Winter Camino – Day 11

Day 11  –  Agés  to  Santo Domingo de Silos   (23.7 km)

Snow had fallen during the night in Agés and it was bitterly cold in the morning. We walked past Atapuerca along a quiet tar road and shortly afterwards the Camino path branched off, leading uphill to Alto with the cruceiro. After that it was downhill to the valley with Burgos in the distance.

There were car tracks visible on the snow-covered road and the landscape on either side was white. Later, on the trail to the cruceiro, new snow and wind had obliterated any traces of previous footprints and the path was difficult to identify. Vegetation was sparse and a crooked barbed-wire fence running uphill was partially submerged in snow.

I saw a yellow way-marker at the intersection with the tar road, but after this there was an alarmingly long stretch without any further signs. I was concerned and feared having overlooked a second turn-off. I walked to the next tree in the distance, but still found no sign. I then staggered to a rock further up the hill, still unsuccessfully looking out for a way-marker. I was more and more convinced that I had missed a junction and consequently decided to retrace my steps downhill – only to turn back again and focus on the next group of trees in the distance. Finally, after a lot of doubt, I saw the yellow arrow and was extremely relieved to still be on the right way. I assume that some markers on rocks at ground level had been snowed under.

Cross in the mist

The day was exceptionally bleak. In the morning a dirty grey sky reached right down to within probably no more than 100 m in front and all around me. The white landscape was bright in comparison and in these grey conditions appeared to be the light source for the sky. It looked as if the white snow on the ground hollowed out the greyness, making me feel as if I was walking in a dome. One expects the ground to be dark and the sky to provide the light; here the opposite was certainly the case.

The appearance was quite similar on top of the mountain, but the vegetation broke the grey dome illusion and gave clarity to what was sky and what was earth.

At the entrance to Villaval, the first village on the way to Burgos, we passed a dilapidated church with a collapsed roof. The rear walls were still intact, but the front was partially demolished and the beams of the collapsed structure were pointing upwards in all directions. I found it most astonishing that after centuries of destruction a fairly large brass bell was still hanging in the shell of what had once been the bell tower. I took some photos and just as I was about to leave, Eric appeared around the corner. He had no difficulties finding the way up the mountain; he had just followed my footsteps!

The bell in the tower is faintly visible

As so often during this winter walk, I could not find a shop to buy food. It was about 11 o’clock when I reached the first village and made a dash for the bar – only to find that they had nothing solid to sell. Coffee and the use of the servicio was all that was available. As I was leaving, however, the barman handed me a banana without charging for it, ‒ I must have looked starved and was very thankful. Later on I did find a tortilla in the third village, where I met Eric again, and from there on we walked together to Burgos – through the sprawling industrial outskirts and the just as extensive business and residential suburbs, until we finally arrived in the historic centre.

Earlier on, when passing Atapuerca and prior to the turnoff to the cruceiro, I was close to archaeological excavations where remarkable finds from our ancestors have been uncovered.

In the late 19th century a mining company, while digging a cutting for a railway line, had found human fossil deposits. Since 1978 the sites have been surveyed and archaeologists suggest that humans lived in these regions from 20,000 to 800,000 years ago and that Atapuerca might harbour the most significant finds of our ancient human past in Europe.

The prelude to our becoming humans – the initial branching off from our gorilla cousins when tentative signs of walking on two legs (bipedal behaviour) took place, started as early as six to seven million years ago. The first fossils that definitely confirmed this change in posture were found in Ethiopia and date back four million years.

Homo Habilis, around 2.3 to 1.4 million years ago, certainly had the genus Homo (our genus) as well as a brain with a volume of 600 cc– up from 450cc in apes. Apart from climbing trees with their long arms and strong upper bodies, they also developed the ability to walk semi-upright. The changes were in line with Darwin’s theory; it was an evolutionary change, a slow transformation, probably precipitated by the need to adapt to new environmental conditions ‒ or to perish.

Eventually our ancestors roamed the savannahs rather than swinging in trees. Their arms became shorter and chests and shoulders less muscular. Legs on the other hand grew longer, thighbones extended and muscle mass increased in order to cater for the additional forces required to articulate the elongated bones. Knee structures changed; joints became larger and more rigid to cater for the new conditions towards which upright man progressed.

