 150 euro a month on my housing. And if you eat out of the grocery store, that is about as cheap as you can go no matter where you live. Then it was on to thailand, where you can also live on the cheap in beach side bungalows for about $10 per night. Ted Christensen spent a week in thailand. Snorkling is awesome, but scuba diving is probably better. It´s probably smarter to buy your own scuba gear and bring it to thailand, scuba diving all the time and living in cheap bungalows. I should buy a scuba gear kit. This would be one kit amongst many that could fit into standardized boxes that are part of a larger box that could fit on a semi-truck like a big jenga puzzle. I already have an automotive repair kit, and a decent carpentry kit. I need a good metal kit with a tig welder, plasma cutter, horizontal band saw, etc. I should build plywood boxes for all of my kits that are forklift ready. I remember when my brother shipped a bunch of his stuff to ann arbor recently in a cube container. The semi-truck driver had a large forklift on the end of the trailer. It had beefy offroad tires and I wondered how he was going to get it off the bed; I didn't see any ramps. He started it up and the whole thing extended away from the forks, which were stuffed in the bed of the trailer. He kept moving away from the trailer until the whole machine was hanging off the end, he lowered himself to the ground and removed the forks from the trailer bed. What a good idea.

At an intersection in Villar del Mazariffe I met an older lady who spoke english. She had deep eye sockets and a pointy chin, and was very animated. She asked me where the hostel was and I pointed a block down the street. In a southern twang she asked:

"Are you from the michigan group"
"Oh, I thought so. Sam told me ya'll were staying down there, and the other one is full"
"Yeah, its pretty nice. Where are you from"
"Orlando, Florida" her eyes lit up with a big smile as if she had been waiting to say that. "But I´ve been living in Peru and Indonesia for the last 5 years"

She reminded me of a crazy grandmother, so fired up and cooky, and almost overly happy and enthusiastic. She was thin, and a little hunched over. She carried two walking sticks and a backpack, and headed down to our hostel.

Friday, June 4, 2010

19th day of walking

Each day we follow painted yellow arrows through towns and along trails. The path is very well marked, to the point that it would be difficult to get lost. Occasionally our guide book shows alternate routes, which we usually take because it puts you a little further out and away from a main road if the trail happens to run parallel to one that day. We took one of these the other morning. The grass was overgrown and still wet with dew, soaking our shoes. There were large snails every few feet, the size of 25 cent gumballs. I was careful not to step on the ones I could see but ocassionally I would hear the delicate crunch of a christmas ornamnent. Stepping on the snails seems more atrocious than crushing an ant or a worm; they somehow command a higher value of life.

Eventually the alternative route meets up with the regular trail and there is more pilgrim traffic. It´s interesting how different cultures deal with the sun. There are two young asian girls who cover their bodies head to toe with clothing. They wear silk gloves and baby bibs tied just above the nose. They always seem exhausted. There is a spainard who has a tent-like structure attached to his backpack that cantilevers over his head like a pavilion. We refer to him as the tent-man, and for several days Ellen was convinced that he had a child under the tent...but it turned out that the particular child she was thinking about belonged to a hostel owner in a previous town. The americans seem to favor sunblock for cover, and we lather ourselves in the stuff.

Regardless of our sun protection strategies most of us are walkers, and anything else seems like cheating. I think this is a basic heirarchical structure of travel; if you're a walker then bicycling seems like an easy way out; if you´re a cyclist a motorcycle is going soft; and if you're touring the country on two wheels, roadtripping in a car is lesser. We usually encounter the cyclists who come up behind us fast, sometimes without the warning of a bell, which many are lacking. Ellen and I call them cheaters, we say "some cheaters are coming" and move to the side of the trail letting them pass, and often joke of shoving a stick in their wheel as they fly by. The cyclists look the part, decked out in spandex, they ride fancy mountain bikes with full suspension and disk brakes. Luckily they are branded with a handicap on the camino as the walkers take precedent in the hostels. Bikers have to wait until 6p to get beds, well after the slowest walker has made it in for the night.

