Berakhirnya Camino: sebuah renungan *

Rasanya sudah lama, padahal hanya empat minggu yang lalu sejak kami masuk kota Santiago de Compostela, setelah berjalan kaki 1400 kilometer dari kota Le Puy di Perancis. Suatu jarak yang kurang-lebih sama dengan jarak antara Bandar Lampung sampai ke Denpasar, atau Gorontalo ke Makassar.

Selama perjalanan yang makan waktu 82 hari itu, dengan membawa ransel berisi semua bekal, kami melintasi daerah pertanian Perancis dan Spanyol yang luar biasa indah. Pada musim gugur ini di Eropah kami mengalami segala macam cuaca. Dari panas terik 30 derajat Celsius pada awal perjalanan sampai pada salju siang hari pada bagian akhir.

Bagi saya hari yang paling mengesankan barangkali hari ke-72, ketika mendaki Monte Irago (1530 meter di atas permukaan laut). Di atasnya, terletak Salib Besi (atau Cruz de Ferro), sebuah salib kecil terbuat dari besi terpasang di atas sebuah tiang kayu yang panjang, seakan-akan salib berlayang di angkasa. Tempat inilah yang paling tinggi di Camino Perancis. Pada hari kami lewat Salib Besi ini pemandangan magis jadinya, dengan salju menurun sunyi, menyelimuti hutan di sekitar dengan putih bersih.

Juga yang tak terlupakan adalah dua hari melintasi pergunungan Pyrenees pada perbatasan Perancis-Spanyol, mendaki dari ketinggian 200 meter sampai di atas 1400 meter, kami mengikuti sederetan peziarah satu-satu, dua-dua, yang mendahului kami. Di lereng gunung yang tercukur habis, dititiki domba, sekali-sekali kuda, dengan pemandangan jauh sampai ke ufuk. Rasanya seperti berjalan di atap dunia!

Berjalan kaki sekitar 20 sampai 25 kilometer tiap-tiap hari memerlukan suatu ketekadan hati, tetapi rasanya setiap hari badan kami menjadi makin kuat dan makin sehat. Tidak pernah saya merasa sesehat itu, walaupun setiap sore capek sekali sesaat mencapai tempat penginapan pada ujung jalan.

Hanya satu kali kami sakit, ketika kawan seperjalanan kena virus di daerah kering tak berpohon bernama ‘Meseta’. Sumber air dan tempat istirahat jarang, dan Camino merupakan jalan setapak yang lurus tak berbelok berjam-jam, membelah padang rumput kering.  Ternyata, tidak hanya kami yang kena sakit disana. Kawanan peziarah Camino sering kena penyakit maupun wabah di daerah tersebut, walaupun sebabnya tidak diketahui dengan jelas. Untung, setelah istirahat beberapa hari, kami siap mulai berjalan lagi.

Yang paling membekas dalam ingatan saya dari pengalaman Camino, antara lain, orang baik yang kami ketemu. Wanita Catalan dari Barcelona yang bangga akan gerakan kemerdekaan daerah tsb, yang mau lepas dari negara Spanyol. Pengusaha Perancis yang setengah baya tapi atletis dan suka bergaul, yang menghibur kami dengan ngobrolan dan cerita selama berhari-hari, dan ikut meriahkan hari ulang tahun saya di Navarrenx.

Aktor cantik dari Swedia yang berCamino guna mempertimbangkan apakah tetap mengikuti karir dalam filem dan pentas, ataupun kembali ke universitas supaya bisa mengajar dan meneliti. Pemuda campuran Jerman-Itali yang patah hati karena gagal cintanya. Pemudi asal Meksiko yang dibesarkan di Jerman, dan baru tamat universitas, ingin memilih jalan hidupnya.

Bapak pensiunan Korea Selatan yang berdiri di atas bukit Alto de Perdon (Puncak Pengampunan) menikmati pemandangan yang luar biasa cantik sambil menyanyikan spontan lagu Kristen ‘How Great Thou Art’ (“Bila Kulihat Bintang Gemerlap”) dalam Bahasa Korea, merangsang saya spontan juga menemaninya menyanyi walaupun saya dalam Bahasa Inggris.

Perempuan kegemukan Australia yang menghadapi berbagai tantangan psikologis sehingga mempergunakan kesempatan berkesendirian pada Camino untuk merenungkan perubahaan yang harus dibuatnya dalam kehidupan agar dapat sehat mental kembali.

Tua-muda, laki-perempuan, atletis maupun kurang sehat, beragama maupun yang tidak beragama. Yang ikut berCamino macam-macam. Tetapi selama berCamino, kebanyakan mereka memeluk etos yang sama: saling membantu, saling menghormati, tidak menghakimi mereka yang berbeda sikap. Sikap toleran dan baik hati satu sama yang lain sangat menyolok.

Barangkali setiap orang yang memutuskan berjalan kaki ratusan kilometer menyadari bahwa mereka saling bergantung kepada kebaikan orang yang seperjalanannya, sehingga mereka melihat persamaan yang mempersatukan mereka, bukan perbedaan yang membaginya.

