Monday, May 25, 2009

Camino de Santiago

For 11 days in April (and the 11th day I only walked about 5 km, so roughly it averages out to about 30 km/day, or about 18.6 mi/day), I walked just about 300 km, or 186 miles along a part of the Camino de Santiago, or St. James's Way, which stretches across Northern Spain. I, along with one of my friends here (who ironically happens to be named Santiago), completed 300 km of the Camino Franc├ęs, starting in Astorga and ending in Santiago de Compostela. The camino started out in the middle ages as a religious pilgrimmage to visit the burial site of St. James. Along the way, pilgrims stay in albergues, which are like hostels except that they are reserved specially for pilgrims (known as peregrinos in Spanish). Normally people start in France, at St. Jean Pied de Port, which adds about 600 more km, so we only completed about a 3rd of the camino. A map of the route we followed (ours was the orange route, and we started a little to the left of Burgos along the line):

So, what to say about the camino? Well... I have a TON of great memories from it. I probably bored Valerie to tears when she came to hang out with me, because every five minutes I would be like "This one time, on the camino..." And I don't want to bore all of you by recounting every little detail... So maybe I'll just share my general thoughts and impressions of the camino, with some pictures, and go from there.
When I first got the idea of doing the camino, I was really excited about it. As I planned, I continued to be excited about it. What better way to spend the Easter season than contemplating the treasures of life abundant in nature? Also, my family had made a commitment to become more involved in understanding nature, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity. In preparation, I walked at least 1.5 hours over varied terrain for at least 3-5 days per week, for about a month beforehand. I borrowed the necessary equipment from Santi's family, so I thought I was ready. The morning before I was scheduled to leave, Santi called me and asked if I wanted a friend to come with me. So Santi became a last-minute addition to my party of one, and I was even more excited because now I would have someone I knew with me.
There IS snow in Spain!!

However, once Santi and I got on the bus the next morning, I couldn't help but feeling I'd made a terrible mistake, that I was incredibly under-prepared, and that I was crazy for even trying this camino business out. For some reason, after all that excitement and anticipation, I was suddenly terrified. I didn't know if I could actually do it or not.
A little mountain village. Yes, all of the villages along the camino were this beautiful, with pristine cobble-stone streets and brick houses.

But we rode the bus to Barcelona, switched buses, and had a twelve hour overnight bus ride to Astorga. We arrived at 7:30 in the morning, and started walking immediately. By the end of that first day, my shoulders were killing me, and the back of my left knee was really sore. On the second day, although my shoulders were better and although my left knee was the one that started being sore, by the end of the day (which included an outrageous amount of walking downhill), both my knees were killing me and my feet felt like they were on fire. That second day we walked almost 40 km. On day 3, I had one giant blister on each pinky toe, and my right knee hurt really badly. But I didn't want to slow Santi down (even though he told me repeatedly that if I wanted we could take a bus), and I didn't want to not do the whole thing, because I have a pride issue, so I just had to walk through the pain and do the best I could to ignore it. The third day was definitely the worst of all the days for me.
We encountered all manner of wildlife along the camino, including but not limited to: sheep, giant lizards (I'm talking almost as big as an Iguana), geese, ducks, chickens, roosters, cows, horses, maybe even a donkey or two.

I'm not sure why I remember the grievances of those first three days the clearest, because there were definitely other days where it was all I could do to keep walking. The worst part was that every time we stopped, even though it was on the one hand a relief, I also hated it because I knew that once we started going again I'd have to relearn how to walk so as not to hurt my blisters or my knee. I constantly felt like either an old lady or a little girl or some weird combination of the two.
On the right the church, on the left the hostel we stayed at.

In any case, despite the physical ailments (which for the most part became less as we continued walking), the camino was very enjoyable. The views were incredible, the company was good, we met good people, made good memories, and learned new things. I'm REALLY glad Santi was there, especially. At the beginning I wasn't sure how wise spending 2 weeks together with no breaks from each other would be, because in such cases, either you end up being REALLY annoyed with each other or you end up being better friends than before. Knowing my short tolerance for most people, I didn't want Santi to start annoying me. It really is a testament to what an amazing person Santi is that he didn't annoy me, not even after two weeks. What's even greater is that, even at the end of the day, when my feet hurt, when my muscles were sore, when I was hungry and tired (conditions that do not make me the most amenable person to be around), Santi could still make me laugh.

