Sunday, June 19, 2011

MY Camino Becomes OUR Camino

Pilgrims on El Camino frequently speak of "my camino."  As in, "I made my first camino two years ago."  Or, explaining a decision, such as taking a bus or taxi because of time or injury or just tiredness, "this is how I need to do my camino."  Or, "every one has to do their camino in their own way."

I have come to the end of MY camino.  In less than 48 hours (not that I´m counting or anything) my husband Rick will be joining me to walk the last 117 kilometers from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela.  So MY camino is about to become OUR camino.  I am so looking forward to sharing this amazing experience with Rick, but am also aware that the experience, while I know it will be deeply enriched by sharing it with the person I love most in the world, will likely be different in ways that I cannot immediately predict.

So I thought I would offer some thoughts at this point about what my camino has been like.

Simplicity -  Life is simple on El Camino.  Walk.  Eat.  Sleep.  Almost everyone who walks comments on the simplicity of life.  You get up.  You walk.  You eat.  You find a place to sleep.  And the next day you get up and do it again.  There are rich variations and challenages each day, of course. But at heart, the agenda is pretty much the same. Walk. Eat. Sleep. 

No complicated problems to solve.  No meetings to attend.  No checkbooks to balance or stock reports to worry about.  No home repairs.  You are detached, indeed usually unaware, of world problems.  Just Walk. Eat. Sleep. 

I know that in terms of comfort and safety, my walk is immensely easier than all those pilgrims who have preceded me on the way.  But at heart our day´s agenda is the same, the simplest imaginable.  Walk. Eat. Sleep.

Community - It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of community on El Camino.  About 3 weeks ago I found a little El Camino family.  Two Canadian sisters, Pam and Donna.  Donna´s husband Fabio.  Maureen, a Canadian born in Scotland.  Lola, a South African.  Rita, from Italy.  Except for Pam, Donna, and Fabio, we all met on El Camino. The others had been together for a while when I attached myself to them.  After 2 1/2 weeks of walking alone, I was suddenly lonely, and these lovely people welcomed me into their circle.  Because there was only Fabio with six women, we often teased him about being Mormon, with six sister wives.  He put up with all of us with terrific grace.

El Camino friendships are a little like church camp--intense but limited.  You walk together for hours a day, often eat together, sleep together--certainly you laugh together, and look after each other, commiserating over blisters and other injuries.  You share the challenges of sleeping in crowded albergues and toiling over steep climbs. 

I am deeply grateful for the time I walked alone, and I am equally grateful for the time I walked in community.  Both experiences enriched me. 

But it is not just these friendships that make up one´s community.  You find that you see the same faces day after day--in the albergues, in the restaurants, in the mercados, on the trail.  You know some of their quirks, like the French group that got up early (always by 5:30) and had no compunction about turning on the lights even if everyone else was still sleeping.  Or the Germans who were always friendly and helpful.  The college group from Michigan.  The lovely couple from Australia who always seemed to figure out the best place to stay, and at 70, could walk most of us into the ground. The Buddhist nun who walked in her brown robes, and her mysterious woman companion who was sometimes less than gracious.  The attractive French woman who, true to stereotype, always looked fabulous when the rest of us were just struggling to be clean. (Her pack was the same size as mine, but she seemed to have an endless supply of attractive outfits.)

And there were friends that I made who kept reappearing, like Anna from South Africa or Jennifer from Australia or Claire from Belgium or Sandy from Seattle.  Seeing them was always a joyful reunion.

Of all the wonderful memories I take with me from El Camino, I can imagine none more important than these dear, dear friends.

Gratitude - One of my favorite praise choruses is "Give Thanks"--Give thanks with a grateful heart, Give thanks to the Holy One, Give thanks because s/he´s given Jesus Christ his/her Son.  And now let the weak say I am strong, let the poor say I am weak because of what the Lord has done for me...Give thanks."

