A Celtic Concern
Monday, 27th October:
I don't get to Santiago until late in the afternoon. Seven miles out, the rear wheel goes flat from a slow puncture. After stopping twice in the space of a mile to pump it, I am finally obliged to repair it, which necessitates the complete unloading of the bike. This combined with a soaking drizzle, which started early in the morning; serves to put something of a damper on what I had anticipated should be a triumphant entry into Santiago. I then get somewhat lost and end up circumnavigating the town and the cathedral before finally ending up at the northern doorway on Praza de Immaculada, rather than the normal pilgrim arrival point of Praza do Obradoiro. I somehow expected to be seized by emotion and memories of the pain endured to get here at my first sight of the cathedral but these don't come either.
Instead all my focus turns to negotiating the maze of narrow streets to find somewhere to stay and temporarily abandon my bike. I try a couple of budget hostels listed in my Lonely Planet without success, so eventually I opt for the cities only all year campsite a mile and a half from the cathedral.
It continues to rain for the evening and it is quite late by the time I am ready to head back into town, by which time the cathedral has shut so it will be tomorrow before I complete my pilgrimage.
Tuesday, 28th October:
My visit to Santiago's cathedral does prove to be quite moving. The place is very "In Your Face," with a whole array of designs and architectural styles all competing with and yet strangely complementing each other. There is one particularly evident beggar among the many who hang about here. He is bearded and ragged and rather persistent in his methods. On my first visit, early in the day, I drop one hundred pesetas into his tin foil carton. Later as evening falls I return to view the lit interior and am again confronted by what I have come to term; "The Cathedral’s Conscience". I expect it's a rather profitable pitch for him, figuring that he got two hundred pesetas from me and God knows how many more pilgrims dropped one hundred pesetas or more in his collection plate in the intervening eight hours. It's rather hard to refuse actually in such a setting. In the guise of a pilgrim you have suffered and been humbled and offered up the pain in penance on the way to Santiago. Now finally here, in such a frame of mind, you cannot really balk when the poor ask for alms.
Throughout the day around the town, I notice posters advertising a celebration of "Oiche Samhain" (Halloween) in the colourfully named Galician Cafe Bellos Farto. I decide to go along, in the mistaken belief that it is to be an evening of Celtic music and dancing. Instead it turns out to be a lecture and slide show on various Celtic traditions associated with death, burial and the afterlife. I sit through what I have no doubt must have been an enthralling and quite riveting (Everyone else was anyway) talk of over forty-five minutes and understand perhaps one percent of what is said. Not to feel left out however I laugh and gasp and look awry at the appropriate times, as all around me are doing. Afterwards most people seem to have left and I'm sitting with a beer writing about the experience when one of the girls from the bar upstairs comes down and says
"You must go upstairs now". I wonder if the place is closing and prepare to leave but she says, "No, no, you must go outside for the ceremony".
Outside in a courtyard the man who has given the lecture has attired himself in robes akin to a druid and is preparing a concoction in a great big blackened pan. He pours two bags of sugar into the liquid, which, it transpires later, contains quite a proportion of some sort of alcoholic spirit. After he has stirred in the sugar with a big similarly blackened ladle and added the juice and rinds of a few lemons he sets the liquid ablaze and continues to stir as he proceeds to explain the purpose of his actions. The ceremony strikes me as not dissimilar to the Easter Paschal ceremony of light and darkness, signifying life after death. For ten minutes or more he explains and begins an incantation, which, at various points, we are all invited to join in, repeating certain chants. All the time he continues stirring occasionally lifting up a ladle of the flaming soup and pouring the blue liquid fire back into the pan. It's a mystical but also quite eerie experience, which incites frequent giggles and even laughs from the crowd. Eventually, when the flames begin to get lower he completes the proceedings and blows it out. Then a jug is produced along with a packet of plastic cups and we are all invited to partake of the incinerated Halloween brew. It is a very sweet, and very strong, toe curling drink and, after three glasses, I'm nicely warmed and glowing quite contentedly. In my intoxicated state I return to the darkened interior of the pub with a fuller appreciation of Gaelic Celtic traditions and attempt to write of what I am feeling.
I am under the confident belief that I can understand Spanish. At least I now have an appreciation of the gestures and mannerisms, which offer a useful foothold in the appreciation of any language. This combined with the state of drunkenness, when all ones reservations about inability to converse in another language disappear, is in itself (in my belief anyway) the significant key to learning any language.
Wednesday 29th October
I had planned to rise relatively early today and sort out my bicycle before departing Santiago sometime in the early afternoon. Instead, it is about nine-thirty before I even surface and after eleven before I set about rectifying the problems of my bicycle.
