Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Edge of the Planet is a Lovely Place to Be

This hike took place back on April 5th and this is a long overdue post. But the landscape was so beautiful that I decided to make it into a video and my computer balked at that for a bit.

The Outer Hebrides are located off the far northwest coast of Scotland. Old families (some of whom can trace their kinsmen back 900 years) and old traditions run deep here and Gaelic is the common language.

I had time to take one hike on the Isle of Barra in the southern Hebrides and it was another of one of those occasions when I could not believe the place in which I had found myself. 

I would take more hikes on islands as I moved north over the next 10 days, but this was, by far, the most beautiful. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Best Way to Fly Across France!

Four trains--four tickets. One is a Q-code on my tablet.

This is the way to fly to the Netherlands—screaming through the French countryside on a high-speed electric train: no security, show up at the station 10 minutes before departure, carry on everything and have all your stuff available to you during the trip, wide seats, easy to walk around, scenery, low-carbon footprint, AND I can have my knitting! 

Wide seats and legroom...what an idea!
It would have been cheaper and a little faster to fly to the Netherlands, but I really, really, really wanted to go by train. (A difference of about €50 and 4 hours.) I LOVE trains for so many reasons!

SO…I took four trains from San Sebastian, Spain to Utrecht, Netherlands on Tuesday. Oh, and a two-Metro-train station transfer in Paris. Twelve and a half hours of traveling, but what fun! The high-speed trains travel up to 300 km (185 mile) per hour.

I only had to walk about 20 minutes to get to the San Sebastian metro station where I could catch a commuter train to Hendaye just across the French border. To get down to the subway, I took three escalators—two of which must be the longest I have ever ridden. 

I had to change stations in Paris. Thanks to The Man in Seat 61, I had the instructions on how to do so in advance. It w
as a good thing I did my research because the normal metro route from Paris Montparnasse to Paris Nord was under construction. Since I was warned in advance, I knew I had to negotiate a subway change to make sure I did not miss my connecting train. But it was still a challenge.

Montparnasse was a beehive with people moving about with no apparent rhyme or reason. Negotiating the station would have been challenging, even if I had known where I was going. I kept looking for those “M” signs and they kept playing peek-a-boo with me. It was hot and humid, and my pack and bag were getting heavier by the minute. It is about a 750-meter walk from the train station to the Metro station in Montparnasse and I wasted valuable minutes looking for a ticket machine. Finally I just boarded a train, planning to play dumb tourist if a conductor asked for a ticket. In the transfer station, I did spy a ticket dispenser and so I felt better on the second leg of the journey.
The somewhat-elusive Metro ticket.
Paris Nord was not as busy and better designed so it was easy to find my platform. I boarded my Thalys coach in plenty of time for the third leg of my journey. 

This was a trip I had been waiting a year and a half to take. Some backstory: many of you know that I design book layouts as a “job.” A couple years ago, I began working on a book for the Solutionary Rail organization in the US. Their challenging goal is to electrify the Northern rail corridor between Chicago and Seattle. It is a fascinating project and I assisted in preparing their book, Solutionary Rail, for publication in the fall of 2016. In the chapter about rail electrification around the world, this route between Paris and Amsterdam was mentioned:

Belgium runs its rail network on wind power and has covered a two-mile canopy on the Amsterdam-Paris high-speed line with 16,000 solar panels that power the line.

Ariel view of the solar array train tunnel north of Antwerp, Belgium.

As soon as I read that, I thought, “I want to go through that tunnel!” And so, on Tuesday, I did. It is located just north of the Antwerp station and the train goes through it so fast, you have to be vigilant to not miss it! The main thing that distinguishes it from other train tunnels is that it has windows. 

I arrived in Utrecht twelve hours after I had left my hostel in San Sebastian. I only had about a mile to walk to my small, cramped lodgings near the university. I was ready for a rest!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Quest for Fiber: Chapter 11: Serendipity Too Blatant to Ignore

There are no such things as coincidences. This is a lesson I am learning repeatedly on my travels. The theme that I picked for my journey before I began was “Expect the Unexpected” because I wanted to keep my heart open to every possibility. Little did I know how profoundly this theme would manifest itself in the coming year. (Yes, I have been wandering around for over a year now, and I don’t see an end to it.) Believe me—the coincidences have been enlightening and thrilling. 

