Day 14: Anna’s Camino – Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Belorado

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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If you’ve been reading along, you might remember that I had my first “Camino moment” in Zabaldika, after reading some beautiful thoughts from the nuns there. My second Camino moment happened on Day 14, in Grañón, Spain. It’s not a pretty thing, but it was a raw, emotional occurrence that changed me in some mysterious way, so I’ll tell you.

I don’t remember much about leaving Santo Domingo de la Calzada, except that we met at the same little restaurant where we’d had dinner, and had one last coffee with Australian Mark, who would be staying behind for one more day on doctor’s orders, until they could make sure that he didn’t have any lasting damage from that blow to the head. English Mark met us there, as well, and that’s the last time Natalie remembers seeing him, though I ran into him once more later in the day. We had our coffees and juice, said our goodbyes, and got back on the road. Natalie was walking faster than I was that morning, and I trailed behind her, sometimes catching a glimpse on the road ahead, other times chatting with new pilgrims as we passed on the road.

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Along the way, we walked through a little hamlet and met up again for a mid-morning snack at a lovely little albergue. We met Ruth, a bubbly Anglican minister on holiday, and chatted briefly with her as she decided whether or not to call it a day and stay here in this town instead of moving on. The hospitalero was a woodcrafter, and had some beautiful simple jewelry on display. Before leaving, I bought what are still my favorite pair of earrings, little teal circles with tiny, yellow, applied wooden arrows, a reminder of the yellow arrows that mark the Camino. After a quick bathroom break, we walked on, and Natalie quickly pulled ahead again, heading towards Grañón.

I’d read about Grañón before, and had heard that it’s a magical place that pilgrims tend to love. I didn’t have the same experience, and for a long time, I thought that maybe people were wrong. Now that I know a little more about magic, especially in relation to totem animals, I’m inclined to believe with the original assessment. Just because something’s magical and life-changing doesn’t mean that it’s got to be all sunshine and lollipops while it’s happening. Anyway, as I walked into town, I encountered a small, starving dog on the street. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, as heart-breaking as that might be. Animals aren’t put on a pedestal there like they are in the U.S., and I’m not in a place to pass judgment, but I did feel heartbroken quite often over it then. This dog came up to me, and I petted her and scratched her belly for a little while, until a dour-looking old man clomped down the street, waved his cane at me, and shouted at the dog. She cowered, then scampered away, he scowled at me, and I moved on, shocked.

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A few blocks farther down the street, I spotted a bunch of pilgrim packs outside the door to a cafe, and saw that Natalie’s bag was there, as well. I stopped, heaved off my bag, and started to walk into the cafe. At the threshold, I noticed two grown cats and two sets of kittens, all sick, eyes swollen shut and noses dripping. I wondered how many of the kittens would live through this. My brain stopped, and something else happened. It was like I was standing outside of myself, watching everything unfold. I watched myself grab a kitten, clutch it to my chest, then collapse on a nearby bench, sobbing uncontrollably.

It’s hard to explain what was going on, because I didn’t exactly know, myself. I was causing a scene, crying quite loudly. The kitten squirmed, trying to get away from the crazy lady holding it in her iron embrace. Pilgrims rushed out of the cafe, and suddenly I was surrounded by kindhearted souls who thought I must be seriously injured. People were asking me “what’s wrong? what’s wrong???” and all I could manage through the sobs was, “The kittens, LOOK!” After a minute or two, it was obvious that I wasn’t hurt, and was just having a little mental breakdown, and people left me to cry. The kitten wriggled out of my arms and ran back to its brothers and sisters. A couple of fellow cat ladies patted my hand and told me that they understood, but I could see that they were as mystified as I over this ridiculous outburst. I apologized, pulled myself together, picked up my bag, and decided to move on, with or without Natalie. To me at that moment, it seemed that the town was obviously full of negative energy, and I needed to get out.

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I had walked almost to the town border when I caught a glimpse of an adorable little terrier sitting on the bench at the bus stop. This little guy was exactly everything that I’d ever want if I were to adopt a dog – he was small, sandy-colored, shaggy, smiling, and his little body just quivered with excitement as I got closer. He looked so joyful compared to everything I’d just experienced, and I was drawn to him. I dropped my bag on the bench, took a seat, and spent the next 15 minutes getting a huge dose of much-needed love from the little mystery dude. I tried to take a photo of the two of us, but every time I’d push the button, he’d give me another kiss. It was incredibly restorative, especially since he was wearing a collar and was well-fed. It renewed my faith in humanity, at least for a few moments. Eventually, I’d been sitting long enough that Natalie happened along, and the little dog was very happy to offer her some love, as well. After a few minutes, we reluctantly said goodbye to the pup and walked on. Here’s a little slideshow of our meeting…

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The rest of the day is a blur. I remember walking through Redecillo del Camino, a town famous for its elaborate baptismal font. We stopped and took a look, and had a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. At some point in the day, I also ran into English Mark for the last time, also at a cafe. Maybe this was the same one? I can’t remember, and Natalie doesn’t remember seeing him again after breakfast, but when I saw him for the last time, he called me over to the bar, almost giddy in his eagerness to tell me a story he’d just heard about a road marker we’d passed earlier in the day, called the Cross of the Brave:

In medieval times, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Grañón were locked in a dispute about the land the lay between the two towns, particularly who had rights to the lumber there. The towns were constantly fighting, and finally someone thought it would be smarter to just pick a champion for each town, and have them fight it out. The winner would determine which town had land rights. On the day of the big fight, the champion from Santo Domingo arrived, covered in oil. The only way the champion from Grañón could best the oily bastard was to grab him by the only part that wasn’t greased up – his anus. The fighter from Santo Domingo was thus thrown out of the ring (some say off a cliff), and Grañón won rights to the land, though the winning fighter died only days after the battle. Soon after, the Cross of the Brave was erected in memory of the fight. Mark finished telling me this story with, “But which one was truly the ‘brave’ one?” followed by a deep belly laugh. I’m glad that’s my last memory of him.

