Almost a year later…

A month from today will mark a year since I woke up at 6am and a half hour later took a step outside my albergue in St. Jean to start my first Camino. I had no idea what I’d be in for over the next five weeks. I figured I’d meet nice people. Probably meet some people I didn’t like too. I assumed I may not sleep well among all the snoring pilgrims. I counted on enduring pain. I figured there might be points I’d be so frustrated, tired and beaten both mentally and physically that I’d wish I could just go home. But I also knew how determined I was and nothing was going to stop me from reaching Santiago.

Nearly a year later, I know that the Camino was the best experience of my life. Walking up and down countless hills and mountains across the Spanish countryside, meeting some of the nicest, kindest people I’d ever meet in my life will stick with me forever. It forever changed me – in good ways. I’m more willing to speak up for myself – more willing to smile at strangers and even say hello on occasion (because I learned it’s always a good idea to say “hola” to other pilgrims on the Way). On the Camino I got to be the person I always wanted to be – which was me, but just a little more confident and outgoing. I feel like that has carried over to my everyday life.

I also walk. I’ve always walked a lot. But since returning I walk more than ever. This morning I’ll take a nearly five mile route to work even though work is only 1.5 miles away. That’s not something I would have done before the Camino. But there is so much peace in walking. There’s so much to see, even in your own neighborhood, that you would never pay attention to if you didn’t come across it on foot. I often take longer walks on the weekends too – calling them my “Camino walks.” Any given weekend day I’ll step outside my house and walk 10-14 miles. It always takes me back to happy thoughts of the Camino.

In 2003 I wanted to get a tattoo to signify my time living in New Zealand. It wasn’t until walking on the Camino that I saw the perfect design to commemorate my walk in tattoo form that I decided I would wait no longer. So as a birthday present to myself after returning, I got both tattoos. I always figured I’d get a tattoo in a place I could hide easily because I didn’t want people to judge me for having tattoos. But after the Camino I knew that I didn’t want the tattoos hidden. I wanted a daily reminder of two major experiences that forever changed my life. These tattoos are part of me. I’ve not once looked at my wrists and said “what have I done?!”

tattoo.jpg

The thing I treasure the most about the Camino is the people it brought into my life and the friendships that were formed. Every day I’d meet new people. Some I’d only see that one time and have a brief conversation with, others I’d see regularly and develop a friendship with. My Camino was broken up into three sections due to rest days. Each new section, Eva and I met all new people and made new friends. On the third section we met what would be our Camino family. Then in Santiago, a majority of the people we met on all three sections were there and the reunions with them were amazing. Seeing the smiling faces of people you spent days getting to know and then not seeing for a few weeks made the celebration in Santiago that much more special.

One of my favorite moments on the Camino was the last night in Santiago before I headed home, sitting outside with my family and friends from the walk, drinking wine, laughing, singing and just enjoying that special moment. I knew in that moment that it was one of the best nights of my life.

My Camino family still keeps a chat group to this day. We share photos and stories of our lives. We share funny memories of our time on the walk. We hope for when we can see each other again. I’ve been lucky enough to have mini reunions with most members of the family and look forward to the day I can reunite with the others. We’ve always been able to pick up right where we left off, laughing and telling stories, listening to each other and caring for each other as family. Getting together with them is something that fills my heart the way it was filled on the walk.

My Camino family and other Camino friends are people I have a special bond with. These are irreplaceable bonds. They understand exactly what I went through and what the Camino truly means to me. Sure, other people are interested to hear about my walk – but they never fully understand the importance of the bonds built.

I’ve been joining my local Camino group for their walks more regularly and have found that even just meeting someone who walked as well, you instantly have a bond with. You can both recall those awful stairs up to Portomarin. You both have stories about people snoring and growing ever so tired of bocadillos.

I will walk the Camino again someday. I don’t know when, but it will happen. I was talking with a couple of my Camino family members this past weekend and part of me fears that walking again will never be as good as my walk last year. It could rain constantly, I may not gain a family and I may not develop lasting friendships. How do you replicate perfection? You can’t. You just have to know that though the experience may be different, it doesn’t mean you won’t get the same value out of it.

