Camino 2018 – The Ordeal of the Mountain

What is it about starting a pilgrimage with an ordeal by mountain? Is it a test of resolve? Or is it to give us a glimpse of the reward for our efforts in the majesty of the scene laid out before us?

I wrestled with these thoughts as we climbed towards Orisson and then on the high road to Roncesvalles in mid April 2018.

We made the climb after waiting five days in St Jean Pied de Port for the torrential rain and snow on the mountains to stop. We finally got a forecast for good weather over the weekend, re-booked a bed at Orisson Refuge — the mountain hostel — and sure enough the road was open.

The climb to Orisson Refuge was brutal and steep, like an 8km staircase of 237 floors, in some parts strewn with sharp rocks, and in parts with water and clay mud to make things interesting.

In the dormitory, we quickly negotiate arrangements for sleeping in a common room, and are immediately tolerant of our differences and sensitive to our concerns.

We share stories over dinner and wine, and introduce ourselves publicly. There were some moving stories. For me, this pilgrimage is about gratitude and a sense of awe that we are walking in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims and the thought that that history walks with us.

As I looked around that room, I knew that even just one day in, with all our diverse backgrounds, we would — and could —depend on any one of them for help if help was needed, and they on us. Shared adversity brings us together at a basic human level as we are confronted with our strengths and weaknesses stripped bare.

We looked out over the mountains, sobered by the realisation that we had another 600m still to climb, before descending into Spain.

Dawn over the mountains breaks as an explosion of colour, the darkness pierced by the most vivid orange. In the valleys a purple mist hangs, muffling the sound of cow bells. And the mountains roll away in layers of folded rock like a discarded blanket. It is what artists would call ‘sublime’.

It is here we learn that if you have your head in the clouds you are not reaching high enough. If you aspire to anything, your aspirations must be high enough to be able to look down on the clouds. Up here I felt that even if everything is not sorted yet, the details will resolve in their time. Perspective matters.

In the meantime, to reach our goal requires us to place one foot in front of the other on solid ground. We were grateful for our trekking poles — our pilgrim staffs, ensuring three points of stable contact before taking the next step.

Above and around us countless vultures circled as though waiting for us to falter.

We had been emphatically told by the pilgrim office in St Jean Pied de Port that under no circumstances were we to take the forest track despite the arrows and markings leading that way. It was too treacherous, and we must take the road. But when we got there, we found the road covered in several inches of snow, making it a smooth slippery surface on a steep hill.

And the road was nowhere to be seen.

So we were forced to take the ‘more dangerous’ route. And just to get onto it meant negotiating a considerable embankment with the help of others.

And in this day and age, learning to ask for help is a difficult but necessary lesson.

Water streamed down the path and we picked every step carefully, watching for the rocks that might be more stable than the otherwise soft mud.

That day, nine people had to be rescued from the path — some had finished their Camino on their first day due to injury.

The mountains presented us with extremes. On the one hand, we struggled to keep our footing in the snow and mud, and on the other, to see the snow covered peaks stretch out into the distance was truly sublime. So by the time we reached Roncesvalles – a C13th monastery – we pilgrims, including we atheist pilgrims, were in need of rest in mind and body. And pilgrims we indeed were.

And so the first ordeal is over, and we are able to continue our journey. It was time to have a short day to strengthen mind and body for what lies ahead.

———————




Travel sensationally!

Have you noticed that when you eat certain foods, taste certain wines, smell certain smells, you are instantly taken back to your memories of a place, perhaps distant in space or time from now? For example, I recently baked.a tarta de Santiago – an almond cake common in Galicia in northern Spain. The sense of taste took me straight back there. It was one of the great tastes of the Camino de Santiago.

Tarta de Santiago

Papua New Guinea smells strongly of vanilla – it permeates all the food and of course their famous coffee, but it is also on the air too.

When we travel, at least part of why we travel is to experience new places, new sights, new sounds, new tastes. Indeed, one reason that travel is so exhausting is that we are literally on sensory overload. So much is new to us: the rhythms and sounds of a new language, the smell of dust and spices and markets, the sights of ancient buildings, the touch of a Roman wall or the feel of the cobblestones beneath our feet. These are all part of the sensations of travel.

Aristotle told us we have five senses. But the reality is that we have many more. As British philosopher Barry Smith has pointed out, science has long moved on from Aristotle’s five elements that make up the material world, yet we still cling to his categorisation of five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.

School of Athens

Today, scientists believe we have between 21 and 33 senses and possibly more. Part of that is a more nuanced version of our five senses, but there are a few surprises. It turns out that our body is full of sensors each designed to keep us healthy, away from predators and poisons, and able to appreciate our environment in extraordinary ways. And most of these senses also help to enrich our experience of new places.

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

For example, I often wondered why I would get misdirected in Australia where I have lived most of my life, yet in London which I barely knew, I always knew my orientation in the city. The answer appears to lie in magnetism. Well, it turns out that we have magnetoreceptors – an ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field, in the way that birds have an innate sense of direction. And these sensors seem to be related to the iron in our nose – we literally follow our nose! Our sense is much weaker than that of birds, but is well documented. And yes I was born in the UK, but came to Australia as a child. How is your sense of direction affected by travel?

We also have a sense of time – not only are we aware of our circadian rhythms (which get disrupted by jet-lag) but we also have a surprisingly accurate sense of time and duration.

Clock in Paris

And of course, our senses work together to build layers of experience. I have spoken elsewhere of recording the sounds of a place – whether the dawn chorus of birds, or a hubbub of a street with the sound of street sellers. One thing I love to do, is to sit in a foreign cafe and listen to the rhythm and cadence of the local language – especially where I am unfamiliar with the language. It is like the music of a country.

