Archives for posts with tag: camino

(This is the beginning of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago.)

In 1991, I was working as a personal assistant for a horrible man who owned the Malibu Gym. Every day I’d travel from my home in Marina del Rey along the Pacific Coast Highway past all the houses where the other half lived and wonder exactly where my life was going. One afternoon as I was flying home unconsciously at about 75 mph, I was pulled over by the CHP for speeding.

Sometimes, however, there’s a silver lining.

Instead of paying the ticket, I opted to go to traffic school where, ironically, I met one of those men who lived in one of those houses overlooking the Pacific. As a member of the “other half,” he happened to have a house on a tiny island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Barcelona, and for some reason, he offered to let me stay in it for a month, rent-free. I’d never been out of the country before, and I decided it was time to go. I saved some money, quit my job and planned a backpacking trip through Europe using that house in Majorca as a respite. It’s what every 25-year-old should do.

Just before leaving on my trip, George Bush the elder, decided to bomb Iraq in what would become the first Gulf War. My plan hadn’t included there being a Gulf War but since there was, the American government highly recommended not leaving the country. If travel was necessary, they advised Americans to not fly into London. If that wasn’t possible, we were urged to avoid Heathrow Airport. My ticket to Heathrow in hand, I didn’t flinch because I had something the American government didn’t know about: an elephant pendant a friend had given me, which she assured me was some kind of Jewish good-luck-for-travel charm. I figured that pendant and a few earnest prayers were enough to keep me safe.

My father had given me a printout of travel suggestions before I left.

Do not tell people I’m American. Do not wear Nike shoes or Levi jeans or other obvious American labels. Do not give out too many details about myself. Be guarded. Trust no one.

My passport, credit card, traveler’s cheques and emergency phone numbers of U.S. embassies all over Europe were literally strapped to me in a wallet on a belt. Xeroxed copies of everything were sealed, ziplocked and tucked into the side pocket of my bag.

During the first few weeks of my trip, I charted handpicked territories up one side of Great Britain and down the other. I read abandoned English newspapers in train stalls and cafés, and I watched broadcasts of the BBC from the common rooms of youth hostels whenever there was a television. All eyes had turned toward my homeland. I became aware for the first time ever that I’d been born into something considered to be a Superpower. Mine was a nation that was leading a war. We were in the ultimate competition, and like the Olympics, we were waving our flags and rooting for victory.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

A week after my encounter with the groping Spaniard, I limped to the Estacion Maritima in Palma de Majorca, boarded a boat back to Barcelona and got on the first train leaving the country. From my window, I watched as we crossed the border into France, and as I looked over my shoulder I thought, I’ll never set foot in Spain again.

Eleven years later, I read Shirley Maclaine’s book, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. Here’s what she writes about the book on her website.

There is a famous pilgrimage that has been taken by people for centuries. It is called the Santiago de Compostela Camino across northern Spain. It is said the Camino lies directly under the Milky Way and follows the ley lines that reflect the energy from those star systems above it.

The Santiago Camino has been traversed for thousands of years by saints, sinners, generals, misfits, kings and queens. People from Saint Francis of Assisi and Charlemagne to Ferdinand and Isabella to Dante and Chaucer have taken the journey, which comprises a 500-mile trek across highways, mountains, cities and fields. It is done with the intent to find one’s deepest spiritual meaning and resolutions regarding conflicts in Self.

Even before I’d finished reading the book, I knew I would take the journey. It seemed so like me to be drawn to something so extreme and arduous and atypical. But I hated that the trail happened to be in Spain. Of course it would be: never say never.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

Next stop, Exeter, on the River Exe in Devon, England.

I got abundant, restful sleep for most of the night all stretched out in my reclining business-class seat and tucked in with my business-class blanket—only my sweet, bald head exposed.

There was a rabbi sitting in the seat behind me, a big, barrel-shaped guy who’d just stepped out of Yentl with his long, prehistoric beard and suspenders.

Somewhere on our approach to Heathrow as breakfast was being prepared, he came to speak to me. He stood, towering above me and filling up the aisle. “I didn’t get to talk with you last night,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

I looked up at him cautiously.

He said he was curious about me: about where I live and where I was going. I was evasive at first, not wanting to be picked at, but he picked at me, and I eventually told him about my month ahead, that I’d be walking an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain.

His eyes lit up. “Oh, then I must tell you of the curse in Spain.”

Sure, I need to know about curses in Spain.

