Saturday, June 30, 2007

20,000 european homos

Okay, so fellow pilgrims had already awarded me the culture shock stupidity award for walking into a family reunion after walking across a country, shaving my head, and shedding a lot of pounds. Was it really necessary to arrive in Madrid after a traumatic and dizzying train ride full of whizzing sunflower fields and decide to be weak and take a cab instead of the metro--only to get trapped in traffic in a taxi with a drunk driver who took us on a drive by of a festival of 20,000 homos who are in town for the weekend? And then, when I started panicking about being in the car, was it really necessary for him to insist that the three blocks overflowing with half-naked, leather and feathered men were TOO HARD FOR ME TO WALK? And then when I eventually talked him into letting me out, did he have to give me bad directions that led me far far away?

While walking past the 50 buses blaring Village People and Shakira as writhing, oiled bodies danced, I finally burst into hysterical laughter. I still haven´t found the damn hotel. And I´m sure not getting into a car. Enough of that.

20,000 European gays. For the love of God.

Friday, June 29, 2007

what i look like now

People have asked me what I look like now after walking across Spain. I actually just got a pic in my email, but it doesn´t show what I really look like. Sure, my pants are a little looser. My hipbelt fits more snugly. My skin is browner. My hair is--egad--I can´t even describe it.

But I´d really like to show you a snapshot of my feet. My little toe that is calloused and scarred. My missing second toenail. My chipped rainbow toenail polish. The scars from the needle and thread. Today I took a picture of my feet with some pigeons wandering around in the background. I look great.

backwards

I had expected to get emotional yesterday--my birthday, the long imagined swim in the ocean, symbolically burning my clothing (stinky liner socks--the world is a better place without them), watching the sun fall off the edge of the earth, the end of a long journey. None of those things made me cry. I just felt satisfied and peaceful and happy.

This morning, I was waiting for the bus, so I went out for a walk. I found myself walking along the road beside the ocean. I looked down and saw a yellow arrow painted on the road. I´ve seen thousands of them over the past six weeks, but this one was different. This one was pointing in the other direction.

It´s hard to know what will make you cry.

my 90K day

Today was my longest day yet. 40K was my record, but today I traveled 90K. I did it in an hour and a half. My feet didn´t hurt at the end, but I was exhausted.

I hadn´t been in an auto since May 14. Until today, I had never traveled in a motor vehicle in the country of Spain. I walked across the whole country, and then I got into a bus to come back to Santiago.

It was odd to have to wait around to get started. I´m so used to moving whenever I choose to.

At first it felt thrilling, like a roller coaster ride. Then, as I looked out the window at the pilgrims walking up the hill against the backdrop of the sea, clinging to the guardrails to keep from being pancaked, I felt ill. The past couple of days have included quite a lot of scary walking on big roads.

Within 25 minutes, we had gone the distance of my entire meandering day yesterday. For the first part of the journey back to Santiago, I could look out and see the places I had passed yesterday zooming by. They all looked so anonymous and unimportant. Dull.

Then I saw the speed limit signs. 100K an hour. An hour! That´s 4 days of walking.

The time dragged on. I have never wished for a day of walking to be done as much as I wanted that bus ride to end. For some reason, I forced myself not to nod off. I made myself look out the window.

Alongside the road, there were blurs of color. The flowers. I couldn´t see the flowers. I saw some white ones, but it was impossible to tell that they were a weird and fancy kind of Queen Anne´s Lace with a purple stain in the middle. The yellow ones were just smudges. I couldn´t see if they were the dainty ones that smelled nice or the long stemmed dandelions.

Galicia hasn´t had very many poppies, just a few here and there. I was happy to find a little patch of them as I walked into Santiago. I miss them terribly. While I whizzed by on the bus today, I saw this one red blur. I think it was some poppies. I hope so.

to those who have serenaded me for months . . .

I´m no Pretender.

Indeed, I have walked five-hun-dre-d miles . . . and I would walk five-hun-dre-d more.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

the end.

This morning I wandered and dawdled until I came to a curve in the path and saw the sea before me. There was a lighthouse out on a point off in the distance. Finisterre. I could see the end of the world. I gaped and gazed and walked a little bit further, and then I saw a beach. It was oddly turquoise with white sand. It was alone. I was too. I smiled and meandered down the path and took off my clothes, no doubt providing a show for the fishing boats offshore, and I ran into the water.

I swam. I looked at the sea and the land and the sky. I looked at the lighthouse in the distance. I floated and looked at my feet. I looked at them for quite awhile. I even saw the sun for the briefest of moments. I swam until my fingers wrinkled.

The signs say there are 6 more kilometers left, but my skin is salty and my Camino is finished. Now, I´m just walking.

Happy, happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

my gift to you

Please imagine me, after 6 weeks of wearing the same 3 pants and 3 shirts every day (and 2 of the shirts and 2 of the pants match), eagerly deciding to purchase something new to wear.

Now, please imagine me trying to do this in clothing stores that market to Spanish women.

new rules

Here on the 90K walk to Finisterre, there are new rules, no rules. Some people are just out hiking for a few days. People (including me) go to hotel rooms instead of albergues. Today I met a couple who has been walking for 1500K, and they decided to take a brief taxi ride so that they could finish their journey today. There are fewer pilgrims. The Camino is more solitary.

I´m glad I chose to keep walking past Santiago. The days leading up to Santiago made me so sad to be ending. There was lots of reminiscing and forced evaluation of the experience. I´m still thinking about my Camino here, but it doesn´t feel as forced. On Monday, I had one sparkling and rambling day with friends Luke and Stacie. We stopped and dipped our feet in a river. We had a long lunch. Walking felt like play. Today, I wandered through fields and flowers and hills by myself.

I have no idea what tomorrow, the last day, will bring, but I don´t feel like I need to have a plan (other than my swim) to make it the right ending.

how it is

Yesterday, I shaved, and it was a bigger treat than any chocolate I had consumed all day. I never, never, never thought I could be that happy to shave.

swiss miss

The Swiss Miss, a woman in her late 40´s who has been biking and walking since Geneva, began walking with me and my two friends and announced, "I don´t believe in sticks." This was an interesting was to begin a conversation given that a)she had just told me that she was continuing on to Finisterre because she thought she needed to work on being less judgemental; b)all three of us were using sticks. We continued walking and shrugged off her comments.

We saw her again later on at the albergue. Luke and Stacey and I had just finished eating a delicious meal we call "Completo" in honor of the term used to describe an albergue that has no more beds. Food tastes better when you´re homeless (and when you are eating avocadoes after going without for over a month).

This particular albergue offered sleeping mats for bedless pilgrims. Due to the large overflow, we were instructed to push them together, 3 people for 2 mats. As we made preparations to do so, the Swiss Miss took one mat for herself and insisted that the hospitalero had given her special privileges. When a couple of other people questioned her, making a sweeping gesture around the room while explaining that we are a group and have to work together to enjoy the privileges of the albergue, she began to shout and point at people one by one. "I came here alone. You came here alone. You came here alone."

I heard gasps in 4 different languages.

There was more shouting and pointing. Eventually the hospitalero came in and gave her a thin mat and put her in a terrible location under the stairs where she got light and sand in her eyes.

The rest of us packed together on the mats, giggling in those same 4 different languages like it was a slumber party for 13 year olds.

I´ve not witnessed anything like this before on the Camino. It was such an abberration that everyone seemed confused.

It´s time.

I´ve been walking to Finisterre for 3 days. Whereas I was anxious during the final 90K to Santiago and was resistant to finishing, I am finally looking forward to stopping. As my friend Luke put it, everything is unraveling. Our bodies are giving out. My feet have various problems. My legs are tired. I want to take baths. I want vegetables.

Today, at the beginning of the day, I started counting how many kilometers until the end of the day. Usually, I am just happy to amble along until I get somewhere. Although I got much happier as the day wore on, t was still a new feeling to not be enjoying myself.

A few minutes after I saw the sea for the first time, I felt a little homesick. I tried to squint, but I couldn´t see you.

It´s time.

lopsided

I think I´m balancing out. My left toe turns in while my right goes straight. Now my right bicep is significantly larger than my left as a result of using only one walking stick . . .

the weather in galicia

During my three days of hiking to Finisterre, it has been decent weather, but I have noted a pattern in the weather here. At all times, at least one corner of the sky must have heavy, black, threatening clouds. Another corner of the sky has blue sky and fluffy clouds. They duke it out. Sometimes the blue and fluffy wins, but sometimes the black and threatening win. Regardless of which prevails, the other is always present. Sunny weather still has tiny raindrops. Rainy weather still has distant sun.

Yesterday, considering the contents of my pack, I decided to throw away my suntan lotion as an offering to the Galician sunrain gods. I hope my skin sizzles.

birthday cards

I walked alone today. I didn´t see another soul on the Camino. It was delightful, but there was one moment when I wished someone was there with me. As I came over the hill and spotted the sea uncertainly, I couldn´t figure out if it really was the ocean. I wanted to ask someone. I puzzled aloud to myself. Then, I continued forward a few steps, and I looked down at my feet. Written in marker on a rock that was lodged into the trail, a message read:

Bridget
Have fun in your birthday suit.
Heart,
Peter

Yes. The sea. I was right.