Ellen and I stayed in a small hostel in the center of Terradillos the other night, a tiny town of 80 people. The hostel had a kitchen and they cooked a pilgrim meal for 8 euro, which consisted of bean soup or re-heated frozen veggies, pan-fried trout, salad, and fruit for desert. The dinning area seated about 45 people, and we sat at a table with 5 others. Two koreans, and three austrians. None of us could really communicate with one another, but it was intersting to pick up on table etiquette of each culture. The two korean women (who were not traveling together...just friends through familiarity) ordered a different appetizer, and proceeded to share both options between themselves. A clever strategy, I thought. The rest of us odered our own preference of starters. The wine was poured communally and we toasted as a table, the climax of our communication that evening. The best part was at the end, when the server plopped a bowl of fruit on the table, several banannas, a couple apples, and one or two oranges. I went for the bananna, peeled it and ate it. The koreans and one of the austrians each took an apple, and proceeded to cut it with a pearing knife. The asian lady had hers skinned within a minute, cored it, and offered a chunk to the rest of us. The austrian man quarted his apple, sliced out the remainder of the core, and then took care of the skin, finally making a similar offer to the table. Ellen and I both looked at each other in relief that we hadn't taken an apple because we would of just taken a big bite of our apples not thinking about offering to anyone....the americans at the table.

Terradillos, like many towns we pass through is essentially a small farming village. The buildings are very similar, brick construction with stucco or sometimes a mud and straw mixture that looks very 'organic'. Every structure has a tiled roof. Some towns are more plain than others with little decoration on the facades of the buildings, while others look fancier with complex brick and stone work, and sometimes hodge-podge mixtures of random bathroom-like tiles. But across the board these towns are working class villages depsite the romantic appeal of a quaint spanish town. The ironic thing for me is that the analog in the united states would be a deserted rural town or a trailer park, that is basically the socio-economic bracket of people in these places. Yet as tourists, we romanticize these picturesque places in large part, I think, because of the materials used to construct their buildings. If this were the US all we would see is vinyl siding and asphalt shingles. It´s amazing how much our american aesthetic sensibility is altered here. Many structures are completley delapidated, with caved in roofs or just the facade left, where nature has taken over beyond the wall and the view through the window looks like a jungle. But again, we can romanticize the ruin-like quality of this condition, and remained unalarmed....but I can't help to think about what this would feel like if it were a trailer park where half of the homes were abandoned. I don't think we would walk so freely down the main drag, saying 'hola' to each local we pass.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

200 plus miles

We past the 200 mile mark two days ago. I think we´re on our 17th day of walking. The routine is becoming very regular. We´re usually up by 5a unless there is some wild snoring that no amount of tiredness can overcome. We eat a quick breakfast of grocery store food from the previous day and set out. In my mind I break the walk up in stages, or a reward structure based around food. After about 2 hours of walking we stop in a small town for real breakfast: café con leche, chocolate croisant, and organge juice. After another 2 hour leg we stop for another café con leche and a tortilla, which is this dense caserole of potatoes, cheese, and egg that is cut like a pie. Then its a short walk to the destination town where we check into a hostel, find a bed, unpack, shower or do laundry, eat, go grocery shopping for the next day, take a ciesta nap, eat dinner, go to bed before 10p.

I hoped that my mind would develop more profound ways of dealing with the walk, like new ideas or savy future plans, but the present seems more powerful. I find my thinking to be more a live feed with an occasional projective thought: step...step...step, look at that flower, look at that flower, my bag feels weird, my hand is cold, put my hand in my pocket, I want to do rally car racing, step...step...step.