I could probably relate twenty or more serendipitous events since I began this sojourn, but then we would never get to the subject of today’s post. For now, I will mention a couple significant ones: 

Last July, I was standing in the stern of a ferry on my way to the Shetland Islands. Striking up a conversation with me turned out to be Catherine Henry, who mentioned that her husband (talking with friends nearby) was Oliver Henry, the wool broker for Jamieson and Smith, the main fiber processor in the Shetland Islands. I knew of Oliver from reading about him in various fiber books and magazines. She did not even know at the time that I am on a journey searching for fiber wherever I go. A few days later, I sat in Catherine’s living room, knitting with her and learning about the modern Shetlands. (Remember that ferry encounter…it is relevant to this story.) 

While walking the Camino de Santiago, I made a planning mistake and ended up in an unexpected albergue (hostel) one evening. That same day, Caitlin and Gerry Browne, made a different planning mistake and arrived in the albergue soon after I did. We were the only ones staying there that night. We shared a bottle of wine and great conversation. We planned to meet the next night again in Oviedo, but circumstances resulted in our losing track of each other. I was disappointed. Then out of the blue, while walking down a street in Oviedo a few days later, Caitlin called out to me. We reconnected, and they invited me to come visit if I came to Ireland. At the time, I had no plans to visit Ireland, but I later ended up there and spent two wonderful weeks in their cottage in Roscommon, Ireland. We have become great friends and in May I returned yet again to help with their annual Lamb Festival and demonstrate and teach lace knitting techniques. And all because we had all made planning mistakes on the Camino back in October!

Now for my story: On April 3, I boarded another ferry in Oban, Scotland bound for the Outer Hebrides. There were many reasons I decided to visit these islands, not the least of which was that their name just sounds exotic. I had settled in the bow of the boat and pulled out my knitting along with the hope that the five-hour crossing would be gentle. (I am not a very good seafarer—I get seasick at the slightest wind.)

Shortly, a woman accompanied by an older gentleman came over and asked about my knitting. It turned out that the gentleman was Norman Kennedy. I had not heard of him before, but I was about to become fast friends with him and Robin Baird. Norman is a famous spinner, weaver, and knitter. He was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland and is Scottish through and through even though he has been living in the States since the 1960s. (And, in fact, he worked at Colonial Williamsburg, the living history museum in Virginia, for many years demonstrating traditional ways to process fiber.) He has a passion for wool and singing and the folklore of both. Also, with them was Margaret Bennett, a well-known folklorist and singer, who works to preserve the old songs and culture of Scotland. 

As it turned out, they were all on their way to the Outer Hebrides to present a series of free workshops on spinning and waulking (more on that later) in several island communities. And, in fact the first two events would be held just two blocks from where I would be staying in Castlebay! I could attend! And would it ever be magical for me!

But first, while on the ferry, Norman and Margaret both contributed the The Traveling Scarf

Robin looks on while Norman knits on the ferry to Castlebay.

On Wednesday, I watched Norman show us how to use a distaff and to spin on both a spindle and wheel. His hands moved smoothly and naturally as he drafted long segments of fiber and fed them into the wheel. 

He created some of the softest loveliest rolags I have ever seen from his carders. (Rolags are the results of carding wool—one technique to prepare it for spinning.) I have always been a clumsy carder but I tried his technique and saw that, with practice, I could—maybe, eventually—create nice rolags. It was a good lesson.

On Thursday night, they organized a waulking demonstration and ceilidh (gathering) for the community. First was the event I had been waiting for. I had seen videos of women waulking wool, and now I was going to participate.

Traditionally, when a bolt of wool fabric was woven, it would be lightly felted to make it warmer, as well as wind- and water resistant. First, the two ends of the bolt were sewn together making a long loop of fabric. Then it was soaked in a solution of urine and water to remove oils and encourage the fiber’s scales to expand. (Normally it is a smelly, messy process as you can imagine, but Norman was nice and soaked our cloth in a slightly soapy solution, which works as well.) Now the fabric was ready for fulling. A group of women would sit around a long table and pound the cloth and pass it to the person next to her, over and over and over. This would be a pretty boring job, but the women used it as a social and gossiping session and over the years special waulking songs were composed to make the time go by faster and synchronize the pounding. You can learn a lot more about waulking here.

Tonight’s demonstration would be more about the songs than the cloth, but Norman’s bolt did get sufficiently felted.

I made sure to get a place at the table with mostly local women who knew the old songs. I sat next to Norman and a couple young boys—about eight-years-old—sat across from me. One of them knew all the songs and proudly sang the choruses with his whole heart. 