When a few hundred thousand years later Homo erectus emerged, bodies converted in a more elegant way: thighbones angled inwards and knees and feet aligned with each other. Head, torso and legs became arranged in a vertical line. The centre of gravity dropped and the pelvis rotated forward, forming some sort of a bowl in which our guts, rather than being suspended loosely in front of our body and held together by muscles and skin, were securely carried.

Our posture grew fully upright, the sideways waddle of previous ancestors straightened out and our strides became longer. In reality these changes that formed the human body were seamless and gradual. It was not that Habilis did the one thing and Erectus, who was around for about 1.5 or so million years, did the next.

Once the upright posture was established and became the norm, our ancestors were better able to see over the high grass of the savannah and detect and hunt animals that provided protein for further growth and strength. Our living horizon extended and stimulated our brains, which enlarged and became more useful, albeit also more problematic, as demonstrated in this book.

Unfortunately, as a result of our pelvis twisting forward, other unforeseen circumstances arose. In order to develop a neat and tidy figure and to keep our legs together, (important for photo shoots,) the ilium and pubis bones moved closer together and in the process the birth canal narrowed. Furthermore, and especially since the Neanderthal period, which might have started as early as six hundred thousand years ago, our brain size grew substantially and so did the size of our babies’ heads, which further affected giving birth.

Whereas other primates with less sophisticated and smaller brains have no trouble delivering their offspring, the larger head of humans and the smaller birth canal resulted in our babies’ delivery being extremely laborious and painful.

Mammals, other than humans, have reached their full brain capacity almost at birth and can fulfil most survival functions right from the start. As a result the offspring of many species are mobile straight after delivery. They are able to stagger to their feet and without much difficulty find their food source.

If this was the criteria for human babies, they would have to possess a more intricately developed brain before birth, which in turn would require more skull space – too large for the new pelvis configuration. Nature solved this problem in a most ingenious way. By reducing the incubation period of our babies in the womb to nine months, the size of the head is still small enough and giving birth is possible, albeit with pain. However, because of the reduced incubation time, our babies are helpless after birth and need to be intensively cared for and looked after for another two years and more. This is where fathers are increasingly roped in to lend a hand!

It would take a gestation period of about twenty-one months for human babies to more or less manage on their own, like other new-born mammals do. Parents would, as a result, have more sleep during their babies’ first year on earth – but, over and above making the lives of mothers extremely difficult during the extended gestation period, it would require far wider hips and other changes to women’s body structure – so much for human development, with some indication of the way evolution functions.

Returning to Atapuerca and human development, there were many sub-branches in the long line of species that culminated in the Homo sapiens. Although now extinct, they nevertheless contributed to our present state. For those interested, herewith a mention of some ancestral subspecies that were influential:

Homo erectus, the upright man, lived between 1.8 million and 300 thousand years ago and its members migrated from Africa into the Middle East and beyond. They left no traces other than bones. Homo Heidelbergensis migrated from Africa to Asia only 600 000 years ago and spread from there to Europe. A branch of the Homo Heidelbergensis in Europe developed into what we term as the Homo Neanderthal. All these became extinct at some stage but during their existence their brain size increased from 900cc to a volume of 1400cc – the average size of our brain today.

We belong to the branch Homo sapiens sapiens, a designation attributed to the human development over approximately the last 40 000 years. The designation Homo sapiens is attributed to our forefathers which were cousins of the Homo Heidelbergensis family which remained in Africa after the first trek out of Africa around 600 000 years ago. The earliest fossils credited to Homo sapiens, found in Ethiopia, are around 200 000 years old and their migration from Africa to the Middle East and beyond appeared to have taken place as late as 70 000 years ago. Only about 43 000 years ago this branch colonized Europe and formed our early society.

Climatologists established that the last ice age commenced around two and a half million years ago. It was not a linear increase, followed by a final melting period. There were periods of greater and lesser accumulation of ice over this time.  The last peaking and final meltdown in the northern hemisphere and Europe took place around 23 000 years ago. Today we can find look-alikes of this ice age at the North and South Poles and on high mountain regions. In those days the Atapuerca caves in Spain were close to the southern edge of the icecap and temperatures must have been considerably lower than those I experienced on my walk. This was about the time when the Neanderthals became extinct and, although the harsh climate conditions greatly weakened the population, it was probably the Homo sapiens group that was better able to ‘weather’ the climate and outlive the Neanderthals. On the other hand, they may have developed better weapons and forced their way to dominance, eradicating or maybe absorbing the Neanderthals through marriage.