Secara pribadi banyak hikmah yang saya petik dari pengalaman Camino. Walaupun sudah cukup lanjut umur, saya masih kuat berjalan jauh dengan ransel. Keperluan pokok saya tidak harus banyak. Semuanya masuk ransel, yang beratnya tidak lebih 10 kilogram. Makanan dibeli di pinggir jalan. Penginapan ada di hampir setiap desa atau kota. Cukuplah asal ada air minum yang dapat diperoleh dari kran umum di pinggir jalan.

Selama tiga bulan, enak hidup sebagai peziarah, idealis yang tidak harus pusing dengan persoalan biasa sehari-hari. Tinggal jalan, makan, tidur. Besoknya berulang lagi. Jalan, makan, tidur. Lambat-laun, kilometer-kilometer lewat dan tujuan pada ujung jalan mulai mendekat, perlahan-lahan. Waktu berjalan kita dapat berpikir, merenungkan hal-hal yang betul-betul penting dalam hidup kita, tanpa dikelimuti oleh seribu-satu masalah kecil. Siapa kita? Apa yang kita percayai? Apa masa depan kita?

Kenapa orang ingin berCamino? Persamaan apa yang mengikatkan mereka dalam usaha ziarah yang pada saat yang sama, kolektif maupun sangat individu?

Barangkali satu-satunya persamaan di antara masyarakat peziarah Camino adalah mereka cenderung berhati lapang akan tantangan dan pengalaman baru yang merangsang mereka merenungkan kehidupan.

Yang jelas, bagi saya pribadi tiga bulan buat melepaskan pikiran-pikiran saya melayang seperti meditasi sambil berjalan melalui pemandangan yang aduhai merupakan suatu kenikmatan yang luar biasa! Ketagihan!

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*Kontribusi dari Pak David

When Nature Calls

Whether you are living in the slums of Kolkata or walking the Camino, when nature calls, the answer is best given in a clean toilet. This b[og]log takes its cue from World Toilet Day, earlier this week, on Monday 19 November, a day on which the United Nations asks us to contemplate the importance of the water closet.

First, the big picture: the number of people walking the Camino is rising every year. In 2017, 278,498 souls arrived in Santiago on foot. Doubtless those numbers will be higher again this year. Every walker would have traipsed through the last 100 kms in the Spanish province of Galicia. But even in distant parts of the route, the numbers are large. On a Monday in late August, we started from Le Puy in France, along with 60 or more other pilgrims. More pilgrims joined in at several towns further along the Way – every one of them with mortal bodies and a UN acknowledged right to a clean toilet.

Over the next two weeks, as this gypsy village moved along France’s GR 65, through the Upper Loir Valley, the mercury regularly breached 30 degrees centigrade (see ‘Blogging the Slog’). Thankfully this early section was flush with loos, though I should note, with an apology for the pun, that many were dry toilets, i.e. without flushes. Usually located just before the entry to a village and sometimes in the middle of nowhere, they deserve the gratitude not just of the travellers, But also the householders on the periphery of the villages, whose secluded yards might otherwise be too inviting for walkers with over-full bladders.

Once we reached the Lot Valley, however, such facilities got thinner on the ground and progressively, how shall I put it, more rudimentary in their design. Some ‘composting toilets’ don’t really bear discussion in polite company.

Past Condom, not a prophylactic but a beautiful town in the Gers district of France, public loos appear so rarely and so erratically, that the walkers, no longer able to confidently predict the distance to the next WC, have to take their business wherever they can, if you get my drift. The problem is aggravated when the village cafes are shut at weekends or Mondays or Thursdays or any other days a particular French commune or village chooses to shut down; it becomes diabolical when, in addition, large chunks of the day are spent walking through vineyards, which are mostly pretty shorn after the autumn harvest, or pasture after pasture of burnt out sunflower. Nowhere to hide!

I was keen to investigate the unequal distribution of public toilets in France when one Sunday morning, we arrived in Commune Flamerans, in the Department of Gers in the Region of Occitanie. Market stalls were being set up in the square but not one open cafe in sight. Barely 11, it was already hot as hades and having drunk a litre of water in the last hour, I was busting to go!

Here’s how my first conversation in the village started:

Me: ‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’

He: (with appropriate gesture): ‘A little’

Me: ‘Do you know if there is a public toilet near by?’

He (with authority): ‘I should know. I am Mayor, of here.’

So there I was, personally escorted by the Mayor, to the spiffing new commune toilet, just before he was due to open the fete and unveil a painted portrait of himself.

Duly relieved, I was profoundly grateful for the very well-equipped lavatory but was too polite to mention that some strategically placed signage would be really helpful to walkers on GR 65. The Mayor was keen to explain the role of his administration in the toilet stakes. It turns out that in France the building and maintenance of toilets is split between the ‘commune’ level of government, which sits somewhere below the ‘department’ level, and the ‘village’, which sits below the commune. Some of the prosperous communes maintain public facilities as a matter of course. Others see no reason to invest in the comfort of walkers who are marginal to their economies. On the other hand, some of the less prosperous communes have started building loos, recognising the income the Camino walkers generate for the tiny hamlets. But then again the really backward areas can’t afford such initiatives.

