24 May Aroue to Ostabat

This morning it’s foggy, very foggy and I leave with the prospect of a longer day ahead, about 24 kilometres. After a while in the fog, I start to think about life and how the fog is a good metaphor for the future. I am walking confidently along the chemin, taking note of the excellent signage and I can’t see 100 metres in front of me. Of course, the analogy fails when I look behind me because in life, the past is quite clear, just a little hazy because there is so much of it. Here what is behind me is as foggy as the path ahead. In life, I stride confidently along, thinking how lucky I am and in fact I have absolutely no idea what is out there.

I understand that at some point the luck will run out and, at 75, it’s likely to be sooner rather than later, but so far the run has been just fine. Somewhere out in the fog that is the future there is a precipice waiting for me. It doesn’t alarm me, because I do not fear death. It seems to me that death is as natural as birth and as necessary.

Imagine the world if nothing ever died. There would be an awful crowd of old people – can you imagine the bingo halls? – to say nothing of old toothless crocodiles, old monkeys that keep falling out of trees, birds walking everywhere, you get the idea. Would we be wiser … or just older, a lot older?

And at the end of life, there is often pain. But because I am an optimist – to be a helicopter pilot, which I was a very long time ago, one has to be an optimist – I think that any associated pain will be manageable.

Mostly I am curious. I think that the end of life is the end, full stop. But of course I could be wrong. Perhaps this is only the introduction to a, for me, unimaginable future. I guess I will just have to wait and see. Don’t get me wrong – I am not in any hurry. This raises a question for me. Why is it that people who are deeply religious and confidently expect a glorious afterlife are so reluctant to get there?

As I am walking along deep in thought – well, knee-deep in thought, I am brought up short by a stone on the path. My right ankle twists sharply to the right and only the boot keeps my foot from going completely over. I get only a brief shot of the pain that warns of a sprain and then it’s okay again.

My whole trip has almost come to an ignominious end. That would be really annoying, to have the whole adventure shudder to a halt because of a stone in the road. Yet, isn’t that what often happens in life? Just when things seem to be going well, there is a stone that twists your ankle and throws all the plans out the window.

The fog lifts and it gets warm but there is no sign of the promised mountains. I did see them briefly some days ago as I left Aire sur l’Adour, but nothing since. After one last climb for the day, I get to the gite, the Ferme Gaineko Etxea (It’s Basque and the ‘tx’ combination is pronounced ‘ch’, which makes it Echa), which is absolutely nothing like the farm at which I stayed last night. That was a farm. This is more like a hotel, except the rooms aren’t private. It’s well organised and well run and has a magnificent view to boot.

When we are shown to our shared room , there is a funny moment. Two men, Jean-Pierre the Belgian and I are taken to our room. There is a Dutch woman already there, in a partial state of undress. This is hardly unusual on the chemin but when we get asked if everything is OK, we both say that it is, but the Dutch woman says; “Pas pour moi”. She gets herself organised and disappears. The she returns to say that she is changing rooms, to one with a couple of women. This a first for me on the chemin.

I have never seen someone refuse a bed because of the sex of the other people in the room. It just is not an issue. I discover later, talking to her, that this is her first day and she did not expect to be alone. An experienced friend had convinced her to come along, then the friend got sick and will join her in a couple of days. I expect that her attitude will soften after a few days, but it is understandable now. She is expecting hotel and getting gite.

My roommates are Jean-Pierre and two cyclists, one a Dutch woman, a fit 50 and the other a young German guy. Everyone is fine with this.

Dinner is served for 40 people, many of whom are pilgrims and some of whom are tourists. It actually works. It’s likely that the aperitif of Muscadet and the plentiful red wine during dinner helps break the ice.The Basque who runs the gite is a short chunky guy,, with a – of course – black Basque beret, about 70 with a great voice which he exercises by singing us Basque songs and getting the crowd to sing along. One of the songs, of which everyone seems to know the words, is sung very enthusiastically to the tune of ‘She’s Coming Round the Mountain’.

He is a proud Basque which may be redundant, because all the Basques seem to be proud of their independent heritage. By the time dinner is over and all the red wine has been drunk, we can all sing in Basque, probably separatist anthems. He tells us a little of Basque history and culture, including the fact of the uniqueness of the Basque language. They are keeping the culture and language alive by running free schooling for all.

I go off to bed full of red wine and Basque songs running around my head.

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