What amount of discomfort is enough?

One may have issues with understanding foreign languages; some other with the physical pain or sore feet. There will be discomfort from wearing not perfectly laundered clothes, or for sure the lack of multiple showers every day, or again the lack of privacy in using common dorms. I think I can live with it.

What terrifies me is the absence of knowledge about the road, where are the turning points, where to stop to rest for the night. Particularly so for the extra piece of walk from Lourdes to St. Jean PdP which is almost an uncharted trail.

I am fighting against the discomfort of not being already a seasoned walker, who has done all this before and already been to all places. I fear the humility of asking for directions, or knocking at unknown doors in search for an arranged accommodation. Will I be able to learn forbearance?

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Gunung Besar Hantu

Gunung Besar Hantu, Malaysia 3.227109N, 102.012573E, peaked on April 19, 2009 at 7:30am GMT+8

 

This rather unknown peak in the Banjaran Titi Wangsa mountain range, is located at a relative short distance (about 50Km) from the Ampang suburb of Kuala Lumpur and yet far away from the  sometimes annoying bustling of the suburban life. The trip was made possible through the services of the Mountain Goal Adventure organization and its ineffable chief expeditioner Thong.

As I was looking for a no-frills, lay-down type of escape, I could not have found anything better to ensure a genuine down-to-earth, full fledged experience in tight contact with the natural beauty of Malaysia and its people. The expedition counted 14 heads including the organizers.


 

Through some fast climbing road bends, you will soon reach a quite peaceful natural lanscape with a few rural housing and villages scattered here and there.  Past the shores of a serene artificial lake, a road junction will head directly to Kampong Chennah, where everyone knows everybody and life flows like a quiet stream. The village cheered the opportunity by providing additional enthusiastic supporters who in turn climbed in the truck as occasional trip companions. Almost midway we stopped to take in a couple of Orang Asli (malay aborigens), Awang and Ali, as guides and, as I will reckon much later, mostly as teachers of natural knowledge and wisdom.In Kampong Chennah we let go of our city-car transportation, evidently not suited for the further inland roads and boarded two robust all-terrain 4×4 pick up trucks.

The road ended at a majestic waterfall, Lata Kijang, sporting an almost vertical fall of 30 meters. At the foot of the waterfall, a rocky stream forms ponds and natural pools to provide fresh water supply and refreshement to the passers-by. The sound of the stream can resemble the fated song of the Mermaids lulling the wanderer to take a prolonged rest, which we did with renewed pleasure on the way back.

From there on a steep and badly maintained iron staircase pointed vertically straight up into the forest, with no end in sight. From there on we had to count only on legs, shoulders and good spirit.

We camped after 5 hours of trekking inside the ups and down, the never ending roots and forest decay typical of the jungle treks. Thong preceded all of us and started preparing a delicious malay kampong food which was served on gigantic banana tree branches while all the tents were scattered on the scarce flat terrain all around.

Most of the rest of the time at the camp was spent in cutting off the persistent leeches that were throbbing from our legs and feet in a blood frenzy feast. Rather disgusting worms, the leeches are actually very discreet as they proceed with their feeding intent without creating the minimum discomfort. Unlike the mosquitoes and the sand flies, also abundant, which make noise and stinging hassle, leeches can be spotted only by a vague sense of ticklish or the evident large stains of blood on clothes and mostly stockings. Always remember to wear high ankle shoes and thick cotton socks with long pants. You may not be totally immune, but at least can contain the plague at an acceptable level.

While I was fumbling with my western inadequacy to the situation, Ali approached me with a shy smile, and humbly forked out a piece of moistened paper from his pocket, a small piece of the page of a newspaper, and cut it in minuscule portions almost the size of the bite of the leech and silently placed them on top. Almost immediately the profused bleeding stopped. His smile was imbued with the millenary knowledge of this proud and peaceful people continuously harassed by the harsh environment of the wilderness and the inevitable siege of the false promises of the so-called progress.

