Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Camino De Santiago Day 1 Part 1

We woke up the next day around 530 am, and much to my surprise, though there is a barely light from the outside, half the people in the room had already packed up and left. While hastily fixing myself in the bathroom I found out that one of my contact lens was missing. Bummer. It meant that I would have to wear glasses the rest of the journey. This I abhor because I don’t like to have my glasses on when posing in front of a camera as they make me look older. I normally bring a spare set of lens for trips like this, so I was quite disappointed that I missed it in my pack.

In the ground floor area, on the way to the kitchen, I was finally introduced by Ze to his mom, aunt and cousin, who had already their backpacks slung on their back. They all couldn’t speak much English so Chico and Ze had to do the translation. Despite the language barrier I felt their hospitality and friendliness and I knew that I was very much welcome to their group.

The two brothers and I had a quick breakfast in the pantry (a few slices of bread, a handful of salami and half a carton of milk). It was not much but I couldn’t complain as these were just items left by other pilgrims. As I would later find out throughout the  Camino, generosity and hospitality are a common thing, like the whole experience transforms the pilgrims into better and transcendental versions of themselves

While munching my breakfast contentedly, I saw a pretty blond girl, with a hauntingly penetrating pair of blue eyes. I guess all blue eyes melt my heart in a certain way. I tried to do a bit of a small talk. I learned that she was from Bremen and doing the Camino alone which really impressed me (although I would later find out the solo female pilgrims are common). I somehow sensed that she wanted to be in a meditative mode (or perhaps I was just being paranoid) so I let her be in her own zone.

Chico also had a conversation with her and I somehow sense that Chico has this charm of letting the guards of the girls down – he reminded me of a friend back in the Philippines who was a natural charmer and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chico is a ladies man.

It was a foggy morning and it was drizzling when we stepped out of the albergue.  The team put on disposable raincoats – similar to the ones handed out in grocery stores. I was pleased to know that Ze’s family brought an extra coat for me.

The path led us back to the wall and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the group. I found out during that part that Chico also had this interest for taking photographs. He showed me some photos taken from his phone and I was pleased that he had the eye. Great, I thought to myself. We have something to talk about along the way and I could teach him some basic photography rules.

A shot at the wall before the journey

We passed by the bridge that connects Portugal and Spain. I thought that there would be a passport checking station at the border similar to the ones I have seen in the movies- the movie 'Shining Through' came to mind- but to my surprise (more like dismay actually) we went through it just like that as if we just moved from one town to the other.

Ze’s aunt explained that back in the pre-EU days they had to sneak to the other side to buy stuff at cheaper prices.

At the bridge between Portugal and Spain

The first town of Spain from the border is Tuy. Just off the bridge, there lay a distinct sign of the Camino De Santiago and its symbol, a yellow-colored shell with lines that seem to look like rays of light. I was told by Chico that pilgrims or “peregrinos” hardly get lost in the Camino because all one needs to do is look at the direction where the lines are radiating. How quaint, just like a compass.

Camino de Santiago sign in Tuy

We passed by alleyways made of cobblestones typical of European towns and followed the signs. In one part of the town that was sloping I thought of taking a photo of Ze and Chico. We had to take turns taking photos as we did not have a tripod. Fortunately two girls with heavy American accent and backpacks twice their size came by and offered to take our photos. How sweet of them. I was hoping to invite them to join our group but hesitated, since technically I only tagged along with Ze’s family and I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable with a pair of strangers joining us.

At Tuy

As this walk was on a holy week, a lot of churches were open with their traditional preparation for Good Friday, the day the Lord was crucified. The strangest arrangement I have seen was actually in Valença where a big cruficix was laid down slanting on the center of church floor, the pews set aside the walls while another image of Christ was standing on the centre as if watching over its doppelgänger.

A unique set up in Valença

The row of houses along the path slowly thinned out and we went straight to a path that leads to the woods. There was a huge block of rock that depicted Santiago or St. James, the person who started the Camino and our group thought it was an ideal place for a long rest.

A stone sculpture depicting St. James

During this time I took out my precious token, the UP Ikot sign. Only my friends back in the Philippines could truly understand its meaning. It is a signboard used in jeepneys to indicate the route of the vehicle. I posing in different European cities with that sign never fail to amuse my friends back home. For some, it seems that the European city is just one of the stops of the local jeepney. For me it probably means something deeper, like a life journey, going away from home and yet never leaving it. I am not sure if that makes sense.

I asked Chico to pose holding that Ikot Sign. (Ze already had a shot back when I first couchsurfed in Porto) Chico made a funny face.

At that moment seeing the local sign held by a person who comes from a totally different place just seemed extraordinary. It’s hard to imagine that two different worlds could actually coexist. The sign which reminded of my home and Chico who at that instant is the embodiment of Europe just made the shot seemed so unreal and yet it’s there, the scene right there in front of me, reminding me of the two disparate worlds I came from.

Chico with the UP Ikon sign

It seemed that only days ago the Camino de Santiago was but a dream but that very moment it reminded that it was all happening. And that I was there.  And I really felt alive and aware that moment.

(to be continued)

Monday, 20 July 2015

Camino De Santiago Day 0 Part 2

Dark clouds were swirling ominously in the sky when I stepped off Estadio do Dragao. The place was rather bare except for the building on my right, presumably the stadium. It was a chilly morning, but my thought was not much on the coldness or the bleak weather, but on my phone battery that was almost running out. I would have no way of contacting my friend’s godfather in case I lose the remaining power.