As recently as around ten thousand years ago farming practices and domestication of animals commenced in the region of Turkey and Iraq. This coincided more or less with the final melting of the ice cap and when we consider that larger human settlements followed around 7000 years ago, we realize that the modern Human has existed for only a very short time. With civilisation being so young, it is no wonder that we are still inexperienced in the use of our brain and matters of life, we still have a lot to learn.

I wonder at what time our brain had sufficiently developed for us to recognize our ‘nakedness’. Did it start with Homo erectus or Homo Heidelbergensis or did it develop only with Homo sapiens? It appears that ever since then we have played the role of the sophisticated Adam and Eve with its related side effects, complications and economic benefits for some. Incidentally, it is said that the fall of Adam and Eve from paradise dates back to around 4000 BC – 6000 years ago, more or less the time when greater societies formed. Maybe a conscious recognition of nakedness commenced then?

I would have liked to see the diggings and the museum in Atapuerca, but this would have meant staying overnight, which I had not planned to do. Eric and my arrival in the centre of historic Burgos was accompanied by rain and Eric immediately made a dash for the albergue. I intended to see and hear the Benedictine monks singing Gregorian chants in a cloister nearby and went to the tourist office close to the cathedral. The attendant proposed taking the bus at 17h30 to Santo Domingo de Silos, 60 km south of Burgos. She confirmed that I would reach the Monastery in time for the Vespers at 19h00.

Listening to chanting was on my list of must do’s, so I deposited my backpack at the bus station and walked around Burgos for a good two hours in the rain. I visited Spain’s ‘finest Gothic Cathedral’, which was impressive, especially from the outside – but I preferred the interior of the cathedral in Leon, which is still my favourite on this venture.

Burgos and the surrounding region share a long and turbulent history. As excavations in Atapuerca confirm, about 800,000 years ago human existence might have commenced here. Much later and leading into our own era, this part of Spain was occupied by various Iberian tribes, including stone-age tribes, Celts, Carthaginians and Romans. The latter occupied the peninsula from about 200 BC. The Visigoths followed from AD 450, and Moors from around AD 715, although they never really established themselves fully in these northern regions of Castile like they did in the South of Spain, where they remained to the 15th century.   In the north they were weakened by Alphonso III, King of Leon, in as early as the mid-ninth century.

This was about the time that history had left some visible marks in Burgos; it was also the period when the first pilgrims passed through here on their journey to Santiago.

As Muslim armies were defeated and had to retreat, Alphonso and successive Spanish kings built castles to fortify the new southern frontiers.  This is why the region is called ‘Castile’.

During the 11th century Burgos became the capital of the Kingdom of Castile and the seat of catholic bishops. As a result, many monasteries were established and I would have liked to see more of them if time had allowed.

Burgos Cathedral in the rain.

Before boarding the bus to the chanting monks in Santo Domingo de Silos I searched for provisions, but even this late in the day stores were still closed and I had to make do with some pastries, which I ate on the journey. On arrival I found bed and breakfast accommodation above a bar where later I had a hefty dinner after returning from the church service. Looking forward to the vespers, I made my way to the monastery just in time for the start at 19h00.

On commencement of the vespers, about thirty monks entered from the far end of the apse and walked two abreast towards the congregation. As they reached their benches in the choir, they bowed to each other and turned to seat themselves one by one in the left and right-hand stalls.

The vespers consisted mainly of chanting in a medieval style, similar to ‘Gregorian’ singing, interspersed by occasional solo singing as well as a short sermon from the pulpit. Prayers, psalms, praises to God are intoned with a few musical notes that are continually repeated in a monotonous fashion. The ‘singing’ is expressed in an extremely soft tone, a rhythmic mumbling is probably the best description. Monks mumbled mostly when seated, at other times they were standing and occasionally they simultaneously bent forward by 90° from the hips, chanting in this unusual position for quite some time – facing the floor. The subdued singing was accompanied by an organ that provided a barely audible, deeply vibrating and soft bass. Obviously it is not the ‘music’ that provides the meaning of the vespers; the words are important, the chanting merely is a foundation for their spiritual expressions – probably creating a meditation-like undertone.