The best thinking I´ve done so far was the morning of the 'rhino'; a woman pilgrim whose snoring was so loud it woke most of us in the hostal. Almost simultaneously we all woke up perplexed by the noises coming from below zack's bunk, who was sitting up in his bed laughing. The cart-pullers were already up rustling around (they're a husband and wife duo who pull a bicycle-wheel cart behind them like draft horses), so we figured it was no use in trying to sleep through the commotion. Ellen and I were on the trail at 5a using our headlamps to navigate. It was pitch black except for the washed out spotlight of the headlamp on the trail, which we both focused on like moths. There were no distractions, just the pale ground, and clear thoughts that were almost dreamlike in their discontinuity. Focusing on one idea seems to be the most difficult thing on the walk. The mind is more like a messy desk of papers that you endlessly shuffle, never figuring out a good filing system.

The terrain is now completely flat, and usually straight, which makes the thinking more apparent. When we were in the mountains each little hill and turn unfolded like a narrative that kept your attention and obscured the passing of time. Now the walk stretches forever and time slows down when you can see miles and miles ahead. You notice yourself more, your body, your thoughts, etc. and you feel the distance.

The flat farmland has very little cover to hide yourself when you pee. This is a little more difficult for the ladies, who wait a mile a more for a decent bush. I just wait for a good space to build up between myself and the person behind me and 'pull over'. The good pee spots gross me out because everyone else thinks its a good pee spot too, and this shows by little squares of toilet paper left behind.

...there is only one computer at this hostel, and other pilgrims keep poking their head in...and now one is waiting, so I'll wrap it up now.

over and out.

Friday, May 28, 2010


The last couple days have been really interesting. It's easy to forget that cultivated landscapes are unnatural when that is all you see everyday. There is so much history here, and as a result many of the forests have been harvested to build, cook, etc. The past week of walking has predominantly been through fields. When we climb a hill of farmland, and then end up in a forest it seems surreal like some kind of fantasy land. Many of the pine forests are planted in rows and create strange illusions. There is also a weird variety of oak trees with soft, fuzzy leaves, and its bark is covered with greenish-blue lichen. Wild flowers cover the ground, giant slugs slide along the trail, and the plants create a general tone of color of muted pastels. We usually end up talking about our favorite fantasy-land movies we watched as kids like The Never Ending Story, Willow, and Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. There is something artificial about the 'natural' landscapes. It doesn´t look like a giant garden, nothing resemebles a human touch other than the pine trees in rows. And Its the oak forests that really seem magical, and especially this morning with all the fog and drizzle. When we climbed high enough up the mountain it really felt like we were in some made up world.

The trail has its ugly parts too. When we approach a town or a city we usually end up going through the back alleys of the industrial zone. When its a small farming village this amounts to views into open barns, piles of farm equipment rusting away, and crumbling stone buildings. Today, as we walked into Burgos we past huge factories billowing steam out of stacks, metal recycling yards, and a sketchy section of crumbling houses covered in graffiti with some shady spainards darting in and out.

We're staying in a newly renovated hostel that sleeps over 100 between 4 floors. The bunks are very private in little ailses of four with walls separating each quadrant. There is no kitchen, which we´ve become used to cooking our own meals, but at 4 euros per night its a steal. One block away is the St. Inglesia Cathedral, which is by far the most elaborate church I´ve seen so far. The structure is enormous taking up several city blocks. It is covered with decorative stone motifs, and from afar it looks like some poisonous sea creature it has so many ornate spires sticking out of it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Past the 100 mile mark

I´m in Belorado, Spain after 10 days of walking. My knee is a lot a better and I´ve learned to take it a little slower. The entire group of students seems to have equalized in pace. After the first week of walking (100 miles), I think everyone´s body has sort of broken down to some extent, and now we´re just maintaining a common functional speed.

