Camino calling

P1070244It has taken a while but the bean is back on the bike – this time to follow ‘El Camino’ (also known as The Way of St James) across the Iberian Peninsula towards Santiago de Compostela.

My original intention has been to update the blog as I go; to write about the exhilarating highs and occasional lows of cycle touring, or the elemental experience of wild camping across the diverse patchwork of regions that make up northern Spain. Yet, I’ve not been able to commit the words to the page until now. It’s partly because I’ve wanted to resist the compulsion to write and be in search of the next available wi-fi zone to publish another update. But more than that, I’ve wanted to allow the gentle rhythms of nature to take over so that the need to be in, or have access to, instant communication day or night via digital means becomes merely a possibility, rather than a necessity. And it is this desire to, well, coin the old cliché – to ‘turn off’ and ‘tune in’ – that has helped to shape the journey along the Camino de Santiago so far. The only dropping out, however, is the chain on the trusty Sherpa from time-to-time.

P1060942Arriving in Bilbao after an unusually smooth crossing by ferry across the Bay of Biscay from Portsmouth, England, I decide to get the leg muscles back into shape by tracking the coastline along the Costa Verde towards France. This was with a view to joining the Camino on the French side of the border at the popular starting point of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and then back into Spain across the hinterlands of the Pyrenees to ‘officially’ start my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles. Although I appreciate it may seem counter-intuitive to head completely in the opposite direction of Santiago de Compostela, it turned out be a good decision. The legs, as expected, were painstakingly out of shape and despite the forgiving ride of the steel-framed Sherpa, a serious amount of necessary weight needed to be jettisoned before the fully laden bike felt more like its sprightly former self than I had been accustomed to on my last cycle tour to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.

P1060958Punctuated by some cracking wild camp spots en-route, the crimson sunsets along the Costa Verde as the sun plunged into the deep blue waters each evening was the perfect reward for the succession of punishing hills that I encountered each day. In fact, I was actually reluctant to leave the undulating coastline to head inland from the combed white sands of St-Jean-de-Luz; but the Camino was calling and I needed to reply. Thankfully, the legs responded too and I soon got into my stride on the Sherpa, stopping off for the occasional refreshing natural cider poured at a height – to achieve that perfect effervescence that is so characteristic of the Basque outlook on life – as I cycled through the verdant rolling farmland that straddles each side of the western Spanish/French frontier.

P1070492I met my first pilgrim, Maria from Austria, on the winding climb up from Arnéguy before the swift descent into Roncesvalles. We stopped for a chat under the baking hot midday sun. It turns out that she was a tour guide who decided to take some time out from the demands of her work and be on the other side of the tourist fence for once. She was the first of many Maria’s and Mary’s that I would meet on the road. Fortunately, I was allowed to camp in the monastery grounds of free of charge with the helpful advice that I should present my newly acquired Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport) to the officer of the Guardia Civil if they turn up to enquire why I had chosen to sleep in a tent rather than take advantage of the accommodation provided by good folk at the monastery.

I appreciate that to some folk it seems an odd choice to decline the offer of the warm bed for the night for the confines of a cosy tent. But my decision to wild camp my way along the Camino has been not only born out of reasons of self-imposed financial austerity but for the very fact that it’s the sheer joy of getting off the beaten track and being as self-sufficient as possible. The mitigating factor is that if I am going to carry a nylon home and all the associated paraphernalia that goes with it; I might as well use it. P1060992That night, the weather changed dramatically and the familiar brilliance of the milky way and waxing moon became shrouded in a swirl of storm clouds. The thunder and lightning display that ensued was a dramatic start to my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route that has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years.

El Camino de Santiago – also known as Camino Francés across the border – is essentially a collection of established walking routes that fan across Europe and converge on the shrine of the Apostle of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the apostle journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula after Jesus’ death on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the Pagans. On his return to the Holy Land, he met an unfortunate end and was martyred by the sword of King Herod in Jerusalem. His decapitated body was said to have been taken by his followers to Jaffa where a stone boat was commissioned. Miraculously, the boat floated and after seven days at sea, the boat was washed up in a great storm, undamaged and covered in scallop shells, at Padrón. After some deliberation with the local chiefs, his body was allowed to go to the earth in Spanish soil in a tomb 20km inland from the Galician coast. P1070450For more than 800 years, his resting place was undisturbed until a shepherd called Pelayo was led to a bright star shining in a field where the body of James the Apostle and his followers were discovered. It is from the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant Iago), that the name Santiago de Compostela is derived.

