Friday, August 22, 2014

Mystery Trip to Spain 2014

Some of my loyal readers may not know that I just got back from a 10 day trip to Spain! Summer in LA is a time of heat and getting research done, but I was toying with a trip to Europe some time during the next year to catch up with some friends when two events occurred to bring the schedule forward. First, my old housemate/chem lab partner B finished his other PhD, and second another old friend T narrowly escaped death and dismemberment, and was recovering on the sunny northern coast of Spain. Meanwhile B decided the best way to celebrate finishing a few years of pain and drudgery in grad school at Oxford would be to spend a month walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, or French Way, an ancient pilgrimage route leading to the alleged remains of St James.

Cut to last Friday, 2am. I can barely sleep, which is lucky, because an airport van picks me up and whisks me through the LA streets to LAX, where I wander about desperately trying to remember how to walk long distances. The previous week's training sessions were cancelled when I came down with a nasty cold, but dedicated sleeping and doing nothing seems to have taken care of the worst.

The first leg, to JFK, enjoyed a 100kt tailwind courtesy of the jet stream. The second leg, from JFK to Brussels, involved talking programming with a retired COBOL programmer/grandmother and watching Wrath of the Titans - excellent aeroplane TV. In Brussels, I had a 6 hour layover, so caught the excessively swift and smooth train to downtown, and walked around looking for bread, water, and an ATM. At 8am on Saturday, Brussels isn't exactly the most alive place, but I eventually found my way to another train station and returned to the airport in time to negotiate 18 flights of escalators and 400 chocolate shops for my final flight to Bilbao, in Spain.

This flight featured a nearby child with the most piercing scream I have ever heard, and I've heard a lot of children scream, for unrelated reasons! I slept soundly. Bilbao delivered me to a sequence of buses and before long I was in Pamplona, meeting B and finding the Xarma Hostel, a mere 31 hours after leaving my home in Pasadena, and only 47 hours since I'd last been horizontal. So I was wide awake. B and I went shopping and managed to find enough ingredients for a vegetarian, gluten free dinner, which I consumed with all the enthusiasm of someone who had lived on airline food for a few days.

The following morning we rose before dawn, packed, and got started. Walking through downtown Pamplona (site of the famous 'running of the bulls') we located the Camino, marked with shell symbols and yellow arrows, and began our journey westward. I should note that B had already walked for 4 days from the edge of France, and had waited in Pamplona for me to arrive. Most days the Camino ends in a rather small village which can be hard to get to - as I discovered a few days later.

About half way through the first day I'd finished my first loaf of bread just as we climbed a ridge bedotted with gigantic wind turbines. We arrived in Puenta la Reina at around 1pm. B's feet were rather blistered though mine in my terrible sandals were as yet holding up fine. Puenta la Reina was an ancient walled town built to support pilgrims in the 11th century, with wide arched doors to ground floor stables, walls, and an ancient arched bridge. Every shop was closed until the evening so we relaxed. B was carving a walking stick with an emblem for each day of the trip. That evening we found a bunch of Irish pilgrims (and thus the best food in town), got yelled at by a drunk homeless pilgrim, and took an early night.

The following day we got up around 5:30, obtained mass quantities of carbs, and walked out of the city. B realised he'd forgotten his stick (not the first or last time, I might add), but after retrieving it we continued on through the Spanish countryside. I had brought my video drone, but sadly the transmitter had range issues, so flying it too far away tended to result in abrupt catastrophe. Fortunately I had many spare propellers! Video from the drone can be found here (, though watchable footage is only really possible if there is no wind at all.

I ate my own weight in Spanish tortilla for lunch, and by 1:30 we reached the next town, Estella. B and I found a piano shop in Estella, where we played music for a while. Both of us have not practised much in the last year, and it shows. In most hostels people are up most of the night drinking and being noisy. In the pilgrim albergues, many people were fast asleep by 4pm! Nearly everyone sported gratuitous blisters and quite a few were strapping up various joints. Most people were carrying a lot more weight than they needed! Including me! I could have done without the first aid kit, the cooking pot, the drone, the raincoat, and the solar panel. I helped modify B's flip flops to make them more useful, with a pocket knife and string. They were works of art.

