Day 12 – Ruitelán to Triacastela (30.5 km)
Not all albergues offer breakfast and only occasionally did I make use of this facility. It was always the same: thick slices of white bread placed onto the bare table or at best on a serviette, but no plates, with butter and marmalade as the spread. There were always a number of large jars with jam but never cheese or polony, not to mention fried eggs and bacon! Coffee out of an urn was available in abundance and was drunk from one of an assortment of mugs.
Today we had a long climb up the mountain and I did not expect to find a bar on the way, which was the reason for having my breakfast in Ruitelán. I soon was on the way, first along the Valcarce valley, and then up the mountain flank to reach O’ Cebreiro. I looked forward to the village, described in my guidebook as a mystical place with a strong historic background of ancestral clans stemming from Celtic movements.
Groups of people were, and still are, defined by their language families. For example, we speak of the Latin language, also known as the Romanic language group to which Italy, Spain, Portugal and France belong. The Anglo-Saxon language belongs to the Germanic language group, which includes England, Scandinavia, Germany and the Benelux countries.
Similarly there was at one stage a large Celtic language group in central Europe and in Galicia – the north-western corner of Spain where Celtic language influences, as well as Celtic cultural practices and traditions are still strong. The Celts lived in Central Europe between 800 and 450 BC and from about 450 BC to Roman times they had spread from the Black Sea in the east to France in the west and from England in the north to the Po valley in Italy and right across to Spain and Portugal.
Around the time of Christ’s birth the Germanic influence and later the expansion of Asian tribes into Europe displaced the Celts’ language and culture, so that ultimately they survived only in lonely and rugged regions. Remnants of their inheritance still exist in Ireland, Scotland and some northern British Islands, in the French Bretagne and in the inhospitable areas of Galicia in Spain. In Roman times the Celts were called Gallus, hence the name Gaul given to a large part of France under Roman rule in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. It is also the name used by the author of Asterix and Obelix, a book series loved by many.
The landscape in Galicia, and especially around O’ Cebreiro, is rugged and mystical to say the least. The countryside is undulating; mountain ridges are as high as 1900 m and deep valleys criss-cross the landscape. Today there are highways supported on gigantic columns spanning the valleys, but in former days the main mode of transport was probably provided by donkeys – and obviously people travelled on foot, just like the pilgrims traversing this rugged landscape nowadays.
Being at a high elevation and relatively close to the ocean, morning mist was common and rain could fall at all times of the day; this added to the magic. Villages consist of a mere clutter of farm buildings facing in all directions. The dwellings are stone structures with small windows and low doors, often clinging to mountain slopes.
If one disregards the presence of some tractors and more modern farming equipment, these villages take one back centuries to an era when life was harsh and demanding, a time when there was no electricity or running water, when fields were ploughed with the help of animals, evenings were long and dim and shadows in the light of oil lamps were dancing dark and mystically on sooty walls. People lived a cave-like existence. No wonder that this area was and still is known for its resilient inhabitants. They appear rough on the outside but are most hospitable and friendly if you knock on their doors. Nowadays the world is full of opportunities and young folk leave for more modern lifestyles and better employment opportunities. This drastically raises the average age of the remaining population.
Along our way through Galicia there are many small churches, minute in comparison to most seen before. Crucifixes and statues of Mary are common along the path and so are stone markers (stele). To me they looked historic and displayed the distance remaining to Santiago.
Even today there are a number of cultural survivals from Celtic times, often reminding one of Ireland and Scotland. The bagpipes are still common here and the sounds and melodies are similar to those played by the original Celts and those in the British northern regions. In Galicia they are called gaitas. I have never been to Ireland but assume that, in terms of atmosphere and appearance, the farms and villages resemble those found there. This applies especially to the ones which I passed later after Sarria where the lush green grazing fields meander over hills and valleys, surrounded by stone walls – as I have seen on pictures of Ireland. Even the food is comparable, soup is common and helps to warm from the inside and, the region being close to the ocean, many fish dishes are offered. I could sense the earthy strength of character of the people as I walked through their hamlets and I felt that I gained from the strong spirit around me.