It seems that Spain was once a land of the Jews, many of whom were killed during the Inquisition. Those who remained were forced to convert to Catholicism, which they did only to put on appearances while they continued to practice Judaism in private. “When the last of the Jews left,” my rabbi told me, “they put a curse on the land. Those of us who are most orthodox will never set foot in Spain.”

I nodded in understanding. “When I get there, I’ll pray for you.”

He smiled. “I wish it were that easy.” He stooped down closer, more reverently. “There is much blood from my people in Spain.”

Where is there not blood from your people? I thought. But instead I said, “Well, I fancy myself as having a direct line,” I pointed to the heavens. “And by the time I walk across the place, that curse’ll be gone; I’m sure of it.” I was feeling a little feisty. Are you not supposed to talk to an aging rabbi that way?
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

The Camino de Santiago literally means The Way of Saint James. The trail was traditionally begun from the pilgrim’s home and ended at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where the body of St. James is supposedly buried. There’s some debate about that—and legend, of course. The legend is that James, a disciple of Jesus, was killed in Jerusalem, and his body was shipped off to be buried in Spain. The ship hit a storm, and the body was lost at sea… only to wash up on the shore near what is now Santiago. But oddly, when the body was discovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

It’s that last part that’s important. For centuries, the scallop shell, which is found on the shores of Galicia, has been a symbol and a metaphor for the Camino. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims travel to arrive at the same destination: Santiago de Compostela. And, just as the waves of the ocean carry the shells to the shores, the shell then serves as a symbol of God’s hand guiding the pilgrims to Santiago.

In short, it’s tradition to have a shell. And I didn’t have one. Not because I hadn’t searched high and low for one, but because no matter where I looked, I came up empty.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

I woke up early on the morning of my departure, February 27, 2005. I’d already laid out my clothes for the journey and tucked everything else into my backpack. Back at home, so long ago, I’d made up daily packets of vitamins for the trek but I couldn’t find them anywhere, and I was a bit panicked about it. I searched my suitcase a dozen times but came up with nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I’d had every detail covered. And already it seemed like things were drifting afoul. I don’t need no stinkin’ vitamins, I told myself.

I tucked my suitcase with most everything I’d been traveling with into Karen’s closet, and I picked up my pack, which seemed miniscule in comparison. I walked downstairs to my final breakfast dressed in the only clothes I would have for the next month. Karen had hot coffee waiting. She picked up my pack, impressed by it’s size. I met her eyes sheepishly. I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking—will this be enough? Neither of us said anything.

This was the plan. From Exeter, I would take a train to London. In London, I would switch trains and arrive at the Stansted airport where I would hop on a flight to Biarritz in southwestern France. In Biarritz, I was hoping to find a taxi that would escort me about 30 miles to St. Jean Pied de Port, my starting point. Otherwise, I’d have to take a train.

Karen dropped me off at the train station in Exeter just before 10 AM. I hugged her for a long time imaging hers would be the last friendly face I’d see for a very long time. And hers would also be the first recognizable face I’d see upon my return. She’d been so welcoming, so accommodating, so protective, so motherly, so loving, so perfect.

I stood at the entrance to the train station and watched her drive away. When I could no longer see her car, I took a very big breath and turned, moving forward into the station… and into the great beyond.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

February 28
Day 1: St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles, 31km/19m

I burrowed all night and managed to not just stay warm, but also get some restful sleep. Most of the pilgrims had departed by the time I was up and alert and ready to go. I was lingering, waiting for my PA (Polish Angel) to get ready. The idea of starting alone was daunting to me so I asked if he wanted to walk together.

He struggled to hoist his bag onto his back. Not wanting to lift it from the floor, he heaved it onto his bed, put his arms through the straps and stumbled like a weightlifter to straighten his knees. How much did it weigh? I wondered. Sixty pounds? Eighty pounds?

More than three feet of snow had fallen on the mountain, and to walk the preferred path was to risk your life, we were told. Instead of crossing the mountain, we would be forced to walk around it (at least the peak of it). I quickly decided that what I most needed was a view OF the mountain rather than a view FROM the mountain.

We left the refuge together in the light of early morning, and I saw St. Jean Pied de Port for the first time. So beautiful. So European. The trickling water, the crisp air, the ancient stone buildings at the edge of the river Nive. A bridge arched over the water. The white-capped mountain towered beyond. Snow had piled up in doorways and blanketed the pathways. It was hard to be in such a postcard-perfect locale without taking any time to explore it. It was the sort of place that was meant to be discovered, and yet I had merely crashed there for the night.

