Not a bad gig this life, is it?


No, indeed it is not. It is filled with beautiful moments, beautiful people, and beautiful memories. As I wrote my last blog post I was nearly finishing up at the Abbey. My last day was a spectacularly beautiful day with bright blue skies, and everything sparkled. As Neill and I arrived at The Abbey we saw a pilgrim struggling down the road. He was quite clearly in a lot of pain and when he came past we started chatting to him. Turns out he had massive blisters on his feet and was having a hard time with his hiking boots (déjà vu, much?).  My heart immediately went out to this man who was quite clearly in a lot of pain, but was also no doubt battling other thoughts like “will I have to end my Camino?”, “did I not train enough?”, “how will I get through today?” etc.  I related to what he was going through so much. I asked Neill whether we could suggest that he stays with us at The Abbey for the day and then get a lift into town with us later in the afternoon to save him walking 20km with his infected blisters, and he agreed. Later on when we were sitting enjoying lunch in the sun, Max and I got talking and he asked about my story. I explained how I was stuck in a career where I didn’t feel as though I made the world a better place. To that he looked me straight in the eye and said “you made my world a better place today”. A simple offer of a lift into town led this man to say something so kind. And I guess that there is exactly the point I had to get: sometimes we completely disregard the significance and importance of our actions and words, even the tiniest ones which we think have no meaning, but by saying and doing them anyway someone else might have a profound experience.

This was a beautiful day for me, and a complete full circle moment: I arrived at The Abbey in exactly the same way a few months ago, and on my last day there I got to pay forward the kindness that was shown to me. I have since caught up with Max and he is doing well and keeping on keeping on.

Then as promised in my last update, I was on a mission to find out the deal with the Walking Man. Well (disappointment alert), I am sorry to report that I do not have an update. Not for lack of me trying. I was very determined on this last day to be bold and chat to him to find out the deal, but lo and behold, this was the ONE day since the dawn of time that he did not walk past. I actually couldn’t believe it. But, you know what, maybe he just didn’t want his story to be known and that is ok.

After leaving the Abbey I spent the weekend in Pamplona with Spanish Springbok friend. On Saturday afternoon we took bicycles and cycled about 15km out of Pamplona all along the river to a little village restaurant on the river. The autumn colours were beautiful and the lazy late afternoon sun was warm on my face. We had a scrumptious lunch and headed back just in time before dark. The weather has been somewhat of a miracle. Even as I wrote this it was a lovely sunny 22 degrees. Newspapers report it the warmest November since 1985. It is pretty much summer and amazingly bizarre.

The following week I walked the stretch of the Camino from Pamplona to Logroño, just shy of 100km. It only made sense to end my stay in Spain in a similar way to how the journey began. I wasn’t sure what to expect though as there are so few pilgrims on the road at this time of year, and this would no doubt change the vibe of the walk. I also didn’t expect to connect with other pilgrims so much, since I was only doing a short part of the walk. On my first day of walking I got caught on top of a mountain in a ridiculous downpour. It was raining quite severely and I wasn’t overly prepared for it given the amazing weather that we have had and also the fact that I was only walking for four days. A lovely and kind Irish man gave me his poncho against my objections and without ever knowing whether he will see me again to be able to get it back. Said Irish man has since become a very good friend, like so many others I have met on this mystical path back in June.

After the week’s walking I headed back to Pamplona where I had a lovely few days taking in more of this fabulous place. I also joined Spanish Springbok friend and some of his friends on Saturday to go to a farm in the Basque village of Lesaka, where we spent the day picking kiwi’s, sightseeing, getting an impromptu tour of a cyder house, and having some typical Basque food.

I spent my last few days in Spain in Madrid. I loved the city, the food, the colours, the people, the food, the buildings, the weather, the food, the food, the food… did I mention the food? I have to admit though that I did experience the big city a little bit full on and intense after my two wholesome months of fresh air in Navarra.

I am now back in not-so-sunny England for a short while before heading off to South Africa for a couple of months. It is lovely to see my sister and her little family and also hang out with my friends, but I will be lying if I say that I don’t miss Spain daily. And somehow saying goodbye just didn’t feel so very permanent – I WILL be back.