Gratifying though it was to get a lesson in ‘French Provincial Political Economy of Latrines 101’, it offered no practical solutions for those desperately seeking toilets in France.

Once in Spain, things got much simpler, though not necessarily better – there simply are NO public toilets in provincial Spain. On the other hand, village cafes stay predictably open and where there is coffee, there is, usually, a ‘servicio’. Beware, though, as beautifully manicured parklands which lead you in an out of the largest cities have their loos carefully hidden away from the prying eyes of long distance walkers! The 8 kms along the city’s green-belt into Burgos ceases to be a walk-in-the-park, when an hour in you realise there is not a loo in sight and the place is teeming with dog-walkers, children, and an assortment of exercise junkies! To put it in Australian vernacular: ‘Ya’ got Buckley’s and None of a pee in peace here’ – unless, that is, you are a mongrel dog, in which case go right ahead, and wee around every second tree.

And then there is that notorious stretch on the Meseta, 17 kms of straight flat path through open fields. In autumn, after the crops have been cut, nothing grows here, except a few spindly trees, sparse and irregular, on the sides of the track. Try crouching down behind one skinny trunk, with knees swollen, and calves hard as rock from a thousand kilometres of walking!

But I have no choice. So, I get to the thickest trunk in miles. The ground under the tree is covered in used toilet paper, evidence that this is no virgin territory! Many, many others, have gone here, right here, before me. Hallowed though this Camino soil might be, I am not brave enough to put my back pack down. I wrap my arms around the tree and squirm slowly into position, unsteady from the weight on my back. That’s when I realise that penis-envy is a real thing. I so so so wish I could do this standing up!

[NB: this is not the spot on the Meseta. There are many such spots along the Way]

Seriously though, the WHO says more than 2 billion people around the world don’t have clean toilets <http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sanitation>. So I guess, it will be a while before we can legitimately ask the UN to turn its attention to our piddling little needs on the Camino de Santiago! But for the hundreds of thousands who walk (and pee) here, it might be worth contemplating whether we really want to turn this UNESCO world heritage site into a used toilet-paper trail.

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

The Spanish leg of the Camino Frances begins in the province of Navarra. Alto del Perdon, the Mount of Pardon, is the first serious ascent for the pilgrim after crossing into Spain over the Pyrenees. Napoleonic armies are said to have sacked the 13th century basilica at the apex, dedicated to the Virgin of Pardon (Virgen del Perdon), who expunged the sins of repentant souls. Though just 500 meters high and insignificant compared to the mountain pass crossed just days ago, gale force southern winds and squally rains are the norm on this road to atonement.

Just one small wall of the medieval church has been preserved. But that is not the main attraction for the dozens, often hundreds, of hikers, strollers, cyclists, pilgrims and assorted tourists, who brave the elements to reach the peak every day. Over the last quarter of a century, Alto del Perdon has become invested with a new mystique, as the point where ‘the path of the wind crosses the way of the stars’.

We left the famous walled city of Pamplona on an overcast autumn morning. Past the tiny town of Cizur Menor, the path starts to ascend steadily up through grassy meadows. There are dozens on the road already. More tourists will join the final 2 km ascent after parking their cars in Zariquiegui. Here the path is rocky underfoot with no trees to break the unrelenting pressure of the wind.

A couple of miles after Cizur Menor, as the clouds lighten a little, we see a light spark to our left. Inauspicious if that was the first flash of lightening. A kilometre on, an ark of light cuts through the still deep grey. Minutes later another. Then another. And again. Clearer. Bolder. A moving blade of white gold.

As the pilgrims progress slowly up they see more and more and more arcs of light – spreading from the left across the horizon in front. Something metallic is catching the sunlight.

Sudarshan Chakra, says my inner-Indian, the Splendid Wheel, Lord Krishna’s weapon of choice, sent to cut down the sinning universe in the blink of an eye!

Of course not! Wind turbines. Some forty of them in the hills ahead of us. As the sun comes out more brightly, some keen photographers are starting to take pictures of the massive magnificent machines, still several kilometres away.

In the early 1990s the first six wind turbines in the province of Navarra were installed here on the mountain where all is forgiven, and the wind is eternal. Elsewhere in Spain there were 400 already. Now there are 40 windmills here, each 40 meters high, extending North to South along the Alto Perdon mountain range. From here on, right through the ancient St James’ Way, the pilgrims will be accompanied by the vision of windmills on the horizon. Standing on hills, on the plains, the white and silver windmills move to the rhythms of the weather. In the first two months of this 2018, wind farms generated nearly a quarter of Spain’s electricity. Spain is the second largest wind-energy producer in the world and with government support for over two decades, Spanish companies are exporting their know-how around the world including Asia. (See http://aceer.uprm.edu/pdfs/wind_power_spain.pdf)

The tiny town of Zariquiegui, just 2 kms from the oldest of Alto Perdon turbines, has seen significant population growth since the establishment of the wind farm. From the town, the windmills on the surrounding hills look like the little paper fans I remember buying from balloon-wallahs on street corners of 1960s Kolkata. A kilometre further up the hill, you can hear a hum, like the distant sound of women blowing conch shells at an Indian wedding. It gets louder, but never loud enough to prevent the increasingly excited conversation as the walkers converge on the top. Someone starts singing a hymn in Korean, others recognising the melody are joining in, in other tongues – the turbines’ drone a bass note scaffolding the human voices, without overwhelming them.