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The baptismal font at Redecillo del Camino.

Natalie and I covered another 15km, but I don’t have many photos. That night we ended up at an albergue called the Cuatro Cantones, and it turned out to be a lovely spot, run by a very nice family. Our friend Terry from Seattle was in Belorado that day, so once we got settled into our room, she came over and we all went out for a late lunch at a nearby bar. I can’t remember if I took a nap or not, but for the first time, I did no sightseeing (despite the fact that the town looked really interesting, and I sincerely regretted not being able to see more). That night, Natalie and I had dinner at the albergue restaurant, and invited the other peregrina from our small room (only three of us there – yay!) to join us. She was not a native English speaker, but between the three of us, we got along famously and had a great dinner together. After dinner, I snuck away to an empty bedroom to call my parents, then it was lights out.

Click here to read about Day 15.

Anna’s Camino: Day 10 – Viana & Goodbye, Darling Claire

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

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We had been walking the Camino Frances for ten days when Claire announced that it was time for her to go on ahead. She’d been dropping hints for a couple of days, at least, but none of us wanted to spend much time thinking about it. It was just too difficult of a concept, and I get the feeling that we were all pretty much in the same boat, thinking we should ignore it until it happened, keep on living every moment for the moment, just as we had for the last week and a half.

From the outside, looking in, it probably seems silly to you that it was even that big of a deal. After all, we’d only all met each other ten days earlier. It’s not like we were old friends; how much could you get to know someone in such a short period of time? But the Camino does something to you. Bonds are formed very quickly. You meet a person on the road, and within an hour you’re sharing your deepest thoughts. You’ve got all the time in the world, but no time for pointless bullshit. There was very little small talk on my Camino, and no wasted interactions. In short, we were family, and no one wants to say goodbye to a loved one when there’s a good chance you might never meet again.

So Claire would gently bring up the fact that her flight out of Spain was getting closer, and she was behind her intended schedule. She’d remark that one of these days, she’d need to walk faster, maybe even catch a bus and skip a stage. And every day, we’d all sit down at some cafe or on the side of the road, look over the maps, pick a town for which to aim, decide on an albergue that met all of our needs and budgets, and try to ignore the fact that this might be the last day we got to make plans together. In the afternoons, we’d arrive at our albergue, get our assigned bunks from the hospitaleros, and decide who’d get the top bunk this time, me or Claire. (Natalie had a bum knee, so she tended to get the hook-up with a nice bottom bunk when we checked in. Have I ever mentioned to you guys just how much I began to covet that bottom bunk?) The unspoken knowledge that Claire would be leaving us grew heavier. She had to go on. There was life to get back to, and some of this journey needed to be solo, to give her a chance to mull things over in blessed silence.

I don’t now how she felt about those early days shared as an impromptu sisterhood, but after it was all over, I looked back at that time spent with two strangers from across the globe, and saw that they’d given me a great gift. I was frightened and small, and they allowed me to delicately unfurl from my protective layers, no pressure, no pretense, just the comforting sound of crunching gravel, a shared slice of tortilla, a swig from the omnipresent tea canteen. Ten days can be a lifetime when you’re in the midst of becoming something new.

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The walk from Los Arcos to Viana wasn’t that exciting, but a few things happened. I got to pet my first donkey; I’d never realized how soft they are. We also paid an entrance fee to get into a rather small medieval church and have our credencials stamped. I remember realizing that the historical society must depend on our donations, but also being a tad disappointed at having to pay to tour a single room. It was also a day of many, many roadside offerings. Along the Camino, one sees all types of road markers, official and unofficial. There are gravestones, and memorials, little piles of rocks, old boots, rocks with notes written on them, notes pinned down by rocks, small trinkets of all sorts. Most days there would be a few standout sights that really caught my attention. Most of the time, they’d be alone, or in little groups. But today, the roadside tributes were thick, like a little forest of pilgrim thoughts. I found it sad, rather than inspiring. I only left a few things behind, over the course of the Camino. I was already shedding my skin; what difference would a rock or two make?

In Viana, we checked into the municipal albergue, Albergue Andres Munoz, where we claimed the first open washing machine to do our laundry as a group one last time, then hopped in the showers. The girls went out sightseeing that afternoon, but I was exhausted, with a terrible case of heartburn from that wine the day before. I had a bowl of soup in the kitchen (why is it so damn hard to find Knorr cream soups in the states? They’re wonderful!), then took a little nap. When I woke up, Natalie offered me a swig of her leftover wine from the Irache wine fountain. Like an idiot, I had some more. I had been having some intestinal distress on account of the original dose of that wine, plus this dose of afternoon heartburn, but like a true pilgrim, I figured I’d give it another shot and see what happened. Hey, I never claimed to be the brightest bulb.