My PA and I passed quickly through the city and began, at first, to follow the road. We had 2 km of pavement before we could veer off onto the pathway that traversed alongside it. I knew that the pounding would accumulate quickly and begin to take its toll on my feet and body, so I pulled out my trekking poles, something I’d never used before. I’d read that they could absorb 25% or more of the impact of walking. The metal tips struck the pavement, tapping out a rhythm and marking each footstep. It was odd using them like this—on flat ground—but I was willing to accept any help I could get.

It wasn’t long before we saw the way markings—shells and arrows—leading us off the road and into the countryside. The way markings would be, that first day and for the next month, the sight of happiness.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 1, 2005
Day 2: Roncesvalles to Larrasoana, 31km/19.5m

I woke up at 5 AM but didn’t want to start walking at that hour. It was still dark outside, and most of the others in the refuge were still sleeping. I lay for a long time thinking about the day before. And I checked in with my body. It felt rested and ready for more. Even my feet had stopped throbbing. My bag was lying on the floor under my bed. I stuck my hand in and felt around for Brenda’s packet of letters: after all, it was officially “Week 1.” I pulled out the corresponding envelope and opened it.


I stared at the image on the front of the card for a long time, smiling. The colors. The blood red. The beautiful woman with the golden halo. The pomegranate, held out to me. I turned the card over before opening it, hoping there would be something written on the back. There was:

Eve, The Mother of All

…She holds in her hands an opened pomegranate, whose Hebrew name, rimmon, comes from the word rim, to bear a child. The pomegranate is an ancient middle-eastern symbol of the womb because of its red juice and its numerous seed or offspring. It was carved on the pillars of Solomon’s Temple as a symbol of fertility. In this icon it represents all the descendents of Eve, the human race, and our debt to her and all our foremothers.

Inside, Brenda wrote:

Dear Tess—

Help yourself to those seeds being offered. I look forward to your return and your descriptions of their taste, their texture, their nourishings.

xo Brenda

Wisdom is bright and does not grow dim. By those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her. Quick to anticipate those who deride her, she makes herself known to them.

Watch for her early and you will have no trouble; you will find her sitting at your gates.

Even to think about her is understanding fully grown; be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you.

She herself walks about looking for those who are worthy of her and graciously shows herself to them as they go, in every thought of theirs coming to meet them.

—Wisdom 6:7-12

By 7 AM, I was ready to depart. As I laced up my shoes, I glanced over at my PA. He was awake but had not made any moves to prepare himself for the day ahead. His eyes were filled with defeat. I was relieved to be leaving before him so I would not have to endure his energy. In fact, I wanted to not travel with anyone else’s energy at all, but the Italian seemed to want my companionship. He was waiting for me. And when I reached for my jacket and my pack, he did too.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 2, 2005
Day 3: Larrasoana to Cizur Menor, 22 km/13.7 m

In the morning, the Italian sat on his bunk watching my every move. I got dressed and went into the kitchen, and he was there handing me a mug for my coffee. I struggled with what to say to him. Can I tell him of my need to walk alone without hurting him? I thought. And can I separate myself from hurting him? I didn’t want to hurt him, but this was a great test for me: I needed to get better at not feeling responsible for someone else’s emotions. Unless I was responsible, of course. It was a theme that had revisited me again and again, and so it came as no surprise that it would catch up with me on the Camino.

I told him not to wait for me, to start without me. He shook his head, no. I expressed, in the simplest of English, that I wanted to walk by myself, that I needed to be alone.

“No, no,” he said. “I wait. Wherever you want to go, I wait for you, is no trouble.”

Strike one.

He was so earnest in his desire to shepherd me. It was both adorable and awful. But since I didn’t know what else to say, I would spend another day with his silence and his footsteps and his ever-present energy pulling at me… even though I was determined to have MY Camino anyway.

When I left the refuge, my Italian Shepherd (IS) was behind me. Meanwhile, my PA was raising the white flag. He stood at the side of the road waiting for a bus to Pamplona where he would mail some of his belongings back home and reassess his journey. I wished him good luck with his travels.

It was another bitterly cold day on the Camino but every time I walked out into it and was met with a landscape of snow, its beauty took my breath away.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 3, 2005
Day 4: Cizur Menor to Puente la Reina, 26 km/16 m

When I awakened, my IS was sitting at my bedside, dressed and waiting. He smiled at me. I sat up and smiled back at him. A new word had popped into my head that I thought might work. I was hopeful. “Today, I walk solo,” I said.

