Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Stia - Camaldoli - Badia Prataglia 25 kms How lovely on the mountains

I stretched the stiff muscles and we went out to dinner in Stia.  The restaurant was only 2 minutes away but the heavens opened and we donned our raingear for the short journey.  I didn't mind as this was to be the Shrove Tuesday banquet. Tomorrow the start of Lent and following family tradition no booze and little meat until Easter. My head was full of pasta y fagioli soup,  my very favourite, and perhaps a steak or lamb.  This evening I'd splash out on a Chianti or Barola reserva. The brightly lit restaurant was warm and inviting.  The waiter stepped forward and as I started to take off my jacket he said, "sorry gentlemen, the entire restaurant is booked this evening for Carnival." Alarmed we asked if there was anywhere else open and he directed us to a Pizzeria along the road. As we walked along in the rain I felt a little crestfallen but we were soon at the Pizzeria.  Jam packed with people the man at the door looked doubtful but asked an older woman who was bustling about.  She looked at us dripping in the doorway and beckoned us in.  In a jiffy she pulled a table out virtually into the entrance corridor and told us to sit.  My mood darkened.  Ever the sensible one the Big Man whispered "we can't leave, there may be nowhere else." The menu arrived. I searched for soup, I searched for meat. It became clear that the señora who had seated us was the mother of the restaurant and clearly the boss.  I asked about food as she passed by.  "Pesce, pesce,  pesce"  she cried.  "We don't do meat here."  I took a deep breath and decided I would have the mussels to start and a pasta to follow.  The señora seemed pleased but was back in a moment to tell me there were no mussels left. Stephen sensing what would happen next said,  "stay right where you are or we'll be out in the rain and starving."  I nearly saw red but hunger and good sense prevailed.  "I'll just have a salad to start," I said.  The señora seemed pleased as I pointed to a line that started "insalata". Both starving the atmosphere was tense.  Not only sore and hungry I was worried about the weather and the very difficult walk in the morning when we were planning to combine two stages.  The first very difficult. We also needed to carry food. In short I was being His Majesty The Baby. Then with a flourish the señora placed my "salad" in front of me.  Pulpo on a wooden board just as it would be in Galicia.  This was so improbable I burst out laughing.  The señora asked why.  We explained I lived in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia,  the home of pulpo.  "The Camino?" she said in very broken English.  And in a few sentences she knew we were Scottish and all about the current pilgrimage.  Saying no more she turned with a "leave this to me"  attitude.  The pulpo was delicious in fact.  But almost instantly a foccacia dripping with molten mozzarella almost covered the table.  Next a giant jug of wine. She set it down with only one word "Scottish".  We set to and polished off the food. "Still hungry?" she said as she ushered still more diners past our table.  Before we could reply she shouted "two spaghettis" to the kitchen.  Out came two steaming bowls. She was beaming.  Then she appeared with what looked like a mound of chocolate. "We only have one of these left,  eat it quick."  Two spoons appeared.  This was the most delicious tartuffo I have tasted in my life.  The bill was ridiculously modest and she gave us directions to find the supermarket in the morning.

Back at the hotel I set my alarm, closed my eyes and woke 7 hours and 45 minutes later not by my alarm but by the Big Man who was fully dressed and sporting a carrier bag with freshly made sandwiches for our journey.  He'd gone out to find the start of the route, met the señora from the restaurant in a coffee bar, followed her directions to the shop and returned victorious.  And it wasn't raining. I asked him if he'd also recited morning prayer and jogged round the Plaza a few times as I put the pillow over my head. 

By 8.30 we said goodbye to the helpful staff of the excellent hotel Albergo Falterona. No sooner had we taken a few steps than hail poured down on us, cold and wet.  The guidebook had warned us of a stiff hike uphill that could take 6 hours and we were apprehensive.  However within a few kilometres of what proved to be a hard climb up to the start of the really hard stage the skies cleared and the sun shone. The view became increasingly spectacular and the few local people we met smiled and said " up,  up,  up."  We were walking strongly and well protected against the chill wind.  We spoke about Lent and the symbolism of the ashes dispensed to Catholics on this the first day.  We wondered if we would get our ashes that evening when we arrived. Most of all we were agreed that Lent should be more a time of change for the better than just giving something up. A time to give more.  This was very reminiscent of the lessons I had learned on Shikoku.
Up we went to encounter a charming little church in the village of Lonnano. It was open and there on the altar we found everything laid out for the Mass of Ash Wednesday including the ashes of course.  The village priest wasn't there but I had one with me and with a prayer Stephen blessed me with the ashes using the modern form of words, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel".  As he said this I remembered vividly the older form of words which my mother often repeated,  "remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." I shared with Stephen that in saying this my mother explained her philosophy that we are only given this one life and we should wring every drop of fun we can out of every day. 

