Day 10 – Belorado to Ages (27.7 km)
The town of Belorado did not appeal to me as most others did; it was old but lacked charm and atmosphere and the name had no ring to it. For a short while I attended evening mass but then crashed early into bed. The next day I was eager to reach Villafranca Montes de Oca (Hills of Geese) – the name of this town fascinated me and I looked forward to climbing the chain of hills that followed. Knowing that I was nearing Burgos probably gave me extra energy. Snow still fell heavily and the temperature was well below zero. Early on I had seen an old and rusty thermometer next to an entrance door. According to its mercury, we walked in – 5 degree Celsius.
Yesterday was Sunday and all shops in Belorado were closed, so my chief priority was finding food for the day. The first place I stumbled into was at the outskirts of Villafranca, twelve kilometres past Belorado. The shop was a dark dungeon with an old woman grumbling from a back corner. Somehow my hair stood up; I felt distinctly uncomfortable and immediately walked out again, mumbling excuses. I have no idea what made me so jittery: a spooky atmosphere does not normally bother me.
In general, shops in these regions are small and full, with hardly any space to walk through and this does not really matter except that the backpack hinders progress. This shop, however, was everything but inviting. Maybe it was the vibe of the old woman in the dark corner that gave me the shivers. I continued and before I knew it I had left the church behind, passed a fountain with icicles around its basin and walked up to Alto Mojapán. It was a short but steep climb after which the path continued ascending over Alto Pedraja and Alto Carnero with river valleys in between.
On the way from Villafranca to St Juan de Ortega I had what was likely the most beautiful walk of this entire journey – through winter scenery. Never before had I experienced such a fairytale landscape: the path was winding through forests alternating with tall shrubs. Snow had powdered everything and weighed down the branches. It was extremely quiet and peaceful; the air was still and sounds were muffled. Every now and then I could hear the cracking of a dead branch collapsing under its added weight. Otherwise there was no sound other than the compacting crunch of snow underfoot.
The descent from Alto Mojapán led quite steeply down to the River Peroja and in the distance a path up the densely wooded Alto Pedraja was intermittently visible as a white stripe snaking along until finally disappearing over the crest.
Tree branches laden with snow
The quietness I had been subjected to in the snow-covered landscape was actually not quiet at all: it is amazing how loud silence and peace can be! Being alone in nature, surrounded by stillness, may make one hyper-alert and vigilant, almost as if expecting something to happen. Quietness is so unusual in our hectic daily lives that one has to get used to this peace before one can relax.
When last have I sensed a silence like this? I cannot remember. To my ears it seemed still in this forest, no vibrations entered them and that was peaceful. The brain, however, spun yarns, was hearing spooks where there were none. It experienced a change of conditions and could not handle this, searching actively for familiarity. My brain seemingly created all sorts of mind-games ‒ such as there being a bogeyman around the corner, or ‘what if a branch fell on my head’, or ‘surely there must be others around, I cannot be as alone as it appears to me, I cannot be in such an empty space’.
A quiet fairy-tale landscape
I don’t think my brain actually had those impressions, I have described them to dramatize the stillness and my hypersensitivity. The mind is fickle and I cannot record the true thoughts that had surfaced. I do recall the motionless atmosphere and a definite measure of disquiet that went with it. I had to adjust to the stillness and my gray matter had to deal with this new sensation.
Any unfamiliar circumstances may entail changes which could challenge us – even if they would ultimately transform us and be for our own good. In this instance change to these lonely conditions represented peace versus constant noise and unrest that generally surround us. – -Implementing change also requires compelling reasons. If we cannot identify any benefits, there is no incentive to change.
Finding this quietness in the snow unfamiliar, and having to adjust to it, was similar to changes we come across in our daily lives to which we need to adapt if we want to move forward. These challenges may also throw us off guard and generate conflict. With change we enter unfamiliar territory in which anxiety, suspicion and resentfulness could be raised and loss of confidence may be caused. On a grand scale – changes necessary to advance humanity, for instance adapting to a more open lifestyle, might challenge old beliefs and practices. Liberation of women in some parts of the world, changing their status, providing access to education, freedom of movement and speech, for example, are necessary out of many reasons. Present practices can be destructive, especially if advancements are restricted out of self-interest. Not that improvements in west societies are always beneficial, many are not, as we can clearly see in our ‘modern’ society.
