Walking Alone

Sunday Night Musings (more journal than record – read at your own risk)

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More proof of me not being dead!/ Cool statue in passing town of Mansilla on Sundays journey.

I set out this morning from La Burgo Ranera at 7 am in the dark for the second time and by myself for the first. Once I turned off my headlamp, I realized I could still see the stars. It was very freeing to know I could stop when I wanted, go at any pace I pleased, and eat whatever whenever wherever I wanted. I stopped twice – once for coffee and a croissant and once for tea. I arrived at the albergue by 1 pm and was thrilled see the German school group’s large van parked next to it. I no longer had to wonder where I would be eating dinner! And as usual, it was filling and delicious.

In the last 20 minutes of my walk I met a woman named Kirsten, from the Seattle area who was traveling with her 22 year old son Ky and an newly adopted friend Kara, a 23 year old recent graduate of University of Florida Law (Go Gators!). They have proven to be very interesting company. Kirsten is a firefighter, and Ky is working as a swim instructor with many students with disabilities.

Kara is a large personality who has travelled all over the globe in South America, Asia, and Europe (East and West). She is walking the Camino as only one piece of a several month adventure involving a lot of couch surfing in France, Portugal, and Spain and endeavors in something called deep water solo rock climbing. Intense! I don’t have quite the same extreme wander lust and adventure fever as Kara (who informed me she found the Camino quite boring), but believe her courageous and trusting spirit is to be admired.

Of all her travels, Kara told the month she spent in Southern India volunteering in an orphanage was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life, reminding me both of my former convictions and desires to go India and study Hinduism and my more recent musings about Mother Teresa and her experience of poverty in India. She had spent her a winter holiday there as a undergrad after contracting an independent volunteer coordinating company. Kara suggested that  India is safe for young American women so long as you stay in the South. Her account has inspired me to not write India off my list of places I intend to travel to in the future, and I look forward to researching potential volunteering opportunities. (Sorry, Mom).

When I asked Kara about traveling alone or with a companion, she made a very interesting point. Traveling alone gives you the advantage of trusting your gut and not having to explain why you want to avoid a certain place or suddenly leave to anyone else; from her experence, traveling with a companion, especially male companions, can often lull you into a false sense of security and lead you into situations you would have avoided if you were alone. I had never considered that perspective before, but imagine it is absolutely true. I intend to rely heavily on my gut as I continue the rest of my Camino with renewed energy!
Tomorrow I head only 14k to Leon and hope to reconnect with Melissa and Mandie at the municipal albergue in the city center before continuing on the way.

A Cast of Characters

Saturday: Sahagun to El Burgo Ranera, 17.9k
Sunday: El Burgos Ranera to Villarente, 24.1k

The Gates of Sahagun/ Proof that I am alive and well.

The walk from Sahagun to El Burgo was pleasantly overcast but warm, giving us shelter from the sun but permission to keep our fleeces in our packs. An easy day of walking means I have the extra energy to blog tonight.

One of the consequences of taking a rest day in Carrion and adopting a slower pace was that we have lost the group of English-speakers we had fallen in with. There was lovely Simone from Canada, who we had first met back in Villamayor and later dubbed the “Camino Fairy” for her uplifting, interesting conversation and warm hugs. We lost Rob, a Welshmen only a few years older than us who had a masters in US Government and similar tastes in music to my own; He once let me borrow his iPhone to listen to the new Mumford and Sons album (which he enjoyed but claimed was too redundant). Rob often sat at bars with Natasha, a woman from South Africa who brought way too much with her and was prone to occasionally hoping on buses to help bear the weight. Natasha introduced us to Silvia from Slovakia, who was quick to make sure she and Natasha always had plenty of vino tinto in easy reach. We also lost our French couple, Fanny and Marc, who were walking in order to renew their sense of humor while maintaining their own blog of the people they encountered. Snoody Florida mom and daughter have not been spotted for a while, but I imagine we haven’t seen the last of them yet. Unfortunately, they also travel slowly.

The advantage of losing the friends whose company we did enjoy is that we there is no short supply of other English-speaking pilgrims to meet. Occasionally we will end up in albergue ringing predominately with French and Spanish, but there are always at least one or two people to talk to in English if you try. (Although we have found most Spaniards themselves do not know English). Last night in Sahagun, we stayed a nicer private albergue, since the German students mentioned in my last post filled the municipal albergue. At the private albergue, I found myself relaxing at a table outside two Bulgarians, a German man, and a Spanish woman.  Yuly and Drago were walking for only 14 days from Burgos at a ridiculous pace in order to reach Santiago in time. Marcus from Germany was walking alone but clearly falling in lust/love with the Spanish woman whose name I didn’t catch. We talked about where we came from, why we were walking, dreams, the horrible food, and American politics. Where else but the Camino can you find such a hodgepodge group?