Not long afterwards, Alfonso II – the King of Asturias – declared St James the patron saint of Spain after there were reported visions of him leading the charge in shining armour on a white horse against the Moorish invaders, earning him the title ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – or St James the Moor Slayer. A church and monastery were built over the tomb in recognition of his decisive interventions that turned the tide in battle against the advancing Islamic army, and so the illustrious history of Santiago de Compostela began. Steeped in myth and the mists of time, the Crusades and reconquesta of Catholic Spain had finally found a patron; the Golden Legend was born, and the pilgrimage routes that we know today across Europe have been a magnet for pilgrims far and wide.

Legend, historical and religious complexities aside, the question concerning why people embark on a pilgrimage of their own is a fascinating one. My own personal motivations for cycling along one of the major sections of the Camino that follows an ancient Roman trading route to the Atlantic is not for religious reasons – but neither do I discount the fact that, for many, it is a journey of great religious importance.P1070171 I suppose it is partly down to a desire to slow down and reconnect with nature; to be ‘still’ again and to fully appreciate the moment, away from the perpetual distractions of modern-day life. Another dimension has been to allow the soul, body, and mind to experience the freedom of the open road again; unheeded, unhurried and most of all, to be at peace in an increasingly chaotic and conflicted world. I’ve also keen to discover the myriad of reasons why others have decided to make time to make their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and how, the experience has, if at all, profoundly changed them.

Ubuntu: The spirit of coffee

84707813_c888ce86d9.jpgOf all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.

Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.

P1020957.jpgIt is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.

01The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”

P1030784The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.

P1030067The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.

Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.

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A Lebanese Welcome

Reverse parking a 10,000 tonne vessel is clearly not for the feint-heated when it comes to docking in the industrial Port of Tripoli (not to be confused with Libya!). Think more Camel Lairds shipping yard in Birkenhead cum-fishing jetty bristling with vast cranes and pulley systems than your average looking ferry terminal. It took a good hour for the captain to turn the boat round and slowly manoeuvre it to within a lifebuoys throw of the dockside. Finally, two tugboats – freshly painted in the colours of the Lebanese flag (green, white and red) – came to the captain’s aid and gently nudged the ferry between two huge container ships being loaded with scrap metal; with only a few metres to spare on each side.

As we dropped anchor, a fellow passenger wryly shouted the – soon to be familiar – refrain ‘Welcome to Lebanon!’ over the pitch of the engines as they struggled to bring the Azzurra’s (Kingstown) rusting hull to a complete standstill. His son leaned lazily against the railings beside him and gazed back out towards the Mediterranean horizon with a plastic toy Kalashnikov slung round his neck. He was all of ten years of age.

A head-splitting mix of the sound of grinding metal, dust and oil fumes filled the heavy air as the sun beat down on the luggage strewn deck as we patiently waited to disembark. I whiled away the time chatting with three friendly Harley Davidson die-hards (Moustofa, Labib and Ghason) whom I had met on the overnight journey from Turkey. Two sweltering hours later, my passport was finally stamped after some careful scrutiny by the khaki-clad customs officials and I was eventually allowed to step back onto Terra Firma once again.

What to declare?

Passing through customs with a touring bike is always an interesting affair. I’m still not sure as to whether you have to ‘declare’ a bike or not under international maritime law? The captain of the ship didn’t seem to know either. The same confusion applies when you’re confronted with a scanning machine. Essentially a large microwave on steroids, these machines are roomy but they don’t have the capacity to scan a fully-laden bike. Even the customs officials, no matter how officious looking, don’t seem to have the inclination or time on their hands to ask me to unpack the bike for a full bag search. On every occasion so far (and Tripoli was no exception), I’ve been greeted with a dismayed look that says ‘what on earth do you expect me to do with this?’ shortly followed by the unavoidable question ‘what’s in your bags?’ Always starting with a deep breath before I begin, the first item to mention in the long litany of items is the camping stove as I reckon that this helps to explain the large array of paraphernalia that accompanies a healthy obsession with coffee. To date, I still haven’t yet managed to get passed item number five yet (Turkish coffee pot) and its corresponding gesture in the universal language of mime before I get interrupted with an incredulous look and a resigned ushering of the hand to wave me on. This is usually my cue to bypass the bag and body scanner completely as flustered passengers are made to cue up and empty the contents of their bags for closer inspection. It’s a fast track through customs purely on account of the fact that there does not seem to be any protocol or convention for scanning a touring bike. For all customs know, I could be smuggling coffee beans into the country concealed inside my bike frame… Which of course technically-speaking, I am.

I was questioned on three separate occasions as to the contents of my panniers at successive army check points (and three equally thwarted attempts to conduct a bag search) on my way through before leaving the confines of the heavily militarized port. I was finally in Lebanon at long last and the much-anticipated flavours, and sensations, of Arabic Coffee beckoned.