There ruins of a beautiful old church stand beside the albergue, and if you walk down the street between the two, all the way to the end, you get to little public green space that overlooks the town, and faces almost due west. We stood together, all three of us, to watch the sun go down together, and took one last group photo. Afterwards, we went in search of dinner. The albergue had very strict rules about when the doors would be locked that night, and we were all a little nervous about finding a dining option that would allow us to get back before they locked us out for the evening. Of course, things never go as planned when there’s a schedule to be met…

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We’d walked into town about the same time as Tom and Mark, and they were also staying at our albergue. Earlier in the day, Natalie mentioned that there was a world-famous hotel restaurant just down the street with affordable pilgrim meal prices, slightly above what we normally paid, but perfect for the occasion of Claire’s last night with us. That evening, when we went to check out the restaurant, they hadn’t started serving just yet, but the bar was hopping. There at the bar were Mark and Tom, tossing back drinks. I made a beeline to Mark to pick on him good-naturedly, as was our relationship, and Tom invited us to pull up a chair.

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The peregrino’s version of “no shirt, no shoes, no service.”

We all grabbed a drink, chatted for a little about the predicament of needing a meal before 10pm in a town where no one started serving dinner until at least 8pm. Spaniards don’t eat early dinners, and they certainly don’t bolt their dinners down and run home. A good meal might take two or three hours, but for folks who wanted a fine meal, and were about to get locked out of their rooms for the night, there were important choices to be made. Finally, we decided to give up on this very nice restaurant and go down the street to find any old place that would serve us a pilgrim dinner in the time we had allotted.

It must have been a funny sight, the three ladies leading the search for food, with two inebriated and jovial gents trailing behind. It took us at least another half an hour of wandering around to different restaurants, asking about wait times, until we finally decided that we weren’t getting served early anywhere, and we might as well go back to the first restaurant and try our luck. At some point in the process, Tom announced that wherever we chose to eat, dinner was on him. I definitely perked up at the offer, since I’d been a little apprehensive about what it would cost to have a somewhat fancy meal out that night.

Back in one of the fanciest dining rooms of my Camino, we sat at a table strewn with linen, silver, china and crystal, and had an amazing meal together (though, for the life of me, I can’t remember anything we had to eat, other than my first course of spaghetti). I seem to remember getting a very thinly cut piece of veal, maybe? I remember Mark and I did have a great bitch session about the lack of decent steak thus far along our Camino. Conversation felt a little tense between Tom and Natalie, which I secretly found entertaining. Who would ever imagine putting a straight-laced, retired U.S. military member and an off-grid, liberal Canadian musician at the same table together, and not having some sort of tension? Add in an English tour bus driver, a South African movie industry professional, and a vagabond New Orleanian in the midst of a mental breakdown, and you’ve got some interesting spices flavoring that evening meal 🙂

We ended up having to ask the waiter to speed up our desserts, then paying and dashing out to catch the albergue before they locked the main doors. Even so, Tom decided to stay out for one last drink, with instructions to Mark to fight the hospitalero if necessary to keep the doors open. Mark seemed almost gleeful to be charged with the task, but I don’t think he actually had to do anything. In the end, Tom slid in with seconds to spare, then came to sit with the rest of us in the communal kitchen. We five were the last people awake in the entire house, emailing and chatting with our loved ones back home.

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Fabulous wine.

Mark and I shared a moment that night, talking about something family-related, but I sadly can’t remember exactly what it was that we talked about. I just remember talking to him about how I was keeping in touch with my boyfriend, and mother and father, and at some point I looked up to see him looking at me with this very open, wise expression. I knew the look. He’d understood whatever point it was that I’d been trying to make, and had decided that he thought I was interesting. We’d been gently goading each other since meeting on that second day, but this was the first moment that I recall seeing through the guard that he’d put up, and realizing that there were some complex and interesting layers there, were one interested enough to go exploring. I already liked him, but for me it was validation that I’d made the right choice in doing so. Maybe it’s a Scorpio thing; I don’t know. I do know that I’ve had this same exchange a handful of times with other Scorpios over my lifetime, so maybe there’s a similarity in the way we let people in? Either way, there was a deal struck at that table, and I’m very sad that we didn’t get nearly enough time to see it through.

Turns out that Day 10 was a bit of a heartbreaker for multiple reasons. What about that?

Click here to read about Day 11. 

Anna’s Camino: Day 1 – St. Jean Pied de Port

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

I’ve struggled with posting photos of my Camino for a few reasons, foremost being that I miss it so much, and was afraid that going back through the photos would be too emotionally difficult. But the time has come to rehash my journey in more than just memory, and I guess I’ll start the process by sharing some photographs with you.

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The line to get into Notre Dame de Paris, where I got my pilgrim credential stamped for the first time. When I visited in 2005, I found the cathedral to be a spiritually uplifting place, but this time it felt too cramped and taken over by tourists. Then again, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the day before, so I might just have been in a crappy mood.

My journey to St. Jean Pied de Port was pretty arduous. I flew from New Orleans to Paris, spent a day in Paris doing a bit of sightseeing and getting my pilgrim’s credential stamped at Notre Dame de Paris, then took a night bus to Bayonne, from where I was to catch the first train out in the morning to St. Jean Pied de Port. This entire journey was more than 24 hours in the making, and since I don’t sleep well on planes or in automobiles, by the time I got to Bayonne at 4am, I was exhausted.

