Hot Times on the Camino

August 11, 2013

Last night’s dinner at the albergue was over the top. I debated briefly before deciding to eat there because I was craving meat and papas fritas. I’m really glad I decided to stay because they were serving vegetarian paella which is cooked in this big clay pan.

We started with appetizers and a choice of three wines followed by an amazing salad. Then with a flourish, chef Miguel entered the room with a huge pan of paella garnished with red peppers and dates. I’ve never tasted this dish before, but I can recommend it highly. You may need to travel to Villatuerta to enjoy it however.

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After the paella and a bit of wine, I slept really well. There were only two of us in the room so no earplugs were needed (at least for me). I woke up around 6 am and slowly got organized. Nancy (see last blog) had walked the Camino before and she asked if I would join her on the scenic bypass around Estella. I had noticed it in the guidebook but probably wouldn’t have taken it on my own.

We finally got rolling around 7:30, found the turnoff to the scenic route and quickly got out of town. The path immediately turned to single track and then overgrown single track. Luckily there were the familiar signposts so we kept going no matter how sketchy the path became. At one point we crossed a bridge over a very clear river so I immediately checked for signs of trout. Immediately below me under the bridge was a 24-inch trout. That’s it. Next time I’m bringing my fly rod.

One of the features of the scenic route was that it passed through very few towns. In fact, there was only one town along the entire 15 mile path. I had gone shopping the night before so I had enough food and water the make it to the town. We stopped for lunch around 1130 and it was already really warm. There was a pool at the restaurant but I didn’t have time to enjoy it.

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At the lunch stop was Tim, a guy from Australia that I had walked with a bit yesterday. Tim is currently living in Wurzburg, Germany where he dances in the local ballet company.

Here’s Nancy and Tim.

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I looked at the map and I calculated about 10 km to our final destination, Los Arcos. What I didn’t calculate, however, was the heat of the midday sun and the absence of any shade along the way. There were some nice hills thrown in for good measure. By this time it was over 80 degrees and we were walking on light colored gravel roads that bounced the heat back in our faces. I had enough water so I was trying to power it down, Grand Canyon style. I don’t think I could have walked another step after reaching the town.

The recommended albergue, Casa de la Abuela, was already full so I settled in at the also recommended Casa la Fuente. Definitely a step down from last night but quite adequate. A number of my friends from last night are also staying there.

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The Tough Life of a Pilgrim

August 10, 2013

The journey of a pilgrim is not easy. There are many hazards along the way – blisters and getting lost are the small prices to pay. The road can be very dangerous as well. The descents are very tricky and loose stones are everywhere. You sometimes have to walk on the roadway and there is no shoulder to provide a margin of safety from oncoming traffic. I can’t imagine what it’s like when it rains.

I’m reflecting on this as I sit by the swimming pool in Villatuerta enjoying a cold beer.

Since I walked a few more miles than expected yesterday, I planned to walk less than planned today. I got on the road by 8 am and walked to Puente La Reina for breakfast of coffee, juice and a croissant, There’s a really cool Roman bridge as you leave town.

Other towns were spread out fairly evenly so I didn’t have to carry much water or food. The path was really busy today. There were several sections that resembled traffic jambs. The good part was that I was able to meet a lot of folks, including two brothers from Oberammergau who participated in the famous playa in 2010. I also walked with two ladies from South Africa who were carrying small packs and using the luggage transport service. Their only question about my albergue was about the bathrooms. I don’t think I’ll be seeing them in any algergues along the trail. Also walked with an Australian ballet dancer who was working the the company in Wurzburg, Germany. He had broken his foot during a performance (ouch!) and was therefore taking some time off for rehab.

I got to walk quite a while with Jill and Murray, a lovely couple from New Zealand. We walked quite a while up some very tough hills and their age did not seem to be a burden. Turns out Jill had both knees replaced in December. She was also a breast cancer survivor. We talked quite a bit and learned that he was a chemistry professor at University of Illinois when I attended in the 1970’s. I told him I had never taken a Chemistry course in my life and he said “Lucky guy.”

I finally rolled into Villatuerta around 2 pm and settles in at Casa Magica, a very cool private albergue run by Simone and Miguel. Simone used to work for Disney in NYC and France but somehow ended up running an albergue on the camino. I think a number of people have found themselves in similar situations. After checking in I was joined by Nancy from Laguna Woods, CA, about 15 minutes from where I live. The small world continues to shrink when she tells me that she used to be General Counsel for a Orange County homebuilder that I know very well.