As we reach the top, the handful of Australians in the crowd, inevitably remember how various brands of environmental vandals, led by the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot stopped the expansion of wind power in Australia in 2015. Abbot denounced wind turbines as ‘ugly and noisy’. I wonder if we might entice the self-proclaimed devout Catholic Tony Abbott to walk the Camino. Shall I get the Australians on the Camino to write to him: ‘Dear Mr Abbott, Climbing Alto Perdon will absolve you of your environmental crimes or perhaps help you look upon windmills with a new reverence? There is no shortage of dirtier sources of power along the way either. Two hundred kiliometres down the road, the city of Burgos, will hail you from 10 miles away with its industrial wasteland of chimney stacks spewing grey smoke on one side of the track, while to your right you will see bright white wings of the turbines dancing to the breeze…’

But I am soon distracted from my political purpose by the buzz of excitement. A big group of Koreans, determined to be photographed in mid-flight are taking turns to jump off a rock at the foot of the nearest turbine, which is astoundingly tall this close up and impossibly quiet. Some of the crowd are mesmerised by the wide open plains below. Others are taking photos of the most recognisable pieces of public art in Navarra: a silhouette of twelve pilgrims, sculptured in steel. They represent generations of wanderers who have passed along this way. The figure at the centre is riding on a donkey. On its flank is written the words: ‘Donde se cruza el camino del viento con el de las estrellas’; ‘where the path of the wind crosses the way of the stars’

Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the road of Saint James in the field stars. In poetic imagination the Camino is the earthly parallel to the milky-way. The sculpture by Vincent Galbete was opened in 1996, about the same time as the first wind turbines were being installed here on the mountain where mortal sins are forgiven, where medieval symbolism, contemporary art and twenty-first century technology live in perfect harmony and draw hundreds of tourists every week from all over the world.

Ah, Mr Abbott and all the other Mad Monks of Australian environmental politics, wish you were here – to see, to learn and to repent your environmental sins!

We follow the line of the pilgrim sculpture, cross the path of the wind, and drop down from the peak following the path of the stars. Within minutes the blustery wind disappears. A gentle breeze eases the pilgrims down a sharp and rocky descent.

Apa itu, Ziarah?

This is a special contribution from Walking Buddy, aka ‘Pak David’ in Indonesian.

Kontribusi khusus dari David Hill dalam Bahasa Indonesia

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Sebagian besar, kalau bukan semua, agama bertradisi ziarah. Dalam agama Islam misalnya, melakukan Haj ke tempat-tempat yang dianggap paling suci merupakan suatu kewajiban bagi setiap penganut yang mampu. Dilakukan bersama, selama lima/enam hari. Pada tahun lalu sekitar 2,5 juta orang Islam melakukannya.

Ada tradisi yang lebih lama dalam agama Hindu di India untuk melakukan ziarah ke tempat-tempat yang dianggap berkeramat, karena melakukannya dapat membersihkan sukma diri.

Dalam agama lain, seperti Kristen Katholik misalnya, ziarah merupakan suatu pilihan yang diambil untuk mensucikan diri dari dosa ataupun memperkuat doa kepada Yang Maha Esa bagi suatu permintaan atau berkah.

Yang menjadi unsur bersama dalam kepercayaan agama-agama yang memeluk konsep ziarah adalah penganutnya menganggap tempat-tempat tertentu merupakan sumber kekuatan spiritual, yang menarik penganutnya mengunjunginya, kadang-kadang melintasi jarak yang sangat jauh.

Saya lahir dan dibesarkan sebagai orang Kristen Protestan, yang tidak bertradisi ziarah. Bagi saya, tempat-tempat historis yang berkaitan dengan agama Kristen tidak sepenting struktur kepercayaan ibadah, yang mengikat penganut dengan Tuhannya.

Saya belum pernah tertarik mengunjungi Tanah Suci, misalnya, ke kota Bethlahem, untuk mencari tempat Yesus Kristus lahir, ataupun ke tempatNya disalibkan. Mungkin saya bukan orang Kristen yang baik tetapi, bagi saya, ibadah saya tidak memerlukan adanya tempat fisik sebagai tempat asal kepercayaan agama itu.

Namun, beberapa tahun yang lalu, saya menyaksikan fenomena ziarah — ataupun perjalanan spiritual berjarak jauh — dari perspektif baru. Bukan dari dalam agamanya, tetapi dalam konteks lingkungan sosial dan spiritual.