Soon we settled back to what was a glorious day's mountain walking that was becoming increasingly steep.  Throughout this day on the mountain we saw many trees felled by the winter storms. None more so than on the ledge we had to negotiate as we went up.  At first I thought the way was impassable. Two large trees had blown down and with them a mountain of earth and mud blocked the ledge.  Because of the drop to the right I got on hands and knees in the mud and found handholds in the roots which allowed me to swing over and round - always leaning in to balance the weight of my rucksack.  On another day with rain or snow we would have had to turn back.  I was relaying where the handholds were to the Big Man who was now also in the mud when I heard the retort,  "your family must have been a real barrel of laughs if this is your idea of wringing every drop of fun out of the day."

But we made it and following a break for some chocolate and water we set off up a steep mountain path which over 3.5 kms would take us to the top.  This was very strenuous walking which had to be taken slow and steady with plenty of stops. Looking back we were ascending at 2 kms per hour. We joked that this was like getting on a step machine at the gym for five or six hours with an invisible hand increasing the incline regularly.  But no gym could ever reward with such spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside

The temperature was dropping as we went up and soon we were above the snow line with remnants still around.  Exhausted but pleased we reached the road at the top and made our way down through the picturesque forest to the Hermitage of Camaldoli.  The hermitage has a dual life.  One of a monastic community and the other where members live separate lives as hermits with the simplest of existence.  A fascinating place it has been there since the 11th century. Although very unusual the aesthetic way of life seems to me to be like a spiritual counterbalance to the fancy frills and material excesses of other parts of the church. There was a café open to the public - with heating and hot coffee!
Fully restored we made our way down to the next village about 2 kms away.  From there we had only 8kms of straightforward walking to get to our hotel.  As we walkers all know sometimes going down is as tough as going up and the descent was painful. The forest was dotted with waterfalls cascading over rocks and we could easily understand why the guidebook described it as a "fairy-tale"  forest.

Reaching the Monastery of Camaldoli we spotted the sign which would take us onto the last 8kms which the guidebook promised would be positively relaxing in comparison to what had gone before.  First I had to sit down to rest.  One of the problems of winter walking is that it if there is no shelter it is warmer to keep moving.  As I sat for a few minutes a portly figure wearing an apron appeared from the door of the Monastery.  He came over and we struck up a conversation.  I have found in Italy that if I speak in Spanish slowly they understand a lot. Thankfully the Big Man was on hand to help with the bits not understood. This was Germano a brother in the Benedictine Monastery.  He explained that there are 35 in the community both priests and brothers.  The fratelli. This is a medieval Monastery and spreading his arms wide he explained that all of this enormous forest as far as the eye could see and beyond belonged to them. "This is our work"  he said.  A genial and peaceful man I enjoyed talking with him.  He chortled with laughter when I suggested he walk to Rome with us.  But time was marching on and we stood to get going again.  "Where are you going?"  he asked. "To the next village of Badia Prataglia where we are sleeping tonight." "Then I will take you he said,"  pointing to a white van.  We said we had to walk.  He said he had to drive us.  "Would Saint Francis have accepted a lift from a Benedictine?"  he laughed. There was no sensible answer to that and so we accepted gratefully this modern expression of the traditional monastic hospitality given to pilgrims.

We're bone tired.  The hotel here is modest and draughty. The temperature has dropped again.  We asked about food and there was good news: the lady gave us a huge tureen of minestrone followed by piping hot tagliatelle and then two hot chocolates.

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings Good News.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Consuma - Stia 17 kms

I'm tired. My feet have gone from being numb to throbbing. I'm fine when I don't move but when I do everything hurts. 

We all know that feeling at the end of the day.  Oh I can hear you saying but it was only 17 kms.  Well...