After the waulking, we listened to some young local musicians play traditional violin music and one young girl perform the challenging sword dance. Then there was more singing. Of course, they were all in Gaelic and I just had to listen, but at one point, Margaret Bennett ask if any visitors would like to share a song as she looked directly at me. Normally, I am pretty reticent about singing, but I was having such a great time that I did volunteer to sing. Since many of their songs are ballads, I decided to sing a wistful cowboy ballad I had learned as a child, I’m Goin’ to Leave Ol’ Texas Now. I have to say, I managed a decent rendition.

And so, another “chance” meeting on a ferry turned into a remarkable and very special beginning to my trip to the Outer Hebrides. My sojourn there would continue to manifest magic over the next week.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Camino de Santiago Primitivo: Day 29

Day 29: Grandes de Salime—La Fonsagrada    16 miles

23 October 2017 

I awoke to a cold day 5◦C (41◦F) and wanted to get moving to warm up. But first, I was out of food; not even anything for breakfast. This sometimes happens on the Camino, no matter how well you plan. You know you need to stock up, but you go through village after village with no stores, or all the stores are closed when you are passing through. Now I had to wait until a store opened or I would have neither breakfast nor lunch. I thought I would have to wait until 10:00 am, which makes for a very late start. However, as I walked down the street looking for an ATM machine, I passed a tiny store that had enough provisions for my day, and it was open.

The walk started uphill, which is not the best way to warm up cold, unstretched muscles. The pea-soup fog was lovely in the village, but once I was on the highway, I felt truly unsafe, knowing drivers could not see me until the last minute. Once I left the highway, the trail became tranquil.

I love it when the fog plays peek-a-boo with the trees.

I start slowing down, literally, when I need to eat. If I wait too long, I become a bit stupid. Today was a case in point. When I started to get hungry, I decided to begin looking for a likely place to eat—preferably with a bench or table and a view. I kept hiking up and up, telling myself that if I did not find one around the next bend or over the next rise, I would just sit down and eat. And I kept going and going, for…about…two…miles! Now I was completely out of energy and my brains had fallen out of my pocket. I laughed as I argued with myself, “What are you expecting? A table overlooking the valley? Complete with a fuente (fountain) with cold water? And a spa for my feet? A masseuse?”

Finally, in frustration I sat down on the rocky trail—no bench, no view, no bloody masseuse. But after refueling and resting, I felt much better. Luckily, I never found a picnic table…I would have been livid if there had been one just past my “picnic” site.

Sergio had told us that today was going to be easy, and I believed him. I thought it was a good thing, since I knew it would be long. The weather was perfect—very Indian summer and hardly a puff of wind. Not too hot after the morning chill burned off; not too cold.

It was a longer, steeper uphill climb to the top of El Acebo than I had expected. Wind turbines were in sight all day and as I reached the top of the ridge, I was right next to them—they are HUGE!

Then it was downhill again, but not as hard as yesterday. Now I was running out of water! It was no longer 5◦! Where is one of those public fountains when you need it? I stopped at a farmhouse to ask for water. In the past, people were very welcoming to us pilgrims when we needed water. However, this woman was wary and said I could have “un poco” (a little). I was taken aback! When she returned with my bottle, she must have noticed my pack for the first time and realized I was a pilgrim, because she became much more chatty. 

It was here that I crossed from Asturias into Galicia. I would miss the horreos, the fabada, and the friendliness of the people.  
The rest of the day, I could think of nothing except how much farther it was to A Fonsagrada. I also fell into my usual mistake of looking at the map and deciding I was much farther along than I was. When that happens, and I see my miscalculation, I always get furious and try to blame the map, knowing that is really my own fault. When I finally got close enough for A Fonsagrada to come into view, I see that it is WAY UP ON A HILL—a steep climb all the way! I cursed the whole way into town, fighting back tears of anger and exhaustion. This had to be Sergio’s fault! I put my head down and one foot in front of the other. 

My goal: A Fonsagrada...if I could just make it up there!

A welcome sign...
the 0 kilometer marker!
My offline maps download on my tablet did not reach to A Fonsagrada and I learned later that it would have been a more gradual climb if I had taken the highway instead of following the Camino waymark arrows. That is what Sergio and his partner did, I found out later!

Once in the village, I was having a hard time finding Albergue Cantabrico. I rounded a corner and saw the back of a gray-haired man in a pulperia (a bar specializing in octopus) Was that Sergio? I looked again, and it was! I yelled, “THAT WAS NOT EASY!!” He put on his innocent French face like he did not understand. We laughed and he directed me to the albergue—and what a nice albergue it was. I would stay there for three nights…

But wine has the added side-effect of making me content with my life... and just a little sleepy...Buenos noches!