Camino de Santiago

Ziarah yang berakhir di katedral bersejarah di kota Santiago de Compostela di sebelah barat laut Spanyol terkenal sebagai ‘The Way of St James (dalam bahasa Inggris), Camino de Santiago (dalam bahasa Spanyol), ataupun Chemin de Saint Jacques (dalam bahasa Perancis). Sudah ratusan tahun, peziarah telah menuju ke tempat yang dianggap makam Santo Yakobus.

Dasar historis adanya peninggalan Santo Yakobus disana boleh dikatakan, secara diplomatis, ‘sangat tipis’ — ya, terus terang, mustahil. Cerita yang mengaitkan Santo Yakobus dengan sebuah makam di dalam Katedral Santiago de Compostela lebih merupakan khayalan daripada fakta. Tetapi, dalam agama ‘fakta’ tidak sekuat kepercayaan. Dimotori kepercayaan yang kuat, sebuah tradisi berjalan kaki ke kota Santiago untuk berdoa di depan makam Santo Yakobus berkembang dan bertahan dari abad ke abad, sampai sekarang.

Secara tradisional, peziarah akan mengunjungi setiap gereja, katedral ataupun peninggalan agama dalam rute mereka, dengan harapan bahwa dosa mereka akan dimaafkan, dan ibadah mereka akan diperkuat. Untuk mendukung peziarah, telah muncul serangkaian penginapan ataupun losmen yang khusus bagi mereka, dengan harga murah ataupun kadang-kadang dibayar dengan sumbangan seadaanya saja.

Bagaimana mengukur popularitas ziarah Camino?

Pada bulan Agustus yang baru lalu, misalnya, lebih dari 60,000 peziarah tiba di Santiago, separuh-separuh laki-laki dan perempuan. Ketika ditanya apa motivasinya, sekitar 45% menyatakan karena agama saja, 45% yang lain mengatakan karena faktor agama dan budaya, sedangkan sisanya 10% karena budaya saja.

Syarat minimum bagi mereka yang ingin dianggap ‘peziarah’ (atau ‘peregrino’ dalam bahasa Spanyol), yang ditentukan oleh ‘Kantor Peziarah’ resmi di Santiago, ialah harus berjalan kaki paling sedikit 100 kilometer ke Santiago (atau bagi mereka yang naik sepeda, 200 km). Tetapi sejumlah besar peziarah berjalan kaki jauh lebih banyak. Ada yang berjalan dari rumahnya, bahkan dari setiap negara di Eropa, yang jaraknya beratus-ratus, kadang-kadang di atas beberapa ribu, kilometer!

Bulan Agustus itu, bahkan terhitung sesorang yang berjalan kaki dari Mesir!

Daya tarik Camino de Santiago ini kelihatan dari kenaikan dalam jumlah orang yang melakukannya, serta keanekaragaman bangsa yang ikut serta.

Terhitung oleh Kantor Peziarah di Santiago, pada tahun 2004, 179,944 peziarah sampai ke kota Santiago. Diantaranya ada 480 warganegara Australia. Jangan heran kalau tercatat juga dua orang dari Indonesia! Empat tahun kemudian, saya melakukan Camino saya yang pertama. Jaraknya hanya sekitar 120 kms, yang makan waktu sekitar satu minggu.

Sangat terasa peningkatan popularitas berjalan kaki ke Santiago ketika saya melakukan Camino yang kedua, dari pembatasan Perancis-Spanyol di sebuah kota kecil bernama St-Jean Pied de Port, yang jaraknya sekitar 800 kilometer, dan makan waktu sekitar 40 hari.

Pada tahun 2016, ketika saya melakukan Camino lagi, kali ini dari kota Lisboa di Portugal yang jaraknya sekitar 650 kilometer, jumlah peziarah total di Santiago sudah naik menjadi 277,854.

Dibandingkan dengan duabelas tahun sebelumnya, orang Australia telah naik hampir sepuluh kali lipat menjadi 4,441 orang, sedang yang sangat menonjol kenaikan peserta dari Indonesia, yang telah menjadi 53 orang.

Yang jelas, Camino de Santiago sangat internasional dan multinasional. Selain juga tidak terbatas pada hanya mereka yang beragama Katholik. Diterima juga mereka yang beragama apapun, maupun yang tidak beragama tapi suka berjalan kaki jarak jauh!

Pertengahan bulan Agustus, saya telah mulai sebuah Camino yang baru. Dari kota Le Puy dekat Lyon di Perancis, saya mulai berjalan kaki, mengikuti trayek yang bernama Latin ‘Via Podiensis’, ataupun dalam bahasa Perancis ‘Chemin de St Jacques voie Le Puy’ menuju Spanyol. Sekitar 40 hari kemudian saya sampai di St Jean Pied de Port pada pembatasan Perancis-Spanyol, sekitar 750 kilometer. Santiago masih 800 kilometer lagi di seberang Pegunungan Pyrenees yang membagi Perancis dari Spanyol.