I was the first to arrive at the train station, and it wasn’t open yet. A couple of South Korean pilgrims, WooYung and Lee, arrived right after I did, and we spent an hour making the most of our limited shared vocabulary. The first train was supposed to leave for St. Jean Pied de Port around 8am, and we planned to grab the train, get to St. Jean, spend the day sightseeing, then start our respective Caminos the next morning. Unfortunately, none of us were particularly stellar with the French train ticketing system, and due to a series of miscommunications, we missed our train by about five minutes. The next wasn’t leaving for a few hours, so while we waited, we picked up a fourth pilgrim, a German teenager named Dennis. The Koreans suggested that we might as well get a beer in the train station bar, so we filed in to order breakfast and beers. I shocked the guys by ordering a shot of whiskey to go with my espresso, sealing my Camino cred from that point forward. The Koreans were amazed to see a lady drinking whiskey, and for the first time in the journey, I felt a little more relaxed.

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Poster of the Pope in Notre Dame de Paris, saying “Have the courage to swim against the tide. Have the courage to be happy.” It felt like a message from the Universe.

Eventually, we caught our train, but while we waited in the station, many more pilgrims started to file in, finding friends or making them, hanging around and looking awkward with their boots, packs, and walking sticks. Once we finally made it onto the train, I noticed that pretty much everyone heading to St. Jean was a pilgrim. One woman in a pretty knitted cap caught my eye (and my ear) as she quickly made friends with every stranger sitting near her. I didn’t talk to her, but noted she was friendly and a little louder than I tend to be, and made a mental note to catch up with her once I’d had some sleep and wasn’t feeling so overwhelmed.

The train tracks were being repaired further down the line, so at some point the train stopped and we were transferred to a bus. I marveled at the winding roads and the local flora. Several topiaries caught my eye, including one large bush that was cut to look like a basket. I made note to tell my mother. I also admired the local architecture, and found myself a bit peeved to not have a little more time to explore St. Jean before heading out in the morning.

The bus let us out at the train station, and our merry gaggle of pilgrims disembarked with no clue of where to go. We didn’t know it then, but it was the first of many days where most of us would just stop worrying and start following the guy ahead of us. Luckily, someone up there had a clue of where they were going, and we all made it to the Pilgrim Office, where we stood in the road and waited for someone to let us in. It started misting just a bit, and I got my first taste of “just dealing” – no umbrella, just my pack cover and a sense of humor.

We gave our names and countries of origin, listened to a spiel about how to leave town in the morning (which, it turns out, I really should have paid attention to), and got a very handy guide to distances between towns, available albergues, and elevation between St. Jean and the next town, Roncesvalles.

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The view from my hotel room in St. Jean Pied de Port.

After all of the pilgrim preparation had been taken care of, I said goodbye to my Koreans (Dennis had already found new friends) and headed off to find my hotel. Unlike most of the pilgrims I met, who opted to stay in albergues right off the bat, I’d rented a private room for the night. It was a great decision. I ended up with a beautiful, private room where I was able to hand wash my clothes, do a little journaling, and catch up on most of the sleep I’d lost on my way from New Orleans to St. Jean. I was nervous about the next morning, but excited. I was finally on the Camino Frances!

Click here to read about Day 2.

These Choices

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us to consider what we would do if we knew we couldn’t fail. It’s an appropriate question for this day, and is closely aligned with something my therapist asked me a couple of days ago and that I’ve been mulling over ever since. After listening to several days of stress-filled rants regarding my career (aspirations vs. actuality), the therapist remarked that I didn’t sound like I liked what I did very much. Would I consider changing careers?

I have this little nagging suspicion that after I return from Spain in November, I might be forced into this choice. Of course, I can hope that both of my jobs decide not to can me for leaving them high and dry for 45 days, but let’s face it – America does not believe in taking a break. Vacation days are for wusses. If we’re lucky, we get two weeks of paid vacation, but even then, we’re subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) made to feel guilty for desiring to use all of them. And that’s why people like me are slowly losing their minds. We need a break, and what’s more, we need a long one.

Working in America vs. Working in Other Countries. Click the image to read more.

Working in America vs. Working in Other Countries. Click the image to read more.

So I made this decision to love myself enough to give myself the break I so desire and deserve, even if it means that my employers can’t get along without me. I’d rather have to find new jobs than continue to put off this pilgrimage for another year. When I’m old and gray and too old to travel outside of my retirement home, I don’t want to have any regrets about missed opportunities to explore the world. I’ve told my New Orleans job that I plan to leave, and to be quite fair, my officemates are really supportive of my choice, even if they’re apprehensive at where this will leave them when I’m gone. I haven’t told the Chicago job yet, because I think it will lodge in my boss’s mind like a piece of grit in an oyster, slowly turning and growing into a giant pearl of contention. It’s not worth it right now to upset her. Maybe in a few months.

The other part of the equation is this sneaking suspicion that nothing I do really matters. I look around me, at my job, at my friends’, and it seems that we waste our lives sitting in cubicles, performing mundane tasks that ultimately don’t matter. I really enjoy marketing, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not helping the world in any way. And it’s no question that the continued exposure to technology is destroying my brain. I’m frequently too sad to leave the house, and have the attention span of an ADHD goldfish. My memory is measurably worse. It’s no real stretch to imagine dementia setting in sooner rather than later, and that’s terrifying to me.

