Siesta

For nearly four years, the people of North Korea ran on “Pyongyang Time,” a self-imposed  time zone that kept clocks on the north side of the Korean Peninsula 30 minutes behind those of its neighbor to the south. As strange as this manipulation of something as universal as time may seem, it pales in comparison to that which takes place within the borders of a far less controversial country: Spain. Despite having lived in the country for nearly a year and having spent the past seven weeks walking through it day after day on El Camino, I am still trying to figure out what perception of time exists there. Familiar purveyors of hours and minutes can be seen in the form of clocks adorning local government buildings and watches strapped across wrists, but the time they read and the life that coincides with it obeys neither rules nor, in most cases, logic.

As an example, take the story we heard of a Zambian hostel owner currently living in Spain. After being invited to a couple’s home for dinner at 8 P.M., he arrived at the house surprised to find the kitchen lights off, no smell of cooking whatsoever, and one of his hosts still amidst an afternoon siesta. A little later, both husband and wife were awake, not busy in the kitchen heating up an already prepared dinner, rather serving drinks and chatting. At around 2 A.M. the cooking finally began and after dinner was over, coffee was served as the night was still apparently young. At 5 A.M. the evening came to a close and, instead of going to bed, the Zambian hostel owner instead opted to just drive back home as a new day, for him anyway, was about to begin.

Now, while this is an extreme example, it is by no means an anomaly. Ask anyone who has lived or traveled in Spain and you are bound to encounter a pantheon of head-scratching stories pertaining to the Spanish perception of time. On El Camino, having a loose grasp of this perception is crucial for nobody wants to walk for hours on end only to find that, at your destination, a service you need, whether it be a well-deserved meal or supplies from a pharmacy, inexplicably unavailable until an unforeseen hour or sometimes even day. And so, it is extremely important, whether visiting, living in, or walking through Spain, to have an understanding of the siesta and how everything else in Spain’s off-kilter timetable revolves around it.

E24827E6-BAC4-4354-AFEE-04481708315F
The varying hours of a Starbuck’s in Salamanca

Just as with Spanish, we had once thought of ourselves as competent in the language of siesta after we both had studied abroad in Spain as well as lived in Granada for nearly a year. Yes, we had our occasional mishaps as, for example, the time we suggested to go out for drinks on a weekend night at midnight. After uttering this apparent nonsense to our housemates, a great deal of scoffing ensued followed by an assurance that midnight would be far too early as the bars would be lifeless, not because the hour was too late but rather too early. And there was also the time we tried choosing when to go to a popular restaurant for dinner. Notorious for being hard to get a seat, we cleverly planned to arrive well after the dinner rush. Upon entering the doors at 11 P.M., a flustered hostess backed by a raucous crowd of diners asked us if we had a reservation. When we replied no, she made it very clear that we would not be getting a seat for the next couple of hours.

AA3584A2-59B9-4A7D-8FD3-B7F285B124E9
Sometimes places that look like this…
FD9320F9-896A-441F-B67F-97017452C833
…can feel just as abandoned as ones that look like this.

Despite these erroneous attempts at trying to conform to the Spanish hour though, most of our guesses were right and, returning to Spain seven years later to walk El Camino, we thought that our competence in the language of siesta had not grown rusty, unlike our Spanish. Oh, how we were wrong!

Take for instance the morning in which we made the silly assumption that, in a town with two restaurants that open at 7 A.M., one of them would serve food. Upon ordering a simple breakfast of tostado con tomate though, we were looked at as if we were crazy to be ordering food at such an hour and told that only drinks were being served at that time. Looking around the bar, we were perplexed to see a spattering of truck drivers sipping espresso as if they were in the midst of a grueling overnight drive and not on the cusp of what the rest of the world recognizes as the morning. And so, a day of walking was begun with no breakfast, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the following town we passed through around 8 A.M. didn’t have restaurants, all of which advertised themselves as breakfast establishments, closed altogether. At times we had to re-consult our watch to make sure that indeed it was 8 A.M. and not in fact 4 A.M. as it felt.

537C165F-0FF3-4BDB-8CFA-A25B997E31CD
Taking a break from El Camino for a day in Mérida, we were excited to enjoy breakfast in a bustling plaza. After arriving to the plaza at 9:00 A.M., we found every café to be closed with the first one not opening until 9:30. And even then, the atmosphere was far from bustling.

Apart from mornings, afternoons have also been known to cause their fair share of frustrations for pilgrims on El Camino, us undoubtedly included. Normally, you can count on a shop being open until 2 in the afternoon, closing for a few hours, and then opening again at 5 or 6 until finally closing for the day around 8.

There have been instances though where the only shop in the village will be closed in the afternoon or for the entire day, in which case we are stuck going to a restaurant for our meal. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but, as you’ve probably guessed by now, in Spain it is. In one such instance, we spent the better part of an hour wandering in and out of restaurants around 7 P.M. asking to see their menu and being told time and again that each place didn’t start serving food of any kind until 8:30.

In another case, we heard the story of a fellow pilgrim who walked over twenty miles and arrived in a town only to find the local restaurant inexplicably closed. Ravenous from the day’s trek, he decided to walk an extra mile more to a neighboring village where he was told that the restaurant wouldn’t be serving food for another two hours despite it being 6:30 P.M. Faced with either returning to the previous village with no prospects for dinner or waiting for the early bird hour to arrive, he chose the latter.

E84B2DD0-391B-451D-9E1B-EB9CF0D401FE
Typical siesta hours. On the paper below and out of sight of the camera, it lists that the shop opens an hour later, at 11:00, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Small shop hours are often very unpredictable like this.

If grappling with the matter of business hours wasn’t enough, you also have to be aware of the days when villages and seemingly entire cities shut down. One of those days occur every week on Sunday and if you ever happen to find yourself amidst the many and seemingly random Spanish holidays or the dreaded bridge weekend, you can be really out of luck. One time in Granada, we were told all of our classes had been cancelled for the day. Curious as to the reason behind our unexpected day off, we asked our school’s secretary who had informed us if it was a holiday that day. “I don’t know,” she replied. Confused but nonetheless happy, we went for a walk through the city and were surprised to find a parade moving down one it’s major streets. Again we asked for the reason behind the celebrations to a bystander and, once again, got the response of “I don’t know.” So, even if nobody is quite sure what holiday is being celebrated, you can count on everybody, businesses included, to act as if it is the biggest holiday of the year.

00AE6F4D-E1E2-4A6E-9129-920639EC9FCC
One of the largest supermarket chains in Spain closed for the afternoon for siesta. It is often closed on Sundays too which would be similar to a store like Wal-Mart being closed for similar amounts of time.

So, after learning many hard lessons over the first couple of weeks on El Camino, we now find ourselves making Nostradamus-like predictions far into the hazy and unpredictable future of Spanish time for, and it took us this long to finally learn this, there really is no point in trying to adapt, only prepare.

Breakfast on El Camino

What and where you eat first thing in the morning can set the tone for the rest of the day, a fact that becomes especially important when that day consists of walking around 15 miles, hand washing clothes and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed; among other things far from the realm of tasks associated with comfort and relaxation. While walking El Camino, we’ve eaten a range of healthy, in-between, and poor breakfasts, as well as experienced café culture, eating in various albergues, and having breakfast on the road. What you will find here are vegan breakfast ideas for both cafés and on your own (and cost comparisons of the two), a few cafés we particularly enjoyed, as well as a breakfast language key.

