Seven days
Mar25

Seven days

We have walked seven days without a break. Bland vistas, long straight paths, ditches carved out with mathematical precision surrounding exactly squared fields. Rectangular plots planted with poplars. The only deviancies are the quiet villages. Interspersing the sound of our plodding feet are the squeaks of lapwings, egret and heron screeches plus long discussions about whatever we've been reading. The constant walking has a meditative effect. Sometimes kilometres whizz by, then they crawl. The feeling of accomplishment can be quite undone when you realise that the zig zag path is taking you away from the visible village that you're aiming for, a giddy moment occurs when I want to go willy nilly over the fields and get there directly. But a glance down at the inevitable seething ditch puts paid to that. From time to time I pause to refer to Paul's diagram, to ponder. Meanwhile I've bought a pile of medical kit for the blister on my foot that has now deteriorated to a weeping wound. Spent a deal of time examining the Internet for sport shoe shops in Italy, as I have now decided that Paul's footwear is vastly superior to mine. As he quite often reminds me.  ...

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Sore feet
Mar19

Sore feet

Paul has been asking me how many sore bits I have, I can't think why he wants to know- it's not as if I would ever go on about ailments. But I am aching and swelling in about five regions including of course, feet. Giant blisters have erupted and we have walked for only two days. Meanwhile Paul is gliding on his amazing new footwear like Jesus on water, and he doesn't have a single sore bit! This region around Milan is flat, if I turn to the north I can see the Alps disappearing in the haze. But apart from that there are miles of finely tilled fields with manicured ditches waiting to fill up. The whole area is an enormous rice paddy, in the summer it will feel like a sauna with mosquitos. I'm glad we're walking now in spring. No other pilgrims around, the last one to pass through police station last night left in February. Only us and the herons.  ...

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Buddhist chanting in a German stupa
Mar14

Buddhist chanting in a German stupa

Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha. But I'll leave the most of that place to Paul to describe, apart from the German built stupa- a temple if you like, that we wandered into as part of our cycle trip around what I can only describe as a spiritual Disneyland. We heard what I thought was a tape being played but as we stepped into the stupa seated on the floors were several hundred maroon clad monks. Sounds of drums, clashing symbols, and hymn like chanting of texts. The cacophony is supposed to shock you out of your everyday thoughts….it worked. Underscoring the sound was an ultra low, growling tone. This, according to our book, was a form of gyu-ke or tantric voice. Monks from the Gelug- pa order use this extraordinary throat singing technique as a virtuous practice in the recitation of holy texts, also the demanding technique creates its own meditational discipline. I was casting about to see this holy growler and there he was, large, ancient as the Himalayas, with long black hair caught up in a bun on the top of his head. Truly impressive, even more so as he never seemed to breath. Alpenhorn like trumpets blasted, hand bells rang and a damaru rattle drum was beaten. A damaru is a particularly powerful instrument :commonly used by shamans in Nepal, it may be made of two human half skulls. Interestingly my book tells me that the pair of beaters used on the drum should ideally contain male and female pubic hairs. All good stuff and suitably esoteric. After that we climbed back on our bicycles and peddled off to see what the next temple had on offer.  ...

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Agra, Shit and the Mahal
Mar09