Yuly had the most interesting story-  he was doing the Camino after nearly finishing veterinary school in London, but he instead skipped town before his final examinations after heartbreak from a girl. He was walking the Camino to determine if he truly wanted to be a vet or not. (I advised he at least needed take his final exams after 7 years of school!)

In La Burgo Ranera, we are once again in the same village as the German students. I attempted to capture a photo as they stood in an assembly line to unload their van into the local school they were staying in, though it might not be very clear:

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They have once again endeared themselves to us by feeding us dinner for free. This time they even included wine (kept in a secret stash away from the children)! The German students must have finally seen us around enough that we are no longer scary. By the end of dinner a swarm of girls were finally brave enough to practice their English and talk to us instead of just whisper and stare. They were adorable and very excited to learn if school in America was “like high school music”. We tried to let them down gently!

I have grown very comfortable on the Camino. The routine is now too familiar. Tomorrow I plan to set out earlier than my companions to see what it feels like to walk alone – my original intention when I decided to go on this trip. Wish me luck!

Plans, Interrupted

Wednesday: Carrion, 0k
Thursday: Carrion to Calzadilla, 17k
Friday: Calzadilla to Sahagun, 22.5k

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After all our work to catch up after with our guidebook since departing from Burgos, our schedule  and momentum was brought to a screeching halt in the form of a terrible stomach bug that hit shortly after our arrival in Carrion. I began feeling ill after lunch, and was very grateful to had made it the additional 6k down the road into our clean albergue before the virus hit its stride. Melissa and Mandie fell victim to it about 10 hours later. We suspect it was a virus, as there is usually no soap in the albergues, and hundreds of hands passing though each week. Other pilgrims we have encountered suggest it was the food or water, but there’s no way of knowing for sure.

Fortunately,”The Camino Provides”. The nuns were willing to let us stay an extra day, and another pilgrim was an Irish doctor who gave me a look over and instructions to sleep and drink water. The nuns offered us tea and made me the most delicious plate of rice I have ever eaten on Wednesday night for dinner. (Though my perception was probably skewed as my stomach had been totally empty for at least 12 hours and I was very hungry.) I meant to leave an extra donation, but forgot in the morning rush. Hopefully my grateful smiles were enough (the nuns did not speak English).

We are all still recovering our strength after the virus, though I am fairing the best since it hit me first. After a slow day of only 18k today, we hope to arrive in Leon by Monday. We either need to take no more rest days and average at least 25k a day, or let go of our goal of arriving by the 20th. We are doing our best to take each day in stride. We have now fallen behind all the peregrinos we had made friends with early on, but this gives us the opportunity for new friends and experiences. The Camino will provide!

I will include a  picture of our albergue in Calzadilla so you can get an idea of dormitory living.  Our current albergue is swarming with flies and 42 young German students who have way too much energy.

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All pilgrim boots and sticks must be kept outside!

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The bunks. As young pilgrims, we are almost always assigned the top bunks. I have mastered the art of jamming my earplugs impossibly  far down my ear canal and I sleep like a baby.

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Laundry lines. Im still not confident I’ve mastered hand washing yet. We frequently have to clip our socks, bras, and underwear to the outside of our packs to finish drying during the day. Pilgrims have no secrets.

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Down time at the albergue – Mandie with her ukulele and Melissa with a book. I am sorely regretting not bringing a book. In the background of this picture is a blister treating station for the aforementioned dutch school children, also a common sight on the Camino.

Update: Any animosity previously held towards the overly energetic half-naked German teens has now been alleviated as they have given us their leftover meal of boiled potatoes and salad while inadvertently serenading us with a guitar. The Camino does provide!
We are now in Sahagun and have mapped out a route which will have us arrive in Santiago by the 21st if we take no more rest days. Wish us luck!

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                  The walk to Sahagun.

The Transition from Tourista to Pilgrim

Sunday: Burgos to Hontanas, 31.8k (Though one source said 37!)
Monday: Hontanas to Boadilla, 28k
Tuesday: Boadilla to Carrion, 26.5k

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The descent from meseta to the plain.

Our departure from Burgos in fortunately clear, previously rainy, skies marked our entry into the middle third of the Camino.

While  the strenuous climbs of the beginning of the journey were often painful, they were always coupled with novel and breathtaking views. The flat wheat and sunflower fields we have now entered pose a different kind of challenge. While the terrain is not arduous, it is monotonous. (I should note the sunflowers are all dying or already chopped and ploughed for next years season.) Our guidebook describes the pilgrim sendas which run parallel to the highway as “soulless” routes through “featureless” scenery with no shade. It occasionally seems as if we are walking through a desert of dirt and stone. The next village can be spotted several kilometers ahead, tempting us into continuing on, but torturing us with how slowly we approach it.

