Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pilgrimage – Walking El Camino de Santiago
By Deborah Schafer

Initially Kristen, my daughter, had asked for a book on the Camino for Christmas 2012, and it really shocked me, because when I was her age I had read about it and wanted to do this pilgrimage but never told anyone because it was so out of my league. I just did not take those type of risks, going to countries that do not speak English, hiking up and over mountains. I didn't like to get too physical....but I sensed that this was the time. Kris could take the summer off, and I would just retire. So at 61 I started working out for the first time in my life. I knew I would have to leave my precious comfort zone behind, so I promised myself I would not object to the weather. This was a big deal to me, but as it turned out, only the beginning. I learned that I bring a lot of resistance to most things I do. And that is the purpose in the end to taking risks-to become vulnerable to events in a way that you find out what you are made of. I found my precious identity beneath all that comfort zone. And I saw into the hearts of others as they helped me, guided me, and walked with me. I know something about myself now, and others, and I feel so much more a participant in life instead of an observer.

Subject: Camino news
Date: Tue, 11 Jun 2013 11:18:34 -0500

Hey, are you guys pilgrims?  This was the first recognition of us as pilgrims, standing on the train platform in Bordeaux, from a man and his family looking for their train to Bayonne, and then to St. Jean Pied du Port.  Pilgrims themselves, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, we would meet them two more times before beginning our journey the next day.  It felt surreal being recognized as part of this larger scheme of things, and signaled the beginning for me of this journey. 

Maybe it was a good thing I did not know we would have to travel straight up a mountain at a 45 degree angle for a day when we left St. Jean, and then travel the following day in bitterly cold rain over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, arriving late in the day so cold we could not hold the pen to sign in.  And maybe it was a good thing I did not know we would leave the next morning in wet clothes in pouring rain to travel to Burgette, just 3 km away, where we picked up a hotel room at the Hotel Burgette, where Hemingway used to sojourn, and was given his room at 9:00 in the morning so we could fall into bed for the day and recover.

I had missed the medieval church and cloister museum in Roncesvalles, too tired to move.  I have missed most of the historic spots as we trek 7 to 9 hours a day over mountainous terrain, and I have found out that these parts may be nice but they don´t hold a candle to the experience of hospitality we have received from the hostels and French and Spanish people.  And no church on the map can tell me more about love than my daughter walking backwards up the first mountains and encouraging me by reading to me and coaxing another step out of me, till we reached the top.  And yesterday on the trail we came across Mary, a lady in her 70s doing this pilgrimage, and she had fallen a few times and was getting exhausted.  A young Swiss man and his walking companion from Vermont took her bag and carried it, trading off every half hour for the next 3 hours.  They had their own back pack on, and carried hers in the front.  And today, in the heat at the end of the day of reaching Pamplona, Kris and I were lost, and looked it, sitting on a park bench.  Before long a Spanish couple (pilgrims too) and a stranger walking by got together and figured out where we were headed and walked us to the door, at least a 30 minute walk that certainly was not on their way. 

We hear stories of hospitality like this at each stop, and there is a lovely graciousness in the pilgrims we meet, each doing this for their own reasons.  After the first hard day of climbing we were treated to a lovely pilgrim meal at the Orrisson hostel, and I was lucky to sit with a lady from France that is doing this for a week or two each year until done, as she has MS.  After we shared our individual reasons for embarking on this pilgrimage, she said "You are now part of a very great community".  It brought tears to my eyes, realizing that just doing the walk joins me to the millions of others who have taken on such an impossible thing.  The walking is hard on me, and Kris finds herself waiting a lot so I can catch up, so she has become the photographer, the navigator, and the interpreter, improving on her high school Spanish.   Without her as coach, expert trekker, and friend this would be impossible, but it seems we are doing it after all. 

Subject: Week 2 of walking
Date: Wed, 19 Jun 2013 14:57:10 -0500
We have left the lush greenery and manicured gardens of Navarra and entered the rough red clay region of La Rioja.  Perhaps you recognize the wine connection, and it is very real here, as we travel through vineyard after vineyard.  This area is dryer with more gravel than large stones, but consequently we travel on paved roads or gravel walkways and the hips and feet really know that.  On both sides of our camino are majestic mountains, and luckily, we walk the low valleys in between.  I am getting stronger, but we are both tired with long days back to back. 

Yesterday we left Logrono and on the way posted another 2kg pack back home.  As soon as we left the camino path for the post office people started calling out to us and pointing to the other direction " eh peregrino" (pilgrim), they would call, and point back to our path-Kris would wave her big bag and yell back "correos" (post office) and they would nod and laugh.  Construction workers, office workers on their way to work, school children, all seemed to see us and want to make sure we not lost. When we arrived at the post office the man at the counter took it upon himself to save us money on the shipment and took a razor to a box to cut it down to save freight, while the line got longer behind us.  A Spanish lady that teaches English came over to be our interpreter, and we just had to let this fella do his thing.  At last it was done, and as we were paying Kris looked down and saw that a big puddle of red La Rioja clay water had formed under her, her water valve had been compressed at the counter and formed quite a little flood.  We quickly wiped it up with our bandanas (always carry one!) and made a hasty retreat, but still heard some of the folks wishing us ¨"buen camino" as we left. 