I sing this almost every day, usually over and over again.  I was and am so full of thanks for this opportunity, and for the small graces that fill each day.  For the songs of birds in the morning.  For sunlight glinting through birch trees.  For the sound of rushing water.  For tumbledown Spanish villages with little cafes where I can rest and revive.  For church bells through the day.  For the taste of cold water on a hot day, and cafe con leche on a cold one. For my body which has (mostly) unfailingly carried me nearly 700 kilometers. 

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."  For me each days has been charged with the grandeur of God, not just in mountain vistas and gorgeous sunrises, but in the small beauties of a field of poppies, or passing through a Spanish village and seeing window after window full of flowering plants, the soft benediction of¨"Buen Camino" from a Spanish farmer toiling in his field. 

How can I not give thanks?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What were they thinking??

I've been disgracefully negligent about writing in my blog lately.  Partly it has been spotty internet access, and when there was access there was a line waiting to use it, which sort of inhibits blogging.

Part was that I have been walking with what I call my El Camino family--two Canadian sisters--Pam and Donna, Donna´s husband Fabio, another Canadia Maureen, Lola from South Africa and Rita from Italy.  Instead of having all this time on my hands from walking alone, suddenly someone was always saying, "Let´s get some sangria" or "We're going to the supermercado, do you want to come?"  Community cuts into your blogging time.

El Camino friendships are like church camp--limited but intense.  Sadly, I said good-bye this morning.  Their schedule meant they needed to hurry on, and mine meant that I needed to slow down.

I´m drawing near the end of my walk, and will soon post some serious reflections on what I´ve learned, but in the meantime, after nearly 5 weeks on El Camino, I've become a conneisseur (spelling??) of albergues and some of their oddities.

Albergues are the hostel-like lodgings especially for peregrinos.  Some are private, and are usually smaller and often a little bit nicer, also slightly more expensive.  Others are large municipal albergues.  Albergues cost between 5 & 10 euros a night, so one doesn´t expect plush, but sometimes you have to scratch your head and ask, ¨What were they thinking?"  This is especially true of the shower and toilet facilities.  Apparently the Spanish don´t go to the toilet often, because it is not unusual to find only 1 toilet per 20 or 30 or more.  The brand new beautiful albergue in Burgos had 8 showers on our floor, but only 2 toilets! (I´m guessing there were at least 80 people for those two toilets)

Other weirdness--

The scarcity of hooks, which means you have to throw your clothes over the shower door and end up putting on wet clothes.  Since you also need to have your money, passport, etc. with you at all times, it is always challenging figuring out how to keep these valuables dry.  Plus, the hooks are often WAY up high, which means shorties like me have trouble reaching them.

The unisex showers with GLASS doors in Navarette.  Nothing like exposing yourself to 20 strangers.  Almost as bad as finding out way too much about your new roommates.  These were also the showers raised about 4 inches above the bathroom floor so the water ran down all over the floor, meaning that once you had exposed yourself to the world, you risked breaking a leg.

In Ponferrada, the unisex showers were across from the men´s urinals. Really--who thought that was a good idea?

In O´Cebreiro, the women´s showers had no shower curtains.  Even worse, there was a window in the changing area with a SIDEWALK outside.

Several perfectly nice albergues had showers with lots of hooks outside the shower door.  Unfortunately, the shower door opened inward so you had to expose yourself to grab your clean clothes.

Then there was the albergue that proudly boasted showers "heated" by solar power--we were among the first to shower and there was a trickle of ice cold water at best.

On the whole, the albergues have been nicer and cleaner than I expected.  Joyce Rupp, in her book Walk in a Relaxed Manner, was quite graphic about the state of some showers, but I have found most of them to be at least acceptably clean.  Many of the hospiteleros (the people who run the albergues) are volunteers who put in long hours and care very much about what they do.  Some of the private albergues are clearly only a business, but for others it is a genuine calling.  I have been greeted graciously and kindly in almost every place.

But there are times I can´t help but shake my head and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Saturday, May 28, 2011


When you walk 5 or 6 hours a day, your equipment is, of course, very important.  Even more, I find that it as I go along, my equipment is becoming part of me.