I am grateful for the last two months and for the incredible people I met along the way, the kindness I experienced, the sun and fresh air, and then also for the luxury of time to think. Sounds funny, but quite a lot of thinking can be done while mowing a lawn or yanking out floorboards you know. Some of my random thoughts and revelations include the following:

  • I believe the world would be a better place for all of us if we can learn to just be. To stop analysing other people’s actions all the time, constantly looking for their motives and second guessing it.
  • There is very rarely, if ever, a valid excuse to withhold kindness from others.
  • Nobody deserves to be lonely.
  • Soul mates are found in unexpected places.
  • We spend so much time planning and deliberating and doubting our next moves. The best advice for that I have ever heard is probably in the ever so clever words of Nike: “just do it”.

I hope to be a little more prompt in posting a next update of my musings – until then, “Hasta Luego”!


Wednesday 28 October

So it has been a while since I last posted an update, but in between renovating an Abbey, doing a day trip to San Sebastian, discovering the phenomenon that is Spanish G&T’s and providing rugby lessons to an unsuspecting Pamplona local, it has been a busy two weeks.

Further to my last post, where I was having dismal luck in getting some proper rugby viewing organised, things have improved vastly on that front. I met a Pamplona local a couple of Sunday’s ago when he and his friend cycled past The Abbey. At the time he was (like every other Spaniard) blissfully unaware of the Rugby World Cup being underway, but a week later he had done some research, found us a very trendy bar with a Wales supporting owner and we watched the quarter final there. Apart from my new token Springbok supporter, I am still very much the only SA rugby girl in this town, but had great fun watching rugby the Spanish way. This included a few gins & tonics, which in Spain has become a bit of an art form. Think liquid nitrogen, cardamom, star anise and black peppercorn infusion and you have a rough idea. We also squeezed in a visit to a contemporary art exhibition earlier in the day so balanced culture and sport out quite nicely.

After the rugby I experienced Spain’s answer to a pub crawl. We went from bar to bar and sampled a different pintxo and small beer in each. Pintxos is the Basque word for tapas, and every bar has counters full of these displayed. And lots and lots and lots of ham (jamon). You really will have a hard time living in this country as a vegetarian… Last Saturday we also watched the rugby at the same pub and then carried on to a flamenco bar with dancers and live music. I loved it and decided that if all else fails I might come and take some flamenco lessons as a possible career change… I was struck by the fact that not a single one of the dancers had anything other than pitch black long hair, and I cannot help but wonder what will happen if a fair haired girl was to apply for a job. Is there a rule about the flamenco hair colour? Is it all coincidence? The mind boggles.

At The Abbey we have now seen far fewer pilgrims on a daily basis so most days we don’t tend to open the church for pilgrims to look in. This has freed us up to get on with some of the bigger tasks. This past week, I have painted the cemetery walls, dug a trench around it, and ripped up the wooden floorboards from the front of the church to allow the wet foundations to dry out. The crowbar is now on par with the wrecking bar as my favourite work tool. And as soon as I get back to London I will be selling tickets to the gun show, with discounted rates to my blog followers. J Seriously though, the physical work has been hard but so very refreshing and I enjoyed the instant results that are apparent when you start and finish a job in the same day. I am still seeing the mystery Walking Man daily, and he is even initiating the wave now. I have only two more days left at The Abbey though so will have to employ some serious bravery tomorrow or Friday to make sure I get to the bottom of the curious case of the walking man!

The previous mayor of the adjacent village has also started an unofficial game of “find the walnut” on a daily basis. He walks past on his daily stroll carrying a load of fresh walnuts. One day he simply launched them at me from the road with me frantically dodging the flying nuts and making sure I find them all. Nowadays he hides them in little secret places, ranging from the porch of The Abbey, to the windscreen wipers on Neill’s car. It’s quite sweet and very much like a daily Easter Egg Hunt, only it isn’t Easter and they are not eggs.

