Friday, September 14, 2018

The J-Fest: Learning about Kyrgyz Traditions in One Day!

I timed my visit to Jyrgalan to coincide with their second annual Summer Festival. It is mainly held for the villagers to have an opportunity to share their customs and traditions with visitors. 

There is lots of music and dance demonstrations. In a strong alto voice, this young woman recited a small part of the traditional Manas epic.

A group of grandmothers showed the traditional way to lay a baby in its cradle for the first time with singing and ritual. There were also demonstrations of how ala-kiyiz felted carpets are made, opportunities to taste kumiz, (fermented mare’s milk), and a lunch of beshbarmak with plenty of tea available!

A group of grandmothers prepare to demonstrate “cradling the baby.”
I was honored to be invited to help lay down some wool fiber on the ala-kiyiz carpet. 

Down by the river, a couple young man tended this giant samovar so there would be plenty of tea for lunch.

I enjoyed wandering around watching the horsemen warm up for the afternoon activities. They are so comfortable on horseback that it is almost like they are one with the horse—even the very young children.

These men are tugging at a goat carcass…more about that later.

Who will end up with the goat?
Although this young man warmed up with the Kok-Boru 
players, he did not participate in the cut-throat game 
later in the day. But I doubt it will be long before he does.

Lunch was included in our ticket and we lined up to get salad and plates of besbarmak. I sat down to eat next to the roaring river. The name of the dish means “five fingers.” You certainly  use five fingers to eat it because you pick up one of the square noodles and scoop up some of the meat into it and quickly stuff it in your mouth. Usually besbarmak is served as a communal dish and everyone eats from one large dish. I particularly love the thin noodles.

The noodles are steamed, not boiled. And these women cooked quite a few in this giant steamer over an open fire. 

In the afternoon, we got a close-up look at er-enish (horse wrestling).

The grand finale for the festival was a lively game of kok boru—which is similar to polo, but a heavy, headless goat carcass is used instead of a ball and there are no mallets. The goat must be lifted from the ground by the players and carried to the goal. In this game, a small goat was used, but it must have weighed 20 pounds or more. It certainly requires some excellent horsemanship to be able to pick it up off the ground, tuck it under your leg, and race down the field with four other horsemen trying to get it away from you. 

The circles that represent the goals were probably 10 meters across, but it was very difficult for the players to time the dropping of the goat so it landed inside the circle. More often than not, either the carrier shot past the goal to make another attempt, or the forward momentum carried the dropped carcass beyond the goal.

Here is some video from that game. (The announcer mistakenly uses the word "sheep" for "goat." That's okay, sometimes I cannot tell the difference either!)

It was quite an experience to be sitting at the edge of the field. Several times we had to jump up to get out of the way of the players and horses coming right for us.

A couple weeks later I attended one game of the kok boru championships at the 2018 World Nomad Games, but it was not nearly as interesting and exciting as the small event at Jyrgalan. In the Nomad Games stadium, we were so far away from the field, that I could only tell what was happening by watching the giant screens in front of the audience. I did not have to jump out of the path of a horse one time—I might as well have been watching it at home on television.

However, if you are interested, you can see some shots from the Kok-Boru finals in the 2018 World Nomad Games here. You will see that the goat is quite a bit larger and the players more ruthless at this level of the game.

The day ended with dancing for all. The kids sure do like the Macarena!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Simple Yet Useful Samovar

This blog post has been moved to my new site, Cathleen's Odyssey:

Jyrgalan…The Phoenix of Kyrgyzstan

This blog post has been moved to my new site, Cathleen's Odyssey:

Sunday, August 26, 2018

“She’s WHERE??? Where In The World Is THAT??”

This is what I imagine my friends saying when they learned my latest destination, which I did not reveal until I was actually here. 

On the afternoon I arrived in Bishkek, the country’s capital, I posted this photographic clue on my Facebook page. My friend Nan, in Texas was the first to figure it out, “Kyrgyzstan??” she commented back. I guess I thought this little dramatic Facebook quiz would be fun.