My pack--When I started my pack, which weighs 14 pounds without food or water, felt like an alien being that had taken up residence on my back.  I had to struggle into it and out of it--sort of like putting on a tight pair of Spanx.  When I was wearing my pack and had to bend over to pick something up, I felt as if I would end up like a turtle that´s been turned over on its back--I would be stranded on the road, arms and legs waving helplessly in the air.

Now I throw my pack on with nonchalant ease.  Unlike in the beginning, when I was essentially clueless, I know when a strap is too tight or too loose and know how to adjust it so that I´m comfortable again.  It might be going a tad to far to say I hardly know it´s there, but it certainly no longer feels alien.  It´s just a part of me--not necessarily my favorite part of me--but a needed and appreciated part.

My trekking poles- On El Camino forums whether or not to use trekking poles is a hotly debated question but just let me say this--I LOVE MY TREKKING POLES!!!  I cannot imagine doing El Camino without them.  They are a great help going up hills and a literal life-saver (or at least a literal knee saver) going down.  There are descents I cannot imagine making without the poles especially since you are already off-balance from your pack.  On the flat places I think they really do increase my efficiency in walking, plus more than once when I´ve been tired they´ve kept me from falling when I tripped on a stone.  Did I mention I LOVE MY TREKKING POLES!

My feet- I probably should say my boots, but really, I feel like my feet are my most important piece of equipment.  The boots are just an adjunct.  I had fretted about blisters and hoped I would be one of the lucky few who didn´t get any blisters at all, but I´ve not been that lucky.  On the other hand, I haven´t (so far at least) gotten any blisters that have been too debilitating.

The first and worst blister I got was on the big toe of my left foot.  A few days later a blister popped up on the heel of that same foot.  So I named the blister on my toe Esau and the blister on my heel Jacob, because when these twin brothers were born Jacob was holding on to Esau´s heel.  In the morning when I started walking I would ask, ¨How are you today, Jacob and Esau?¨ And if they gave me no twinges, I would lavish praise upon them.  Just as they were healing, a blister popped on a toe of the same foot, so I named it Joseph, Jacob´s son.  Like its namesake, Joseph is a whiny little punk.  I have been lecturing him about it.

Writing this it occurs to me that it sounds very weird, but being so utterly reliant on my feet means I have a very different relationship with them.  They are my friends and companions, and I am asking a lot of them.

The Apostle Paul urges us to put on the whole armor of God, but for El Camino, I´m relying on my pack, my poles, and my feet.

Snapshots along the way
In the marvelous albergue of GraƱon we sang happy birthday to a young Irish woman celebrating her 22nd birthday.  Every nationality there took turns singing in their own language--Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, English, Korean, Finnish.  And at worship that evening, it was a Pentecost moment again when all languages were represented in worship.

Along the way into Burgos on a windswept hill, there is a spiral that previous pilgrims have created from rocks.  I walked it with Anna from South Africa on a windy morning as the mists swirled around us.  It was extraordinarily mystical.

(Ooops times up and I´m out of euros--more later!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


On the last Sunday before I left for Europe, I got all weepy at communion because I suddenly realized that traveling in heavily Catholic Spain meant that I probably wouldn´t be having communion for more than 2 months.

There is a saying among pilgrims that El Camino gives you what you need, not what you want.  What I wanted, I suppose, was a Protestant church to pop up along The Way about every 7 days or so, serving the Lord´s Supper just like home.

Instead I got what I needed, a very different sort of communion.  I realized this yesterday morning, as I sat in the little cafe in Azofra, eating my meager Spanish breakfast of bread and butter and jelly.  Just as I finished, the daily supply of pan chocolate (they call it Napoleonti here) was delivered.  Now I consider pan chocolate one of the great culinary inventions.  But I had just finished eating, wasn´t really hungry, and couldn´t quite justify splurging on this delicious treat.

As I was sitting at the counter, another pilgrim came in.  His name was Bent, from Denmark.  Apparently I was visibly salivating over the pan chocolate, because he said, ¨Would you like to share one?¨ That sounded perfect, and as Bent cut the pastry in two and handed me half, I thought, ¨Communion!¨  We had broken bread (delicious flaky chocolate bread) together in a moment of shared community and humanity.