It is entirely up to you (and your bank account!) if you want to begin your morning at a café or on your own at an albergue. In our experience, an average breakfast bill for the two of us at a café was 5.45€, while an average breakfast assembled on our own was 1.90€. 

Cafés

It is difficult to find vegan options on any Spanish menu, but you will always have at least one option at breakfast: tostada con tomate (toast with tomato). This is a traditional breakfast dish and each café has its own flair…or lack there of (read: toasted slice of white bread paired with a small packet of glorified ketchup). In most cases though, it is a toasted baguette topped with grated tomato, olive oil and salt. And, while it is typical to have a cup of coffee alongside the tostada, it is quite uncommon for cafés to have non-dairy milk unless it is in a bigger city (Granada, Mérida, Cáceres, Salamanca), and even then it can be difficult to find. So, to avoid having a confused and, at times, bothered “no” muttered back to you after asking for soy milk, it’s probably best to order tea instead.

1B7ACA82-5CDE-4CA6-ACEC-8EBE3ABBB883
Tostada con tomate with a rare (and thoroughly enjoyed) soy milk latte

Another important thing to keep in mind when choosing to have breakfast at a cafe is what time it opens. Spain is notorious for mealtimes that don’t mesh with those that the rest of the world obeys and if you are expecting a place that serves breakfast to be open at the time you are leaving town, you could be starting the day on an empty stomach. In Mérida, we waited around outside until 9:30 for a café to open (the first one of the nearly dozen that were in the plaza) and we were the only customers until 10:00!

537C165F-0FF3-4BDB-8CFA-A25B997E31CD
Not the breakfast atmosphere we had hoped for

On Your Own

Most villages you stay in will have a supermarket or at least a small store, which makes doing breakfast on your own always an option. A favorite breakfast of ours was muesli and soy milk paired with a piece of fruit. We would have a bowl for dessert after supper and then one for breakfast again the next day. If we had any leftover milk, we would leave it in the fridge with a note for the next day’s pilgrims to enjoy. The leftover muesli, which was always of the chocolate variety, would of course never be left behind, rather taken with us as a snack on the road. Occasionally, you will come across basic stores that don’t carry novelties like muesli and soy milk. In cases like this, no matter how scarce the store’s selection is, bread and fruit will always be an option. 

If you’re craving a hot breakfast, having leftovers from the night before is always a good alternative. This always worked well for potato dishes but there were also many times when we would have to get creative as in when we used leftover pasta, reheated it in olive oil, and added a couple of apples we had on hand as well as a garnish of cinnamon. With a mug of chai tea, it was actually quite delicious! Our recommendation for ensuring as tasty of a breakfast as possible is to buy a box of tea and a plastic container of cinnamon; both are lightweight, easy to pack, and add a lot to whatever breakfast you are having!

99794540-A18C-4C74-978F-1EF9867EB70D
Our first and most likely last attempt at cinnamon apple pasta

Recommended Cafés

  • Mérida: Malabar (in Plaza España, opens at 9:30)
    • non-dairy milk options for coffee
    • their tomato and avocado toast is great
  • Cáceres: Casa de Golosos (Calle Pario la Abuela, near Plaza Mayor, opens at 9:00)
    • non-dairy milk and large mugs of coffee (a luxury in Spain!
    • they have different oils for tostada con tomate (garlic, rosemary, orange, spicy pepper)
  • Salamanca: Atelier Clandestino (Calle Placentinos, No. 2, hours are from 9 to 4)
    • vegan snacks and desserts ranging from 3 – 6 Euros
    • non-dairy milk for coffee
    • the owners are a married couple who have walked El Camino before and are very nice
BE481DA8-B672-40BA-9279-9687185EDCC8
Menu at Malabar in Mérida
54D6F40E-C705-4FDD-A967-63151ED996D9
Avocado toast at Malabar
69AC469B-112A-4471-A6FD-CA34E791A702
The window and logo of the vegan-friendly breakfast spot in Cáceres
F26A9CFA-F05D-448C-9940-763430A5D00D
Plenty of vegan options at Atelier Clandestino

 Breakfast Language Key

  • breakfast: desayuno (des-a-YU-noh )
  • tea: té (TEH)
  • coffee: café (cah-FEH)
  • (orange) juice: zumo (de naranja) (THU-mo [deh na-RAN-ha])
  • soy milk: leche de soja (LEH-cheh deh SO-ha)
  • tomato toast: tostada con tomate (tos-TAH-dah cohn to-MAH-teh)
  • lard: manteca de cerdo (mahn-TEH-cah deh THEHR-doh)—lard is a common ingredient in pastries
  • Do you have (soy milk)?: ¿Usted tiene (leche de soja)? (OO-sted tee-EH-ne…)
  • I want (coffee with soy milk): Quiero (café con leche de soja). (kee-EH-roh…)
  • What time does the café open?: ¿A que hora abre este café? (Ah keh OH-ra AH-breh EHS-teh…)
  • yes: sí (SEE)
  • no: no (NOH)

Flechas Amarillas

When walking El Camino, the variety of people one comes across can be just as numerous as the beds they’ve slept in or landscapes traversed.

In our experience, we have come across pilgrims that trek an upwards of sixty kilometers a day in an adrenaline-fueled test of their bodies endurance; or else a race towards a departing flight. And, on the less crazy end of the spectrum, those like Kate and I who are content with walking a fraction of that distance each day, teetering on the fine line of walking just enough to feel accomplished but not so much as to willingly bring chronic bodily ailments upon ourselves.

There are pilgrims who perform minor surgery on their feet day after day in the form of blister care and others who perform minor miracles by having no foot problems whatsoever. There are 87-year-old Italian priests and twenty-something college students. There are bikers, walkers, and apparently, horseback riders, though we haven’t seen any of the latter yet. There are early risers, late departers, eat-iners and going-outers. There are Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, Brazilians, Israelis, South Koreans, and Australians. There are the religious and those without any religious affiliation whatsoever, but in search of something outside of themselves all the same. And, while El Camino is traditionally a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, there is only one thing that unites all the different kinds of people, and it’s not Christianity, rather, the unwavering devotion to the all-knowing yellow arrows, or flechas amarillas.

Painted on rock faces, tree trunks, street curbs, and traffic signs, to name a few, the flechas are an ethereal lifeline of sorts, pointing each pilgrim in the right direction. While on El Camino, when we find ourselves lost along the way or unsure of whether or not we are moving in the right direction, we pray that a flecha reveals itself, giving us a sign that everything is okay. When we are in the dark or at a crossroads and there are no flechas to be found, we curse them for abandoning us. “How could such an omnipresent force of good be absent at such a time?” is a question that has often passed through our minds. Though, no matter how sparse their presence has been or how frustrated their absence has made us, whenever a flecha is spotted, we are thankful for it, for we are assured that we are moving in the right direction. And on El Camino, as in life itself, that’s all you can really ask for.