Proses berziarah jalan kaki jarak jauh merupakan suatu kegiatan yang menarik berbagai macam orang dengan berbagai motivasi. Menurut kesan saya, kebanyakan bukan orang yang jelas-jelas bermotivasi agama. Mereka memilih perjalanan kaki ini sebagai suatu kesempatan menantang diri melakukan sesuatu yang ekstrim, yang memerlukan disiplin, ketekadan hati dan kekuatan fisik. Mereka berjalan kaki setiap hari sekitar 20 kilometer. Sebuah petualangan. Sebuah olahraga. Tetapi sekalian juga suatu kesempatan untuk bercermin pada dirinya, merenungkan kehidupan mereka sehari-hari.

Terasa banyak yang saya ketemu melakukan ziarah ini pada saat-saat mereka harus mengambil keputusan besar mengenai diri mereka. Misalnya, orang yang baru pension, yang harus mencari arah baru bagi sisa hidupnya, ataupun mahasiswa yang baru tamat yang ingin memilih langkah berikut dalam kehidupan karirnya.

Tetapi ada juga yang mencari makna spiritual ataupun suatu berkah. Orang yang sakit yang mencari sembuh. Ataupun orang yang baru sembuh dari suatu penyakit yang melakukan ziarah untuk ‘berterima kasih kepada Yang Maha Esa’ ataupun sebagai suatu ungkapan kegembiraan mereka atas sembuhnya itu.

Di Perancis, ternyata banyak kelompok teman sebaya, yang mengisi liburan mereka seminggu-dua minggu setiap tahun dengan berjalan kaki bersama.

Yang jelas, setiap orang yang melakukannya mempunyai motivasi sendiri-sendiri. Ziarah Camino bukan seuatu yang baku, melainkan suatu kesempatan untuk mencari makna bagi setiap orang yang melakukannya.

Picture: incomplete, imperfect

‘I thought I saw an eagle. It might have been a vulture. I never could decide’ (Leonard Cohen)

The 20 km hike from Orisson in France to Roncesvalles in Spain on a crisp autumn morning is bliss – if you don’t mind a slow but constant climb of 700 metres through meadows, then tumbling down 500 metres at about 20 degrees incline, on a track made up entirely of unstable rocks!

The spectacle of the morning breaking over the mountains is impossible to capture on iPhones, which click ceaselessly as 40 or so walkers leave the Orisson Refugio. The coppery tint in the sky is the ‘bride viewing light’ of my mother-tongue, a light that transforms your plainest daughters into fair-skinned houris. On the I-phone, the blushing sky looks at best washed out, at worst jaundiced. My fiddling with the camera settings produces a tacky pink like those cheap ‘artistic’ photos sold at every Indian mountain resort in the 1970s.

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I am a hopeless photographer. True. But that’s not the only deficit here. The camera just doesn’t capture, what the eye sees: all at once, in one sweep, the little flower trembling under-foot and the crystaline mountain peaks a hundred miles away. At best you catch a mid-range shot while the barren hills cradling the path play havoc with your sense of distance.

You don’t need to walk to enjoy the majestic panorama. You can drive most of this road. But in a car you might miss the autumn-blooming crocus. Dull purple, shivering, sparse, the wild crocus are unobtrusive, almost secretive, as they stick their heads out of the earth, here and there, hiding in their yellow and orange stamen the world’s most precious, most fragrant spice, saffron.

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If you drove here, you would miss too the cowbells ringing in concert, and you wouldn’t get nearly bowled over by the marching band of baa-ing sheep. Most importantly, if you drove, you might scare the mother resting with her new born foal.

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Thankfully, there are very few cars here – we saw perhaps four in 10 kms, including the very welcome food van selling hot drinks, bananas and biscuits. This corner of the world is not on anyone’s bucket list unless they are walkers.

The mobile phones went berserk along the way, unable to decide if we are in France or Spain. The national borders here are messy. At Fuente Roldán, Roland’s Fountain, after many dozen attempts, mine decided that we are finally, definitely, in Spain.

This fountain was built early in this century to serve the pilgrims and to remind them of the epic hero Roland who died in 778, somewhere around here.  The Mahabharata of French literature, Song of Roland, tells the story Charlemagne’s nephew and favourite lieutenant, the handsome (of course!) young Roland, who was felled after fighting bravely and recklessly, ignoring the advice of more experienced generals. Young Roland had been betrayed by his own step father and hopelessly outnumbered by devious and degenerate Moors. That’s what the founding text of French literature says. Basques say Roland was killed by a handful of wily mountain men, who, like all good freedom fighters, had the local knowledge to beat back a young French upstart.

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Whatever the truth or the legend, the landmark here is unedifying. The drinking water tap is welcome but you nearly miss it as you hold your nose and rush past the garbage dump. Perhaps the message here is that some histories deserve grubby memorials?

The day’s climbing is done a little before we reach this blot on the landscape.