His face grew long with concern and rejection. “Why? Why?” His eyes desperately searched mine.

My heart ached. “I need time with me,” I said, tapping my chest.

His eyes bulged with understanding, and he quickly grabbed his bag. “Okay, okay,” he said standing.

I apologized. I thanked him for two days of travel. He clung to his bag hiding his face a bit, and then he left quickly, as if embarrassed.

I felt terrible and relieved at the same time. I got dressed, packed up and moved into the kitchen where I soft boiled two eggs and smashed them between an open baguette with slices of cheese. I had learned a new way to cut the bread from Simon: into a V so that the contents stay in the crevice. Brilliant. I put my breakfast on a napkin and sat back down at the internet terminal, indulging my addiction one last time. I quickly dashed off an email to my friend Karen in Exeter.

Subject: Just Passed Pamplona
Date: Wed Mar 3 07:52:23 2005

Karen:

I’m here, and I’m already famous—for being the girl who has managed to bring so much in such a little bag. People are envious. They all have too much and must carry it. Nothing at the moment that I don’t have. Except heat.

The little woman here said it’s supposed to be bad weather all week. We’ll see. So far no rain. Maybe I can take the cold if it’s also not wet!

The refuges are very doable. Small and packed with bunk beds but there are so few of us that it’s fine. I think they’ll get more crowded as we go though. The closer to Santiago, the more people, I suppose. That might be the place I find hotels instead. Otherwise, it’s a bit like camping in a cabin. They have blankets and pillows but that’s all. Toilets in another building usually. Showers. Sometimes even hot water though that’s been sparse!

My hair is fuzzy. Mostly hidden under two hats.

Loving you,
Tess

I hit the trail, and I immediately started singing.
(more…)

(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

March 4, 2005
Day 5: Puente la Reina to Irache, 30 km/18.6 m

Much as I begrudged my Italian Shepherd, he got up every few hours through the night to tend the fire and make sure our clothes were dry by morning. And because he left the door open, it also kept us somewhat warm.

And yet I still didn’t want to walk with him. Thankfully, he’d packed up and left the room without me. But when I exited the dorm, I found him sitting in the common room waiting. And I had to tell him again that I needed to walk alone. He set out reluctantly without me. But I was walking with him anyway, in my mind, and following his footsteps. I could see them in the snow, and they provided me comfort. There was a detour written in Spanish, which I couldn’t fully understand. So without his footprints, I would have felt lost. My Italian Shepherd was the one who marked the way for me. And I struggled with him again. Who am I, and who do I want to be? I kept asking myself. Do I want to be someone who embraces and includes and loves… or am I someone who berates and tosses aside the needs of others? Once again, I was lost between my needs and the needs of others. It went for miles unresolved. Do I waste energy on fighting him or can I simply accept what comes? I didn’t have any answers. There was only the trail ahead. With his footsteps guiding me.


I climbed up to some mountain peak a few miles past Puente la Reina, and when I looked back, I saw the snow-covered countryside and, way off in the mountains, the windmills. I couldn’t believe I’d come that far. Just the day before I was at those windmills, which now seemed miles away. But more than the distance, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. Especially the snow. It was the snow that made every day seem so picturesque and so different. I was grateful for it all.

I kept debating the reasons I might have undertaken the trek but looking at those windmills gave me a sense of purpose. Maybe the trip was simply about marveling—at what I’ve endured, at where my roads have taken me, at forward progress despite what may sometimes feel like inertia. Walking 500 miles is kind of a crazy thing, I thought. But if I can do this and maintain my sense of happiness and presence—being present with being here—if I can every day endure physical pain and difficult conditions and still make progress and still feel full, then that’s all I think I’ll ever need to accomplish.

I thought about Shirley MacLaine. And the star system that follows the Camino along the Milky Way. I thought about the time-intensive act of physically taking each step, and taking each step on that particular earth, under those particular stars and that particular sky, at exactly that moment. And even though I was reaching to the past, to the moment when Shirley MacLaine saw what I was seeing, and even though I glimpsed the feet of a million pilgrims backward and forward through time, I was firmly rooted in the here and now. Past, future and present converged in an instant, all of them interconnected, all of them accessible at every moment. In fact, as I write this on September 7th of 2011, I find myself able to slip back to that moment, to that spot of earth, to that feeling of the entire world contained inside of me. All those spiritual ideas I’d studied—that there’s no separation between you and me and God, that there’s no time—it all made total sense. I am every moment. I am every person. And this world is a shared event.
(more…)