Since their inception over three decades ago, the flechas have become synonymous with the various routes to Santiago and for good reason. Despite being a pilgrimage route for over a millennia, by the 1970s, the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago had dwindled to the hundreds. Then, in the 1980s, a priest and El Camino scholar named Elías Valiña mapped out a route starting in the south of France and painted flechas along it every couple of kilometers or so to guide pilgrims towards Santiago. Elías chose to use yellow arrows because he had seen them guiding hikers through the mountains of France and took note not only of their visibility in the dull browns, grays, and greens of nature, but also of their durability to remain seen through variable weather and seasons. And so, the arrows were conceived and brought to life precisely at the time El Camino experienced a rebirth itself. The original route he mapped out, now popularly known as Camino Francés, attracts nearly 200,000 pilgrims every year and on countless other routes, including the one we have been walking on: La Via de la Plata, the arrows serve as a guiding hand, pointing pilgrims towards their destination, whatever or wherever that may be.

5CE126CB-C1D5-447F-9F52-58D52070E319

EE808C87-1D13-4A34-9C74-373415F00475
In the province of Extremadura, large stone blocks not only pointed us in the right direction, but also informed us whether or not we were following a Roman road.

E78A0442-08A7-449F-A41A-CE636FEA710C

94EA6A10-D4AA-4271-A2A0-87508D1D3398
Occasionally we will come across flecha stickers courtesy of a prior German pilgrim.

73087A91-C656-4EC5-93D8-1FB4CF84B166

C3AD8754-0301-48BC-9FA7-A6D52E1D8F38
Can you spot the flecha in the distance?
7FF94159-9A48-4FCC-9343-98BCACB5851E
A flecha pointing us towards Cáceres
9F52BFAC-DB7D-45F2-9C3A-7D965465F151
Sometimes the flechas are almost indiscernible from yellow moss that also populates the tree trunks and stones of the Spanish countryside.
BB35FEAE-BB66-4D53-83A8-5E25C3618BEC
A sign pointing us towards our albergue, which is always a welcome sight at the end of a long day of walking
25E3B039-9C23-4F1A-8E8B-58342A8D8D8C
Sometimes, there is little to no doubt about which way to go

0080EC2E-A422-463F-B009-C7327A8DF33533D9CCC3-D406-4CAD-BEA1-EF42FE24CB78C3A15FC5-0068-4353-85DD-BD8C61C8C4D5

ACB5FB15-D169-49CD-B87B-18CD1B58A5F2
When flechas amarillas can’t be found, flechas in other forms, like this one made of sticks and rocks, will make an appearance
2BA45462-40EE-4A4B-8C10-BB3861B47E68
And here’s one pointing you towards Kate’s poem

 

Flechas Amarillas

On your right—
cows.
On your left—
trees.
Only one way to go—
straight.
It´s a flecha fiesta—
painted boulders,
trunks,
posts.

We come to a fork:
gray stones,
mossy branches,
wired rails.
Where are the flechas?
Fast asleep,
it´s time for siesta.

A Day on El Camino

Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!

So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.

For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:

F3AA1BB2-056D-4979-8A73-F05D1B604821
In the cases where we have a private room to ourselves or everyone else in our dorm is waking up at the same time as we are, the lights go on and we begin getting dressed and packing our things.
AC8E5E85-818B-4E99-B7CE-4D82DC1DFEAF
Occasionally, you’ll have one or two people still sleeping at six, in which case we gather all of our things in the dark and move them to the common area of the albergue to pack up.
51431C95-BDB0-49C6-ABC2-B15F65021E06
To make things easier (and more water resistant) we have all of our stuff separated into plastic bags. So, in the morning, we just have to put the bags in our backpack and we’re ready to go.
11596A5D-0714-48CA-A1B8-05AE03BCD159
Sometimes we’ll have breakfast in the albergue…
93CBE62A-D9FB-409C-8EEB-B7F72EC306F5
…or on the road while watching the sunrise…
BBA07F1A-3AFE-418C-BF3F-72FD60049C3D
…or, if we’re lucky enough to have a café open at the ungodly Spanish hour of 7 a.m., go there for breakfast.
F0352A47-D221-46F8-95FB-154074581320
Most days begin under the stars, which means poor visibility and frequent second-guessing ourselves about whether we’re going in the right direction or not.
5113437D-5412-4253-AB55-7FC6342C75ED
Though we’ve learned that if we keep the brightening horizon on our right, that means we’re going north and in the right direction.
AF6DB11A-8F67-4D48-ACF8-106A61DEBD56
Our favorite part of the day is always at dawn, when the scenery is at its most beautiful and the temperature at its coolest.
EE321289-343C-427E-8E49-5B22F5EF8959
A hilltop village at sunrise.
E3F110A6-D5DA-44A0-8030-C4046245A233
We’ve also been delighted at times to find a ruin or two sitting on the horizon as the sun comes up; like this castle…
B033CF41-1036-4349-BD4C-9456CECA47ED
…or this Roman bridge, which we unquestioningly made a detour to explore.
A41E5886-9223-4D37-90B5-33568CE5909C
After sunrise, it’s business as usual, trying to get into the next town as early as possible so the brutal heat of the midday sun doesn’t turn our trek into a trudge.
06E2580E-F5D9-4480-B207-8771DC852389
In the days when we have longer walks we’ll stop in a shady patch for a picnic lunch, but usually we make it into the next town around noon and have lunch there.
E3839F5B-6870-4F06-B552-95472770FE67
After getting our pilgrim credentials stamped and paying the albergue’s fee, which for us has ranged anywhere from free (though they ask for a donation if you have the means) to 15€ a night, we unload our bags, grab a bed, and get showered.
9A115A53-3CB9-40A9-99FC-9D7F16886BE8
Then we wash our offensively stinky clothes…
68D28AFB-309B-4FAA-98F9-F125EF61D667
…and hang them up…
42FBDA54-8DB9-4E98-BD02-46FB2F79EEC9
…before finally getting off our feet!
8D71D059-1C52-49AC-A572-76288D33A92B
To wile away the afternoon, we may work on a hobby like writing or editing pictures.
7E45C06D-777D-433E-A50A-03CC4414FBDF
If we don’t feel like working on a hobby, we will explore the village or city we are staying in for the night. The picture above is from Caceres, one of our favorite places we have explored so far.
C81CC839-FCB2-4A4A-9492-5A713E5F4262
And cards are almost always played.
8313CDD2-F076-499C-A200-5DED3203F75B
Then, once supermarkets open back up after siesta, we will go get our groceries for dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day.
573B26A7-D50A-4247-8917-C3D9AD0B3386
Then we cook…
75C31758-1FD3-4B70-920E-780E580892D0
…eat…
08DF6CEA-A6E7-49EC-82CB-A3D91BEB7CBB
…and almost always enjoy a drink together before ending the day around 9:00 or 9:30 when most pilgrims, including these ones, head to bed.

 

Mérida

What Rivendell was to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so Mérida was to us on El Camino: a beautiful city offering a comfortable and luxurious stop at the beginning of what would be a long and arduous journey. For us, the beautiful part of Mérida came in the form of its Roman ruins, pristinely preserved and still dominating the city’s life 2,000 years after their construction. Luxury came in the form of a one-star hotel that, through the eyes of these pilgrims anyway, looked like the Waldorf Astoria with its top-of-the-line amenities: a double bed, locking door with keys, and private bathroom. Our stay wasn’t long (just one and a half days) as we didn’t want to completely lose the pilgrim groove we had worked ourselves into with much effort over the previous week and a half, but it was a welcome and wonderful visit all the same. Below you can find some pictures from our time there as well as a poem by Kate.