As the name of the mountain was hinting, the long equatorial night was filled up with eerie presences. The superstition handles the fear of the unknows by figuring out  monstrous and immaterial beings to be the source of the countless sounds, shrieks, cracking, whistling and pounding noises which made up a night out in the woods. A light rain was adding up the characteristic rytmic base with all the variety of responses from the large and tiny forest leaves. Tiredness made the usual miracle of donating a deep and restoring sleep troughout the night despite the quite unconfortable sleeping bag. A sudden call from nature woke me up at about 4:30am and urged me out of the tent. The long forgotten amazing show of a trillion stars, which in the meantime replaced the thick layer of clouds, left me once more speechless and astonished. Once more I was given the present of admiring the whole Milky Way, the most remote galaxies, and the fascinating and overwhelming design of the Universe.

The following morning a steady 90 minutes almost vertical climb lead us to the summit. The chilling temperature was cooperating with the muscular effort and the gratefulness of the achievement did the rest. The surrounding view was exhilarating and more so  the view and congratulations of your fellow climbers.

An ascent on a mountain is always a refreshing experience, not only for the variety of the natural lanscapes, the uniqueness of the vegetation or rock formations, the technical challenges that the trail provides during the trek.

The true experience comes from within and  from the almost rare opportunity of spending time in solitude with yourself, in a slow recovery of latent spiritual values that will surface when your inner mental noise is quieted by the phisical stress. Chemical reactions in your body enhance your senses and your capability to absorb the surrounding world  is mostly overwhelming.

I felt deep gratitude and somehow my circle of tolerance enlarged, with appreciation and contentness to an intensity which rarely I can remember in my ‘normal’ life. It’s an experience of simple things, the taste of a streaming water when you are really thirsty or the taste of natural food, often in the form of fruits or vegetable essences taken from the sources of Nature. An then the smell of  the grass, the calling of the birds and other hidden creatures, the  rustling sound of the leaves on all shape size and texture.

The discovery is also with your inner self, your thoughts and feelings, your beliefs and your fears. The slow process of awareness and acquaintance with your limits, capacity, shortcomings and values takes synergy from the slow progress through the  trail and the forest. And finally you realize that eventually time is yours to splurge, to knock you off, to get to accept you better and with it the whole universe.

The references of a mountain trek to the progress through life are manifold. Some of them I wanted to record for further meditation and later recollection:

  • The forest is apparently a totally chaotic organization. Yet, every shrub or tree has its own function and the they all live together in harmony, sharing food and light in a great display of persistence and adaptation. Most human organizations are based on the exertion of control of the few on the many and layouts are orderly and only apparently more effective. Only who thrives at the edge of chaos shall survive.
  •  In the forest all stages of life are coexistent and cooperating in mutual support and in continuous change: the young sprouts, the decay of the dead plants and the strenght of the adult trees. The contribution of each life stage is balanced and provided in abundance. Yet no resource is wasted. Learn to appreciate the sense of belonging deriving from receiving help and be grateful for it. You will learn how to offer real help in a disinterested way with no expectation of a return.
  •  The sign of the material impermanence are evident everywhere in the forest to teach a lesson of universal tolerance since nothing is eternal and immutable. So be it for your  anguish, distress and pain. And also for your pride, material satisfaction and personal success.
  •  The forest is unyielding to the walk of wanderers. All sort of unfriendly obstacles are opposing to the trek. Sometimes you have to breech into the intricacies and make your own path. The one who knows how to respect and adaptation with minimal impact will reach longer distances. The ones which need to open large passageways for greater confort will proceed slowly and will not reach far. Likewise to life.
  • You can take along only what you can carry on your shoulders. Most comfort items are heavy. Bigger bags are heavier than smaller bags. Need to learn how to source your comfort from what the mountain and the forest offer in abundance. Most of the things you consider indispensible are just jettison of the mind. The mountain values the essential over the redundant. When you leave oll your possessions at the base camp and you prepare for the final ascent, most of times in the wee morning hours, you finally understand how important is to have developed a strong body and a strong spirit, as you won’t need much else on the road ahead.
  • During the trek you might be largely concentrated in the labour of the strenuous ascent. You look down to avoid stepping into unfirm terrain, and to find around suitable support or handles to sustain your steadiness during uncertain moments. Every now and then with a thud, you head hits a low branch or a fallen tree, which you did not see before. Yet these were there for a reason to remind you that most of the time the help to sustain your progress must be seeked by looking up, to what is there for you coming from above you. There is only that much you can get from the lower grounds: most of the stronger support comes from the highest ones.

