This has been one of the best gites that I have stayed in and certainly the most comprehensive in terms of support for pilgrims. Sheets on the beds, towels, washing and drying of clothes, an excellent meal last evening. For the foodies among you, here is the menu: Carrot soup, a cold pie of veal, ham, foie gras and caviar, salad, country sausages roasted with whole figs, bread and red wine as needed, caramel custard. And that is included in the 32 Euros for an overnight stay.
It’s a little bittersweet leaving the gite this morning. Most of the people here are going on to Moissac and from there a number of them are leaving the chemin to go back to work. I am going only as far as La Baysse, about 18 kilometres and about 8 kilometres short of Moissac, so I will likely not see them again. Even those who are continuing on will be a full day ahead of me, so I may or may not see them again. Many kisses and hugs and lots of “bon courage”. Out I go at 8 AM into the partly cloudy weather. It’s cool, there is a light breeze, threats of thunderstorms, perfect for walking. Out of Lauzerte, with great smiles and “bon chemin” from Michel and Bernadette, the genial and warm hosts at the gite Les Figuiers.
The chemin is on road for about a kilometre, then off onto a path which, surprise, turns sharply upwards into a woods. It is a long hard climb again and I stop several times to catch my breath. As I approach the top I can see that there is a tiny clearing and on the right hand side a low backless bench. I can really use a short rest, so I decide to sit down on the bench. It looks too good to be true … and like the witch’s cottage in Hansel and Gretel, it IS too good to be true.
It is very low and as I sit, I do not lean forward enough to compensate for the size and weight of the pack. I know just before I touch the bench that I won’t be here long. It is one of those life’s experiences best experienced without an audience.
In extreme slow motion I tip backwards flailing my arms and poles in a desperate and unsuccessful effort to avoid the inevitable. Down I go on my back on my backpack … in the mud. Then, like a turtle, I discover that I cannot turn over or get up. Suddenly I have a lot more respect for overturned turtles. I have to unclip the two clips that hold my backpack on, wriggle out of the harness and turn over, now with both knees on the mud, to get up. Happily, no-one comes up the trail to see any of this, so I am able to get my gear back on and get out of there, leaving the trap fully set for the next unsuspecting pilgrim.
Yesterday I spoke for a while with Mike, the Aussie whom I met in Conques. At that time, he had told me that his first walk to Santiago was quite spiritual for him, but the last two have had no religious or spiritual overtones at all. I asked him yesterday whether anything had changed since then. He told me no, that this walk was for him a holiday but that the spiritual part was not there at all. He was looking for it, it just was not there for him.
Today as I walked I thought about this. Was there a religious or spiritual element in this journey for me? Or was I just having a holiday (although it doesn’t feel like one)? And as I walked on a quiet country road, alone with the morning and the birds and the wind, the answer came to me in a flash. How could I have been so blind, since the spirituality is all around me? It is in my fellow pilgrims, as well as in the people working in the gites, by conviction and often as volunteers and, by extension, also in me. Their spirit of caring, warmth, concern, yes even love, has been all around me since I started the walk.
Imagine, if you will, a world of people who are friendly with each other, even strangers, ask about your well-being … and are genuinely interested in the answer, share without being asked when a need is evident, a world where help is offered freely whenever help is needed.
This is the world of the chemin and the world of the camino. The spirit of the people on it makes the chemin. Are they touched by the spirit of God? Some think so. I don’t know, so I can’t say that they are or that they are not. I think that this is what we can be when we reach for our enormous personal potential for good.
It doesn’t seem to me that we need to call on another power to be able to treat one another with respect and value each other as individuals on the same journey, this journey of life that we are all making together. The chemin that I am on at this moment is just a microcosm of what the world could be like, if people would give up their lust for power, for advantage over one another. I like this world of caring and respect and love a lot more than that other one of fighting and clawing each other.
The rest of the morning is anti-climax. It’s a mix of road and path, the path always muddy. One section is an uphill piece, between two farmer’s fields and the mud is so slippery that it is one step forward, half a step slide backward, and so on. It is not very high but it is very exhausting, especially since there is nothing to hang on to and the probability of falling is very high. I should worry – I am already pretty muddy from what will be forever known as the “Lauzerte bench incident”. In the event I do not fall and I do reach the top, where I stop for five minutes to recover.
At the 14 kilometre mark there is a town with a restaurant which is nicely placed to catch the pilgrim traffic – and there they are, 5 or 6 people from this morning’s breakfast. I stop, have a beer and a couple of bananas, share a bit of dried sausage from one of my friends and finally head out for the last four kilometres for me today. For whatever reason the body does not want to cooperate, so I walk very slowly and it takes me an hour to walk the distance, all on road. I spot the sign and turn in to this gite. La Baysse, once again, turns out to be a single home, not a village.
I am the only pilgrim here at the moment here, although two Italian guys come in later. I sleep for 90 minutes and feel much better. I wash out my clothes, hang them out to dry – it promptly rains, and discover to my delight that the gite has WiFi so I can talk to Carroll using Skype. The magic of technology.
I acknowledge that there is an argument that we should eschew technology while we are on the chemin, to allow us to be alone with our thoughts. But last evening I was able to talk to and see my two grandchildren in Canada. I have no problem being alone with my thoughts … and I don’t think that I have to be here to do this.
The chemin is just a place and time where it is easier to slow down, feel your own heartbeat, sense the heartbeat of others and recognise that in so many fundamental ways we are the same. I think that we can do this no matter where we are. We just have to make the effort.
I use technology today to communicate with one of the Italians, with whom I have no common language. But on my iPad I have an app called iTranslate that allows me to communicate in English, he in Italian. It’s not perfect but allows us to communicate … and that is the first step in understanding. I can’t figure out he can be here without any French, but he is with another Italian whom he met on the camino in Spain four years ago.
And at dinner, with our hosts, there is my friend from Vichy. Eating with our hosts is another first. All six of us sit down and eat together. We eat all food produced locally, pea soup, pork from within five kilometres, strawberries produced in a nearby town. The hosts, M. and Mme. Heinrich are foster parents to troubled children. It takes a very special kind of person to take on the catastrophes that can happen when parents are not able for whatever reason to bring up a child.
At 9:30 we finish an animated conversation and head off to bed. It’s cold, so there will be an extra cover on the bed tonight.