So I’ve completed my laundry and walked back to the municipal pool for a quick swim and reflections on the hardships of the Camino.

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Back on the Camino Again – Part 2

The albergue in Obanos was less than half full when I checked in around 3 pm. I thought this was odd because I expected beds to be hard to come by in August. I took a shower and did my laundry and headed down the street to have a beer. They offered a pilgrim menu at the bar where I stopped but the vibe didn’t suit me so I decided to check out the other restaurant in town. The place was closed but the sign outside said they offered a pilgrim menu at 7 pm.

Shortly before 7 another pilgrim showed up for the meal and he joined me at my table. His name was Carlos and he was just finishing his camino from Arles. Arles is the southern route through France that crosses the Somport Pass and joins the Camino Frances at the church in Obanos (see photo in previous post). Carlos was born in Chile but moved to Canada at an earlier age. He was ex-military and a veteran of many caminos.

The restaurant owner showed up after 7 and offered us a beer while we waited for dinner. I turned out we were the only pilgrims so we spent a lot of time shooting the breeze with the owner as he cooked. After a few beers and a plate of local olives, our dinner was served. It was definitely not the typical pilgrim fare. First a huge tomato, cucumber and onion salad with an excellent oil and vinegar dressing. Then came a fresh local trout, well prepared with pommes frites. A nice bottle of red wine and Carlos and I were soon talking about religion and politics like old buddies.

The curfew at the albergue was 10 pm so about 9:45 Carlos and I paid our bill and headed back. When we walked in we saw that almost every bed had been filled but no other pilgrims were in sight. A few minutes later, they all showed up at the same time as they had all been at dinner together at the first bar I went to. I hit the sack and was sound asleep before the lights went out.

Looking back on first albergue experience, it was pretty good. The place was clean but very simple – one shower and one toilet for each sex. They kept the windows shut at night so it got very warm quickly. Folks started moving around 6:30 which was fine with me because I was up too. I was ready to go by 7:30 but ended up hanging around a bit longer to upload my previous post.

Back on the Camino Again

August 9, 2013

Ok, where was I? Oh yeah. Leaving Doha and flying to Madrid. Piece of cake. The plane was more crowded than Jakarta-Doha but I still got my favorite seat – aisle on the exit row. The middle seat was occupied by Nicole, who had also flown in from Indo after spending time with her family in Oz and Bali. Nicole is a recent real estate school graduate so we had quite a bit to talk about. Her trip is eight months long, so I felt like a lightweight only being a gone a month. I felt better when she picked up her 75 liter pack from the carousel. I’ve seen sherpas carry less.

Going through immigration and customs is ridiculously easy. I think it took about two minutes. Nice change from Indo and the good ole USA. Grabbed some euros at the ATM, bought my train ticket to Pamplona and asked about my refund at the Qatar Air counter. They sent me to their downtown office which was right on the way to the train station. Said it was open until 6 pm.

I moved efficiently via commuter train and foot and arrived at the office a few minutes after 5. Guess what? The office closed at 5. Qatar is making it very difficult to get my refund. I actually think it was a long shot because i didn’t have the credit card with me but I wanted to give it a try nonetheless. Kath will try one more time in Bali.

My train to Pamplona left at 7:30 pm and it arrived right on time at 10:40. A quick cab ride to the Hotel Eslava and I was sleeping by 11:00.

Today was an up and down day. I slept well until 3 am and then off and on until 6. Not bad after a 6-hour time change. It took me quite a while to get going. Lots of organizational stuff. I had never put all my gear in my pack before but it actually swallowed everything well. It’s still less than 15 pounds so I’m happy. After a leisurely breakfast, I wandered around Pamplona for a bit. Checked out a new pilgrim equipment store that opened since we were here last year. Turns out the shop owner led a student group to Orange County last year and stayed in Newport Beach/Costa Mesa. I’d say “small world” but you already know that.

After that I really had a hard time getting going. Lots of bathroom breaks (TMI) and looking at this and that. Finally left the center at 9:15. t’s a beautiful walk out of Pamplona through the university campus. You’re quickly into the countryside and slowly climbing the famous Alto de Perdon, which has the iron pilgrim sculpture and wind farm. It’s not a bad climb (spoiler alert) because you actually go olver the shoulder of the peak rather than the top.

