Northern Thailand – The Mae Hong Son Loop

By alex Uncategorized

I’m always fond of motorbike round trips and never got really disappointed with one. Among the best, was the one from Chiang Mai, to Pai and back in a triangle that took nearly two weeks. This wasn’t even supposed to happen, as the original plan was to get a minivan. However, as I planned to leave after Loi Krathong and  didn’t make a reservation, all minivans were full. After a short walk in central city I managed to found a kind motorbike rental house who didn’t mind renting a brand new 150 cc scooter for the purpose. It wasn’t the cheapest price, but we never had a single problem with it (something far different from the fellows who decided to buy themselves a bike with the intention to sell it at  the end… I found them several times at the mechanicians!! – That can be very adventurous but, for me, not really fun.)

I left Chiang May shortly before lunch, with the  intention to  stop somewhere on the way, and so I did. The fist part (1/2 hour “ish”) is a very uninteresting  crowded, polluted, straight line, road. After route1095, the road starts climbing up, and the 762 famous curves start to pop-up. Don’t let them intimidate you, nor you try to finish them fast. This is a road to be enjoyed. There are mountains and valleys to be climbed, a few cafés and restaurants to stop, with tasty food and drinks. I did  the trip while the road was being rebuilt, which added a bit of mud and respect towards the big trucks. Priority here goes always to the bigger ones. Don’t play fancy!  Still, most of the road was in safe, good condition. Beware of the cold (and misty  weather or rain) in  the higher places.  Also, there may be some areas with no gas on sale, so never let it get way below half tank.   

On arrival to Mae Hong Son district, there was  an intimidating military  check point, but officers ended being friendly and there was absolutely  no problem to cross. Even with no rush and a lunch stop, I arrived to Pai way before 5:00, which gave me time for a rest and shower before heading to the night market for food and a bit of sightseeing. It is nothing of spectacular, but the  laid back atmosphere and the tasty snacks, and  the backpacker fauna is very enjoyable, on such a remote corner of the world.

Pai itself hasn’t much to see, despite the aforementioned night  market, the river and its bridges and the canyon. This one is small, slippery, somehow dangerous and usually crowded at sunsets. It has a few decent sunset views, but it is far more famous than worthwhile. Anyway,  it’s near the centre and free, so  why not  visiting, if you have the  time? 

The memorial bridge is another  overrated view in  the city, with traditional dressed children popping out of nowhere to get some coins in exchange for posing. I passed by and didn’t become a fan. However, it’s  another of the “must do”  things, if  you stop one  day in Pai, which you should, if you’re not superman. 

The  nearest stop, from Pai, was Than Lod Cave, 50 km North. 

Than Lod Cave

If at all possible, plan a whole day trip to this one. The road itself is curvy and scenic, with valleys worth the selfie shot.  On arrival, one must pay for the “guided tour” – a formality meant to  give  the locals  some extra income. Basically you are  put in a bamboo raft with three or four other  people, a  rower and a  woman with a petrol lamp. The raft will go along the subterranean river, stopping in the middle for a series of cave visits and at the other end for some more. The woman  will take the group through  the endless wooden stairs and paths leading to secondary caves are many, some wide, some smaller, some even holding the remaining of teak coffins of ancient tribes.  When I visited the whole area was accessible on  foot, so after the “guided trip” I did another “self guided” one, by land, with plenty of time to re-explore the most interesting areas (and there are many). I had brought a submersible strong torch and so should you, if wanting to see the whole dimension of it. If you are able to stay until sunset, find the narrow path that circles around the cave and get to the other exit. Find yourself a sheltered place and observe two impressive phenomena: the swallows return  and the bats departure. There are millions of both, filling the air with putrid smell, and their singing, describing waves and  patterns  in the sky as they fly.  We were maybe half a dozen of “daredevils” who dared to explore and  wait until that time (knowing that we would return through a semi-unknown mountain path in total  darkness), but it was one of those unforgettable, life-time experiences.  

Mae Hong  Son and its vicinities

Then, you either drive back to Pai, stay in one of the home stays on the cross-road with Route 1095 (9 km), or head straight to Mae Hong Son (65 Km, 1.5h).

I did stop on that crossroad and did the trip on the next morning. Somewhere on the way there was a wildlife park where I decided to stop and take some landscape and insect shots. Plans changed when a gibbon decided to be over friendly and climb on my back, spooking away  all the little critters. Its nails on my scalp weren’t the best experience, though it ended up being fun interacting with this  unknown primate.