The day started very well. I'd slept soundly and in the apartment Irina lets out the heating came on at 7am.  The weather was bright and clear. Irina picked us up and took us back to the Pastelería for breakfast.  After paying the very reasonable bill we set off. Within minutes were out of town and although at times the path was tough going the sun broke through the clouds and everything changed.  We had a glorious day walking. More vistas were revealed.  We lunched on sandwiches Irina had given us and we made our way up hill, down dale and across several streams on our way to Stia.  This was perfect walking weather and a lovely stage today.

Some elevations were nippy and some of the downhill stretches were really quite tough hence my aches and pains.  But today was so lovely I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

More soon!

Pontassieve - Consuma 18kms Castles in the air

I found it difficult to get up this morning although many of the aches of last night had gone.  The first few days are always like this.  Breakfast in the very adequate Hotel Moderno was splendid and although the skies were still grey there was no sign of rain and the locals weren't carrying umbrellas.  The guidebook advised that we should take food today as the only bar in Diacceto may not be open.  It wasn't but we were able to feast on fabulous sandwiches of prosciutto and tomato we purchased as we set out.

Although the stage today is only 18 kms it has some bite with an overall elevation of 1000 metres.  For Scotsmen and experienced walkers at 3280 feet that qualities as a Munro.  My first since Shikoku over a year ago.

The thing I often find about these challenging stages is that they are immensely therapeutic. The exertion of walking inexorably uphill over a considerable distance focuses the mind.  I find repetitive prayer,  like a mantra or the rosary enhances the rhythm of walking and the mind clearing effects. This is brainwashing in the best sense.  Today we paced ourselves carefully because we also wanted to enjoy the vast vistas of the beautiful Tuscan countryside which revealed more and more glories as we climbed.  The Castello di Nipozzano now a wine factory looked down on us in the first part of the day.  Then the guidebook advised: "soon dramatic vistas of the forests and mountains around Pelago become visible and a castle like villa and the pointed yellow tower of Chiesa San Pietro in Ferrano can be seen to the right."  We were not disappointed and I stood at the doorway of the church of San Pietro and gazed at the magnificent panorama of the valley below.

Whilst talking about the guidebook let me say that Sandy Brown and Cicerone have done a first class job. Routes and therefore facilities for pilgrims only develop because guidewriters write guides.  The section of this route from Florence to Assisi has until now has had few walking pilgrims. Sandy's guidebook and the sheer beauty of the Way guarantee growth in pilgrim numbers.  However the route has no coherent system of waymarks thus far.  There are red and white GR markings around and a confusing mixture of local signs for walking paths which criss cross the route.  This means that Sandy's walking notes are often a description of what he saw in front of him when he wrote the guide.  But things change, often quickly, through the cycle of the growing season and things you can see in October might be totally obscured a few months later.  Similarly it was apparent several times today that junctions, particularly on forest paths, can change completely when a new track has been driven because of forestry work.  So until there are waymarks I'd advise caution in these early stages.  Walkers need to keep their wits about them,  have a sense of the direction in which they should be going, not be slow to ask directions even for reassurance and also perhaps to carry a GPS. Yesterday and today we had to backtrack a couple of times to get our bearings when the route wasn't clear.  The navigation app on my phone helped enormously.  Yesterday I wrote at one point "the guidebook failed us"  but that was wrong because in the absence of permanent and clear waymarks guidebooks can't forsee every eventuality. 

By mid afternoon with a couple of hours to go through the forest the weather broke and we hurriedly donned our raingear. The mist hung low over the trees and the temperature dropped.  But we were soon greeted with a welcome shout from Irina at the Pastelería where we had booked rooms. She drove us out of the village to apartments in the woods she let's out. Warm and rustic with great central heating the socks are drying and we'll be ready for 7.30 when she will pick us up to take us to dinner.

Consuma is a small village famous for schiachiatta bread and Irina's father Marcello is a gold star master baker.  Irina claims Consuma to be the home of foccacia the flat bread of Italy.  Whether true or not dinner consisted of a starter of cold meats,  cheese and schiachiatta followed by pasta with spicy sausage and porcine mushrooms.  This is mushroom growing territory and they were delicious. 

I thought, "here I am up a mountain,  with the rain lashing down outside and I'm eating fabulous pasta with homemade bread all washed down with a large Chianti. God is good!"