I have heard the mellifluence of Korean, the staccato syllables of Indonesian, the soft gentle sound of Khmer, the distinctive French, the expressive Italians and so on. Try closing your eyes and just listen to the sounds of language without trying to understand what they are saying, just the flow of speech.   

Food stand in Kuching, Malaysia

 

Then there are practical things, such as we wouldn’t get far without a sense of balance, and we would have a hard time drinking coffee or eating sushi without our proprioception – the sense of knowing where your limbs are – to guide the cup to our lips.

Our sense of temperature will tell us to dress warmer or cooler and this is an aspect of where we are and how we experience a place. It also helps to signal to our body that we need to regulate our temperature in some way, and to stay hydrated in warm or dry places.

Our taste is probably around 80 percent smell, and the rest is divided among senses for sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami (the taste that responds to the amino acid glutamate, found in meats). So they work in combination to give us the rich world of flavours wherever we travel.

Laksa

Sight appears to be two senses – cones for colour and rods for brightness – again these work in concert to bring to life the colours and visual textures of our travels.

Being aware of how we sense a place, also helps to stitch that place into our idea of who we are as well as who we are becoming. As Barry Smith points out:

“Once you have a multi sensory view of perception, you have a better chance of explaining how you are in touch with the world and how we know about ourselves.” – https://aeon.co/videos/aristotle-was-wrong-and-so-are-we-there-are-far-more-than-five-senses

Each place has its own pace, its own feel, its own light. So here’s an exercise for you – can you describe a place in one sentence or paragraph, using a more nuanced description of how your senses responded to it? Don’t you just love the gravity in Paris?

Dancer sculpture seen in London

Travelling mindfully is like making a violin

Do you approach travel with excitement or trepidation? How do you find calm amidst the excitement? And importantly, how do you balance these to get the most out of travel, and out of life more generally? It seems to me, that to get the most out of our travel, we need to be:

  • responsive to our environment,
  • aware of our surroundings, and
  • calm within ourselves.

How we achieve a balance between these aspects can influence how we experience our travel.

_MG_6546

As a musician and luthier, I find that these aspects can easily be applied to violin making. For a violin to have good tone, it must be responsive, both to the inputs from the strings but also to the environment. And at the same time, in order to produce a good well-rounded tone, there must be a harmony between the responsive parts and the calm parts of each plate of the sound box. Examining this is a bit like reading the Chladni patterns on a violin plate, showing how harmoniously it vibrates in response to excitement.

violin purfling

Between travels, I have been making a violin – my second – and some people have asked me what I do to make a violin have a good sound. As with my first, I have tried to take time to tune each plate so that it is responsive across a range of frequencies. Every piece of wood is different, after all, it is an organic material that has grown in its own environment and has been subject to unique weather patterns, and cycles between winter and summer, resulting in unique growth patterns (the same applies to people too!). For that reason, you can’t just measure a Stradivarius violin and machine the timbers of a new one to exactly the same thickness across each plate and expect a Stradivarius violin to emerge. I think there is both an art and a science to it.

violin shaping

It is possible to measure the responsiveness of a violin plate at different frequencies, but perhaps more importantly, we need to be able to see where the plate is responsive, and where it is not. Any block of wood can be tuned like a xylophone block to ring to a particular note, but it is the pattern of vibration that provides the tone.

I use a fairly crude means to do this, but it seems to work. I suspend the plate I’m working on over an amplifier/speaker – in this case, a 15W Roland Cube amp placed so that the speaker faces upward. I set the plate on a couple of pieces of foam polystyrene over the speaker. I then use a tone generator on my phone (yes there’s an app for that!) and play tones smoothly rising from 10 beats per second (10 Hertz) up to 1000 Hertz.

So how do I see the vibration patterns? I take a tea bag – actually, any lightweight powder will do – you could use poppy seeds or dark sawdust too – and sprinkle a random pattern evenly over the plate. Then I play tones gradually rising in frequency. At different frequencies, the tea leaves will bounce and move where the plate is responsive, and they will stay still where the plate is not responding. In this case, the plate responds to its resonant frequency, which is 190 Hertz – which falls between F# and G. This is good because it means it won’t ring out suddenly when a properly tuned note is played.

violin chladni1

Initially, the patterns are thick and often unbalanced. I then take a photo, and draw with chalk lightly around where the tea leaves are settled, and gently remove shavings of wood, a little at a time, with a scraper from within the chalked area. Then I re-sprinkle the tea leaves and repeat the process until I have a nice pattern – like a frown and moustache – that are well balanced and have a nice form. Every plate is different and varies in density, but the patterns shouldn’t have gaps or wild inconsistencies. The technical term for these patterns is Chladni patterns, named for Ernst Chladni, who first visualised the patterns. The tea leaves collect where there is no vibration – these areas are called ‘nodes’. Where the vibration is greatest, these are called ‘anti-nodes’.

violin chladni2

Just as when we travel we seek a balance between periods of excitement and periods of calm, so too we need a nice balance between the nodes and the anti-nodes. There will be changes, of course, to these vibration patterns when the violin is assembled as against being a free plate, but I work on the basis that if each part is tuned well, then it will also work well collectively when it is assembled.

Again, the same is true of people – if each member of a group is well attuned, the group itself will perform well. This is why emotional intelligence is so important to good group dynamics. Conversely, if one part of the group is not emotionally aware, the whole tone of the group, or the tour, or the holiday can be dampened. I hope your ‘Chladni’ patterns are nicely formed too!

Okay, I drew a long bow here, but while this post tells you something about violin making, it also shows how different aspects of our lives can be seen metaphorically to apply to one’s whole philosophical approach to life. All things are connected in their way, and find resonance in unexpected places.