Day 11 – Cacabelos to Ruitelán (29.9 km)
This morning I walked the alternative route which leads through Valtuille de Arriba, past vineyards and up and down a decidedly undulating countryside, with the mountains I had previously crossed behind me and further mountains looming ahead for the next day.
When the sky brightened I looked back to see the sun just rising above the contours of a peak where the rays were deflected by a tiny white church which was framed by three huge trees, similar to Norfolk Pines, which formed a sharp and dark silhouette against the sun’s brightness. It was a beautiful picture in a quiet landscape: if it had been a painting, I would probably have regarded it as kitsch, but nature is nature – real, no kitsch about it. It was a wonderful beginning of a new day.
The path was winding through this undulating scenery, hugging the mountains rather than traversing them. At times a steep embankment rose up on one side with a corresponding drop on the other. The only settlement on this stretch was Valtuille de Arriba, a tiny village with a bar which I reached too early to have my coffee. Not so for Francine and Miguel, a mature couple from France. We had crossed paths many times on the way; they walked slower but more steadily than I did and so we saw each other frequently. The previous morning, when we both tried to find the path to the castle in Ponferrada, was the last time we saw each other. In days to come we embraced whenever we crossed paths but unfortunately, due to the language barrier, we could not converse meaningfully
Earlier on I had passed some trees that had dropped their fruit – pears, apples and the like – and the sweet smell of fruity decay was in the air. It reminded me of my youth in Germany when I would take time to lie on the grass under similar large trees. I used to gaze into the branches above me and watch the sun’s rays darting through the gaps and openings in the canopy, which was etched against the bright sky, appearing black in contrast. Pears were then also rotting, and the smell is vivid in my memory, as is the buzzing of the bees around my ears. They were foraging on the overripe fruits, and ants were crawling over my arms and neck; grass and sticks were piercing and tickling my back and birds were chirruping in the background, rather a romantic picture. I wondered how many youngsters nowadays have experiences like this. They probably see light flashes on a computer screen rather than observing sunrays through a tree canopy.
On the way this morning all was quiet except for the rhythmic, slurping, scraping noise of my steps on the gravel path. When a young pilgrim overtook me, I first heard his faint footsteps from afar, they came nearer and nearer, sounding like squesh-squash-squesh-squash and eventually I stopped to greet and let him pass.
Villafranca del Bierzo, a clean, friendly and lively town in comparison to many places which appeared deserted, spans a gorge and slopes down to the River Valcarce which joins here with the río Burbia. The town straddles two ridges with a deep and wooded valley in between. All the churches were closed again, which was a great pity, so I did not linger. There were two large churches dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The older of the two had a Puerta de Perdón – an ‘entrance of forgiveness’. By entering the church through this gate, sick or injured pilgrims could earn the same indulgence as if they had walked to Santiago. Indulgences were awarded by the Catholic Church as a remission of sins, predominantly earned by prayer and/or by completing a pilgrimage. The crusaders travelling to the Middle East were promised indulgences and in the later Middle Ages forgiveness was even offered through a donation of money. There were other churches with a Puerta de Perdón along the route that offered these arrangements,
I bought some cheese, baguette and bananas and was on my way to conquer the mountain Alto Pradela, which is 930m high and required climbing around 350 m in a four kilometre stretch.
During my second day on the Camino when I had slept in Ledigos, a young female doctor from Barcelona urged me to take this detour. Her comment in broken English was that ‘the path is so steep; you almost walk on hands and feet’. It was not that bad: only the initial approach was really steep, and ‘almost walking on hands and feet’ was a striking but rather exaggerated expression. The rest of the way was quite manageable. Most other pilgrims preferred to take the tarred road with its traffic through the Valcarce valley, a gorge that lay far below my path.
Emil from Berlin passed me on the steep section and asked whether my sins were so plentiful that I had to do this penance! We bantered in this way until we both got so hot from the effort of climbing that we stripped down to minimum. I left first and went ahead and he never caught up with me again. Perhaps his sins were heavier than mine? When nearing the hill-top, I also passed a couple having their lunch, otherwise there was no one else around, not even a local.