From Mae Hong Son itself I only remember the lake, the two twin temples (Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang) alight in the evenings and the nearby night market, offering some local clothing and sweets. I heard there is another one, plus a few more  temples but didn’t visit them. Another good memory was Salween River Restaurant, with plenty of local and western dishes on a lively atmosphere and generous portions. There was nothing unique about it nor anything to criticise, being  like home away from home, for the evenings. 

Heading  North, there is Su Tong Pae Bridge  (17 min / 11 km). It’s a long bamboo made bridge, (supposedly the longest one in Thailand) built by villagers to serve the monks of Wat Tham Poo Sa Ma and locals of Ban Gung Mai Sak. The view is lovely and peaceful, and so is the temple. Watch their images below.

Further north (1h / 43 km, from Mae Hong Son), near the border with Myanmar, Ban Rak Thai, also known as Mae Awa, can also be  worth the visit.

It is also built around  a lake, charming and peaceful, with many lake side restaurants and tea shops. Chinese food in there was slightly  disappointing, meaning not at all bad, but not justifying such a long trip. On the contrary, the views around the lake were really nice,  something completely different than the remaining Thailand I  was used too. Some say it is  possible to cross the border on foot without visa, but I didn’t try it.

Mae Hong Son is also a departure point for  visiting the  refugee camps where the  long neck woman can be found. I visited Na Soi  (17 Km  / half an  hour to NordWest). Find the detailed post in here.  Huay Pu Keng  (20km / 29 min southwest) was recommended by one  of the villagers and seem to be another  popular spot, though one must hire a boat. For that reason, and being  a bit short on schedule, I didn’t visit. 

For those staying in Chiang Mai, and not willing to travel  that far, there is Baan Tong Luang (40 min, 27 km  away), which is something  between a tourist  trap souvenir mall and  a refugee zoo.  As they  charge  tickets and they weren’t  that cheap, I chose to  stay  outside  and didn’t visit. 

Doi Inthanon

After a few daily trips  from Mae Hong  Son, I started the way back  to Chiang Mai. The  plan was an ambitious 200 km / 4 hour ride, which  proved to be… Too ambitious! The rain started pouring soon, and the mountains were freezing. It was mid afternoon and there was still nearly 100  km  to go (I confess  I didn’t leave very early). The wisest option, considering I had to drive  real slowly and there weren’t  many gas stations on sight, was to stop and stay for the night, somewhere on the road. It shouldn’t had been so far from Khun Yuam, but I don’t remember the name of the place, as I cannot read Thai characters. It was a region with vibrant agriculture – strawberries, if I’m not mistaken. There was a small hostel with triangle shaped wooden huts. A lovely elderly couple was at home  / reception and  offered  me  some warm tea and  showed me the spot which wasn’t, at all, luxurious, but suitable, under the  circumstances.

After drying a bit and resting my back, I went back to the main road and found myself a pair of China made trousers (had only brought shorts) on a street stall. There were no real restaurants around, but a sort of barn where locals were having stewed beef and vegetables – nothing like the fancy street food in Bangkok – it was real farmer everyday food. I self invited me in  and  had a warm, inexpensive comfort meal, among the curious eyes of the locals who came also for food and groceries. No verbal communication, but a lot o kind friendliness, made this stop a great memory. 

Next morning I arrived at Doi Inthanon, which the 2,565-metre holds the title of the highest point in Thailand. People went there with the purpose of feeling cold and taking  selfies near a thermometer marking 5 or 6 degrees. It was funny to watch their enthusiasm which, obviously, I didn’t share – had enough of that in my homeland! On the same road, a few metres below, there  was a beautiful garden with two pagodas, (the Great Holy relics and  the King’s), which are recently made monuments, but impressive,  nonetheless. The garden had different coloured ornamental cabbages, very funny to watch, and a huge variety of birds.  

Watch the images, below:

 I regretted not to have brought a longer tele, as there were many posing flying subjects. Later I was told that birdwatching was one of the main interests in the area.

The remaining of the day was spent in Khun Klang. It has extensive, immaculate gardens, totally worth the visit. The Hmong market was slightly disappointing. Big in size, but an overall tourist trap selling fresh  and preserved fruit and an almost inedible, sweetened, beverage they ambitiously call wine. I was foolish enough to buy it and eventually drunk it (still  wondering how…).  There was a gigantic tourist restaurant nearby, selling (among other well cooked dishes)  a totally new recipe of fried frog with herbs which was just delicious – though maybe a bit spooky for some.