On Thursday when I was ripping out the floorboards in the church a French couple came walking in to the church with Neill showing them around. The lady signalled for me to come over and said: “come here, I want to talk to you”. Just like that. We proceeded to chat for a while and I commented on her interesting scarf-like fleece hat thing. Then on Sunday (when sadly I wasn’t around), she came all the way back to The Abbey. She bluntly asked Cath: “Where is Jacobie? This is for her” and left me a brand new scarf-like fleece hat thing which she bought and brought all the way back for me. How sweet? I am a little sad that I wasn’t there or don’t have her details to say thank you, because I am so touched by the fact that they came all the way back.

The reason I wasn’t at The Abbey on Sunday is that I treated myself to a day in San Sebastian, on the coast. It was a lovely sunny day, and I walked all along the lovely three beaches of San Sebastian, and ate more pintxos than can be considered normal.

This weekend I will cycle out to Alto de Perdon, about 20km from Pamplona on the Camino, with my new Spanish friend. I have also decided to finish off my time in Spain with a quick week’s walk along the Camino, which I will start next week, and then back to Pamplona for a weekend. I will spend three days or so in Madrid before going back to London. I cannot believe that nearly two months will have passed since I arrived. I am having an amazing time and wouldn’t mind figuring out a way to maybe head back this way in the future. I love the Spanish people, the Spanish way of life, the language and the weather. I am however not quite yet used to the fact that an early dinner means you eat before 21h30, which is my normal bed time, but I am sure with time I can come to terms with even that.IMG_4995 IMG_5008 image1 image2

Like cake…

IMG_4958 IMG_4952 IMG_4940 IMG_4851 IMG_4828

“Like a sponge cake, with lots and lots of cream, and maybe even some strawberries.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is apparently what my accent sounds like to a young Italian lady who passed The Abbey a week ago. Now, my accent has been described in many ways, with very few of these descriptions counting as even marginally flattering, so this statement was such a welcome compliment that I had to write it down. Did make me think of cake the entire rest of the day, mind.

There have been quite a few sunny moments like these since I last wrote. Daily encounters with the pilgrims who pass The Abbey are a highlight. Although the number of walkers is gradually declining due to it now becoming much colder, there are still a fair amount of people walking past. I take a lot from some meaningful chats to pilgrims, like a lovely Venezuelan woman who told me in no uncertain terms that she felt a very strong sense that I had a clear purpose here. Another woman handed me a little card that she had made in memory of her late brother. The quote on the back said:

See Everything

Overlook a Great Deal

Improve a little

I loved that, and it seemed so fitting to my journey currently. I think it applies to most of us really, we often get so hung up on not being able to change everything, but really all we need to do is make sure we improve a little bit for someone every day.

At risk of sounding like someone who has been whacked too hard over the head with an incense stick, I am having quite a few mystical experiences and connections, and these are an encouragement to me as I carry on with my day to day figuring out.

Speaking of figuring out… if not my life mission, then there is at least one thing I have promised myself to figure out before I leave here. On a daily basis there is a man who walks past The Abbey twice. He starts off in Pamplona every morning, walks past The Abbey on his way out, and then walks all the way back in the afternoon. This equates to roughly 40km each day which gets him back home late in the afternoon. He strolls past with his long ponytail, light pack over his shoulder, and umbrella fixed across his back. He walks every single day despite the weather, and Neill told me that he has been doing this since they first got there 15 odd months ago. Now curiosity got the better of me and I have made it my mission to find out what the deal is. He is not overly chatty, but I have started greeting him from the grounds each day. At first I barely got a nod in response, but nowadays he even lifts his hand in acknowledgement. I do realise that these are baby steps and I might need to up the ante a bit if I want to know the score before Christmas!

On a completely separate note, and really I am not sure why I am even surprised, but in Spain, the rugby she is not big… I must be the only person I know who left London town just when the Rugby World Cup arrived, but so be it and here I am in Pamplona where really, most people have not even heard of the sport. In a moment of brilliance however, I had a cunning plan to get to watch a few matches. I figured that if there is one place that will show the matches, it will be an Irish Pub, and every city in the world I have been to like ever, has an Irish Pub. To be sure, to be sure.