The following morning came with the sad news of the death of Robin Williams, one of my favourite comedians. We struggled on, passing a fountain of free wine, then remarking on the relative lack of pilgrims on the road. Later that evening, we met a few of them who had filled their water bottles with wine and thus achieved a slower but less painful pace! An incredible sunrise illuminated a distant cliff and golden haystacks. Toward midday, our pace slowed and we were passed by numerous pilgrims, including two Russian students in their late teens. I haven't spoken that much Russian in quite some time! Soon after we arrived in Los Arcos and checked into the Austrian albergue, which had a nice kitchen and a small pond in which to soak feet. During the night a strong wind blew up and in my attempt to retrieve some washing before it blew away, I found we'd been locked in - a sobering reinforcement to my usual ritual of identifying two fire/emergency escape routes before bed in any unfamiliar place. What B lacked in mobility he made up for with excessive gregariousness and we made about 20 new friends that afternoon.

The following day was my last day on the Camino. We walked through the stone old-town, many buildings abandoned and derelict, and then popped out into the countryside. The route typically goes through three or four towns a day, with ample opportunities to water and feed oneself. The last town before our destination was Viana, which seemed to suffer from being slowly consumed by the adjacent and much larger Logrono. It had a cool church which had partially collapsed. In Logrono we saw a good example of predatory hostel locating, in which a new hostel positions itself just down the road from an older one, so that sore footed pilgrims drop their pack at the first possible moment. I left B to carve his stick and walked across town to the bus station, where I bought a ticket to Gijon the following day, then back via a supermarket and a few other neat places. That evening B and I went out on the town and found a good place where we ate awesome food and, later, bought some sandals for B so he could join the sandal-wearers cult. Back at the hostel, got involved in a lively discussion about best practises for blister treatment. A lot of people drained them, cut them, or even sewed threads through them overnight! No-one seemed on board with my suggestion of draining and fixing the gap with a small amount of superglue. As a member in long standing of the sandal wearing cult myself, I have often had cause to patch up the odd hole and superglue works perfectly, if you don't overdo it. Sometimes you can even stick your fingers together.

The next morning B left early and I stuck around, walking around the old town of Logrono, buying some breakfast, and eventually finding my bus to Gijon. It took about 6 hours to get to Gijon - quite a long drive, through impossibly rugged mountains dotted with half-abandoned villages, cows, and sometimes huge flocks of eagles. I walked around the beaches of Gijon, stalked by pigeons who recognised my by now high bread content. After a magnificent dinner, I located my couchsurfer. A rather nice dentist who rode a speedy motorcycle, we immediately got on well, and that evening walked into town for a giant fireworks display in celebration of the city's festival. 

The following morning I woke, packed, and walked across town to meet up with T, my other mystery friend! I last saw her in late September 2010, so it was great to catch up and see for myself how not-dead she was, despite recent injuries. After a magnificent lunch involving cider poured from a great height, we said goodbye and I walked back into town. 

My original plan had been to catch a bus to Santander and enjoy the beach and stay with couchsurfers. My couchsurfers had all fallen through, however, and the coastal weather was windy, cloudy, and cool, so I instead decided to return inland. All the direct buses were booked out, so at 4pm I took a bus to Leon, then a train to Palencia, then another train to Miranda de Ebro, arriving at about midnight. I was relatively certain that B's feet would prevent him making it to the nearby Santo Domingo de la Calzada until the following day, so I found a local hotel and prepared to, you know, roost. But wifi was my friend and after 3 days of radio silence, B got a message through confirming he was, at that minute, already IN Santo Domingo. If I had arrived the following day at 10am or so and walked the wrong way to intercept him, we might never have met. Instead I jumped in a taxi and by 1:30am was in Santo Domingo. 

At about 10pm the last hotel closes its doors, so I hunkered down in a doorway where, despite wearing ALL my clothes, by 3am a cold breeze made not moving difficult. I walked around town with my phone out and eventually managed to locate the holy grail - unsecured wifi! I took advantage of several hours of unscheduled time to check all the internet stuff I needed to do, and then walked to the four corners of the town to stare at the stars and talk to sleeping ruminants and count road tiles. At around 6am I found B's albergue and walked straight in, which he found pleasantly surprising. Sandals it turned out had worked for the better and he was now making excellent time. I took a quick nap on the kitchen table while they all packed, then we set out for the next town. It felt good to be back on the Camino, and I was rather wired rather than tired. 