Camping  happens  almost everywhere, among plastic vegetable garden tunnels. At night, both lit up, creating a unique view. I found myself a simple, family owned home-stay with homemade food and plenty  of advice on  where to go,  to watch the  famous birds, which  I did, the following morning, before heading back to Chiang Mai.

Before arriving and returning the motorbike (which, I must confess, was sounding a bit like a diesel engine, at that time) there was still the chance to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (watch the images in here). 

Overall, I totally loved the trail, and hope to do it again, in  a warmer season (it was December, back then) with a bit more time.


Long-neck women in Thailand

By alex Uncategorized

Long-neck woman posing by her souvenir shop.

One of the main reasons to drive up to North Thailand (watch the whole round trip description in here) was to be able to see the long-neck women. I hadn’t seen much more than a few images and, though I felt lazy to investigate further, there was some sort of fascination about it. Why would these women self mutilate in such a way? Was it purely aesthetics? Was it some sort of captivity? I heard that after many years wearing brass rings, the neck muscles couldn’t hold the head anymore (not true, at least, in the majority of cases). Was it some sort of male dominance over women?

The same lady, posing among a group of tourists.

I wondered (and still do) what would be for these women to do sex?! Anyway, there was cooler to visit the people than to read on them over the internet, so off I went.

From Mae Hong Son to Ban Nai Soi, there wasn’t much more than half an hour; from the village to the Kayan camp, maybe another half, as the road wasn’t in the best condition.

I remember seeing a barbwire fenced gate of a refugee camp that wasn’t accessible to tourists – spooky! What wound be going on, inside? Guerrilla movie scenes and torture camps in tropical jungles, crossed my mind. Previously, on the road from Pai to Ban Nai Soi, there were quite a few huts along the roads, with guards controlling them. They were always friendly, never asked for any documentation or searched the motorbike and I never managed to know what were they controlling…

Advert, with a short explanation, at the entrance of the village.

What is this concept of “refugee” imposed by Thai government? On a stop for lunch on a small restaurant by the road, there was a group of Karen music players. (Karen is the whole ethnical group where the Kayan belong). They were polite and introduced themselves. At first I thought they’d be asking for money, but I was totally wrong. All they wanted was someone to talk to, in English – and their level was probably better than mine.

Ban Nai Soi Kayan village, entrance view.

From what I understood (and confirmed later) the Karen fled to Thailand to save their lives from the ethnical cleansing attempts from the Burmanese majority in Myanmar, happening in various waves, since the country’s independence. Thai government allows them to stay in certain areas, but they cannot leave them (that’s why all the road guards), or work, meaning: if they want to sustain themselves or their families, either they live on tourism, or they work illegally, for a fraction of what a Thai citizen would earn.

The long-necks, being displayed on zoo-like villages (some charging an entry fee), live on showing themselves to tourists and souvenirs selling. That’s why some young women choose to wear the rings, as it’s a way to a guaranteed sustenance.

As for the remaining Karen, they dream with independence or immigration, and there are communities being settled in the US and Canada, from the early 2000’s. That’s why they prize so much education and English proficiency.

I said goodby to the group of artists and proceeded to the long-neck village. It was nearly empty. At the entrance, there were two souvenir shops, and one long-neck woman. Soon, a second one joined, as more tourists were coming. I followed the main path, found a few kind youngsters waving from their motorbikes, and a simple village, made on wood and dry leaves.

The only sound of human activity came from the school, so I sneaked-in. Classes went on an orderly manner, kids were attentive and, though it seemed poor, for European standards, it also seem way more productive.

Coming back at the entrance, a group of tourists was chatting to one of the long-neck women and finding out roughly the same as described above. Again, the lady spoke really good English, and also played the guitar.

She had some sort of conformed, passive temperament, and didn’t seem, at all, revolted or unhappy with her faith. That caused a deep impression on me. I couldn’t possibly accepted being displayed as a tourist object for life!

Visiting this lost tribe among the jungle ended up being a strong lesson on temperament diversity.


Surin Elephant Round-Up

By alex Uncategorized

Among many of Thai festivals and events, I was particularly fascinated by Surim Elephant Round-up, and felt lucky it was happening during my stay in the country.

The beginning of the show, when the mahouts present the elephants to the crowd.