By this time I had shaken off my early morning blues and was cruising along singing and whistling. I moved along from town to town, walking alone and greeting other pilgrims when we passed. I got to Uterga still feeling great so I continued on Obanos. It’s only 4.4 km but I really hit the wall during that stretch. Dragged my butt into town and grabbed a bed at the first albergue. It was 3 pm and I had walked 21.8 km or about 13+ miles.

More later, I have to hit the road…

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The Road to Madrid – Part 2

The news was not good. Without the credit card used to purchase my airline ticket online, I would not be able to get on the plane.

But there was a workaround. I could buy a new ticket for $1000+. This was not really good news but I tried to stay calm. It didn’t work. There seemed to be a choice between two bad alternatives. If I didn’t get on the plane, the value of my original ticket was lost. That’s $900+ out the window. If I got on the plane, it would cost me $1000 on top of my original $900. Hmmm.

The agent offered a glimmer of hope. He would accept the $1000 as a deposit. If I could somehow get my credit card to the Qatar Airways office in Bali, there might be away to get my money back for the second flight. I looked at my watch which now indicated 15 minutes to takeoff and decided to buy a new ticket.

The agents sprang into action to run my credit card, get me the seats I wanted, pay my departure tax, and check my hiking poles. I asked if they were holding the plane for me and they said it wasn’t even boarding yet. Hmmm.

I grabbed my boarding pass, said a few half-hearted thank you’s (why??) and bolted through the terminal. To my surprise, the boarding area was full and no one had boarded. I looked at my watch. 15 minutes after takeoff time. Then I looked at the airport clock. 45 minutes until takeoff. It was then I realized my second bone-headed move. My watch was set on Bali time, which is one hour later than Jakarta time. I had an hour more than I thought. I don’t think it made any difference in the outcome, it only cost me a few more anxious moments. I got on the plane and we took off a little after midnight. The day was already eighteen hours long.

Since then things have gone pretty smoothly. I arrived in beautiful downtown Doha at 4 am local time. About 90 degrees and HUMID. Isn’t this supposed to be a desert? World’s longest bus ride between the plane and the terminal. I swear it was at least 30 minutes long. It was like a tour of all the wonderful airport facilities. And on your left is the toilet servicing area. Right next to the catering kitchens. Here’s the cargo area and here’s where my cousin works in airport security. I think I’ll stop and say hello. Finally we reach the transfer terminal and get blasted by the a/c.

Did you you can buy a Bentley GT at the duty free shop in Doha? I wonder if they still have the guy hand it to you as you get on the plane. Mr. Schlesinger, here’s your carton of cigarettes, fifth of Seagram’s and Bentley GT. Wait till the guys in economy see this!

But I digress. Oh, one more thing. I know airport food is expensive but should a double latte really cost $6+? I should have priced the Bentley.

So now it’s 6:30 am local time and back to the tour bus. Since it was dark when we landed, let’s drive by all the wonderful airport facilities in the daylight to appreciate all their magnificence. My cousin has finished his shift but I think my brother-in-law just punched in at baggage handling. Actually, it was cool to see downtown Doha which looks exactly like you would expect a UAE capital to look like. LOTS of high-rises in white undulating shapes.

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The flight left about an hour late because we were waiting for a few late transfers. Or maybe they had trouble loading the Bentley in the overhead.

Retreat – Part 2

On the quiet, less developed north coast of Bali there’s a retreat center called Gaia Oasis. Kathryn and I first “discovered” this place during our first trip to Bali in 2008. Since then, we’ve made it a regular rest stop during all of our trips to support the Bali Children’s Project. This is my third visit and Kathryn has been here five times so she knows the staff and greets them warmly when we arrive.

We found the Gaia Oasis when we booked a 3-day excursion out of Ubud, Bali’s primary cultural center. The tour included a visit to the volcano and two nights at the retreat center. You reach the center by taking a path through the jungle. The path ends at the reception center where you receive a coconut to drink. As soon as we arrived, we recognized how much this place reminds us of our annual family retreat. (see previous post). The center was founded by Germans and still draws most of its clientele from the continent. In fact, we met another American family a few nights ago, and they are the first ones we have ever met. I should note that the family is currently living in Marrakech, which is a little different that bumping into a family from the midwestern US in Myrtle Beach, SC.