FA5B4B6A-5C98-40D7-AC36-95BC3D57B4E6
An apt start to our time in the city: a walk across a Roman bridge

E0E17BE3-08EB-4669-AD51-420AF3E9F01C

F77D7738-A87B-4815-AA2E-A0D2264331A1
We were surprised and excited to see a hoopoe pecking around the ground near the bridge

12368433-98A3-4D89-9DA8-F8FF31C4B907

D011EF4F-693C-4595-8E1B-61BAA03FE418
Enjoying a coffee in the city’s main plaza
3629C340-9434-4AAB-8E42-2FBFBFC2697E
Roman aqueducts that ran for 6 kilometers to deliver water to the city

2B4CB7A2-404A-426B-8E87-1ADADCE09A2B5A3B8B8E-2FDE-47AE-975D-0F69A538ACCD95E0E737-5816-4670-9782-6AF53E10A92BEB462BF2-9C23-4EDA-9899-70342E5FB2355EA8DEE5-F33A-4C6C-B0D5-92065B9E1F3E

FB3338DA-CE05-48E4-900A-EBC60F6A34EF
Dimples in the bricks from where they would be clamped and lifted into place were still just as visible as the aqueduct itself
E478050B-A7A0-497F-A6E3-A8E6BC97CBB1
The Temple of Diana. If you look amidst the pillars you can make out another structure. Apparently in the Middle Ages, a rich baron decided that he wanted to build his house amidst the temple.

57956D99-F959-4286-9440-96F9088C240EBC411B04-0352-486E-8DF6-E3F886F98FC2E85022D9-72BD-4AFD-A216-397750ABEA21

5C1EB06C-9CB2-4352-BE31-521B39E66D94
A depiction of Jupiter
49451737-7268-4A6D-8D9C-2368ED9F1BA8
The city’s amphitheatre where gladiatorial events took place
696DB02F-1B1A-4CF2-80C7-F21AAAD8AE78
We were surprised to learn that they had musical accompaniment to the gladiator matches as well as a referee!

949A03FB-189E-44E5-88EA-F0D47D1BA6EE

94CAC18B-591E-4171-8FFB-D8BF3AB0F9B0
While there were no signs indicating this for sure, we imagined this was where gladiators entered the arena.

1F8E1655-C9B1-44F7-8768-CF7A71FCD284

C706D3D9-9D82-421F-829E-420F3B4645D8
Neighboring the amphitheatre was the theatre, where less gruesome forms of entertainment played out.

9BAB8C64-8F6D-47C6-9003-E7FEF7008BD4

7AC5158E-FEE8-443C-BED0-EEF4941C92C0
Looking at the theatre from one of the hallways that emerged into the stands

9D7BD7C4-91CC-4776-9A41-E142BD49EB12D59AA7AB-A8D0-4D9A-94D3-3E8C91DE364C2E6D7874-F998-4992-86B6-6C66D1048CCE0139304A-FD35-4542-A46F-0E1D92D0113B063B0CFE-7112-47A7-9D4F-564C48A3633C

C8F5A7C9-9A70-44C7-B1EA-EA7A5DFC8563
Enjoying a drink back at the Temple of Diana to cap off the day
DF07C5E9-5552-4361-99FF-591156267983
A depiction of Medusa, the myth of whom inspired Kate´s poem below.

Epithet to Medusa

Are you aware
of the irony
of your preservation
in stone?
Sinuous snakes—
your only companions—
petrified
in a writhing frenzy.
Your staring eyes—
more damaged than before—
gaze unfocused,
no Iris,
no Pupil—
just you
and your memories
before your life
was as tangled
as your serpentine tresses.

La Vía de la Plata – A Week in Photos

“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
W.H. Davies

One week into El Camino, there have certainly been some unpleasurable moments, but the overwhelming feeling of the last week and nearly 100 miles has been one of joy. Below you can find some pictures highlighting our first seven days on the road.

5FB60AF7-5251-441D-BF3B-819403E9011E
Outside the cathedral in Sevilla, our starting point for La Via de la Plata
4975BE09-CA5F-4FD4-8A04-D6BF6427D180
Spotting our first of what would be many yellow arrows pointing us towards Santiago de Compostela.
C0C8DECB-2827-492E-B953-6101ED938B54
Having a picnic lunch outside of Italica, an ancient Roman ruins site that has recently gained fame for being used as a shooting location for Game of Thrones.

93BCC3A3-B8EC-436F-AFCD-B725D8364276ACC51E13-FE06-4665-AA8A-639F37B6CBC2

F16889BD-EA1F-40BE-8E2C-EE9F958AE8F3
An olive orchard
D0E26D45-6702-4B24-B35A-DDA41D6D58EF
An old watchtower sitting over the crest of a meadowed hill

84145722-4B81-4FAF-B860-53A2DACDC119

2517BC4C-E699-4957-BB8B-B124F23A9F14
For most of the walk, we’ve enjoyed as our companion an unending supply of beautiful natural scenery
71479677-EA21-479B-BE6A-729D4ECAF29A
The symbol of El Camino. All of the lines in the shell represent the different routes one can take to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela.
1055BDE8-4250-49F2-9FE4-4DA906967E0C
The view from our albergue over Castilblanco de los Arroyos, one of the villages we stopped in
BBA07F1A-3AFE-418C-BF3F-72FD60049C3D
Many of our days have begun at a village cafe eating tostada con tomate and sipping on a mug of tea. This morning came before our first trying day on El Camino, an 18-mile trek over hilly terrain to Almadén de la Plata.

29C199B9-91EA-4B46-80F5-ACEE6B459AACE8175420-144E-4C87-961B-39C08B372C63

029B69B1-80C7-4A90-AF8F-FFA0A16025B8
Checking out an old, ruined house along the way.
73F35433-AD83-45E8-8AAC-7563A4583899
A steep, seemingly endless hill is not what you want to see at the end of an 18-mile day, but we conquered it nonetheless.
979A08F6-91B7-4A31-AB6B-8EDEDDFEAF08
A site for sore feet.

44200E55-7912-4AA6-B771-F9085A92D7D08FDE1404-EA00-4FF5-AB8B-FB7E8406A0E1

7DDF2BEB-BCD7-484D-BAFB-1A2C227BADCC
Golden fields at dawn have been a consistent part of our walk. We’re hoping it stays that way!
8442D493-394F-48B5-9C9E-3BEB8F4C1B1A
Some friendly farm dogs we came across

951777E1-EE35-425D-8C38-D08E2BB4C74E

E8382924-EE96-4490-8EA3-A205C1B00E6E
Exploring the castle in Real de la Jara

24C70465-87D3-4B4F-84AA-1268961CD8110F001243-A577-405D-B416-0DC59A2268E8CB5FDF06-2E0D-4ECC-9952-660E125DA81FE3F110A6-D5DA-44A0-8030-C4046245A233B5E9A53C-3A22-4CBF-918C-CDE08717F6BF

8042B818-91B9-4681-9AE4-818ACB7EC416
A much deserved beer along the way
D7C6E28F-A8E0-44EB-836D-1F166562BDE1
Occasionally the scenery is not the greatest…
73D7B087-A148-40F5-987F-D0D3A9F09E4C
…but it can change quickly.

