The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One 1930s fishing boat, six wandering souls and lots of semi useful frippery

Let me introduce you to Lista Light. She's a 55ft broad old girl with 7 magnificent red and white sails when fully clothed. The toll of 73 years means she is slightly faded and crumbling in places but nothing that isn't carried gracefully through wisdom and sturdiness. Having finished her days ploughing the North Sea for fish, Lista has spent her retirement more leisurely rolling and creaking around the world. You get the impression all this exploring is old news to Lista. She's seen it all before. However she remains loyal to those that have taken her in over the years, carrying them as best as she can on their adventures of a lifetime. We are fortunate enough to have jumped on board for one such adventure. Lista is now our home and vessel until we hit the warmer waters of the Caribbean for a sun drenched Christmas.

It initially felt like a large leap onto Lista. After cycling and walking for 6 weeks, living solely by our own agenda and desires, the thought of living by someone else's was rather daunting. Not only were we giving over our control of where we go when, but we were also being plunged into living with people we had only ever met for a couple of hours before. And this is not just house share living, this is boat living where you breath, eat, discuss, debate, sweat, vomit, sleep and the rest on top of each other all day and night. We can't deny that as we trundled out of Lisbon center to find our new home, the excitement at getting out onto the seas was slightly muffled by an edge of apprehension. A feeling not helped by the two and half hours it took us to find Lista, who was waiting for us 'a few' miles down river. How hard can it be to find a boat in the dark just outside a major shipping city and its many marinas? Quite hard. Enthusiasm for the next leg of the trip waned as darkness fell and we went back and forth on various trains, buses and trams, trekked through industrial fishing ports. boat yards, over motorways, down deserted railways and scrub land and still there was no mast or anchor light in sight. Whilst starring hopelessly out at sea on the edge of a motorway at 10pm last Monday night it felt like maybe it wasn't meant to be. But thank god it was! By 11pm we were tucked up in our new bed and sleep renewed excitable anticipation about what the next couple of months held in store.
10 days in and any worries we had about getting on board have been shrugged off. We can't believe our luck at having found such a perfect way to hop across the Atlantic. Lista and all her inhabitants offer the sailing equivalent a small commune in a rustic crumbling old farm cottage in the middle of Devon. A thankful far cry from a shiny plastic super yacht speeding across to the Caribbean more with the spirit of necessity than exploration. Any fears about the insular nature of living on board have been dashed by the joy of its simplicity. No dealings with money, time or communications as days and nights are dictated purely by the weather and the sea. Nor is boredom a worry with shared cooking, cleaning, lots of eating, a bookcase big enough to keep us entertained and educated for a year on board, a band of musical instruments, arts and crafts, fresh fish in the sea to be caught, dolphins, sea birds, stars, sheets and sails to be mended, stowed, put up, taken down and endless knots to be learned. We are also soon to start some evening skill exchange courses and baking sessions to keep brains and bellies equally well challenged.
There is no doubt that Lista's cottage like, self sufficient and adventure loving character is helped along by her latest carers and crew. At the moment there are 6 of us on board, all pursuing our own mini adventures, running to some things and away from others, but either way all doing exactly what we want to be doing right now. Dave and Kat bought Lista in February to pursue their own dream of an eco friendly, bird surveying and sailing adventure over to the Caribbean and South America where they might stop for a while if they fancy. Not a moment of time or a watt energy is wasted by these two who have rigged Lista up with every renewable energy source possible, use the engine only if essential, jump into every physical challenge going and write, fix, tinker and paint away the evenings. And then there's the crew. Claire, the surfer-motorcross-motorboat Cornish chick has been on Lista since July and is soon heading off. We were rather dramatically introduced to her tough shell on our first day sail when she hauled herself up the shrouds only to lose balance at the top and fall 20 feet onto an unsuspecting starboard light. Anyone else might run for shore at nearly having their leg ripped off. Claire laughed and lit up a fag. Dan, the Dorset and Dalston residing, stylised mustache wearing nurse was the next to join the merry band of explorers. He has brought his own chilled out faff loving tendencies to the boat through violin recitals, numerous failed fishing exploits, knot experiments, hammock constructing, star navigating and general enthusiasm for anything that can be tinkered with. Nick and I are the latest editions but who knows who else might turn up and jump on board before we head across the Atlantic. In true communal spirit you get the impression Lista could pull new vagabonds into her clutches at any time.
Yesterday we sailed around Cabo Sao Vincente, the South Westerly tip of Portugal and Europe. Quite a moment as we looked up at the fort and lighthouse and then out towards the Atlantic, contemplating leaving our continent for big seas and more foreign lands. Before we head West though we are set to continue South for a gradual supplying and stocking of the boat. In three days time we will be in Morocco to pick up some spices and dried fruit, then to the The Canaries for volcano trekking and finally Cape Verde to pick up a hopefully prolifically egg producing chicken before sailing due West for 2100 miles to Trinidad.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Spiritual deserts in Northern Spain

The cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain is believed to be the final resting place of the apostle Saint James. After being beheaded by Herod in 42 AD for spending too much time with Jesus he was immediately martyred, and his followers brought his body back to western Spain from Jerusalem. The final leg of this route has now become the most popular Christian pilgrimage in the world. 74,000 people walk it on average a year and numbers have gone up ten fold since 1987 when the route and it's 1,800+ historical buildings was recognised as the first European Cultural Itinerary. We decided to try and use this route as part of our trip as it seemed a great way of seeing rural Spain and heading further west. We would be following a simple and well marked route that was made all the more intriguing having been trodden by hundreds of thousands of men and women in past centuries as they sought forgiveness, enlightenment or something along those lines.

The common route (Camino Frances) is 31 days or so of solid walking and around 800km long. We only had a week due to commitments with the boat, but we set off to equipped with our Practical and Mystical guide to the Camino braced for faith. What we found was a little different.
The most common start-point for the Camino Frances is in St Jean Pied de Port. Hol and I went to register as péregrinos and were not that surprised to find the mix of people in the pilgrim welcome office a touch eclectic. Registration involves getting a passport for the journey which allows you to take advantage of pilgrim hospitality along the way. At first we felt a little uneasy as the volunteer behind the desk described the criteria for acceptance. As a relatively assured atheist, signing a document saying the walk would be done as a Christian pilgrimage seemed wrong. In my head I justified it as a journey of potential discovery. If there was a God then this was the time for him to pipe up and get in touch with me. I would be all reflective and open to it for the walk and maybe it would change me.
This hope was dispelled pretty quickly when the day to day nature of the Camino kicked in. The pilgrim hostels avoid over-crowding of the very cheap accommodation (between €3 and €7 a night) by having a 10pm 'in bed, lights out, silence' rule and an 'everyone out by 8am the next morning' rule. In principle I agreed with this as a way of stripping away too many freeloaders and providing some kind of routine for prayer/reflection etc. However, the effect this had was just to spill everyone onto the path at almost exactly the same time each day. Instead of sweeping beautiful spaces and empty plains to free your mind, you find yourself with sandwiched in with the same group of people all day every day.
Our group involved a French female ex-body builder who often wore the remains of the breakfast margarine smeared across her face from hastening to beat the morning rush. Then there was the bald headed and side burned female monk, the silent y-front sporting Jesus look-a-like and a coke snorting, skateboarding Italian student. At dinner Peter the art therapist kept us informed of pay disputes in the German care community whilst various Dutch men scouted around for ladies, and there was the omnipresent trio of Gallic hikers who steamed up the hills tripping at your heels only to stop at the top blocking your path to down some 'rescue remedy' (brandy), remove 8 layers of clothing or adjust their suede cowboy hats. How different my memory of the Camino would have been had we walked just a day later or earlier. The 2nd day was the hardest because we weren't prepared for weaving in and out of this menagerie of fellow walkers. The previous day's incredible solitude over the mountain passes of the Pyrenees, afforded by a late start from our hotel, had vanished as we were swept along by the other pilgrims. Instead of being able to creep within 10m or so of magnificent Griffon vultures we were 10cm from the sweating ass crack of the person in front.

Whilst our fellow pilgrims did provide entertainment for the long days, we hatched a plan for later in the week which involved sitting in the town squares drinking coffees and strapping up blisters for a couple of hours after hostel kick out time. This way the masses were ahead of us and we could take in the land in its deserted form. It also meant we got to indulge in breakfast every day which was not too tricky since Spanish pastries are arguably equals to their French cousins. My favourite became known as the 'chocolate butt trumpet' (i'm not sure if this is the correct translation). It is basically a pain au chocolat in the shape of a horn with about two dairy milks worth of chocolate in the middle and then one end dipped in more chocolate. Amazing.
This shift in timing meant that after three days of nursing blisters, aches and claustrophobia we did begin to find a rhythm to the days. With clear tracks and acclimatising bodies we started to take in the land we were passing through.