In very early days the Celts were known for their deep-seated tendency to spirituality and for fiercely clinging to their pagan beliefs. This is what attracted St James, who hoped that, once he had successfully spread the word of Christ, the Celts would become fervent Christians, just as they had been fervent pagans. St James may have paved the way for their conversion, but it probably took a long time after his death before the inhabitants of the many valleys and hilltops began worshipping the one God.
Eighty kilometres further west of Santiago is the coastal town of Finisterra. Perhaps the culmination of mysticism is to be found here: it was known as the end of the world as far as the ancient inhabitants, the Romans and the people of the Middle Ages were concerned. Finisterre is on the edge of the Atlantic where the sun dips into the ocean; it is just about the most western part of Europe and the distance to the next continent, North America, is around 5000 km. No wonder those before us believed it was the end of the world and found it inspiring and bewildering.
Our hostel father in Ruitelán was a very particular person and the house rules were explained to each and every pilgrim on arrival. One rule was that the outside door during the night would remain closed until 6:30 in the morning and that he would wake us at six am. It is one thing to have rules but quite another for those rules to be followed. Just after five the next morning one of the Frenchies switched on his headlamp and rummaged about, stumbled down the steep, wooden stairs to the bathroom below, then returned, made up his bed and fidgeted with his belongings, finally leaving with his backpack – only to return because the outside door was, as promised, locked. The inconsiderate Frenchman, after chatting away with his neighbour, went back to bed but by then most of us were awake and had lost precious sleep. Finally, at six, Ave Maria by Handel woke us officially. No one got up before the music stopped, surely a sign that everyone savoured the moment and the prospect of a relaxing start to the new day. I certainly enjoyed our wake-up call as well as opera excerpts and other pieces that followed.
When I later arrived in the village O’Cebreiro, at an elevation of 1300 m, I felt on top of the world! The albergue in Ruitelán for the previous night was low down in the Valcarce Valley and we had to bridge a 650 m height difference on a strenuous uphill footpath. At first we walked alongside the River Valcarce – with cocks crowing and cowbells ringing and the sky changing from black to dark gray, then to light gray as time passed. The path became quite steep, with veins of rock protruding through the ground and rubble under foot. As the sky brightened, the climb continued for about two hours, levelling off near the top. We passed two villages on the way, so small that they did not even seem to have a church.
The physical path reminded me of my own life; initially it was also rocky and with rubble underfoot. I tended to look over my shoulder and lacked the courage to take bold steps. However, this has changed and my backpack has lightened. We might prefer walking the Camino alone, but we cannot isolate ourselves in life. Our actions, thoughts and emotions – whether good and positive or difficult and problematic – are shared, especially with those close to us.
Awareness balances life. We live with less friction, although this does not mean that we will encounter less hardship. It means that we live a more realistic life in which we still, like everyone else, come across adversities – but we will experience these less drastically and will respond with less aggression or despair. I refer to awareness in mindful rather than material and physical matters of general nature, but what does mindfulness mean and how is it achievable? To answer this we need to appreciate the following: when negative emotions are present we often make assumptions. Rather than being realistic, our mind creates disturbing pictures. For instance, we may add unbalanced emotions when communicating which could make us experience realities in different ways – similar to living in different worlds. Comprehension of the same words can be understood differently from person to person, and confusion is created. The mind so often whispers unsubstantiated doubts and fears, and can be the source of turmoil – it may cause us to pursue what our conscience tells us to avoid.
The ego may dictates our untoward emotions and actions, despite us condemning others for similar behaviour. These habits frequently come about when we form unrealistic perceptions. Our opinions are shaped by perceived realities and present circumstances.
Not many of us have the ability to control our deceptive feelings, emotions, minds and egos when they display negative tendencies. However, by being mindful, and better able to identify the extent of our contributions in confusing times. As we gain clarity, we see truth more realistically and are better able to apply tolerance.
