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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 2, June 2016
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Anne Benjamin
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


Camino: A Tanka Diary

still three days
before I leave
on pilgrimage—
outside my door
white pear blossom

Getting to Sarria

In Pamplona, we wake around 4.30 and take the first bus to Obanos. The driver sets us down at a cross road. We clip on our backpacks, adjust our trekking poles and begin our walk towards the village. An elderly woman gestures towards the yellow arrow that marks the Camino. We walk past fields of blackened sunflowers, vegetable patches filled with towering stands of beans, kale, cabbage, tomato and lettuce to the next village. At the end of the early-morning streets we find the picturesque bridge after which Puente La Reina is named. We meet other pilgrims, eat bocadillos of ham and cheese, wait for the bus to Burgos.

past dry stone walls
the click of trekking sticks—
I step
into footprints
a thousand years old

The cathedral in Burgos testifies to the faith of other times. It is monumental. Away from the massive gilt reredos, I find a sculpture of my namesake, a familial group of infant, mother and grandmother. Cold winds blow across the plaza where a travel-worn pilgrim in bronze rests permanently on a bench.

secure for centuries
behind ancient walls
the city
opens its gates
to a world of seekers

At 8.00 next morning, we pass through the old city walls under the Arco de San Martin. A woman leans from an upper window to point out the way. On through parkland near the Monasterio de las Hueglas Realas, a Cistercian monastery of women founded in the 12th Century, past the university and into the countryside.

looking for direction
from those who know the way—
summer-spent
sunflowers
bow eastwards

About half way to the village of Tardajos, I stop worrying about being in time to catch the bus back to Burgos. I start to enter into the solitude I have been seeking. We miss the bus, so retrace our steps over the 12 kilometres back to the city. We pass a thin grey-haired woman walking alone towards Tardajos. Her steps are slow and awkward as if recovering from stroke. We pause on a bridge over a stream, black with reeds, for conversation with a Canadian family.

In Burgos, the buses to Leon, where we have accommodation for the night, are booked out. However, there is one train at 6.15. We are just in time to buy tickets.

our path
wanders back and forth—
wind-song in poplars,
blackberries by the roadside,
gentle greetings from pilgrims

It is cold and still dark when we rise next morning and seek out the cathedral. Bright flowerboxes hang from the official buildings in the old city. Streets are being washed, chilling our feet. We meet a downcast pilgrim whose walking shoes, complete with orthotics, have gone missing overnight. We spend time with him as he sets off slowly in worn sneakers and then warm ourselves with churros and hot chocolate.

From Leon, we journey on to the old Celtic town of Sarria.

Sarria to Portomarin

Sarria is crowded with pilgrims, many wearing the pilgrim symbol of a shell. We attend evening Mass in Iglesia de Santa Marina, receive a blessing and a cello (official stamp) in our pilgrim passport. The plato el dia for a modest eight euros includes Galician soup, hake and frites, Compostela tart, thick crusty slabs of bread and half a litre of vino tinto.

I anticipate each day carefully, noting possible places for refreshment, marking the kilometres into tens so we do not stop too early. My companion has no interest in maps, in the places we will pass, the planned end-point and how we might reach it. She is content simply to walk.

we follow one path
on our different journeys
constantly shifting
the baggage we carry
in search of the essential

Before dawn, we join a steady flow of pilgrims to climb the main street from Sarria into morning mist. Once past the remaining tower of an ancient castle and the Mosteiro da Madalena, we enter steep woodland. Irish pilgrims stride along excited to photograph the pastoral landscape. They dance among the sunflowers. My companion falls in with a young Korean student. I wonder about the solitary elderly woman edging along outside Burgos.

the rich smells
of earth, manure,
pine trees, apples
fermenting
into a Buen Camino

We ascend about 300 metres during the morning and pound back down again on hard bitumen in the late afternoon to enter Portomarin across a wide river. A young man in a large straw hat appears to be struggling. At the end of the bridge, we must climb 52 steps through a Roman arch to reach the town. In total, we walk about 27 kilometres. My legs pain during the night and I’ve developed a heat rash. I am nervous: tomorrow’s walk is longer. It is a noche de gala for the town of Portomarin and the disco still throbs at 4.39am.

for months
I’ve traced my dream
in maps—
the realisation
is hard beneath my feet

Portomarin to Palas de Rei

The joy of walking early through thick woods. Of welcoming the cool breath of the mist until it slips away. Of catching the glint of morning on the edge of fields, through birches, on my face. The first hour or two of walking is a time of intimacy between me and the world. With myself. I hold it close.

dawn
rises quietly
among aged oaks—
even the sparrows
chatter less

Taking advantage of the albergue’s wi-fi, I have checked my emails: the husband of a friend in Sydney has died; and the 90-year-old father of a friend in Chennai. I feel the distance from home.

wild flowers
in blue and white,
cerise and yellow
enliven the roadside
just for today

All sorts of people are walking: mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, the young, the mature. Cyclists wish buen camino as they come from behind with a tinkle of bell. A young Spanish couple is pushing a Pekingese in a baby cart. Each day, at some stage, we happen upon June, the Korean student, and Valeria whom we met in Sarria. The Irish, the Aussies, the Spanish, Americans too. The man in the large straw hat, always cheerful. And the young French woman who has already walked over 700 kilometres solo from the Pyrenees. We share biscuits and then she quietly excuses herself to walk on in her measured self-contained stride.

