Archive for September, 2012

After Camino: reflections

Just over a week ago, I came home from Spain – back to my beloved and welcoming family and friends, dog and cats, work. It was very good to be home. And yet.

The Camino hasn’t left me nor have I fully left it. I suspect – and hope – this is just the way it’s going to be now. The Camino – whatever that means and I don’t really know yet – is inside me now, here to stay, and I touched it too, left my heartprint on the dirt trails and busy highways, in the stones and streams, within the hamlets and farms, rooted with the trees and sunflowers, all pointing to the Apostle in Santiago, all connected with yellow arrows and scallop shells.

The most powerful and beautiful guidance system in the world – no words, no translation required, quietly beckoning onward.

I am full to the brim with gratitude and wonder. I am trying to find the words. Many have spilled out here, not polished. It’s all I have right now.

I do know what I want to say first. I must send deepest thanks to the Spanish people along the Camino. All of us – and there are always many – were treated with so much kindness, patience, respect and care.

The very first cafe we visited, about 12k in. What a beautiful haven it was, too.

Throngs of us, strangers all, pass through their towns, small roadside cafes and bars, dirt-streaked, sweat-soaked, often speaking in seriously fractured Spanish, lining up for their single loos (Bano, por favor was our constant question!) and often buying only a bottle of water or cafe con leche).

They were the most gracious hosts imaginable and nearly always sent us on our way with a Buen Camino and a smile. I believe all our Caminos were made possible – and enriched – by the extraordinary accommodating grace of these people. Thank you.

So, my personal Camino. It was harder – and more wonderful – than I ever imagined.

I did walk every step from Sarria to Santiago over 5 days. My knee (braced) held up over hill and dale – for 111 kilometres. My mind emptied. My spirit soared.

I cannot adequately describe every day, nor do I think a travelogue would express what it was really like. You’ll have to go see for yourself – please do if you have the chance! But to give the journey a framework, here was the distance we walked by day and where we stopped each night:

  • Day 1: Sarria to Portomarin, 21.5k
  • Day 2: To Palas do Rei, 23k
  • Day 3: To Arzua, 30k
  • Day 4: To Rua, 18k
  • Day 5: To Santiago, 19k

Sarria is a small city with several old churches and many albergues because this is a common starting point for many pilgrims who may not have time or ability to walk the whole 800-1,000k of a full Camino. If, however, you make it on foot from Sarria to Santiago, you will still be awarded the Compostela, a certificate of accomplishment by the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago. We had our pilgrim’s passport to be stamped along the way as proof.

My friends and I stayed not too far from the first yellow arrow that would start us on our way. Our first steps were on these stairs, then a long slow uphill out of town. My thoughts: ‘we’re really here! This is the Camino! We’re walking, right here, right now, on our way to Santiago!’

It was as I’d read about in so many Camino books this past year. Yet it was completely different, of course, being there – a participant – taking those first steps, meeting other pilgrims, breathing the clean air, and seeing the yellow arrows for real, for us.

Starting with stairs was an excellent preview for the day of many hills.

Once we left Sarria we were soon deep into the rural and storybook pastoral Galician countryside for the rest of that day’s walk. Lots of us set off around the same time, but very quickly spread out in little groups dotting the landscape as far as you could see.

A Camino truth: you are never really alone, even when you are. There is, and has always been, a community there – a communal sense of purpose and destination, that I came to trust and appreciate, even though I walked almost exclusively alone. As everyone does, really.

The first day was full and gorgeous and tough – a half marathon distance when I hadn’t walked more than a k or two in many months was not a light stroll.

The hills were surprising – and the walking stick a godsend I couldn’t imagine being without. Still, I felt strong and able. Those many days in the gym gave me a much-needed core strength.

After 7 or 8k, we settled in. One foot in front of the other. Breathe, move, look at the road, look beyond it. Look behind you now and then to see where you’ve walked. Take it all in and enjoy.

The slow steady rhythm of walking for hours, on this very old trail, with so many others, took the shape of music for me – and this deep impression lasted for all 5 days. Camino hymns and cantatas that lift and swell then drop off into a quiet hum, then tiptoe in again, pianissimo, occasionally with a crescendo of lovely notes, none discordant.