The main task of work on the bicycle is the fitting of my newly purchased carrier. It is a wonderfully sunny day and I labour away in shorts for the better part of three hours, sorting out all the accumulated niggledy little mechanical problems. The work completed, and with my clothes and sleeping bag airing in the sunshine, I head for the toilet block for a shower before my departure. Upon my return, I begin to reflect where I might reluctantly dispose of my old carrier. Assessing the condition of it, held together with spokes and insulating tape, it is surprisingly sturdy and really not in all that bad of condition and apart from my sentimental attachment, it strikes me as rather wasteful to throw it away. This is when I fall on the idea of attaching it to the front of the bike. With a few small modifications it fits quite snugly. By this time the afternoon is dragging on and as I survey my possessions strewn randomly over an area ten feet square, I decide that I might as well spend another night in Santiago, especially since I recall reading somewhere that Molly Malone's Irish pub has live music sessions on Wednesday nights.
As the sun descends through the trees, and illuminates the horizon in a crescendo of brilliant colour, I dine on a very tasty re-hydrated Tagalatelli Carbonara.
I am sitting in Molly Malone's with a pint of mediocre Guinness when a song comes on, which has been in my repertoire for a week or more, but which I failed to make mention of before now. The Sawdoctors Will you meet me on Clare Island? is a brilliant evocation of everything that is Clare Island. For a moment the words transport me to Nora Daly's pub and I remember a bonfires-night spent there sixteen months back, when I half intentionally missed the last ferry to Roonagh and had to spend another night on the island. All so I could instead catch Chris Grady's Pirate Queen into Westport Quay the next morning.
Thursday, 30th October
I depart Santiago in more brilliant warm sunshine after posting the obligatory postcards.
Heading south, out of town, I make for Galicia’s celebrated Rijas, four fjord-like sea inlets to the north of Vigo. In the late afternoon, I arrive in the town of Padron and turn right to follow the road out along the south side of the Rija de Arousa towards Villagarcia de Arousa. As another magnificent hazy sunset decorates the horizon I cross the two kilometre long bridge onto the isle of Arousa, where I set up my tent on a grassy sandbank facing the mainland town of Canbados, whose lights illuminate the rippling tide in the darkness. By the light of a candle I cook up some pasta as I observe two boats fishing by torchlight some hundred metres off shore. (I presume they were fishing, smuggling is allegedly still quite a popular profession in these parts!).
Later I tune into RTE to hear that the turnout for today's presidential election is estimated at a very disappointing 50%. Although I've largely missed out on the past four weeks of the campaign, my limited radio listening only truly offering me a very tentative sense of it. I suspect that the awfully low turnout is due to an increasing apathy as the campaign progressed, but also to a belief, unfairly I think, that none of the candidates are capable of filling Mary Robinson's shoes.
When I left Ireland Adi Roche was still favourite for the job, despite some very nasty personal attacks on her from former colleagues in the Chernobyl charity with which she was involved. As the campaign went on, it seemed to turn increasingly dirty, with allegations and counter allegations being levelled by various candidates’ camps as well as third parties. I had been quite impressed during the summer by a Liveline interview with Mary McAleese when she was seeking the Fianna Fail nomination for the presidency in the face of a seeming insurmountable challenge from the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds.
I was initially among the majority that regarded the candidacy of "Dana" Rosemary Scanlon's as something of a major joke. My view only started to change when one night in La Rochelle, I tuned into a particularly intense interview conducted with her by Vincent Browne on his Tonight show on RTE radio. This, along with an excerpt from another Rodney Rice interview featuring all the candidates, led me to strongly believe that the wider media, particularly that section that might warrant the liberal tag amongst Irish conservatives and more devout Catholics, were hostile to Dana. It increasingly seemed to me that this section of the media were quite indignant that someone, with the creditentals of Dana, could dare to stand for the lands highest office. I think they might have been less put out, indeed probably openly supportive, had a "trendy issue" candidate such as a crack addicted prostitute decided to run for president.
The main preoccupation of any interviews with or profiles of Dana seemed to be aimed at focusing on the most prominent issues with which she had professed or come to be identified with. Solely or predominantly the interviews seemed to be aimed mainly at demeaning or rubbishing the causes for which she stood up for. In all her interviews I listened to Dana trying, mostly without success, to divert attention and the line away from this aspect of her candidacy, in the hope of addressing the other significant issues being covered by the other candidates. And during the campaign I found my sympathy and admiration for her growing in the dignified way she handed the hostility.