Achieving this is a massive task and, as our time on earth is limited, I am partial to the idea of reincarnation. To me it makes sense that we should be given as many lifetimes as we need to accomplish this emotional evolution.
When we are reincarnated, our basis of the next life is probably our former character. Parents and experiences during childhood and adolescence influence our early development. Our parents steer our initial growth and the question of who actually selects them to be our guardians arises. Maybe the selection is arbitrary and results are derived from a new mix of DNA’s. Or has God selected them for us? Maybe our own soul has had a hand in the selection so that the inherent problems and inappropriate behaviour of guardians direct us to the lessons we are meant to learn. – – – Hopefully we adopt the parents’ positive attributes and avoid their negative and problematic sides. This is in no way a criticism of our parents, we likewise pass our peculiarities onto our own children.
Maybe if every generation accepts this concept, parents’ short-comings could be the catalysts to our spiritual advancements. Later in life our partner and the family we raise are the prime source and stimulus to improve who we are. Through our daily exposure to each other we can recognize our shortcomings. If we accept that we have a purpose and a spiritual destiny, we need to learn and advance, which is achieved by working through conflict.
Unfortunately our less desirable behavioural traits are more visible to others than they are to ourselves, just as those of our partners are probably more visible to us than they are to them. However, if we can look into the proverbial mirror and notice our shortfalls, we should be able to overcome the difficulties arising within a relationship and reap the benefits.
The baggage our partners bring with them presents a further challenge and if we recognize this for what it is, rather than perceiving it as being problematic and a provocation, volatile situations can be avoided. Differences can either strengthen or weaken us, ultimately the choice is ours. We can grow, or we may despair and blame everyone else and the world for our misfortunes.
By filtering out unpleasantness, we prevent damage. Taking responsibility for our own emotional behaviour and understanding our partner’s difficulties, allows us to better interact in conflict situations, and, as long as love prevails, the family should be the safest place to advance spiritually.
I repeatedly refer to ‘emotions’, ‘awareness’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘becoming conscious’. The terms and the meanings assigned to them are as follows: We essentially have three types of emotions: there are the positive or loving emotions, which let us be relaxed and content. Through these we can live in harmony. This state hardly requires any further commenting: if we feel happy and loved, we are likely to be tolerant and compassionate.
Then there is the range of negative emotions. They create unhappiness, blame, even domination and feelings of neglect and abandonment. Anger and resentment are part of these.
The third kind of emotion has a more neutral base: feelings such as grieving, sadness, healthy concern and emotions brought about by shock or similar experiences cannot be classified as either good or bad. They are emotions created through life’s circumstances and not by desires or sensitivities in one form or the other. These are beside the categories of this discussion.
When we improve our ability to respond positively to life, we essentially ‘increase’ our positive – and at the same time reduce negative emotions. Soul-building consists of converting problematic emotions into loving ones. Each one of us then automatically enhances humanity, even if only in a minute way. Should we regress, this process will be reversed.
When I talk of consciousness-building, I refer to becoming conscious of this conversion process, understanding its benefits and valuing the change it brings about. We grow when we implement and practise that which we have identified as the catalyst for change.
There is a huge difference between physically climbing from the valley to the top of the mountain versus achieving growth of our soul. If climbing a mountain is exhilarating, how much more exhilarating must it be to climb life’s ladder!
Having reached O’ Cebreiro I had reason to value my efforts in achieving the ascent. When looking back at the course of my life, the path was more of a roller-coaster, not just achievements. My hope is that I have also contributed in positive ways and will be judged leniently – based on the final outcome of my efforts.
Do I believe in reincarnation? – What do I or we know about any further advances after death? I believe that by assuming the spiritual efforts we make in this life are not in vain, and we are given a few more life-times to further advance our soul, reincarnation is a comforting thought. It provides a purpose, and should reincarnation be a myth, we will have done no harm in attempting our best in the here and now – reaping the benefits in this lifetime.