The main thing that struck us was the speed with which it felt very Spanish after crossing the mountains. The classic dry and dusty colours of the plains quickly took over from the autumnal high mountain greens, and as the steepness fell the hills began to roll out for miles in front of us. It strikes you how open and deserted this part of Spain is. Sometimes the views we took in when turning into a valley or looking out from the top of a ridge could have been those of 1,000 years ago. Ruined old farm shacks, power cables faded in the haze and roman roads lined with citrus and olive trees stretching ut to a distant church spire. It is these extraordinary moments as you stop and soak it up with chorizo and cheese sandwich in hand that make the Camino special.
Maybe we should have expected something altogether more secular when we signed up. The latest figures show the number of practicing Catholics in Spain (one of the more devout countries in Europe) to be at just 20% and declining. The fact that the number of 'pilgrims' has shot up so much would seem to be at odds with this and would suggest that people are no longer doing the walk for religious reasons. But nonetheless others we spoke to also seemed disillusioned about the lack of spirituality along the route. The majority of people seem to do the walk to partake in something of another age. It represents a different speed and challenges their lives and priorities a little.
Hearing this from others began to make me understand a bit more why it is so popular. The history is the appeal for many when instead I had looked for space for contemplation. The numbers of people even in the quieter months such as October mean it rarely feels like a time for reflection. You are jostled and hustled in the hostels, you are wedged next to strangers at dinnertimes and the route is laid in front of you like tram tracks you can't stray from. I feel the mystical awakening promised in our 'guide' would be more easily achieved by carving out your own walking route somewhere in the world. But what the Camino has is history. Although we did only the first quarter of the route we felt glimpses of what the Camino really is and also what it once may have been. Something pulls you to the Camino and I can't deny that I don't want to finish it one day. The scenery is breathtaking at times and the fatigue of walking 7 hours a day means you begin to feel just a glimpse of what it must have been like for these people who walked with nothing but a gourd, cape and their belief a thousand years ago.

There was a strange sense of leaving unfinished business with everyone else having 24 days still to go, but it isn't something I envy them doing. In the middle ages the rich would pay their servants to walk the Camino for them in order to buy their way into heaven. I didn't see a single person pray in the week we walked yet all were happy to sleep in the hostels and take advantage of the Christian charity. I fear those claiming the resurgence in the Camino signals a spiritual awakening may be deceiving themselves, but it remains a spectacular route if you don't mind a couple of extra coffees and pastries in the morning.

Camino facts:
6-7 hours a day on the road
160km walked in total
Fuel: chorizo 3 meals a day with occasional pastries, chocolate and red wine on the side
Ailments: 5 blisters, 10 aching muscles and 90,000 bed bug bites
Drink of the stage: Draught vermouth

We are now in Lisbon with Hol's mum and sister awaiting the arrival of Lista light in a couple of hours. Wet weather gear and lifejackets are laid out for the next leg down to Morocco, Canaries, Cape Verde and CARRIBBEAN!!! We spent yesterday in Lisbon's Santa Maria hospital waiting 3 hours for Hol to be diagnosed with an allergic reaction to bed bugs. This is apparently not surprising as there is an infestation that is currently afflicting the Camino, which the Spanish government is trying to sort out. Funnily enough there was no warning on the route at all. Biblical plague probably not, but it could be enough to bring the Camino back to hardcore pilgrims if it is not controlled. Tiny hostels are one thing, but a guaranteed bed bug attack is in a different league. Hmmm, maybe a sign from God...?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mug shots

Whilst recovering from a bad case of the fleas, we have managed to upload our photos of the trip so far. Check them out here:

Stage 1: Tandem
Stage 2: Camino

Having eaten Madrid´s entire chorizo supply we are heading off to Lisbon tonight on a sleeper train. Just popping off to one of the city's many Ham Museums to stock up for tonights train feast. Hope everyone well.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Stage 1 completed: 1500km on tandem from London to St Jean Pied de Port

It is with great sadness that the time has come to say goodbye to our trusty steed, Jean Claude tan Damme. He has faithfully carried us through the peaks and troughs of the journey. From the valleys, rivers, plains, forests to the mountains, through cities, towns, villages and farms, always surviving and thriving on the day to day challenges of being on the road. As we take to foot and head over the Pyrenees into Spain we know we will look back fondly on the last 3 weeks. We will no doubt miss the speed of Jean, the attention he seeks, the cosiness of our tent, old people in caravans, scribbling over maps, coffees in church squares, pain au chocolat, watching our legs becoming tree trunks and squatting over non-existent toilet seats. But as with all good things, there comes a time for it to end. Thankfully we can rest assured that Jean will be in safe hands on his return journey to England and there is a distant glimmer of hope that in 18 months from now we will be reunited in Istanbul. But before we leave it all behind us, here is a quick snapshot of the highs and lows of our first stage.