And suddenly I could identify all kinds of moments of communion.  Sitting the night before with 3 other women pilgrims as we shared a bottle of wine and our calling to walk alone on El Camino for a while.  We toasted one another as strong, independent women--and it was communion.

Sitting around an albergue kitchen, a Korean, a Dane, a German, and two Americans, pooling our dinner resources and reaching across language divisions to share something of our story--and it was communion.

A pilgrim meal in a restaurant, where we started as six strangers.  An Italian, a Basque (NOT Spanish she emphatically told us), a Finn, 2 Germans and an American.  Except for the Finnish woman Kristina, who spoke several languages, we could barely communicate.  The silences were long and awkward, and yet as the meal progressed and the wine was poured, we agreed that the best thing about El Camino was the opportunity to drink wine and break bread together--and it was communion.

There have been so many moments of communion.  Communion with the community of pilgrims, ever shifting, extraordinarily diverse, yet sharing so much in common. After all, the root of communion and community is the same.  Communion with the nature--a walking pace means you are very in tune with the world around you.  Communion with God--so much time for prayer and meditation as I walk along, one of the greatest blessings of walking alone. 

So while it may indeed be weeks before I once again have the joy of sharing in a formal way in the Lord´s Supper, I have experiences of communion every day.  I am reminded that one of the ancient names for communion is Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.  I give thanks.  I give thanks.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Trail Mantras

I am mainly walking alone these days, which I find I really like.  I go at my own pace, stop when I am tired, take pictures when I feel like it, get a drink in a cafe when I feel like it, poke around a village or not, as I feel like it.  This is the first time in my life that, for any extended period of time, I am accountable only to me.  I don´t know when I´ll get tired of walking on my own, but for now I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Walking alone means LOTS of time in your head, so I have developed trail mantras to fill up the empty space in my head.

The first and my favorite, is singing ¨We Are Walking in the Light of God,¨ the wonderful South African hymn that my church sang to me on my last Sunday.  It is the perfect mantra--I sing it over and over and over, all the verses.  We are walking, singing, praying, dancing in the light of God.  I will sing this for hours while I´m walking.

It is also quite adaptable.  Today I nearly missed a yellow arrow because I was in a sort of zen state of walking.  Luckily the peregrinos walking behind me yelled and pointed out my mistake, so I started singing, ¨We are watching in the light of God, we are watching in the light of God.¨

This is also my climbing song.  When I hit a hill I start singing, ¨We are climbing in the light of God, we are climbing in the light of God.¨ But if the hill goes on too long, or is too steep, I bring out the big guns, the Jesus Prayer.  ¨Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of David, have mercy upon us.¨ Between the singing and the praying, I´ve always made it so far.

In the afternoon, when the sun gets hot and my feet get tired, I find I need more concrete encouragement than the spiritual, so I switch mantras.  I adapted this one from something that my friend Kari came up with.  It´s sung to the tune of ¨Going to the Chapel.¨

Walking El Camino and I´m gonna drink cervezas*
Walking El Camino and I´m gonna eat some tapas
Yes, my feet are tired but my heart is glad
´cause I´m walking El Camino today.

(*cervezas is Spanish for beer)

This song is also very adaptable--you can insert vino for cervezas, and whatever body part is currently hurting the most for feet.  It gets a little weird, though, when I find myself singing, ¨Walking El Camino and I´m gonna get married...¨ But whatever fills the time and my head.

Snapshots from The Way
Spening a wonderful evening at an albergue run by a group of gentle Dutch Christians who offered wonderful hospitality, a great dinner, and a lovely contemplative prayer service.

The fabulous view from that same albergue of the spire of the village church and beyond a rolling valley of Spanish farmland

Walking for 6 miles through that lovely farmland, with all shades of green from palest green gold to dark hunter green, then pausing to watch a farmer bail hay--just like home in Nebraska!