We will never voluntarily take the plunge and alter what is familiar to us unless we recognize and accept the advantages thereby gained. We have to believe that change is for the better and will bring about improvements. Obviously, forced changes follow a rather different pattern and seldom lead to improvements.
The change I refer to does not concern our material possessions and circumstances, I refer to changes of our state of mind and our emotions. They form the basis of our personality and shape interaction with others.
What we perceive represents reality to us. We might feel at ease with our disposition and if the wheels come off the cart despite this, we may blame others as we cannot recognize the part we play. Maybe it is painful to acknowledge our own negative involvement – we prefer not to look into the proverbial mirror and see the need for transformation.
Frustration and other consequences of problematic communication influence us and the reaction when our space is invaded and we are attacked is indicative of our mind-set. Maybe with change we gain a certain degree of understanding and compassion, if not, our negative perceptions can give rise to resentment and anger.
Although we would not purposely harm ourselves when problematic behaviour of others distresses us, it is nevertheless like giving the consent to be hurt. If we are unable to filter attacks or reprimands appropriately, attach undeserved significance where none is necessary and allow this to throw us off guard, we are likely to respond aggressively, or we are dismayed. In both cases we add to the pain and feel rejected.
When acting in a defensive way, it may indicate that we are vulnerable to the emotions and complexities of others. Maybe painful memories cause this and the ‘opponent’, no doubt, has his own reasons for his negative behaviour. Emotionally responding to altercations that lack reason constitutes the equivalent of inviting injury. Less stressful emotional involvement and more mindfulness may allow us to avoid harmful scenarios and hurt.
A Pilgrim’s Rhyme
Maybe it is like hearing a sound
An organ playing with great abound.
Registers pulled, great sounds arising,
Powerful, mighty, really surprising,
And then when almost hard to bear
The organs’ soft, sweet tones are there.
Inspiring sounds make us reflect,
Mind and spirit can re-connect.
It is through this that we reach our goal:
Restraints are freed – as is the soul.
If we cannot find total perfection,
Our gain should still be better perception.
It is this we need to maintain
So that we feel joy and not the pain.
To perceive the way we need to walk,
To know the value of honest talk,
To feel the truth in yourself and others
Will give peace of mind to you and your brothers.
Back to the Camino and my beautiful winter walk between Villafranca and St Juan de Ortego: Mount Carnero, the third and final hill after Villafranca, was less special and at its summit we had to traverse a long and wide clearing which forestry vehicles had left totally rutted. Walking became uncomfortable and strenuous, but fortunately the ground was frozen. Nevertheless, at one point I broke through snow-covered ice and water seeped into my boots.
After descending Alto Carnero, I reached the historic village of St Juan de Ortega where interesting events have been recorded. St Juan was a disciple of Santo Domingo, following in his footsteps by building infrastructure and serving pilgrims on the way to Santiago. The mountains and valleys which we had now left behind were inhospitable in earlier times and presented perfect hiding places for robbers and other undesirables. This may have been one of the reasons why San Juan in 1150 founded an Augustine Monastery.
Next to the monastery he built a Romanesque church with a unique feature. At each equinox the rays of the setting sun fall onto the Virgin Mary in the scene of the annunciation and it is believed that through this, and with the help of San Juan’s spirit, fertility can be miraculously restored.
According to legend, Queen Isabella of Castile visited this church in 1477. She prayed to the Virgin Mary and San Juan for relief of her infertility. Her wish was granted and she conceived a child. She was grateful and subsequently enhanced the church, and this is what we see today.
By now I was hungry and in a bar close by I ordered scrambled eggs, jam on toast and obviously the obligatory café grande con leche. It was not long before Noelia arrived and ordered a baguette and café. She was the first pilgrim I saw since leaving the albergue in Belorado, which means that for hours there had been no distractions. During winter the albergue in San Juan was closed and so the next available accommodation was 3.6 km further on in the small village named Agés. A fire in an open fireplace ‘thawed’ us before we pressed on.
The hostel in Agés is housed in an old stone building which was recently renovated in a most luxurious way. The rooms were small, had only three double bunks, and a separate modern bathroom.
