Hello from Samos, a Benedictine Monastery village 120km west of Santiago de Compestela. It's 7:30am & I've found interent access so I'll take the chance to quickly write before entering into the final week of walking. Today is day 562 of 568. Not far now. I'm nearly jumping out of my skin with the prospect of stepping onto a plane bound for Australia in a very short time. I flashed my Australian drivers license to some guys I was having dinner with last night & they refused to believe that the photo was of me. They couldn't stop laughing. 18months of walking can change a person. I had a wonderful week on the road this past week as I met an energetic group of 18 to 30 year olds from all around the world who have become friends on the Camino & stuck together. I ate & walked with them for 3 days, enjoying the diverse conversations & ways of travelling. Two of the girls from England loved to sing while they walked, two of the guys from New York loved to rap, sing harmonies & talk about future plans while they walked & others enjoyed to have quiet time of contemplation but they'd always meet back up at the end of the day to share dinner. They have declared themselves the 'Fellowship' & have thus handed out names to each person according to JRR Tolkins 'The Lord of the Rings'. I'm pleased to report that I snared the title of Strider & anyone who has read the books or seen the movies will understand that I scored big on that one. Mind you, Philip from England was named Golim & was chuffed to bits! I spent the first day walking with Philip & Pat, two young Anglican fellas who have just completed a year of full monastic life with the Franciscans along with their friend Julian. The Camino is their re-entry into the 'outside world' as it has been, to a point, for me as well. We spoke at great length about re-entry, prayer, theology & the Camino itself & perhaps the resounding conversation that has stayed with me was after Philip commented about the use of churches here. Philip had entered the Cathedral in Leon to spend some time in prayer within a building he described as "Having been built to draw us into intimate pray" but found it difficult being the only one praying. The Cathedral was packed with pilgrims taking photos, buying souvenirs & in general, talking very loudly. He felt like he was back in the Jewish temple just before Jesus came in & over-turned all the trader's tables. The conversation that persued lasted a number of days (on & off) & we began to look at the Camino itself. There are a lot of people here 'searching' but unless what you're searching for is historical information for your next architectural project, the pilgrims are pretty much left to their own devices. In past years I might have convinced myself that there is very little Phil & I could do to help people focus on the spiritual side of the pilgrimage but after the last 18 months I might just give this one a bit more thought. On the third day of walking with some of the 'fellowshipers' Philip & I had concluded another discussion about the Camino when we decided to completly change the mood & show Elizabeth, a young lady from the USA who was walking with us, how to play cricket. I had a small foam ball in my bag & Phil simply adjusted his walking pole into a comfortable bat before I bowled to him on the sidewalk in a small town called Villafranca. Phil swung through & connected so well that the little foam ball disappeard skywards. It was about now that I realised that playing cricket in front of the village's historic castle-like town hall wasn't a particularly great place to play. Location, location, location. The ball canoned into the stone work only just above the top window of the 3storey 'castle' before lobbing back out into the main street, bouncing right in front of the only car travelling down the road, bringing it to a quick stop. Phil, laughing uncontrolably, slinked away quickly leaving me to retrieve his handy-work form the middle of the road. Nice one Phil. He still maintains it was the best hit of his life. We left Villafranca soon after & along with Elizabeth, played soccer/hockey along the deserted country road all the way to our destination 10km further afield. The days have been searingly hot lately & that day was no different. A medium sized river ran through the tiny town so we took the opportunity to relax in the, as it turned out, absolutley freezing waters of the mountain river. After nearly half and hour of wading through the water skimming the ball back & forth to one another I noticed a flash of light right next to my foot. I reached down & pulled out a three-prong fish hook & held it aloft. Philip & I decided it was time to hop out & as we clammered up onto the bank I commented that the way this walk around the world has gone, in the past I would've found the hook by treading on it. I then leaned back & placed my left arm directly into stinging nettles... You just have to laugh some times. I just can't win. I was left with a sting that lasted well into the evening but it was, after all, better than having a fish hook through my toe. That evening I said goodbye to the 'fellowship' & next morning headed off at 5am for the final mountain ascent of this journey. Just as I completed the mountain traverse & was pulling into a town 42km from the place I started at, I bumped back into Oisin (the Irishman) who has also been pushing into some long distance walking. We looked around for a Saturday evening mass but concluded that the best option was to walk another 10km down the road to Samos where there was a Benedictine Monasterey. Two of the pilgrims we meet along the way turned out to be priests so it had a great sense of the 'old ways' as we journied together towards the celebration of mass. There are more & more pilgrims on the road everyday now & personal space can be difficult to find. I've witnessed a number of clashes of personality this week as well. One pilgrim, Dean, is doing it on horseback & while I was chatting with him on the side of the street in a tiny village a shop owner came out & opened up with the most profane language as he told Dean & his horse where to go. Dean was incensed & handed the reigns to a German pilgrim standing nearby as he went into the shop after the shopkeeper. The arguement was heated & the poor old German pilgrim had no idea what to do with the horse. He looked up at everyone else standing there & simply commented, "I'm holding a horse." Dean was eventually back & road off quietly (into the sunset). At other times I've seen pilgrims & hostel owners enter heated exchanges but the pearlers are always the ones between pilgrims at 5:30 in the morning. Namely, those trying to sleep until 6:30am & those who couldn't give a stuff if anyone is trying to sleep or not. For many, I think it's the first time they've stepped outside their own home & the concept of 'other people' just hasn't sunk in yet. The funny one was while I was talking with Evan from New York. We were chatting in a hostel kitchen when a young man came in, grabed a glass, turned the tap on & had a drink of water. He then walked back out, leaving the tap running full. The look on Evan's face was priceless as he contemplated what he was looking at before reaching over & turning the tap off. He was speechless. The other funny thing I've had to get used to here is the language. I learnt a lot of Spainish while walking through South & Central America but I hadn't realised how different the accent is here. Throughout the America's, the number 5 & 11, for example, are pronounced as "sin-co" & "on-ze" respectively. Here though, it's pronounced as "thin-co" & "on-the". I couldn't believe it that all these people had lisps! "That's three people in a row now who have a lisp! What's going on?" Hmmm, I've now learnt that the accent is quiet different... and no one has a lisp. So, from here I have around 4days of walking to Santiago de Compestela where I will meet with mum & dad again before heading off for the final 3days out to Cape Finesterre on the Atlantic coastline. A lot of prayer still to be prayed, but the kilometres on foot will possibly be over be this time next week. See you then I hope. God bless, Sam.
"The end of a matter is better than its beginning, & patience is better than pride." Ecclesiastes 7:8
ps: A big hello to everyone in Malta!