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Krishna Sen – No Such Thing As Bad Weather

Krishna Sen shares her experience of walking the Camino Frances, a trek of over 750km.

Bread & Butter is a monthly dinner and storytelling event designed to make you think deeply about social issues. A new storyteller every month shares a personal story with 40 guests in the dining room at the Centre for Stories.

Krishna Sen is Indian by birth, Australian by choice and an academic by accident. She loves reading, writing and long hikes, really long – a thousand kilometres at a stretch if she has time! On 30 May 2019 at Bread & Butter, Krishna shared her story of completing the Camino Frances, a trek of over 750km. You can read more about her walk on her blog.

Copyright © 2018 Krishna Sen

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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So, thank you for that introduction. However, no part of that introduction was relevant to what I have to talk about. The only bit of the introduction that is relevant is that I’m Indian by birth and that I grew up in a kind of multi-lingual context. I, however, do not speak Spanish. You may have picked up from the paella, just may have picked up from the dinner you had, that the story is somehow going to be located in Spain, right? Did you pick that up?

Other than that, let me kind of start afresh. If you were thinking of this as a television series, I would need to say to you “In today’s episode is one day in the life of the pilgrim.” And it’s called “No such thing as bad weather, but perhaps it is all about weather.” There are some people here, as I was walking around, introducing myself, I found that there are some people who are fellow walkers, fellow long-distance hikers, and there were some that I would call my communal amigos. That is to say, people who have been precisely on the walk, out of which to this story is just one day. So, today’s episode starts somewhere at the bottom of the mountain. The mountain was called Alto de Perdón, the height that you climb to get forgiveness. I can see a couple of people registering, “Oh yes, we did walk that!”

Now, in previous episodes of this story, if this were a television series, I would be telling you, Earlier in this story, yours truly, and her walking buddy, who had also worked as a fact-checker, I’m told. Just in case there are any facts that are implausible, check with him. We had walked from a place called Le Puy-en-Velay, which is somewhere in central France. We had walked down approximately 750kms, crossed the Pyrenees at a past where it seems lots of people have killed and died since about the 7th century and where Basques pushed back French invaders. Anyway, we thought we walked quite peacefully across that part and then we were in the north of Spain. Then we were on a walk that is probably now, the most recognisable walk in the world. It’s called Camino Frances. It is famous because people have been walking continuously on this route for a thousand years, since the 9th century. But it is world-famous because Hollywood made a film about it, which was called The Way. Again, some of you may have seen that film. So, sometime early in October, the year 2018, we walked out of this town called Pamplona, a walled city, a town made famous by many things like bull-fighting. We walked out of the town and, as always as we had been doing for six weeks, we walked out in that moment of darkness before dawn. Very, very dark. Have you ever woken up really early in the morning and it’s pitch dark? We walked out and I said to my walking buddy, I said “The atmosphere feels heavier today. It’s like I’ve got more on my back.” Remember, everybody’s got a backpack with stuff in it. And he said, “No, it’s because you were in this pub last night, drunk, so drunk, that you thought you were talking to…who was it, some famous writer?” But actually, I was not hungover, the day was overcast. Usually I don’t get up to check the time, we know the sun is going to come out and usually it’s really interesting because you’re walking in one direction, you kind of get used to the sun rising just behind your ears somewhere. But on this particular day, half an hour, an hour after the official time of sunrise, the sun didn’t manage to come out. And the sky changed from this deep, deep indigo-blue barely to an angry, steamy grey. And by this time, we were in a tiny little town,  so once we got to Cizur Menor, we knew there was a climb of about 350 metres, approximately 4kms before we hit Alto del Perdón. I need to tell you a little bit about Alto del Perdón. Alto del Perdón used to have…is famous because on top of it was an old Basilica of the Lady of Pardon and in the Middle Ages, people believed if you walked up this mountain and you repented your sins, all your sins would be forgiven. And if you were rich enough, and some people were, you could pay some other poor person to carry your sins to the mountain and repent on your behalf and you didn’t learn, you didn’t need to climb the stairwell to heaven, I guess you could just go up in the lift. So, that’s the reason why I said that this is such an important place in the Medieval religious perception so it’s an important mountain, the mountain of Pardon. And we were at the bottom of it, 350 metres, the road was starting to go up ahead of us, and the path is turning first pebbly then rocky, and I’m thinking, “350 metres—nothing.” Seven days ago, we came across the Pyrenees, we climbed more than a thousand metres—nothing. Pride comes before fall, right?