We´ve been leaving earlier and ealier. In large part it´s the older folks who start rustling to get a head start on the day. Sometimes at 4am the crumpling and zzzzrrrr of zippers begins. It´s the craziest ruckus. It sounds like a frenzy and if you´re still in bed you feel forgotten in the face of danger. There is something very refugee-like about this trip. Each day we´re on the move with only the bare essentials on our back. The big hostels are either government or church-operated, and it seems very official when you show your ´pilgrim passport´and your real passport to check in. The large sea of beds is military like in configuration, and the schedule is obeyed by all. It´s not a like a typical european hostel where drunk kids can roll in at 3am. These door lock at 10p, which is early enough to conflict with the timeline of spanish culture. The ciesta is from 2-5p, and many restaurants don´t open until 8:30p, making it a little tight to make it back to the hostel. Ellen and I have been disappointed with the strange meals we get in the off-time of 6-7p. We´re going to start cooking at the hostels, which typically have decent kitchens. Most pilgrims make their own meals and the kitchens can get really crazy, but everyone is friendly and it works.

The community of pilgrims is really solid. Faces are becoming familiar as most people stay on the same schedule. There are many different hostels (aka: albergues) to stay at along the way, but we seem to keep the same company from town to town. Right now the wave is peaking. We´ve waited in long lines the last few days to get checked in, and two days ago a couple students didn´t get beds and checked into a hotel instead although they opened a nearby gymnasium for overflow, but they already paid for the hotel. Many hostels do this when they reach capacity. Last night we were in Santo Domingo at a very nice hostel that slept 134, but took in 198.

In the evenings the common areas become festive with everyone eating, playing cards, talking, writing, and tending to their feet. An older italian man with white hair noticed me icing my knee, and through the translation of another pilgrim I learned that he wanted to "heal" me. I think he was a reikh-practicioner. I ended up sitting on one of the many couches with him, my legs in his lap, and he just held my knee in his hands while he and his two friends carried on in italian. His hands were super warm, and I just sat back not understanding anything. Ocassionly the italian woman would ask me a question in English and translate it back to the two guys. This went on for almost and hour. Encounters like these remind me a lot of burning man, where the healers come out and seek patients. The evenings aren´t as crazy as burning man, but there is a similar vibe of community and openness, and it only works if you participate. So I was completely down with the italian man holding my legs for an hour.

We walked 15 miles today, which seemed pretty easy. It was cooler today and clouds blocked the sun from time to time. The landscape is starting to flatten out, making the walk easier on the joints. We leave before the sun rises, and within an hour we pass this wild old man from Brazil. He is 82 years-old with a big white beard. When Ellen and I walk past him we say the typical camino line: "hola, buen camino´!" and he sort of stops walking and stiffly turns to us and growls "ooos treeooos" with a big a smile. This guy is super fired up, and just chugs along each day. I have no idea what he barks at us, but I love hearing it each morning.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

5 days in

On the walk from Pomplona to Puente la Reina my knee started killing me. The downhills really jar the joints. I thought I might have to take a bus the next morning but I started a campaign of ibuprofen and made it the next day without too much trouble.

Today we walked 13 miles to Los Arcos and I think my knee is the mend. Hopefully its just a soreness that needs some time (although there aren´t any breaks in the schedule) and not something more structural. I´ve been able to ice it at the last two hostels, both of which have refrigerators.

The landscape has been mostly rolling foothills of wheat fields, vinyards, and olive groves bounded by taller mountains (pennsylvania size mountains...not rockies) The weather has been excellent -blue skies and lots of sun with temperatures in the 80´s. Sometimes it gets a little hot on the trail, but with a breeze it feels great. We leave early enough in the morning to get a few hours of walking in before the heat comes. This morning we rolled out earlier than normal, 5a, to get a head start on the sun, which has made most of us cherry red (especially my white legs when I switched to shorts).

In Los Arcos, a town of 1300, they had their own running of the bulls this evening. Narrow city streets were walled off with heavy wooden fences, wedged into place between buildings with large wooden shims. Three bulls ran up and down the streets chasing about fifteen or twenty spanish men. They would go back and forth, and it never really seemed to be too dangerous despite the runners desperation in clinging to the wooden fence when the bulls past them. The animals just seems scared and confused, which is how I would feel too, and did at the sound of what seemed like large bombs going off in the street. To scare the bulls and make them switch direction they light a huge fire cracker that sounds like an M-100.