One of the things that I liked best about the camino was the simplicity of it. All I had to worry about every day was was getting up, walking, eating, and where I was going to sleep at night. It made a nice rhythm, getting up early, walking, stopping somewhere for lunch, walking, stopping when one of us got tired, walking, stopping at the albergue, showering, going foraging in the local store for dinner, giving massages (which I really like to do for some reason, so if you ever need one, hit me up), talking and laughing, and then going to sleep. And getting up the next day to do the same thing again.
I also liked getting to meet people. I really enjoyed Cristina - we had so much fun dancing together. Fabricio was cool for the first couple of days, but got REALLY annoying after that (although he was really nice). Oscar was nice, quiet, but probably not the type of human I'd form a long-lasting friendship with. Marcos the Danish man was super cool, and very attractive. It's too bad we didn't get to hang out with him a bit more.
I enjoyed singing. One day when we started walking, it was snowing. Which turned to rain. Which turned to sun (which we missed the best part of because Cristina and I had to stop in a bar to dry our shoes a bit and change socks). And then immediately after we left the bar it started hailing. Yes, hailing. The rest of the day continued like that, with completely unpredictable weather. Anyway, as I was walking along in the snow, I knew that if I didn't do something, I'd be in a horrible bad mood, which would make the snow even worse, and that I'd probably just give up on the day the first albergue we passed (our constant mantra was 'es sicol├│gico'). So, instead of letting the snow conquer, I started singing (okay, it was probably closer to yelling) at the top of my voice: "Standing outside with my mouth open wide singing 'ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah' if all the snow flakes were candy bars and milk shakes oh what a world it would be!" So the rest of that day we spent singing different songs - some in Spanish, some in English. And then, on days to come where I would be walking a distance away from everyone else, I sang to myself to keep myself motivated.

I learned a lot of Spanish on the camino and improved my listening skills. Learned how to say "cheers" among other things, in Danish. I learned that I actually was capable of backpacking for 11 days straight for 300 km. I learned a lot about the type of person Santi is - things I'd already suspected (for example, that he's incredibly generous) I learned for certain because he demonstrated them.

I think the biggest thing I learned, however, I learned in pieces, and the pieces kind of came together at the end of the camino. Quite possibly my favourite part of the camino (besides the part I will describe in a minute) was Manjarin (which we stopped by on the second day of walking). Manjarin is a little albergue in the middle of the mountains, completely isolated, with nothing around for about oh say... 5-10 kilometers. Anyway, we arrived there and took a little break. I asked Santi if he was about ready to head out, and one of the people from the albergue told us to just stay a few more minutes, because they wanted to send us out with a blessing. We stayed, and it was a beautiful blessing. This is just one example of how helpful people were on the camino. Anything you needed, there was always someone willing to help you out. And that's part of the magic of the camino.

I don't think I realized how incredible that was though, until I arrived at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. As we walked towards the cathedral, there was this bagpipe music echoing through the air. It was so loud, so powerful, so beautiful, and it seemed like it was surrounding you. And then at the same time, your eyes were feasting on this beautiful, huge, incredibly old cathedral. I think that's the moment I really realized the magic of the camino. Everyone who was on the camino had undertaken it for different reasons - spiritual, religious, physical, etc. - and everyone started out as individuals. And yet, even though our reasons were different, we as people were different, we were all part of something bigger, and so we helped each other out. Allow me to be redundant: the feeling as I listened to the music and saw the cathedral and had that epiphany, for lack of a better word, was purely magical.

So, all in all, the camino was an incredible experience. If you're ever looking for the cheapest vacation of your life, the camino is it. $500-1200 for tickets over, $750 for food/hostels (though you'll probably spend much less, it all depends on how often you eat out and how often you cook your own food, and most of the albergues cost only 3-5 euros per night, with a few costing 10). $2000 possible total, that's not the cheapest, you may say. But, if you look at it in terms of the length (it takes most people around 30 days to complete), it by far is. Just think, you could probably spend $2000 just on a 7-day cruise (and the flight to the port city). In any case, it's a great experience. Challenging, you learn a lot, you have plenty of time to think, you get to see people truly open their hearts to others. Amazing. Impresionante.