Is this who I want to be? From a physical and spiritual standpoint, how can I afford to continue this trajectory? But from a financial standpoint, how can I not? It’s a conundrum. I wish that I could tell my 18-year-old self not to lose that full scholarship, or my 23-year-old self not to go to school for historic preservation. But killing those butterflies would destroy this world as I know it, and I’ll take the crushing student loan debt in exchange for the handsome writer who makes me coffee and laughs at my stupid jokes, thanks. I still have hope that some small changes will help me keep my sanity and figure out how to live a fulfilling life within the boundaries I’ve created for myself.

Still, what would I do if I knew I couldn’t lose? If I knew I could keep him AND achieve success in a fulfilling career? I don’t even know how to turn the hopeful part of my brain back on to contemplate that question at full capacity. Maybe when my feet meet the Camino, those gears will start to turn. Maybe I’ll be able to figure it out. I guess I’d cast my net wide. I’d look to new cities for opportunities. I’d look to new countries, even. I’d try to get into the film industry. I’d take this idea of writing a book and make it central to the way I live my life. I’d fold so many origami flowers that my apartment would be the envy of gardeners everywhere. I’d find a museum that wanted a ragtag history like mine, and would take a chance on me as a curator. I’d sing, sing, sing every day.

Sometimes I hate being both a dreamer and a realist. I hate how I crush my own spirit so much more efficiently than anyone else could. These choices seem so simple when I see them in writing. Why are they monumental in my imagination? Please, Santiago, help me walk back to my life, the real one, the one without fear.

Finding My Way

I'll be traveling the Camino Frances.

I’ll be traveling the Camino Frances.

A few days ago, I bought an expensive plane ticket.

Wait, let me back up a bit.

A few weeks ago, my credit card limit was raised. I’ve been good about paying it off, so I guess they decided I was good for it. Ha! Anyway it was completely out of the blue. I hemmed and hawed, but eventually came to the decision that it was the Universe telling me to get off my ass and commit to my pilgrimage, already. So now we’re back at the beginning of the story – I bought an expensive plane ticket. The credit card gods laughed with glee.

I thought that after a day or two, I would have processed this information to the point where I could sit down and write a few words about it in my blog. What it means to me, what I’m scared about, what I’m happy about, how I plan to go about making the room in my life for this giant step, etc. Instead, there’s this big blank space in my mind where the worry/joy/excitement/trepidation should be. It kinda feels like I might be in shock, to tell you the truth. Except would I realize it if I were in shock? I don’t know.

Here’s a somewhat related “aside” for you: I realized today that when my brain thinks I’ll probably freak out about a fact, it just skims over it. For instance, every morning I wake up and look up the workout of the day on my gym’s website. Every class that day does the exact same workout, so it’s handy to take a look, get prepared, then go into class at some point and knock out those exercises. The WOD info is also written on a white board at the front of the gym, and the coaches give us a mini lecture before the workout begins, outlining exactly what the workout will entail. Easy, right? Last week, despite reading the website, listening to the instructors, and reading the whiteboard, I completely screwed up the workout. I missed three whole rounds of exercises (which I might have said was literally impossible, except now I know it’s definitely not).

This is what a WOD (workout of the day) looks like at my gym.

This is what a WOD (workout of the day) looks like at my gym.

I wrote it off as a strange day, and moved on…but then today I almost did it again. I read the workout online, talked about it with my coworker, read the whiteboard, listened to the coaches explain it, and then right before the workout started I realized that I’d somehow been thinking that we had 80 reps to do, when in fact we had about four times that amount of reps. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s be clear that this is REALLY weird. It occurred to me during my coaches assessment today that I must be just letting my brain slide right over any unpleasantness, for fear of freaking myself out. Not exactly what I’d prefer, but interesting to note for the time being.

Anyway, so here I am, less than ten months til blastoff, proud holder of a round trip to Paris and a lot of random information about the pilgrimage. I feel prepared, intellectually, to choose the correct items for my pack (including said pack). I feel prepared, physically, to start training for the really, really long walk. But spiritually? And emotionally? And financially? Not so much.

That’s OK. I’ve got time. There’s also this great community of American pilgrims on Facebook who talk about stuff like this every day, and talking with them has been helpful. I even met someone who’s going to loan me her SPOT GPS so I can have a way of telling my friends and family where I am on the journey – pretty cool. I feel ready for the challenge, and ready for the change. I deserve it. My soul is hungry for it. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. Maybe that’s what has me so scared.

You know that part in Interstellar where Matthew Mcconaughey’s character is trying to dock his little landing craft with a wildly spinning spacecraft, and you’re just watching, holding your breath, thinking “holy shit, dude!”? I feel like maybe that’s what my spirit and my body are doing right now. Like I’ve been so out of whack for so long, and everything’s finally getting aligned. So yeah, I’m in shock. It’s a shock. It’s completely necessary.

This is good.

 

A Traveling Companion

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Today’s Daily Post prompt was just too good to pass up, especially since it touches on something I was thinking about just yesterday. In the prompt, we’re asked to describe what we’d do if we walked into a new friend’s house, only to find that it was decorated exactly the same as our own, down to the books and art. Would we be creeped out to happen upon this design doppelganger? Would we be excited to stumble across a kindred spirit?

First off, I’ve gotta tell you that this has actually already happened to me in real life – or about as close as any of us is liable to experience. Prior to my freshman year in college, the school assigned roommates at random. My roommate Trinity and I exchanged one letter prior to moving into the dorm, but it was very formal – no photographs, or friendly information exchange. Just some “pleased to meet you” & “hope we can be friends” kind of stuff. Neither of us believed for a second that we’d actually like the person we’d be sharing a room with for the year. We just hoped that we would be able to ignore each other sufficiently.