I guess my sins could not have been too heavy. I climbed the mountain fairly rapidly and without difficulty. On reaching the top, I had something to eat while sitting on a rock and I enjoyed the marvellous 250° view over many peaks and valleys. The walk was generally known to be a challenge and those who had trotted along the very busy tar road admired my stamina afterwards. I had seen them moving along, looking like miniatures.
The way up reminded me of Suné, my son’s wife. Years ago Suné, Nadja, Kai, Arno and I had walked a steep incline on the slopes of Table Mountain in order to reach the Contour Path. Suné, petite and determined as always, was in front and maintained a fast pace and we kept up with her as best we could. When we commented on her speed, she confirmed that for her it was a matter of getting the difficult part over and done with as quickly as possible and with the least amount of fuss – a good principle to follow in all aspects of life!
Expanding on this thought: When walking the Camino we have choices as far as our endeavours are concerned: we might decide to walk up the mountain – or we might prefer to walk along the busy tar road. We can walk up the mountain at slow speed – or we can climb fast so that we complete the task ‘with the least amount of fuss’. We have choices and hopefully in everyday life we make sound decisions and move on.
Talking about efficiency, choices and moving on effectively directs me to a parallel picture that might be relevant. In this picture I compare our highly developed transport system with the way we live jointly and communicate effectively. Long gone are the days when building blocks like those used for the pyramids and other ancient structures required great effort to be shifted. Long gone are medieval days when those who could afford it rode donkeys or horses – the majority, in any case, had to walk on foot.
The first wheels, invented about 5500 years ago in present day Iraq, were probably oddly shaped, maybe multi-faceted and providing a rather bumpy ride. Eventually wheels became perfectly round and glide bushes supported axels and reduced friction. Now-a-days bearings make wheels spin and the latest development allows trains to hover on tracks, being propelled by magnetic fields – frictionless, only air providing resistance.
How does this compare with our physical, mental and emotional existence? Have we also developed a proficient and streamlined way to live, communicate and keep our own thoughts running smoothly and efficiently? For example, the global economic system has had a bumpy ride of late. Nevertheless, if we consider economic advances made over past centuries, many countries appeared to have had a good run on bearings – even if ‘grid’ causes occasional chaos. If one, however, looks deeper below the surface, one sees, for example, the daunting prospect of environmental deterioration and climate change caused by our modern lifestyle; dependence on fossil fuels causes, for instance, serious problems. Considering health matters; there is the great variety of unhealthy foods legally sold and causing havoc, which in turn increases our reliance on unhealthy drugs. One wonders if we are still moving forward efficiently in this world.
Everyday communication with its emotional and egoistic facets is another topic. If we are greedy, resentful, arrogant, dominating and blaming, or easily intimidated, shy and fearful, for example, we will not be efficient. We will certainly not have a smooth and cushioned ride on magnetism like some trains in China have.
Not many of us can improve the circumstances we find ourselves in; we are even unable to change our partners to any extent. However, irrespective of our intellect, our social standing, our physical wellbeing or any other conditions, we are able to change our own behaviour and move forward more smoothly. We might then develop greater compassion, which may have beneficial influence on others. With tolerance and love we become better communicators. If every human can create less friction and aggravation, positive change will invariably follow and humanity will advance. Life’s path will be less steep and interactions with ‘pilgrims’ on the way will have added clarity.
Some may see no reason to improve and change their mode of being. They may believe that they are on the right path, and that change is not necessary, however, before the invention of the wheel, everyone was content to walk, yet the wheel changed the world.
For me the steep way down to the Valcarce valley was more difficult and strenuous than going uphill. It did not help that the paths veering off were often not marked and left me repeatedly guessing for directions. Despite this, the walk was beautiful and for a long stretch I passed through a chestnut forest. The huge trees, with their widespread horizontal branches fairly high off the ground and lightly touching one another with sunlight filtering through the leafy canopies looked very majestic, not dissimilar to a gigantic gothic hall.
Once I reached the tar road again I was in great need of something to drink and passing pilgrims recommended a bar they had noticed a little further down the valley. I walked back instead of forward in the direction of my next albergue – with anticipation and more anticipation and more anticipation, leading to frustration – until I finally found the bar in Trabadelo, about 1½ km further away from my next night’s stop and Santiago de Compostela.