I’ll be forever grateful for my experience walking and the people it brought into my life. I’ll always tell anyone who asks me that they should go walk their own Camino. I would love for everyone to get to experience what I experienced. To take the challenge head-on and end with their heart being filled with so much love and kindness. Everyone says “The Camino provides.” It really does.

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Last Days of the Camino

I wanted to write this a day or two ago but haven’t had time. At the end of the Camino I stayed three nights in Santiago. It was a fun atmosphere in the city since I knew someone around every corner. Our Camino family had dinner together every night. Knowing that when you see pilgrim friends in Santiago it may be the last time you see them is hard. You’ve spent the last five weeks seeing these faces over and over. Sometimes just in passing and sometimes over a beer. No matter how little you talked to them, they made an impact on your life. 

One day was spent exploring Santiago. The last day I rented a car and took four of my Camino family members with me to the “end of the world.” Many walk the additional 3-4 days to visit Finisterre and Muxia. With limited time, I needed to drive out there on a day trip. Seeing the sea really made it feel like the journey was complete. I was so happy to have my friends there to share it with. 

First we visited Finisterre. The village wasn’t all that exciting itself but the lighthouse point beyond the village was definitely something special. The views were incredible. Many pilgrims burn their Camino clothes there. Wearing the same clothes every day for 5+ weeks does get old. It felt good to be there and just reflect on the walk and the relationships built along the way. 


After that we headed to Muxia – my favorite of the two villages. The views and the white sand beaches around the town are amazing. One of the goals of the day was to jump in the ocean. Three of us did just that despite how cold the water was (it really wasn’t that cold for this Idaho girl). 


Finally in Santiago our family of seven went to a nice dinner together. It may be the last time we are all together (but hopefully not). After dinner we met up with other Camino friends at a bar. It was here that the end became real. Our three singing friends sang some beautiful songs. We shared some laughs, said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.



The next morning as I walked around Santiago by myself I realized it was over. I didn’t recognize faces around town anymore. I saw the familiar look of pilgrims every where I went but this was no longer my Camino. The town belonged to the next group of pilgrims. 

I’ve spent the last couple days exploring Madrid and London. Two new cities for me, though I haven’t had enough time to fully explore either. Tomorrow morning I head to Boston for a long layover and then back to Seattle. Though I’m sad this adventure is over, I’m excited to get home. I’m interested to see how this experience changes my daily life. I don’t know how anyone could be quite the same after experiencing the Camino. 

Santiago 

I’ve been trying to process how I feel about this journey coming to an end. I walk around the city of Santiago and left and right I’m seeing pilgrims I know or recognize. I also hear my friends speaking of other pilgrims we know arriving. Lots of hugs, high fives and lots of laughs have been shared over the past day and a half. 

My body was happy to be done but my mind is having a hard time accepting it’s over. When your daily life involves getting up early, walking for most of the day, getting settled into a new place to live and getting dinner with new friends, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. I miss my life in Seattle but still it will be hard to leave this beautiful country and all the new friends I’ve made.

We stayed only 12km outside Santiago, so our walk in yesterday morning was easy. Other than singing songs that have become our theme songs, we were all pretty quiet on the walk in. Maybe it was days of exhaustion catching up to us, or maybe we were all trying understand what this day meant. Luckily everyone in our group is staying in Santiago until the 29th, so we have time to enjoy some last meals and last laughs together. 


We arrived at the cathedral around 8:30. Some tears, some high fives and lots of pictures took up the next half hour. Then it was off to the pilgrim’s office to get our Compostella. We collected stamps in our credentials the whole walk. You only need two stamps a day for the last 100km to qualify but the stamps collected along the way show many of the stops I made along the entire walk. 

After a quick breakfast we headed to the cathedral for the pilgrim’s mass. We were fortunate enough to see the Botafumeiro – which is when they swung incense through the church. This usually only happens on the Friday evening mass, but attendees can pay a hefty fee to have it for their mass. 