We climb 450 metres today and walk over 28 kilometres. To my surprise, I am feeling better than on other days. I am getting into the rhythm of the walk.

waking early,
walking, washing, bathing,
finding food,
then sleep-patterns
seasons in each step

I sit for a while with Cindy and Lou from the USA until my companion joins me. Over dinner I am restless. I have had no time to write and I am losing words.

Palas de Rei to Ribadiso

A day of reckoning. Insight. About 27 kilometres ahead of us. We begin well. Complete 10 kilometres by10.00am. At Coto, not finding more substantial breakfast, we share a large slice of Bica Gallega, the local cake. The next stage to Melide is slow. We dilly-dally around the stone arched bridge and Igrexia San Juan. A group of pilgrims on horseback and other walkers pass by. We are nearly out of the old town when my companion decides to turn back for a drink. I return with her. Suddenly, I am too weary to continue. She walks on. I catch a cab the remaining 10 kilometres to Ribadiso.

we drink deep
from fountains, water
earth-chilled
this brittle shell
can only hold so much

At Ribadiso, the albergue is set in a large grassed area opening to wooded hills. The dormitory is large and airy. My assigned bunk bed is in the far corner. I shower. Wash my clothes outside in a blue plastic tub. Chat with a French woman and help her twist the water from her sweater. Peg my clothes on a line in the open air, catching the wind and sunshine. The pleasure of taking my time in these tasks is immense. I find a quiet place to sit and write. Space. Time to reflect. Pacing. It is a turning point in my camino. A reclamation of my way.

quiet comes
on a slower pace
a gentler path
the place I’m seeking
opens up to me

I chat awhile with a man from Toronto walking with his daughter. Later, my companion catches up. We eat the plato el dia, with the usual abundance of crusty bread and vino tinto with Anett, a business woman from Denmark, and Elich, a doctor from Poland.

step by step
stories spill
along the way
recognition
between strangers

Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo

We leave Ribadiso late. The wind is moist and brisk. Climb up to the village of Arzua where we pass a large group of Spanish pilgrims around 9.00. We will walk 22 kilometres today and I set out with some trepidation knowing that ahead of us lies Alto de Santa Irene at 160 metres. But Santa Irene is a gentle soul: she has gone before I realise.

all day
I hold my breath
and climb
the mountain
in my mind

Around 11.30, over a cafe con leche, we catch up with Cindy and Lou. They have already walked 20 kilometres this morning and they head off again, looking neither to left nor to right. I salute the Irish man diligently writing in his journal over his coffee. Later, walk for some time with Karen from Germany who tells me about her family and her 90-year-old friend in Canada who is ill with cancer.

luggage
pared
we walk
unencumbered
by name or resume

According to my phone, it is to be a fine day until 5pm and thus I assure our Irish companions whom I encounter again at some stage. Shortly after, a fine mist begins to fall. A blessing. I continue on at my own pace.

cloud
lowers upon the trees—
the mercy
of walking
in shadows

At dinner, I try the local specialty served in the traditional way: Pulpo Gallego, Gallician octopus: delicious. June and a pilgrim from the Canary Islands sit and chat with us at our table on the footpath. The young man in the straw hat tells me: It is possible.

Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

The last day. Excitement buzzes. At 6.30, we appear to be among the first on the road. We leave the main street of Pedrouzo and enter a forest. Pitch black. I have a small torch. Two women ahead of us have a larger torch. We walk in their light, until they pause to let us pass and they walk in ours. After three kilometres, we break out from under the magic of the wood. In the dim light, I cannot find the yellow arrow.

crossroads
at the edge of woods—
hesitant
‘til your light and mine
together find the way

A substantial breakfast and then we continue, each to her own measure. The path now moves through large tracts of eucalypt. Tall, slim, graceful, unlike our fat stragglers at home. I inhale them with the silence.

gum leaf
and eucalypt bark
litter
the path
towards home

in the hush
of eucalypts
I begin
near journey’s end
to find my rhythm

Monte do Gozo is only 5 kilometres from Santiago de Compostela. Through phone and internet, my family continues to cheer me on. These last are the longest kilometres of the journey: we walk down on bitumen, cross high above highways and roundabouts and enter into the city world of buses, cars and hard pavements. We are tired. We pass Toronto and his daughter resting at a cafe. The young man with the hat is somewhere turning the possible into completion. I walk with Mary from Ireland the last part of the way and find a world of shared experience in just a few metres.

in a few steps
we cross lifetimes
bound
in sadness
and common purpose

The cathedral is clad in scaffolding for ongoing renovations. This pilgrim is in sore need of renewal also.

Santiago de Compostela

We gather at 12 the next day for Mass. Lists of pilgrims are read out. We are given blessings. Toronto’s daughter finds me in the crowd with a hug. I wave at her father across the cathedral. Dr Elich and I bow in recognition as I walk to take communion. While Mary has been on pilgrimage, her sister has died in Ireland. We spend a few quiet moments speaking of family and loss.

We have walked together on the path. We have travelled without the burden of roles and titles and histories. If we have shared names, it has been shared first names only. We have met and parted as pilgrims to continue our journeys. It has been demanding, but also a journey blessed by gentle encounters.

on heavy ropes
the botafumeiro swings
drawing up
from a thousand pilgrims
incense and blessing

September 2015


Author's Note: The botafumerio is the massive incense burner that takes six men to swing that is particular to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

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