I did it to draw attention to the fact that most of us don’t know much about Central Asia. We learned a little bit about Marco Polo way back in sixth grade, but that is about all the attention our American education provided about the countries of the Silk Road. (And, back when I was in sixth grade, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union.) I confess, before last Christmas, I did not even know there was a country named Krygyzstan. So where is it? Care to take a stab? Here’s a map of this side of the world: 

(Scroll down to the bottom of the post for the answer.)

I got quite a few queries, “Kyrgyzstan??? Is that safe?” “How did you find out about Kyrgyzstan?” “What made you choose to go there?”

And the answers:

Yes, it is safe. In fact, believe it or not, our US State Department (which errs WAY beyond the side of caution!) considers it safer to visit Kyrgyzstan than India.

I first heard about Kyrgyzstan last December from a blog post my travel insurance sent out, “5 Reasons Kyrgyzstan is the Ultimate Nomads Destination.”

“Well,” I thought, “it MUST be safe if my travel insurance company is recommending it!”

After a year of travel in Europe, I was looking for an exotic destination—something to test my narrow comfort zone. I had thought about Nepal because the trekking is incredible. But, Nepal is overrun by tourists, which is a red light for me. So, the World Nomads article came at just the right time. I started my research. With each travel blog I read, the closer I came to deciding to visit. For months, though, I vacillated: I was scared; I was intrigued; What if people weren’t very friendly; Is it really a good place for an older solo woman? Is it REALLY safe? (This last concern came, I am sure, from my American-instilled prejudice and fears: surely any country with a name ending in “-stan” cannot be a place you would want to visit for fun.)

Finally, on July 3 I bought my ticket. Unless I wanted to lose over $400, I was committed to flying out of Tallinn, Estonia on July 26.

You don’t need a visa before arrival in Kyrgyzstan if you hold a passport from one of these countries.

However, I was still delightfully surprised on arrival that the visa stamp was so perfunctory. The immigration officer did not ask me a single question! (That sure beat the grilling I got from Irish immigration last December!)

I have now been here three weeks and I cannot fathom why I had any reservations about visiting. It is easy to get around, the food is amazing, the people are friendly and inviting, and accommodations are comfortable. I have felt completely safe wherever I have walked—even down the highway out of town after sunset.

The colorful Osh Market. Look at
 all that dried fruit and nuts.
Custom trail mix anyone? 
I stayed two days in Bishkek to shake off the effects of my overnight flight. On my first morning I was easily able to walk to the fantastic Osh market. You can read more about that here

My ability to just take off and walk the city streets by myself was a far cry from my first day of fear in Peru four years ago. When you keep pushing at those comfort-zone walls, they crumble down surprisingly easily.

The marshrutka (mini-bus) to Karakol was hot and crowded and the trip lasted six hours, but despite the discomfort, I found myself sitting still for two hours solid in an almost meditative state just trying to get myself to believe that I was really here. 

Kyrgyzstan is working very hard to build its tourism infrastructure. I was pleased to see that our own government is helping via USAID (Agency for International Development). Our US dollars are funding projects to help locals develop guest houses, trekking opportunities, and cultural experiences to encourage more visitors. This helps build local economies, meaning more jobs so people don’t have to emigrate to make ends meet. When we, as tourists, visit and learn more about other cultures, we become more tolerant and understanding: people in other cultures are different—and THAT’S OK! I feel that, especially in the United States, we have become so very insular that we too often forget that. 

Guest house in Jyrgalan that was renovated with the assistance of USAid. 
Sharing food: Altynai, my host in Karakol,
prepared Oromo, a traditional Kyrgyz dish.
Promoting tourism is an easy avenue to peace. Also, since these programs encourage the people in Kyrgyzstan to share their cultural heritage—food, skills, way of life, and beliefs—that heritage is more likely to survive the infiltration of modern society. And it becomes possible for the traditional ways to live alongside and intertwined with the modern. While traveling, I often feel apologetic for what a bully the US has become around the globe; but seeing our tax dollars used in peaceful and helpful ways brings hope to my heart. 

So…I plan to stay in Kyrgyzstan for almost the entire two months that my visa allows. Stay tuned…by the time I leave, I hope to entice you to visit here someday, too!

Here are a few teaser images just to whet your appetite. WARNING: Lots of food photos
—I have been trying lots of new tastes here! 