The score is in nature. Always, there are birds,  saucy black and white magpies that trill and squawk; roosters crowing well past dawn; cows mooing; dogs barking; the crunch of stone and gravel and acorns under many feet; the atonal tap tap tap tapping of walking sticks on dirt, rock, road. And sometimes speeding cars on asphalt for contrast.

And a choir of hundreds of voices, so many languages – French, German, Italian, Spanish, of course, Japanese, and so many more – rising up in harmony, fading as people walk on.

The leitmotif is the traditional pilgrim greeting of old: Buen Camino Buen Camino Buen Camino, over and over, a hundred times a day or more, given freely, even when people were exhausted, limping, sun-baked. Or when they were whizzing by on a bike…or a horse.

This beautiful sing-song litany felt, to me, like a psalm of of love and peace. This is what connection across differences feels like. It washed over me as a blessing that I just loved. I hear it still.

Day 2 was when my Camino got a lot harder, more painful, far more solitary, yet deeper, more real. Though I’d taken precautions – with Vaseline and high tech socks – and never had blisters in my distance walking days, half the bottom of each foot became severely blistered after about 5k. And things got progressively worse.

The hardest day opened with this most beautiful of sights. Magic.

Not a pretty sight when I finally peeled off the socks later that night. Blood and other oozing, large open sores, skin pulled off, infection, puffiness – just your basic foot pulp, you get the drift.

It hurt like hell to walk – every single step. With no time to heal, I devised various strategies to clean and protect them as best I could. (I used an entire bottle of peroxide, a half tube of polysporin, and about 8 boxes of bandages before all was said and done).

My friends were worried. Day 3 was 30k and I was hobbling quite badly. I thought about calling it quits and said I’d sleep on it.  I didn’t want to make things worse nor hold anyone back. But morning came, I ditched my boots for my old beat-up running shoes and regular gym socks, swaddled my feet and got going. I promised I’d find transport if it got to be too much.

I sensed that this was my challenge, not my knee as I’d thought, and that it was as much a test of spirit as body. I decided to look at this as provident, not something to fight or resist – it just is. Deal with it. The Camino will provide.

I came here to walk. I needed to walk. I wanted to walk. And walk I did. Just very very slowly after that.

Except, oddly, when it came to the many uphill climbs we did! For some reason, going up relieved the direct impact on the blisters, which was wonderful respite. But also – shout out thank you to Stefan and his grueling exercises – I was most definitely conditioned enough to power up those hills with little difficulty at all. Going down – not so much. Back to creeping, small, awkward, halting steps, walking stick bearing as much weight as it could.

Sometimes the Camino is forest trails imagined in fairy tales. Sometimes it’s asphalt highway with whizzing cars. Sometimes there are grand vistas spectacularly unfolding – rolling verdant hills, wild splashes of bright flower, big open clear blue sky.

When my feet got hurt, sometimes my Camino shrank to the foot or two of dirt around me at each step – sometimes this was all I had energy to see. And walking became a prayer, a meditation, a spiritual galvanizing.

I was raised Quaker, so not a lot of traditional religion in my background. Yet there I was willing God to please help my feet to keep going, and asking St. James – over and over – to pull me towards Santiago. Thanking the Camino. Telling it I would be back, as I’d been asked to do by someone close to me. Here’s the message I kept ‘hearing’ – you are opening yourself up to love. You are leaving fear by the side of the road. Keep opening your heart.

Call it pain-induced hallucination. Call it crazy. For me, it was church and it was good.

Every morning before walking I read two things I’d written in my notebook in Canada: one is Rumi’s Guest House, which turned out to be prescient. The other was this line: “Open your heart and let so much love pour out of it, for everyone and everything… more than you even thought you contained.”  I’m sure these words helped shape each day. And became part of the Camino message – just keep walking.

Through the hours and sun-drenched days and eucalyptus groves and through villages and past churches, it was as if I became the walk, and the walk became me. There was no separation between me, the trail, the dirt, the air I breathed, and the motion forward. Ultreya. There were moments when I couldn’t interpret what was around me. For one fairly long stretch, I kept mistaking the fluttering yellow leaves on the trees for yellow arrows. My reality was internal at this point.

Momentarily alone on the road, I couldn’t find the arrow right away. Then a cat jumped out from the grass – and there it was, faint but really there. See it?