I am writing these thoughts while sitting in Iglesia de Santa Maria Real in O’ Cebreiro, its origin dating back to the 9th century. To me this is a beautiful church, although it was re-built in 1971 by Don Elias Valiña Sampedro in the Romanesque style. We owe this pastor of O’ Cebreiro a mighty thank you, he is recognized as the father of the ‘new’ 20th century Camino Francés and is the initiator of the yellow arrow way marker we eagerly search for and follow these days.
As always when entering a church, I lit a candle for my family. This time it was a large, thick candle which would burn for hours to come, not one of those electrical contraptions which light up as the penny drops. There were no wrought iron stands with rows of cups to hold candles as is commonly the case, so I placed mine in an alcove near the altar and since my arrival many more pilgrims positioned theirs close to mine. When I left a fairly long time and many thoughts later, my candle was still burning brightly
Without noticing I had become very cold in the church and needed a warm drink and something to eat – I was starving. My jacket was still wet with sweat from the steep part of the climb, despite my taking it off before I got too hot. To compensate and protect me from the chilly air, I had swung my sarong from Bali over my shoulder, with the triangular ends covering my arms. A woman I overtook towards the end of the climb tucked the cloth on both sides under my backpack to prevent cold creeping up my back. This was just sufficient to keep the light breeze out. She liked my sarong with its bright orange and somehow blotchy repeat patterns of an Asiatic farmer with a long whip, controlling a pair of oxen pulling a plough.
A while earlier, shortly before O’ Cebreiro, a young couple took photos of each other in front of the beacon marking the boundary into Galicia. Chiselled into the stone was the inscription that we were only 152.5 km from Santiago. I photographed the couple and we then ceremoniously stepped over the boundary.
In a bar in O’ Cebreiro I ordered coffee and a tortilla. Inside it was quite warm from all the pilgrims gathered there and from an open fire in one corner. I must have been sitting in the parish church for close to two hours and so most pilgrims had caught up with me.
It was drizzling on arrival, which was fitting for this place in the middle of nowhere and where mysticism from days gone by and the pronounced Celtic feel were still palpable. When I entered the village the church appeared behind a walled yard which must have been part of the monastery that stood here long ago. Around the corner was a palloza, a typical round ‘hut’ of centuries past when similar shelters were the living quarters of the Celts. They consisted almost entirely of a fairly high and roughly thatched conical ‘roof’ sloping down to just above the ground. The structure looks rather like some hairy and bedraggled sheep.
It was well past eleven and I was still in the bar waiting for my tortilla. I had only walked just over nine kilometres out of the valley and still had twenty one kilometres to go before reaching Triacastela, so I had an urgency to leave.
I changed my order of a tortilla to cabbage soup when this was served without delay to another table ‒ the eggs for my tortilla probably had not yet been laid. Another reason for changing the order, over and above being hungry, was that I needed something to warm me – I was still decidedly cold.
Finally I left O’Cebreiro and after four hours and twenty-one kilometres, four churches and a late lunch, I reached Triacastela. That was fast going, given that the landscape was undulating and the path at times rough and strenuous. It felt as if O’Cebreiro had supercharged me and in hindsight I would have liked to have stayed in that village for longer. I had absorbed only part of the mysticism and there was much more where this came from. Should I ever walk this stretch again, I will make a point of staying overnight.
I really felt good; perhaps thinking of my past and the present and my experiences in the church had something to do with this. My mind was full of joy and music, classical and otherwise, which helped me along for most of the way and aided my steps. My legs were absolutely fabulous today; I could stride out with vigour, passing most other pilgrims and hardly being passed by any. This was not a competition, but at my more advanced age I was as fast as the rest, even over a distance of many kilometres. Do you know why centipedes never fall over their many legs? I don’t have as many legs as they have but with the use of walking sticks I have 100% more than I had before I left. That should mean a 50% chance of getting the gait wrong – this never happens. The coordination between footsteps and walking sticks was always in tune – both the walker and the centipede do it without thinking.