By that afternoon, however, 28km of walking plus failing to sleep/lie down had taken its toll and my feet were a little sore. We picked the best of Belorado's five albergues (quattro cantones) and spent the afternoon hanging out in their back yard, which featured a greenhoused pool, a lot with chickens, peacocks, geese, and rabbits, and several adjacent derelict houses. I caught up on laundry, and together with a german vegetarian Z cooked a gigantic dinner. We met a Basque fellow A who was an expert on conflict resolution and had a long and interesting chat about the nature and history of the rebels in northern Spain. Apparently a cease-fire was signed only 2 years ago.

The following day I fried the left-over dinner and we left early, quickly leaving the towns behind and walking the longest stint on a rather terrible trail, perhaps 4 hours between towns. B, Z, and I sang a lot of Disney and other songs on the trail, and eventually we arrived in San Juan de Bottega, another town with one non-abandoned building, a gigantic church containing the remains of several saints and some cool architecture, and a dusty combine harvester. 3km further on we found our destination, Ages. Unlike the medieval architecture of Los Arcos and Puenta La Reina, Ages and Belorado featured rows of larger places in an un-walled setting, perhaps benefiting from nearby larger towns and almost certainly much later construction. Like the other towns, especially ones away from the Camino, Ages was also mostly abandoned, with about a dozen modern renovated homes between many more derelict and abandoned older places. At this point I realised that despite the relaxing nature of life on the Camino, it was, today, a highly privileged existence to spend a month involved in unnecessary physical labour! The majority of pilgrims were not religiously motivated. After a terrific dinner I walked to the outskirts of the town and set up a timelapse with my camera, which can be viewed here:

The next morning I retrieved my camera, where the dawn's light revealed a field full of thistles, explaining my previous discomfort! We set out but failed to find a town with a bakery, leaving me rather hungry, for a change. Eventually, on the outskirts of Burgos, I ate a semi-microwaved tortilla and we pressed on. The last 2 hours of the walk was through the outer sprawl of Burgos, one of the most depressingly awful things I've seen in quite a while! Fortunately the old town was lovely. I located the bus station, bought a ticket, and took a shower. Not long after, I said goodbye to B and Z, and 2 hours later was in Bilbao, footsore and exhausted.

So I walked for an hour across the city, taking in the Guggenheim museum and various Calatrava edifices, meeting a couchsurfer at the city hall. With him I walked through a giant fair ground to his place at the top of the tallest hill in Bilbao. Not long after, we returned to the city, climbing down about a thousand steps into the old town, where more than half a million people had gathered to celebrate the city's festival. It was out of control!

I had an early flight the following day so narrowly caught the last bus to the airport. At the airport (another Calatrava design) we were herded into a rather cool room to stay overnight next to the car rental place. At 2am they sent a floor polishing unit around to help us sleep. I guess they could start the buses a bit earlier in the morning! A moderate amount of yoga and armrest limb threading and I could sleep flat, although by 4am I was shivering too much to sleep well. 

Later that morning I was in Brussels once more, this time with a 9 hour layover. I boarded a train to Ghent, where I met an old colleague E, who I had not seen since accidentally running into them in early 2011 in San Jose! We spent two hours catching up on our respective news, discussing how best to navigate the academia/industry divide, and being shown the awesomeness of downtown Ghent. All too soon it was time to return to the station and the airport, and take a flight to Washington DC. On the flight I watched the Dark Knight Rises, listened to the Beatles, thought about the Stokeslet Green function, and watched a few other silly films. My neighbours were veteran electrical engineers, specialising in low-voltage switching. That is, less than 11kV! At DC passed through about 15 layers of immigration and security, then boarded the last flight to LA, on which I mostly slept. I got back to my place at around midnight, 38 hours after leaving Burgos, and immediately stayed up for 5 hours collating photos and otherwise having a terrific time.

It is nice to have the freedom to occasionally zoom around the world and indulge in pointless physical exercise for days at a time. Something to consider with career development!