Tomorrow a few of us will hop into a rental car and drive out to Finisterre out on the coast. Santiago completes the Camino, but many walk on or take a bus to Finisterre to finish the journey. If I had more time I would walk there, but that will have to be saved for another day. 


I am sad to say goodbye to all my new friends the day after tomorrow. But I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity to open myself up to all these amazing people. I know many of them have become lifetime friends despite living worlds apart. I know I’ve been forever changed by this experience. But only in the best ways – with a more open mind and a fuller heart. 

Day 32 – Arzua to Lavacolla

In my mind today was the last day. Tomorrow is when we reach Santiago, but we only have 12 km to go. Today was the last major day of walking. It’s pretty surreal at this point to think that I’ll be done walking the Camino tomorrow. 

My body feels ready to be done. I was tired today. My whole body was tired. The leg pain was still bad. As Nicki said, your body knows when the end is near. 

My mind doesn’t really want it to be done though. I’m going to miss my Camino family and friends. I am looking forward to seeing all the familiar faces in Santiago tomorrow. There are several people that I met along the way that have already reached Santiago that I’m hoping to see again before I leave Spain. 

The plan tomorrow is to walk into Santiago by 9am. Our group is planning to walk in together. We will get our Compostella and then attend the pilgrim’s mass at noon. After that I imagine we will be celebrating. We all have a few days left together. We are a random bunch that never would have been friends if it weren’t for the Camino. I really hope I get to see all these people again someday. 

I’m excited to reach the finish line but also very sad to say goodbye to this life that has become so familiar and comfortable. 


Day 31 – Portos to Arzua

It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt. That’s what I was thinking to myself a good part of today. The reality was that it did hurt. Whatever my leg pain is hasn’t gone away and walking another 34 km on it didn’t seem to help. I have to count myself lucky though because in 31 days, only at the end on my journey am I dealing with major pain. It won’t stop me. I will walk into Santiago two days from now. 

Today wasn’t as bad as I made it just sound. Though the last few kilometers I was cursing the guidebook author more than I had in days before. Flat he said. Downhill he said. Sure, some of today was flat and some of today was downhill. He forgot to mention that for every downhill there was a major climb back up. Be looking for my honest review on Amazon sometime after I get back, John Brierley. 

The Camino is a different Camino now. It’s no longer just those in it for the long haul (from St. Jean in France to Santiago…or farther). Now it’s the “Sunday Strollers” Camino. Or the FNG group….ask me in person if you really want to know what that means. They started in Sarria, most of them. They have their little daypack. They are fresh and excited about starting their big Camino journey. They are not the “family” that you meet at the beginning of the Camino. You try not to hate these people, but sometimes it’s a bit hard. 🙂 They’re good people too, but their very chipper “Buen Camino!” is sometimes the last thing you want to hear. 


My Camino family had a photo contest today. We were trying individually to get the best picture of the day. I decided to ask half of Spain to pose with me for my picture…

Day 30 – A Pena to Portos

This is going to be one of the days I want to forget on the Camino. Nothing terrible happened but a combination of small bad/annoying things made it the day that got me closest to having a break down. 

Yesterday was so long and so hot and overall really draining. So today when the alarm went off I still wanted 5 more hours of sleep. Then the start of today my leg was in excruciating pain with every step. Not sure what’s wrong with it but I know it hurts. Then the pain got traded for mugginess, which meant being drenched in sweat and when I sweat the flies decide that I’m fun to hang out with. Nothing could get them to leave me alone. Add that to the never ending hills and I was not a happy camper. 

I’ve been in much worse situations but today was the first day that I got close to wondering why I’m doing this. 

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a determined person. When I put my mind to something, I do everything in my power to make it happen. So coming into this Camino I knew that nothing was going to stop me from finishing it as planned. Even if I got hurt or had pain along the way, I was going to stick it out to the end. That’s just what I’ll do. I’m in the homestretch now, so nothing will stop me. Not even the first blister that showed up at the end of today.