I truly believe the foot problems shaped my Camino the way it was supposed to be. Ordinarily, I gravitate to people – talking – connection – words. I reach out. This time, I reached within. I had to. I was so slow – and so focused on the simple movement of walking when it felt really quite wretched – that I walked quietly alone until my friends and I would meet up at rest stops. And this was amazingly wonderful! I felt a tremendous calm and inner peace beyond words.

Pretty soon my friends Wendy and Linda were way down that road ahead of me. But then, an uphill stretch would come and I’d catch up!

I believe the Camino is sacred space, whatever one’s religious views, background, leanings. The power of absolute intention – to walk pilgrimage and to walk to Santiago, as countless have done through the centuries – infuses everything. I felt that, drew strength from it.

I don’t think there’s any other way I could have managed to keep going because I’m not a hero and I’m not a masochist.

The Camino opens up a space in one’s soul if you let it.

Every evening in the different towns we stayed in was lovely, healing times of community and rest.

Hydration is very important on the Camino. We hydrated this way every night – never in my life has beer tasted so amazing.

My friends and I would shower, I’d tend to my feet, then we’d head off in search of food – simple but utterly wonderful meals of bread, cheese, eggs, chorizo, ham and olives.

We’d talk about our day. We marveled over how completely we’d disconnected from our daily lives; how strangely empty our minds felt yet we knew we were completely engaged in what we were doing; and we enjoyed seeing the by-now familiar faces of fellow pilgrims and wishing each other well.

Five short days that stretched out in timeless waves. Time and progress were so fluid, so elastic, so difficult to measure. Yet, just like that, it was nearly done.


We arrived in the afternoon and followed the scallop shells imbedded in the road and sidewalks that replace the yellow arrows on this last bit of journey. We found this by far the hardest trek of all – reaching the outskirts of the city, but with still a good hour and a half left of trudging along city streets, no more birdsong, no collapsing on a grassy hill for a rest.

We finally made it to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela – the final destination for all pilgrims – though too late for pilgrim mass that day which was perhaps just as well because all of us felt more done in than we expected.

We went instead to pick up our Compostelas at the Pilgrim Office – this was a thrill! While I am in utter awe of the pilgrims who walk the entire Camino, I felt like as short as ours was, it was hard enough and I was proud to accept the certificate.

Back to the cathedral for noon the next day. But first we climb the stairs to touch and embrace the status of St. James. I left a lot of tears on that old stone and gilded altar. And I gave thanks – for pulling me so strongly towards Santiago and completion.

The mass was very moving. We couldn’t help but feel connected to all those in attendance – and the hundreds of thousands from centuries past. I was so struck by the thought of what they endured – put so much at risk, with so few comforts, many died along the way – all to come for blessing and forgiveness in this old stone church.

We were lucky that this mass included the botafumeiro, a huge incensory made of silver-plated brass. The monks lit the incense, and then swing the container like a pendulum through the sanctuary, which leaves a huge filament of smoke and a faint fragrance of incense. Back and forth, wide arcs of movement.

This is an old, old ceremony, done, I’m told, in the early years because the pilgrims who arrived after days and months of hard walking were quite fragrant themselves. It was mesmerizing, magnificent. And because we live in this century, dozens and dozens of cameras, phones, and iPads were immediately in the air capturing these ancient rituals – a different expression of worship, perhaps.

Leaving mass, we explored Santiago and yes, purchased bits of tourist pilgrim memorabilia. We were drawn back to the cathedral later in the day to look again at the statues, windows, so much ornate design and gilt, yet a simple stone structure.

Yes, I wore my I believe in donkeys t-shirt to church.

So that was the walk in Spain. That part is finished. But what did it start? What did it open for me? That is the big question. I let things go on the trail, I know that. I felt my heart opening wider and bigger than ever before.

I felt wholly at peace and connected with myself – and with my two strong and wonderful walking partners, and even those with whom the only connection was Buen Camino – and with people from many years ago.

I feel sure I will go back. I would like to see other parts of the trail. I would like to have tougher feet the next time!

Thanks for reading. Thanks for your support and comments. Thanks for too many gifts to count.

Buen Camino.


Read Full Post »