This pilgrim had taken account without remembering that scornful rays, and punishing winds happen every day, the path away from perdition is never easy, you’re going to have to work hard to get to heaven. We walk, the rain starts deceptively slowly, in small pendulous drops splattering on the stone leaving this, y’know, nice starry marks on it. There’s a dozen or so people we can see strung up, across—for those of you that have walked a long, narrow path, half of you will know, no trees on the side, you can kind of see there are those two or three people up ahead, a few people at the back—so you know there’s a dozen of us walking up this road. We’re all fellow pilgrims, we’ll be fine, we take out our jackets and put on our jackets and we keep walking. And then, I just cannot tell you how quite suddenly it happens, the road turns left and you’re bending your whole body against a storm. Is there anyone here who has read Virgil? If you’ve read Virgil, you may remember it when I tell you this story. Aeolus is the king who is the king of winds and storms and he keeps all these rumbly, raging, crazy winds locked up in a cave with a boulder. I kid you not, on that day, somebody had let the winds out, and they were all coming at us, chopping up those raindrops into these powdery shards and just throwing it in your face. And the sky turned into a warzone, a warzone between the wind and the clouds, and the wind was parting the clouds, the sun is coming out and closing it again. You can see the sun coming out at one end and the lightning at the other. It was extraordinary. If you can think about struggling against elements, that Medieval pilgrim image of carrying your bag is struggling against the elements, all the pilgrims struggled. We couldn’t turn back, because in a pilgrimage you can’t turn back partly because of the spirit of the pilgrimage, partly because the traditional pilgrim hostels don’t actually let you stay two nights in a row. The ethos is that you keep going, so we keep going and at some point there is an arc of silver that appears just to the south, so we’re walking roughly west, and somewhere to the south an arc appears. Then another, then another, and the more the sun starts to come out, the more the wind is winning the battle against the clouds, the more of these arcs we can see. So, given to the Indian in me, I think ‘Oh no, this is the Sudarshan Chakra, this is the weapon of choice of Lord Vishnu coming down to cut down this sinful world, this sinful universe. No, it’s not, it’s actually metallic, something metallic picking up the sun rays as it’s coming up. And there’s a fair few of them so we’re seeing it in different parts of the sky but in a row. Wind turbines.

By this time, we are very close to Zariquiegui, so we are very close to this little village called Zariquiegui which is 2kms from Alto del Perdón, the top of the mountain. It’s also 2kms from the first twelve of the wind turbines that were established in the early 1990s. And now there are many more, and incidentally, something like thirty percent of Spain’s power is generated from wind, but back to the story. Zariquiegui is worth telling a little bit about Zariquiegui, like any other old town, Zariquiegui was in decline for years. The wind turbines had generated a new industry in this town. The town has grown, it has doubled in the past decade to two decades, and now the tourist buses are back and from the platform which they had built recently in the town centre, apparently on a clear day you can see forty wind turbines swaying in the wind. So, this is a tourist attraction. So, the wind turbines, we stand there, by this time the rain has ceased, the wind has won the war against the clouds, the sun is out, we’re going to do this last 2kms of very, rocky road but our numbers have inflated. It’s now not just that dozen or so pilgrims, when we leave Zariquiegui we’ve got dog-walkers, runners, joggers, walkers, an overly confident 8-year old with a worried looking father trying to push a bike up on the mountain. So, our numbers have inflated, our spirits have risen, someone starts to sing a song in Korean. I don’t recognise it, but many do, including David. And they start singing in English, in German, it’s some old hymn that everyone who was bought up Christian knows. And we reach, in due course, not long after this, the top of the mountain. The powerful Basilica of the Lady of Pardon is gone, apparently it was destroyed by the Napoleonic armies a long time ago. There is only half a wall that remains with a bit of a plaque about its importance and about what you had to do to get forgiveness. I don’t bother, I’m an atheist, if you haven’t worked out. And above it is an enormous, enormous wind turbine and it looks amazing. It is forty metres high, and the buzz is like an echo chamber just, just cradling the singing voices, just cradling and turning ordinary human voices into something quite ethereal. You know when you turn on the shower and sing, and you sound really nice, in the middle of that tunnel of wind the collective voices singing the hymn sounds like that. It’s amazing.

And what else do you do? Selfies of course. Lots of selfies. Lots of cuddles and hugs with strangers that you’ve never seen before and probably never see again. But you have made this amazing shared experience with people from Korea, Japan, China, Germany, you’ve sung together, walked together, taken the beating of the wind together. You might never see each other again but you made these connections. And in line with the distant turbines, all in a line, miles and miles away, but because you’re high up and the ground just falls away from the outer, you can see this line of wind turbines. In line with that is a 1996 sculpture of twelve pilgrims bent up against the wind and down below, the valley, the eternal valley. Just imagine this, you really need to imagine this: this amazing sculpture which is the most recognisable piece of public art in Spain, the windmills, the destroyed Basilica, the eternal plains of Spain. For an atheist, it doesn’t get more spiritual. At the bottom of that sculpture is a line where the path of the wind meets the way of the stars. The way of the stars because the road to Santiago is supposed to be the earthly reflection of the milky way. And if you have walked up this particular road with me today you know with every sinew that you’ve been in the path of the wind, no question about it. The photos taken, cuddles done, a moment of reflection which says ‘I am so lucky to be here, right here, where eternal plains of Spain are sharing a space with Medieval mythology, post-modern art and modern technology, in creating an amazing orchestration of possibilities for the future.

Having done the walk, and taken each others’ photos, you are down the other side of the mountain. You know that song about bear went over the mountain to see what he could see? If you thought the other side of the mountain was exactly like that side, I tell you it might look the same, but it feels completely different. The bear wasn’t walking so it hadn’t worked out when you drop down the other side of the mountain, and it’s a very sharp drop, and very pebbly, all of that is true, drop down—ten minutes and the storm has dropped to a breeze, another ten minutes and it’s stopped. We are on our way to Puente La Reina, it’s downhill all the way from here. Thank you.

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