Once I realized that Gregorian chants as heard on compact discs, which are often recorded by these very same monks, differ from those intoned during the vespers, I adjusted to the occasion. My senses were sharpened and I directed all my attention to the deep male droning and repetitiveness.

Certain members of the congregation, numbering only about twenty, were familiar with the proceedings and followed the movements of the monks to some degree. They were probably also experiencing a deeper relaxation, more than I did. I was only able to glimpse this state: my mind was unable to hold and maintain the inner stillness and unconditional surrender of self that the monks probably felt. However, this vespers experience caused the frog in my throat to be active again – there must be some reason for this. He is active under certain conditions and not under others – I find this interesting. Not that it matters; as long as I am alone, no one else is affected. Often there is only one hiccup, sometimes there are several. They are always followed by stomach muscles cramping ‒ fading as the body manages to restrain the frog. As a result he disappears and leaves me in peace again.

The monastery, the origin of which dates back to the 7th century, is part of the Benedictine Order and all its members wear the traditional brown, one-piece habit with a hood on its back. Most have a ‘rope’ around their waist.

Santo Domingo de Silos ‒ after vespers in the rain.

At the end of the Vespers the monks stood up, again bowed to each other and proceeded in pairs along the centre isle of the nave while still chanting. They passed close to me and I was surprised to see so many young faces amongst them. What struck me also was that all of them had kind expressions; some had wonderful glowing faces, open, friendly, and with a hint of a smile. They held their heads high, portraying confidence and a sense of authority. I now felt guilty for having previously expressed cynical remarks about religion and monasteries and I should apologize for this. Probably most monasteries were and still are occupied by genuinely dedicated monks who serve God and are beneficial to their communities. Many are likely to be conscious people who add greatly to the overall consciousness level of humanity.

I was pleased to have made this detour: it was a retreat into another world – back to a more spiritual time. It showed that there are still places of reverence with sincere people and with traditions that compensate for the hectic life of the modern world.

The vibes I experienced as the brethren passed by made me ponder whether their mode of life gave them certain advantages. Maybe monks are able to better understand what is right and what is wrong. Instead of fighting for one’s position in society, being aggressive and dominating to achieve one’s goals, their sheltered life offers tranquillity, probably leading to awareness, forgiveness and reverence. Surely they have, for instance, the ability to apologize and be grateful.

However, they are human like we all are and, perhaps as a result of their sheltered conditions, they are less challenged by everyday existence with its emotional complexities. Does this mean that by being not, or less, challenged, they have fewer opportunities to advance and raise their level of mindfulness even further? Or is the mere fact that they are monks proof enough that they are at an advanced stage already?

Faith has been the backbone of cultures for millennia. Religion, the church and church practices, if we can embrace them, provide a powerful media through which our spirit can be raised. Faith probably gives a person profound advantages and, if based on integrity, love and tolerance, faith serves humanity. But maybe life with all its complexities is still the best teacher of mindfulness and awareness, certainly it is the only tool for the ordinary person if faith is absent.

Life outside monasteries is probably far more complex and gratitude and pardon, which I described after climbing Alto del Perdón, are most essential and helpful. Apology, which belongs to this group, is also vital. This seemingly innocent word is probably underrated and should by rights be written in CAPITAL letters.

APOLOGY – the need for an APOLOGY, to be able to APOLOGIZE, to

hear an APOLOGY, to accept an APOLOGY – this is crucial in all spheres of life and once more I suggest that it would be good if it were part of a school curriculum.

The ability to apologize and make things right appears to be hard for us humans and if an apology is sought and necessary, we often feel vulnerable, maybe afraid of losing face in the process.

I have mentioned the benefit of relaxation and not being able to apologize always creates tension and anxiety. Our resistance to admitting that we are at fault when we have said or done something that warrants an apology, makes both parties feel tense. If no apology from the guilty party is forthcoming, the situation becomes worse and everyone involved is on edge. The effect is like a gray dome hanging over all present. The dome lacks ventilation and the air becomes stuffy – even toxic.