And here is where Kyrgyzstan is: 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Preparing Borsok with Altynai

My temporary "home," Happy Nomads
Yurt Camp, Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
I am fortunate enough to find myself as a guest at arguably the best guesthouse in Karakol, Happy Nomads Yurt Camp.

When traveling in a long-term/nomadic style, it is important to step out of traveling mode for a bit and relax. I enjoy traveling mode, but I also relish those times when I can step back and just make myself at home for a week…or month. I can work on knitting and design ideas, update my Facebook and blog posts (like I am doing now), meet the locals, and enjoy the new foods and how to prepare them. Also, slowing down is just about the only way to make lasting friendships. This is all very difficult when you are moving every few days.

A couple months ago, I started looking for a place to rest myself for a couple of weeks once I arrived in Kyrgyzstan. My research kept bringing me back to Happy Nomads with its lovely garden and cozy yurts. The research paid off…I am now ensconced for three weeks in a comfortable temporary home.

And speaking of food preparation. Here at Happy Nomads, when my host, Tynch learned that I wanted to learn how to bake Kyrgyz bread, he asked his wife, Altynai if she would like to teach a workshop in her kitchen. She agreed and offered to show us how to make borsok as well as mai tockoch (the decorative, almost donut-shaped bread seen in all the markets here.) Amy, another guest from the UK joined us.

For this post, I am going to concentrate on the preparation of the Borsok, thin diamonds of dough that puff up when fried—very similar to the New Mexican sopapillas. Borsok holds an integral place in Kyrgyz culture and it is found by the thousands at any celebration. It also serves an important role during the year of grieving after a loved one dies and is used to honor and feed the souls of the dead.

When we arrived, Altynai had prepared her table with a bowls of flour and other ingredients. To the borsok bowl, she added yeast and sugar, then then milk/butter mixture. She then added the salted water a little at time as she mixed the dough with her hands. We did not really knead the dough much…just mixed it until the bowl was clean. Then she lets the dough rise/rest in a warm area. It will not rise very much. (The recipe is at the bottom of this post.)

She then divided it into six balls and we rolled each one out on a floured surface until it was about ¼-inch thick. Then we cut the rounds with criss/cross strokes to make diamonds.

Heat the oil over medium heat. Altynai was a master at getting the oil just the right temperature—and she was cooking on a wood stove!! 

Add the borsok a few at a time, turning them in the oil for about 1 minute until the are evenly browned. Remove and cool just enough so you don’t burn yourself!

Here is the last step: Consume the borsok with tea and a variety of Altynai’s homemade jams and Jyrgalan Valley honey until you have thoroughly spoiled your dinner!

Borsok Ingredients:

About 3 cups (325 grams)  flour 
(hold out about 1/2 cup for flouring the table later)
2 teaspoon (5 grams) dry yeast
About 1 tablespoon (15 grams) sugar
½ cup (120 ml) warmed milk mixed with ¼ cup (55 gm) melted butter
Warm water, salted

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Dealing with Airport Taxi Paparazzi and Strategies for Market Shopping

I arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan yesterday morning. I hate overnight flights! I can no longer sleep on an airplane, no matter how much I pretend. This one was no different, except that it did not help that “dinner” was served at 2:00 am with all the accompanying chatter and lights. I should not complain, cheap seats are cheap seats and the goal was reached: Kyrgyzstan, a destination just a little outside my comfort zone.

I am beginning to feel like a seasoned traveler and I can pass along some airport advice: You finally arrive in a country that has consumed almost all your waking thoughts for the last six months—fearful thoughts, excited thoughts, how-am-I-going-to-react-to-these-people thoughts. But before you are legally in the country you must pass through the three trials: immigration, baggage claim, and customs. In Kyrgyzstan, these turned out to be perfunctory. But whatever the country, you are probably suffering from what I call “travel exhaustion.” Then, as soon as you exit customs into the “ARRIVAL HALL,” you face a gauntlet of taxi drivers with the manners of paparazzi. They all claim your dazed attention and all you are looking for is a toilet and maybe a cash machine. You are pulled along in a wake of other dazed travelers being lured away onto the pricey magic-carpet-rides into the city.