(Drafted on 25/4/2009)

What will I really need on the road?

If this question is being asked while visiting one of those inviting outdoors shops, the answer is frightening: everything! As it is always a good advice to never going shopping for groceries when you’re hungry, likewise you should never go shopping for outdoors amenities, unless the burning need and regret from not having handy a specific tool or support item has been already experienced in a real occasion. As a matter or facts, the zero budget approach is probably still the best. Shoes and foot comfort is probably number 1 in the list; second is likely some protection from the wheather, third the minimum gear for spending the night and getting the so deserved rest. The other real necessities such as a decent shower, drinking water and food will have to be sourced locally, and so be it.

Pilgrimage, it is.

As a proposition at the time I write this,  I’d like to challenge my comfort zone by endeavoring to tour the world on foot. Nothing new, nothing heroic, nothing spectacular with strong sponsorship backup: only a slow journey within myself and my soul.  A walking pilgrimage to connect to the millions of other souls that have done the journey before me, and also to the many whom I shall encounter on the road and also those who will start their first steps much after me. Even if this is a journey that has be be completed in total solitude, I am hoping to share the path with other pilgrims in search of their walks of life.

The Plan

The Camino Frances is traditionally departing from St. Jean Pied-de-Port and totals 863.5 Km from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to Cape Finisterre.  It is a recent tradition for pilgrims to burn their clothes or boots at the end of their journey at Cape Finisterre: I am not sure I want to do this. If I shall feel the urge of burning something, I hope it is not going to be something material, but rather obsoleted habits or ways of thinking.

After further consideration from the late reply from Singapore Airlines to grant me a seat of the flight to Paris, I have tried other flight options to reach the starting point. In addition to the waitlisted flight to Paris, I also tried Milan which was also on waiting list, and called SQ to solicit a resolution on either option. A stop over in Milan actually would allow Raffaella to travel with me and to celebrate her birthday with the all our friends over there. A few days later, SQ confirmed my seat on the flight to Milan, therefore giving a definite hint to which itinerary was destiny for me.

Found out that Ryan Air offers a connection from Milano Bergamo to Lourdes. Then from Lourdes to St. Jean PdP it’s another complicated train connection taking a long time. But then:  “Heck, I thought, I am there to walk, so let’s walk from Lourdes instead! ”  It adds only some 145Km to the total, bringing it to a hefty 1,009Km. Now that’s a serious walk! The connection between Lourdes and St. Jean PdP is mapped in the pilgrimage chronicles and is known as the Chemin du Piemont Pyrenees.  Hope God will bless my new itinerary and provide me with the little essentials I shall need.

I shall therefore leave from Singapore on Saturday,  Sep 1st and then continue to Lourdes on September 4 arriving at about midday.

Including in and out flights it is a total of 44 days of which 33 on the walking path and 11 days of rest. In average, that is 26.2Km per day. The plan is still indicative, and will depend a lot from the weather and my physical conditions.