When move-in day rolled around, as Trin and I started to unpack our books and bedspreads, a trend became apparent: we matched. All of our bedding was in the same color scheme. Our books were all in the same genres. She came with her stuffed teddy bear; I’d brought my velveteen rabbit. Her clothes were a little more skater chick, while I was a bit more goth/hippy (however that combination even happens, I don’t know), but that was basically all that differed even close to drastically. We even had the same lava lamp, red lava in yellow liquid, though mine had a silver base and hers was gold. From 1999 to today, we’ve gotten even closer, and after that year, we were roommates and/or housemates for almost a decade.

Trin’s one of my very best friends. She knows me more than most people, and we get along splendidly…most of the time. In fifteen years of friendship, the only time that I can remember being well and truly DONE with her is when we were traveling in Europe together. But like all good friends, we managed to hang in there until it was time to fly solo. We said goodbye in Venice, then went on to have great separate vacations that we could tell each other all about once we got back to the US. I learned an important lesson when I was traveling with Trin, though – as well-matched as you might be with your friends, friendship does not automatically make someone a great traveling companion.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in my short life. Not as much as a lot of luckier people, I’d guess, but much more than most people I’ve met. I’ve spent a bit of time in England, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Croatia, and got to walk around for a few hours in a handful of other countries, as well. There’s still so much more to be seen out there, and I’m not close to being done with exploring the world. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is the next big leg of my personal journey, and it’s a HUGE step for me. But what I’d really like is to be able to share it with someone.

What would I do if I stepped into a new friend’s house, and they had all of the same books and art? What would I do if I walked into someone’s home and it was obvious that they collected watercolors of European street scenes, and book after book on St. Francis and the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? I’d ask them if they’d gone on pilgrimage before. I’d ask them if they’d walked it alone, or found a friend who had their same pace somewhere along the Road. I’d ask them if it was lonely, or if walking alone was a blessing. I’d probably ask them if they fancied trying it again sometime.

One of the major things that you learn when you’re getting ready to head out from St. Jean Pied de Port is that you should walk at your own pace. Trying to keep up with faster walkers will increase your chances of hurting yourself. Slower walkers will slow you down. The point of the journey is to find yourself, and how can you be yourself while trying to match someone else? That being said, I’d still like to take to the Road with a traveling companion. I’ve thought about asking friends and family to go with me, but there’s no one that cares about this the way I do. It would be painful for both of us, but for different reasons. I can’t afford to lose a friend over this, but I also can’t afford to lose this over a friend. I’m just going to have to keep reminding myself that we can’t choose our own walking partner. The Camino chooses them for us.

One Foot In Front Of The Other

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless our walking is our preaching.” – St. Francis of Assisi

When I first started seriously considering going on pilgrimage, I made this silent agreement with myself that I would only approach the concept of the journey from a place of positivity. I guess that might sound strange – after all, what’s there to be negative about when you’re considering a soul-shaking adventure that promises to completely change the way you encounter the world from that point forward? Positivity wasn’t part of my grand plan; it wasn’t something that I carefully decided on and then tried hard to fulfill – being positive was just something that happened, then continued to happen. And now that I’m writing this blog post, I’m finding that indeed, I’ve been used to thinking about this trip in such glowing terms that it’s hard for me to put words to any underlying worries.

(Side note: Yay for positive thinking! It actually works! This is especially important since I’m generally kind of a realist in the day-to-day, definitely not anything near to being a Pollyanna.)

There comes a time, however, when you must confront potential issues, if just to work through them and visualize what your solutions might be should problems arise. For me, my greatest concerns about this trip have been focused on either side of the Atlantic: my cats’ wellbeing while I’m gone, and my physical stamina on The Camino. 

If you’ve ever read my other blog, Compass & Quill, you’ve probably seen me mention my two cats, Izzy and Munky, at least a few times. Though I wouldn’t go as far as some cat ladies and say that they’re “my life,” they are definitely my fur babies, and I love them. When you decide to share your home with another living creature that depends on you, there are always going to be some sacrifices made for their wellbeing. For instance, though I don’t always have the money to go to the doctor, they always get a yearly vet visit, stay current on their shots, and get the healthiest food I can afford. They make a mockery of my upholstered furniture, despite constant claw clipping, double-sided tape, pheromone spray to keep them from being stressed, and a dozen other tries at possible deterrence, but that doesn’t mean that I’d ever consider declawing them. And now they’re going to cost me a pretty penny for a pet sitter while I’m gone.

But even though I’ll most likely have at least a couple of people looking in on them on a regular basis during my absence, I still worry. Izzy is high strung and only likes one human – me. The last time I left for a couple of weeks, even though she had constant care and companionship, she still meowed herself hoarse at the door, waiting for my return. What’s she going to do when I’m gone for a month and a half? Luckily, Munky loves everyone. I doubt he’ll even notice that I’m gone as long as he’s still getting back rubs on a daily basis. But I’m afraid to think of the stress I’ll be putting poor Isabel under by being gone for an extended period. There’s no real solution, so I guess it’s really not something I should think about too much more. I’ll shower her with love for as long as I’m here, and I’ll make sure that their cat sitter is the best possible choice for a loving surrogate while I’m out of town. After that, it’s out of my hands.