Back at the hostel now, getting ready for lights the lock down at 10p. We´ll probably get up at 5a again to make time on a 19 mile day tomorrow.

Every spanish teen has a mullet. Some of them have dreadlock-mullets, which is the worst idea ever.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

to Pomplona

Today was a fifteen mile walk with moderate elevation changes. It really isn´t too bad. We´re leaving each town in the morning by 7a, and usually stopping at the next town for breakfast and sometimes a break for lunch. This puts us into our destination town by early afternoon. The routine is to check into the hostel, get a bed, take a shower, and wash your socks or underwear. Exploring each town at the end of the day is great, although you feel a little crippled and stiff.

I´m in Pomplona, a city of 200,000, where the running of the bulls begins. This ritual is coming up, in a few weeks I think, but we´ll be far along the trail by then. Our hostel is in an older church that has been modernized. There are bunk beds along the ailes of the nave (if I remember the terminology correctly from architecture school), bathrooms on the two levels and a nice laundry room with washing machines and dryers. I still washed my stuff by hand because its faster.

The pilgrim hostel environment is way better than the typical euro-hostel. It isn´t overrun by spoiled college kids looking for authentic european experiences in homogeneous global cities. Its nice to have a common bond of walking really far everyday.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Walk Begins

We started the 500 mile walk in St. Jean pied de port (south of france), which gives you a certain amount of street-cred amongst the other pilgrims. This first leg is considered very difficult. It is an 18 mile walk with an elevation change of 3000 feet. This route took us through steep hills covered in lush grass with cows, horses, and sheep sprinkled throughout. The landscape changes considerably from lower elevations to the upper summit (and the weather too) We went from warm, sunny farmland, to cold and windy mountains, to dense forests of sycamore-like trees (still need to identify them)

We stayed in a small town with nothing more than a large church and a hostel, with a couple restaurants. The pilgrim´s hostel was in a large stone building with stone butress-vaults and wood roof. Inside there was about 90 bunk beds, and by 10p when the door locks and the lights shut off the place was full. They make you take your muddy boots off at the door and wear sandels inside. In the basement were bathrooms and showers. Despite the primitive sound of this place, it was actually quite modernized. And they run it like a tight ship. The lights came on right at 6a the next morning.

I´ve never slept in one room with so many people. I felt like I was in a pond of bullfrogs with all the strange and sometimes violent snoring that went on. I couldn´t sleep at first and was pissed off at how seemingly content the snoring people were. Maybe I wanted to participate too, like another frog adding to chorus.

The morning was crisp and cool. Fog hung onto the mountains until the sun started burning through. We ate breakfast in a small town a mile and half away from the pilgrim´s hostel, and continued walking. The trail already seems too crowded with pilgrims compared to our first day, which most people skip. The demographic is largely older people, either french or spanish. I´ve yet to meet another american.

Friday, May 14, 2010

more paris

Ellen and I have walked all over the city, mainly on an errand to get her an 'ice breaker' base layer (ie: fancy long underwear), which is what I'm rocking right now, and is quite necessary for the temperatures here.

Our hotel is very small but clean and fairly new. We're in a pretty good spot in the city, centrally located. We checked out the eiffel tower today, which was more impressive to walk underneath than see from afar. One of the most memorable sights was the group of nigerians selling the same souvenirs of miniature metal eiffel towers. I've got a great picture of them taking a break from their work.

Today was a little rainy, but decent enough to be out all day. We're now meeting up with the students at their hostel for a little venture to Parc de la Villete.

Although I'm in a famous and historically important city, one of my favorite things to look at are the cool little diesel cars everywhere. The new fiat 500 is so awesome (and of course it comes in diesel) Also saw a new VW scirocco.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Greeting from Paris

Arrived in Paris yesterday morning. It's pretty chilly here. I'm wearing every layer I brought with me. My bag weighs 20lbs without water or food, and I'll be able to lose a couple more pounds when I finish the books I'm reading.