For the past three days I have been finding messages to me on the trail--on bark and on plastic. The first was an anonymous message on a small rock which I have been carrying with me for two days. I love it. I think sneaky Peter knew I would pick it up and carry the damn thing for 90 K.

Getting a note on the Camino feels so special. I love knowing that someone up ahead is thinking about me, that someone took time to stop and remember me.

Each card--addressed to rainbow-haired, pigeon-toed maiden--has made me smile an enormous grin for the next several kilometers. They are the best birthday cards ever.

mirror, mirror

Usually I´m quick in the bathroom here. They usually aren´t very nice, and they usually aren´t very solitary places. I just wash my hands and brush my teeth and throw water on my face.

I don´t often have occasion to look carefully in the mirror. There just aren´t that many around. Besides, I can´t begin to imagine coiffing my hair as I´m not certain what look I would be aiming for. I don´t even know which colors are left in my hair anymore.

Yesterday, though, I caught my eye in the mirror of a bathroom in a bar where I had taken a break. I looked carefully. When I returned to my fellow pilgrims, I commented, "I look a lot like a person who has been walking for 5 and a half weeks."

One said, "We all look like that. It´s hard to tell. You don´t look any different to me."

We all look dirty and comfortably tanned, with wrinkles around the eyes and easy smiles. We all look happy.

more mountains . . .

There are a few times when I have wished I had a guidebook so I knew what was coming. Not today.

Today I wandered around a bend in the trail, and I swore silently as I saw another damn set of mountains in the distance. Just yesterday I had just been joking that Spain is the only country I know where you have to climb to get to sea level. I was right. Here they were . . .

Except . . .
Except . . .

The mountains seemed kind of even and blue and distant. The mountains seemed to meet the clouds.

The mountains weren´t mountains at all. The mountains were the sea.

I have walked to the sea.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

the morning after

I went to bed late after arriving in Santiago, but I woke up just a few hours later and wandered back over to the Cathedral to watch the morning unfold. I wanted to see the other pilgrims trickle in. I wanted to watch their faces as they reached the end.

I saw a couple of limping souls emerging through the tunnel with their faces looking skyward in confused awe.

Then I saw some other pilgrims. They glanced up toward the cathedral and proceeded purposefully across the plaza without pausing. I slowly realized that they were starting out again on another day. They were walking. They were still walking.

I recognized one man, and he came over. I didn´t really know him, but we had been around each other enough to chat. We had a nice conversation in the early morning, and I was about to wish him safe travels. He introduced himself. At the end of the conversation, he told me his name and put out his hand. Then I told him my name. Then we shook hands, and he walked off. He walked westward. I´ll probably never see him again. Buen camino.

food

On the Camino, sometimes I sit down to eat some cherries and a pilgrim I don´t know sits down next to me and I say, "Would you like some cherries?" and he says "Yes" and then he eats them.

Or I buy a big bar of chocolate and run into my 4 crazy Canadian ladies on the street, and I drop my bag and fish it out so that I can give them some.

One day, I was in a restaurant and some South African friends came in to order food after a terrible day involving infections and taxis. They slumped down and waited to order and I insisted that they eat my leftover pizza and they did.

Out in the world, when I say "Would you like some cherries or chocolate or leftover pizza?" people shake their heads shyly. Here, people eat it. They accept it just as generously as the food is offered, without ceremony or effusive praise. With simple gratitude.

People here know how to share.

albergue plus

One month ago, I´m not sure I would have believed the kind of sleeping arrangements I find acceptable. Having arrived in Santiago, I´m staying in a sort of boarding house.

One night I was in a room with 2 double beds and 1 single bed. I knew one person in there. Everyone was asleep when I arrived. Everyone was asleep when I left. I have no idea who they are.

Yesterday morning, after coming in late, I went to sleep. This time I was in a room with only two beds. I woke up the next morning and had a conversation with a French bicycle pilgrim. After firmly establishing that I couldn´t really speak French, he explained his life story to me in his native tongue for the next ten minutes. The French. They´re so French.

Last night (early this morning) I got in crept into the room at 3 a.m. past another sleeping form. I awoke to find that I was sharing my space with a well to do 60 something Swiss gentleman I had coffee with the day before (during the foot palpating incident).

dessert. postre.

For weeks, I have suffered with the pilgrim´s menu. Ensalad mixta (iceberg lettuce with anemic tomato and a pile of tuna on top), spagetis (chef boyardee), piles of bland bread, and wine. Repeat. Sometimes the dessert was okay, though. I never failed to eat the dessert.

Yesterday I went to a Turkish restaurant. There was falafel. I repeat. Falafel. You simply cannot understand the magnitude of this. I couldn´t even pay attention to the the conversation because the food was so tasty.

Then something caught my eye. There´s was something in the glass case. It looked more delicious than any of the other desserts I had eaten throughout the whole Camino.

I summoned the waitress and requested salad for dessert. It was amazing.

foreign language

I´ve never traveled for an extended period of time in a place where I don´t have some ability to speak the language--until now. Galicians speak Gallego. They pretend it´s Spanish, but it´s really the bastard child of Portuguese and Gaelic that sounds like Italian. Somehow the rainy weather melts the consonants and turns them into X´s. It´s exhausting.

33

I´m becoming one of those annoying adults who natter on about their birthday. All of my plans are shaped around a number on my passport. Here´s the funny thing--other people´s plans are starting to be shaped around that number, too.

I had been looking forward to arriving at Finisterre, but it hadn´t occurred to me that the other people who were walking to the end of the Earth might also be in a bit of a celebratory mood. Suffice it to say that the plans for my birthday party are shaping up nicely.

Hey Mom, I know you worry that I´ll be alone on my birthday. No te preocupes.

durezas

I´m quite excited to go to Finisterre, another 90K from Santiago, where I´ll complete my walking journey and will then get into a motor vehicle for the first time in 6 weeks. (Another pilgrim encouraged me to take a bus to another part of Santiago the other day, and I jumped back as though he had touched me with a hot poker.)

Although I want to keep walking, my body is not quite as excited. My body doesn´t want to cooperate anymore. Throughout the Camino, I have watched people hobble through pain and discomfort to carry on. I have made appropriately sympathetic faces and have listened to their woes. Even though my hip hurt some and I had few blisters, they were never really painful enough to make me suffer significantly.

I fear that those days might be over. They gave me the Compostela, and I think I may have graduated. I think I may be a real pilgrim now.

This is my third day in a row of not walking, the longest break that I´ve had since May 16, and I feel achier and limpier than I have for the entire time I´ve been in Europe. I´ve consulted a lot of other pilgrims about this mysterious pressure on the bottom of my foot, but they don´t seem to be able to relate. It feels a bit like I´m walking on top of a large, soft marble all of the time. Eventually, I found a pilgrim who got that special glint in her eye when I told her. She knew. She had been there. Jackpot!

As we sat in a sidewalk cafe, she insisted that I take off my shoe and show her. She put down her drink, held my foot and started palpating it and clucking her tongue. Yup, yup. She wrote down a prescription and told me to come back to her for help with how to treat my problem properly.

It took a clumsy conversation at the pharmacy and some frustrating searching on Google in Spanish to determine the name of what I have. A dureza. A corn.

I´ll slap on a plaster soon (actually, Penny will), and I´ll set out for Finisterre tomorrow. I´ll hobble if I have to. I´ll hobble for 36 miles, but I´m definitely going to get there. My initial plan was a hard 3 days, but I´m breaking it into a slower 4 days. I´ve seen all of the people I need to see, and I can´t sit still in this city anymore.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

birthday present wish list

I don´t really need any presents, but if you can provide me with any of the following, I would be grateful.

Sunny weather in Galicia Tues-Thurs. I realize this is sort of like asking for a monsoon in the desert, but do what you can.

Restoration of the left second toenail.

Resolution of the weird sensation on the sole of my right foot. Said senation seems to want to become a blister but never actually does it.

One good chocolate croissant in Finisterre.

These are my requests. That´s it.

purgatory

I´m kind of in between here. I´ve arrived, but I´m just not done. On Tuesday, I´m walking to Finisterre. It´s a hard walk, I´ve heard, and not just metaphorically.

It was emotional and amazing to arrive in Santiago. It was, as my mom pointed out, what I set out to do. But it´s not the end. I won´t be done until I´m at the end, the end of the world. I won´t be done until I´ve walked across Spain, across the Iberian peninsula, from the mountains to the sea, without getting into a motor vehicle. I won´t be done until I swim in my birthday suit on my birthday. I won´t be done until I look out over the sea and watch the sun fall over the earth, until I see "my home country invisible in the far distance."

Though I´m enjoying the celebratory atmosphere, I´m not able to really relax. I can´t let myself be really clean. I´m staying in a sketchy pension where I share a bedroom and a bathroom. It´s one step up from an albergue. But it´s cheap and centrally located and I can store stuff there when I walk west again. I could afford a private place. It wouldn´t cost much more. For some reason, I can´t quite allow myself the luxury just yet. To be clear, I´m no zealot. Later on today, I´m going to buy some damn clothing and wear it. No one will recognize me. And I´ll send my hiking clothes to the laundry. I even bought something. I bought a ring. It has red circles. It reminds me of the poppies.