Tomorrow more climbing. Let's hope it is dry.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Scotsmen and lasagne- Florence to Pontassieve 23.8 kms

I love Florence. Everything about it.  So obviously do Americans as I almost heard more American  accents than Italian.  But it is understandable that so many from the new world come to this fountain of the Renaissance.  I live in a medieval city but this one is special. To be honest I find it almost overwhelming.  When I visited Rome the first time with the choir I conducted years ago we arranged a programme to sing in Saint Peter's and then a different basilica every day for a week.  Before starting though I visited the Sistine Chapel. I could easily have cancelled the week of recitals and just stayed there lying on the floor.  Florence affected me the same way. I'll return again and again. 

We went to Mass in English in the Cathedral. It was a cold night and so was the priest.  He had on lots of lace and seemed very pleased with himself.  I wasn't. 

For Mass before we set out on this Route of Saint Francis we went to the Church of the Holy Cross where we would get the first stamp.  When we presented ourselves the guard at the desk told us to ask in the next booth,  when we did that the attendant had to phone someone else.  The feeling that there aren't a lot of pilgrims on this route was reinforced when we reached the appointed place next to the cloister.  "Timbro"  we asked.  He looked blank.  Showing him our bright new credentials we made the stamping motion familiar to all pilgrims. Expressionless he turned and opened a cupboard.  It was obvious no one had ventured there for some time.  Under a pile of debris he produced a stamp, blew the dust from it and stamped the first box.  "We're off walking to Roma"  we said. What might pass for a smile of concern reserved for the gravely ill crossed his face as we left. However the Mass was a delight in this the largest Franciscan church in Italy.  The priests were smiling and warm and the parish choir did their very best.  It was quite moving leaving knowing that after a light supper and an early night the next adventure would begin.

Next morning the sky was grey and heavy and there was rain in the air.  It was cold but we were well layered! There were no waymarks and so we followed the detailed walking instructions in the newly published Cicerone guide.  No more than 4 kms later we were out of the city and thereafter the route followed 20 kms of sleepy roads and tracks through beautiful and charming Italian countryside. We crossed wide valleys where stone farmhouses and villas seemed to majestically preside over all before them. Olive groves and uniform lines of funereal Cypress trees complete the picture.  We greeted local people and we were always rewarded with a smile in return. However we did get the impression that pilgrims especially foreigners were not common.    Several times we had to ask for directions when the guidebook failed.  I deferred of course to the Big Man who holds a Bachelor of Philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome. That was some time ago but his fluency was demonstrated as he took to smiling before sticking the guidebook under the nose of some innocent local and asking "Dove?" whilst pointing to where we were going.  However it worked!

I hadn't done much serious walking for a year and by around 15 kms I was starting to flag. We were also starving. Entering Cecia we noticed the shops and bars were closed.  Attracted by a group a few hundred yards away we made our way along to what appeared to be an open restaurant. As we walked through the door into a very busy dining room the chatter around the tables fell silent.  Children stared. People with their backs to us turned to look.  A fat bulldog under a table raised his big head and growled.  This was like the wild west.  A young waiter passed several times with eyes cast down. But the sight behind a counter was at that moment more glorious than Michaelangelo.  There was a huge wood fire with a spit roasting whole chickens,  rabbit and huge,  delicious sausages. Talking returned to normal when platters heaped high with bread and roast meat and french fries were passed from a hatch. Eventually the Big Man stood in front of the oncoming waiter.  He asked in Italian if we wanted to eat and pointed to a small table amidst the crowd.  As we sat down grateful to get the weight off of our feet a man at the next table who looked just like Pancho Villa fixed us with an intense stare. We got his meaning.  One word out of place and we'd die. 

After an interminably long time the waiter appeared to tell us all they might not have left.  He said one or two words of English. We pounced with compliments.  "Are you English?"  he asked recoiling at our frowns.  When we mentioned Scotland he lit up. "Alex Fergusson" he said several times.  Now I know nothing about football and particularly how football crazy are the Italians and so when Stephen said,  "Yes,  I know Sir Alex" the waiter stopped dead in his tracks.  He obviously told the others in an unintelligible burst because the level of interest in the two foreign backpackers went up several notches. Then I think just from sheer hunger the Big Man's customary reticence disappeared and he added "and David Beckham". This needed no translation. The waiter gasped and Pancho Villa looked as if to say "they're having a laugh, let's kill them now."  But through the wonders of the Smartphone the Patrons of the Big Man's charitable organisation were proudly displayed.  The waiter embraced him, Pancho smiled and suddenly there was lasagne left. 