At the time (2015) there wasn’t much information on the Internet about it, so it wasn’t easy to find the actual dates and plan – just that it was happening on the second weekend of November. I ended up missing one of the main festival’s events, because of that. There is a whole Wikipedia article, about it, so I’m not repeating – only sharing some personal impressions and essential information.

Baby human and baby elephant in the festival area at sunset.

I traveled from Ayutthaya to Surim by train. People coming from Bangkok (480 km away) can either take the train, which takes slightly longer (8h) or the bus (around 7h) There is an overnight bus, arriving near 4 a.m, but I know nothing about its safety and comfort. From Ayutthaya, the trip takes around 5 hours, which isn’t much. However, the first one departs around seven, arriving past 12. As I did it on a Friday, I missed the elephant arrival procession and following banquet, which had already taken place in the morning. For this one, expect around 300 elephants, and nearly 50 tons of food.

The festival area, during the day, not yet crowded.

The festival lasts for over a week, but all the main events happen on the first weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings there are the shows at the Elephant Stadium, contiguous to Si Narong Stadium, South of town.

Baby rabbits being sold as pets on Surin Round up festival. It was a total first time to me, and I didn’t particularly fancy the clothing. Nonetheless is an interesting perspective of a different culture.

(Update: Friday and Saturday evenings, there are light and sound shows with music, dance, and historical reenactments at Prasat Si Koraphum, a 13th century Khmer temple located a 30-minute drive outside of Surin. I found this info, years later, so don’t really know if it’s still happening and how it is.)

A traditional music performance. One of the many side events to the festival.

As for the shows: There is a free area, on both sides of the stadium stands. For that one, you must arrive early as only the first row gets a sort of clear view. Be prepared to stand for about three hours under the sun. -that’s how long it takes. For the stands, there are different price tickets depending if on the middle or on the sides, with is indifferent. You want to stay on the higher seats, the only shady ones. The remaining are unbearably hot, as the white walls reflect the sunlight. So, if you get yourself a central spot un a low area, you’ve made a bad deal. The best ones (for price) are the top sides. If possible, stay in the South stand as you’ll have the sunlight in your back. Buy them in advance or ask hour hotel to do it for your (and expect to pay a high commission).

Chestnuts and other fast food delicacies on sale at the festival.

During these 3 hours, it can be a bit boring. There were interesting parts: when hundreds of students play traditional music instruments and dance; also when they enact a battle between Thai and Khmer armies (if I understood it correctly); the initial presentation, when all elephants and mahouts fill the stadium.

Other parts, like elephant soccer playing and hula-hops, I found quite uninteresting. Anyway, the overall show, is a must-see. I attended both (Saturday and Sunday), despite being the same show, to be able to shoot from different angles. A slightly longer tele (300 mm) would have done wonders, I didn’t have it yet.

At the end of the shows, people are encouraged to take pictures with the animals, for a small fee.

Apart from the show, there is an adjacent area (around the Athletics stadium and before that one) with some food and attractions, nothing too fancy, but good enough for some food and spending time. Every now and then, mahouts will show up with their elephants, encouraging people to spend 20 Baht for feeding them.

I had mixed feelings about this. Elephants, of course, didn’t seem too happy. …But then again, the Kuy (the name of the Surin residents) have always been mahouts and elephant hunters and their tradition is as deeply routed as horse riding is on the Western world.

Maybe they’re not as “humane” as some thing they should be, but that’s their life, their culture and their land. Feel free to attend it or not, but refrain from judging.

If you decide to go, it’s better to book your room, as near as possible from the festival area. Streets will be absolutely crowded, specially during evenings, and walking is, pretty much, the only way to reach the area. Also be ready to quit drinking, at least for those days, as alcohol is strictly forbidden.


Ogoh Ogoh in Mengwi

By alex Uncategorized

Ogoh – Ogoh

It’s a sort of Carnival, for children, and a big celebration for the Balinese, taking place in every village, the day before Nyepi (Balinese New Year) in Bali. In Mataram, Lombok, the parade used to last for a whole afternoon and evening, extending for over 10 km.

As with everything that is Hindu related, this celebration seeks balance: in this case, a purification from all the noxious spiritual human practices, committed throughout the year. These ones are portrayed as demons, made of bamboo, styrofoam and paper, on ephemeral figures which can reach a few metres in hight. Some can be quite elaborate, with exquisite design and engineering, vibrant colours and fancy led lights.