Agra, Shit and the Mahal

  I'm in awe of the people of Agra. This ancient city is famous for the Mughal palace of Fatehphur Sikri , theTaj Mahal , chemical factories, heavy pollution and is also dripping in raw sewage sandwiched in layers of plastic. The taxi nosed down the road in the business quarter of Agra dodging black pools of liquid, refuse, street shacks , all the usual , then glittering in the weak light and heat steps out a vision in pale yellow, her sari floating above the sludge. This young girl is laughing and gesticulating with her friends, the three of them pristine. As we bumped past I wondered at them; just how do they do that? They were like fairies fluttering out of a dystopian gloop. Beautiful long plaits of hair draped over lengths of grass green, primrose yellow and white gauzy silver edged gorgeousness, all laughter and light, twinkling against a background of chemical and human effluent. Our kind but serious Indian guide is tremendously interested in us “Britishers” , he wants to know how much our schooling costs, what are British roads like, do I drive (I haven't seen any women drivers so far). So in the course of the day the questions are reciprocated- he seems more than happy to answer us. When I asked him in about the organisation of basics , like rubbish collection and road building, and the patent absence of this he looked at me with a mixture of bemused puzzlement. I tried again- ' Do Indians demand a level of public services- like drinking water, schooling. If this doesn't happen what do Indians do, make a protest of some sort? ' Our guide, who is an educated man, looks at me with a weary cynicism .' Indians pray to their Gods and they also ask the people in charge to make these changes to our country. But if nothing happens Indians then think that is the way of God. No protest, no right to make demands. ' End of conversation. Marble against a misty pale blue sky, fountains fizzing, green manicured lawns. We've reached the Taj Mahal, and so has a couple of thousand Indians plus a smattering of westerners. The event feels festive, like a bank holiday, big families, couples, everyone's wearing their best and having their pictures taken. The scale of costumes to gaze at was sumptuous, violently coloured sarees to delicate tinted concoctions, some so dazzlingly sequinned we were blinded in the reflected evening sun. I was hovering in the sidelines watching the crowds with camera poised trying to take clandestine pictures when a visiting group stopped and...

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Tea at the Imperial Hotel Delhi
Mar03

Tea at the Imperial Hotel Delhi

Monday 3 o'clock in the afternoon in central Delhi, 9:30 AM Monday morning back home. We are perched in the tea room of one of the smartest hotels in Delhi. A tiny bit of equilibrium is just nudging me around the edges. Out there on the dusty, car beeping six lane road, ( lanes are inappropriate, it's just the wacky races), seven-year-olds are selling balloons and roses, beggars hold up their hands on the car windows and whole families to go by on mopeds. But in here there is the sound of silver spoons tinkling versus trickling fountains and somewhere down a cool marbled corridor the Blue Danube is playing. Lemon grass and masala teas are served by a waiter from Passage To India. So why am I reeling? I knew coming here was going to be a culture shock. But I had to get here to feel it. Smell the pollution, see the child vendors dodging traffic, spot the woman in orange tearing up plastic with her teeth to add to her plastic roadside home. ( Inside the Imperial Hotel lemony aromas waft from my teacup and three tiers of cakes have arrived. ) I knew about the inequality and poverty here, but a lungful of sewage laden air, a blast of noise and acres of dereliction teeming with homeless people have brought me up short. I'm wondering how long I would last out here- would I get involved in changing the place or grow a pair of stony blind eyes. It would be impossible to be neutral. Back to the tea and cakes. I've been in the Imperial Hotel for about an hour , Paul is tapping away and reading up on some philosophy. We've managed to find our B&B, get just enough sleep, worked out the ATMs, bought a cheap phone and SIM card, had a row, made up after the row, been whizzed along in a couple of auto rickshaws, breathed in a hot wedge of pollution, been brushed by twinkly sarees and crowds of teens in tight jeans , rhinestones and heels worthy of Liverpool , gazed at packs of starved street dogs, stepped over sleeping bodies(?), fled from touts, shoe shiners, agents, chatty young men and so so helpful gents…… Tomorrow we leave Delhi. Mr Jeet , a twenty nine year old Sikh and fixer of all things, has bought us tickets for the next journey to Agra....