As for waymarks there were none dedicated to the route but we turned a corner and there on the side of a house was a plaque which says: Santiago de Compostela 2056 kilometres.

Good omens today.

Friday, 5 February 2016


I look at the wardrobe where a long line of crisp freshly laundered and pressed shirts hang.  In many shades the blue, green, grey and brown stand there waiting for an outing.  There are formal shirts which expect classy cufflinks and their smart but casual cousins.  Striped and lined.  Thick and thin. Button down and stiff collars.  To the left hang more brightly coloured short sleeve linen shirts. They have a long wait for summer.  No wonder I often dither about which to choose.

There are a lot.  Much to the delight of my daughters I have no excuse to complain about their addiction to shoes.

My eyes move from this array to the bed where there is a much more modest assortment.  3 sets each of socks and underwear. A base, mid layer and outer fleece lie beside a rain jacket and trousers.  Gloves,  beanie hat, toiletries, medication, spare lightweight shoes and phone charger complete the gear which when stored in my rucksack weigh a total of 6 kgs. These are the simple clothes of pilgrimage.

No matter how many thousands of miles I've walked I'm excited and slightly afraid of the adventure before me.

The Big Man arrived from Barcelona still glowing from his visit to the Sagrada Familia.  Yesterday we provided the music in the church of San Agustín for the 94th birthday of Fr Calo who still says mass every day.  If he can do that,  I can walk from Florence to Assisi to Rome!

Following a shower with everlasting hot water I dressed in the simple garb of we pilgrims. Walking trousers and fleece.  No freshly laundered shirt.  It will be like this for a while. There will be no complicated choices of what to wear.

As I hoist on my rucksack I my eyes rest fondly on my pillows.  My head will rest on about 30 different ones before it returns to the comfortable and familiar pillows of home.

Several last nervous checks later,  water, heating, lights all off.  Passport, tickets,  guidebook.  The taxi is at the door.  And we're off.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Personal Safety on the Camino to Santiago

Johnnie Walker’s Hints and tips

Safety on the Camino

The Camino to Santiago is generally a very safe place for pilgrims. However accidents do happen and like anywhere else pilgrims must take precautions against crime. Above all common sense must prevail.

Do not leave your belongings unattended – keep your valuables with you at all times – even in the shower in albergues.

Carry a mobile phone – or have access to one. Telephone numbers of the emergency services are on the reverse of this card.

Stay alert – be aware of where you are and who you are with. Trust your instincts about strangers.

Walk with another pilgrim – if you feel at all nervous or simply want company.

Wear a reflective vest – Spanish law requires everyone walking on roads or close to traffic to wear a
reflective vest before first light and after dark. These are available from gas stations and many shops and supermarkets.

Keep copies  -  of your passport and any important numbers in a separate place from your purse or wallet.

Arrange insurance - have appropriate travel insurance which also provides cover for health care. Keep the insurance company helpline number handy.  

Trust other pilgrims – but only to the extent you know them. Don’t forget the basic precautions you would take anywhere.

If something happens – Do not hesitate to call the authorities if something happens which is of concern to you. Just as you would at home. The numbers are on the reverse of this card

Above all – have fun!  But don’t forget that the Camino is the same as all other situations where there are people. Use your common sense.

Emergency Numbers

Before calling the emergency services if at all possible work out your location from your guidebook or by asking other people.

112 is the general Emergency Number in Europe. They will answer very quickly even if there is no credit on your phone. Explain slowly and clearly that you need to speak to an operator in English if that is the case.
062 – The Guardia Civil
091 – National Police
092 – Local Police

Each of these services has their own areas of responsibility. However they advise that when in doubt simply phone them and they will decide which force should best respond. 
061 – Health Emergencies
080 -  Fire Service

Victims of Crime
There is a dedicated an English-language telephone number for victims of crimes who wish to make a police report but do not speak Spanish. The number is  +34 902102112. It operates from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. daily.

American Embassy in Spain
+34 915872200

UK Embassy in Spain
+34 91 714 6300

Irish Embassy in Spain
+34 914364093

Canadian Embassy in Spain
+34 913828400

South African Embassy in Spain
+ 34 677535146

Australian Embassy in Spain
+34 913536600

New Zealand Embassy in Spain 


Monday, 27 July 2015

The Great Shikoku Adventure – The Gifts of the Pilgrimage

After 9 hours of deep sleep I was at breakfast at 6am. Outside it was cold. Snow was forecast on the mountain which loomed ahead. Today I would walk to Temple 66, the “Hovering Clouds Temple.” Mist curled around the tops of the trees in the distance. The ascent was going to be steep.  At 3060 feet the Temple is at the highest elevation of the route.