Soon, I will live luxuriously with long, hot showers and a comfy bed. Right now, I´m still a pilgrim.

752K

Whenever I got sad about losing people on the Camino because I had falled a day or two behind, Iain would point west and say "There´s injuries up there." in an ominous voice that promised me I would find them again.

Here´s the thing with the injuries, the blisters. Just because you´ve walked 752K doesn´t mean you´ll get to 760K without hurting yourself.

In the final days of the Camino, I encountered many people who had been walking as long as I have who had recently hurt themselves. New blisters. And lots and lots of tendonitis (who the hell calls it tendonitis? worse in spanish--tendohneeeeetisssss. if you call it that, it´s just going to hurt more. pulled muscle, people. pulled muscle.) I started to get scared that I was going to go down, too.

I walked my last day with a Mexican girl named Josefina who had just graduated with a Master´s from Georgetown. At the beginning of the day, as we set out in the dark, I turned to her and said, "Let´s make a deal. I won´t break my ankle today, and you won´t break yours." She agreed.

All day long, we kept seeing a pair of German guys who had walked from France. We would sit down with them at a bar for a 10-15 minute rest before carrying on with our long day. The younger one admitted that he thought they would lose us, that we would be slow. He said, "You are good walkers." Now, when a German says that you are a good walker, you don´t forget it. You repeat it, savor it, carve it into your memory.

We ran into each other at the last bar before Santiago. They said they would wait for us and take our pictures, so we were surprised to see them sitting down on a bench across a road a few minutes later.

The younger one had turned his ankle. He had been walking for 5 weeks, and then, one day, the last day, he walked wrong on a stone and turned his ankle and something snapped and he was looking for a taxi. A TAXI! He might as well have told us he was considering becoming a disciple of Darth Vader. You just cannot understand. If it had been 3K, I might have agreed to help to carry him, though he´s a big lad.

Despite his pain (proven by his remarkable command of English profanity as he limped) and his disappointment, he was smiling and good-spirited. I was so impressed with his optimism. We put him in a cab and waved goodbye.

The next couple of K were rough for me as I tried to place each foot down gently. I finally decided, though, that I hadn´t had any gentle footsteps for the rest of the walk, so I may as well just keep on as I had been doing.

The next day, I was happy to see him walking around with his Compostela in hand. The doctors had fixed him up, and he went a few K out of the city to limp on in.

reunions

Being here in Santiago is confusing. It´s a bit like high school graduation and the 10 year reunion all at the same time.

When I left the plaza, I went to the pilgrim office, and they examined my credencial and presented me with my Compostela, boring little certificate written in Latin, and as my hands touched it, the heavens parted and light shone down upon me and I was sore afraid and I felt half of purgatory ooze out of my pores.

Sinless but also bedless. And here´s the catch, I didn´t have any yellow arrows to point my weary body to a place to sleep. The yellow arrows had ended.

I was trying to get my bearings, working my way out of the fog of finishing a 37 day, 760ishK walk, I started to meander around the town. Just like the plaza and the other towns, I could pick out the pilgrims. I could see them right away--dirty, tanned, smiling, nodding. This time was different, though. This time, we were done. There were congratulations all around. In this town, the way to greet another dirty, limping person is not "Hola". In this town we give shy hugs or kisses or a simple and sincere "Congratulations" in whatever clumsily shared language we could manage.

But that was just the graduation ceremony. Then something else happened. The reunion. I walked along the streets, still homeless at 5pm (with an albergue closed for renovations and rumors of hotels sold out due to a 25,000 person Manu concert in town and a saint´s festival weekend), I started to hear my name. Every time I went a block or two, someone called out to me. People came rushing out of cafes and out of stores and across little plazas to give me huge squishing hugs. Gerhardt who threw sopping laundry at me and danced to Spanish pop at 6 a.m.! And Irish Ali who hugged me as a cried my way up to the Cruz de Ferro with my flowers! Nils the bicyclist who I asked to walk his bike with me one morning because I liked talking to him! Smiling Stefan of the German military whose Camino taught him to get up when he felt like and stop when he wanted to. But then there were others! I started to see people that I wasn´t sure I would ever see again. Peter and Keri. Even Robert! I had lost these folks weeks ago, but now, just like a good high school reunion, they were tan and slim. We ate and we drank and we laughed and we danced and sang. Of course there was a cheap and comfortless place to sleep. Of course there was.

I said goodbye to some of them. I don´t think anybody cried, not that night.

I saw, I´m still seeing, so many people. People who can imitate my humming snore. People who know the best stories, the stories that are not published on this blog. People who have sewed my feet. People who think that I look ridiculous with normal hair. People I might never see again.

arriving

Arriving was magnificent, but it was strange, strange. There are no trumpets, no giant signs, no streamers or confetti. No finish line ribbon to break through. No nothing really.

I simply walked alongside a church, still confused whether I was in the right place, and through a tunnel as a street musician bagpiper played. I went down a little alley and around a corner. Then I saw a big church and a big plaza. It wasn´t like arriving (as I did one year ago yesterday) at Machu Picchu with the sun rising over the breathtaking ruins. It wasn´t the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen. It´s rather mossy and kind of squarish. If I had arrived on a train or a plane or a bus, I wouldn´t have looked at it very hard at all. I would have been just like the other people walking around, going about their days.

But I wasn´t like the others. I looked up, up at the cathedral. But mostly I looked at the sky, awestruck. The moment was echoing and private.

And that was the end. And I distantly heard the German pilgrim near me say, "This is it? and I said, "Yes. This is it." And there were so many, many ways to interpret the exchange and all of them were true.

I stretched out on the ground and stared some more and cried some and then, slowly, I realized there were other pilgrims around. They were easy to pick out, just as they, we have been all along. They were dirty and observant and confused. They were sprawled inappropriately around the plaza. And we were all just looking up and staring, mesmerized. We talked a little. I had never seen or talked with them before. It didn´t matter. They were the exact right people to share the moment.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Santiago de Compostela

Yesterday, I woke before dawn, and I went for a walk. I went for a long walk. I walked for 40 kilometers. I walked for 10 hours. I walked in the dark and through eucalyptus forests and along highways and in the rain and in the sun and near airports and through wee towns. I walked and walked.

And at the end, I walked into a big square. There, I took off my backpack, and I took off my boots, and I lay down right in the middle, and I looked up at the sky and the clouds and the big cathedral, and I cried.

I did it.

(But I´m not done yet . . .)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

old people

I haven´t met any old people on the Camino, but I would estimate that more than half of the pilgrims are over 55. It´s constantly amazing and humbling and inspiring to walk alongside them, to learn about their lives. It´s rare, very rare, to hear anyone attribute aches and pains and limitations to age. Pilgrims are pilgrims, and all blisters are equal.

Yesterday I chatted with the Australian woman in her mid-fifties who has just restored an old sheep shearing shed to make it into her home in Canberra, though she won´t be there much because she has been hiking the Camino de la Plata with her Dutch boyfriend who she met two years ago on the Camino Frances. He hurt his leg, though, so she is now walking with her ex-husband. He stays in hotels while she stays in albergues. She says she should have stayed married to him so she could afford the albergues, too. She considered stopping the Camino, but she´s trying to get in shape for her upcoming trip to Nepal.

There´s a pack of four white-haired Canadian women in their 60´s who appear almost every day and shout out "yahoo!" and "here weeeee goooooo!" and tell stories about their rowdy marathon cross country ski weekends.

Then there´s the 60ish Dutch guy who was a principal of a school in Ghana for several years and is now hiking the Camino while wearing a scallop shell given to him by his Kenyan girlfriend who is a nun.

Let´s not forget the Spanish man who lives in Brazil and earned a degree at Bowling State. That´s who I walked with today.

And that´s a tiny sampling. Looking at these folks out in the world, I would never peg them as any kind of athletes. When I consider whether I would do the Camino again, I often think about how much I would like to do it 30 years from now, just to prove to myself that I can keep up with these folks. I´m not sure I can. Vamos a ver.

hermoso.

Last night, we stayed in an albergue perched on a river with an invisible city drowned beneath it. It was a lovely place. We made some dinner and tried to decide where to eat it. There were some benches in front of the albergue overlooking the water and the bridges and the green and the rising moon and the fading sun. But inside there was a television and clean floors and tables. I went outside and looked around. It was a little chilly. And we hadn´t seen a television or clean surfaces in so long that it just seemed like the natural choice.

That´s probably the best way I can explain how beautiful everything is. It´s so beautiful all of the time that it´s easy to shrug off.

cursing me

Readers of this blog (and I´ve been surprised and humbled by the quantity of you who are willing to slog along with me) have likely spent a moment or two cursing me and my jaunty strides, my days spent outdoors having fine adventures with chocolate. Let me assure you that as you sit reading this in your cozy home or office, I suffered your curses today.

One guidebook for the Camino features different icons to denote particular regions we pass through. Grapes for the wine country of Rioja. Sun for the meseta. Raindrops for Galicia.

Raindrops for Galicia.

Suffice it to say, I don´t think I´ll have many photos from this leg of the trip.