7B33B50C-EF75-4121-821A-372EB9E36AF9

FC8F0506-1DDC-4C2E-8FC5-D4F86D0E9029
We began seeing a bunch of these small flowers that grew out of the ground individually without a stem or leaves.

D086D954-A188-4EFC-8CF1-C504C4C93029A1AFFAFE-5B4A-4108-AE47-49D0820AABA51615BCAA-D03A-4783-B00A-0171FB156A90

1756FFB2-7E05-42AA-AB71-96087EBF4D29
Our seventh day took us past fields of grape trees
1E498F3A-96D8-494C-88DE-B6E1CCEB5EBA
Some of them were being harvested
2752BB00-F10B-495B-8E01-95E09F142425
Exploring the town of Zafra

78C80D28-8BB9-47F9-9354-E13F3202ABE6

Packing List for El Camino

As the first blog of many to come highlighting our time on El Camino de Santiago – La Via de la Plata, we thought it would be appropriate to share just what we would be carrying on our backs for miles and miles, day after day as we trek through the countryside of Spain. So, whether you are planning to walk El Camino yourself and are curious as to what gear to consider or are just nosy and want to see a picture and description of all of our things, you can find information below detailing all of our possessions we have deemed necessary to lug on our back for the next 7 weeks and 800 miles.

E5AFA199-8B6A-4FA8-BD93-1EF0A1CB1C41

  • A backpack
  • A raincoat
  • Two long-sleeved shirts
  • Two pairs of pants
  • A fleece
  • A pair of shoes
  • A pair of sandals (to wear in the shower and around the villages we will be staying in to air out our feet and give them a break from our shoes)
  • Two pairs of underwear
  • Two pairs of socks
  • A sleep sack (in case some albergues don’t have sheets or heating in the colder weeks of late October and November)
  • A pillow case (in case some albergues don’t have one)
  • Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, contact solution, shampoo, sunscreen)
  • Laundry soap
  • A rain cover for the backpack
  • A water bottle
  • A Scrubba (a silicone sack that we wash our clothes in)
  • Clothespins
  • A towel
  • Sunglasses

Mt. Everest

Scaling Mt. Everest was a cinch. That is, when we were moving up the behemoth mountain’s cragged, snow-packed slopes towards its icy peak with our eyes…not our feet. We were, after all, on the Tibetan side of the tallest point in the world, where, unlike in Nepal, amateur mountaineers are not granted the permission to climb Everest; a rule we were glad to heed as we enjoyed the majestic mountain from afar.

After arriving at the tourist base camp (the one for climbers lied further inland and was off limits to us), we were disappointed to find Everest obscured by a stubbornly unmoving wall of clouds – out of which little windows would occasionally open to offer sneak peaks of what the mountain would look like if we were lucky enough for an unobstructed view later in the day. Eager to stretch our legs after the two-day car journey that had brought us there, we toured Rongbuk Monastery, the highest in the world, and walked around the valley that the base camp sat in. 

94099F51-66BB-4771-9BD0-7179E21250AA

414D0268-00B1-4D79-9C48-87054650CA37
A yak munching on vegetation in front of the monastery. Pigeons also managed to make it up to the camp.

AEBB1119-F725-4BC8-80B8-43CCFED165CB14F9DB2C-17F4-4BF0-8C54-A7B605E911AE

DACB5494-37A3-4174-8F5D-6980AB1035DC

9805576C-9746-44C8-A2D7-F94AB3316181

Effectively stretched, we returned to our accommodation for the night, a yak-wool tent that was one amongst a small city of them at the camp. Sitting like rows of townhouses, the tents advertised everything from coffee to free wi-fi to even karaoke, the latter of which sent erratic, colorful lights and horrible yet confident voices pulsating through the otherwise black and lifeless landscape at night.

2DC273E7-06F7-43FB-A2C3-0930BB4E5C94

Our tent was run by a kindly young woman, who, apart from offering us unexpectedly delicious meals at an elevation of 5,000 meters, also gave us entertainment in the form of her 1-year old child, a babbling infant intent on offering us hospitality in the form of gifts of random plastic bottles and other spent items she could find lying around the tent. On one occasion, I startled the child by muttering tashi delek (“hello” in Tibetan) to her. As if I was a wolf leaping out of a sheep costume, the girl cartoonishly gasped and staggered backwards in her shock, slapping her mother on the leg in an attempt to alert her to the phenomenon. Apparently foreign guests were not supposed to be able to speak Tibetan. Her mother paid no interest though, instead focusing intently on filling the furnace with a fresh round of yak dung which served to both warm the tent and prepare our meals.

6E2785FD-B0F7-4488-A6F0-F5B3BFEDD41E
Inside the tent
FA3EC7D2-FBEC-46A3-B82B-52682A9BD081
The furnace is on the right and it’s fuel, a bowl of yak dung, is on the left.
FD5E2C71-C29A-403F-AB29-C37397394F67
Where we slept. The tent could hold up to 15 people side by side. Luckily it was just us and two others sleeping in the tent that night so we were able to space out.
C6BAF5C3-595F-4D5B-A290-A6B13DEFAD86
Enjoying a cup of yak butter tea. Well, I am anyway.

After playing with the child for a short time, we decided to head back outside to see if the veil over Everest had lifted…it had. We were amazed at how close the mountain looked and felt. In some ways, it seemed more like Everest when it was sitting behind the clouds, our imaginations filling in the dimensions of its fabled magnitude. In full view though, it was still undeniably awe-inspiring, its glowing white slopes shining like a beacon amongst the otherwise monotone and lifeless sea of gray mountains.

F9F22B5E-90DB-49D0-9693-45E31A8B9EB2BF2EDAAF-436C-43C4-A508-091625FD6F69D6C06D80-D003-457B-AFE3-F2598255C6C0DBB593E0-C235-4F46-9B11-3ACFB14C4BBA82359AE3-53E3-464E-B42A-0DA8E1B808BC61A0DFE9-52AB-4957-949F-00D65461AAB9

As the sun began to set, the temperature dropped with it and the wind was whipped into even more of a frenzy than earlier in the day, howling loudly as it forcefully pushed through the valley. In the distance, an enclave of prayer wheels spun, creating a soothing melody that countered the angry tones of the wind. Like settling into a seat for a much anticipated theatre production, we found a comfortable place to sit as we took in the show before us. Slowly at first and then quickly after, the stoic Everest began to transform, changing colors from a brilliant white to a pale yellow before finally settling on a rosy pink, the last role it would play before the curtains were drawn as the sun sank below the horizon and the mountain before us was reduced to a shadowed mass, gradually blending into the the gray and darkened mountains surrounding it.

E2809827-DE8C-4EAC-BC5D-84B24D11EE27
Kate walking past the prayer wheels which were spun using the flow of a small stream running underneath.

