Thursday, 14 August 2008

Monotony is not a place

Our Camino guide books warned us about the meseta; the vast high level plateau that we cross between Burgos and Leon. They seemed to sum it up as hot, flat and dry, with a few small farming villages to break up the journey. Some walking pilgrims we met told it slightly differently, “It’s soooo monotonous; the same, same, same, all day long; hot, hot, hot; boring, boring, boring.” But after the physical struggles of the early mountain stages of the Camino, the meseta seemed a welcome break to us. Just imagine 200km of flat after a week or more climbing the equivalent of the Andes. Suddenly we were making progress, killing kilometres, speeding along - at least between the hours of eight and one, after that it was too hot to move, until sundown.

It’s easy to think habits will be hard to change. I thought it would be impossible to get the whole family into a routine of early morning riding, afternoon siestas and a late evening push. But after a few adjustments to the bonus system the boys showed an incredible willingness to change their behaviour if it would help them earn money. So in the light of the rising sun, in the cool of the early mornings, we made tracks across the meseta, setting off early, breakfasting at eleven, riding until one then relaxing in the afternoons, working Spanish style.

Between Burgos and Leon, it’s not just our behaviour and the landscape that changed but the colour tone too, from green to gold; the varied palette of the forest, olive and vine of Navarre and Rioja giving way to horizon spanning vistas of golden cereals. The meseta of today’s Castille and Leon is like some vast 21st century agro-industrial enterprise, every inch of soil sowed with cereals, watered by pump, valve, sluice, canal and sprinkler in measured response to the natural daily roasting of the fierce summer sun.

It must have been a different experience for mediaeval pilgrims, without these vast uplifting auras of gold, hobbling from village to village through scrubland, forest or uncultivated bush, ever mindful of stories of crooks, robbers and bandits. It’s hard to imagine just what this journey would be like in a different time; it’s hard enough to appreciate what it’s like for those doing the same journey today by different means, or even the same way but on a different bike. While I’m contemplating the life of a mediaeval pilgrim, Cameron is busy studying Top Trumps and Matthew and Kirstie are talking Star Wars.

But I guess wherever and however you travel, while the physical journey may be the same the personal journey will always be different. At times in this endless golden flatness, I’ve found myself wishing this ‘boring’ ‘monotonous’ journey was over. But nothing is really the same, same, same is it? Isn’t monotony more a state of mind than a place? For there are times too when I’ve spent an hour quite engrossed by a little thing that seems to make this kilometre different in some way to the last; how my shadow changes as the sun tracks across the sky; the changing sound of a distant harvester; the unfolding mystery of a pueblo in the distance. And so I find myself wishing sometimes that this journey would just end, then later wishing it would never end. Has a week on the meseta driven me crazy, is life just full of contradictions or do I need to get myself an mp3?