So today, for several hours, I made my way uphill, cursing the puddles and the rivers along the Camino, debating whether I would rather walk on the road and be soaked by speeding tractor trailers or swim up the Camino.

It was the first time my boots have gotten soaked through, all the way through two pair of socks. I´ve spent most of my day thinking about how to protect my feet. There were plastic bags involved. So far so good.

60 something clicks to go . . .

Monday, June 18, 2007

100 bottles of beer on the wall. 89 clicks to go.

Each province has its way of hosting the Camino. For instance, Castilla y Leon had rest areas (which were largely useless as they generally signified that a bar would be coming soon and they also lacked water or bathrooms) and big signs with maps showing how many clicks until the next town.

We entered Galicia a few days ago. They place stone markers every half km, counting down to Santiago. They´re lovely except that I don´t want to count down because I don´t want the Camino to end, though today I did start to get a little excited planning our arrival which mass to attend (I know, I know.)

We passed number 100 today. Down to double digits.

My Spanish is not valid here in Galicia. The dialect of Spanish spoken here makes rural West Virginia accents sound like the Queen´s English. I can barely even read the written tourist signs because they´re so littered with bonus Xes and Ñ. It´s some sort of mixture of Portuguese and Spanish that sounds like Italian and has an odd dash of Celtic. I´ve given up trying to understand. Now I just act like the French and speak my own damned language. If they don´t understand it, I just speak English louder. Okay, I don´t really, but I want to.

Tonight´s albergue here in Portamarin is like pilgrim Disneyworld. There are loads of shiny surfaces and clean bathrooms with warm showers and well-stocked toilet paper and soap. They had A WASHING MACHINE AND A DRYER so now I don´t have to do laundry until July.

Walking on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. And then the big day. Keep your fingers crossed that I won´t have any injuries between now and then. It´s never too late, I´ve learned.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sarria--110K to go

I suppose I´ll arrive in Santiago later on this week. It will be excellent to see the other people who have made it there, though I want to make these last few days last. It´s funny to think that even though I crave a long day of 30K, I force myself to do a shorter day of 10K. I would never have believed that 5 weeks ago. I´m longing for the hard days of walking from Santiago to Finisterre. It will be quieter there, and some of the albergues are 30K apart, a good challenge.

Last night I stayed in a monastery in Samos, a gorgeous and hulking structure. We played a monk spotting game in town. I won because I got the most points, mainly because I had a conversation with a monk instead of simply seeing him. Nuns were worth double. There was vespers in the evening, but these chanting monks weren´t as good as the other ones I heard. I have standards, you see.

The night before, in a town called Triacastela, I was the English reader at a pilgrim´s mass. Mainly, I volunteered so that I could enjoy saying "I participated in a Catholic mass." Without a movie theater, mass can provide decent entertainment, particularly with all that trying to figure out when to stand and sit. There´s the added bonus of watching the German and French and Japanese and Hungarian etc etc Catholics keep up with the prayers. Besides, sometimes, mass is the only game in town.

"plastic pilgrims"

Today an Irish guy sat down at a table with me and my friends as we were drinking our morning coffee. The rainy shadow of a huge monastery behind him, he warned us, "Be careful of the plastic pilgrims. They´re out, you know."

As we sit reflecting on our 600+K and several weeks of walking, sad that it is ending, figuring out ways to savor it, these new, clean folks have entered the Camino. In order to earn a Compostela, one only needs 100K of walking. The end is in sight, but for them it is just the beginning. Their untanned skin and clean hair and clothing are a dead giveaway. Either their packs are stuffed full because they have overpacked, or they have wee sacks because their luggage is being bussed from hotel to hotel. The latter are the worst. Tours. They take tours. And sleep in beds with sheets. And wear white and pink. Imagine! Pink! We despise them in a luscious loathing way. Of course, the other kind, the kind who sleep in albergues, are likely to take our places, to run on their fresh legs and take up all the beds so that we weary ones are forced to sleep on church porches. Surely they won´t earn any exemption from hell in this way.

moment of silence

And now, a moment of silence for my second toe on my left foot.

Last week, I indicated that I was in negotiations with my body. I have a new one. I have promised the second toe on my left foot that I will give in a birthday present. If it takes me to Finisterre, it may free itself from my body (as it is yearning to do) on June 28.

It´s killing me not to pick at it.

reunions

At this point, I have traveled with people who are ahead of me and people who are behind me. Wherever I end up, I am bound to see some people I know, whether it be a trio of 50-something South Africans or a foursome of laughing 60-something Canadian women or three Canadians or one of my two sets of British brothers or any one of a number of the inevitable Germans. Some people I know well. They have bandaged my blisters or shared difficult stories or hearty laughs with me. Some of them I only know in passing, only enough to know what language (if any) we speak in common.

Regardless, when we see one another, it´s like a reunion, like we have been apart for years instead of weeks or days. The truly interesting part is, though, that as easily as we come together, we separate again. Sometimes we are together for minutes or days. Sometimes we only are apart for an hour and then we later meet up a week in the future.

Letting go is not my forte, but here, it is much easier. Mostly, I just trust that I will see people again, that if we are meant to find one another, we will. And when we do, there will be merriment.

buen camino!

I can´t remember whether I have written about this expression, but it´s worth repeating, even if I have. On the Camino de Santiago, people often extend this greeting to one another. Actually, it can be a hello and goodbye at the same time. Pilgrims say it to someone who is getting up to leave a small bar to continue walking. Bicyclists speed past and yell it out. It´s a common way to wish other pilgrims on their way when we are separating.

I love it when townspeople say it to me. They always seem to say it with intention, as though they are acknowledging your journey and asking me to carry good wishes to Santiago. When locals say it to me, I feel special. It feels sacred, secret, meaningful.

The rough translation in English is "Good Walk," but that certainly doesn´t express the sentiment quite right. Some non-native English speaking pilgrims will wish me "Good Way," as the English translation for the "Camino de Santiago" is "Way of St. James."

Today, some other pilgrims and I decided that we could say "Happy Trails," but that would sound entirely obnoxious and wrong.

I´m not sure why the words lift me so, why hearing it from Spaniards makes me feel chosen. It´s lovely, though, lovely.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

people

In the beginning of the Camino, I spent some time with people. I sometimes walked with them. I sometimes made plans with them. Then I became much more solitary. I hardly every walked with anyone. I rarely made plans with others. When I felt I was becoming a part of an established group, I would shake myself out of it by going further than the others or hanging back. Today on the Camino, someone told me about a sign that said "Hurry up, Bridget!" It´s nice to be wanted, but that person (I think I know who) will have to wait for me in Santiago. There was another note for a rainbow haired girl. I didn´t see it, but someone else is waiting for me in Santiago. It makes me smile.

In these last few days, I find myself spending more time with people again. I don´t quite know what to make of that.

Yesterday, I spent half of the day walking and talking with an 11 year old Korean girl, playing I Spy in English and learning some Korean. Today was the only day of the whole trip that I have walked with people from start to finish. I met a bicyclist while I was having breakfast, and I told him that I wish he were walking so we could talk more. So he walked with me. It was very nice. His Camino--all 6100K of it as he has been riding since Germany--ends tomorrow. He was very reflective and asked me lots of hard questions. He told me that he had met his closest friends of his Camino (the first time when he was walking) during the last 100K. Interesting, particularly because as he left, I immediately started walking with a British guy and an American woman who are my age. We are staying in a huge monastery tonight and have made up a game where we get points for monkspotting. Nuns get extra. I just had a conversation with a monk, so I think I should get bonus points.

And I´m not just walking with others. I am slowing down to wait for my other friends, Iain and Marta. I don´t know why I am so open to having people around right now. Odd.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

O Cebreiro--151K left

Okay, so I failed at that whole slowing down thing. My body is pretty used to walking. Even though it was raining today, I just wanted to keep moving. So I did. I was supposed to stop at 20K. I stopped at 28K. I´m on top of a mountain with fabulous views in every direction, except that it is still raining on and off. I´m not so interested in wine, but maybe I´ll crack open a chocolate bar and enjoy the views.

27, 21

27. the number of zippers i have been carrying.
21. the number i am carrying having shipped things to santiago.

sometimes the walking gets a little dull. sometimes i have to invent games like the count my zippers game.

off to see the wizard

I gave myself a one month walking present. I bought a book. I´m carrying a book. It´s El Marvailloso Mago de Oz, which is fitting since I have been thinking of the Wizard of Oz often during this journey--the spectacular views, the yellow arrows, the poppies. It seems like a kind of giving up for some reason, but I simply could not take it anymore.

i´ve got legs. and i know how to use them.

At the end of the semester, Meena inspected my body and pronounced that everything was lovely--except my legs. She assured me that walking across an entire country would improve them. I assured her that it would not.

I´m right.

I have walked more than 400 miles now, and my legs are still the same shapeless shape that they were before I started. It´s oddly fascinating. I look at people walking ahead of me, old German men with muscled calves and young women with firm and shapely legs. What in the world do they do differently? How many miles does it take, for Chrissakes? True, I don´t walk behind myself, but I have a pretty good sense of what I would see.

Sorry, Meena.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

new plan

On June 28, 2007, I plan to arrive at Finisterre, the end of the earth, take off my clothes, naked as the day I was born 33 years ago that day, and run into the ocean.