No one seems too busy to greet us and wish us "buen camino!".  It is a treat to be a foreigner in a country and see so much good will towards us. Kris is experiencing a bit of difficulty as so many of the relationships are camino relationships, short, for a conversation, an hour of walking together, or a few days at the same pace.  She hates to invest in relationships with such short lifespan!

Even though we are together we are traveling different caminos.  She is tuned in to the flowers, bugs, insects, animals and food.  I seek out the old churches, museums, monasteries, and ruins.  She laughs that she is walking a "comida de Santiago" (food to Santiago) while I am walking the Camino de Santiago (road to Santiago). 

And sometimes our two caminos intersect, as in SanSol where I could walk no further in the heat and had her find an auburge (hostel) for the night. She found us an old family home that had been put into use as a hostel, complete with art, furniture, crystal, and enclosed garden with a central olive tree and other fruit trees and lilies, roses and grape vines around the perimeter.  As I looked over the garden wall I could see the sun set on Torres del Rio, and the 11th century Templar church that I could not make it to in the heat.  It would have to wait until the morning, but it was wonderful to watch the evening close in over those ancient buildings, and then go into one for our own nights rest. 

Spain is surely a country of gardeners, everywhere are flowers and vines.  Even a bar door in Logrono is held open with a tall can of calla lilies!  They never miss a chance to perk up a room with flowers-fresh flowers in ice cream shops, on every balcony, up the walls.  Incredible.

And so our days continue, 20 km (12 mile) hikes with much time to think interweaved with conversation and many small kindnesses.  What is so clear is the absolute genuine kindness of people-it is almost transparent on the camino-from fellow pilgrims helping one another with blisters, food needs, companionship, to those who live in these regions, who won´t let us stray off the path, or into a flood, or go without a cheery "buen camino" as we pass.  We walk in this wonderful experience that humans are incredibly decent and caring, and we begin to see that in ourselves as well.  I started feeling defeated and demoralized by my meager abilities with hiking and carrying the backpack, but I am beginning to feel the camino rub off on me, as I see myself stronger and clearer each day, able to help others and receive help.  What a gift. 

Subject: Camino Realizations
Date: Sat, 29 Jun 2013 16:15:57 -0500
We have finished our third week of travel and I am lightening my pack once again.  Nothing like experience to teach the recalcitrant; the guidebooks said only two pants and two shirts.....The days are hot, as if summer discovered it was tardy and on the solstice rushed to remove the 50 degree weather and replace it with 90 degree days.  The trees and night offer the only cool, or the dark interiors of the stone buildings.  Daily hand washed clothing dries in an hour, and hats and sunglasses a must.  I promised myself not to complain about weather on this trip, or wish for something other than what I had, and it has been a nice thing to accept reality by accepting the weather. 

The cumulative exhaustion and lack of personal space took its toll on me the other day waiting in the early morning heat for a museum to open, and I found myself unable to stop crying.  I just could not fathom how I had missed the hard physicality of this trip, with all my planning and reading. I just wanted to kick my ass all the way to Santiago.  I got so caught up in the myth of the Camino that I failed to translate meters into feet to get acquainted with the fact that a mountain listed as 1500 meters high is really close to a mile high.  Had I thought it through I might have changed my choices.  I could see my tendency to make everything larger than life, and here I was, suckered by that and feeling very Paleolithic about my next meal and bed, waiting in front of the Museum of Human Evolution.   And as the heat increased the Burgos festival began and a mariachi band started up adding a very Felliniesque aspect to the experience.  I was laughing and crying by time the museum doors opened!  (Exceptional museum, by the way, best I have ever seen...).

Later we checked in at the small hostel run by Jose Manuel.  It was 38 steps up a spiral staircase above a small chapel, a tiny space, enough for 8 bunk beds with one shower and two toilets, but Jose sang a lovely Spanish folk song to us after we checked in, complete with a flamenco flair on his guitar work.   This lovely man lives in a tiny space above this room, serving the pilgrims with practical help and a song in his heart.  As the evening wore on more people arrived, and though full, Jose pulled two mattresses from storage and the floor of the intake area was now part of the hostel.  Later a young man from France showed up and Jose asked another man for his thermorest, Kris gave her blanket, and I gave him my pillow.  It seemed a little like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes to me, a special memory of the hospitality the Camino reveals.

