Day 9 – Rabanal to Molinaseca (26.5 km)
I had difficulty sleeping the previous night: someone close to me was forever fiddling with something and on top of that I was very concerned that I might still be carrying bedbugs, which was proven when I found new bites in the morning. That afternoon, when I had arrived in Molinaseca, about eight kilometres after Ponferrado, where the doctor pronounced that I had an exceptionally strong reaction to bug bites, I put all my clothes and bedding, except for the bare minimum that I needed to wear, into the plastic bag from the pharmacy in Hospital de Orbigo and emptied the contents of the anti-bug aerosol spray through a small slit before closing the bag and leaving it for two hours. I then washed the lot in a washing machine at 40 degrees, the maximum setting available, and hoped this would finally debug me.
This morning on the way up ton Foncebadón I encountered dense fog from an altitude of about 1400 m onwards, causing the temperature to drop considerably. Later on the way down to El Acebo the fog lifted and a drizzle took over. The scenery turned out to be very beautiful, with rolling hills and deep valleys all round, often overgrown with shrubs. Today’s walk turned out to be more strenuous than expected. It led up and down the mountain of Cruz de Ferro and on the descent, rocks lying about and rock veins on the path with their ridges and ruts made it necessary to constantly watch one’s step and maintain balance. I often felt uneasy, knowing that this was the ideal terrain in which to twist an ankle. The Camino on its way to the cross led through Foncebadón and Manjarin. Both villages lie at high altitudes, are surrounded by hills and look very isolated and stark in this landscape. There are probably no more than a dozen houses per hamlet. Some had partially caved in but most had been recently restored. These are the villages where dogs are known to be a menace, but when I walked through no dogs appeared.
As we climbed up the steep road to Puerta Irago, Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, appeared to reach into the misty sky. It was impressive and this place is a major destination on the Camino. Tradition has it that pilgrims would bring pebbles from their homes into which they imbued past life experiences – hardships, anxieties, afflictions and pain and whatever was bearing them down. Many also brought pebbles entrusted to them from loved ones and friends back home. Anyone who walked from St Jean Pied de Port will have carried this additional load for over 550 km.
On arrival, and perhaps after performing some private ceremony, pilgrims place their pebbles on a mound at the foot of the cross and thousands upon thousands of these tokens of hardship placed over centuries have formed quite a high rise at the base of the Cruz de Ferro. It has become a shrine for the burdens left behind by millions of pilgrims who carried heavy thoughts and hearts up the hill, but hopefully had lighter mental and physical loads on their way down and further on to Santiago. The pilgrims that I observed were mostly contemplative and ceremonial at first; then photos were taken, and after a while most left looking rather cheerful. Some pilgrims remained at the mound for quite some time; some had tears in their eyes.
I did not bring a stone from home but picked one up on the way to the top and placed it quietly and unceremoniously on the mound. Nothing earth-shattering happened and soon I was on my way again. I was grateful that my burdens are not really that significant – or had I missed an opportunity to be more insightful and truthful? Was I missing something?
Burdens are a part of life and I believe they are essential. If we are without burdens, we probably have already reached a very enlightened stage with all its tranquillity and wisdom. Maybe there are some people around who could testify to this. However, for us ordinary human beings with our inflictions, opinions and perceptions, this is hardly applicable. Without burdens and the differences and difficulties we experience in life, there would be no incentive to change. There would be no driving force and reason to learn, search, improve and resolve. Burdens motivate us to find solutions to adversities, they make us pursue awareness and peace and it is through overcoming burdens and difficulties that we develop our character. In a relationship, paradoxically, the resolving of differences may give us the togetherness and the deeper understanding we desire. It is through jointly resolving differences that we become soul-mates.
Perhaps the terms ‘burden’, ‘differences’ and ‘difficulties’ sound heavy and depressing and create a negative image. Perhaps we should rather talk about being individuals who aim to live with integrity as best we can. As individuals, we each see life in our particular way; we all experience life differently and have to accept and respect these differences. There is nothing wrong with being an individualist. We all want to be exclusive in our ways and have a unique character. We have the right to our own opinions and this should not be a problem, it adds colour to life and if we have a positive nature, it will lighten burdens.
Positive differences between people can be exciting and stimulating, as is so often noticeable in the initial stages of healthy relationships when we are attracted to differences. They are awe inspiring to us and we accept and embrace them. Should the perceived uniqueness and particular character of our partner wear off at some later stage, the equilibrium may unbalance and our togetherness and communicating may become confusing. Our perception may harden and raise unrealistic expectations as well as negative and exaggerated emotions. We notice faults where none were seen before and trample trust and love. If this results in us feeling vulnerable and neglected for instance, our free spirit subsides and sadness creeps in, or we may develop and harbour frustrations. Both raise problematic emotions which may result in irreconcilable and taxing differences.
It is by comparing ourselves with others in a more realistic way that differences become acceptable. It is through this awareness that we can learn, change and grow. We identify our own inflictions present in an altercation, for instance, and healing can commence.
Once we can accept differences more constructively, we become creative and see possibilities to manoeuvre through conflicts. We develop a confident and assured behaviour.