My first piece advice for exiting the “ARRIVAL HALL” unscathed: To every driver who gets in your face, say “NO…toilet!” and point vaguely down the hall. That will shake them off. If you are lucky, one may even point you in the right direction. Besides, you probably really do need a toilet and you don’t want to remember that after you are already in the taxi.

Next: Find a cash machine and get some local currency. When another driver approaches you, just say, “NO…cash machine!” If possible, try to find one as far from the hoard of drivers as possible, because now that you have money, they are VERY interested!

Next…and this is the most important:

Now your response is: “Coffee” as you mime drinking. Find an airport café, preferably far away from the “paparazzi,” although they will probably leave you alone while you are in the café. Get tea (just to be rebellious) and maybe something to eat. This solves two problems as you have also changed that 1000-SOM bill spit out by the ATM.

Sit down and take a deep breath. You have plenty of time to find your hostel. It is time to begin the process of savoring the fact that you are somewhere new. Pull out your journal and dump all your wrung-out stresses and fears there. Send out a Facebook post: “I am here!” Double-check your strategy for getting into the city. (Because, of course you researched that before you boarded your flight, right?) By the time the tea cup is empty, you are ready. Take an exit door somewhat away from the taxi mob and head for the bus stop.

You have just saved a great deal of money, because you figured out before you even boarded the plane how to take the local bus or tram into the city. (How in the world did I travel before internet??) If you didn’t, usually, there is a helpful tourist information counter near Arrivals, and they can help you out.

OR… it is okay to take a taxi, but it will be your choice now, not theirs. for my market story...

This kurut vendor loved my braids and
she got my business—measly though it was.

After mostly sleeping, and eating a little bit yesterday, I was refreshed this morning and ready to explore. Biskek’s Osh Bazaar is a mecca for market-lovers like me, and this morning I made a bee-line for it. I saw not one other obvious “foreigner” there and that surprised me. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. But at a few stalls, I got smiles and, “where are you from?” in broken English. Some of the women were entranced by my braids. 

This vendor asked where I was from. When I showed
interest in his black raisins, he insisted that I try
each one. They really do have different flavors.
And that brings me to my market-shopping strategy. If I am thinking about buying ingredients for lunch or dinner, I have a list, or at least some items in mind, like bread, some protein, fruit/vegetable, dried fruit, etc., leaving lots of options open. If I have time (and I usually allow lots of time for my first visit), I wander through almost all the stalls seeing what is available. If someone attempts to talk to me in English, I respond readily and ask about some of the items they are selling. The friendly ones often offer sample tastes. The vendors who are interested in me, (“where are you from?” for example) are the ones likely to get my business. Smiles are another great way to get my attention, even if they cannot speak English. When I was living in Peru, the five market vendors that I returned to week after week, were the ones who engaged with me meaningfully on my first visit to their market. 

How can you resist that smile?
Or that gorgeous bread?
And this does not mean the vendor who only smiles and points to his wares begging me to buy. No, they must be genuinely friendly—you can tell the difference.

Today, once I had a bag of goods in my hand, more vendors showed interest in me. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed before. But that is okay. More smiles generate more conversations—you never know where that can lead.

I was looking for kurut, very strong, sour, salty dried goat cheese balls. A well-seasoned traveler at the hostel had told me about these hard white or brown balls that I would see at the market. And there they were…table after table of white balls. It was a delight to know what this "something new" was. From the first smiling vendor, I asked for a sample. Whew, sour and salty it was! And I asked for a sample bag of several different kinds. It set me back a whole 75 US cents. 

And that was just an example of how much this little field trip cost me. I spent a total of 260 SOM ($3.80 USD). And there is more to try on future visits.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Robert, the Dog Optometrist

On April 14, it was time I said a farewell to the Outer Hebrides. I decided to take an early morning ferry from Berneray Island to the Isle of Harris. Later, I figured out that it cost me a whopping £40 more to return to the Scottish mainland on this route than it would have if I had returned to Castlebay and taken a ferry to Oban from there.

It is okay, though, because if I had not come to Harris, I would never have met Robert.