The other thing that worries me is the physical toll of walking 500 miles. Unlike the cat situation, this is something for which I can prepare myself. However, much like the cat situation, no matter how much preparation I undergo, it is inevitable that there will be a considerable amount of pain involved. If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading so many Camino autobiographies, it’s that I will think that I’ve thought of every eventuality, but I’ll miss something. But the best I can do is try to go with the flow. Put in as much work as I’m capable of, then take my chances.

Right now, I’m walking about seven miles a day on average, with a 15 lb. backpack. I’m going to try to keep upping that number (pack and distance), until I’m closer to walking 10 miles a day with a 25 lb. pack. Hopefully that will negate some of the shock to my system when I kick things off in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I’m also going to need to start doing some thorough stretching on a daily basis to try to get my hip and back pain under control prior to leaving. If anything has a real chance of sidelining me, it’s going to be hip/back/knee pain or a major blister. Unfortunately, I’m really prone to blisters, so I’m not sure if there’s much I can do to avoid them, other than properly breaking in my hiking boots, wearing good socks, applying some sort of non-chafing cream/lotion my feet every day, and bringing along plenty of bandaids and moleskin patches for hot spots. One thing I should be much more worried about, but am not letting bother me just yet, is the fact that there are no hills or mountains anywhere near my home in New Orleans, yet much of the terrain I’ll be covering in Spain is hilly or mountainous. The best I’ll be able to do is start walking at steep inclines on the treadmill, and hope that helps a little bit. Other than that, all I can do is put my boots on and just put one foot in front of the other, and trust that they’ll get me where I want to go in the end!

Have you had any worries about walking The Camino, or about leaving your life behind to go on pilgrimage? How did you address them?

Return To The Road

Hello there, readers. It’s been awhile – sorry to keep you waiting so long for an update. In late March, I decided to take a little break from blogging here while I sorted out my life and considered whether walking The Camino was still in my cards. It actually didn’t take me too long to figure out that it was still what I wanted, but somewhere in the midst of my breakup, move, and life reshaping I ended up forgetting my WP password. Once I got that figured out, I started having technical difficulties with my Google Authenticator. From there, I just bumbled around, forgetting other passwords left and right and leaving a swath of abandoned social media accounts in my wake. Luckily, WP has these amazing Happiness Engineers that spend their days helping forgetful folks like yours truly, and the amazing David W. not only came to my rescue, but managed to not make me feel like an idiot while he went about getting me back into my WP account. Thanks again, David!!!

So now that I’m back in, what do I do? There’s so much to say to you all. Since my other blog, Compass & Quill, isn’t on the WP.com platform, I just kept writing over there. You can catch up with a selection of topics regarding my private life over there, if you’d like. I’ve been saving all talk of Santiago de Compostela for this page, though. Especially one specific thought that came to me at some point over the past couple of months, then was (strangely) reiterated by a friend the other day:

The Camino comes to you.

It makes sense, obviously, given that all pilgrimage routes are meant to be physical representations of journeys of the heart and mind towards some kind of spiritual Truth. When we walk, we’re looking to become part of something. We’re not just looking for the thing that will make us whole, that will complete us and give our lives meaning. We’re also looking to become part of the whole, to have our lives be meaningful to others.

When I first set upon the idea of walking to Santiago de Compostela, I looked at it from an academic standpoint. I was a wayward soul back then (and still today, but the film of time somehow makes me feel a little more tethered than I did at 22). I wasn’t looking at walking across the Pyrenees as a spiritual undertaking, but rather more as an adventure where I’d have the chance to visit and catalog a host of medieval religious sites over the course of a long period of exercising. After awhile, once it sunk in that I’d never be a medieval historian, I gave up on the idea of using the trip for research…which meant that I basically gave up on the idea.

The Camino had other intentions for me; it stuck around in my psyche, popping up every few years to remind me that it was waiting, to see if I was ready to take the plunge. Over the years, it also somehow boiled itself down into something more pure. The Camino would be a chance to walk, meet new friends, see things I’d never seen before, and most importantly, to start listening more closely to what the Universe was trying to tell me. It was going to be my time to find myself and become what I’d always been meant to be…whatever that was.

Over the last year or so, The Camino started meaning something else to me, something that I never realized clearly enough to be able to put it into words: escape. The act of becoming truer to myself and the Universe meant leaving behind what I knew and didn’t like about myself. Mostly, that was my relationship, and who I was within its confines. But I couldn’t say this out loud. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Instead, I’d think of going on the road, and how happy I’d be out there, alone. How maybe I’d meet people who’d get me, people with whom I’d be able to talk about religion, drink some wine, share some stories about traveling in Europe. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized all of these things were things I wasn’t getting in my relationship. My spirit was burdened by the now, and I was attempting to hide that from myself by daydreaming about a journey far in the future.

So the breakup came, after years of dawdling about on my part, but still not without a serious push from the Universe. Against my better judgment, I started to find feelings for someone else. Over the sound of a beloved band, conversation on the essence of St. Francis and how he will forever be part of my heart, musings on the meaning of The Camino…and a thousand other ideas and dreams that have passed their way between us in the last few months, my heart began to open back up in a way that had only been happening when I talked about my future plans to walk through Spain. I started to understand what it meant to feel genuine romantic love and concern for another human being, in a way I had only imagined I’d known anything about. And with that came this renewed sense of self-reliance, and a trust that I am actually walking in the right direction, after all.