Now, the path is lined by trees standing at awkward angles, with their trunks bizarrely wrapped around each other. Later in the hotel, I google (as you would expect) to figure out what it is that I have seen. It is a rare phenomenon called inosculation, I gather: a process by which trees naturally, graft into each other! I took dozens of photos. None looked like the real thing. When  the camera gets close, you can’t see the forest for the trees, and when I try a longer shot, you can’t see the trees for the forest!

Past the tangled woods, I turn a corner and just for a moment, the vista opens up to my left. Needle-sharp, icy blue mountain peaks pierce the horizon.

My camera battery is dead from the hour of failed bids to capture the entangled forest.

The flat battery finally releases me from the compulsion to record all things for the future. Now I have nothing to do but give in to the moment: take in the here and now with all my senses. For the walker, the moment is a lot more than the monumental views that mesmerise the eyes. The ‘here and now’ is the autumn on her skin; every fibre of the body aching from the climb; head filled with impatient curiousity about the twisted trees; adrenaline from exertion still flooding the heart and the relief palpable deep in the bones because the biggest climb of the entire 1500 kilometre Camino Frances is now behind her. What camera could record all that?

Picture Perfect

 

“We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky’ (Leonard Cohen)

The 27 kilometre section from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Roncesvalles in Spain through the mountain pass, Col de Lepouder, is the most brutal and the most majestic of the Camino route from Le Puy to Santiago.

From Honto to Orison, the track climbs 400 metres within about two kilometres, a heart-stopping angle when going uphill.

A billboard soon after Honto instructs ‘walk like an Indian’. ‘Not your kind of Indian’ says WB (Walking Buddy). The St Jean Pilgrim’s Office issues printed protocol for hikers in this area. It says, amongst other things: stick to the side of the track and walk in a single file. Apparently in mid-summer 400 pilgrims marching up the road each morning, can cause quite a pandemonium amongst sheep. These roads belong to the cattle. Pilgrims are merely tolerated. Anyway, being Indian, I just assume I am doing the right thing. Others can copy my mode of perambulation.

Accommodation between St. Jean and Roncesvalles is sparse. Many pilgrims end up walking the 1400 meters ascent and then a sharp and rocky 3 kilometres of descent into Roncesvalles, all in one day. Those who are lucky manage to find a bed in the ‘highest’ Albergue on the Camino, Refuge Orisson.

For them, the heart-thumping climb is over for the day. The dormitory accommodation (and there is nothing else until you get to Roncesvalles, 20 kilometres later) is spartan. But spectacular views in every direction.

Panoramic mountain views and picture perfect sunlight accompanied us through the eight kilometres from St Jean Pied-de-Port to Refuge Orison. Crisp cool of autumn morning with a gentle breeze eased the pain of the climb.

A slow morning. Not just because the ascent was sharp. But when every turn reveals yet another sun-drenched valley, you have to stop at every turn for just one more picture post-card shot.

Now time for lunch. Ordered ‘pottage legumes’, from the French menu, because ‘vegetables soup’ on the English one sounds prosaic. WHAT? No Bread? This is the first time we’ve ordered anything vaguely resembling lunch in France and not got a basket of bread. You pay extra for bread, says the very efficient waitress. But the view’s for free. Feast your sense on the Pyrenees, in the al fresco seating of the cafe, absolutely free of charge.

The ‘Feel’ of the Way

 

Photo: Abbey Church of St. Foy, Conques, in the mist.

In round figures Santiago is 1500 kilometres from Le Puy-en-Velay. St. Jean Pied-du-Port, at the bottom of the mountain border between France and Spain, is the half-way mark. Imagine setting off to walk from Kolkata to Delhi and arriving in, say, Varanasi. Or think about walking from Banda Aceh to Pekanbaru and getting to Medan. 750 kilometres of walking deserves a pause for thought.

There are some 80 or 90 ‘departments’ (districts) in France (French walkers seemed unsure of total numbers – some said 99). The Camino (Chemin de St Jacques in France, or very commonly the Way, after the Hollywood movie of that name) passes through a dozen or so of these ‘departments’, each with its own cheese and wine and little quirks. The size of a district is prescribed to be no more than a day’s horse-ride from any point within it to its capital. Clearly this was a determination of some import prior to the advent of motorised transport, which no one has seen fit to revise in the context of technological change.

Thirty to forty days of walking brings the pilgrim from the wealthy Upper Loir Valley, through the strangely barren areas of Lower Lot to Pays Basque, the last French district, before the Way crosses into Spain’s Basque province, more or less seamlessly.

Late September, sunrise is nudging 8 a.m. Just past the Autumn Equinox, the enormous honey-blonde Harvest Moon lights up the path, for the walkers setting out before dawn. The pilgrims are travelling south-west towards the Pyrenees. If the hiker is on the right track, the sun rises just behind her left ear every morning.

Early morning in the Pyrenees-Atlantique area of France, just before we enter Basque Country, the mist sits like a rings of smoke on the the ground. Here and there, the tree foliage stands out like spiky hair above the misty grey scarf hiding the trunk. You walk in and out of puddles of mist. Later in the morning, the glassy blue snow caps of the Pyrenees are visible a hundred miles before the pilgrims will climb through the passes into Spain.

