Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I would walk the Camino de Santiago everyday of my life if...

I didn't actually have to walk.

Segways to Santiago. This is how I'll make my million. 

But then again, as a peregrina (pilgrim), I've been annoyed enough by bicycles on the trail and concerned that there is no room in the inn that I realize Segways would ruin the Camino. 

And so, one must walk. One must walk to experience one of the most amazing experiences that exists on planet Earth. 

Warning Number 1: I feel like this blog post may contain MANY superlatives. What you need to understand is that these often overused words in the English language will not do justice in describing what I have experienced during the past 12 days.

Warning Number 2: This is a really long blog post. I thought of dividing it in parts. But then I thought that you are all smart enough to delegate your time as needed. Read at your own leisure and/or skim. 

During the past week I have wanted to document so many experiences and thoughts that I have had. But then again... I was reminded of my first goal: "Wherever you are, be all there." And since each blog post takes a minimum of an hour to write, I didn't want to take time away from the Camino to stop and write. But I've been reminding myself of things the blogosphere must know about the Camino de Santiago.  So, I'll start with the people: Mis Amigos del Camino. 

I feel like I've been away from the States for 2 years...at least. It's been 19 days. Basically, I've decided that walking 170 miles in 12 days with people from all over the world feels like being transported to another place and time. 

I've also decided that the Camino is like "Invite the World to Dinner" (back two blog posts) on steroids. Nearly every hour of every day I was sharing life with people from around the world.  We talked about our lives, our cultures (the good, bad and different), our politics, our dreams, our problems...  We had a lot to talk about. And we had a lot of time to do it. 

I last posted in the town of Puente la Reina. I had just finished my first day with the Israeli Defense Forces. A week later, I just said goodbye to my good friends Ofir, Itai and Tomer. It's with tears in my eyes as I consider their kindness in letting a lady 10 years older than them tag-along. They shared their chai tea with me during their 9am coffee stop, their canned tuna and sardines for their lunch stop (I've never had sardines. When I asked Ofir exactly what I was eating he reminded me that you eat with your mouth, not with your eyes. And... the teacher is a student.) and a room with me after knowing me for 24 hours. They encouraged me when I was certain my feet couldn't take another step by serenading me on their harmonicas with the Theme from Rocky ...

They carried my boots for me on the last hour of my Camino into Burgos to lighten my load. They taught me an Israeli card game which provided great entertainment in a town that's not even on the map. They provided numerous moments of laughter as I observed them interacting with one another. And today, they gave me a ride to Santander and shared a "Day at the Sea" with me.  The best word I can think of to describe them would be "gentlemen."  I would also say they are kind, caring, chivalrous, generous, encouraging...  I've been truly blessed to spend so much time with them. I hope out paths cross again, hopefully Israel in January... Or that I can attempt to repay their kindness by hosting them in Colorado. 

(I'm not sure you can tell but my English has become much more proper as I attempt to speak in a way that people who use English as a second language can understand.  I'm hoping I can revert back to normal talking eventually.)

Then, somewhere between Puente la Reina and Estella, I met Gorka and Iñigo, friends from Pamplona. And my life has become fuller because of it. I'm pretty sure that I have never laughed more in one week than I have with these two.  Between Iñigo reciting lines from "How I Met Your Mother" (a show I've never seen and one that Gorka calls Iñigo's Bible) and realizing the extent of my OCD as I explain to Gorka that my ex-boyfriends are in alphabetical order by last name (total coincidence, I promise)... I was bent over my trekking poles with laughter numerous times. And many times, that laughter came right when I needed it. One memorable moment: 7am in Logroño. As we left the albuergue and we weren't exactly sure where the Camino continued. I recommended to Gorka that he ask the policemen right in front of us where the Camino was. They kindly explained that there were signs on the street directing us on the way. Really?  I hadn't noticed the, literally, thousands of signs marking the way for the past week. Turns out there was a sign in the middle of the street...about 5 feet away. Nothing like starting the day with a good laugh at ourselves. 