Friday, 31st October; Halloween Night:
Towards nightfall, as I dismount to push my bicycle up a particularly steep section of hill, a man emerges from a house and greets me in broken English. He enquires where I'm from and upon hearing Ireland says "AH, MARY MCALEESE, NEW PRESIDENT", For the ensuing five minutes we engage in quite a considerable conversation. He tells me that he learned his English during his time in the navy but unfortunately, he apologises, has forgotten most of it by now. However I enjoy the encounter and the friendliness and spontaneity of the conversation leaves me greatly cheered.
It is dark by the time I arrive in the picture postcard perfect little port of Hio. By the light of an orange street lamp, I erect my tent amidst the many little fishing boats drawn up on the sand. I am joined by a passer-by who stands around, observing my actions and engaging in occasional conversation. He remains there while I cook up some pasta and open a bottle of wine. At this stage his presence, in the absence of continuous conversation, is becoming a bit unnerving and I am wondering when he might, or how I might make him, leave. Thankfully another man approaches along the road and my friend goes up to talk to him. After about five minutes conversing they both leave and I turn my attention to a remarkably clear reception of RTE., where the official declaration of the result of the first count of the presidential election is being delayed, in the absence of one of the ballot boxes from the Aran Islands. For the next two hours I doze and listen intermittently, and the clock bells of the local church sound The Bells of the Angelus to indicate the hour. At around midnight the action on the radio transfers to Dublin Castle, where a final result is about to be declared. Not surprisingly, I hear that Mary McAleese is to be Irelands new president. The next twenty minutes or so are taken up with the concession speeches of the defeated candidates who all speak admirably and in a very dignified manner. Finally the president elect gives an optimistic and inspiring perspective of her vision for her presidency. She talks about her hopes for being the president to bring Ireland into the next century and millennium. She strikes a chord when she talks about Irelands ability to take a significant place on the world stage and finally she deals with the theme of her presidency in her desire to build bridges to represent those who voted for her, those who voted for the other candidates and those who didn't vote at all. I like the tone and the possibilities contained in the speech and I go to sleep, happy in the belief that Ireland has elected a president who is well capable of filling Mary Robinson's shoes.
Saturday Morning, 1st November
The early morning chill of the first day of November permeates my sleeping bag and wakes me. Any doubts about the time of year are easily forgotten in the intense cold on a beach which the rays of the rising sun have yet to reach.
On the BBC world service, they are talking about the practice of wife stealing. It being still prevalent in the Khazakstan Steppes to this day. Basically it is still quite normal procedure for a young man to procure a wife of his choosing by abducting her and carrying her off to his parents house. They are then effectively considered man and wife and accordingly he has all the associated rights of a husband. In law the practice is officially recognised as abduction and rape. But tradition is stronger than law and prosecutions rarely if ever ensue. The women rarely try to escape either. It is regarded as a matter of some shame to have been abducted, but to attempt to flee is only considered to bring more shame on ones family. Many are fortunate and end up in happy relationships, the suitor it would appear having chosen carefully and the abductee proving not altogether reluctant to go with him. However there are others not so fortunate. One woman talks of her experience with an alcoholic husband who is a college professor. It seems the practice is not confined to mere peasants, but is to be found in all levels of society.
I breakfast on yoghurt and muesli, followed by fried ham and eggs, washed down with a hot mug of tea. By the time I've finished eating the sun has begun warming the sand and, for the following two hours, I sit and relax in the wonderfully tranquil, and very beautiful, setting, as the little port gradually comes to life.
Later, while packing up and preparing to leave, I am joined by an elderly man, who proceeds to converse with me in Spanish and broken German for the best part of twenty minutes. I can only grasp a tiny bit of what he is saying but he seems to be mainly giving out about, and making fun of, Germans, the holiday makers in particular. I laugh along with him at seeming appropriate times and voice my approval and nod in agreement every so often, enjoying the interaction.
Despite my general incomprehension much of what he is saying, in any case, transcends the language barrier especially in his animated gestures and facial expressions. In the end he shakes my hand and wishes me good luck and I thank him sincerely before we both head off in opposite directions.
I now suspect my friend this morning may have suspected I was from Holland, which is often the case when one says "IRLAND" to continentals. Hence, assuming I could probably comprehend German quite well, they proceed to talk away.
In the afternoon as I wait for a ferry from Cangas to Vigo, which will cut out a twenty mile bike ride, I am approached by one of those most unwelcome of tramps. This fellow is one of the sort that seem so often to hang around ports and railway stations and other crowded areas, which means they attract the maximum audience to the unfortunate on whom the choose to focus their attentions. In the light of this morning’s experience, there is some considerable irony in his focusing on me, as it appears he seems to think that I am German, so he attempts to converse in German accordingly.
He is very drunk and his breath smells not unlike the methelated spirits I use for my stove.
