Hello from Montpellier in the central south of France! Another week of walking & praying has come & gone & I'm feeling every kilometre of it right now on this Saturday evening. I began from Brignoles 3days behind schedule but will enter into tomorrow only 1day behind. The price for that catch up was 157km in 3days across the hot & muggy, snake infested flood-plains of the River Rhine. My foot bled, my water ran out & I went without a shower twice. I encountered more snakes this week than South & Central America combined, & that's saying something. I was jumping every few hours as they flew off from under my next step & everytime my heart, quiet literally, skipped a beat. One particular snake, just outside Arles, stayed where he was long enough for me to take its photo but it soon darted back into the swamp as well. The scenery was superb apart from the snakes. Rice paddies, fully grown barley crops, hay cutting in progress & flourishing vineyards made a patchwork amidst the natural swamps & rivers. On my first day out of Brignoles I firstly had to dispatch an aggresive charging Rottweiler with a clip under its chin from my walking pole (worked a treat) before arriving in a small town to find no offer of accomodation or hotels/campsites. I'd been toying with the idea of catching up some lost time during the week so the oppurtunity to walk on wasn't with too much angst. That being said, I began to wonder what was going on after passing a series of hotels with no vacancies. After 2 campsites & 7 hotels (and 58km) I was told that a university congress was being held & the entire city of Aix-en-Provence & surrounding districts were booked out. Even the manger was occupied. A friendly receptionist at the final hotel pointed me towards the dimly lit river-side city park & at 11pm I pitched my tent (at no cost) alongside a hedge & tried my best to sleep. A homeless man, with his own sleeping gear, joined me in the park an hour later though there was about 50m between us. There was no one else to be seen. Well, it was so dark it would have been difficult to see anyone else in any case. I could hear drunken cheers coming from a group further up into the park but they didn't make an appearance thankfully. I admit, I didn't feel safe & woke nearly every hour but morning finally came & I packed up & was ready to move on. I walked past the homeless fellow & said good morning. He lifted up a bottle of wine to me & asked in perfect english if I drank. I said no & extended some of my breakfast to him & asked (again in perfect english) "Do you eat?" He smiled a broken tooth smile & said yes as he accepted the food. I should have asked him if he prayed as well, but I didn't & missed the oppurtunity. I often miss oppurtunities like that. I really should have stayed & at least chatted for a while. Should'a, would'a, could'a, didn't. In the next town after another long day of walking & praying the priest slipped me €30 for a hotel but everything had closed down! I asked many locals but everytime they either said there wasn't anything or pointed towards a hotel that closed down years ago. As all moments of dicision warrant, I grabbed a souvlaki & pondered my options. I decided that I wouldn't take the train to a neighbouring town & return in the morning but would just walk on until I found something. I struck up a conversation with my souvlaki maker before a young kid piped up in the background in broken english, "I know hotel." Meet Zaheer. A 10yr old of Iraqi heritage who'd been listening in to our conversation. I quickly bundled my pack up & Zaheer led me off across the railway tracks, chatting as we went. And would you believe it, for a brief moment, their we were, a christian missionary & a young muslim, talking about our faiths. He was a humble little kid. The hotel he led me to was indeed open & for €31 a bed was mine. Apart from the girl behind the bar I was the only non-French & non-muslim person there. I had a great time. Upon hearing of what I was trying to do (or doing) a fellow named Mohammed shouted me my drinks. He was openly disappointed though (with humour) that I chose a tall glass of Coke as my freebie. He paid for it none-the-less. Another man though, took one of the little prayer cards I carry with the internet address on it, so hello to everyone in Miramas if you're reading this! The following day was day 3 of the 157km & with the oppurtunity to take back a lost day within sight I pushed harder than I would normally like, to arrive in St Gilles right on sunset at 9pm. Now, get this for a series of 'perfect timing'; As I entered St Gilles I couldn't see any churches so I asked on elderly man sitting by the road for directions. He tried to explain but in the end offered to walk me. He was so incredibly slow that for a moment I felt like telling him I was in a hurry & thanks for bringing me this far but I'll walk on alone, but I then recalled that God's timing is perfect & everythig happens for a reason. The poor old bloke, whose name is Rohan, began to breathe heavily with a persistant wheeze as we negotiated some steep alley-ways. He had to stop a few times to catch his breath but with a genuine smile that read something like, "It wasn't always this tough" we continued to eventually arrive at the Basilica of St Gilles. After a solid hand shake he waved me off & I