The thing that kept me going today was my group of Camino friends. Knowing that I’d have a great group of people to hang out with the end of the day made me realize that my not-so-good day wouldn’t stay that way forever. I’ll forever be grateful for all the wonderful people I’ve met and the bonds I’ve made on the Camino. It’s a community that cares and watches out for you like you’re family. So a big thank you to Eva, Paige, Nicki, Wes, Maurice and John for keeping me going when I wanted to break down and feel sorry for myself. 

Sure, I’ve showed you lots of beautiful countryside and talked about special moments on the Camino, but what I haven’t told you is that it’s really hard. Some people train for half marathons for months before running/walking them. We are out here walking half marathons + a couple miles or more each day. We are doing this on little sleep, and often while not eating the best foods for these kinds of activities. We are facing endless hills, thunderstorms, high temperatures, low temperatures, strong winds. We endure pain and exhaustion on a daily basis. 

Despite having a not-so-great day, I’m still loving every bit of this experience and wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

I would share photos, but the wifi in my albergue is terrible. So this post may be updated with photos later on. 

UPDATE: Photos!

 

Day 29 – Triacastela to A Pena

Today was a long day. 33km total through more beautiful countryside. Anyone familiar with the Brierley guide for the Camino hates him by now. He is a liar. He doesn’t know how to map things. His guide is mostly valuable as it shows the route, villages, points of interest, cafes/bars, etc. What he doesn’t know is mapping. He mentioned a hill today, but forgot to mention that the WHOLE day would be up and down hills. If I meet him someday I’m going to introduce him to my altimeter app on my iPhone or a GPS device. The words we said about him on the Camino over the last few days are not going to be shared on this blog. 😉


After a morning of beautiful farm country and fighting off bugs, we found a cafe that had pizza! I love having pizza for breakfast so this was amazing. 

We saw a snake on the trail today. It was itty bitty, but it looks scary in the picture. Some people were a bit afraid of it. 🙂


Then we headed off to Sarria where we found an amazing Italian place – more pizza for me! Actually the best pizza of the trip so far. 


The afternoon was long and hot. Really long. Really hot. Still beautiful but really long and really hot. 


Our village, if you can call it that, is right next to the 100km mark. Getting so close to Santiago! 

Day 28 – La Laguna to Triacastela

Scenery wise, today was one of the best days of the Camino. Over every hill and around every corner the views were amazing. It started off with a nice sunrise as we walked from our mountain village. 


We only walked 22km today, so it was a “short” day. However we made it long by stopping in almost every village along the way. 


We also took a break at a cool statue at the top of the mountain. I also took the group to find their first geocache. 



The last 6km I walked pretty fast down the mountain. It’s one of the first times I’ve walked alone on the Camino. While it was nice to walk alone for a bit, I realized how appreciative I am to have an amazing group of people to walk with and share albergue rooms with. The last few days I’ve felt like I had a family on the Camino. Makes me all the more sad that we will finish soon. 

Day 27 – Villafranca Del Bierzo to La Laguna 

I’m in a village up in the mountains, though calling it a village might be a stretch. There are about 5 buildings here and some of them are for only for animals. Some of the locals just took a stroll through town…


Today was a day we were all dreading for a while. It was “big hill day.” Sure we already walked over the Pyrenees mountains, but after days of mostly flat, the idea of a big hill was scary. Though we are not quite at the top, I realize now that it wasn’t worth all the hype and dread. I maybe won’t say that too loudly around my fellow pilgrims though. I still feel really great overall and felt like the big hill wasn’t so big after all. Still no blisters or other major ailments. I think at this point I may feel good all the way to Santiago. (Knock on wood)

The scenery was beautiful today. Going through the mountains always makes for better views. 


The albergue tonight is very new and comfortable. We booked out a room for nine for our group of eight people. Makes a big difference when you know everyone in your room. You are a little less annoyed by the snorers when they are your friends.