All this time, I didn’t have faith. I lost it somewhere, years ago. But it’s back now. Yes, there’s so much farther to go. I’m just a child, blind to the wonders that are stretched out before me. But in the end, The Camino came to me…and now I know that I’m strong enough to go to it.

The only question now is where to find the funding.

A Prayer for Exhaustion

It’s funny how the Daily Post keeps giving us perfect prompts for a chat about The Camino. Today, for instance, we’re asked to discuss our sleep habits – something that has been particularly troubling me regarding this pilgrimage. You see, I have a great deal of trouble nodding off, and even more staying asleep. I sleep best alone, in a dark, quiet room, which is going to be an issue on the road.

Along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos have a few different choices for accommodation. There are alburgues, which are basically hostels for pilgrims; guest houses or rented rooms; hotels;  or, for those rugged, outdoorsy types, tents. Most towns offer some variation on one or all of these (except for tents – that’s something you need to bring along), but when it comes down to money, most people agree that alburgues give you the best bang for your buck.

The typical alburgue gives you a bed to sleep in, a place to shower, a communal kitchen, a clothes line to hang up your washing, and if you’re lucky, you might even get a washing machine to do the washing for you. Talk about height of luxury, right? All of these things sound great for the price – between 8 and 15 euros a night –  but there’s a downside for light sleepers. Sure, you get a bed, but you also get roommates – lots of them. And anyone who’s shared a room with one snorer/sleep-talker should be able to imagine the hell that is MULTIPLE snorers/sleep-talkers in the same tiny space, night after night.

There are solutions, though. Kinda. One thing that I already do is wear a sleep mask. I can’t stand any amount of light when I’m trying to nest, and for years I didn’t know this – I just thought that waking up four or five times a night was something I’d have to live with. One day, on a whim, I bought a silk sleep mask, and from that point forward I’ve only woken up once a night. One problem solved.

Everything I’ve read thus far about loud sleepers on The Camino has mentioned that ear plugs are a great way to get some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, I have weirdly-shaped ears or something. I can only wear one kind of headphones – the flat, disc-like earbuds that are getting phased out by those stupid, long, rubbery ones that everyone seems to love. The latter pop out of my ears in no time flat, so I guess one day I’ll have to move on to huge, retro headphones that make my ears hot – blech. Anyway, this same issue translates to ear plugs, and I’ve never been able to make the plugs stay in my ears for any length of time, despite squeezing them into tiny little logs and shoving them all the way in. They just keep growing like Play Doh noodles and eventually pop out. So uncool.

But there’s another solution. An expensive one, but probably the one I’ll have to go with. I’ve heard that for people who have trouble with ear plugs, the silicone ones made for swimmers are a safe and comfortable bet. They’re much more pricey, but it seems worth a try. The other option is to have ear plugs specially made to fit your ears, which will be my last resort.

Do I need them, though? Will I be so exhausted after 15 to 20 miles’ walk each day that my traveling companions’ sleep habits won’t even phase me? Or will I be the culprit, annoying the shit out of would-be sleepers? As much as I’d love to pretend that I’m a petite flower, I’m SO not. If I’m having even a touch of sinus trouble – which happens every time I go to Europe, without fail – I’ll definitely be snoring. Even worse, the last time I was sick in Europe, I ended up moaning through the night every night. My two best friends were with me, and still laugh (woefully) about not getting to sleep since I was bitching in my dreams all night long.

There’s this really funny part in the The Way, My Way, where author Bill Bennett recounts his first night in an alburgue, and getting accustomed to all of the night sounds. After what he considers a sleepless night, he thinks it’s only fair to inform one of his roommates that she snores, so that she can warn others along the way. He tells her as politely as he can, only to have everyone in the room give him a dirty look – first, for being so forward about calling a fellow traveler out on a common issue, but more importantly, because HE was the one snoring loudest all night and keeping the rest awake! I have a not-so-secret fear that this will be me, so I guess the last thing to bring along (just in case) are some snore strips. I’d hate to alienate potential friends – or get smothered to death in my sleep by the roommate who loses it, lol.

A Fountain Full Of Wine

“Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.” (For more great photos of the fountain and the winery, head over to Caitlin’s blog.)

Today’s Daily Post prompt asks us if we’ve ever thrown a coin in a fountain and had our wish come true. When I was small, there was a water feature at the local mall into which people used to toss their coins. My mom always had to restrain me from climbing in to fish out pennies; I just thought it was a waste of perfectly good change. But hey, maybe the custodian got something out of it on fountain clean up day! I haven’t read much about fountains full of change along The Camino, but one thing I’ve been obsessing over is the (free!) wine fountain.

The Fountain of Wine, or Fuente del Vino, is located just outside of Estella, around Day 7 or 8 of a pilgrim’s journey on the Camino Frances. The fountain is run by the Spanish winery Bodegas Irache, a 19th century institution whose vineyards have served the royal houses of Navarre since the 12th century. According to the Bodegas Irache website, an adjoining monastery was the first hospital for pilgrims on The Camino, so although the wine fountain itself is a fairly new development (1991), a sip of its wine is a link to the very roots of The Way of St. James. Along with enjoying a little refreshment, pilgrims are also invited to have their credencials stamped at the winery’s business office on week days, so keep that in mind if you’d like to have a record of your visit!

Here’s another fun shot of the fountain, by Roam Far And Wide. Click through to see a ton of other great images from The Camino.

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