If an apology is appropriate, the ‘guilty’ party needs to accept that he or she is in the wrong. This might be more complicated than expected: often it is a question of when is a wrong so clear and unambiguous that we feel free to apologize.  On closer scrutiny it could emerge that whatever is seen as ‘wrong’ could be only partially wrong or it could be a sentiment of the other that makes us appear to have transgressed boundaries, when in reality we have not.

How do we determine the severity of a ‘wrongdoing’? How do we know when a fine line might have been crossed and an apology is warranted? Serious and obvious wrongdoings, such as lying, stealing, deceiving and adultery are self-evident and the need for an apology is quite obvious. However, in more subtle matters the line is crossed when one person has the notion to feel violated, even if the other is unaware of having caused this and might wonder about the sudden palpable tension. Hyper-sensitivity plays a role here. If we do not tense up and insist on an apology when ‘wronged’, the incident probably does not affect us in any dramatic way. We do not expect an apology and stay emotionally detached – even if we disapprove of what was said or done. If the situation does not ruffle our feathers, make us tense, or raise negative emotions, it has done no harm. This illustrates that the necessity to demand an apology depends solely on the aggrieved party. It determines the threshold of when to expect an apology from the other. There is no yardstick or formula by which we can accurately identify the need: it will be based on our emotional state at the time.

Whatever satisfies the ‘aggrieved’ person is also a matter of conjecture: the saying, ‘how long is a piece of string’ applies. It is a question of satisfying emotions – and they may have no boundaries. To offer a general apology might not suffice and a verbal verification of one’s transgressions could be necessary. This may be quite complex, and an apology offered while being distracted or not sincere will fail to make the grade. Sentiments on these lines are again far more pronounced in a loving relationship where every word is weighed more carefully. Also, in this case we cannot walk away from events, tension needs to be dissolved and the longer the unpleasant state continues the more difficult the resolve. This may build up until it becomes imperative for both parties to end the impasse. A way of apologizing and a way of accepting an apology has to be found so that a peaceful state is re-established.

To calm sentiments, the alleged offender has to find a way to provide reassurance, even if he feels that he is only partially or not at all to blame. For the ‘guilty’ party, searching for an appropriate way to apologise may create further tension and stress. However, if we are honest and are able to clearly identify our negative involvement, we should offer an appropriate apology. If this is seen to be sufficient, all is well, if not, healing time might have to pass before frank and honest analysis is possible.

What happens when we are wrongfully accused? This I leave to the reader to resolve – – maybe we should be respectful and sympathetic to the other’s feelings, maybe offer a sincere and heartfelt explanation of the facts as we see them, or plainly listen with sympathy to the other persons views – lending an ear.

Life revolves around apology, forgiveness, gratitude, honesty, respect, tolerance, compassion and love. Are these the major tools to keep relationships on track? I maintain they are the foundation, ingredients and lubricants of a loving relationship and a harmonious life together. These powerful contributors are also what make up integrity; integrity leads to our being grounded, and to confidence – and having confidence leads to relaxation and greater freedom from tension.

Clearly the subject of apology is multifaceted and I am not convinced that our schools could teach it effectively. We probably would need advanced lessons in life as well as a level of maturity to fully comprehend this important topic.

I find the many experiences and incidences on the Camino most fascinating. Both inspire us and hopefully will influence us for long, maybe for eternity. Being stimulated during the Camino walk and, in my case, writing a journal, makes this pilgrimage unforgettable and significant, even without having had a compelling reason to embark on the adventure in the first place.

My encounters of the chanting monks in the monastery in Santo Domingo de Silos were profound, and observing the open and radiant faces of the friars with their friendly demeanour made me realize how peaceful a life of integrity and benevolence can be. It was as if the monks’ inner relaxation was displayed in their expressions, demonstrating that integrity and peace are related and that one cannot be truly relaxed without being centred, having confidence and being ethical.

Dishonesty will always create tension. In this state we search for defensive excuses, hide reality, pursue questionable goals and probably act in a way bullies do. Having a high level of integrity automatically precludes dishonesty and once this level of truth and awareness is achieved, it is ingrained and cannot be dismissed without the feeling that one has violated both oneself and society.