Stopping at the famous ¨wine fountain¨ outside Los Arcos, which dispenses free wine to all pilgrims, and hearing the custodian of the fountain scold two non-pilgrims for filling their water bottles.  Personally, I find I don´t have a taste for wine at 10 in the morning.

Walking and walking and walking through sun with the village of Sansol glimmering on the horizon, never seeming to come any closer not matter how far I walked.  I had become fixated on having a bottle of cold sparkling water there and was convinced it was like some mythical enchanted city.  I finally made it--only then I couldn´t find a cafe.

Stepping into the lovely 12th century church in Torres del Rio--a tiny octagonal shaped space that soars to a perfect dome.  Two pilgrims, a husband and wife, suddenly began to sing Gregorian chants, there in that place where pilgrims have sung praises to God for a thousand years.  It was just incredibly, absolutely perfect.  I sat with tears in my eyes thinking how incredibly blessed I am.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Day on El Camino

After a week of walking, I have almost gotten a routine down.  It goes something like this--

The albergue begins to stir around 5:30 as the early birds leave to start walking.  I have heard stories of these early risers being rude and inconsiderate, but all the ones I have shared accomodations with have been as quiet as possible, but their rustlings stir me from sleep to wakefulness.

I like to get up around 6 so I can get going around 7, especially now that it is getting warmer.  I get up and get dressed quickly--no meandering around in your undies, which is what I am now sleeping in because the dorm rooms are warm.  There are lots of scrawny European men who don´t share my qualms.  I wouldn´t mind if they were young and buff, but there´s something offputting about seeing a man´s rear end with his underwear crawling up first thing in the morning.

If the albergue serves breakfast, I eat there.  The Spanish breakfasts are quite different from what most Americans are used to--a baguette with butter and jam (a slice of cheese and/or ham if you are lucky), tea, and perhaps juice.  If the albergue doesn´t provide breakfast, sometimes I have bought fruit and yogurt the night before and eat quickly.  

But if there is no breakfast, I pack my bag, which still seems to take me a long time as I keep trying to figure out the most efficient way to get everything in, while at the same time having what needs to be readily available (rain gear, first aid, food, water) in someplace accessible. 

Then I start walking.  If I haven´t had breakfast, the first item is to find a place to buy something to eat.  So far this hasn´t been a problem, though in some small villages you have to ask where the cafe is.  It is a cultural difference that in Spain cafes and restaurants in villages that have a captive audience in the thousands of pilgrims traipsing through them every year don´t go out of their way to make their presence known.  In the states we would have signs everywhere--GET YOUR PILGRIM BREAKFAST HERE!!! BUY ONE GET ONE FREE!!!  But the Spanish seem much more laid back about it all.

Then I walk.  I have walked alone the last two days, which is curiously freeing.  I walk until I am tired, and then I rest.  One of the downsides to walking alone is that I get in a sort of Zen state of walking and don´t rest as often as I should.  Today I suddenly felt exhausted and looked at my watch to discover that I had been walking steadily for more than 3 hours.  I probably need to monitor this more.

Right now there are lots of little villages to buy lunch, which is what I do, but lots of peregrinos buy a sandwich and picnic, or even buy just cheese and bread.  But I like to stop in a cafe because then I can use the toilets and avoid a trail-side pitstop (I think I mooned a Spanish farmer on a tractor today, but when a girl´s gotta go, a girl´s gotta go!)

I get to where I´m staying by about 2, check in, show my pilgrim credentials, and pay the 5 to 10 euros the albergues charge.  Off come the boots--many albergues make you take them off in the entry way--a blessed relief!  And off comes the pack--even better.  By now your feet hurt, your back hurts, your legs hurt.  When I look around the albergue I see that almost everyone is doing what I call ¨the sore feet shuffle--gingerly shuffling along, slightly bent over, walking not unlike that old man character Tim Conway used to do on the Carol Burnett show.