This is a good tip for walking long distances: you spread your step fractionally outwards to both sides and with each step rotate your hips ever so slightly forward, at the same time rotating your shoulders in the opposite direction. Then you bend your knees fractionally more than usual to give the step additional spring. This is an invigorating, energetic walk; I call it the bold walk, only achievable when in highest spirit.
Later that afternoon I sat again in a church. This time it was in Triacastela where a wooden floor in this Romanesque building made it warmer underfoot than it had been in the church with stone floor in O’Cebreiro. The wooden floor was probably installed fairly recently, judging by its appearance.
Displays in the church in Triacastela illustrate ‘finding the capacity to express love’ and I have read this before along the way. I suppose the ability to express love is part of one’s nature but it is also learned from one’s parents and is passed onto one’s children in the best way possible. The capacity to express and receive love might mean different things to different people. For my part, whatever I gave to my wife and my children was probably the best I could do at the time.
Being able to appreciate genuine love can be likened to resting in a cosy armchair. It is relaxing and neutralizes any existing negative sentiments. Continually giving and receiving love, however, is not necessarily always straightforward. Unpleasantness and hurtful memories often get in the way
The landscape after O’Cebreiro was most beautiful, with green mountains as far as one could see and valleys often covered by forests. The few villages we passed again housed typical farming communities. Their stone structures – dark, dingy outbuildings – were full of centuries-old clutter. Other buildings housed cows, with only two or three cows closest to the entrance lucky enough to see the light of day and have some entertainment while looking out. The remaining cows rustled about in darkness. The living quarters for the family were usually located above the cowshed and I presume that only a wooden floor separated them. This meant that the family had an eco-friendly under-floor heating system.
The smell of straw, dung and animals reminded me of my early childhood in Germany, when after the war we collected fresh milk directly from the farmers in a little can with a wire handle. I also remembered my visits to Fritz Frieling’s farm; Rudolf Frieling, his son, was my school friend and during school holidays I often helped harvesting hay, potatoes, sugar beet and cabbages for pocket money
Their cows also rattled on their chains but thy had well-lit pens in the forequarters of the farm building and on arrival one walked past their rows on either side before entering the human living quarters further back. In comparison the cows in Spain had little luxury; they were cramped into hovels.
The albergue in Triacastela is located in a very old building, constructed from stone, with half-timber columns and beams as well as roughly hewn roof trusses and a slate roof. The dormitories were not too large and oddly shaped; none of the corners were 90 degrees.
For the last two nights I had been bedbug free, which was a great relief; however I still had to hide my inflamed bug bites from my fellow pilgrims, so I always wore a shirt and only stripped when under the bed linen. My swollen right leg was almost back to normal and caused no problems. The medical sock bought in Hospital de Orbigo five days previously had greatly helped.
Earlier, while sitting in the church of Triacastela, I mentioned love and this leads me to contemplate about Christian faith, which is based on love and forgiveness – the prodigal son taken in and pardoned by the father is an example.
Christianity also raises another thought: in our religion we take it that God answers our prayers and forgives us. However, He is unreachable and His message is delivered through our subconscious. Maybe this means that the answers we seek in life are already established within us since birth – available to access at any time. It would be as if God has provided us with a kind of blueprint – like a road map or guide book for life.
The word ‘blueprint’ refers to engineering drawings from around 1860 when the background of printed plans was blue and designs were shown in white lines. Around 1940 the printing process improved and now white plans with black lines are now the norm.
To compare our inner blueprint with engineers’ drawings; both illustrate details of what is to be constructed and in my metaphor the blueprint from God provides a construction plan or road map for us to follow. Maybe people of the modern computer age would prefer to compare spiritual road maps to hard drive discs or memory sticks burnt into their minds.
If the blueprint is embedded in our psyche, we need to access the data and learn to follow the wisdom within, and should His wisdom make sense to us at a profound level, the answer will change our life. Only then will individuals have the conviction and confidence to apply what is relevant. It is our obligation to follow the subconscious instructions received, instead of being persuaded differently by reasoning through our mind, which can easily be changed.
