Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Dropping off the radar

I often feel tied to my laptop. I´m not sure when I started checking my e-mails two or three times a day, and when it became seemingly imperative to do so, yet rarely a day goes by when I don´t. Though free from mobile internet access (using a reliable if slightly antique Nokia handset) I still instinctively switch on my laptop every morning.

When I was living in Spain, the need to be connected was clear - frequent facebook perusals, daily e-mail checks and skype chats staved off pangs of homesickness. However, now back in the UK, it is harder for me to justify - particularly as I´m unemployed and thus free (thankfully) from the barage of work e-mails that greets most of my friends every morning.

I suppose that in the age of blackberries and iphones, romantic notions about being completely disconnected - of “dropping off the radar” - are unrealistic. Even so, I often ask myself why I log onto my laptop every morning. To confirm that my job applications remain unanswered? To delete the circulars from To gossip needlessly with a friend who I´m meeting that evening?

Returning to Spain for a month today, this time to walk the Camino de Santiago (a route that runs from one side of Spain to the other) I´m anticipating that disconnecting will be easier – mainly because it will be largely enforced: I´m not taking a phone charger (minimalist packing given added inccentive by the prospect of having to carry everything I take) and doubt that the church halls where I´ll be staying and the sleepy pueblos that I pass through will have internet.

However, as much as I´m looking forward to being lost and unreachable for a month, and plan to embrace “dropping off the radar”, I predict, perhaps pessimistically, that within a week of walking I will have rang, texted or e-mailed my family. I´ll tell myself that it is simply to reassure them that I have arrived and am surviving, but I know deep-down that I´m expecting a reply and will be disappointed not to get one.

Perhaps I´m not cut-out for detachment... Only time will tell!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

MADRID SNAPSHOTS: The route without a trail

I was stood on the doorstep of Cercedilla train station, peering up and down the road bemusedly and hoping to spot the waymarked trail. According to the internet blog I had read over breakfast that morning, there was a clear off-road route from the station to the mountains. Predictably, the supposed stone archway meant to mark the start of said route was notable only by its absence, and I soon resigned to chance my luck just walking up the road in the general direction of the mountains. However, on spotting a slender figure waiting at the bus stop while looking thoughtfully at a map, I paused.

Wearing a latex sports T-shirt, Gore-Tex walking boots and a chunky, digital stopwatch, he looked every ounce the proficient, professional hiker. From first impressions, his appearance wasn´t deceiving: on asking him directions, he nodded authoritatively and traced an elaborate route with his finger. Unfortunately, the muddled patchwork of greens, browns, thin blue stripes and swirly contours, and the squiggly line he drew with his finger across it, left me none the wiser. I set off apprehensively in the general direction of his gestures, and was already 30m away when I heard him call me back. Running to catch up with me, he explained that the bus wasn´t for another two hours and so he too would be starting out from the train station. He drew another maze of invisible lines across the map to indicate his plans, a route equally confused as the one he had initially shown me, and asked if I wanted to follow him. A quick glance at the altitude counter attached to his belt and the walking poles fastened in a cross on his backpack washed away my doubts: I promptly decided to abandon my hazy, blog-led explorations and follow the expert.

As it turned out, he was something of a professional - a mountain guide preparing a route for a group of tourists he was to take out the following day - and for the next 6 or so hours I felt like I was on some kind of freebie guided excursion. He described the trails through the national park, named every hillock on the mountain crest and identified just about every tree we passed. In fact, as we walked it soon became clear that he nursed a passion for trees. He was bilingual in tree types – trilingual in some cases – and would stop sporadically to tenderly embrace the knarled trunk of a pathside Pine or Beech. At other times, he would fall dramatically to the floor and seize a stone to carve a small trench at the edge of a puddle, allowing the water to trickle away from the path and “feed” the trees lower down. We occasionally passed knotted tangles of branches, where trees had collapsed into each other and grown intertwining. On passing them, he would marvel at their form and stroke the branches lovingly with his fingers. “It looks so peaceful, but there´s a f**ing battle going on here. It´s a brutal fight - they´re locked in nature´s battle.”

I have to confess that after the third or fourth tree-hug I was starting to doubt his sanity and question whether my snap decision to follow him was perhaps somewhat foolhardy. My apprehensions were not eased when, on pausing for a snack, he rolled up a fat, herby spliff to puff on while I ate a banana. Unfortunately, being half-way up a mountain with little idea of how to return, I had little choice but to quash my misgivings and plough hopelessly after him in blind faith. Whether a result of this herby roll-up or not, I couldn´t help but notice that he stumbled with worrying regularity. Though exuberantly enthusiastic, bounding along with bouncy strides, he tripped clumsily over his own feet even on the best laid paths. Similarly, though reassured by his regular authoritative glances at the altitude counter and map, it soon became apparent that despite his orienteering equipment and credentials, he had little idea of where his pre-planned route lay and was simply inventing his own. “No problem, its a route without a trail,” he reassured me, amid the head-scratching and doubling back.

To be just, we did eventually reach the crest we were aiming for - albeit after wading through endless expanses of scratchy knee-high heather, scrambling over rocks and boulders wedged into the curve of the mountainside and sinking into swampy marshes and bogs. Similarly, though he tripped dopily with alarming frequency, he proved surprisingly footsure over difficult terrain and more than once he had to grab me to stop me slipping off one of the sharply sloping slabs of rock, or offer a hand to pull me across the widely spaced stones in a mountain stream. He even gave me a quick tutorial on the best technique to descend steep gradients.

Eccentricities and unplanned diversions aside, he was undoubtedly mountain savvy, and I´m certainly pleased I ran into him. Even so, if I had paid for an excursion that turned out to be an improvised “route without a trail”, led by a passionate, partially stoned tree-hugger, I´m not sure I´d be too happy.