Discovering the Thrill of Geocaching

I know that geocaching has been around for a long time, but this week was the first time Joe and I gave it a try. It was great fun, and I can’t wait to introduce it to our grandkids.

Getting started is easy…just create an account at geocaching.com, and you’ll receive GPS coordinates for caches in your area. You can go old school like we did and use Joe’s 12 year old GPS, or you can use your smart phone.

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Along with the coordinates, you receive a clue as to where the cache might be hidden. On this occasion we were looking for a dead standing tree. This one seemed like a good candidate.

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Look what was at the base of that tree. It gave us both a little thrill to see the box. Who doesn’t like finding hidden treasure?

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We signed our names in the little notebook, each took a gift, and each left one behind.

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Here’s a view of the area where we found this cache, plus a picture of the beautiful wild crocuses we saw along the way. Treasure at every turn.

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Where’s our Pride, North America?

It was on a sweltering summer night in 2006 that my husband and I found ourselves in a little neighbourhood diner in Madrid. It was called Las Delicias del Jamon, suitably named given that there were Iberian hams hanging from just about every inch of the place. Those that weren’t curing were being thinly sliced and plated for appreciative customers like us.

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Photo from restaurant’s website.

Joe was/is mad for Spanish ham, and devised a plan to bring some home with him. He approached the restaurant owner about how to package it up, and what ensued was about an hour of rapid and lively discussion involving every patron in the place. Everyone had an opinion about how best to wrap this precious product so it would survive the flight to Canada.

What struck me then, and continues to impress me each time I return to Spain, is how much pride the Spanish take in their food.

During our last trip to Spain in March, we sought out – as we tend to do wherever we go – what we call ‘grandmothers’ cooking.’ It’s simple, usually inexpensive, but so, so good! And the people running these humble eateries are almost without exception the sweetest souls you can imagine.

Case in point – Sisco and Dolors, who run Can Vilaro in Barcelona with several of their children. Sisco inherited the restaurant from his parents, and he serves the same recipes they did. Pigs’ feet, tripe, breaded goats’ brains, and pork head with trotters and chick peas are all staples on the menu. This isn’t typical tourist fair of course, so when we returned for the second day in a row we were treated almost like family. Sisco beamed when we told him how much we liked his food and tawny house wine. There’s that pride again.

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Sisco and one of his daughters.
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First course: sardines on toast
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Second course: lambs’ brains

It’s not just in the restaurants that you see the care and attention given to all things edible. Food is displayed and handled in the markets as if it is more precious than any Crown Jewels (which it is in my mind).

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The egg lady. Who in North America would take the time to carefully display eggs this way?

In Galicia, there’s a whole festival devoted to celebrating the eel, including a community feast where we were served eel prepared just about every way you can imagine.

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Eel are dried on racks, just as First Nations people here in Yukon dry salmon.
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Plates of eel at the community feast in Muxia.

North America, why do we settle? Where is our pride in raising/growing, preparing, and savouring the foodstuff that sustains us? Have we forgotten what good food tastes like? How is it that processed and fast foods are ok with us? We can do better. Please raise a glass with me to grandmothers’ cooking and to making food sacred again!

 

Walking the Source of All Paths

I have written here earlier about how difficult I found it to walk on the cobblestones ever present along much of the Camino Portuguese. I have to say though that every one of those cobblestones was worth enduring given that this Camino also took me along the Variante Espiritual (Spiritual Route). It’s a roughly 75 kilometre path that runs from just north of Pontevedra to Padron.

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Here’s the back story: locals refer to this as ‘The Source of All Paths’ and the first ‘true Camino’. The legend goes that in 44 AD, followers of the apostle James brought his body here and were guided by an angel and a star up the estuary of Arousa to Padron. James’ remains eventually found their way to Santiago.

Whether you buy the story or not, there is no question about this being a spiritual place. It is hard to be here and not believe in some kind of a higher power.

From Monasterio de Armenteira to Pontearnelas we walked the Route of Stone and Water. There were many old water mills along side a beautiful river. That, coupled with towering trees and the happy chatter of birds, made this one of the most memorable parts of the Camino for me.

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Another unique part of this path is that on the final day, there is an opportunity to take a boat down the Rio Ulla to Padron, following the same route that James’ followers took. There are crosses all along the way…some with Jesus facing towards Santiago and Mary facing the opposite way. I have only seen these double crosses in Galicia.

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Once in Padron, you can walk a few kilometres to a Franciscan monastery in Herbon, where you can stay the night and be fed both dinner and breakfast all for a donation. We received such a warm welcome from Felix and Anna, who are volunteering there for several weeks. It turns out Anna and I were both celebrating our birthdays that day, and as a result we were treated to the most delicious cake for dessert!

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The fate of this monastery seems rather tenuous to me. There were only five elderly friars/monks living there when we visited, the oldest being 96. There was talk of turning the place into a luxury hotel (as has been the fate of some other monasteries in Spain) but recently the Spanish government granted it some kind of special designation, so hopefully it will be retained. The designation also comes with a small amount of money, the first allotment of which was used to refurbish the main altar. As we toured the place, it was evident that the monastery really needed a rather significant influx of cash for repairs and renovations.