Apart from the albergue, the proprietors also owned a public bar where they offered laundry facilities. The bar was some distance from the albergue and when the few clothes you have are being washed and tumble dried, crossing about 200 m between the albergue and the bar while wearing the minimum in freezing conditions is a challenge and not recommended!
In the evening the friendly proprietors prepared a wonderful dinner for the seven of us: Noelia, Xavi (who joined our small group in Logroño), a German-speaking pilgrim from Slovenia who we had not seen before, two cyclists from Argentina and Spain and Eric who had been ahead of us ever since Santo Domingo and whom we had now caught up with unexpectedly.
In my previous references to Islam I probably portrayed a rather one-sided, maybe even a too favourable picture which I need to clarify and balance with some further notes:
Nowadays we hear at length of terror and cruelty perpetrated by some Islamic sectarians. As so often in history, splinter groups, disregarding conventional decency and following a radical agenda create havoc with their unconventional ideologies and lawless behaviour. They distract from the good and overshadow common morality. Westerners are also baffled by the way women are treated by men in Arabia and elsewhere, which proves the enormous ideological gap is still present.
Islam, as practiced by Muhammad, was far more liberal than what we see on world news today. He was monogamously married to his first wife Khadija for 25 years and only after her death did he accept multiple wives. This was the practice throughout the Arab world, even before Islam emerged. Maybe this stemmed from a social necessity to take care of widows when husbands perished in battles and raids, which were numerous for centuries.
Muhammad was also aware of women’s strengths in society and valued their opinion and advice. In his ‘parliamentary’ gatherings in Medina he did not only consult men, he also respected women’s views, which were taken into account in political and tribal decision-making.
Apart from being Muhammad the democrat, he was also a formidable military leader. Life was harsh and unpredictable and lacked conveniences we enjoy these days. Without modern transport facilities the radius of influence at that time was restricted to what was manageable by foot or with camels.
Preservation of territories and food supplies was vital within this radius and so was the defending of families, clan honours and religious persuasions. Water supply, the safety of trade routes and economic and political alliances also needed protection – it was a tough world, very different to our western life today.
Every tribe had its militant components and justifications, and fighting was an inevitable way of life. Mohammad the military leader excelled in protecting his people – which made him extraordinary and highly respected.
Cowards, as referred to in the Quran, were a hindrance, everyone had a duty to the common cause. A pertinent requirement of the Islamic faith is that fighting for Allah is a holy duty and that those not willing ‘stand in the path of God’. Verses 9:38-9 of the Quran read, for instance:
‘O believers! What is the matter with you that when it is said to you, ‘March out in the path of God’ you are weighed down to the ground. Are you satisfied with the life of this world to the hereafter? The enjoyment of the life of this world is but little compared with life of the hereafter. If you do not march forth, He will afflict you with a painful punishment, and will substitute another people instead of you. You cannot harm Him at all, but God has power over everything.’
These sentiments are still present and are vigorously enforced by radical fundamentalists.
What distinguished Muhammad from others, however, was that, after defeating enemies, he was somewhat tolerant. Whenever he besieged Arabic pagan settlements or Christian and Jewish communities, he fully pardoned those that converted to Islam, irrespective of their previous hostilities against his cause or his persona. Christians and Jews who were not willing to convert to Islam were pardoned because of their affiliation to the same monotheistic God, although they needed to consent to paying double taxes, which many did. Any revolt, however, was brought down with brutal force. Arab pagans not wanting to convert were treated harshly.
Prior to Islamic expansion, Christianity in the eastern regions of the Byzantine Empire stretched from present day Iran to Iraq, the Levant, Syria, Egypt and northern Africa. It was in these regions that the doctrine of the Trinity as adopted by the Nicene Creed was rejected. The eastern churches probably had a far closer affiliation to the Old Testament, to Jews and the Hebraic faith and could not concur with the extended principals of the new ‘monotheistic God’. This resulted in extensive harassment and persecution from the western Roman Catholic Church, so much so that for followers of eastern Christian churches life became unbearable.