I spent the day walking around Paris. It seemed like no matter where I went there was something interesting to see. Some of my high school French classes are vaguely coming back to me.

I stayed with a friend from the architecture program who is also doing a study abroad here. His group is stationed in Paris so they all subletted apartments. His apartment is in a predominantly African neighborhood in a 6th floor walkup. I ate this crazy dinner of couscous, chicken, and minestrone-like soup -very satisfying after a full day outside in the mid-40's.

Ellen just got in this morning and met her at the hostel where all the students are staying. I'm working off my iPhone with free wifi from the hostel. I never did get around to jailbreaking it before I left, so I'm not able to make phone calls or text message.

Ellen is planning some long walking tours around the city so we can continue with our training and see the sights of Paris at the same time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Re-presenting the work

I've been working on some drawing / models ('drawdels') that get at the qualities and essence of the ice cuts, ie: looking at reflection, the two-and-a-half dimensional space between horizontal and vertical, etc. as well as some essays.

ICE CUTS: an index of abstraction

Cutting out a large shape of ice and suspending the positive not only signifies the ice as object, it also enters into an indexical dialogue between two oppositional conditions, that which is above and below. The slab protrudes into three dimensional space, referencing the negative as if to say that came from this, but this is bigger than that, so that other part must have gone somewhere below this. The trace only lasts for several weeks until the dark negative, which is merely a thinness of the surface, normalizes to the rest of the frozen thickness surrounding it. But until that point the ice object narrates a cause and effect; cut, shift, and freeze. The inextricably linked relationship between solid and void, or positive and negative, and even light and dark, engages in a spatial exchange that goes beyond the surface into a space that is obscured otherwise. The space it references operates as an abstraction within abstractions. The ice object is an abstraction of water, manipulated in such a way that it obfuscates itself and creates a third abstraction of an inaccessible space. And through this abstraction of a subterranean space, an other space is created in the mind of the subject.

It can be deduced that if the shape of the negative is twice as large as what reads as the positive, then we see only half of the positive above the surface, and can assume the other half is below the surface. And knowing that what we see is a chunk of ice bearing the same properties as the shape of negative (ie: continuous, uninterrupted, and coplanar), the chunk must do the same thing where we cannot see it. We can assume the ice object interrupts the space of the water below in the same manner as it does the air above. However the image of the ice as it appears to our eyes does not follow our systematic logic, and instead defies what we know of coplanar surfaces, and creates the effect of gently intersecting planes, which is an effect of reflectance through one medium to another or air to water. This is one read of what appears to be vs. what is.

The second read I would offer is the condition of the ice cut after several weeks –when the negative equalizes with the rest ice. No longer is there any trace of the positive intersecting with the negative, as the negative returns to an opaque gray, blending with the larger body of ice. What we might recall from science class is that the density of water is constantly oscillating as it narrows down to the point of freezing. Warm water rises to the surface (because it is less dense), cools from the air, and then falls back down to the lower depths where it is re-warmed. This process continues until the entire body of water reaches 4C, at which point the density of water reverses, or in other word the colder it gets the less dense it gets, and therefore stays on the surface, ultimately becoming ice. As the cold temperatures persist the ice freezes more, thickening the hardened surface.

But the water below is still 4C and so then it must be assumed that the negative protrusion of the ice object from above is submerged in water that is actually higher than the freezing point, and subsequently melts away. The condition that had previously been imagined below the surface is merely a spatial abstraction that does not exist. Yet the precision in which it describes space through an indexical relationship, and the image the subject can construct mentally is vivid enough to argue that it actually does exist, insofar as it elicits the same response from each subject. The fact that the subterranean ice object is merely made up is irrelevant as it carries with it a spatial experience as vivid as the real thing.