“How on earth did you get here, John?” I wondered as I set out up the hill. 
It all began with my first pilgrimage in 2007 the Via de la Plata when I walked from Seville to Santiago. I didn’t speak any English for almost three weeks and didn’t meet another pilgrim between Seville and Salamanca. Solitary? You could say so. I could barely speak Spanish and when I needed to communicate I wrote what I wanted to say on a piece of paper using a phrase book. That journey altered the course of my life. I had previously been going to Seville in the summers for years previously, living right in the heart of the old town I played the organ in a local church, developed a network of friends and planned a life of easy retirement sipping chilled sherry beneath the orange trees.  However on that first long road to Santiago I now know I experienced a number of important things.  I realise that in my late 50’s I could still meet the physical challenge of walking 1000kms. I began to learn that I needed very little with which to live. I carried everything I needed on my back and despite everything I had read I still carried too much. I got bad blisters early on and I quickly realised that the less I carried the less pain I experienced.  Without knowing it at the time the same process was going on in my mind.
I had spent the years before setting off on Camino doing difficult jobs. High pressure. I had come through a messy divorce which sadly had inflicted pain over too long a period. My relationship with my children had inevitably suffered and even a couple of years after the event I was still mourning my mother’s death. To this day I remain surprised at how often I think of my parents who have both been gone for some time. Combine all of this with some smouldering   resentments which I could still nurse back to full flame and you may begin to understand some of the stuff I had packed in my rucksack for the journey.
However I felt happy enough. Financially secure and able to give up working full time. I had been attracted to the idea of walking the Camino to Santiago as a way of marking that transition.  I wanted time to myself to enjoy the peace and solitude of rural Spain; time to think, to eat tapas and drink good wine.  All of these ambitions were fulfilled but in those 1000 kms I also received a number of precious gifts: I became deeply convinced that my life should be simpler and that I needed to dump a lot of things about which I could do nothing. I needed to stop controlling, trying to fix the unfixable, change the past. The bottom line is that that first Camino taught me that if all else failed, if everything else in my life came apart at the seams, if I woke one morning with nothing, I could pack a rucksack and simply follow yellow arrows and be happy.  That reassurance gave me a profound sense of freedom and wellbeing which remained with me all of the way to Santiago and far beyond. I fell in love with Santiago, moved here and became involved in the life of the Camino. The rest is history.
Amigos Welcome Service
 For these last five years I’ve loved living in Santiago and developing projects to welcome pilgrims to the City. My relationship with my children has improved, most of the time, and I live a life of fairly simple routine with lots of long lunches. However in my heart I have still been striving to change things and often I get angry and frustrated when people and institutions refuse to cooperate fully with my plan. Looking back over my life I have a list of the guilty in this respect:  the government, the church and my daughters are very good examples.  Here in Santiago through the projects we’ve developed the welcome offered to pilgrims has greatly improved but it has been exhausting dealing with the agencies involved. By the end of last season I wanted to get away from it all on a long, challenging pilgrimage.