I have agreed with my friend Ze that I will leave some stuff not needed for the camino-my camera and my mac- with his godfather. I decided to bring my camera to Porto because I promised my friend that I will be taking good portrait shots of him- like I had done to my hosts in couchsurfing- so he could update his Facebook profile.

Fortunately my friend’s godfather received my message and they were on time. There wasn’t anyone in the area so it was quite easy to determine that the new persons who arrived were my contact. After a quick exchange of introductions, I transferred my stuff to the trunk of the car. Ze’s godfather, who also happens to be his uncle is fluent in English- quite a delight since I was used to a lot of non-fluent English speaking  in Murcia- so it was quite easy to share a few things about myself and then of course the planned Camino. He was accompanied by his son – perhaps he was around 13 or 14 – and his English was also commendable.

They dropped me off at the train station (which is quite far from the tram station) so I could purchase my ticket to Valencia, Portugal. I still had 2 hours to spare, so Ze’s uncle was kind enough to offer a quick tour of Porto. We passed by this church which I actually had visited the first time I was in the city. I did not mind visiting the place again since it has a nice view of the city.

Train Station at Porto

When his uncle dropped me off at the station, he suggested that I bring my camera so I could take good pictures. So at the last minute I took my DSLR and transferred it to my backpack. In hindsight, it had been a great decision.

I still had about 45 minutes to spare so I had a quick lunch in a café. I used my Spanish only to realize after placing my order that I was in Portugal and not Spain. Still the cashier understood what I ordered. It was a pasta dish that looked so yummy at first glance yet tasted bland.

Nonetheless the tasteless food did not bother me at all, I was getting excited for the walk. It felt so surreal because it only seemed more like wishful thinking 2 years ago that I would be back in Porto again.  Yet at that moment I was there in flesh and I was about to embark on my Camino de Santiago.

Ten minutes before the departure I already went to the platform. It must be the engineer in me, I always apply a safety factor. Count me to always be in the platform area way before my scheduled train ride.

Train schedule

There were only a few people taking the trip; in my carriage I think there were only two passengers. I occupied the front area so I could take great shots of my backpack with the UP Ikot sign on it.

The route offered a seaside view of Portugal and it reminded me of the rocky beaches we have in my hometown.
We passed by a train station named Nine. I chuckled and hastily took a photo of it. I have a friend whose nickname is Nine and I was pretty sure she’d be delighted to know that a station is named after her.

Station Nine

Finally we have reached the station Valença. It reminded me of the train station on my way to Fuji. It was characteristic of a train station of a sleepy town whose probably only connection to the rest of the world was the train station.

Valença Station

There was no electric plug in the station which somehow I have half-expected for a sleepy town such as this. I started walking away from the station. Surely the wall which my friend used as the main landmark to meet should be just nearby. Good thing I passed by a café that had free Wifi so I received message from Ze that their trek took longer than expected and they would be arriving 2 hours late.

I received a message in gmail from my mentor in Toastmasters in the Philippines regarding the feedback on my taped speech. It felt so strange reading that message because it seemed my hometown was a faraway place and that message brought me back to reality that yes, two worlds can indeed exist at the same time.

Thanks to Google map,  the wall was easy to locate. It was perched atop a hill like a lookout. I had to remind myself that this place was useful during the times of conquests in the past. Though I know nothing about its history, it just seemed intuitive.

View from the wall

The fort offered a commanding view of a river which separated Spain from Portugal.

I was bit hungry so I went to have a late lunch – a jamón serrano sandwich and a coke- in a bar which thankfully allowed me to have my phone charged.

It turned out my friend wrongfully estimated their pace because fours hours passed by but still no word from them. I was thinking he probably ran out of battery. But surely if they had arrived he might have charged it already.  After six hours of waiting I thought I would just meet them at a hostel. (Am surprised how I kept myself alert while waiting for six hours).

I saw some boy scouts walking in a single file with a yellow flag and I thought they were probably a group doing the Camino as well.

The sun was already setting down so I decided to head  down the fort and find a hostel to spend the night. This was when I received a call from Ze.

My phone was dying again so I barely heard his instruction to go the hostel. I thought I heard "Teotico" which I recall was a hostel near a church where I stayed earlier so I ran back. The receptionist told me I had the wrong hostel. He was kind enough to point out the albergue on the map.

On the way back I asked a guitarist ( who I earlier saw playing some songs for money on the street) and he was kind enough to accompany to a shop to ask for directions. “Hurry” the store owner told me. "The fort gates will be closed anytime soon so if you pass that way you will reach the hostel."

I ran as fast as I could. He sent me back to the albergue which was actually the first place I originally intended to go. The event reminded me of the quest of Santiago in the book "The Alchemist"

Fortunately the hostel was just a few steps from the wall. I paid my fee to the albergue and waited for Ze to give me my Pilgrim card.

By some stroke of luck he passed by the lobby and gave him my warmest hug. It has been two years since we last met. The trek seemed to have worn him out yet he gave a great smile. He introduced me to his brother, Chico.

They invited me to watch football but I politely begged off since I was so tired. They told me the girls quarters were different from the boys so they would have to introduce me to their mom the following  day.

Ze showed me an available top bunk next to his place. I slumped on my bed and in no time slept.

And that was my first day.