I googled Irish Pubs in Pamplona and what do you know, there is one called “The Harp”. I got really excited, got the bus into town, got my phone out to follow the directions, got to the place where my phone proudly announces that “my destination is on the right”, and alas there is nothing. Really nothing. Just a shut roller door with lots of graffiti on it (and not even graffiti of a clover or something remotely Irish).

I considered asking some Spanish locals, but given their non-interest in rugby, I wasn’t sure it would be worth me attempting the conversation in what little Spanish I know. So I strolled around a bit, found a shop entirely dedicated to selling Rooibos tea in every flavour under the sun (and yet they don’t know rugby…), and then stumbled upon a little German Frankfurter café where inside there were four men, and a TV showing the rugby. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but in I went and watched myself a bit of rugby. I heard the two guys behind me talk about the game. I started chatting to them and before long it turned out that the one guy was the guy who sold me my new walking shoes when I had to get a new pair in June when walking the Camino. Small world or what!

Last week I joined Cath and Neill when they met up with some of their Spanish friends. It was nice to get to know some of their friends and we went for beer and hamburgers at a very chilled place called “The House Beer”… can you spell Google Translate fail?! I am guessing they wanted to call the place The Beer House, since they have a lot of international beers on the menu, and not just the house beer as the name suggests. Tee hee.

Other than that work continues at The Abbey. I am enjoying the daily dose of fresh air, physical activity, and without a doubt the most scenic surroundings I have ever had the privilege of working in. Nowhere wears autumn better than Northern Spain it seems. The colours are changing daily and it is just breathtakingly beautiful to see all the gold, yellow and red leaves on display in the valley. I also took a long walk all through Pamplona on Friday with my camera – so much to see in this place.

I will report back on my progress regarding The Mystery of the Walking Man soon, and hope all you lovely people are well and happy, and looking after yourselves in the meantime.

A week in…

IMG_7976 IMG_7960 IMG_7959

Monday 28 September 2015

So, nearly a week in to my visit in Spain. It has been a lovely, busy and sunny week with lots of fresh air and happy moments. Since I arrived a week ago, it already feels as though I have been here forever – in a good way. Neill and Cath have got to be the coolest, most laid back people I know. It cannot be easy to share your living space with essentially a complete stranger and somehow these two just do it in a way that makes me feel as if I totally belong here.

Workwise I am proud of the fact that I have planted a chestnut and walnut tree this week, I have dug (read “broken out”) two holes for a washing line in very stony soil. This was quite the task and a normal spade was simply not going to cut it. I made both these holes using only a wrecking bar. You will be excused for not knowing what this is, as up until recently I have also only been familiar with a wrecking ball thanks to a certain controversial young lady in the music industry. The wrecking bar is a heavy iron bar that does exactly what it says on the tin: wrecks. Stones, rocks, you name it, it stands no chance. It also wrecked my two thumbs with both missing some skin now, but hey these are my battle scars and I am proud of them.

There were two young German girls also volunteering at The Abbey until yesterday. They are both 22 and hitch-hiked from Germany to come and camp out, have cold showers, dig trenches and eat vegan food in a house with no electricity. Tough stuff. They left yesterday after we all had a chilled out vegan picnic on the lawn behind The Abbey.

I have also been able to go for two runs since I have been here. It is lovely to get out into the Spanish countryside and breathe in the fresh air. On Friday afternoon I walked into the old town of Pamplona and sat at a café in the main square/plaza mayor. It is only about a 20min walk from where we are staying and it was a lovely thing to sit there and reminisce about my last time in old town Pamplona, when I had to sort out new shoes, post my boots ahead to Santiago, and generally just try to keep it together. I saw many pilgrims hopping about town, all of them easily identifiable by the unmistakable pilgrim swagger that is starting to set in after their first few days of walking. The pilgrim swagger is basically a very distinct limp of some sort, and no pilgrim escapes this ever.

We paid Hanneke a couple more visits this week at the albergue where she is working. It has been so lovely to be able to speak Afrikaans in northern Spain.

A big part of our day is to talk to the pilgrims that walk past The Abbey. We show them around, tell them about the project and the building and generally just find out how their Camino’s are going. It is an amazing thing to speak to so many different people each day from so many different countries. It really is a very unique but very rewarding thing to do.