Nerd file:
Total distance covered: 1478km/ 918 miles
Cadence: 80 – 90
Steepest hill: 18%, on the penultimate day in The Pyrenees
Top speed: 59.4km/hr
Average Speed: 21km/hr
Longest day: 131km from Mer to Chinon
Shortest day: 0.4km downhill (from one hostel to another in St Jean Pied de Port)

High points:
Whizzing down back roads of beautiful sun drenched valleys in Northern France with friends and family ringing to congratulate us about getting engaged. Trangia feasts and church square lunches, cote d'boeuf au feu, Aubeterre's monolithic church and wonderful hosts at Chinon and Doug's place.

Low points:
Struggling and arguing our way around Angouleme's smoggy and hectic ring roads whilst starving and being rammed by unforgiving buses and trucks. Eating too many apricots and enduring the bitter smelling consequences, numb hands putting the tent away every morning, quick cook pasta with cows cheese and the hunger pangs as a result of French shops closing for the majority of the day.

Fuel used:
Rillette, cheese, saucisson, baguettes, nutella, bananas, caram-chocs, rice, pasta, canned chilli, lardons and apricots.

Guilty pleasures:
42 coffees, 2 ciders, 2 beds, 3 bottles of wine with nibbles, 4 magnum ice creams, 2 pizzas and 10 million pain au chocolat.

Drink of the stage:
V.R.P. – vin rose and pamplemousse syrup on ice.

Problems endured:
1 bust knee, 2 saggy panniers, 1 buckled back wheel, 1 blown out front tyre, 1 broken speedo
2 bruised shins, 1 burnt nose, 2 holes in tent (created by eager helping hands before we'd even left), 1 punctured thermarest, 1 singed arm from trangia explosion, 1 expanded stomach, 1 shrunk stomach and 1 ratty beard

Despite forecasts of rain for our first couple of days pilgrimaging our way across The Pyrenees, spirits are high as we now shrug off the lycra and pull on our walking boots!

Friday, October 3, 2008

A little bit older and wiser (but still want to get drunk and play laserquest)

One thing we have come to realise in the last week or so is that back in London (and perhaps the majority of the UK) you only tend to socialise with people your own age. If your family live nearby then you might spend time with them and sometimes at work you may chat to people older than yourself, but in the main part you spend it with your own age group.

This has not been the case over here. This is probably due to the following: it is off season and we are frequenting campsites, we are on a tandem which attracts interest primarily from eccentric over 65s, or it might be that our route has taken us over the volcanic regions of Aquitaine which is home to several of France's therapeutic thermal springs. Whatever the reason, we have had the pleasure of nobody's company who is less that 20 years or so our senior. However, it's been surprisingly fun, and with both of us also finding ourselves with lots of time on our hands, it has given us some perspective on what it must be like to retire.

The first senior citizen we spent a bit of time with was Doug Barker who we met at Newhaven port and invited us to go and stay with him in the Dordogne. Ten days later we made it to Villebois-Lavalette, close to where he lives and, after a quick chat on the phone, arranged final directions. We needn't have worried. 2km before we got to Doug's house a bearded and rather rotund man dressed in a faded RAF jumper and leather motorbike helmet came tearing towards us on a vintage, red Moto Guzzi motorbike. At first we didn't make the connection who it might be, but both said simultaneously to each other, 'legend'. However, after spotting the tandem the motorbike did a swift U-turn and beckoned us to follow him. The 'legend' was our host escorting us to his house. Whilst this introduction instantly informed us that our decision to come and stay in a complete strangers house had been the right one, we couldn't help but wonder 'What were we in for?'

What followed was an extraordinary evening and one that this update will never do justice to. We stowed the tandem amongst about 8 or so other rare motorbikes, ranging from 80 years old to present day. We were then introduced to Doug's friend and bicycle/jazz enthusiast Dave (red shirt), another friend of his Sean (dressing gown above), great nephew of Robert Graves, and two more motorbike enthusiasts, ex-fireman Conrad (biker jacket) and his wife Amanda (leather trousers) who popped in on their Russian steed with sidecar containing Susie the dog. Over the course of the ensuing evening Hol went for her first spin in a sidecar with Doug, we chatted bikes, traveling, politics and France all over copious portions of Dave's home-made pasta and several glasses of wine whilst a bit of Art Tatum (jazz legend with, apparently, only 7 fingers and no eye sight) poured out of the house.