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We have been warned of the difficulty of this portion of the Camino.  The Catalonian men Melissa and Mandie had met at the beginning of their travels, who had already completed this section (for it is quite common for Europeans to complete the Camino in sections at a time), said “The Camino is not physical, it is mental.” Entering this section, I feel as though I have started to make the transition from tourista to pilgrim. While we are still meeting new people on a daily basis, the novelty has warn off for both them and us. Waking up in the morning has become a little less exciting and a little more daunting, especially now that we have 5-10 more kilometers each day than before. We discovered in Burgos that we had taken one too many rest days if we wanted to stop in Leon and arrive to Santiago by the 20th, so we have done 4 phases of walking from our guidebook in 3. Fortunately, our bodies are becoming stronger, and we have managed to get into each town by 4 pm each day with no anxiety about finding a bed. Our feet and shoulders still ache by the end of the day, but if they didn’t, we would be doing it wrong.

There are advantages to being a peregrino instead of a tourist. There is great satisfaction in arriving in the intended destination each day knowing that we could have stopped a in the village a few kilometers back or skipped the “ugly” parts of larger towns by hopping in buses or taxis, like several of the other pilgrims we have met along the way. We are trying not to get in a motorized vehicle until we arrive in Santiago, as we believe we would be robbing ourselves of the part of the pilgrim experience.

Other advantages of being a pilgrim includes a distinct ability to enjoy the little things in life. Melissa and I have taken to enjoing the warmth our socks provide our hands early in the cold mornings. Every day without wind or rain is a blessing, and hot showers have become equally as rare as they are heavenly. When you are placed in a room without a snorer, then you know you’ve really won the lottery.

Walking as a pilgrim also provides infinite free time to think and dream. I am not having visions or thoughts on the level of Shirley McLaine by any means, but some combination of walking, fatigue, and the Spanish countryside has ignited my imagination to be much more vivid and real than when it was bogged in daily stresses at home. Usually my thoughts are most free in the morning, before the fatigue sets in, and they shift towards juvenile “are we there yet?” Complaints in the afternoon. I do my best to keep these thoughts to myself and shift to more positive thinking, but some days are easier than others. We have arrived in Carrion at lovely hostel next to a church run by very friendly Spanish nuns- you can add the small cup of tea they immediately offered us to the list if little things that are to be appreciated. Buen Camino!

Racing Invisible Pilgrims

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Thursday:  Belarodo to San Juan de Ortega, 24.5k (Happy Birthday Melissa!)
Friday: San Juan to Burgos, 25+k
Saturday: Rest day in Burgos 0k 

Slow and steady set the pace from Belarodo. Instead of just my left achilles aching, all parts of my body below the shin ached. But the wind stopped, bringing in chilly air. I was grateful for my fleece as I let my mind leisurely wander as I walked several feet behind my traveling companions. The way finally returned to some more picturesque scenery and less waving truckers. We stopped a few times for breaks and didn’t finish our lunch of bread and cheese until 230, with still another 6k so until we met our
destination. It was only then that we consulted our guidebook (now affectionately referred to as “beardy”) and realized there were only 70 beds in San Juan –  130 less than the number of beds in Belarodo, and we had watched many pilgrims pass us on our breaks. We then realized we hadn’t seen anyone pass for at least 20 minutes, a rarity on the crowded Camino. I became immediately convinced we wouldn’t get a bed and would either end up at an expensive hotel, trekking several  more kilometers to the village, or worst, outside sleeping in the cold (perhaps even after trekking to the next village).

However, none of those things happened. We got beds in the albergue- there were even bottom bunks available; it was the first time I hadnt had to sleep 5 ft in the air and worry about awakening my bedmate below to use the bathroom in the middle of the night (the downside of staying ultra-hydrated). What is even more remarkable to me is that the hour of my walking to San Juan convinced there would be no beds was perhaps the first time I  felt truly stressed since arriving safely at the albergue in Roncesvalles. (Though I was plenty stressed about getting there!)

Reflection on this episode brings two thoughts. One, that stress is useless. While rushing to get there, we were racing past invisible pilgrims and pushing our natural pace, much to the displeasure of our weary bodies. Yet, there was no need. If we had had  to find a hotel or walk to the next village or even sleep outside, we would have survived to walk the next day. Stressing about it did nothing to help the imagined problem. Second, it reminded me of how pleasant walking is. Yes, I have felt my fair share of aches and pain, and felt occasional worry about pains developing into injury.But if it has taken until day 11 to become mentally stressed in the familiar way I often approached situations in college, that’s remarkable.