We might not understand how God can permit all the horrendous atrocities we see around us and we might blame him for the evil in the world. Maybe we should see this differently. Perhaps we need to accept that He is the all-knowing who has initiated this miraculous world. We are the ones that detrimentally changed it to suit our own desires. He has provided us with the blueprint to live harmoniously with one another like most other creatures do within their groupings and circumstances, but He has also granted us free will, which we have abused. He knows that we experience difficulty appreciating higher awareness, but He nevertheless expects us to pursue this goal and for this purpose we have the book of life. It does not matter if our progress is slow, as long as we can register any gains.
Religious doctrines offer a framework of who to worship and in which form this should be done, and this is in the context of the circumstances in which beliefs and practices had developed. In today’s terms religions might appear archaic, but age-old human desires to address the divine are still strong, especially in times of hardship. Religions point to the direction to follow, but they will not transform us. It is up to each individual to achieve growth.
Religious books most commonly recognized by Westerners are the Bible, the Torah and the Quran, but we know there are many others. Apart from historic and cultural details and implicit stories they contain, the basic message of awareness and preferred human conduct is almost universal in all religions and matches that of the blueprint. There is a ‘common script’, bare of ideology and circumstances, which is applicable to all of humanity. Should all religions make this universal doctrine their prime focus, instead of emphasising their uniqueness with notions of ‘they and us’ and doctrinal rigidity, humane and tolerant unity may eventually evolve. At present strained inter-faith relations divert attention from what really matters. With awareness still at a rudimentary stage, negative forces seek ideological control, be it in religion, in politics, in commerce, in societies and too often even in families. Manipulation tends to have the upper hand and this will unfortunately not change anytime soon.
Maybe religious institutions should use their specific narratives and teachings to spread awareness and the importance of the blueprint, rather than concentrating on historic and ideological differences. Human tolerance and peace rather than insisting on perceived rights and cultural differences, is the common factor and may raise the consciousness level of humanity.
Whether God, the Son and the Holy Ghost are one entity or whether Mary was a virgin, for instance, is irrelevant and so is whether Muhammad or Christ or Vishnu or any other prophet or holy person should be more revered than others. With the blueprint message being universal, it does not really matter which religion to follow. In fact, it does not really matter that we follow a religion at all. All that matters is that we individually develop heartfelt love and grow in awareness. Obviously this is not referring to sexual love, lavished only onto a specific person to the exclusion of everyone else. The subject is about universal love and valuing each individual, irrespective of creed, gender, race, washed or unwashed.
How can God permit the atrocities that happen all around us? It is not a matter of Him permitting, it is a matter of us evolving and in this way resolving hardships.
Returning to our Camino: the parish church with the wooden floor in Triacastela reflects the love God has and which we should emulate and distribute. Many paintings, drawn by children from the community in their child-like manner were attached to walls next to the altar. They indicate that, for this church at least, humanity is more important than strict adherence to norms and the priest put children before neatness and orderliness.
Three ladies were placing small bunches of flowers under statues and pictures and they were chatting away in the process and bantered with the casually dressed priest when he arrived. He approached me with a smile. We could hardly converse on account of our language barriers but he asked whether I was English or German-speaking and returned later with some photocopied notes about the history of the church and the community. Unfortunately I lost these notes and cannot provide more details.
The new timber flooring in this ancient church might have been historically incorrect; but it provided warm feet for the congregation – more important to this parish priest than an authentic building style. If I had the urge to participate in a church service, I probably would choose this one. I had been to some services along the way, they were liturgical and followed a prescribed structure; there was little spontaneity other than greeting one’s neighbour in the pew when asked to do so.
When I sat in churches while writing my diary I appreciated the peace and quiet which probably facilitated my thoughts to rise to the surface. Churches are a place of tranquillity, which worshippers have come to appreciate. The ‘vibes’ are no doubt conducive for our inner God to reveal himself and teach us harmony.