Yesterday, someone looked at my passport and asked where I would be on the 28th. I said I didn´t know, but I told her about other good birthday celebrations I had while I was away from home. In Guatemala, I shared a birthday with an indigenous woman named Ruth, and she invited me to share in her fiesta in a teeny town outside of Antigua. In Ecuador, my friend Ann surprised me with her first attempt at baking in high altitude--a fallen and burnt apple cake that we ate gleefully with our hands. In Peru, Terri´s family made me dinner and let me bite the cake.

I had no plans for this year, but I think finishing up my pilgrimage sounds like a pretty good gift. That means I have to slow down now. After my morning realization that I should rearrange my schedule, I realized that I have to do short days from now on--no more than 20K--so that I can arrive in Santiago on the 22nd and leave for Finisterre on the 25th. Slowing down means I should be able to meet up with friends who are behind me. It means that I can savor my remaining time on the Camino. But it also means that I am going to feel antsy without walking as much. It means I´m going to have a lot of time sitting still. I suppose that´s good practice for the weeks, months to come . . .

Maybe once I get in the ocean, I could swim back home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

negotiations

I´m in negotiations with various parts of my body.

In exchange for staying blister free, I have agreed to give my left foot´s little toe a nice pedicure in July. So far it is cooperating and has not developed a 6th blister. (I know I have big feet, but how the hell are they finding new real estate?)

I have promised the tips of my ears that if they agree to stop turning crispy, one day I will grow some hair to cover them again. They are not fond of the short cut. (Though I had a new round of people laugh hysterically at my passport photo today and insist that I not grow it out.)

I´ve told my right foot to stop turning numb at 18K. I have not yet decided how to tempt it into behaving. All suggestions welcome.

losing weight

I had to sent a batter charger to Santiago today so that I could pick it up when I arrive. I decided to challenge myself to send even more. I shipped off a hat, a shirt, liner socks, and some pants. 1.2 kg. I should have just trashed the socks. They are wrecked. I should have donated the pants since they don´t really fit. I´m dumping even more things tonight.

I cannot tell a lie.

It was morning. I was out of money. I was hungry. There were cherry trees bursting with ripe, luscious, red orbs. I cannot tell a lie. I didn´t chop down the trees, not even one of them. But--. Mmmmmmmm.

duct tape

I was on a desperate search for duct tape. I use it as a preventitive measure to keep blisters from forming. I had no idea what to call it in Spanish. People kept using the word for tape and then my nationality. Cinta, Americana? Yes. I want tape. I´m American. But I want *duct* tape. Finally, I realized that is the terminology.

cinta americana.

God bless America. I can´t think of any finer tribute to my nation.

Monday, June 11, 2007

passing notes

Not since junior high--okay high school--has passing notes been such fun. I get separated from people all of the time on the Camino. Sometimes they get ahead of me by a day or so. Sometimes I get ahead of them by a day or so. So we leave notes. Everyone is on the same path, after all.

It´s a trick to make sure that it gets the recipient´s attention. I left one in a plastic bag with a big red pepper full of rocks holding it down--a dare for someone to meet me at a certain place on a certain day. A dare because it involves a long day in order to catch up.

Last night, I arrived at an albergue, and the hospitalera said, "Are you Bridget?" and when I nodded, she handed me a note from another pilgrim. "How did you know who I was----?" I touched the hair.

ill advised

Okay, so I probably shouldn´t acknowledge this, but I can´t help it. Does it strike anyone else as defying all odds that I have been walking for about a month without tripping and falling? The Camino may very well have made my body leaner, but it has not taught me any increased agility or coordination. Please, please, please may this unlikely show of stability continue.

While we´re at it, let´s hope my boots hold up. For some curious reason the sole of my left boot seems to be wearing unevenly . . .

Molinaseca--around 200K to go

Today was a sparkling day of hiking. It started with a dance party, featured an emotional moment, and included a multi-national lunch at a hippy albergue. A store owner gave me candy (I don´t think anyone else has sweet things given to them. I´m not sure what it is about me that invites it, but I hope it continues through the end of the Camino--and my life.)

The sky was blue, but the clouds were pretty. It was hot, but not too hot. It was breezy, but not too windy. The day was long enough to be properly tiring but not so long that it was exhausting. The walk was hard enough to feel accomplished but not enough to be discouraging.

And the scenery. It was incredible. Huge distant mountains with tinkling cattle bells. Fields of deep purple flowers. Undulating green mountains carpeted with yellow flowered bushes that smelled as heavenly as fresh baked chocolate croissants or the first snow. I finished late in the day because I kept stopping and smelling and gaping. One wee town had every single door decorated with a fresh bough of yellow bush.

Lovely.

new, old

Today I told someone where I started from, and he said, "So you´ve been walking for about a month?"

Wow.

I´ve never heard that question before. Yes. It´s been about a month.

Lately, there have been pilgrims starting out at cities that are closer to Santiago. It´s easy to spot the old ones. They´re tan and dirty, though neat sort of way. Their evening limps are practiced. Their pants are falling off.

Yesterday I had dinner with a mix of old and new folks. People with whom I have been traveling for awhile were marvelling that we only have a few days, around 10 or so, left. We started talking about slowing down so that we could prolong our Caminos. The new people had their mouths open as though we were nuts. I remember when 10 days of walking would have seemed like a year. It´s starting to seem too short.

Rabanal del Camino

Last night, I arrived in a beautiful little town called Rabanal del Camino. It´s tiny but lively. The albergue was tranquil, with a fireplace and a library and a huge yard. I spent a lovely afternoon lolling in the garden with my new favorite German, performing blister surgery and having wet laundry fights.

I attended two masses in the brief time that I was in Rabanal. As I said, I´ve been craving singing, and I was delighted to sit in a little, deteriorating church and listen to the chanting of some 30 something Benedictine Monks. At the second mass, the pilgrim´s mass, I received some sort of official blessing that involved having water sprinkled on me. It did not sizzle.

This morning, I was in a small stone room with only 4 other pilgrims. Usually people start rustling their bags at some godawful hour and getting out of bed is inevitable, but we were quiet until around 6:30 when I heard my new favorite German call out my name, followed by a horrible, recorded German military song blasting from his phone. No one spoke. Then, from across the room, came the sound of some Spanish pop, and we all got out of bed and started dancing. It was my best wake up so far on the Camino.

storks

Spain has three laws that I am aware of.

1. All light switches must be annoying in some fashion.

2. All old men must wear dark blue cardigans at all times.

3. All churches must have stork nests on the top.

I´ve been thinking about law #3 recently, and I have some questions. If storks are hatching babies on top of churches, then babies should already be blessed when they are delivered to their parents´ homes. If that is so, there should be no need for purgatory at all since babies should have the credentials to go straight to heaven.

god bless america

Today this was the song I got in my head.

From the moutains
To the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America. My home sweet home.

God may well be blessing America, but he´s describing my Camino.

finding peace

Usually I write more about events, the travelogue of the Camino. For some reason this entry feels like a good exception.

Today I came to a cross, the Cruz de Ferro, a well known landmark of the Camino. It is high on a hill and is atop a mound of little stones. People bring stones and items from home to leave there. There are mementos tied to the base of the cross. I think the sacrifices are supposed to be representative of leaving their cares and worries.

I didn´t know much about this place. I wasn´t really anticipating it at all. The site didn´t feel especially sacred to me, and I didn´t expect the experience to matter much so I hadn´t given thought to what I would leave until I was walking this morning. When the cross came into view, I found a fist-sized white stone and unearthed it from the path. It looked pure. I dusted it off. I felt it in my palm. I realized that it didn´t mean a thing to me, that I didn´t know what I would be thinking as I placed it on the pile. I didn´t have any particular intention.

On a whim, I picked a few flowers instead. I held the flowers in my left hand and the rock in my right. I walked for awhile, weighing the flowers against the rock, and I realized that there weren´t any particular problems I needed to put there, no cares to burn. It´s not that I don´t have troubles exactly. I worry about the health of my family, my friends, myself. I worry about my country, about the world. I worry about my life. But whenever I tried to imagine the Just Right Thing to leave at the cross, I didn´t find sorrow; I just felt overwhelmed with an immense sense of gratitude and hope.

I walked toward the cross, carrying the flowers, and an Irish girl who I met yesterday was standing there. She looked at me questioningly. I explained and surprised myself by starting to cry. She gave me a hug. I walked to the top of the stones and attached the flowers between an American flag that said "Peace" and a tube of toothpaste.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

here´s what we do.

we get up and put on a backpack and hiking boots and then we walk across the country.

then we arrive somewhere.

we take off our backpacks and hking boots and put on some sandals and then we walk around a town.

walk, then walk more. it´s like an addiction.

the towns

The Camino de Santiago goes through cities--Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Astorga, and more. But those are rare events. On a daily basis, we walk through smaller towns. Some of these, especially in the meseta, look lively from a distance, picturesque. When we arrive, they are shuttered, closed. Some of them only have a bar for pilgrims to stop and have a coffee. Spanish pilgrims tell me that people have moved to the city because there is no work. Still, I treasure the opportunity to spend time in these little places. I would never visit them if I were touring Spain. There´s nothing there. Some afternoons we just spend with a crop of other pilgrims, watching the sun move through the sky. The towns offer no museums or attractions. Sometimes even the churches are locked. There is something enchanting, though, about being a part of the community for just one day.

singing

There are few things I truly miss on the Camino. Every once in awhile a new one occurs to me. Today I missed music. I wanted to hear singing. I wanted to sing along. The symphony of the fields and frogs truly is lovely, but I wanted J.T. to bring SexyBack. I wanted Mozart. I wanted 2pac. I wanted The Pogues. I wanted the B. Boys. I wanted Gillian Welch.