Gorka and I first started our Camino conversation talking about politics and him explaining the Basque Country, ETA, and "The Crisis" (the economic crisis in Spain). Over the next 8 days, we talked about family, friends, dreams, problems, embarrassing moments, more politics, religion, and anything else that came to mind during the hours of walking...such as Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Address. Read it. Good stuff. He may know as much about me as friends I've had for years.  He also served as a guide for all of us, explaining Spanish culture, history and helping to ensure delivery of the first load I sent ahead which included 4 months worth of contacts that were sent from France to Burgos which, this morning, appeared to have ended up in Barcelona.  He has an amazing wife who had encouraged him to walk for a week... and 2 young boys that seem to keep life interesting.  

Iñigo may have the biggest heart of anyone I know. He is like a giant teddy bear and has the smile of the Cheshire Cat. He loves life and the people in his life. He loves to laugh and make others laugh. Today I was thinking about the fact that he is probably everyone's favorite in the car parts factory that he has worked at for the past 15-ish years.  He talks to his mom ever other day and reminds her that he is her favorite kid as well.  With Iñigo, it's was impossible to not be positive. The day Gorka and Iñigo left to start their Camino, Iñigo couldn't find his hat. Gorka let him borrow one. It said "Ferrari" on it. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  He would stop for coffee breaks and cigarette breaks every hour or so. Gorka and I would keep walking. Some time later Iñigo would stroll by and say "I am a Ferrari" in his broken English. Then he would go on to reserve beds for us at the next albergue and would be waiting for us while he smoked his 15th cigarette of the day. (Which reminds me... The number of people who smoke while on the Camino is astounding. Not sure how people do that... And then pass me.  Humbling indeed.)  I also gave Iñigo the title the "Mayor of the Camino."  One day he was up ahead walking with two little ladies from the town we were approaching. When we stopped in town, they brought Iñigo some fresh figs wrapped in newspaper. As we walked, Iñigo shared them with everyone. He also seemed to know everyone in town, became instant friends with every bartender/cafe barista, and had something nice to say to everyone he passed on the Camino. Iñigo seems to bring light to everyone around him. I've been blessed to spend a week with him on The Way. 

I met Ken from Santa Fe when I sat to rest on the patio of the albergue in Estella. He is an artist and former teacher/professor and now serves as an escort for musical groups traveling to Europe to perform. Super interesting guy who genuinely loves people and is interested in their lives. 

Greg and Melody are from Perth, Australia. I met them at the top of a hill somewhere outside Pamplona as they were stopping for tea.  For the next week, I spotted them at nearly every restaurant or cafe I stopped at as well. They always had a friendly greeting for me. Thy were both super intentional about remembering people's names, which is quite impressive when you consider the number of people you meet along the way. 

I met Marjorie from Atlanta on the steps of the albergue on my second day in Pamplona. I was using the free wifi (pronounced "wee-fee" in Europe) and she rolled in first in the group from the day starting after me. We struck up a conversation about Kilimanjaro, which she had summited a few years ago. Lovely woman who was walking alone and trying to find the balance between taking it easy and ensuring she had a bed, as well as meeting people and finding time for herself. 

Mapi and Juan were the two everyone was trying to figure out. Mapi from Barcelona wins the award for best legs on the Camino. Juan wins the youngest snorer award. Over the course of the week, all of us would piece together different parts of the story to try and figure out the whole story. Here's what we got: Juan, from Andalucia, is unemployed (like 57% of young people in Spain) and began his Camino in June. Apparently the weather was horrible and he wanted to quit, but kept going. Then he met Mapi in Galicia, which is about a week away from Santiago. They walked together and then started from the beginning together a few weeks ago. Mapi is a mid-wife.  After our few conversations, I've decided she would be the perfect person to have by your side while giving birth. She also has a boyfriend in Pamplona (who happens to own a bar that Iñigo goes to).  Juan and Mapi say they are not together... Oh Camino Gossip. 

Pere from Barcelona is my next "International Man of Mystery".  I met him at 7am outside the albuerge in Puente la Reina. And we would chat each time we saw one other. Everytime we parted ways, I said, "See you in the next town."  He would say, "Maybe you will, maybe you won't."  Over pinxtos (equivilant of tapas in northern Spain), he wouldn't tell us his profession so we decided he was in the Spanish Mafia. I started calling him El Jefe, "The Boss."  