A few days later we reached La Cruz de Ferro (the iron cross).  Each day, at the suggestion of another pilgrim,  I have dedicated my walk to some person and kept them in special regard as I walked.  At the Iron Cross I left the prayers entrusted to me, along with some of my own, and a special tribute to my mother and mother-in-law, two women who lived deeply.  It was a satisfying moment for me to stand there, joining my prayers to those of all the pilgrims who have done the same over the ages.  I am one of many bringing hopes and prayers to tame my fears, and it puts things in perspective for me.  A very human experience on this Way that leads me deeper into my shared humanity. 

Tomorrow we cross into Galicia, but to get there we have to climb O´Cebrerio, a very high mountain.  We have learned to start early, getting up at 6am and leaving quietly in the near dark.  I have also learned to forward my pack by taxi on the high mountains, because this is my recognition of my limitations.  It promises to be 36 degrees C tomorrow, so it will be a challenge.  But I have gotten stronger, and more realistic.  It is a mountain, not a MOUNTAIN.  I can cross it.  After all, I crossed the Pyrenees!  Love, Debby
Subject: Santiago!
Date: Thu, 11 Jul 2013 14:53:23 -0500
We have reached Santiago!  After 34 days on the Camino we were almost blown into town by a strong and persistent wind, as if all my prayers for wind over the last week had been answered all at once.  Sailors and pilgrims pray for wind, it seems, both being at the mercy of the elements, and Galicia has been experiencing a heat advisory that has had us getting up at 5am to begin our treks to beat the heat of the day.  In a perverse turn of events, the closer one gets to Santiago the less likely a bed for the night becomes, with more pilgrims and fewer hostels.  Three nights ago we had to go off track 2K for a 3rd floor attic room with one window and finally, almost no sleep.  Up at 5 and re-walking the 2K to get back to the Camino and continue for the longest day of the trip, 23K.  We had a hotel room which gave us hope, but being rather rural, the next door dogs barked all night.  Up again early for the last 10K to Santiago, and finally, there we were, in the square before the great cathedral, with other excited pilgrims, street performers, guitars and bagpipes playing, flags flying and a very festive feeling over the square. How to understand the end of this when the why of it stays so elusive?

We checked our bags at the pilgrim office and met our Camino friends Mehdi and his wife Media from Iran. We had met them numerous times at hostels or casas and shared dinner and stories.  They are from Iran and work in Norway in sustainable energy projects.  They had a recommendation for lunch from a work friend from Santiago, so we found the little bar and had a wonderful time ordering dishes with hand gestures for crawling crabs, flapping hands for clams and mussels, and swimming hands for fish.  We got 5 dishes to sample this way and hardly knew what we ordered, but what great food (and tolerant waiter!)

Our friends continued on to Finesterre (the end of the world in Spanish) and we found our way to the pilgrim office to get our Compestela, the document from the church that used to include indulgences for the pilgrimage.  I will have to have a friend translate it for me when I return to see what it really says....then we had our visit to St. James in the Cathedral.  A tiny passage snakes up behind the giant gold stature of St. James behind the altar, and it happened that a mass was beginning as I ascended to ¨"hug" the apostle and whisper my requests to him, so I got to chat with St. James along with a lovely Gregorian chant in the background.  Then to the crypt below, with a prayer before the silver reliquary holding his bones.  Today a shop keeper explained to us that each part of the ritual relates to our lives, the sunny golden "high" and the dark "low", and that each leads into the other.  She said the Camino is the End that leads to the Beginning, and that is the wisdom each pilgrim finds as they journey.  Ends occur, and always, a new beginning arises.

What has ended for me is certain gullibility, where I thought I could find a vibrant history alive and that I could walk in these old stories and feel their presence.  Even at the end of the trail I was rushing up Mount Gozo (Mount Joy) like a medieval pilgrim to get my first glimpse of the Cathedral only to find that a huge hedge of trees obstructs the view and the Cathedral no longer dominates the sky, modern buildings hide it....Time does not like to be restrained, things change, and the stories can never be relived.  But they can become a mythic way to a greater appreciation of the present.  And I have had my Mount of Joy, when I so clearly saw that it was in the people on this Camino that I found my reason for traveling it.  The people of 25 countries we have met along the way, the glorious Spanish people with their deep hospitality, the natural beauty of the country, and their passion for their land.  This was a full immersion intimate experience, sleeping with strangers in the bed above and next to me, eating with them, exchanging stories, and traveling along the way a bit with them.  When Dieter bid us "Buen Camino" I answered in my rudimentary German "und sie" (and you), to which he vehemently responded "nicht sie, ist Du in Camino!" which meant, not the impersonal form of you, but the intimate form of you, the one used by lovers and deep friends, which is what we are on the Camino.  That is what happened for 34 days-we found we shared a deep and common humanity that bonded us strongly yet with absolute freedom to be who we are.  I hope I can carry this forward for my new beginning…Thank you for participating with me in this journey through your thoughts, prayers and emails.  It has been a tremendous gift to share it with you. 

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