The rising sun to my left, moonlit dawn in September, the first glimpse of the Pyrénées, would have been as true a thousand years ago as it is today, though the summer heat was less intense and the path more wooded in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, in this century, satellites, mobile phones and especially the little red and white way markers of the GR 65, have made navigation easy and walkers are in no danger of being savaged by packs of wolves!

Time and technology have transformed the way we walk the Camino, of course. Nonetheless, the walker’s relationship to the world around remains visceral in a way that seems to transcend time.

In Lyon, a young engineer points to the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière, towering over the landscape: ‘You see there – enormous church, dominating over the population. It’s saying like “beware little people, we the powerful are always watching you. Don’t do anything to challenge us!”’ The atheist post-colonial Indian tourist agrees readily – Churches are indeed, above all monuments to the greed and power of institutionalised religion; their glorious architectural forms mere covers for exploitation, first of the local peasantry and then of colonised populations all over the world.

As a walker on the Camino, the spire of the church is almost always the first sign of human settlement that comes into view. Things, even immense ones like cathedrals, appear only very slowly when you are walking. You see the tiniest cross on the horizon. If you are lucky and the road is flat, you might get there in 10 minutes. More likely, the path will go up and down and around a hillside, and the church will disappear a few times before becoming a real, fixed location, that you can actually depend on.

Usually a church means a village, which in turn holds out the promise of a cafe or a grocery, clean water to refill bottles, to throw over your burning face, or wash the mud off your knees where you stumbled. Even when the church is a mere shell, abandoned by whatever community once surrounded it, its porch will provide relief when the weather is inclement. In the Middle Ages of course the Church was pretty much the only institution that stood between the pilgrim and death from illness and starvation. Even today, in the middle of a 20 or 30 km walk, the sight of a church inevitably warms the heart. That moment’s sense of relief is not tempered by the intellectual critique that seemed so convincing to the tourist in Lyon, just two days before the start of the hike!

About 5 weeks into our journey, we had walked 10 kilometres one morning, before catching the first glimpse of a town. As always, a medieval church peering over the hill ahead alerted us to the impending coffee and tart for a kilometre or two before we got there. The 12th century building is now a museum. Monday mornings can be dead in many small towns. But Lectour was jumping. The patisserie invited with the smell of freshly bake croissants and provided the world’s best apple turn-overs. Town square was crowded, with bikes and cars buzzing around; people eating and drinking coffee al fresco. There was even a ‘petit casino’ – mini mart. The public toilets were spotless and there were welcome signs of ‘eau potable’ (drinking water) at the entry point to the town and again at exit.

Three hours later when the temperature climbed to 29, this town would have been palpably different. The slow 50 meter climb up to it would have felt like a nightmare. Outdoor cafes would have lost their charm. By 1 the bakery would be shut. The mid-day sun would have wiped out the shadow of the old church building over the town square, which would seem either deserted or too crowded for comfort.

When you are a tourist, you see a place, read the information to learn about this particular place which you have driven or flown in to see. It is already special and valorised as a ‘must see’ before you arrive. When you walk, you feel a place, as a step along the road. The road which brings you there is more important than the place per se. A travel writer is for ever trying to capture the ‘feel of a place’. For the walker that feel depends as much on the place as the state of her blisters or the weight of his backpack or the angle of the sun.

And the walker is by definition transient. The pilgrim never stays long enough to feel a place except as a brief moment in time. A different home every night. The traditional pilgrim hostels in Spain won’t let anyone stay for more than a night. Each town a one-night stand, fickle as the walker is.

Even milestones are unstable on the Camino. For three days in a row, we saw markers claiming to be a 1000 kilometres from Santiago! There are milestones scattered along the way marking distances to everywhere from Bali to Goa to Wagga Wagga!

Photo: Wagga Wagga 16975 m or kms?! Signpost in a squatter commune near Moissac.

Yes, milestones are a joke here. You can flush ‘em down the toilet.

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Photo: Cafe just outside the fortified town of Navarrenx.

But over time, some locations have taken on a sort of ritual significance – St Jean Pied de Port is one of them. This startlingly beautiful walled town, on the bank of the River Nive, surrounded by mountains is the starting point for many contemporary pilgrims. In summer, on average 400 pilgrims take off from here towards Santiago, each day. Now in autumn, those numbers have dropped to about 250, the Pilgrim Office tells us.

As we walk down St Jean’s cobbled main street, Rue de la Citadelle, a group of Koreans, who are about to start, cheer us wth ‘wow’s, as veteran walkers with 750 kms under our belt. For many who started from Le Puy, St Jean is the end point. For me the endorphin and the resulting euphoria at reaching this milestone, is tempered by the farewells to friends of the road, most of whom I will never see again, and with whom I have nothing in common other than the strange practice of walking day after day on a road paved with legends and myths for over a thousand years.

Legends: Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan at the official 1000kms from Santiago milestone

Myths? Three Musketeers still on the Way? Photo by d’Artagnan.