Here’s a typical day at Gaia:

1. wake up at 6 am to watch the sunrise over the Bali Sea
2. yoga at 7 am (ride on back of motor bike to mountainside annex)
3. breakfast at 9 am
4. chill until lunch (swim, read, whatever)
5. lunch
6. chill until dinner (same as before, perhaps add a massage if you’re ambitious)
7. dinner
8. chill until bedtime
9. bedtime around 9 pm (maybe 10 pm on a big night)
10. repeat next day

Whenever we’re here in August, there are seminar groups led by Lex van Sumeren, who is a big New Age musician from Germany. Remember New Age? I thought it had passed into the great mini-storage unit in the sky but I guess it’s still around. Good ideas just never die. Gaia is a logical place to hang out with New-Agers, as you can probably tell.

It’s also a great place to charge my batteries before my long trip to Madrid tomorrow. I figured out that I’ll be 25 -1/2 hours in transit, which is even longer than my LAX-Bali flights. I’ve got two long layovers in Jakarta and Doha, so perhaps I’ll have time to write another post. In the meantime, I’m savoring the last few days in Bali.

A few pictures below from Gaia Oasis, including a shot of some young local dancers.

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Bali Children’s Project

Part of my wife Kathryn’s annual trip to Bali includes a visit to the schools sponsored by the Bali Children’s Project. Kathryn has been involved with the charity for the past four years and has become the unofficial leader of the Southern California chapter. My role is to support Kathryn in small ways, usually through accounting, physical labor and my superb luggage packing skills. I love it when I can get within a pound of the maximum weight per bag. My dad would be so proud!

BCP is a true grass roots organization. When Kathryn first contacted them when she was searching for a college application project for our kids, their response was completely open-ended: “What would you like to do?”

The non-profit organization consists of individuals around the world who have travelled to Bali and have been touched by the kindness of the people and beauty of “The Island of the Gods.” As in many developing countries, many families in Bali have to face the difficult choice of educating their children or having them stay home to help support the family. This decision is exacerbated by the cost of education. BCP can support a young student in Bali for about $100 per year but this amount still beyond the means of many parents.

To break this cycle, BCP identifies the children that are most in need and pays their education expenses for as long as necessary. Through the Southern California chapter, we are currently supporting about 40 students and the number grows yearly as people learn more about the work we do.

This year, we’re especially excited because one our southern California donors has funded the construction of a new kindergarten in a remote village. The students from this village had previously been held back for one or more years in first grade because it was their first classroom experience. Now they can enter first grade on the same level os students from surrounding villages. The village leaders donated the land for the school and BCP is funding the construction and two years of support. After that, the village must figure out how the continue the operation.

I love the BCP because it is a true volunteer organization that provides a direct connection to the people who benefit from it. There is no paid staff and if you feel a need to serve, BCP will find a way to use your skills.

BCP also has great leadership on both sides of the Pacific. The local coordinator is a 25-year old woman named Iluh, who is herself a graduate of the program. Iluh’s story is remarkable but not unique to the families of Bali. When she started 1st grade, Iluh and her sister walked an hour and half each way to reach school. Since school started at 8:00, that meant she had to walk in the dark because the sun rises around 6:00 all year round. She carried a torch to light the way through the jungle. This story beats anything I’ve ever heard about walking to school. When the suns goes down, Bali is a very dark place.

A local gentleman named Nyoman noticed the two girls walking to school each day and offered to help. At first the girls were hesitant but gradually he earned their trust and started to support their education. From this act of kindness, BCP was born.

Iluh was a very bright student and excelled in school. When she graduated from high school, she decided to continue her education at the university and at the same time give back to the people who had supported her for 12 years. She became the local coordinator for the program and has more energy packed into a tiny body than anyone I’ve ever met. See photo below.

Iluh is now married and has a two-year-old son and is expecting another baby soon. She wonders how she will be able to juggle the demands of motherhood, her studies and leadership of the BCP. I know the challenge is significant but with her tenacity and intelligence, she will no doubt continue to achieve great things.

http://www.balichildrensproject.org

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Purification

I’ve already been in Bali for four days but I haven’t had a chance to post anything until now. I arrived on Sunday afternoon local time after 22 hours in transit from LAX. My son Collin and his friend Reme travelled with me and the flight was actually pretty good – I was able to grab an exit row seat for both legs which makes a big difference when you’re tall.

We had a lovely dinner the first night which gave us a chance to catch up with my wife Kathryn and her friends who had arrived about ten days earlier. We are staying in a fabulous new villa that lies near Ubud, a major cultural center. All eight of us are enjoying the luxury before we head up to the mountains for more basic accommodations.