I am happy and calm and lucky. Long may this feeling continue.

Pamplona – 23 September 2015

  1. IMG_7917 image1 IMG_0647

So – here I am at the Abbey outside Pamplona…

Wait, what? How did that happen?

Almost 4 months ago to the day I set off on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk across the north of Spain. Little could have prepared me for the life-changing journey those six weeks would be. I quit my job back in April 2015, leaving the harsh, yet comfortable world of finance in search of something more meaningful…for me. I say “for me”, because I am by no means judgemental of the industry as a whole, and it is a necessary trade, but for me personally it was no longer a soul fulfilling destiny. My plan all along, and perhaps naively, was to figure out my next move while on the Camino. Fast forward to about a million blisters and countless other physical challenges en route, and it is safe to say that the only next move I planned was each next step.

It did however become clear to me towards the end of my journey that things are going to change, in a much bigger way than I originally anticipated. The short version of the story is: when I got back to London, my Mom gave me one look and said “You are not back yet, are you?” I simply had to agree. Without knowing what to do next, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it did not involve getting back into the London rat race in a hurry. Being in the extremely lucky position to have my sister and brother-in-law who so very generously offered that I use them as a base nearby, I could give notice on my rent, and so started the declutter/clear-out/packing up/reducing of earthly belongings exercise that would take up the next six weeks of my life. The only plan I had was to set off on a year or so of further soul-searching, volunteering, giving back, and experiencing a different kind of life for a while.

I met Neill on the third day of my Camino. Him and his partner Cath bought The Abbey of Eskirotz and Ilarratz, which is known as the Church of St Lucy, in November 2014. The church has been left to ruin for the past 10 or so years, and they are busy restoring it to its original state. On the day I walked past the Abbey, I was feeling incredibly low due to the physical difficulties I was facing, and Neill (who is also from South Africa) was just really lovely and gave me an emotional lift by just being there and offering some words of encouragement. I knew that they rely on volunteers for funds and also for help, so once I was back in London I got in touch with them to offer my help at the Abbey. And that is how I am sitting here today, in an apartment in Pamplona, back on the Camino if you like. I arrived last night after a successful, yet long day of travelling, and we drove out to the Abbey early this morning.

It was a rainy and cold day today, quite different to the morning I went past back in May. It was nice to be back at the scene I remember so well. It was significant to me that it was a place where I previously felt so low and worried, whereas I am now in such a good space as a direct result from that journey.

The abbey dates back to the 12th century and has been left to ruin for the past 10-15 years. After having walked the Camino himself in 2010, Neill and Cath saw it and after a very long process of back and forth, they finally bought it from the Archbishop in November last year. The Abbey has some of the original elements dating back to the 12th century, but in addition it also has a cracked roof due to a shift in the foundations. The sheer volume of the project they have undertaken is hard to fathom. They have already spent months clearing out the massive garden, planting fruit trees, getting the lawn in order, clearing out the inside of the Abbey, putting up a fence etc.

The ultimate plan is to restore the Abbey back to its original state, and to keep it as a sacred space for pilgrims on the Camino to enjoy. They are also looking to include a little museum of artefacts that they have found since restorations began. These include for example a piece of human skull, grapeshot bullets and so forth. The original altar include quite a few symbols that can be interpreted as pagan, such as the sun symbols, the scallop shell that is unique to the Camino, and also the controversial putting of the cross in a triangle, which is cause of much debate amongst art historians.

Today was mainly spent chatting to Pilgrims and me hearing all about the history of the Abbey and the project. We then stopped by an Albergue not far along where a South African girl called Hanneke is volunteering as a hospitalera. She actually brought me a hand written card and some biltong from my Camino friend Xan who also lives in Cape Town.

It was a long day, and I will have to yet again get used to the early rising and the late to bed. But I am excited to get stuck in and do something productive with my time. I am hoping that the time spent here will be good for me in the sense that it will provide me with quite a bit of time to reflect, some fresh air, meeting awesome people as I go, and get to know Neill and Cath better.