Goodbyes. It might be easier to say goodbye on the Camino because the greeting for "goodbye" is the same as the  first time you meet someone: "Buen Camino."  I hope to see many of these people again, but the odds are against it. And even in the small chance that we should meet again, I'm sure it won't be the same. We've met each other in a situation of very unique circumstances, free from distractions, and at a time where you feel the most open and honest. So, my mindset is one in which I've decided to be thankful for the experience I've had, and not dream of trying to recreate at some point in the future. When I come back to walk again, I'll start from the Catherdral in Burgos, and it will be like a whole new Camino. And my new goal will be not to compare it to the first one but to embrace it for what it is. 

Decisions. One great thing about the Camino is that you really have no decisions to make. You might have decided the night before when you will wake up, but even then, that decision is an illusion because the rest of the room decides when you will wake up.  When and where you will eat is pretty obvious, because it is when and where everyone else stops to eat. Where you will sleep is much the same. I guess you can decide if you will talk to others or "Buen Camino" them along the way. And if you should choose to talk to others, you can make the decision about how much to share with others. My Amigos del Camino have indicated that I have no problem in sharing...  But not making decisions has been wonderful. I think about how many decisions I make in a school day and that I've made in the planning stages of this trip and it is a welcome break from the norm. 

A day in the life of a Pilgrim:
You wake when everyone else does. You have to be out of the albergue by 8am. Most are out by 7. You walk from an hour. You stop at the next town for "breakfast": coffee, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a chocolate croissant. You walk. You talk. You think. You walk some more. You grab something for lunch... A bocadillo is common... A baguette with prosciutto. You walk. You start to hope to see your destination soon. Your feet start to hurt. The Israeli Army picks you up. You shuffle into the albuergue and hope there are still beds left. You give them your credentials to stamp (proving you are a pilgrim) and your passport. They give you a bed number. You throw your bag on the floor, find your shower stuff and wash off the dust of the day. You leave with your friends to find a place open for food because you are famished. Conveniently, this time is right in the middle of the Spanish Siesta. (The pilgrim schedule doesn't quite jive with the Schedule of Spain) but there is usually one enterprising person in the town who is making bank. You eat. You check email. You find a place for dinner that offers the Menu del Peregrinos (Pilgrim Menu) which costs about 10 euros and includes 2 courses of food, dessert, bread and wine or water (in many cases, wine costs less than water...shucks). You try to stay awake until 9. Crawl into your bed and hope the snoring doesn't start until after you've fallen asleep. And you get up and do the same the next day. 

Snoring. Oh my. I'm glad ear plugs work for me. Nearly every room as a magnificent snorer. Some rooms have 10 people. Some have 40. Regardless, it's bound to happen that you will be somewhat sleep deprived because of this. Typically, the worst snorer is the first to fall asleep and the first to wake up. My theory is that they realize how bad they were snoring so they want to leave as early as possible to save face. But my last official night on the Camino was the most memorable. We secured the last 5 beds at a 200 bed albuerge in Burgos. We came into the room right when curfew was. The elevator (which was not common) opened right into a room of 40 beds. Immediately we were struck by a symphony of snoring. The only word I can think of to describe it was "magnificent." The "first chair" snorer was on one side of the room. The "conductor" seemed to be sleeping 2 beds away from me. Instead of breaking out in applause, I broke out in uncontrollable laughter and rushed to the bathroom to try to compose myself and not wake everyone else up. But as I left the bathroom, the snoring continued, as did my laughter. I composed myself again, rushed to my bag to grab my ear plugs and avoided eye contact with my friends to avoid another outburst. In the morning I had the realization that the only people I would have woken due to my laughter would had been those causing the laughter. 2 days later, I'm still chuckling. Unreal. 