We generally blame others or ‘the other’ when things go badly, but the other person may not be the cause. It is hard to judge an emotional exchange objectively. Especially if aggravating emotions are involved the most trivial exchange can become complex. When they wash over us, we regard them as our right and we base our response on the premise that they are justified. Once we have reached this rigid state, applying tolerance is difficult.
Thoughts on these subjects make me realise that I certainly had many pebble stones at home which I should have carried with me to lay under the iron cross with some thoughtful reflection. This opportunity has now passed and I hope that the way of St James will open my mind sufficiently to tackle whatever I need to take note of regarding my own behaviour and conduct.
Earlier on I mentioned the morning fog at an elevation of about 1400 metres; this created a quiet, muffled atmosphere and the air was still. Vegetation on these slopes consists of low trees and bushes, shrubs and hardy, scruffy greenery higher up. While going uphill we pretty well had our noses to the ground but this changed on the way down. We were then able to enjoy the view, except when the path was rutted and unpredictable and required concentration. The landscape reminded me of the foothills of the Alps.
Not far past the iron cross, just off the road and not visible but with music faintly audible, I found a café, or rather a hovel, run by Thomas. He greeted each arriving pilgrim by striking a brass bell. Coffee and biscuits were provided for all to indulge in while a collection box awaited a donation. It is here that I again saw Walter from the Canary Islands. The name Foncebadón had a ring, for me it instilled some sort of mystery in a rough countryside. I mentioned to Walter that maybe on the previous day I should have walked five kilometres further to this village and not stay overnight in Rabanal. His reply was that one never knows what one might then have missed.
This is exactly the spirit on the Camino: you do not worry about what you should or should not have done; you just do what feels right at the time. We do not know if another path, another decision, another action in life would have been better or more appropriate, we might think in hindsight that results would have been more gainful, or perhaps kinder and more appropriate, but it could just as well be the opposite. It is best to weigh up one’s actions with consideration, and once decided, stick with the decision and its consequences. We cannot walk two paths simultaneously; we will always only know the outcome, the consequences and the beauty or pain of the path that we have chosen. We will never know what the outcome of walking the ‘other’ path would have been.
Walter was right: if I had continued my walk the previous day, I would have missed a talk with Louis, a quietly confident Hollander in his sixties who appeared to be bare of pretence. I liked him. We discussed our experiences on the Camino and spoke about life in a light-hearted way. When the subject became more serious and we touched on spirituality, a German woman from Hamburg, sitting close by, joined in. She explained that for the last three years, after her son’s divorce, she had been the ‘mother’ of his three children and had sacrificed her own activities such as pottery and painting. Although she obviously loved her grandchildren dearly, she was missing out on her own life. She was also concerned that the children would become too attached to her, and that, should her son enter into a new partnership, which was likely to happen, she and the children would find it hard to re-adjust. Her intention on the Camino was to come to terms with her situation and find an appropriate solution.
The subject of adapting to retirement came up as well. Apart from her having to be a mother to her son’s children, none of us had encountered difficulties with our new life patterns and we all had enough interests to avoid boredom and monotony. However, retirement is a big step and many might find it daunting. I must say, I feel fortunate to have been introduced to the Camino and to have had the inclination to write about my experiences. Previously my working life had absorbed me completely and I never developed a hobby or other interests that could have occupied my time and mind.
As regards my working life, I have been fortunate: I have had my successes, have to some extent managed my failures, although, like most of us, I had also some unfortunate experiences and difficulties. In my later years I developed a better sense of fairness, was able to learn lessons and became more aware of the source of my problematic life experiences, some of which I mentioned in this journal. I learnt to appreciate circumstances in a better way and my own contributions became clearer to me.
I had intended to become a ships engineer and for this purpose I first completed an apprenticeship and then had further training in a shipyard in Hamburg where I met my wife. After emigrating to South Africa, my first position was as a mechanical draughtsman. I was soon singled out for special projects and as this department grew, I remained in charge. The technical side was rewarding, but opportunities for further promotion were limited. My second occupation as project manager for a firm that built industrial plants, was not without challenges, but it brought satisfying achievements, which furthered my personal development.
I later purchased a share in an engineering company. Initially the business had more downs than ups, and when times became tough my partner gave up on the venture. I purchased his shares and after a while entered into an alliance with a larger company, which turned out to be technically stimulating but unsatisfactory on a human level. After a few years I abandoned this venture and restarted the original engineering company. Leaving this partnership was financially a disaster, but ultimately it turned out to have been the right step.
Restarting from scratch with only three employees was hard, but during the next thirteen years the company developed into a stable business which I was able to sell on retirement, providing a sound financial foundation. I am thankful for having managed a difficult but successful working life and for being able to retire with joy and satisfaction and no regrets.
I am also thankful for a great family life with Uta, our three children Arno, Kai and Nadja, their partners Suné, Alan, Hugo and our grandchildren Alexander and Isabella. We have been blessed in many ways and Uta and I have learnt to deal with inevitable complexities in a better way. Our children are great; I am proud of them and pleased that they have all succeeded in their private and professional ways. My grandchildren are amazing. At their young age of six and eight, they already speak three languages and know what they want. They will turn out to be great adults.