Leniency and freedom of worship offered by Islam rulers provided a welcome alternative. It was the harshness of the Byzantine rulers compared to relative Muslim tolerance that contributed to the somewhat painless and rapid Islamic progress. My involvement with Muslims in Cape Town, where they form a fairly large and vibrant Islamic community, leaves me to be sympathetic to their ways. My experiences with them at the workplace and in daily interactions is one of tolerance and co-operation. I fully respect their humility and find them trustworthy and generous. One has to distinguish between those practicing the Islam of Mohammad with its tolerance, and the radical and extreme fundamentalists that disregard the eternal blueprint of peace and cause severe misery. Religious extremism in any faith has proven to be most dangerous, it has never fostered harmony, only pain and suffering.
The Islamic society is probably just as wary of Christianity as Christianity is about Islam. Many Muslims regard western governments and their people as arrogant, lacking trustworthiness and being politically and economically opportunistic; not averse to using brute military force in pursuit of their goals.
Promoting humanitarian principles and democratic values in the Islamic world requires more sensitive dialogue and patience. Significant social changes would surely follow a similar path to what I suggest for individuals – the need to be convinced of resulting benefits – otherwise why change? Overthrowing governments, even a dictatorship, without having an understanding of complexities and dynamics involved and without a workable plan to contain consequences and promote beneficial humanitarian and economic recovery, serves no purpose. As it now becomes clear to many, it only strengthens the radical and militant component of Islam and dialogue with radical sectarian groups is far more complex.
Are our western ideological and commercial exports really desirable? Some probably are, but others may be questionable. Recent technological, economic and their resulting social changes surely need to be assessed over a longer period to determine their efficacy.
We do not know how modernity with all its gadgets and possibilities will play itself out. The western diet as well as fast foods and soft drinks are hardly humanitarian exports, they are financial exploits like many others, some of which have vast and costly effects on societies and on matters of health. The drugs offered to counteract unhealthy lifestyles greatly add to physical and mental dysfunction, and increase related financial burdens.
No doubt it is correct to say that some changes in western societies are of value to parts of the world. Especially the integration of genders has come a long way and so has greater tolerance to religious viewpoints and democratic diversities. Establishing a substantial middleclass with its improved economic opportunities, although not yet completed, is an advancement. But even if we assume that overall our outlook is the ‘winning formula’, we need to be circumspect. What is the good if promoting change backfires to more chaos and resentment?
The threat from Islamic rogues and their ideology, dating back centuries, has sharply increased. The original meaning of the word jihad in Islamic terms was ‘to struggle in the way of Allah’ – similar to spiritual struggle – which was in line with Muhammad’s sentiment. Voices in the 14th century already advocated that the meaning also referred to ‘warfare in God’s name’ and this is what the stern Wahhabi Islamic sect of today, with footholds in Saudi Arabia, advocates and practises. Maybe these sentiments have their origin in reprehensible conduct displayed by Christians during the crusades ending at the end of the 13h century.
In the early 20th century Britain and France defeated the Islamic Ottoman Empire and more indiscriminately than logically cut up the Middle East into the countries as we know them today. This and the arbitrary creation of Israel in 1947 has caused a great many negative sentiments which still have a worldwide effect. We do not need to go back far in history; recent invasions have caused and still cause untold misery and have strengthened the conviction of radicals. What is the good of converting others to what the West believes is a more suitable faith and a more appropriate way of governing if in the process we make enemies and unleash chaos?
Whereas previously animosity occurred predominantly between Islamic factions, the Wahhabis now target ‘infidels’ far more vigorously. Also, Muslims interpreting the Quran and the Sunna more liberally are no less a target and strife between Shi’ite and Sunnis continues unabated. In 1924 Islam lost the head of their religious structure, the Caliph in Istanbul, who could be compared to the Christian Pope in Rome. Maybe Islam is now rudderless?
Radical Muslims today display a conviction of righteousness in their non- conventional and brutal attacks, and, apart from demonstrating their anger against the West, they prevent Islamic countries from settling into their own ‘democracy’ as seems to be demanded by the majority of its people. It appears that radical behaviour will remain with us until greater awareness is reached. On the other hand, generally speaking, friendliness, tolerance, goodwill and humble restraint displayed by the ordinary Muslims is inspiring. Maybe Francis, the new Pope, can build bridges and neutralise sentiments.