Surgery. It usually takes 20 minutes for me to get ready in the morning. It soon became apparent that I would need to take on another 20 minutes for proper foot care. Tape to cover blisters on both heals. Blisters developed in both pinky toes. I even got a blister under a blister. Phenomenal!  This leads to losing a significant amount of flesh. And I'm pretty sure I will be in the market for two new pinky toenails in the next few weeks.  On top of that, the bones right below my toes were hurting me pretty bad. I began a pretty strict regimen of what my Aussie friends called Vitamin I: Ibuprofen. I started with 3 Advil at 7am to "stay ahead of the pain."  At 9 another 3 was looking pretty appetizing. I switched to Tylenol at noon and then Advil if needed to get me the rest of the way home. Gorka and Iñigo started to call me an addict. Then we realized that Advil is 200 mg of ibuprofen. One Spanish OTC Ibuprofen is 600 mg.  They took it back. At one particularly difficult moment I stopped in a pharmacy in Los Arcos and a kind pharmacist also gave me some Ibuprofen gel to rub on my feet. Sweet. And then my stomach started to hurt. I wonder why. I began to do a cost/benefit analysis of hurting stomach or hurting feet. Stomach usually came in second. But no worries... I've been ibuprofen free for 2 days now.  

The Spirit of the Camino. All of the albergues are run by volunteers. All of them have been exceptionally helpful. Except one. We were in Logroño and I decided that if I wanted to keep up with my friends I would need to send my bag ahead. I inquired about this often used service and was given a "talking to" by a man (in a neck brace) who claims to have done the Camino 20 times. He asked me, in Spanish, if I had the "Espiritu del Camino". I said yes, of course!  He told me I needed to be suffering to experience the Camino. He went on and on about how the "Espiritu del Camino" does not exist anymore, that there are too many people walking and that they don't get the purpose. Dude. I've been walking and I get the suffering. And I have the Spirit of the Camino. And I am sending my bag on tomorrow. I didn't say that of course but I was thinking it. Peace!

During the day, you ask people how their walk was going. A common response is "poco a poco" which means "little by little."  Poco a poco, my foot. (Pun intended)  Most of these people are just like Iñigo, the Ferrari. My longest stretch by myself was from Puente la Reina till I met Gorka sometime midday. People were passing me like I was standing still. But I was embracing "poco a poco."  I only passed one person. It was a man, somewhere in his 70's, on a steep uphill. I promise when I passed him he was walking with his eyes closed. I didn't want to "Buen Camino" him because I thought I might wake him up from sleep walking. The next day I tried to explain to Iñigo that I have earned the title "La Tortuga" (the turtle) from the story the turtle and the hare. I've actually been calling myself that for years. I like to go slow but don't need any breaks. 

"Si es la guerra, vengan las balas."  This is a phrase Iñigo taught me while drinking some cold ones by the pool in Torres del Rio after one of our hottest days of walking. It means, "If this is war, bring on the bullets."  Some days, I felt like I was walking to my death. Ok... That's a total exaggeration. I was hurting. And the best part of the day was stopping. But I recall thinking that even though many other people were hurting (aka: "Doing the John Wayne") everyone still had a smile. No one was crying or angry because there were always others there to encourage you or to help carry the load.  

And so I told people I did the Camino to get some perspective and set the tone for the year to come. Although I still have much to process, I can say with full confidence that I leave this experience with the perspective that there are amazing people in the world. People who are willing to walk by you for hours a day and want to listen, share, encourage and laugh. In the year to come, I hope to do the same for others as my Camino Amigos have done for me. 

If you ever need to restore your faith in humanity, walk the Camino. And in the full Spirt of the Camino, it must be walked. No Segways allowed. But feel free to send your bag ahead.  

P.S: This picture has earned "wall status" and will be framed on the wall that is the background for the blog you are reading right now. 

1 comment:

  1. Read your stories in ONE sitting......thanks for the warning although I was intrigued to continue at 2:34am (MST).....and finished!.....Some day I dream of cooking at one of the houses that serve the pilgrims!

    I am eager to go back to Spain and hope that it will be by next year!......So inspiring to read all your adventures....xxxxooooo

    Going to Steamboat for the Women's Fall Retreat (a mini camino de santiago, indeed).......my thoughts are with you as you continue along with your adventure.