E335E90D-8969-40EF-B3B7-65F2B17A97BDE1A47A34-B165-469C-86DC-FD1F7BFAE458DB7D981F-2EF0-4E42-B814-EA11E9D3B0945FC68E68-BEA4-4AE9-8B55-49D2D7F9A8B3B44A2105-A4B8-4049-9AA4-59B9290847B9

More out of a desire for warmth than waning interest in the scenery before us, we returned to our tent. Being at such a high altitude, our attempts at sleep during the night were rather hopeless and we got out of bed the next morning, tired but eager to see Mt. Everest one last time before beginning the return journey to Lhasa. It didn’t disappoint.

0C848CDA-4D1D-45AF-8154-AD68BF9E0E2075BF33A1-6EA4-43CE-87AA-A88C7FC87E31C908CD02-A7C0-4F24-8D07-18D2F8411844

Read on for a poem by Kate:

Qomolangma

Winds whip
furiously
howling
keening.
An assault felt
only by ears and skin.
To the eyes,
nothing is disturbed.
Not the barren brown landscape,
nor the mountain that sits
at its end.
The peak begins
to glow.
Its ethereal white
becomes the blue of a frozen breeze.
After a moment
the edges transform
to a gentle yellow
moving inward
before settling to rose,
casting the valley in shadow.
This ritual has occurred
before time began ticking,
before prayer flags fluttered
and brassy wheels spun,
creating their music in the mossy water.
It will continue long after
time, flags, and wheels have ceased all movement.

Friendship Highway

“47…48…49…50…” With eyes clenched, and our large, greasy breakfast now being strongly re-evaluated, the tallies of whirling U-turns accumulated in our heads. “71…72…73…” We were driving along the Friendship Highway, an 800-kilometer stretch of road that runs from Lhasa to Nepal, and pirouetting our way down a particularly curvy stretch of the journey towards Mount Everest Base Camp.

3775BB0E-C2A7-4187-8DB3-EDEBD4260639
Friendship Highway mercilessly winding its way towards the Himalayas

By the time we were sailing along on straight roads again, the number of 180-degree turns we had taken to wind down the mountainside had numbered into the triple digits, 100 to be exact. Luckily, this would be the only part of our nearly 20-hour car ride that would test the will of our stomachs. The rest of the journey was surprisingly enjoyable, offering panoramas, as endless in their vastness as in their ability to captivate us, of the Tibetan plateau along the way. Some of favorite sites were:

Yamdrok Lake,

5A2132F2-616B-48C3-B5DF-CD962B01C875

4F282A23-9210-461A-BD07-06DEDE9BF2CD
We saw lots of avian wildlife along the lake including this duck…
3F164C0E-3F5C-4233-A4DE-1524BB438457
…and a hoopoe among others.

4BD79469-3F70-4A98-A986-F0B2BFFAC83D787ACD33-0A40-4F5B-B866-30A46AAC87C6

Karola glacier,

15C37B6C-8A84-45D4-8B72-EC1371A49B7B4D19456F-1EC3-4F51-B59F-EAA218F5D83D27B78954-8392-4A5C-A9BD-9B4E61F22D9F52EA0BE4-07EE-49E4-B5D3-4E3553DD3E3FF9CEDDC3-76C0-4759-B7FC-83BEB163106C72686947-A7BF-4B18-8AF4-8BD3AD4439A8

roaming animal herds,

E3528593-35A2-4A1B-A7AB-2253490EBC2C
A yak meandering across the mossy terrain of Tibet

C0F4DAA3-FA14-4E0B-9F96-E3CCFB79A33B92DF4DEA-67B4-4BD8-9C5E-4B5F49816D80D807B94C-C598-4722-8549-60E3D7E11E08

Tashilhunpo Monastery,

0E03145C-2FA6-4EB2-9CB2-1E9FFBA157716B65E81E-4744-4D7E-8817-E2AD1358EB2E888313EB-9066-4699-AE83-3B6C5AF943EA1FE41DBC-41DF-4888-9BF2-983937D7D1130A02527E-DFE3-4CB8-88B0-965C08FFE042

and, of course, plenty of mountains and prayer flags.

8287BA55-F65A-43AC-BFB9-5144AE8BBAB0
The prayer flags are often hung in high, windy places so that the mantras written on them can be carried through the air by the wind.

E55705FF-2040-4F8E-916E-A2416F3736BE

1D9FB778-DE12-4299-9607-84FD5DF24619
Castles were another common sight along the highway. We often found them in such a ruinous state that it was sometimes hard to discern between what was a castle and what was just a large, jagged rock.

1B0A85E1-EA84-48B9-9F32-59CCF3F069654EFD764F-2FBC-4E88-9602-BB19D17C0D13C462EC44-BF4B-45B8-9409-7D8B0509E3FA

Our favorite stop we would make over the course of our two days on the Friendship Highway was Gyantse, a small town that housed the reclusive Palcho Monastery. A model of tolerance, the monastery not only incorporated different architectural styles into its construction – mainly Chinese, Tibetan, and Nepali influences – but also housed monks from three different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, which, despite its peaceful reputation, was known to have its fair share of skirmishes over the centuries, many of which turned violent.

A5E66D36-3E5A-48AB-86C0-07DCD13FBF41

A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the religious sites we had been to in Lhasa, Palcho offered the experience we held in our minds of what a Tibetan monastery would be: secluded, quiet, and, as a byproduct of these first two elements, immensely peaceful. While few people amounted to a greater appreciation of the monastic complex to us, it spelt doom for the monastery’s coffers which were considerably less full than its Lhasan cousins due to the lack of visitors. Once again, this worked in our favor as, in order to compensate for its fewer donations, the monastery allowed visitors to take photos inside the temple’s halls for a small fee, an opportunity we wouldn’t come across in any other of the temples we visited in Tibet.

ACBF2374-03B5-482D-95FB-48BC4B949319

A6FF845D-C333-46AF-A078-6FCC10CB3993
Stacks of Tibetan scriptures could be found throughout the temple

5B08C0D1-308B-45C1-B3DD-99416C823853

F259BA1C-C919-4314-B791-E85532F75A9D
An image of the former Panchen Lama. If a former high lama had frequented a particular temple during his lifetime, they would dedicate a shrine to him in the place where the lama would sit while visiting.

7B4C7152-457C-47E9-8F0A-F715D7CF3F1572E618F3-3112-4FFD-A6B4-EB59CEEEC0EA

Another aspect that made the monastery unique from the others we had seen was the Kumbum Stupa, a nine-tier structure said to house 10,000 images of Buddha. As we wound up each tier of the Stupa, we began to wonder if the figure of 10,000 was an underestimation as the walls inside each of the stupa’s 76 shrines was plastered with Buddhist iconography. 

25C12E90-E064-4689-B8D1-E4B5CAC96E9395D00469-715E-49A4-8B6D-A71E8D3EE20698417D7A-44F2-4BB2-8FED-A66ABA2507B8B77C05E5-38C2-4BD6-B730-560B242259F236D12268-F640-4052-901F-680949D40532

0FD42D67-DCD0-4038-AF90-B5D2932D65D8
We were surprised to find that all of the images of skeletons and, what to us looked like giant demons, throughout the temple were actually meant to drive away evil spirits.