Shikoku was certainly that. Long, hard and demanding at every level.  The Temples, the scenery, the food, the culture, other pilgrims all coalesce to make the experience special. But there is a unique feature to the 88 Temple route which sets it apart and made it an extraordinary experience for me. I had read about the practice of “osettai” before I left.  Osettai are gifts which local people give to passing walking pilgrims. I had read before to expect locals to offer me drinks or fruit, some nuts or even a sandwich.  There are one or two websites where the authors give a daily tally of “walked 23 kms, paid 30€ for bed and breakfast, received 3 ossettai today – green tea, a biscuit and 2 mandarin oranges.”    Before I arrived I thought that this was a quaint custom like the few places on the Camino routes where locals leave out fruit. Little did I know.
In Japanese culture politeness has been elevated to an art form.  You are immediately struck by how helpful and polite Japanese people are, to the point where it appears to border on servility to Western eyes. I came to understand the difference between ritual politeness typified by bowing – everyone bows and the deeper the bow you give the deeper the bow you will get back. On the train the ticket-checker bows to everyone even when leaving the carriage. This act of respect is symbolic of how helpful Japanese people are, often to an extraordinary degree.  During our pilgrimage everyone we asked for directions or assistance went out of their way to help. Not just once, every time. A typical example was asking a man in a garage for directions. He pointed the way. We walked on for about 5 minutes when he drove up in his car. He had closed the garage and followed us to make sure we had not got lost. Another time we arrived in a town starving. Little was open and we came upon a place selling pizzas. They had run out of dough. We sat at one of the free picnic tables having a drink to make a plan for where we might eat before we found our accommodation. Around 15 minutes later a pizza appeared in front of us. One of the customers eating at a nearby table had seen our plight, got in his car, driven to a nearby pizza shop purchased a pizza and delivered it to us. We tried to give him money. He was almost offended.  These are just a few of the many, many examples of kindness we received from Japanese people. Then the ossettai started.
On that first day when I took ill a woman appeared at the front gate of her cottage. “Ossettai” she declared and held out a tray carrying ice cold tins of green tea and biscuits. From that moment every day was like being showered with kindness.  The ossettai we received are too numerous to list. Strangers in a supermarket would put cakes or sweets in our bags after we had paid, bills were paid for us in restaurants, walking along the road a car would stop and hand us a bag of fruit, or chocolate. People came out of their homes with artefacts they had made or home-made delicacies. On a bus one day another pilgrim went forward and paid our fare without saying a word. The other passengers applauded when we got off. A priest in a church we visited gave us an envelope containing the equivalent of 100 euros. A woman had handed it in. Dinner for the pilgrims.
We met a western pilgrim who eventually gave up and went home who thought this was all a little patronising. He said he felt like being patted on the head. I never once felt like that. I did wonder how much of this gift-giving was superstition. Be kind to a pilgrim and get good luck. There may be an element of that. However the thing that struck me most was the look of pleasure on the face of every single person who gave us ossettai. The Biblical lesson “it is better to give than receive”  is being lived on Shikoku. On a grand scale

 Over the 50 days walking the gifts did not stop. They came in the most unexpected forms and often when we least expected it. Walking alongside a busy road a car stopped and halted the long line of traffic. The window rolled down and a hand emerged with a box of chocolates. Ossettai.  Another day a woman emerged from her roadside home. A note was pressed into our hands. “Stop for coffee” she said in broken English. On another road a car stopped. “Are you pilgrims walking all the way today?” enquired the young Japanese man. When we said “yes” he reappeared with two packed lunches. “You must eat pilgrims”, he said and drove off with a wave.
At the start I was a bit embarrassed about taking these gifts. I also felt guilty. I can afford to buy everything I need and the gifts came from ordinary working people.  I also felt a little like a spectacle. Pilgrims singled out.  But as the days wore on I began to realise that I needed to accept these gifts with better grace. They were acts of generosity by people who simply wanted to give without question or qualification. That bothered me more and more because of the growing realisation that although I think of myself as a generous person thinking nothing of buying lunch or gifts for friends actually my giving has been very judgemental. Lunch for friends but not a penny to the beggar in the street.  “Let them work as I had to” being amongst my more charitable thoughts. And yet here were these Japanese people giving to a stranger, a foreigner, unconditionally.
Rain, sleet and snow at Temple 66
We struggled up the mountain to Temple 66 through rain, hail, sleet and snow. Everything was wet. The wind was an icy blast chilling us to the bone.  We reached the Temple and sought shelter to change into dry clothes before making our descent. The day was bitterly cold and when we reached the road at the bottom of the hill we wondered where we might get some hot food. We were gathering our thoughts and feeling very sorry for ourselves when a very elderly man on an ancient bicycle approached.  Looking as if he was in his late 80’s or 90’s he moved the pedals laboriously until he came to a stop beside us.  From a broken plastic crate attached with string he handed us two parcels wrapped in newspaper. They radiated heat. He had roasted potatoes on the fire at home on this coldest of days. Hot food for the pilgrims.
That one act of kindness from that old man was a moment of realisation. I saw that the islanders and their ossettai were a powerful demonstration that people are capable of great goodness. The ossettai were for me the affirmation that in this world individual acts of kindness which might seem small can count for a huge amount. My role is not to change everything around me. My job is to become less mean and judgemental and place fewer conditions on what I give emotionally and materially. I have to become the change that I want to see in others and the world.
What were the gifts of this pilgrimage? A roast potato and a whole lot more.