It was a VERY early, cold, and windy two-and-a-half mile hike to make the first ferry off Berneray. If I missed it, I would not be able to get to Skye today. I walked fast and waited until I was safely on the ferry before eating my breakfast. By then I was fairly “peckish.” Upon docking at Harris, I descended the stairs from the passenger cabin. There were only about four cars on this Sunday-morning boat and a man leaned out of a window of one of them to ask if I need a lift. Oh, those friendly Scots! I was about to accept heartily when a deckhand quipped, “Oh, he’s okay, but he may talk you to death.” We all laughed. Everyone knows everyone on these islands. Well, I was about to get an unexpected grand tour of Harris—complete with laughter and amazement! Is there any other way to see this island?

First off, I read the logo and company name on the side of the little van: “R. Dog Optometrist.” I did not understand the initial “R.” but was intrigued to think that there might be enough wealthy population on these sparse islands to provide adequate business for such a specialty. 

Once I was settled in the van, I asked Robert to explain his work. He proceeded to proudly tell me how he had built his practice from a small clinic in Stornaway on Harris to two clinics (one on Barra) and that he had a staff of nine! NINE! NINE? How many dogs could have eye issues on an archipelago inhabited by barely 15,000 people?? Not to mention the fact that most of those people were pretty traditional farmers. I could not imagine many of them utilizing the services of a dog optometrist, no matter how many dogs they had. I just kept asking Robert questions with my eyes wide open in amazement and saying “REALLY??” or “That’s amazing!”

About ten minutes from the ferry dock, we were talking about something else and Robert mentioned his practice again. And NOW I laughed so hard I could barely talk. Robert is a HUMAN optometrist. As I recovered, I had to ask, “Why in the world do you have ‘Dog Optometrist’ on the outside of your van?” He gave me an odd look and laughed out loud. Robert’s surname is “Doig,” and the sign says “R. Doig Optometrists!” He quipped that he had thought about putting a picture of a dog with an eye patch on the outside of the van. I was apparently not the first one to make this mistake. But I may have stayed under this mis-apprehension for longer than most—I can be a bit dull-witted at times.

Now that I was on Harris, I was regretting I did not have more time in the Outer Hebrides. Harris is magnificent—and when I say magnificent, I mean completely-out-of-this-world stunning. I could only look longingly at the landscapes and beaches we passed, wishing I could just get out and walk and walk and walk.

Robert, a natural born tour guide spoke eloquently about his world. He is extremely proud of Harris. When asked what time my ferry would leave, I had the right answer: 
Not for about three hours. Then he lamented that if he had known that he would have taken the longer “more scenic” route to Tarbert. More scenic? How could it be more scenic than these heart-leaping views of cliffs and beach? I was so spellbound, I forgot to pull out my camera.

He put on the brakes and made a hard right turn up a steep road. “I have something to show you,” he said. As he regaled me with story after story about what I was seeing around me. He pulled over at the beautifully-restored St. Clement’s chapel and took me up to the graveyard to show me the tombstone of a local man who lived, I think, in the 18
th Century. It mentioned that he was brave in battle and could wield a claymore with the best of them. But it did not end there…he married his third wife after the age of 70 and they proceeded to have 19…NINETEEN!...children. Quite a manly man he was! These Scotsmen…wow!

Back on the road, we headed back south and suddenly I noticed that we were back at the ferry dock we had come from. I looked suspiciously at Robert, “You aren’t thinkin’ that just because I thought you were a dog optometrist that I will believe that this is the Tarbert ferry dock are you?” Like I was some dumb tourist who thinks all ferry docks look the same. (Well…hmmm…I did believe he was really a dog optometrist for an awfully long time.)

“No,” he laughed, “To show you the church, we had to circle around. Sorry we will have go back up the west highway again.” Sorry? Sorry? Oh, what a shame, I would have to look at all those lovely cliffs and beaches yet AGAIN!

Robert is a very dapper Scotsman—proud to be wearing an exquisite Harris Tweet suit complete with waistcoat and a traditional flat cap. And now for his last job as my private tour guide: he let me out in the parking lot of the Harris Gin Distillery with a recommendation that I visit before boarding the ferry.

So, if you ever accept a ride from Robert, the dog optometrist, on the Isle of Harris, expect to laugh a lot, be entertained, educated, enchanted, and transported in more ways than one. But watch the time, unless you don’t care if you miss the ferry. 

Thank you, Robert, for a magical whirlwind tour of Harris. Ill be back!

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!