BOOK REVIEW: Ailsa Piper woke in darkness on a chilly morning in Granada and after a quick shower hoisted a pack on her back and started to walk across Spain all the way to Galicia. That’s 1200km. The Australian playwright, theatre director and actor had done a lot of walking before, including the Camino Frances, but nothing as challenging as this.
She followed the pilgrim trail called the Camino Mozarabe – a historical route carved by Jews, Muslims and Christians – which starts in Granada and winds its way through to Salamanca and into Merida. The terrain is very strenuous and rarely flat until Alcaracejos (3 days walk from Córdoba), much of it through olive plantations; hilly scenery often topped by forts and lookout towers dating from the time of the Arab occupation.
Part of her pilgrimage was spiritual. She sent a letter to potential sponsors, colleagues and friends that said “I will walk off your sins. Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Proven track record. Tireless. Result-oriented. Reliable. Seven Deadlies a specialty.” The response gave her the resources and drive to start her journey. Starting at Easter in 2010, she walked an average of 30km a day over six weeks. One day she did over 50km.
Ailsa has written a book abut her walk, a lyrical, poetic work that goes far beyond the genre of travel memoir. Sinning Across Spain, published by Victory Books, explores the pilgrimage where medieval believers were paid by others to carry their sins to holy places and so buy forgiveness, and details Ailsa’s own spiritual and physical journey. Her inner journey makes this book compelling. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year. Her measured, thoughtful writing is fresh and engaging. It almost reads like a poetic monologue, like a one-woman performance piece, yet she deftly enlists and engages with a vast cast of fascinating characters along the way. When I was sick recently, I curled up on a couch and read the book. Inspired by her heartfelt words, I felt better after reading it and even started going for walks.
Ailsa’s journey was no picnic. She slogged up impossibly steep mountains, fell into ditches, nursed blisters, aches and pains, occasionally got lost and raged with anger as she faced her own inner demons.
“One afternoon, after eight hours of incessant rain, I was trudging along a flooded dirt road in waterlogged boots and drenched khakis, feeling far from home and even farther from reason. What on earth had made me imagine I could skip across a country carrying other people’s sins on my backs, let alone abstain from committing any of them myself?” she wrote.
But her way was beautiful too.
“Contorted trunks twisted out of unforgiving ground. Spilled drops from my water bottle disappeared in seconds. My feet marked time to snatches of mis-remembered songs, and I drifted out to the end of my kite string to fly abovr my snail-self. Sky-surfing. Time stretched and contracted…. At my feet fire-engine red poppies and butter-yellow daises offset each other, the colours more intense for their proximity.”
Her sturdy pack was organised down to the last 100grams. When you’re walking that far carrying everything you need, every item counts. The heaviest item was her sleeping bag, weighing 500g. Olive oil is the best nurturer for the body, she wrote. She bought it along the way and mixed it with ti-tree, peppermint rosemary or lavender essential oils to make a rubbing oil for tired feet and muscles.
Ailsa’s clothes comprised two pairs of hiking pants, two fast-dry Silk Body t-shirts, pain pants, rain jacket, a pashmina, a sarong for modesty which also became a sheet, three pairs of knickers, two bras, New Zealand thick wool socks, walking boots, a pair of Crocs, an Icebreaker thermal top and leggings.
Along the way she spent a lot of time in solitude but also met fellow walkers of all nationalities and ages and made new friends. Some walkers were as old as 70. Pilgrims carry a kind of passport, and at each stop along the way they can have this stamped which become badges of achievement, but they also serve a more practical purpose. They prove the authenticity of the pilgrim. Special guest houses dot the route – mostly spartan accommodation in the form of dormitories for as little as 10 euros a night. Ailsa said her walk cost her up to 35 euros a day, but it could be done for less.
“I ate brilliantly. The Spaniards don’t do small. They do pilgrim meals of two or three courses and a glass of wine from 10 to 13 euros,”she told me.
The kindness of strangers constantly humbled her, from locals going out of their way to help and ease her path, to the compassion of fellow walkers who looked out for her. Two new-found friends, Leonardo and Ricardo, who lived in Barcelona, gave her guidance and support by mobile phone when she needed it.
“The walk changed me. I’m less judgmental now, but I also understand we’re all capable of anything. You learn to forgive a lot because you’re all trying hard and struggling.”
She wrote: “The unbending, uncompromising part of my nature that been broken down on Mozarabe. Carrying the sins made me watch myself every minute of the day. I’d been my own critical observer, an active conscience monitoring my actions as fully as I could, fronting my failings.”
It had been hard, she told her husband on the phone after she had finally reached her destination, but full of quiet joys.
Her actual distance turned out to be 1300km, as she also decided to walk to Finisterre, a rock-bound peninsula on the west coast of Galacia. Finisterre means “land’s end.”
“Intention 1200. Actual 1300,” she told me.
While some people go in high summer Ailsa recommends aspiring walkers to do the treks in spring or autumn, when the temperatures are more comfortable.
Sinning Across Spain: A walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia, by Ailsa Piper, $A29.99. www.mup.com.au
* All photographs courtesy of Ailsa Piper and ©Ailsa Piper.