We made it from San Juan to Burgos equally if not more slowly than the day before; we’d given up the race and allowed our bodies to set the pace. Today, we are gleefully hiding from the bleak weather and resting our bones by taking our second rest day in Burgos exploring the sites and delicacies in the many cafes.

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Churros with chocolate!

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The cathedral in Burgos.

Hope all is well!

Walking Against the Wind

Greetings from Belarodo!

Our journey from Santa Domingo took us along the highway through gently rolling hills vaguely similar to scenes of the Blue Ridge back home. However, there was one primary difference; the day was marked by the most persistent and strong headwind I have ever witnessed. I suppose I rarely strike out in the same direction for hours at a time, but even so, the wind was mostly ridiculous. I felt as though I was on a beach as a hurricane approached, but there were no waves or storm in sight. The persistent wind chilled us to the bone and hampered our progress. On the bright side, at least it was not raining. I think I would have insisted on taking another rest day if it was. Occasionally truckers on the parallel highway, sympathizing with our predicament of walking against the wind, would wave to us or blow an encouraging kiss.

The wind was so loud, it felt impossible to hear yourself think, let alone hold a conversation. When I was able to compose thoughts other than “I want hot soup and blankets and this wind to stop”, I found myself reflecting on yesterday evening´s activity of visiting the church/cathedral of San Domingo, complete with live chickens, and becoming wholly absorbed in the Mother Teresa exhibit next door included in our ticket fare.

The exhibit walked us through poster boards about her life and finished with a movie which intertwined her messageswith news coverage of her death and funeral.

Before entering the exhibit, all I knew about Mother Teresa was that she was a missionary in India who washed lepers and helped the poor, and that she might one day be saint. However, the exhibit impressed upon us her extraordinary faith and bravery in taking up her mission.

One of the points that struck me was her staunch avocation for adoption instead of abortion. She claimed that abortion was the number one destroyer of peace in today’s world. As a person who had witnessed such unfathomable human suffering and agony as found in the slums of Calcutta, I found her optimism about the future and the value of human life, even in poverty, nothing short of amazing. How beautiful was her faith in the good of humanity and the Earth!

The exhibit also had me feeling uneasy about a previous conversation we had had with Irish Jim all the way back in Zubiri on day 2. He mentioned that his son worked in India, but he was hesitant to visit, as the poverty would be too much to bare. I was willing to agree with him. But upon further reflection, this view seems juvenile. Mother Teresa also said that it doesn´t matter what you do, as long as you do it with. I am not prepared to walk into the slums quite yet, but I can try to work towards living with loving intention. Though this bitter cold wind was certainly making it hard today!

Accepting Candy from Strangers

21k was just the right amount of walking after a 30k day. We took a leisurely pace after a somewhat unsatisfying breakfast at a crowded bar. The poor bar staff of 2 was swarmed with about 30 hungry pilgrims longing to be caffeinated before they left on their way. However, our late start allowed us to join up with a very pleasant and very tall French couple for the first hour or two of our way. We had a nice conversation about humor, fear, economics, and politics. They said they were walking to find their sense of humor, which I thought was brilliant. It is imperative to find humor along the Camino.
They asked me about our plan if we encountered aggressive stray dogs. We joked about sending positive psychic light to ward away stray dogs, while still carrying large sticks. This was the first time someone mentioned the possibility odogs along the Camino — I was hoping they were more folklore than fact. Time will tell.

Melissa, Mandy and I took lunch in a town called Ciruena, which seemed to be a prime example of the economic downturn it Spain. It was equipped with the first golf course we have passed, and rows of empty new houses that were probably built before the global recession hit Staips housing market. Still, the local bar served an absolutely delicious veggie sandwich for only 3 euro. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find satisfying food. I´m becoming convinced everything besides bread and cheese comes frozen in a box.

We arrived at a lovely albergue in Santa Domingo run by a confraternity of past pilgrims. As we were making our way through to the center of the city, we crossed the street in front of an elderly gentleman driving his car, who immediately rolled down his window and offered us a handful of candy before driving way. They were individually wrapped, so they seemed okay. It was our first pilgrim gift. It was a small reminder of the beauty of human hospitality and kindness. As a pilgrim, it is only natural to accept candy from strangers. There are many who believe they are earning good favor by helping the weary peregrinos on their way.

At the albergue, the shower was heaven, and there was a chicken coop next to the laundry yard. Cocks are apparently very important to the history of Santa Domingo, as it relates to one of Saint Domingo miracles. I hope to go visit his catherdral later this afternoon.

My favorite moment of today (besides being handed free candy) was after we exited Ciruena from lunch. I was overcome with an intense feeling of familiarity, as I realized that we must we walking on the very stretch of the Camino that has served as the background to my computer for the last several months. It was a perfect reminder that I am actually here, on my way to Santiago and the sea, and I was momentarily filled with joy and gratitude.