After making it to the top tier, we were gifted with an unobstructed view of the monastery and its surroundings. Brown mountains sat like giant sand dunes across the horizon, the humble collection of buildings that was the town of Gyantse sitting at their feet. Across their ridges ran the protective fortress and walls of the ancient city which did little to protect its inhabitants from English and later, Chinese, invaders who would effectively destroy as much of Gyantse as their motivation allotted for. As we worked our way back down the stupa, we were glad it was mostly spared from the same destruction.

9E692ACF-D948-4D75-9A21-7A296D875FC0
The fortress overlooking Gyantse

3FBE70B5-56AE-45B4-A4E7-725F884B30B7

4C5BC554-649B-4DB7-B19A-FD2B2AF91D8F
A doorway on the upper tier of the stupa

4E92BB89-8655-4E2D-BAE8-D34E999928D6

After leaving Gyantse and taking a much needed break from the inside of the van for an overnight stay in the city of Shigatse, our journey along the Friendship Highway came to an end as we rolled up to Mt. Everest, a scenic end to a scenic journey.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

#SOS

We make a roadside pit stop
to glance at Karola glacier.
We are allotted five minutes
that we stretch to ten.
A time frame specifically set
to allow for just enough seconds to snap
a picture for haphazard scrollers.

However,
its time enough to hear
the rushing streams released from the ice,
to witness the ancient water gushing down and away,
converging together
to carve new rivers in stone,
carrying away nature’s SOS.

Lhasa

In a land whose past is decorated with tales of conquering warlord horsemen and magical tantric monks, it is surprising to find oneself compelled most by something as simple and familiar as a window. Yet, while winding through the dusty back-alleys of Lhasa, that is exactly where we found ourselves. 

Set against the plain white buildings of the city, the windows were an island of life and beauty, much like Lhasa was among the overwhelming emptiness of the Tibetan plateau. And perhaps that’s what made us so intrigued by the windows, the fact that they were a metaphor for the city itself. The thick black frames surrounding them, enclosing the wealth of color and detail that was each window, were much like the once self-imposed and now not-so-self-imposed seclusion of Lhasa from the world around it. Above each window, ruffled curtains rippled gently in the wind, their movements caused by a force unseen in the same way as the thing that gave Lhasa life – that moved pilgrims around temples, spun prayer wheels, and inspired muttered mantras – was also an unseen force: Buddhism. Whether wind or faith, whatever couldn’t be seen in the city, could most definitely be felt.

01E41BDB-78A0-43CE-ABB0-C8E06528D30A

D4A57B7A-FD23-4EFA-B539-D2625260500C

90F23978-C39B-4787-A52E-258FE43D774F
The doors weren’t so bad either

We were introduced to Lhasa much in the same contradictory manner as we imagined others were: with a trip to the local police office to make sure all of our papers and permits checked out followed by a khata, a long white scarf meant to symbolize one being welcomed into a place, being hung around our necks; the latter of which was done with such routine and urgency that it made it feel hardly like a welcome at all and more like the hanging of an ID badge around our necks to identify us as outsiders, which we needed no additional help in doing. For us, this experience summed up the entirety of our time in Tibet, of being officially granted the permission to travel around the plateau, but never feeling truly welcome in it. Perhaps it was due to the Orwellian police state pervasing the streets, or the fact that we weren’t allowed to enter temples or board buses without our guide with us, or even that we were tourists treating places that held enormous spiritual significance to others as mere attractions. In any case, however uncomfortable we felt at times being in the city, the warmness of locals and brilliance of the culture and places they built quelled any feelings we had of whether or not we should actually be there.

Our first morning in Lhasa started in the same way as the others we would spend in Tibet, with a bowl of tsampa, a kind of barley porridge, paired with a hot cup of yak butter tea. Neither were particularly delicious but enjoyable all the same as is any traditional cuisine eaten in the place of its origin. To make the meal tastier, we began adding a considerable amount of sugar to the tsampa much to the chagrin of our waitress, who informed us that parents add sugar to the porridge only to coerce their children into eating it. Adults, we were told, eat it plain. We were content with being children.   

3685BBDA-A4F5-45D0-B631-D64E0A87EC4E
Pouring a cup of yak butter tea
38F4007F-BF32-42EB-8EE5-9971656FCDB1
A gloppy bowl of tsampa

After breakfast we met our guide, Lobsang, and headed towards Drepung Monastery, the first of two monasteries we would be touring that day. Upon leaving the van and walking up to the monastic complex, we got our first indication of what it meant to to tour a city 3,600 meters in the air, twice the altitude of Denver. As we walked up the slight incline leading to the main temple, our breath, or lack thereof, became extremely noticeable. Despite our physical exertion being at almost zero, we still found ourselves inhaling deeply and frequently as if we had just finished a long run, our lungs grasping at an air supply that always seemed hollow and insufficient. For some, a date with an oxygen machine becomes necessary, but, luckily for us, the symptoms remained minor. If the diluted air supply wasn’t enough to remind us of our spot on the roof of the world, then the exaggerated effects of the sun overhead were. Dementor-like in its ability and persistence to suck the life from our bodies, the debilitating intensity of the sun made us feel as if  we were in the glare of a spotlight, which followed our every step as we made our way through the monastery’s grounds.

F12BA76C-D927-4A61-A9AB-777DF05B0247
Mountains were always part of the scenery in Lhasa

1D25C784-F4F5-45E8-A4BC-5E1CA82B242326081B6D-FA30-4F70-8F9F-54CFE84AB56A

If outside the monastery’s temples featured the sun’s most exaggerated qualities, then inside featured the complete lack-thereof. Dark, cloistered, and miraculously void of sunlight, the temples were a world apart from their bright, sprawling exterior. 

Our tour of the temple was illuminated by the glow of butter candles, large vats of butter that served as fuel for the flames glowing overtop of them, which glinted upon the golden statues and and wall-encompassing murals, pulling them from the shadows, one after the other, as we passed through the temple’s halls. All around us pilgrims shuffled about, muttering mantras as they left offerings in front of deities and poured melted butter into the candles, whose rich scents mingled with those of incense to create a heavy odor that permeated the air. However much we wanted to stop and take in what was around us, the current of pilgrims carried us through the temple and back outside where our contempt for the sun was rekindled as we made our way through the rest of the monastery’s grounds before heading to our next destination: Sera Monastery.

F5DE8CD3-65DD-489C-AF89-6BC4073DCA3B
The pilgrims kept their butter in large thermoses (like the one in this picture) that they used to pour into the candles. So much butter was offered that monks would often have to drain some from the candles to store for later use.
56531E66-138F-4B0C-843C-3295E848FC07
Monks debating outside one of the temples

91875981-FBB0-45A9-9745-9AFA47EE27A5D44D336B-A428-46AF-AAF4-4BB34D6C600C

Sera Monastery was set apart from Drepung due to the lively debates that took place between resident monks in its courtyards each day. In the debates, one monk challenges the ethereal knowledge of his opponent by asking pointed questions about Buddhist philosophy in the hopes of eventually stumping him. Being entirely unfamiliar with the workings of Buddhism and even more unfamiliar with the Tibetan language, we found intrigue in not what was being said during the debates but how it was being said. Before delivering a question, the challenging monk would stretch the open palm of one hand towards his opponent, and stretch the other far above his head. Then, with a resounding smack, he would bring both hands together with the conclusion of his question, after which his opponent would recede into a flustered contemplation before muttering a reply.