I tried singing, humming. It was okay, but I´m tuneless so it wasn´t satisfying. I tried imagining songs I listen to while running. That was moderately successful but not enough. I tried to imagine walking along with friends who can sing. That pretty much failed. I wanted real music. Real music to walk to.

Just as I was despairing, I heard a tune rising behind me. The tune was sweet, melodious. It sounded exactly right. I slowed so that I could eavesdrop on a pilgrim who was singing to himself. As he drew closer, I turned and complimented him, and he excused himself for singing a German folk song. We walked along a bit, and I chided him for stopping. He told me I had made him blush.

We talked for about an hour. We have been walking for about the same length of time and were reflecting on our progress, on how we have changed, about our attitudes toward the Camino and toward life. We spoke about the kindness and magic of the Camino, about how many wonderful and surprising and eerie and coincidental things take place. We talked about how how the things only happen when we make ourselves open to them happening.

Our conversation ended slowly, and I walked ahead. Eventually, he began to sing again. I smiled and slowed so that I could listen in but I couldn´t get the right rhythm. At the next town, I stopped to wait for him and invite him to have a drink with me but his rhythm carried him forward. As he walked on, he thanked me for my company and handed me a 4 leaf clover.

I found God.

I have encountered Him/Her at several points along the Camino. I can point to several places where, after 5 or 6 or 7 or even 8 hours of walking, I climb a gentle rise and suddently, the cathedral steeples poke into the horizon. I softly utter "Thank God" as I move toward town full of the Holy Spirit, knowing that within the hour I will take off my backpack, gulp a liter of water, and free my feet from their silk and wool and leather and duct tape and gauze prisons.

mi cresta

My mohawk, cresta o crestita, is mostly blonde now. The color has drained from it, except for a little bit of pink in the front and a little bit of purple in the back.

Every time I show my passport to other pilgrims, they have the same reaction. First, they laugh. They are not laughing at my ridiculous mohawk. They are laughing at the idea of me with average, mid-length brunette hair. After the laugh, they look at me seriously, concerned and say "But. But. This suits you. Don´t change it. It´s better this way." I´m not quite sure what to make of that. The reaction is entirely universal. Young, old. People who have known me since France, people who met me that day. It doesn´t matter. I think it has to do with people wanting things to stay the way they expect them to be. I suppose it could have to do with the new look actually being better.

Or it could have something to do with a really shitty passport picture.

At Finisterre, the end of the world, pilgrims sacrifice things of importance to them. Some burn clothes (which need it by then). Others leave their boots. I plan to cut off the mohawk. I´ll miss it, but it seems like it belongs here.

Villar de Manzarife to Astorga

I was tired at the end of today´s walk. Over 30 clicks and a lot of hours. I think I walked from about 7 to around 4 with only an hourish break. My steps felt shuffling, my pack felt heavy. It was hot and shadeless and mostly companionless, but there were lovely rolling hills with many wildflowers, as usual. Like every day so far, even the hard parts have been wonderful.

As it turns out, part of the reason that today´s walk was so difficult is that I have arrived at the true destination, the true end of my personal pilgrimage. Sure, I´ll go on to Santiago and to Finisterre, but I will remember Astorga as the city that has a Museum of Chocolate, a city in which every other store (I am not exaggerating) is dedicated to chocolate or candy. It´s an inspiring place. At the museum, there was a sampling area. Sampling. Of chocolate. It was sublime.

Friday, June 8, 2007

today´s progress

Yesterday, in Leon, I slept 19 of the 25 hours for which I rented the hotel room. Apparently, it worked because I walked over 20K today and have arrived at an albergue with a private room and vegetarian food and churros con chocolate for breakfast and free internet. Santiago smiles upon me.

water

Water and I have a complicated relationship here on the Camino. It´s like the final test, the most profound symbolic expression of letting go. It´s been three weeks now, and it´s time to take that test.

As many of you know, I drink water. I drink a lot of water. I might even drink more than a lot of water. Walking along for hours at a time without immediate access to fresh water makes me nervous. Most days, though, there is water available at least every two hours or so. If there is going to be a longer stretch than that between towns, I´ll know ahead of time. Still, I can´t keep myself from carrying about 2 liters of water with me. 2 liters weighs over 4 pounds. My pack weighs somewhere around 20.

I have tried tricking myself into carrying less water, but then I make up for it by carrying a little supply of emergency water. Here´s the thing. There´s no emergency. At most, I´ll be an hour or two without water. I´ll be fine. I ran 8, 9, 10 miles without any water at all. It´s entirely psychological. If I stick some gum in my mouth, I´ll be just fine. I´ll probably walk with a lighter step.

Tomorrow is the magic day. I drank my emergency water today while walking around town. I´ll carry no more than a liter tomorrow. I´ll walk from town to town and pause to drink at the lovely fountains. I´ll even take my lighter pack off for a bit while I slurp away. Wish me luck.

quickly going slowly

One would think that while walking along slowly that things would happen slowly. Not always so. Some days, there is a new wildflower. Just like that. I am walking along, and I think--"New. That one is new." I like that.

The other day, I walked to the top of a hill, and suddenly, the landscape had changed. After almost a week of walking in the meseta, things looked different in the distance. There was undulation and shape to the horizon. There wasn´t simply a horizon.

In a car, these realizations happen gradually, but while walking along, they can be quite sudden.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

walking out the door

I admire the pilgrims who step foot out of their homes and start walking . . . all the way to Santiago. Holland, France, Switzerland, Spain. It´s impressive. I met a man from Holland who started walking on March 20something and had plans to walk back.

more light switches

I went into my hotel room and had to go back to the front desk to get help with turning on the lights. Apparently, one has to use the key card to gain access to the lights. Why, why, why must they make this so difficult?

taking care of myself

Today, for the second day in a row, I´m sitting in an internet cafe, lolling about and blogging instead of writing. I woke up in the middle of the night, in a huge airless room of dozens of sleeping, snoring women, and I realized that I couldn´t sleep. I realized that I had a fever. I realized that I was achy. I realized that I felt utterly miserable. I realized my hair hurt. (I realized I would have to take back all of the nasty things I ever said about Ryan when he whines about how his hair hurts when he´s sick.)

I panicked. How am I going to walk tomorrow?

The answer came quickly: I´m not.

Ever since I started walking the Camino, I´ve been amazed at how hard people will push their bodies just to arrive to Santiago before they have to catch a flight home. There is a kind of fervor, not even a religious fervor necessarily, to arrive, to get there.

Sometimes pilgrims are simply willing to endure pain. For example, pilgrims will walk with raw and hideous and excruciating blisters just to make it a bit further down the road. Others will continue on while they have terrible coughs and colds.

Other times, people don´t just suffer, they actually put their bodies at risk. Muscle pulls and unexplained pain that would cause people to sit still and not exercise for a week at a time at home are ignored. At home they would refrain from an hour of exercise, but here they walk for 6 punishing hours.

I´ve mentioned that most of the pilgrims are in their 50s and 60s. One day, I said to a pilgrim about my age who was trying to decide what to do with her injuries, whether to go on--"They only need those bodies for another 30 years, max. I might need mine for 60. Jimbo´s bones can wait."

I´ve learned to take a more balanced attitude toward my body, toward how it looks and how it feels. I am learning to make good, conscious decisions about what I try to push my body do in contrast with what it is capable of doing. Some days I want to walk further and my companions want me to walk further, but my body is not interested. So I stop. Or, if I go, I make sure that it is okay with my body. Some days my body wants to push on. Sometimes I need to pay attention to the pain in my blisters so that I can stop and care for them. Or I need to take a rest. Other times, it´s better to suck it up and keep moving.

One of the reasons the Camino is good for me is that it teaches, mandates balance. I don´t respond well to subtlety. I´m much better at intensive lessons. And this can be quite extreme.

So, early this morning I managed to get my things together and leave the monastery (yes. monastery). I lugged my unbelievably heavy bag (having feverish aches adds about 20 pounds to a pack) through the city to a hotel. People on the street looked concerned as I stumbled by. Some wished me a questioning "Buen Camino?" I begged my way into a hotel room at 8 a.m., trading my 3€ per night accommodations for 37€. I took Tylenol. I slept for endless hours. I feel better, though I still have no desire to eat a chocolate croissant, which should tell us all something.

I have quite a bit of practice with this balancing act when it comes to my brain, but thinking so carefully about my body is different. Thinking about the connection between my body and my brain is an even more excellent and useful project.