A shower is next, which is heaven (though every shower presents unique challenges.  it is amazing how plumbing can vary). Then I do laundry. When you have only 3 shirts, 2 pairs of socks, and 2 pairs of pants, you can´t postpone laundry.  Whatever I´ve worn that day is hand laundred, unless you have the incredible luxury of staying in an albergue with a washing machine.  This happened in Pamplona, and I happily stuffed my dirty clothes in the washing machine only to discover there was no detergent for purchase.  I said screw it, and washed them in water only.  Probably just as clean as with my inept hand washing.

Then I check my feet.  Any new blisters?  How are the old ones doing?  Peregrinos, for obvious reasons, are obsessed with their feet.  I´ve had one rather ugly blister, and few small ones, but nothing debilitating and nothing new for a couple of days, so I hope my feet are toughening up.

It´s now about 4.  I blog, do email, read, nap, and think about dinner.  Many places offer pilgrim menus, which are a great value.  3 courses with wine--we are in Spain--for 10 euros.  It is great to make connections with other pilgrims.  Last night I sat next to  a  man from Denmark, across from a woman from Australia, and down from a couple from Italy.  

Nine seems the earliest I can respectably go to bed, and I usually have my earplugs in and my eyemask on so I can fall into a good-kind-of-tired deep sleep.  

The next morning I wake up at 6 and even though 12 hours ago I hurt all over, I bounce out of bed refreshed and eager to do it all over again.

Snapshots from today´s walk
Today was a bit shorter--12 miles from Puenta la Reina to Villapuerte.  I´m staying in a lovely albergue that is in a medieval building but has all the modern conveniences plus an incredibly gracious hostess in Simone.

Lovely encounters--
walking into a small village behind 4 young Spaniards who were laughing and taking pictures of their shadows falling on the road before them.  One young man grabbed my arm and pulled me into the groups, taking a picture of our 5 shadows as he shouted, ¨Cinco amigos!

walking through fields of poppies accompanied by the sounds of cuckoos calling softly from the trees

walking on an incredibly preseved Roman road that bisects a modern highway

greeting an elderly Spanish gentleman who then stopped, motioned me closer, and reached into his pocket to give me a handful of cherries.  Then he chucked my under my chin and bid me, ¨Buen Camino!¨ (I´m quite sure i have not been chucked under my chin since I got out of diapers!)

Seeing a medieval hilltop village suddenly appear, rising above the olive groves and vineyards that characterized the landscape of today´s walk

eating dinner which a couple of pilgrims prepared in the albergue´s kitchen, a meal which became communion for me.  A big salad of things purchased from the local market, with contributions from women from Denmark, South Korea, Germany, and the two Americans. Both body and spirit were filled to overflowing.



Monday, May 16, 2011

Life needs more yellow arrows

Yellow arrows mark the way on El Camino.  Each crossroad is marked with an arrow--and sometimes a scallop shell--but the yellow arrows are ubiquitous.  Spray painted on rocks, scrawled on sign posts, written on walls and fences.  When you come to a crossroads and can´t decide which way to go, all you have to do is look for the yellow arrow and go where it points.

I´ve been thinking real life needs more yellow arrows.  Have a major decision to make?  Look for the yellow arrow.  Not sure about what to have for dinner? Look for the yellow arrow.  Uncertain about which life path to take? Look for the yellow arrow.

Of course, prayer and meditation and listening to God SHOULD help with some of those decisions--though maybe not the what to have for dinner one.  But I´m not so good at hearing God´s prompting.  Sometimes I get an inkling, but more often I go blundering off on my own.

But there´s another sign I look for on El Camino, one that I find even more comforting than the yellow arrow.  It´s other pilgrims.  Today I walked on my own, and there´s something incredibly comforting about seeing the backs of other pilgrims ahead of me.  They reassure me that I´m on the right path.  In fact, today when I entered Puenta la Reina, where I am spending the night I totally lost the yellow arrows. It was only following other pilgrims that got me where I needed to be.

So even if life doesn´t come with easy to read yellow arrows that infallibly point us in the direction we need to go, we do have tradition and role models and mentors and friends and family and those who have gone before us to guide and direct us.  We do not make our life journey alone.