I previously mentioned the extraordinary benefits we enjoy when we first fall in love. Is there a difference between all-embracing human awareness and ‘awareness’ between loving couples? Awareness as experienced between loving couples is purely the flow of attention between two people. This phase, in a healthy relationship, is dominated by enormous goodwill and tolerance and we embrace similarities as well as differences. In fact, differences attract us and are fascinating. The saying ‘love is blind’ applies and if we fail in one way or the other, we are easily forgiven.

This form of awareness on the surface might appear to be just as real as the greater and all-embracing awareness I have been talking about in this book, although it is assigned to the bonding stage of pairing and lacks the all-inclusiveness necessary to bind humanity.

At times my mind sees pictures like the one that follows: the reader might know the plant named ponytail. It has a bulb-shaped base, not dissimilar to a huge onion growing above the soil. Out of the bulb rises a slender stem, about forty centimetre high, and this stem splits into many thin strands that gracefully arch around the bulb – somewhat similar to a ponytail. To me this plant looks harmonious and graceful and I visualise two side by side, representing a loving couple. The tragedy is that parasites or worms sometimes enter a bulb. The rot sets in, spreads, and strands kink. Translated to a human couple, any positive measure of awareness experienced with all its attributes diminishes. The couple grows rigid and grace towards one another, which was previously so rewarding to observe, is lost. The ponytail plant will be rooted out but humans, providing love is still present, can rebuild mindfulness, elevate the benefits of its magic and all that goes with it. The strands will once more arch gracefully.

Through change and with awareness we will understand that it is within us not to be hurt when others trample on us. We will also find that our metamorphosis inevitably relaxes those around us. We will promote tolerance and understanding, not hinder it by taking offence. Having the need to protect ourselves when attacked, even when we ourselves are in the wrong, diminishes. We will recognize the bigger picture and the truth it conveys.

Describing bonding awareness between new couples, and portraying a rather gloomy picture of marriage and partnership is not what lovers want to hear. Nevertheless, relationship change over time is normal and, as previously explained, can be healthy and stimulating. To complete my picture; in a good marriage the bonding phase is followed by the commitment stage with the presence of deep-rooted and mature love.  It is on this solid foundation that we master confusion and conflict.

Assuming that most of us have experienced love between sexes, we may conclude that we know what awareness in relation to one another is all about. When we now talk about love that embraces humanity – goodwill to one’s neighbour and respect for oneself – we can connect to past experiences. Remembering those early days might make us search for a similar state of contentment in general life. If we succeed, this all-embracing happiness will be far more enduring than romantic happiness is for most.

My reflective writings have concentrated predominantly on problematic or negative emotions, and this might give the impression that there is no good around and that life is just a slog. The reason for my concentration on negative subjects is quite simple; the good is good and does not need further attention, other than plenty of gratitude. What is good does not create any anxieties and consequently does not disturb us. I confirm wholeheartedly that there is a wealth of good around and I am very thankful for this. Without it, the world would be in a devastatingly tragic state.

Yesterday evening the bus to Santo Domingo del Silos was nearly devoid of passengers: one woman and I were the only commuters from Burgos, another person joined us later. The driver took the direct route along the highway and bypassed most villages. The whole journey took less than one hour. In comparison, the same bus returning to Burgos the next morning was quite full, and we stopped at every settlement on the way. This made the journey far longer.

As the doors opened for me to board the bus, a wall of words gushed out and a male passenger sitting behind the driver jumped up from his seat. I thought he was disembarking but he was just emphasizing a point to his passenger audience. This was repeated many times during the journey until he finally left us in another small and interesting village.

Spain is full of old rural communities and the local folk in these northern regions seem to be ideally suited inhabitants. Almost everyone appears to be short and lean in statue, often with weathered faces and podgy hands and men are perhaps a little stockier than the women. Being close to the Basque region, they probably descended from Basques centuries ago, although nowadays this part of Spain does no longer belong to the Basque province. Nevertheless, they have the fire that characterises the Basques and have no inhibitions expressing themselves. The folk around here are bold, fearless and full of character

Posted in Chapter, Winter Walk permalink

About Dieter Daehnke

Born in 1941 in Gdansk, Poland. In March 1945 the family fled the Russian army. Met my wife Uta in Hamburg and as she is South African, I followed her home. We live in Cape Town, have 3 children, and 2 wonderful grandchildren. I established an Engineering company and since its sale, I enjoy walking Caminos. I have recently completed my book 'Journey of a Stickman'.

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