The best thing apart from the food and comfy beds, which were much appreciated after chilly tents and trangia food, were the stories that spilled from all corners of the table. We found out that Doug is fluent in 7 languages having trained to be an interpreter and lived with Polish emigrés whilst studying at Cambridge and then Oxford. Conrad had brought along his Grandfather's Prussian passport from 1903 for Doug to interpret and told us about what i was like to only discover his true family history at the age of 60. In Doug's youth he had drunk pints in the same pubs and college bars in which Hol and I had crammed down alcopops and snakebites in our courting days. We discovered he is a citizen of Lithuania for tax purposes, and was also taken to court for refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the war in Iraq. The list of tales was endless and hugely entertaining. Favourites included the chequered history of Bar Las Vegas in the sleepy next door village, which was essentially a knocking shop, and also the one about a friend of Doug's who went to Lithuania to meet up with a stunningly beautiful woman he intended to shack up with after meeting her on the internet, but who found on arrival that she already had 9 children. It made us glad to be doing what we are doing so that come our retirement we can welcome people in and regale them with stories of times gone by.

We were sad to go after 5 star treatment that included coffee in bed and fresh porridge for breakfast, although it wasn't long before we were amongst the seniors once again. During our journey south we have arrived in Aquitaine, in the south west of France, which sits on a huge volcanic plain and subsequently is home to several thermal spa resorts. We have spent time in 2 of these: Barbotan-les-Thermes and Dax. I think the best way to describe the clientele is to picture all the more senior inhabitants of Bognor Regis being invited to come and visit the town, on the one condition that they have rheumatic complaints and small, ratty poodles. The irony that these people flock to these spa towns where they spend 6 hours a day wrinkling into prunes in naturally heated swimming baths to avoid various medical aches and pains, before retiring to a damp and chilly campsite to shiver the night away in their caravans, seems to escape them.

However, as surely as a French supermarket will close just as you roll starving into a small town at 12.31, so the combination of a tandem and a campsite of octogenarians will lead to conversations. So it was we joined Bernard and his wife Evelyn and her elderly parents for an aperitif one night in their caravan. We were treated to a glass of Cava and local canapés, including small cubes of laughing cow cheese, in celebration of Evelyn's birthday. Our rapidly improving French means we are now able to discuss enough for a couple of hours of chat. Despite an opening mix up with me introducing Holly as 'my little boy' instead of my girlfriend, the discussion was typically wide ranging. We somehow wove from the recent performance of the British Olympic archery team to chatting about the American G.I. Claude, befriended during the Normandy landings during world war 2. The most interesting thing is the way the same topics crop up again and again. The economic collapse, the worrying strength of China and repeatedly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To hear someone complain about lessons not learned from previous conflicts when they themselves have lived through an occupation adds an extra weight often hard to grasp when the theatre of war is so distant.

It has been humbling being invited in by people when we have little to give in return. I can only imagine this to get more so as we head to poorer countries in due course, but the response we get is that they are just glad for the company and excited to hear about what we think and what we are doing. Having led a full life, retirement must pose a lot of questions around how you fill your time. It is something Hol and I can understand to some small extent now. The last few days have been miserable and rainy yet we try and fill our time with 'worthwhile' things. Matching this aim with a tight budget makes this hard and led us to a free choral recital by the Dax male voice choir last night. Now I have to confess the side of me keen on experiencing new things was satiated, but the other side of me was not. I was bored rigid after the aptly chosen second song 'I sing to pass the time'. Judging from the villages we have been through so far in France the preferred method of filling time is either sitting in the tiny local bar drinking coffees and smoking ferociously strong cigarettes, or digging a vegetable garden of epic proportions. I am sure we will find time for this, but after a couple of days without covering mileage and getting closer to a destination I am keen for more youthful pursuits.

In 5 days or so we are meeting up with Anna and Joe who are coming out to ride Jean Claude tan Damme back to the UK for us. We will also be accompanied for the week by Ginger who is flying out to do the first leg of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella with us. Can't wait to see everyone although it'll be strange to leaving the bike behind and all it's accompanying sociability.