Preparation starts many weeks or months before the parade. We can see groups of adolescents and children working on it at the evenings in the Banjars and warehouses. Usually, the Seka Truna Truni (Balinese village’s youth organization) make at least one, the children another small one, and, eventually, the some artists make a few more.

Despite its importance, this tradition is quite recent, dating to the early eighties, when it was used to criticise Suharto regime. Political messages are still present today, but not that often.

The day starts with a temple ceremony: Pengerupukan, where beside from praying, every family takes home cooked rice and holy water, to make their own offerings to the earthly spirits. Somewhere during the afternoon, the Ngrupuk parade will start, finishing near midnight.

In there, the Ogohs are carried over a bamboo pad, by at least 8 men, or children. They are paraded around the village, until the cemetery, where they are supposedly cremated, to extinguish the evil influence. In some crossroads, they are rotated, frantically, tree times, counter-clockwise in a sort of exorcism to get rid of the evil spirits.

This parade is accompanied with one or several gambelan music bands, sometimes including showgirls.

The one shown in here happened on a village near Mengwi, and also featured dances and educational theatric performances inspired on the ancient Indian Scriptures. It was made into a sort of contest, on which a jury evaluated the performances, with prizes to be attributed to the winning banjars.

Celebration usually ends with the ritual cremation of the figures, at the village’s cemetery. However, I have been observing that more and more are saving complete Ogohs or, at least parts of them for the following year, voiding the whole ceremony of its meaning.


Camino de Santiago: 2 – from la Meseta to Santiago

By alex Uncategorized

Please read part 1, to get the full history.

Below: The beginning of la Meseta.

With all of this going on, walking was no longer the most important part of the day, though the pace was kept the same. It become a totally different experience than the one I anticipated. From, roughly, the second week until the third, there is what is called the Meseta – the flat part of the Camino, between Burgos and Léon.

Convent ot San Antón – Castrojeriz This was the residence of the Antonianos order, devoted to tending to the pilgrims. The remains of this church stand at the entrance to this village which welcomes them through its famous arch. The two arches on a raised portico were built in the 16th century, protected the entrance to the church.

It is unprotected, doesn’t feature many shades or hostels but, most of all, it’s flat, There is no curve, no hill to distract the eyes and the mind. On some days, we start on the same straight line we finish. Often it was windy, cold, rainy, and sometimes even hailing.

On the worst day, we did only 18 km. Woke up under a layer of snow, got a little sun in the morning, but it started raining before lunch. Still, wet from the previous day, we decided to put a halt on it before lunchtime, arriving to a hostel, which seemed to be closed. Besides, it was totally uninteresting. Hadn’t it been the only within a huge mile range, we would have picked another one.

Castrojeriz, as seen from the Alto de Mostelares.

As we were losing thrust, a lady opened the door and pointed us to the dorm. As we asked for what was for lunch, she put a sorrowful expression and said: “I only have smoked meat.” If she said “stones” we’d still answer – “It is ok!” – as we desperately need some heat, to dry our shoes and feet.

Canal de Castilla – Fromista.

After a warm shower and changing clothes we proceeded to the restaurant area, being the only ones on site. Soon, she brought a steaming pan, full of pork meat, potatoes and vegetables. The meat was tender and moist, not overly fat, with a smoky touch. I’m not such a lover of pork meat and still I ate until physically possible, so good it was. That’s the best memory of the Meseta.

Below: two views from the endless plateau, near Terradillos de los Templarios.

The other one was its finish. Reaching Léon, getting the group all together again (we separated each other at the Meseta, as some weren’t unable to keep the pace, while others made it even faster). That was the time for celebration, Cañas and tapas, but also to prepare for the last part of the Camino, which was Bierzo, and then, Galicia. Some of us, me included, wanted a total rest, so we booked in a small fancy hotel, for a change.

Some of our group, by Leon cathedral.

It was pricy, but the idea of having our own room, smooth and fragrant sheets, comfortable pillows, and a private bathroom with tub, was too tempting. Funny how something you take for granted at home, can become an exquisite pleasure. That’s how we learn to value things and be thankful.

In contrast, the worst hostel experience at the next city – Astorga – when we got bed bugs, and it was totally disgusting. The city, however, was pleasing. Being Sunday, we also ran into a local celebration, with trumpet bands playing, and had the chance to try the local comfort food: the Cocido maragato, which is a titanic meat and chick pea stew. Restaurants serve them in a way that you will be full for the whole day, or even longer: First, they present a plate of stewed pork meat and sausages, then chickpeas, and finally meat and cabbage soup. You’ll be lucky if you survive past the meat dish. We did it until the end and still ordered dessert!

