Six Ways to Santiago

I’ve been thinking about the Camino today. I’m sure that’s no surprise to you. It’s another 9+ months until I leave the country and start the longest walk of my life. The magnitude of this step has got me pondering a lot of things about my life, you know?

I wonder about the choices I’ve made. The missteps on the road, the detours and the fast tracks. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But how do I know when to take the long way home?

Tonight I watched a documentary called Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. The documentary follows a number of pilgrims along The Way, as they struggle with physical pain and emotional/mental burdens from their lives in the “outside world”. It captures the way each peregrino and peregrina overcome their various stumbling blocks. One of the pilgrims mentions that people have told her that the Camino will answer her question, but that she’s realized she never thought of what question to ask. Another pilgrim takes note of all of the simple beauty she has been blessed with, from wildflowers to raindrops.

I identified with both women. I love details. I look for the little things, and try to stay mindful of the moments of beauty I’m given each day. But I also have a fear that I’m not asking the right questions, that I’m missing some important lessons because I’m so focused on the small stuff that the big picture escapes me.

But there’s time to figure it out. Another pilgrim mentioned that he believed the Camino de Santiago was really just a detour from the bigger Camino – our lives. I tend to agree. Today I’m trying to hold on to the idea that THIS is my journey.

Ultreia!

I did it. I bought my ticket. The first step, mild obsession, having been taken years ago, the all-important second step, commitment, has been made. I am going on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela this fall. There’s a lot running through my mind right now, so I hardly feel prepared to blog about this leap of faith just yet. But I wanted you all to know that this is finally happening. I am on my way.

Onward!

Chelle & The Shell

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Today’s Daily Post prompt is pretty interesting. It also happens to intersect perfectly with the Camino-related topic that has been weighing heavily on my thoughts for the last few days. The prompt asks us to discuss the person in our inner circle of friends/relatives who is most unlike us, and what we think makes it possible for us to get along.

For me, the answer is pretty simple, since one of my best friends in the world is pretty much my polar opposite. Rachelle and I met during our freshman year of college. She lived in the room across the hall, which she had to herself for most of the year after her roommate quit school a month or two into the first semester. Behaviorally, Chelle was (and is) about as different from me as someone can get – extroverted, loud, outspoken, and somewhat argumentative. OK, really argumentative, but only in a fair way. Do NOT say something stupid around her, unless you feel like getting verbally eviscerated in the next five minutes or less.

Culturally, Chelle and I were from two different worlds. She was from the San Francisco Bay Area, and loved what I then deemed “fancy” food (sushi and complicated coffee drinks were top on the list). I’m from a tiny, hick town in North Carolina, and until I moved to New Orleans, the majority of my diet had been fried or out of a can, or both. She’s Jewish, and oldest of five kids. I’m pagan, and an only child. She did pretty terribly in high school, grade wise, but had excelled in extracurriculars and student government. I graduated seventh in my class, hid out in the yearbook classroom or AFJROTC class to avoid other kids, and was captain of the Quiz Bowl team from sophomore year until I graduated. She got an allowance, and I worked two jobs to put myself through school. When we first met, my first impression was of a bossy, privileged loudmouth. Luckily, we were both intrigued with how alien the other seemed to be.

After I got to know her a bit, I realized that half of the things I was a little wary of were actually awesome. I’m extremely introverted, but her extreme extroversion means that she can a) go out and make me friends without me having to do anything (win!), and b) not be offended if I’m not feeling that talkative. She’s not a soul sucker like a lot of extroverts, either – she has a great way of realizing when you’re overwhelmed and slowing down and moving at your pace, even though her pace is like a million miles an hour. She’s bossy, but she never tries to steer a conversation or outing without making sure that everyone’s happy, making her a great natural leader and planner. Plus, she’s always upbeat and positive, meaning we work really well together to come up with solutions to problems, since neither of us gives up (if you’ve ever watched Parks and Rec, you can just think of us as Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins). Chelle’s enthusiasm and global outlook got me introduced to a lot of new foods and ideas pretty early in my college career, which only helped to expand my horizons. She’s probably part of the reason that I got so into traveling. In turn, I helped introduce her to what life in the South was like. I can’t actually look at that as a positive, but it must have helped a bit since she’s now living in TN with a husband and a family of four (see, I said we were totally different).

So how does Rachelle fit into my Camino journey? First off, she’s one of my favorite people to talk to about spiritual stuff. She’s deeply interested in her religion, and enthusiastic to share, but she’s also really open-minded. Like me, she loves nothing more than a good chat about spiritual paths, whether that’s finding out about someone else’s religion, comparing practices, or discussing new ideas about how to lead more fulfilling spiritual lives. She’s very active in her synagogue, and often goes to dinner with her rabbi and his wife. I wish I could sit in on their debates, instead of waiting around to hear about them afterwards!

Additionally, one of the things that makes Rachelle such a great planner is her skill with budgeting (which is definitely not my strong point). She’s got two sets of twins, so she has to really make every penny count now, but really, she’s been great at stretching her cash since we met at 18. When it crossed my mind the other day that I should really start putting together a budget for my pilgrimage, one of my first thoughts was that I should try to channel Rachelle’s budgeting energy…but I’ll probably just call her up in a week or two and see if she has any pointers.

For right now, I’m doing what has traditionally helped me with budgeting for bills and paying of credit cards – starting with an Excel file. I’m going to price out all of the gear that I know I’ll need, plus plane tickets, food, auberges, emergency funds, and enough money to cover all of my bills back home while I’m away. Gee, that sounds scary already. Then, my next step will be setting up a goal in Mint.com, and figuring out how much I should be saving per month between now and then to reach my goal. Guess I should finally pick a travel date, huh?

Oh man, I should really call Chelle.

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.