My wife, despite working as a teacher and later managing her own interior design business, has been very successful in raising our children and providing a stable family environment. Is there such thing as a perfect family? Obviously not, and for my part I know that I have caused hardships.
There are hardly any long-term relationships without complications and complexities. It is the way we handle and resolve them that determines the outcome. The saying that every human being has to take responsibility for his or her own life is relevant. This is irrespective of influences others have on us. We need to accept our own accountability and power, no matter how others may have provoked us. In theory this sounds obvious and straightforward, but consenting to personal responsibility and the way we react or reply when hurt, is no small matter. To fully appreciate what this means, and agreeing that blaming others for the way we experience problematic encounters is the first step. We need to deeply understand reasons and the motives must be heartfelt in order to achieve change. It requires us to step back from familiarity, question our behaviour when we are provoked or perceive provocation, and develop restraint when impatient.
Those who believe in reincarnation suggest that the difficulties encountered in this life are issues not dealt with in our past. They provide the purpose for change in this life, and, if remaining unresolved, any further life cycles. Growth of the human spirit will continue as we move forward and play our collective part. I sincerely hope that we will not regress.
There were times when I have conducted myself wrongly and this has negatively affected others, especially my family. I trust that I also contributed positively. In my personal ledger the balance between the positive and the negative, the ‘good’ and the ‘not so good’ has swung in my favour, which is probably why I can now retire in peace. Perhaps the time to identify whether I have changed enough, and have applied sufficient awareness, will be when I die. Will I then be suitably relaxed so as not to be consumed by regret? As I am sitting here, I have no issues with death. In fact, if reincarnation is a reality, then I am quite willing to try a new venture. But we don’t know – so I will keep on enjoying the present endeavour for as long as it lasts!
I met pilgrims on the road with differing experiences – some pilgrims looked back on their lives with sorrow and regret, which made me realize that I have reason to be grateful.
On the way down from the Cruz de Ferro we passed through El Acebo, which is a somewhat more substantial mountain village. The buildings here are unique, constructed of stone, double-storied and with approximately eighty centimetre deep wooden balconies in places. Sections of the slate roofs continue sloping wherever balconies protrude, forming structures like eagle’s nests attached to façades. The only street leading through the village had a central furrow, so I suspect that heavy rainfall could be expected. When I walked through, the air was heavy with moisture, it still drizzled and the wetness gave the slate roofs a polished shine.
Some of the roofs in the countryside, especially those of farm buildings, are quite unusual. The slate slabs used are large and irregular and the centre ridge is formed by interlacing the slabs from the right with those from the left slope. Interlace your fingers and let them form a roof and you will know what I mean. I wondered how the builders had managed to waterproof the ridges.
I had my favourite chocolate croissant and a café latte in El Acebo. The bar was crowded from all the pilgrims needing a hot cup after this chilly morning and, amazingly, I had caught up with the Italian from Parma again. In the afternoon I finally reached Molinaseca and it was time to stretch out. The río Maruelo flows alongside this quite large village, with its three parallel roads. The Puente de los Peregrinos over the river is fairly long, has six beautiful arches and we could imagine that it was built by the Romans. In fact it is a Romanesque bridge from the 12th century. It amazed me to see that often the arches of these bridges reach almost to the road surface, leaving just the keystone to connect each half and support the paving.
The bugs were still with me and while I fumigated my clothes in a plastic bag I walked through the old and interesting town, bought some provisions and continued with my diary while sitting on some side steps outside the parish church. People, mainly women, entered and left the church through the main entrance and after a while I heard a choir singing. I could not let this pass, as I have previously explained, so I stopped my writing and investigated the source.
It turned out that the choir consisted of just seven members: three males, three females and an energetic leader, a woman who was also singing the solo parts. Their voices perfectly filled the reasonably sized and centuries old stone church. This was probably their practice for Sunday’s mass. I sat in the last pew, quite content with myself and in harmony with the surroundings and the music. It was one of those unexpected moments in life and on the Camino that provide meaning.
During my subsequent walk along the Camino via Podiensis in France ‒ from Le Puy en Valay to St. Jean Pied de Port‒ I made it my task to write a rhyme about pilgrimage and the following is the first part of my endeavour. Other parts will follow as my journal progresses and the complete rhyme is summarised at the end of this journal.
A Pilgrim’s Rhyme
Why should one embark on a pilgrimage, why?
Why should one walk daily, sleep fitfully, why?
Why should a backpack restrain our way?
Why should one cause loved ones dismay?
Is it attention we might desire?
Or sporting achievements we might require?
Maybe indulgence of some unknown sort
Ploughing along like a ship out of port.
Or is it more – we don’t know what,
Maybe it’s a desire to find our God?
Or are we searching for the ultimate ‘I’
The true meaning of Life – but why?
On the Camino desires don’t matter
And unless we are deaf to inner chatter
The potential is great to find words with weight,
Even transformation at a later date.