Photo: Long walk up to Cathedrale Notre-Dame du Puy.
With no more French between us than ‘Parlez vous Anglais, Madame’, my Walking Buddy (henceforth WB) and I are off to hike the GR 65, the Camino from Le Puy-en-Velay.
In Le Puy’s Chambre d’hotes L’Epicurium’, WB (whose French is vastly better than mine) does well establishing that he is indeed the Australian with a booking for two nights, until time comes to say thank you: ‘Terimakasih Monsieur’ says WB. I don’t think you can expect a hotelier in small town near the Loire valley in France to speak Indonesian!
But never fear; they say ‘the Camino provides’. Here in Le Puy it provides an English speaking host whose vast experience of Northern Territory and Sydney convinces him that I am ‘the real Australian’ and not Indian as I am claiming to be. There are more Australians coming to his hotel today and what’s more in our lovely room, in amongst the books left behind by visitors past is the Aussie novel, Jasper Jones. Jasper’s creator, Craig Silvey lives somewhere in our neighbourhood in Fremantle. And who better to send us off on our ‘walkabout’ in distant lands, than Jasper Jones the canny, adventurous, mysterious, mythical, ‘real Australian’!
Australian presence is notable on the Way. Indians, not so much. An American nun at Le Puy’s Notre Dame Cathedral says that in her two years she has seen more than 10,000 pilgrims set off from here, ‘I never noticed any Indians.’ One or two might have slipped past unnoticed, but Indians are rarely so inscrutable. As a statistical Hindu, atheist-Indian-Australian, I am an unusual beast on a medieval Catholic pilgrimage, a road laid in large part to expand and defend Christendom.
Over the summer months close to a thousand peregrines depart from Le Puy weekly. Most will walk a couple of hundred kilometres to one of the many holy sites scattered along the way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, North West Spain. Depending on which precise route you follow, Santiago is about 1600 kilometres from here. We will go as far as we can in three months because three months is all that Australians can have, visa-free, in the EU zone.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website notes special ‘bilateral’ arrangements with individual European governments, allowing Australians to stay in the EU for longer periods. But they must have forgotten to tell the Europeans that. WB and Google Translate (henceforth GT) have written to pretty much every European Consular authority in Canberra, quoting the DFAT website. None appeared to be aware of any special agreement.
So three months it is. ‘As far as we can go’ isn’t a real target. I need ‘realistic targets’, ‘achievable goals’. Two decades in institutional roles dominated by ‘Strategic Planning’ has turned a mild character flaw into a mental illness. So the uncertainty over destination is unnerving me.
I am trying to draw on my Indian heritage. In the Bhagavat Gita the Great Lord Krishna tells the Great Warrior Arjuna to ‘perform all actions appropriate for a prince, while in your heart, renouncing any thought about results’. Right action for its own sake, means is as important as the end – that sort of stuff. So I’m telling myself that cliche that every travel writer quotes and no one quite knows who first said it:
The journey IS the destination.
Perhaps this Camino will be a lesson in accepting uncertainties.
The Camino provides
I first heard that from Louis (not his real name) in 2014 while walking the Camino Frances route in Spain. Louis was walking the same 780 kms from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago, for the 7th time. He was 36. Soon after we met Louis told me he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17, and lives with his mother in a ‘very small apartment’ near Paris. The first time he walked the Camino, he felt so well, he gave up taking his medicines. Since then, Louis has walked the Camino for a month each year, and that one month in the year he isn’t sick.
We walked on and off with Louis for nearly 500 kms. By the time we got into Santiago, he seemed to be showing some of the signs of the disease he had described in the course of the long hours on the road. Or perhaps he was feeling the euphoria that is every pilgrim’s due when s/he reaches the end of the journey. Or he might have been high on the cheap red wine which comes free with every Spanish meal. No, he said, ‘It is time to go back.’
In a medical sense, the Camino doesn’t cure diseases. But the road makes you feel strong. It proves to you that you are in good health: because if you are walking hours a day, day after day, week after week, how could you possibly be ill?
‘Ok. Great placebo. Better than vitamins. So what’s to write home about?’ bestie and fellow academic AM, threw out a challenge when I mused about ‘perhaps doing a blog.’
‘Half of our generation seems to be walking and blogging. There is a huge over production of publications in all formats. Why would you write when you could read? No shortage of great literature!’
She is right. Camino blogs and books abound. But mostly they are about Camino Frances, starting in St.Jean Pied de Port, moving west to east along the top of Spain. There are very few accounts in English of the section from Le Puy in France, due south along GR 65 to St Jean Pied-du-Port right on the border with Spain.
For this section, the most commonly used guide book in English is the LightFoot Guide to the Via Podiensis. The funniest is the novel, Two Steps Forward. One wants to be useful to others, but there may be more compelling reasons to write.
Some of the great writers of travel say that you need to write to understand your surrounding. Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul (he’s been in the news lately since he died) puts it like this: ‘On my early walks, because I was writing about Africa, I saw Africa,’ In the Enigma of Arrival, he weaves walking through the Wiltshire countryside with writing and later in the novel, with books and paintings to understand the changing lives of the surrounding community. ‘So much of this I saw with the literary eye, or with the aid of literature.’ Naipaul writes.
Flying half way across the world from Australia to France just to go for a very VERY long walk for 3 months does sound a tad odd. But in this century, several thousand Australians have walked the Camino de Santiago or some part of it. Precise numbers are hard to get. But by all accounts our numbers are growing. Some are here because they have found God. Others are walking rather than waiting for Godot. And along the way, just like in the play, there are the bedraggled, the weary and the philosophical. Many of us are writing to explain the magic to ourselves and to any readers might who come on the hike from the comfort of their home computers.