Being photobombed, in Leon’s main square.

In Bierzo, soon after lies the highest point of the whole trail (I believe the Pyrenees aren’t taken into account), 1.500 metres above sea level – la Cruz de Fierro (Iron Cross). People are supposed to bring a stone from home, and throw it to the cross – I didn’t. Had enough of weight to carry and, in fact, mailed some less needed stuff and souvenirs home, from the post office in Léon.

The weather (which hadn’t been great on the previous weeks), deteriorated even further, with strong winds and showers. In Foncebadón, the Domus Dei parish hostel was a nice and warm refuge among the storm, where we stayed for the night.

Church tower, at Rabanal del Camino.

Others chose Manjarín, further ahead, which, on the next morning, seemed even more desolated than it shows on travel guides. There was something electric and spooky on the day light, filtered by the clouds and fog, reflected on the green pastures and ruins – as if aliens were to land and reclaim that piece of land.

There is one and only hostel (and inhabited house) in the village. If was abandoned mid XX century and only on the 90’s the hostel was re-opened.

In Ponferrada, weather became more endurable, though (as the group grew bigger) it was hard to find a proper dining place. Most of the afternoon was spent visiting the Templar castle.

We were still welcomed in Galicia with a huge storm. O Cebreiro, the first village in the province, was almost totally closed, and there was no way to stay there for long or get any decent shots.

Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross), between Foncebadón and Manjarín. It is 5 feet high, and the cross is a replica of the original preserved in the Museo de los Caminos in Astorga. People bring stones from home, and leave them there, but I didn’t fully grasp the symbolism of it.

From then on, we started to feel spring. Sometimes it still rained, but green kind of changed tone, and flowers blossomed. Maybe it was also the sense of proximity to our destination.

Me in Manjarín, among the wind and rain.

The arrival to Molinaseca, still in El Bierzo.

Castle of Ponferrada – Building started early XIII century, by Templar Knights.. With more than 8000 m2, it was one of the largest fortresses in the Spanish Middle Ages.

O Cebreiro, marking the entrance on Galicia.

The famous, centenary, chestnut tree, in Ramil.

The Monastery of San Xulián de Samos was another highlight of the whole trip. There were two main paths to Sarria, and some among the group picked the other one, as it was slightly shorter. I couldn’t possibly miss the visit: I have an unpayable debt with the Benedictine Order, as other monastery in Portugal (Singeverga) had become “home” for some weeks, to finish my PhD. At the time, library was of great help, and so it was the community of monks, providing me both the information, serenity and shelter.

Watch the images from Samos Monastery, below:

The visit was guided by a kind and talkative monk, which showed us the various phases of construction, the history, the way of living, and even some of its treasures, all with a touch of humour.

Espigueiro – a traditional granary, meant to keep the corn dry and

We could imagine those walls full of men willing to learn and share the secrets of Philosophy, throughout the centuries. Personally, I felt a bit sad that such discipline lost the meditative, ascetic, and respectful component, and became a matter of light debates among drunk and high youngster students. At the end, there was hand made chocolate on sale, and it was really tasty!

Sarria was the first Galician city we came across. I remember the warm sunlight, hitting the trees near the river; the hostel was the most beautiful and well decorated we stayed in the whole Camino; but most of all, I remember the gastronomy. Lunch was mainly seafood, and included the famous Pulpo a la gallega – Octopus, Galician style, meaning, boiled in salted water and sprinkled with salt, olive oil and paprika. It goes along with bread or boiled potatoes, and used to be served in street markets for people to lunch after a morning shopping. (We did it also, a few days later). Dinner was, probably the finest – we went to Hotel Roma and, among other delicacies, I remember the superb partridges. Service wasn’t fast, but that was to be expected as it was totally full and we didn’t had a reservation. It was well worth the waiting, though.

Back to the road, we realised that suddenly there were far more pilgrims than before. Apparently, people do a small weekend-friendly version of the Camino, starting in Sarria, to Santiago. There were school kids with their teachers, families and groups of friends. We could easily identify those ones from the pilgrims coming from France: they were noisier, the clothing was shiny, the body postures, shapes and expressions were completely different. We were like quietly but steadily, hovering, while they were jumping all over the place. We had passed the barrier of pain, both physically and emotionally. They were still full of anxieties. It happened to me quite often to run out of water and think… “It’s only ten kilometres more; I’ll drink then”. And it was no issue, whatsoever. Those guys could’t spend five minutes without a drink or an energy bar.