Okay, I was going to post some videos. But then I realized I would never finish talking about my adventures in Spain unless I actually posted this, rather than fighting with blogspot and trying to get my videos uploaded. Too bad though, you could've seen what I meant about the bagpipe music at the end of the walk.

Harry Potter!!

So, sorry I'm horrible at updating my blog. This is a continuation of my Ireland/UK trip.

Day 11: Well, at the end of day 10, I took a bus to Oxford, checked into my hostel, and met some really cute Australians. The next morning (on the start of day 11) I started my perusal of Oxford by going on a walking tour (which I'd highly recommend to anyone with a loss as of what to do when visiting any city, not just the walking tour of Oxford) of the city, or more specifically, some of the colleges.

We visited Exeter College first, where both J.R.R. Tolkien and Phillip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials series) went to school. Shown here is the outside of the college's chapel, the college's dining hall, and a bust of J.R.R. Tolkien (sculpted by his daughter-in-law) which hangs in the college's chapel:

For any of you who may be unfamiliar with Oxford University (which is the main tourist attraction in the city of Oxford), the university is composed of colleges. Each college has their own chapel, their own library, their own dining hall, faculty, etc. and essentially functions independently of all the other colleges at Oxford. When applying to Oxford, students must choose which college they'd like to attend, and in order to be accepted to the university, they must first be accepted by a college.

And now off we head to Christ Church College, the filming location for many of the scenes from Harry Potter. First off, I give you the shot of the corridor:
Now, the very same steps on which Professor McGonagall addressed the first years:

The inside of the hall (though normally wizards don't need to be told where to walk), and I unfortunately couldn't get all four tables at once:
Next up, staff table, although you can't see it very well. And yes, this is how they actually eat at Oxford, this wasn't just set up for the movie. There really are four long tables, and the staff really do sit at the top of the hall.

And now, the enchanted ceiling:

With a view leaving the hall:
A last note on Harry Potter. I've started reading it in Spanish, and in so doing realized that I know the first book practically by heart. Because I don't need a dictionary on words that I'd probably normally need a dictionary on, because I can remember practically word for word what the English version says. And let me just tell you this right now. Although they're still super enjoyable, J.K. Rowling is definitely not as witty in Spanish as in English. Lol.

And the "Dreaming Spires of Oxford..." as seen from the top of the Oxford Castle Unlocked.

Next on my list of photos and places I went is kind of special for me. Although I didn't stop in the first time I passed it, I did decide for myself that I'd have dinner there. So, this picture is from the daylight hours. The place in question is the Eagle and Child Pub, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their group called the Inklings met weekly to discuss their writing (among other things).

Later, I did stop by and had an amazing drink which had a raspberry/chocolate aftertaste called Raspberry Fool. And then, I ate a traditional meat pie, with ham, turkey, and leeks, with a side of mashed potatoes and boiled vegetables, all smothered in gravy. Delicious. All while contemplating the literary genius of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Immediately after finishing my meal, I hopped on a bus back to London. A perfect end to a beautiful day.

Day 12: I started my day out with walking along the Thames near the area of the London Eye. It was cool because there were a lot of performers, and great people watching, which is definitely one of my favourite things about traveling. Here is the London Eye:

It was hot, over-priced, and although it did provide cool views of the city, I would've much rather climbed up to the top of the tallest room in the tallest tower to find the views.

Next up I went to the Globe Theatre. I had a really good time there, and it was probably my favourite tourist attractions in London. The theatre tour was very informative, they had a super interesting exhibition, and we got to see a little bit of a theatre troupe's rehearsal of Hamlet. Incredible, it was. I really enjoyed it.

Cool thing about quoting Shakespeare. I'd recommend looking at this one close up, because it's pretty interesting.

Photo of the stage inside the Globe Theatre.
And the last thing I did while in London was go to see the musical Wicked. Because you have to see a musical while in London. I was not disappointed. The girl who played the Wicked Witch of the West gave an incredible performance, and though Glinda (or however you spell her name) the Good was a bit obnoxious and didn't have the best voice, I enjoyed watching her as well. The male lead was great, too. All in all a good musical with an interesting take on the Wicked Witch of the West.

The next morning (Day 13, technically), I slept in a little, caught a shuttle to the airport, and caught a flight home. All in all a successful trip :)