5B5CF8F0-D6BE-4C0A-A3BC-75AF9FF7C6BE

Younger monks seemed to relish in the challenge of stumping their friends, delivering and answering questions fervidly, while older monks took a more tedious approach, partaking in the debates in a manner that suggested they were doing it based more in routine than a desire to prove their intellectual worth to others. After watching the debates for some time, we retraced our steps through the alleyways of the monastery, returning to our van and eventually our hotel where would end the day.

BC00068A-F8EB-47AF-9661-69C67AA5AC9229D3BAF6-BC3A-4008-88C6-B0E4A7F8C68F

The next day we awoke to rainy weather, which was a shock to us as we couldn’t imagine anything, clouds included, being able to come between the sun and the streets of Lhasa. While the rain would spell inconvenience for the day’s tour of Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace, two of the cities most important and iconic landmarks, we were happy for a respite from the considerable amount of squinting and slogging we had done the day before. 

D760042E-82BE-4FC9-838E-3B3DAC8FCAF6

Throughout its history, Jokhang Temple has gone through periodic phases of irrelevance at the hands of those who feared the influence of Buddhism on Tibet. As early as the 9th and 10th centuries, it was used as a stable. A century earlier, after Buddhism had been introduced to the plateau, Tibet was devastated by a plague which left little doubt among Tibetans that their traditional gods had been offended by the upstart religion and explained the transformation of the holy site into a lowly one. During the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in the 1950s, machine guns were mounted on the temple’s roof to shoot down advancing soldiers from the Chinese military. And as recently as the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the temple was boarded up and reportedly used to house pigs, a slaughterhouse, members of the People’s Liberation Army and even a small hotel. Much like its first fall from grace, the Jokhang and the devotion it inspired had upset the powers that be, this time threatening the new gods of the plateau, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. As we’ve seen in other religious sites though, attempts at diminishing a place’s appearance can never really diminish what it means to others. Countless times, we’ve come across dilapidated statues of deities being worshiped as if they were the Buddha himself. We felt that the same was true for the temple and all of Buddhism to Tibetans.

34CF7E00-B4DE-4CA3-838F-203D5232FE6C
Jokhang Temple, which was never ata lack of people either in it or around it
169103F7-D369-47BC-AEDF-11050DCAA8C4
The golden roof of the temple

Had we not known prior to visiting Jokhang Temple that it was the most revered religious site in all of Tibet, we would have guessed its esteemed status rather quickly after approaching it. Set amidst the old city of Lhasa, the temple was unmistakably the center of life. Like an ocean, it served as a final destination for all of the serpentine alleyways which ran like rivers through the old city, funneling pilgrims and tourists alike to the temple. 

E58D143D-FA7D-4C84-870A-C8C4D8844E30D69ABDFE-420E-427A-A148-87BC7286107889D9EC21-0E45-4A56-8130-20EC4E2DE626

As we walked through the main doors of Jokhang, it became clear to us that we were entering a manifestation of antiquity. Not often are you able to physically see time, but inside the labyrinthine halls of the temple, the centuries were as visible as the countless statues and paintings that filled its interior, noticeable both in the buildup of lacquer and sediment that sat over the wooden beams that held the temple up and also in the worn appearance of steps and doorways, their deep grooves evidence of the innumerable pilgrims whose feet and hands had passed over them. However impressive the different features of the temple were though, it was always the pilgrims on whom we found our attention unconsciously returning to.

BAE7DE28-9BCA-4329-9B30-AA05D4F12C9A42DD32CD-613A-4676-8288-7A2A7447E9ED

Through the temple and around Barkhor Street outside of it, the pilgrims walked in a clockwise fashion, many in the hope of being able to circumambulate Jokhang 700,000 times in the course of their life, which is the desired mark to achieve an upgrade in status upon their reincarnation. Some were young, walking with ease as they breezed by the less fortunately aged, who, cane in hand, hobbled along, paying no attention to the large swathes of tourists accompanying their religious pursuits. Some  prostrated as a means of transportation, raising their hands above their head, taking three steps and then diving forward on the ground before standing up and repeating the process again. Their tattered clothes, knee pads, and tightly clenched bottle of water evidence of just how difficult their worship was. We would learn later that some prostrated to Lhasa from faraway hometowns which could take anywhere from months to sometimes even years to complete. Like all difficult things undertaken, the pilgrims, walking and prostrating alike, were trying to earn a better lot in this life or the next.

4EFF8FCD-43FC-4E2C-911C-4C4BFE6AB4CC
Pilgrims walking and prostrating around Barkhor Street

53EC8331-17E0-4179-9262-95A667CA589653DC034C-3027-47DE-BF23-829ABC6CE6445BCB1409-06CE-4189-9133-CA17B3D15CA8B8D6C451-C72B-48C3-8399-3A4CC149FA3998B17753-E148-48BB-98A4-6102479F0E2E

6930B61D-AB0D-4E27-9E66-85D66FAA1B63
Buddhist prayer beads, or mala, which pilgrims use to keep track of things like how many times a mantra has been recited or how many prostrations have been done

As we left Barkhor Street the gray skies that had been covering the city finally opened and began to rain, a slight nuisance that we were easily able to escape in the cavernous inner rooms of the Potala Palace, our next destination. 

17A4D180-F698-4D36-99DA-48DB89D38A6BF23692B0-B418-4CFA-95B4-41E4851757FE64877C57-1D52-49C7-863B-DCE341B3EEB8

Much like attending an afternoon movie and being startled that it is still daytime upon leaving the theatre, so we emerged from the palace surprised to find the sun shining amidst a backdrop of stunning blue skies. As we zigzagged down the stairs of the palace, our attention was drawn back to the windows and once more, we thought of the people of Tibet. Distracted by the beauty of the outside of the window, one often forgets that there is a dark and largely unnoticed world behind the panes of glass. 

80ADD8F7-EEB3-4CED-BBB8-D5818BE5A9575C411762-7C9D-4103-87EC-64DA133765F0CA92C6BA-D5B4-4A01-B268-A2EC3344FC30

The world will always be looking into Tibet, distracted by its majestic surface while Tibetans, most of whom exist in places devoid of an onlooker’s thought or attention, will always be looking out, never quite able to join the people and world that they see moving past them.

196CE50E-8B14-482F-A48F-9D072BE109CE

Here are some pictures of the Potala Palace at night:

BB4DDACB-8224-4686-ADAD-BF6AE952FF4E3B4156B9-5722-429E-93DC-AF82AC4E7A53C97F93C4-DD9E-4353-AB14-3F54A60AD8BBA3B46ACB-CEA2-4198-8D40-11872873B55F05A67D68-E97F-48BA-A59F-4D13B40A41BB

And, lastly, a poem by Kate:

A View

Pleated curtains
create a fringe
above a black trimmed,
recessed window.
The top tapers
into a wider base
that goes unnoticed
at a glance.
A breeze ruffles
the tattered fabric
releasing a whisper
of a dance.