I have a fever about as often as I walk 500 miles--almost never. And I have a psychiatrist who forbids me from going without sleep. It´s a Rule. I don´t follow many Rules, but I follow that one. So here I am. There´s a lot of sunshine and a lot of vegetables and a lot of pilgrims who are going to be very happy to learn that I will be walking with them tomorrow . . .

(I´m fine, Mom. Really. I´ll call soon.)

status update

May 16, I left St. Jean Pied de Port in France.
764 KM left to Santiago.

21 days later, I arrived in Leon, Spain.
300 KM left to Santiago.

So far, I´ve walked 464 KM, 288 miles. http://www.ongerwaeg.nl/images/lenssen3/krt-2.gif

Yesterday, as I was taking notes in my journal, I wrote that my arrival would be, "June 19, barring injury or unplanned rest day or other will of Santiago." That unplanned day--or one of them--was today. (More on that later.) My estimated arrival date in Santiago is now June 20.

After that, I have tentative plans to walk 90 more KM to Finisterre, the end of the world. That should take me about 4 days.

laundry

You didn´t honestly think I was going to do it myself, did you?

I have a job. As R would say, what is money for?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

tramposos, cheaters

There are many ways to do the Camino. There are many ways to Santiago. Each of us must choose our own path. Each of us must find our own way.

Please.

Okay, a part of me really does believe that. As with any experience, there are as many paths as pilgrims, and each way is as valid as the next.

But.

Come.

On.

Ultimately, the right way to do it is to be a white American woman on the brink of 33 with a rainbow mohawk (fading very quickly) who walks pigeon-toed, claims vegetarianism while eating chorizo, worships the chocolate croissant, and is taking her time to get to Santiago. In the afternoons, she writes. She carries her own bag. She sometimes drops her laundry off to be cleaned. Occasionally, she stays at a hotel.

You get the idea. My ways of cheating aren´t cheating, of course. Because they are my ways. Here´s a list of possible cheating. Our Pilgrim Commandments list indicates that we should bring no prejudices with us to the Camino. My friends and I have agreed that we should, of course, pick those up as we go along.

1. Mode of transportation: Bicycling. What does Santiago know about bicycling? They whiz by on the trail. They travel in packs. They have no real community as they move too quickly.

2. Backpack carrying services. This is obviously not allowed. People stay at albergues and ship the packs ahead to meet them the next day.

3. Tour groups. Packs of these people carry water and a smile as they hike along, taken only to see the pretty parts. They wear clean clothes to speed down the trail where they are picked up and brought to hotels with showers and beds and sheets and yummy restaurants. They flood the trail. Santiago hates them. I know he does.

4. Section hiking. Some people do a part of the trail every year. Some people find this is not a real experience.

5. Lots of friendly competition about the real starting point. There´s a rivalry between those (me) who did the hardest etapa of the traditional Camino Frances and those (Iain and others) who started 3 days later in Pamplona. Wimps.

6. Alone or with others. There is quite a bit of discussion over whether one can have a true Camino experience while walking with others.

7. Albergues or hotels.

8. My favorite is the 2 Spanish couples who remind me of Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel, though a bit older. Fred drives the bags to the next albergue every day and then he walks back along the trail, telling people that he is walking back from Santiago.

latin american spanish

Mostly my Guatemalan Spanish works just fine here, though from time to time, I simply cannot understand the accent. The most interesting distinction, I think, has to do with my country of origin.

In Spain, land of conquistadores, I am "americana."

In Latin America, land of the conquered and Simon Bolivar and Che, I am "estadounidense." There, Latin America is America, too.

eliza dolittle

Again, with the musicals.

Well, Eliza, I have made it through the plain, and there wasn´t a drop of rain there. Take that.

peregrina. pilgrim.

I love it when someone identifies me as a "pilgrim." They actually say that world. "Are you a pilgrim?" they inquire. It´s so silly and humbling. People actually call me a pilgrim. I think if someone asked me that in the U.S., I would ask whether they could tell because of my funny hat made in elementary school, my big turkey, or the blood on my axe from murdering an Injun.

Today, I asked for some directions from the hotel clerk. As she was drawing on the map, I quipped that I wouldn´t be able to follow it unless there were yellow arrows. She got out a highlighter and colored them in for me.

When I dropped off my laundry, (I know, I know.) I indicated that they were pilgrim clothes, and they should probably wear masks while handling them. And then we talked about pilgrim clothes. Pilgrim.

more chocolate

I´m really not sure whether this happens to other people or just to me. Maybe it is a pilgrim thing. Maybe it a me thing.

Yesterday, I was wandering around Leon. I went into a chocolate store.

A chocolate store.

I chatted with the proprietess. The shop is new and small and probably difficult to sustain because it is so near the cathedral and the things sell for so little. My Spanish, my tongue were tired, and I couldn´t have a very good conversation. She gave me a sample. I ate, smile, savored. Then I picked out something to buy, a small caramel. She carefully wrapped it up. I asked her how much.

She wouldn´t take any money.

It got rid of the flavor of that free chicken from a few hours earlier, but it left to same delicious taste in my mouth.

reunion

My rhythm had left me a day or two behind some other pilgrims with whom I had been walking, so I was delighted to catch up with them in Leon yesterday. Even in a big city, it is easy to happen upon people. Some of the folks are people who I know, companions I have talked to and laughed with. Others are people I just recognize by sight. It was excellent to see both sets of people, to trade stories and drinks and pizza and laughter and hugs with my friends--and to trade conversations limited to greetings and ridiculous gestures of inquiry toward one another´s feet, followed by pointing in the direction of Santiago with a nod and a smile. We´ll see each other then.

Apparently, while I was a couple of days behind, a group I had been traveling with selected me as the most likely to meet strange people and have strange adventures on the Camino. This is a dubious and welcome honor indeed.

catching up

I´m enjoying writing the blog. And I am enjoying that you are enjoying the blog. Now other pilgrims have even started reading it. I never anticipated that.

I have lots of entries to put in today, things that have been on my mind. I´m taking a rest here in Leon and have good internet access. Bear with me while I post a spate of musings.

cheating on the news diet

There was a newspaper in English. I couldn´t help it. I haven´t read anything but poorly translated signs in English in 3 weeks.

Trust me, I have learned my lesson.

I now know quite a bit about a college graduates in Iraq and how they are fleeing the country after having attended school while their country was at war for 4 years. I know about a particular university in Baghdad where there was a bomb, and they buried the dead in a mass grave in a courtyard. I know about insipid accusations traded amongst squabbling Democratic candidates. I know that the murder rate is up in major U.S. cities.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

news diet

I´m on a news diet. Sometimes I read headlines, but usually I don´t. I figure that if anything catastrophic happens in the United States, someone will tell me. Until then, I´ll have to wait to scowl and shake my head at all of the terrible things that have happened during my sabbatical.

enabled

Many of you have observed that I am capable of getting people to do pretty much anything for me. Do my laundry, my taxes. Fix my bike, my computer. Cook me food. I´m not sure why people want to do nice things for me, but I´m glad they do.

I have reached a new and compelling low. For the past two days, other pilgrims, people I don´t know particularly well and may never meet up with again, have offered to deal with my blisters. I asked to borrow a needle, they volunteered to perform the operation. They have actually touched my nasty feet, doused them with Betadine, struck matches, sterlized needles, guided the needle through my blisters until they ooze, and arranged the remaining thread so that they will continue to drain. Then, these kind people have bandaged their work. One of them actually performed the operation while I played on the computer.

It´s important to understand that blisters are a vital part of bonding in the pilgrim community. People who don´t have them are viewed as freaks. These pilgrims are rare and not to be trusted. Apparently, I´m becoming a trustworthy individual indeed. I have another new blister today. It´s time to make a new friend.

wildflowers

The wildflowers are amazing. They are by far my favorite part of the landscape. I have been trying to photograph them, but there´s no real way to communicate the heavenly scent of the yellow bushes. I can´t capture the purplish red stalks, the teeny daisies, the long dandelions, the bristly thistles, the starbursts of yellow flowers, the small blue mouths, the intricate Queen Anne´s lace. They are truly amazing the way they line the Camino, leading us into Santiago.

The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino. Pilgrims wear them on their backpacks. Signs feature them. Today I saw a sculpture of a scallop shell. To be honest, I forget the exact meaning, something to do with St. James rising from the sea. Doesn´t matter. I appreciate the scallop shell, but to me, the symbol of the Camino will always be the poppy. Gorgeous fields of poppies have accompanied me from France to the middle of Spain. There hasn´t been a day without a poppy.

Any bride would be thrilled to have an aisle so bedecked as the Camino is now, though she may not be as thrilled by the mice scrambling across her toes.

the kind of vegetarian i am

I am the kind of vegetarian who eats bacon when she craves a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. I´m the kind who eats "vegetarian" sausage grilled on the 4th of July. I´m the kind who eats chorizo as she makes her way across Spain.

And I´m also another kind. Today, I´m the kind who eats chicken when a nice man behind a bar recognizes that I´m exhausted and listless and disheartened and puts a plate in front of me to cheer me up and cheer me on.

I´m not the kind of vegetarian who will eat the shrimp, though. I tried, but I didn´t know how, and I didn´t think I could manage to be that gracious. I´m no saint.