To those pilgrims who choose to stay here, something I definitely would recommend, please be as generous as you can with your donation.

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The youngest of the monks, who gave us a tour of the facility. He was a beautiful soul who seemed to be carrying  a large burden. It is his job to care for the others here, some of whom have dementia.

The Church at the Edge of the World

If there was any doubt that the folks in Muxia, Spain were ‘people of the sea’, a visit to the Santuario da Virxe da Barca (Sanctuary of the Virgin of the Boat) certainly set the record straight. The church sits on the craggy shore of the Costa de Morte (Coast of Death) in northwestern Spain, just meters from the crashing North Atlantic waves. Inside, model ships hang from the ceiling…everything from fishing dories to a WWII submarine. Since pre-Christian times, people have gathered on this spot to pray for the safe return of their fisher folk.

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The name of the church comes from a long-held legend. It is said that the Virgin Mary met St. James at this site and helped him in his work to spread Christianity throughout the region. Then, when the Romans beheaded him, his body was carried in a stone boat to Muxia, where his remains were discovered many years later and taken to the cathedral in nearby Santiago de Compostela. Some of the dates and details don’t add up for me, and there are conflicting legends in northwest Spain about all of this, but who am I to judge?

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I was in the church on the evening of Easter Saturday to hear the local choir. Their deep rich voices delivered mournful tunes appropriate to the day. Tomorrow morning’s service would feature a much more joyous repertoire.

This church only recently re-opened, after suffering major damage because of a lightning-caused fire on Christmas Day 2013. The main altar is still to be replaced. As a temporary measure, a life size photograph of what I assume was the original altar adorns the front.

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The fire was not the first bit of tragedy to strike this spot. In the fall of 2002, the Prestige tanker spilled an estimated 66,000 litres of oil into the sea, polluting thousands of kilometres of shoreline and killing 250,000 sea birds. Muxia was ground zero for this environmental disaster.

Five thousand fishermen were without work for several years (things still aren’t back to normal according to some locals), and while the monthly government compensation cheques of 1,200 euros helped with the bills, they didn’t prevent the social fall-out that inevitably comes with a community’s loss of livelihood.

A short distance from the church, a large stone obelisk has been erected to commemorate the 100,000 volunteers who came from all over Spain to help with the clean-up. Every day for nine months, people painstakingly scraped oil into buckets. In a country that seems divided in so many ways, it was a remarkable coming together.

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The Virgin of the Boat church is not fancy. But it and the rocks surrounding it give off waves of energy that are deeply and inexplicably calming and reassuring. It’s as though the church and the rocks know things that they want us to know too. It would do us good to listen.

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What do I know when I am in the place that I can know nowhere else? What does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself? – “The Old Ways” by Robert MacFarlane

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Comparing Caminos

I have just returned from walking parts of the Camino Portuguese. I have much to tell you. I will start by offering some observations about how this Camino was different, and similar, to my 2010 pilgrimage along the Camino Frances.

Differences

1. The Camino Frances was, if memory serves me correctly, about 80 percent dirt path. The Camino Portuguese, at least from Porto onward (from where I started), was about 80 percent pavement and cobblestone. The cobblestone in particular was a killer on my feet. After walking on this for three days, my companions and I adopted Plan B, which involved moving further north to an area that offered more dirt and rural walking. It meant we arrived in Santiago earlier, allowing us to walk to Muxia, which I am so happy we did. If you are considering doing a Camino and taking this route, know that you will be doing a lot of road walking.

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These were so painful to walk on.

2. On the Camino Frances I travelled by myself. While I spent time walking with people, I had a fair bit of alone time too. This time I walked with three other people. I enjoyed their company very much, but I think for my next Camino (Via de la Plata in 2019), I will plan to go solo. A huge plus of this trip though was that one of my friends speaks Spanish, and this opened up a whole new world in terms of being able to more deeply connect with the local people. I have made a commitment to get serious about learning the language before my next trip to Spain.

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Getting to know some local fishermen

3. No need for earplugs! There were fewer people travelling this route, which meant the albergues were not often very busy, and that in turn meant fewer snorers and better sleeps.

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My sleeping quarters for a night at a monastery in Spain

4.  The albergues have really addressed the bed bug issue. Seven years ago, these critters were somewhat of a problem. While I was not bitten, I know of others who were. Now, almost all the albergues have rubber covers on the beds, and many provide disposable or cloth sheets.

5. No injuries! It may have been because there was less up and down walking, but my knees gave me no trouble whatsoever this time (unlike in 2010 when my left knee caused me a lot of pain). I didn’t have poles on this second Camino either, so I was a bit nervous about how my body would hold up. I was pretty pleased with how well my feet and knees cooperated.

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Cooling my feet in a stream. The blue tape is not because I had an ankle injury, but was merely to hold some ‘second skin’ in place to protect a blister.

Similarities

Same beautiful spring flowers, delicious food, and delightful people. If anything, I found the Portuguese people even kinder and more friendly than the Spanish. I wanted to hug them all!

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This sweetheart of a man told us all about the garden he was planting.