That made us realise how much we had been transformed by the Camino – in and out – for the previous three weeks. Having seen each others almost every day, we didn’t notice the differences, but among this wave of pilgrims, it was clearly seen. I tried not to be judgemental. After all, a single day in the Camino would be better than none.

Portomarín, near the Belesar reservoir was interesting, mostly because of its Romanesque Church – it had been dismantled, brick by brick, from its original place, and rebuilt, like a lego puzzle, uphill, so it was preserved from the water when the reservoir was built. Never realised before that such a thing was even possible.

Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy), marks the place where the pilgrims had the first view of Santiago church towers. It is, however, still 3 km away from the city centre.

The last history worth of notice, was the arrival itself. We had stayed in Arzua, with the intention of doing a short stage, resting in Pedrouzo. We arrived there, it was less than midday. Walked around the village. At this time there was just two of us – me and Slava, a young pediatrist from Belarus. We looked at each other and thought: are we really staying here? Certainly not. It was “only” twenty kilometres to Santiago. “Let’s do it! With luck we’re still on time for lunch!”

So we did, arriving shortly past two o’clock. Around 40 kilometres, on top of 28 days non stop, with our backpacks and a few souvenirs. Some of our group were already there, but most arrived after one or two days. We attended the mass with “botafumeiro” (the gigantic, swinging, incense burner) all together and had dinner on a big esplanade. At the time it was about 30 of us, all cheerful, all full of experiences, and all transformed.

Watch the gallery from Santiago Catedral (including the “botafumeiro”, and the Apostle’s tomb), below:

Some of us went to Finisterre, either by bus or by walking. (I chose the Bus version. Not because it was physically too challenging to walk, but because the purpose of my pilgrimage was over, it wouldn’t make sense to carry it further. It is hard to get into the pace, in the Camino but, for some, it is even harder to get out of it. “Home”, with all this duties and obligations, acquires a new meaning, and it’s not necessary a pleasant one. Some people never get out of the Camino. They keep walk it back and forward, taking advantage of the cheap accommodation and, eventually, perish there. I heard some first hand stories, along the way, that got me sad as, traditionally, a wandering soul is a lost one.

As I took the bus back to Lisbon, I wasn’t too happy to return, but understood that all cycles must reach their natural end. Soon, it would be the end of the “living in Europe” cycle for me. In Bali, Indonesia, where I live now, I’m geographically far away from the Camino, but I believe it will always be part of me. Often I wondered if it would make sense to do it again… Many people do, but, so far, I think the purpose of such an experience is completed. Many more Caminos will lay ahead of us.


Bullfight – Samora Correia (Portugal) 19 August 2013

By alex Uncategorized

Samora Correia, is a small city in Ribatejo region of Portugal which, like many others has their traditional festivities on August. At that time (2013) I had (what would be considered today) a very primitive camera (12 Megapixels). Low light performance was poor, I had a second hand lens with barrel issues, though I was willing to improve my skills and eventually become professional. The photos below are more heartfelt than technically correct.

I’m late posting these cherished memories of a memorable day. In the morning the bulls were brought from the field, and I had the privilege to be in the truck, though I didn’t shoot, to avoid scaring the bulls and disturbing the operation. These are wild animals and every sound or movement need to be carefully planned.

Once we arrived at the city, later in the morning, they were released to the sound of a rocket.   Along with meek oxen, they were paraded throughout the village, into the bullring, with a good crowd attending. For many, that was already time for partying and drinking. (I guess some were still partying from the night before). As the bulls arrived to the bullring, they were then kept in separate cages, waiting for the main event.

The bullfight happened at night, and ended being a very good show, very emotive, with an awesome performance from Luis Rouxinol, displaying an impeccable technique, commitment and emotion;  some daring “ferros” (spears) from Felipe Gonçalves, sometimes allowing the bull to get too close,  and Sónia Matias. Some bulls were what I would consider “overweight” meaning near (or exceeding) the 600 kg, which made “forcados” life very hard. Still they managed to grab them.

It is always heart touching to watch a whole community involved in such a celebration of art, faith and courage, and it’s one of the things I really miss, while living in another continent.

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