headed down the last narrow alley-way to an empty church square. At that moment a gentleman walked out of his house & threw something into his car. He looked up at me & asked if I needed accomodation. Jean-Claude then showed me around the corner & up a flight of stairs to an old stone building where he rang the door bell. After a small wait another man, Regis, was greeting me into his home & Jean-Claude was waving goodbye. Regis' home was decked out for passing pilgrims & he even cooked too much pasta for his dinner so there was a huge bowl of spaghetti sitting on the table waiting for me. Regis showed me my bed & then said goodnight, "I'm leaving at 5:30am so I won't see you in the morning. Just make sure you pull the door closed behind you when you leave." And he was gone. It was all very surreal. Perfect timing indeed. From there the journey has been relatively uneventful other than a fantastic bag full of food from the Evangelical Baptist Church in Lunel plus, of course, a few more snake dodges. I've even dodged dead snakes as well - it's difficult to tell the difference sometimes! Oh, that reminds me, I saw a snake road kill happen right in front of me. The snake decided to cross in front of me a car mowed it down followed by a huge semi-trailer. I actually felt sorry for it. I was also keeping a close eye on it in case it was flicked up by the impact. I was on edge! What's worse than a snake in the grass at your feet? A snake flying towards your head! It didn't move much though. The semi flicked it up a foot or so but not at me. I still don't like snakes but I did feel sorry for it. Not a good way to go. Today while walking into Montpellier I somehow landed in a roadside conversation with two... hippies. I don't know if that's the correct word to describe their way of life but it was one alternative conversation indeed. A middle aged man & a young woman with beautifully coloured clothes, no shoes & a plethora of dangling ornaments. He was all for unity but we weren't really on the same, shall we say, wavelength. When I shared about praying for christian unity he agreed that we needed to pray to the sky for the cosmic energies of all religions to unite as one so we could all come together. I'm still contemplating what that actually means. I was half laughing at our conversation but I was also looking for an oppurtunity to make a stand against what was a mish-mosh of 'the good of all religions' with very little understanding of what each religion was. As he spoke further about his favourite religion, a tribal belief system of South America, I began praying for an oppurtunity to say something that wouldn't offend him but still be able to introduce Christ into the conversation. Finally I remembered, "Share, don't preach" from my time with Youth Mission Team Australia & then I noticed that one of his many 'dangly things' was a Franciscan cross (the tau) exactly the same as the one I wear. He knew of St Francis as a man who talked to the animals & the plants & so he carried the tau with him. I pointed out that Francis wasn't exactly Dr Doolittle (he did scold a wolf, which obeyed him, & had a particular love & appreciation for God's creation) but he was most passionate about the Church & following the Lord. I then shared for a quick moment about how it was Francis' way of following Christ that was most attractive for me. I shared a little more about my own journey but the end result was... water of a duck's back. I don't think I had much of an impact. As I was continuing on the young woman presented me with a bouquette of coulrful flowers to carry with me. I wasn't really keen to cary the bouquette through Montpellier but with 2 walking poles, one in each hand, I was able to decline politely, "Sorry, I can't carry them." That didn't phase her one bit. She simply saddled up alongdside me & jammed the flower stems in between my backpack & neck such that the flowers were poking up over the back of my head like a floral halo. I could see my refelction in a warehouse window. I looked like a peacock with a backpack. I offered for them to be placed alternativly on the side of my backpack where they'd be better protected & so that was where they stayed until I arrived here this afternoon & dropped them in a church I stopped at. At the entrance to the church there was a loud gathering of university students playing theatre sports but it really hit me that the church itself was empty. I walked down the aisle & stood in the middle of the church, surrounded by the echoes of the festive gathering outside. It was then that a cat rubbed up against my leg before trotting down to the front row of seats. It jumped up & reached out with its front paws to the front rail. It just 'stood' there facing the altar. Now St Francis would have been moved by that! So I'm now in Montpellier & I'm re-mapping the forth-coming week to try & walk into Toulouse back on schedule. It looks possible at this point so I'll head southwest towards Beziers & then leave the coastline, following the Pyrenees Mountains westwards. I'll hopefully see you next week from Toulouse. God bless, Sam.
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..." 1Peter 3:15
ps: And thanks for the comment Micah! The gentleman's comment was a reflection of him alone. Certainly not episcopals & definately not Texans :-)