Day 21? Stomp Stomping into Leon

Today was the end of my third week. Three weeks of walking with only one day break. And today was the only day that I wanted to just stand still and stomp and be done. Done, done, done.

First, I got lost. The yellow arrows steered me wrong, and I ended up a half mile away from where I belonged, standing in the middle of a field of wheat and wildflowers. The farmer I passed didn´t even stop me to set me straight. I realized my mistake and trudged back.

Then, I finally found some more arrows and followed them on a busy, scary highway. Every once in a great while we have to walk on scary highways, but this one was worse than all of the others. The arrows disappeared again, and I got afraid, so I went back along the highway and waited for other pilgrims to come along. Two Austrians appeared and guided me along the highway.

There was really nothing wrong with the rest of the day, except for lots of walking along or on the highway and some confusing directions. It was the worst hike yet; that´s for sure. Some nice things happened, some very nice things, but they didn´t seem very magic. All I could think about was that there was a city up ahead with vegetables and friends and cathedrals and clean beds and hotels and massages and showers and internet cafes and I just wanted to be there. In three weeks of pain and blisters and rain and heat and fatigue and annoyance and discomfort, it was the first time I have ever thought, "Now why the hell am I doing this?"

It´s okay. I remember now.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

mass

I walked into a church last night, and mass was starting. I sat down and listened to the "saaaaaaaaaaaaangre!" and "espiritu santo!" and the other words, most of which I didn´t understand. I started to seethe at the old, white-haired men in charge. I thought of all of the ideas of the Catholic church that I despise--the misogyny, the condemnation of homosexuals, the exploitation of impoverished Latin Americans. I started to admire the wall of gold at the front of the church and immediately thought of the Peruvian ruins stripped of their decoration by marauding Spaniards.

Then, Iain and another pilgrim walked in and sat down next to me.

Offertory began. I heard the rustling of the rooting around in pockets and the clinking of coins. I kept my hands in clear view, vowing that I would not contribute to this institution, feeling self-righteous and angry. Iain, who as of this particular mass, has been to a total of 4 church services in his life, prepared to contribute. I thought mean thought about him, too, for being in cahoots with the whole thing.

He leaned over to me and whispered, "I´ll get this round."

un milagro de santiago

I had walked about 37K. I had been walking for about 10 hours without only 2 breaks. My shoulder was sore. I was plodding along the empty highway instead of navigating the grassy path. No cars. No other pilgrims.

Left. Right. Left. Right.

I wanted some chocolate from inside my pack, but I didn´t want to stop. Almost there. Keep going.

A car swished by me, passed me. Then it stopped about 75 meters ahead. A man got out of the passenger side holding a package. He crossed the road, placed it on the guardrail and yelled back at me in English: "This is for you!" He crossed the highway again, got back in the car, and sped off. By the time the car had disappeared, I had arrived.

I felt like 007 getting instructions.

There it was, a small white package. I picked it up. I opened it up.

A chocolate croissant. The first one in days.

el camino no es un maraton

Another pilgrim was given a little wallet-sized card that lists the ten commandments of the Camino. Number one: "el camino no es un maraton."

I´m not much of one for rules, so I decided awhile back that I was going to do a marathon day. I did it today. 40K plus. I have no desire to ever train to run that far at once, but I thought I should at least walk it with a pack on my back. To be clear, this terrain was the equivalent of the Oklahoma marathon, not the San Francisco marathon. I did take a couple of short breaks.

I was planning to go about 25K today, but then I didn´t feel like stopping. Then, I got to the next place, and I still didn´t feel like stopping. My feet felt fine. My hip wasn´t hurting. On I went. It felt great. I feel great. We´ll see how I feel tomorrow.

Of course, now all of the people I have been spending time with, including the recently introduced Iain, are a day behind me. New crop.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Fromista to Carrion de los Condes--395 K left

I never remember the damn names of these towns. Today, on our way into town, Iain declared, "I´m going to carry on." I wanted to pretend not to get the joke, just to watch him suffer in explaining it to the ESL speakers, but I couldn´t help laughing.

A very short day today, only 18K. Lots of towns to stop in and hang out. It was lovely, except for the very end where there was a long stretch of sun with no shade in sight. Tomorrow, I hope there will be clouds.

Two locals in this bar where I´m writing have just offered to buy me a drink. Off we go . . .

a free coffee

On the heels (we do so like to talk about feet around here) of a patriotic entry about Coke and a poetic entry about arrows, allow me to provide another interpretation of the Camino.

It´s kind of like that McDonalds Monopoly game where you collect the little stickers. Or like a card at a coffee shop where the 10th coffee is free. The game is silly. There is no particular outcome of any consequence, but you keep playing. You want to find the Boardwalk sticker, even though you know you won´t. You want that free coffee. It´s a pain to get that card out every time, but you keep collecting the stamps anyway.

Here, each pilgrim has a card, called a credencial, and every time s/he checks into an albergue, the credencial is presented and stamped and dated. Churches and restaurants and other places have stamps (sellos) as well. The credencial itself is so unofficial looking. It´s just an accordioned piece of heavy stock paper with my name and the date I started, but I have to guard it with as much care as I do my passport. It entitles me to sleep in the albergues, and when I arrive in Santiago, I will show it in order to earn my Compostela.

I have never seen a Compostela, but I imagine it to be a pretty piece of paper that has my name on it and indicates that I have gone for a long walk and should be excused from some of purgatory. I think if I show it to Dale, it will probably be good for a free coffee, too.

flechas amarillas--yellow arrows

There are thousands upon thousands of yellow arrows and scallop shells pointing the way to Santiago. It´s truly amazing.

For some communities it is a point of pride to make a particularly nice map for passing pilgrims; they invest money in beautiful metal scallop shells, lovely tiles. Other places have hastily spray-painted yellow arrows. Either way, we can always find where we need to be.

It´s a remarkably safe and reassuring feeling. It´s so rare to be constantly guided without being trapped in an unhealthy or dull routine. Every day there is something new to discover, but there are proper boundaries to guide me.

Yesterday I met a guy who has been walking from Geneva. My Camino is almost halfway through, but he has been walking for more than 7 weeks, and his is coming to a close. When asked what he would do at the end, he replied, "I don´t know what I´m going to do when the yellow arrows stop telling me where to go."

Asì es.

Iain

Some of you have written to me, concerned that I have not identified any pilgrims by name, worried that I haven´t met anyone at all. It´s not true. I always have someone to eat with, to tour with. Pilgrims under the age of 45 or so tend to cluster together as we are in the minority. There are many people I could mention--Peter, Carrie, Jen, Luke, Rob, Paul, Jimbo, Marta, and others. I have learned plenty from them, but just like in the Wizard of Oz "people come and go so quickly around here."

One person is receiving a promotion: Iain.

The promotion comes because I have betrayed him on this blog. It was a bit insincere of me to say that no one would have appreciated the tiny circus. He would have found proper delight in laughing at the kids who were laughing at the circus kid who was picking up poop. He happened to be off on another ridiculous mission at the time. I hereby apologize for slandering him by whining that there was no one good enough to laugh at someone shoveling shit. He laughs at me for doing it all the time.

In addition to being blessed with an impressive collection of vowels in his name, he has an excellent sense of humor. I´m patiently teaching him to speak American as his British leaves something to be desired. He´s an ESL teacher, so he appreciates the challenge. Sometimes we have to speak Spanish to overcome the communication gap.

We happened to fall into the same group for awhile and then took a rest on the same day and so are in the same group again. He´s a worthy companion, and he recognizes my superiority for having started a full three days and a mountain range ahead of his pansy stroll out of Pamplona.

Heeeeeeere weeeeeee gooooooo!

saving the wasted light and water

And now, a moment to discuss light switches and faucets. It´s dull. I advise you to skip it.

Upon entering a bathroom, an automatic light comes on. Sometimes you have to push it yourself. Regardless, within a measured number of minutes, it turns off. Sometimes you are done in the bathroom. Not usually. That means you have to scramble around trying to find the appropriate part of the wall to touch in order to see. On the way out, when the light is still on, you may not turn it off yourself.

The sinks usually have one button to push to let the water gush for a measured quantity of time. That typically means that one hits the button several times, and at the end, cannot turn it off manually. More water has to be wasted. A couple of times I have encountered faucets that I have to turn off manually. I sometimes forget to do so because I am conditioned to the buttons. More water wasted.

Coca Cola

Every time they pour me one of these 8 oz. Cokes, I think about how Americans would riot if restaurants started serving these. 8 oz.? Sacrilege. You may have Saint James, Spain, but we have Saint Coca Cola. We will not be denied.

Friday, June 1, 2007

singing. musically.

I had been warned that it would happen, that one day I would be walking along by myself and I would start to sing.

I arrived at the hill overlooking Burgos, and I began "Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee´re off to see the Wizard . . . " I even did the skipping thing.

Recently, in the middle of a big wheat field, I found myself singing, "Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain . . . "

Does it have to be musicals? Why can´t it be Hot 99.5?

chocolate croissant

I have finally determined why pilgrims complain about the meseta. Apparently, there are no fresh chocolate croissants made here. This places an unfortunate wrinkle in my daily routine as the main incentive to begin walking is to find a croissant (Napolitana).

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