The Italian Riviera

As the deep-bass blast of the horn signaled our departure from Barcelona, an overwhelming sense of relief resonated through every fibre of my body. I was on my way at last. The overnight Grand Navi ferry that was to spirit us to Genova just shy of twenty hours was a rusting hull of a ship that had probably enjoyed its last lick of paint sometime back in the 1970s. The fact that it was proudly called the ‘Excellent’ seemed to add to its general aura of faded glory, now overtaken by air travel and the perpetual pursuit for speed. Still, the Excellent was no slouch and resolutely ploughed (and occasionally groaned) its way through the Mediterranean waves at a steady 40 knots per hour.

Waiting to be given the green light to roll off the ferry the following afternoon alongside the truckers seemed to be a fitting metaphor for the style of riding that cycle touring with a heavily loaded bike demands; it’s still cycling in the sense that you are creating forward motion with each turn of the pedals but there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re in control of a heavy goods vehicle. Momentum is all.

This of course does have its many advantages (especially downhill) but negotiating a safe passage out of Genova did pose its challenges. The first was not to get swept up by the fast-moving traffic onto the seemingly suicidal four-lane Autostrada where near death experiences surely awaited; performing U-turns on a two-wheeled HGV can be a tricky business on busy roads. A few pit stops to make the necessary adjustments to the gear, don the waterproofs, get the right bearings on the map and we left the grey concrete and drizzle of the city behind to enter the verdant coastline of the La Riviera Ligure di Levante.

There is no denying that some of hills have been pretty brutal on the uninitiated legs muscles so far but it is easy to forget the pain and become lost in the pleasure of passing through the lush scenery of the Cinque Terre (Five Villages) national park. Cycling along the undulating road that hugs the coastline and meanders through old rustic villages, sleepy harbour towns and pine forests has been nothing short of blissful. Terraced hills that plunge to the sea below offer the perfect climatic conditions for wine production in the region. Each balconied terrace on the hillside is supported by centuries-old dry walls that reflect the April sun’s gentle rays; accelerating the growth of the  grapes. The cool air breezing up from the shoreline also provides the optimum weather for cycling and we soon got into the rhythm of grinding up the hills at a snail’s pace only to stop momentarily at the top to enjoy the sweeping views before charging down the other side at swift pace. The ringing of church bells became a tranquil metronome to the melody of birdsong as swallows dived and swooped through the olive orchards beside the road.

The icing on the cake were the free camp opportunities as the wooded hillside offered total seclusion – and peace of mind from the chance of being rumbled by passing walkers or farmers – and we managed to get three in the bag without too much effort. The reward at the end of a hard days cycle was a steaming mug of hot chocolate under the wooded canopy as stars twinkled through the trees on calm, moonless nights.

The succession of free camps did however take its toll and I was distinctly beginning to hum by the time we reached Pisa.  So it was a good moment to book into a youth hostel and enter the domestic world again of warm showers, fresh bed linen and a kitchen to cook up some fresh slap-up pasta and pesto washed down with the ubiquitous vino rosso. In country where wine can be cheaper than water, even a one euro carton of the stuff tastes pretty good. Pisa is a quintessentially picturesque Italian, Roman-walled town. Forgive me for stating the obvious here but the freestanding Torre pendente di Pisa sure does lean. Precariously so. It’s like the whole structure has been rotated on a 30 degree angle and somehow seems to defy the law of gravity. Grandiose architecture aside, half of the fun is watching the hordes of tourists spending literally hours trying to line up their hands and bodies to achieve the classic illusion of ‘holding’ up the gleaming cylindrical arched structure from crashing to the ground. It’s an amusing scene as the prevailing vista is a field of people performing human statues, each striking a very similar angular pose.

The charm of Italy is already having its effect on me and for some reason the words of Johnny Nash keep coming into mind as the days begin to unfold in this stunningly beautiful country:

“I can see clearly now the rain has gone
I can can see all the obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day

I think I can make it now the pain has gone
And all the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been waiting for
It’s going to be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”

Steel is Real

S0, let’s get straight to the point, steel is real.

The only material that can be forged into a diamond geometry that offers the most durable, load-bearing bike frame at an affordable price.  And so, after hours of painstaking research, I settled on putting my faith in the good people at Thorn Cycles in Bridgewater, Somerset, to build a bike that will withstand the many bumps, pot holes, uneven dirt tracks and all the abuse that terra firma can inflict along the winding road ahead. With 35 kilos on the front and rear pannier racks combined and another 80 kilos (I could lose a few!) on the saddle, it has to. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long walk indeed.

Introducing my – fully loaded – trusty steed, the lovely Sherpa ‘Kaldi’:

Affectionately named after the Ethiopian Shepherd Kaldi and his dancing Goats!