Firstly he presents me with a plastic bag containing two loaves of bread which he proceeds to attach to my bicycle with a red tartan tie. When I decline his offer and attempt to return the gift he expresses dismay and refuses to take it back. At this point my embarrassment is growing and I am becoming very conscious of the attention we are attracting from the crowds waiting for the ferry. I make a move towards the ferry boarding area and thankfully he doesn't follow. Relieved, I prop the bike against a wall to replace a broken spoke. I'm crouched down working on the wheel when he returns and stoops beside me offering to help. But I don't want help, I just want him to go away and leave me alone. I'm praying that he will. I'm even considering of telling him in English but wonder would this be effective and whither it might be too blunt and that he might turn nasty.
Checking my watch, I note with dread that it is another twenty minutes before the ferry is due to depart, indeed it hasn't even arrived from Vigo yet. I try to ignore him but he grabs my shoulder and points out into the bay to indicate the approaching ferry. He offers me more "gifts"; a biro and a wrapped mint. Again I decline, but he persists until I take them. The ferry docks and I wait until all the other passengers have boarded before I head up the ramp half-carrying and half wheeling the bike. My friend is alongside, insisting on offering help; grabbing the back of the bike and pushing it up the ramp. There's not enough room for the two of us on the ramp. So I proceed alone and offering my ticket, figure hopefully that that's it. But he's behind me still, producing an identification card of some sort and boarding the ferry too. I find a place to prop the bike in the corner and then place some loose change in his hand, I think about a hundred pesetas or so, hardly enough to even pay for the loaves. I'm away upstairs onto the deck, desperately seeking some place to hide from him. To my relief, as I seat myself on the upper deck, he reappears on the quayside. However he's not finished yet and continues to shout at me in Spanish and broken German calling out the names of cities
"HAMBURG, LEIPZIG, BERLIN...." and counting "EIN, ZWEI, DREI, FIER....".
I scan the horizon on the other side of the boat as he continues to direct his attentions towards me. He's showing no signs of stopping, so I am compelled to acknowledge his presence with a nod and a thumbs up, hoping this will silence him. For a further ten minutes he continues to call ship-ward periodically and, as I acknowledge him, the rest of the passengers look amused. I am willing the ferry to leave and hoping he won't reboard before it does.
When it finally casts off, some anxious moments pass before I finally spot him on the quayside still waving and shouting. It is only then that I relax a little, and laugh along with the other passengers, who are clearly relieved that it wasn't they who were the focus of his attentions.
Afterwards, cycling out of Vigo, I reflect on the experience with some degree of shame. After all, the poor man had been quite harmless and very generous. I think I feared him much less than the actual scene he created and the attention it attracted. Also I think it is human nature to be suspicious of someone who approaches you to offer you something for no apparent reason. There always seems to be the prospect of some sort of catch and inevitably there usually is, so I guess it's quite natural to be wary.
I didn't know what to do with the bread. It certainly looked all right and felt fresh to the touch. I'd been planning to buy a loaf or two when I got round to it, some time in the day. In the miles out of Vigo, as a gnawing hunger grew stronger, I broke the end off one loaf to cautiously nibble at it, and when it proved to taste all right, to chew on it.
Settled in a campsite in Baoina, ten miles south of Vigo, I cook up a pot of pasta and eat it, along with the remainder of one of the loaves, with no apparent ill effects. Afterwards I offer a prayer and a belatedly sincere thanks to my absent harmless friend. And I can't help but think when he sobers up; will he wonder what happened to his two loaves of bread and his tie?
For some unknown reason, the three pay phones have been removed from the illuminated booth outside the campsite, so I am forced to cycle about a mile in search of a phone to call home. On my return, to cool down after the cycle, I take a stroll along the darkened beach. Down at the waterline there is a man shore angling in the darkness. I give him a wide berth and wonder what brings someone out fishing at night. It strikes me as a terribly lonely, solitary and even unnatural pastime. Then again, I suppose walking along a beach at a similar hour isn't entirely regular either!.
Returning to my tent, I tune into Ceilidh House on RTE. The programme is tonight dedicated to the Ardellis Ceili Band who have just released a CD to mark their fortieth anniversary. The programme gives a wonderfully revealing insight into the experiences and difficulties encountered by a typical Ceili band of the nineteen fifties and sixties, in a time when Showbands were the main attraction. The death knell of the Ceili band was effective sounded by Sean O'Riada's disdain for the form. Since O'Riada's comments carried such weight even RTE shied away from the medium and without the vital airplay, the Ceili band and "Ceilidh Dancing" went into a decline, from which it has only started to recover again in the last ten years or so.
© Peter Jordan, 1999-2001