Our schedule the first day was hectic but fun. We got up early and rode mountain bikes through small villages and rice fields into Ubud. The trip took us along local narrow roads and even some footpaths with occasional stairs. After the bike ride we hopped in a raft to continue our journey down a small local river. We finally rolled back into Ubud around 4 pm and dropped into a day spa for a massage. needless to say we were cooked after all that activity and jet lag.

But our day wasn’t over yet. That evening we went out to dinner and a traditional dance show. Luckily it lasted only 45 minutes so we got to bed at a decent hour.

So here’s a brief aside on what it’s like to be in Bali. I’m writing on the patio of a nice hotel in the Munduk mountains region. The room costs $20 per night. We just had lunch for 4 persons and paid $20 with tax and service included. Now here’s the best part. As I’m sitting here enjoying the stunning green mountains and distant Bali Sea, I’m watching two guys in the tree about 30 feet away. They’re picking cloves while standing on single pole ladders about 30 feet off the ground. They have large white bags which they are filling with cloves that they pick individually. As they work, they chat amiably back and forth. The best part about Bali is the people.

On our second day in Bali we arranged an early morning trip to Tirta Empul, one of the most sacred places in Bali. We arrived around 7 am, before the crowds and vendors turn the grounds into a circus of humanity. In the early morning, the ritual of purification is free from distraction. Our friend Wayan is joined by his sister and together they become our spiritual directors for the morning. First, we prepare our offerings of flowers and incense before entering the two pools. We are clothed in traditional sarongs and enter the cool water carefully to avoid the stone bottom and resident small fish.

At each spout that enters the pool, I pray for a different intention – my relationship with Kathryn, the welfare of our children, my new business venture. I pray for our friend Wayan, my mother in Arizona and my wife’s parents in San Diego. I find that each spout eases my tension and acceptance fills the space instead. After leaving the pools, we move into the inner temple grounds to make our final offerings and prayers.

Before going to the temple, I was tired from the long trip and hesitant to get up early and return to a place I had been twice before. As I left the grounds, I realized it was an important step on my journey of letting go. To emphasize the point, we heard the clatter of workers and equipment as we left. We had arrived before a major maintenance project that would have prevented us from our ceremony. The circus had begun.

Our home in Ubud.

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The Road to Bali

In 1952, Paramount Pictures released the move The Road to Bali starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Bali was the sixth of seven “Road” movies and the only one filmed in color. I remember watching the film several times when I was a young man and I still marvel how  much fun a movie can be without special effects.

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The reason I mention this today is that I have two connections to the movie: the first is that it was released a few days after I was born. The second, and more relevant, is that my road to Bali starts tonight at 1:55 am when I fly from LAX to Denpasar.

As I finish packing and paying the remaining bills, I’m feeling more apprehensive than I usually feel before a big trip. I’m sure a major unsettling influence is that I ended my job of 11 years about an hour ago. One month on the road and not sure what will be waiting for me when I return.

The reaction I’ve received from my now former co-workers is congratulations and a fair bit of jealousy. It seems that everyone would be like to take a month off from work sometime but there’s always a reason not to.

Stacking Stones

In my last post I talked about our annual Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria. This time I’ll share a secret family ritual that we have enjoyed during the retreat over the years.

Afternoons at La Casa are less structured than the mornings and evenings so one afternoon we grab our kids and head down to the beach for some family time. A number of years ago we found that someone had stacked stones to make a series of freeform temporary sculptures. Since I’m an architect and my wife and kids are all artistically inclined, we took the opportunity to make some sculptures of our own. Years later, what started as an impulse is now a favorite time of the week because it’s a chance to simply be ourselves.

As I look at the photos of this year’s creativity, I realize that stacking stones is an apt metaphor for what we do in life. No two sculptures are ever alike because the stones demand different solutions. No two people will stack the stones in the same way. There’s inherent risk and reward. Do you pick the safe placement that will withstand the wind and inquisitive touch of passersby? Or do you build some crazy cantilever that may only have a moment of glory before clattering back to the sand below? Will you try to build the same tower over and over again because it worked once in the past? How do you build the same stack when the stones are all different?

It’s all about balance.

Of course, we don’t build our stacks in silence.  There’s the usual family banter of encouragement and criticism about the work at hand, but after a while the conversation drifts into important exchanges about our children’s lives. In recent years, as the relationship between parent and child has adapted to adulthood, these conversations have become more and more significant – how do we deal with the challenges of life, the joy, the sadness? How do we take risks? Do we lean on our family when we need to?

How do we stack our stones?

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