I had a tortilla and a Fanta Orange in this tiny place which was run by a Dutch couple and, making use of my best Afrikaans, we chatted a little. Going forward again from Trabadelo, I had to retrace the one and a half kilometres and came upon another bar half a kilometre further on. I had walked three kilometres unnecessarily – which took almost an hour – but such is life.
On my way further I trudged along the busy tarred road for a while but then turned off onto a narrow secondary one that passed through small villages. Finally I arrived in Ruitelán and booked into a private hostel. My afternoon rest and night’s sleep took place under a most unique roof with thick, roughly hewn and extremely crooked and warped wooden support beams and columns, as if trees in this region only grow in a twisted way. The church I visited later could probably seat only twenty five people, which demonstrates how small the village is.
Most pilgrims in this albergue were French, – followed by Spaniards, Germans, Belgians, a Canadian couple, a hefty male from Poland and one South African. While I was enjoying the last rays of the sun in the courtyard, I heard a guitar accompanying someone singing chansons. This promised an entertaining evening. At 19:00 a bell called us to dinner served to about twenty pilgrims sitting around one long table. The menu offered vegetable soup, salad and spaghetti with beans and cheese – well seasoned and tasty. The dessert was a caramel pudding. Several bottles of wine were available to liven us up.
On my right sat the pilgrim from Poland and on the left an extrovert Frenchman. A Canadian couple and another Frenchman were seated opposite me. The extrovert on my left, who was about sixty years old, was the centre of attention for the evening. He was singing, reciting poems and stories in French and was quite full of himself. When I asked the French-speaking lady from Canada sitting opposite me whether he, the extrovert, was what one in French calls a charmeur, he replied instead ‘I am afraid one could say so.’ The Canadian woman could not speak English at all, but when her husband translated my question, she confirmed my description – long after my French neighbour had made his remark.
Have I mentioned how cold it is in the mountains? It was freezing when we left Rabanal a few nights previously and I felt sorry for some pilgrims who were misinformed about walking conditions and were not at all prepared for what we had to endure. A Canadian woman, Cynthia, wore shorts and no gloves when we climbed up to Cruz de Ferro – it must have been torture for her. I was wearing long pants, with three layers of clothes under my waterproof jacket. Its hood was up and tightened around the face, my hat was strapped on top of the hood and I had gloves to warm my fingers. I offered the Canadian woman some clothes but she politely declined. She did, however, heed my recommendation to wear a pair of socks as gloves. Every morning and from about 6 pm in the evening it now became excruciatingly cold, even with the sun still visible. Day temperatures were comfortable and ideal for walking, so I think that, providing warm clothes are packed, the month of September is perfect for this venture.
Today’s walk from Cacabelos to Ruitelán was about 30 km long, of which twelve kilometres were spent up and down the ‘sin’ mountain and an additional three kilometres when searching for the bar in Trabadelo. It had been a long day but my legs and feet felt fine, they just kept moving with very little complaining. My arms had become one with the walking sticks and my body had no problem carrying the backpack. Nevertheless, after twenty five kilometres on the go I was looking forward to a well-deserved rest.
A Pilgrim’s Rhyme
The wisdom we seek and that we require,
Has long been within us, awaiting desire.
The access however, we all should know,
Is tightly guarded by emotions though.
This is the part that really matters
Knowing how we guard emotions in tatters.
Until we learn to handle life’s array
Painfully ignorant we will stay.
Guardsmen of ego bring up fears,
Fears to lose face, or exposure by peers.
We fear emotions that make us weak,
Turmoil and pain we do not seek.
All these, I regret, cause great resistance,
They keep us awake, our mind in persistence.
But maybe the greatest conflicts we’ll find
Are painful emotions that distress the mind.
They keep us in bondage – we cannot escape
Encourage the ego to swell, boast, dominate
And this is in essence how life is played out
With little control, like a selfish lout.
We switch to pretention, we need to impress,
Judging and bragging – as if show-off is best.
Our misplaced emotions display what we see,
And proudly we claim “it was not me!”
The guards we placed at imagined doors,
They keep us from truth and any remorse.
Prevent us from living life as we should
Keeping emotions in darkened mood.
Can we take on opinions, let others be right?
Can we listen, be careful when words are tight?
All this is given when wisdom can grow,
When guards are removed and truth can flow.