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.

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