The itinerary I am plannign so far is the following:

Week Day Date # Distance km to the end km from the start From Overnight
Tue 4-Sep 1009.3 0.0 Milano Bergamo Lourdes, arr. 12:25, Ryan Air, FR4005
Wed 5-Sep 1 28.8 980.5 28.8 Lourdes Bruges
Thu 6-Sep 2 36.0 944.5 64.8 Bruges Oloron
Fri 7-Sep 3 24.0 920.5 88.8 Oloron Hopital St Blaise
Sat 8-Sep 4 28.0 892.5 116.8 Hopital St Blaise Garaibie
Sun 9-Sep 5 29.0 863.5 145.8 Garaibie Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port
Mon 10-Sep 6 25.0 838.5 170.8 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port Roncesvalles
Tue 11-Sep 7 21.5 817.0 192.3 Roncesvalles Zubiri
Wed 12-Sep 8 22.0 795.0 214.3 Zubiri Pamplona
Thu 13-Sep 9 23.5 771.5 237.8 Pamplona Puente la Reina
Fri 14-Sep 10 22.0 749.5 259.8 Puente la Reina Estella
Sat 15-Sep 11 22.0 727.5 281.8 Estella Los Arcos
Sun 16-Sep 12 28.0 699.5 309.8 Los Arcos Logroño
Mon 17-Sep 13 29.0 670.5 338.8 Logroño Nájera
Tue 18-Sep 14 21.0 649.5 359.8 Nájera Santo Domingo de la Calzada
Wed 19-Sep 15 23.0 626.5 382.8 Santo Domingo de la Calzada Belorado
Thu 20-Sep 16 24.0 602.5 406.8 Belorado San Juan de Ortega
Fri 21-Sep 17 28.0 574.5 434.8 San Juan de Ortega Burgos
Sat 22-Sep 18 40.0 534.5 474.8 Burgos Castrojeriz
Sun 23-Sep 19 23.0 511.5 497.8 Castrojeriz Frómista
Mon 24-Sep 20 19.0 492.5 516.8 Frómista Carrión de los Condes
Tue 25-Sep 21 39.0 453.5 555.8 Carrión de los Condes Sahagún
Wed 26-Sep 22 19.5 434.0 575.3 Sahagún El Burgo Ranero
Thu 27-Sep 23 38.0 396.0 613.3 El Burgo Ranero León
Fri 28-Sep Leon
Sat 29-Sep 24 24.0 372.0 637.3 León Villadangos del Páramo
Sun 30-Sep 25 28.0 344.0 665.3 Villadangos del Páramo Astorga
Mon 1-Oct 26 20.0 324.0 685.3 Astorga Rabanal del Camino
Tue 2-Oct 27 32.5 291.5 717.8 Rabanal del Camino Ponferrada
Wed 3-Oct 28 23.0 268.5 740.8 Ponferrada Villafranca del Bierzo
Thu 4-Oct 29 30.0 238.5 770.8 Villafranca del Bierzo O Cebreiro
Fri 5-Oct 30 36.5 202.0 807.3 O Cebreiro Sarria
Sat 6-Oct 31 21.0 181.0 828.3 Sarria Portomarín
Sun 7-Oct 32 24.5 156.5 852.8 Portomarín Palas de Rei
Mon 8-Oct 33 25.5 131.0 878.3 Palas de Rei Arzúa
Tue 9-Oct 34 36.5 94.5 914.8 Arzúa Santiago de Compostela
Wed 10-Oct 35 23.5 71.0 938.3 Santiago de Compostela Negreira
Thu 11-Oct 36 24.0 47.0 962.3 Negreira Maronas
Fri 12-Oct 37 31.0 16.0 993.3 Maronas Cee
Sat 13-Oct 38 16.0 0.0 1009.3 Cee Cap de Finisterre
Sun 14-Oct Cap de Finisterre Santiago de Compostela, by bus
Mon 15-Oct Santiago de Compostela Milano, Italy by Ryan Air

 

How long should the right planning time be?

As the basic groundwork for engaging in a long walk is completed, I mean when the balance between knowledge of the task and the mistery of it has reached the sweet spot, then it should be pretty much the date of departure.

If not, a painstaking process gets immediately on the way, conjuring against your still precarious decision balance. This comes in from various sources: either from people that want to to join you, it people that say it us totally useless, or too commercial, from the agony of fear of unplanned discomfort, of not being physically fit, of missing the single fundamental item that will turn the experience from barely bearable into a total hell.