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Convents & Communions
Oct14

Convents & Communions

The lamp in between our narrow white beds is handmade. The base is made of three little statues melded together, but it’s the shade that I can’t stop looking at. It looks like someone, a nun probably, used a bit of altar cloth, a metre of dusty ancient gold braiding and some other material ; a semi opaque parchment like stuff with Latin drawn on it. Wasn’t there an unwholesome trend in the past to use human skin in lampshades? I can’t quite bring myself to touch it but lying here I can’t drag my eyes away from the thing. Skin of heretic, fallen nun or false pilgrim? I may be becoming subject to the catholic ghostiness of the place where we are staying, in Leon. It’s a very old monestorio full of Benedictine nuns, where some of the rooms have been converted to bedrooms using the ancient stuff from the church and rest of the old convent. The place is cavernous, white plaster, marble, huge dark religious paintings featuring perpetual mourning and live sized painted statues whose accusatory eyes swivel as you go past…….. We wandered into mass this morning which included a remembrance service for someone who died last May. Confusingly a few of the congregation were dressed in clogs, big woollen skirts and mantillas- was this a sort of Sunday morning ritual? Also so many saturnine older men in black with their coiffured stiff wives – not at all sure what we have wandered into. Paul stayed in his pew today at that moment when people start to line up to take the communion. He had had a disconcerting moment the other week. He’d been told that if you didn’t want to receive the Eucharist you just bent your head and crossed your arms at the appropriate moment, then the priest would bless you. Imagine the consternation that broke out on the priest’s face when confronted with this bewildering pilgrim who wouldn’t just open his mouth and swallow. The holy wafer went up, then down. A whole load of semaphoring went on, at one point I thought the thing would be placed on Paul’s head, like a little halo. I’m not sure where it ended up. The congregation was agog. Los peregrinos del Norte, eh……….....

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Bluegrass
Oct09

Bluegrass

Today I have been plugged into blue grass, moby, bakermat and some music from Adams playlist. My ears are still buzzing, every time I looked up the same thin cream path, same shaven fields, the only option was to turn up the volume and watch the tiny stones a metre ahead getting closer. Never mind Paul's nuns what I want is a horse. I can see myself as a sort of El Cid, or maybe a female Clint Eastwood galloping along past all these weary peregrinos, yee ha………. What I didn't hear as the music swelled to epic volumes were the twanging bicycle bells as three riders charged past chewing up those kms. Before the dust had blown away they had crossed the event horizon. Another big preoccupation is food. Today I made a fresh red cabbage salad with pine nuts , lemon juice and coriander along with a koftas and lightly fried rice………. but i know it will all evaporate to be replaced with another another ensalada mixta, some anaemic floppy asparagus and the inevitable flattened meat!. What are you eating?……. Do tell me….. So I can salivate vicariously. So , I'm sipping my beer, watching a giant sunflower harvesting machine scrunching by, the massive engines throbbing at the same rate as my pulsating feet. Off to scrutinise the menu for minute variations....

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Gothic Chicken Coop
Sep30

Gothic Chicken Coop

Chicken stories are not common to me but here's one that tickled me. About a thousand years ago three German pilgrims arrived at santo Domingo de la Calzada, a young handsome man and his parents. At their inn the landlords daughter offered herself to the son but he rejected her roundly. Feeling vengeful the daughter hid a valuable cup in his bag and then proclaimed him a rotten robber. The son was taken to be hanged and his grief stricken parents went to stand at the bottom of his gallows to say goodbye only to find the local hero Santo Domingo standing beneath their son supporting him with his shoulders. The parents raced over to the judge who had presided over the whole thing : ” Our son is not dead!” ” Bah” replied the judge ” That man is as dead as the roast chickens on my dinner plate”. Well at this point the chickens revivified and flew up. The son was released and a miracle was said to have occurred. To mark the event a pair of live white chickens reside in a specially made gothic chicken coop incorporated in the cathedral, they've been there for the last thousand years – a couple of replacements are put in every 2 weeks. So we saw them today, one of the oddest things to find in a church to date. I wonder what happens to the old holy chickens? Pollo tonight?...

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Not so little toes.

Low point: my toes. They've become a hobby. I contrast the colour and texture between the vermilion big ones and the mauve small ones, the marshy areas of blisters. This afternoon I found my safety pins- hurrah- this meant I could puncture the blisters, resulting in an extraordinary fountain of serum………the pressure was off, but my toe nails are doomed, they will fall out. Anyway, spent a bit of time sketching outside. Listening to the pilgrims shuffling by , the air is so hot there is hardly any energy left for chat. So hobble, wobble and panting is all to be heard as this file of peregrinos go by. I'm trying to make a quick drawings of them but I'm out...

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Navigational abilities
Sep20

Navigational abilities

Is it worse to deal with a harrumphing male who thinks he's in the navigational right when he really isn't, and gets this pointed out to him mid sweaty 20 mile hike, or deal with the injured male pride after a few chauvinistic inducing beers later that evening? Hmm……..  

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