Sunday, June 21, 2009

Photos at last!

I have finally been able to post some of my photos from my travels. I split them up into four groups:

-Doha, Paris, Berlin, & Chartreuse

Walk On

And now my trip is over. Well, it's been over for over a month now. I start my classes tomorrow (ah!), but I'm excited for what's ahead. I really like my house, I love my neighborhood, my roommates are great, I'm glad to be near my L'Arche family, and I already enjoy my professors and fellow students. (There are 32 people in my cohort. We're going to get very, very close.)

I've been so busy packing, driving across the country, and moving into my new house that I haven't had too much time to sit and reflect on my experiences. But maybe that's a good thing. When I complete something in my life (school, work, traveling, etc.), I have a tendency to prematurely write an ending to the story, as it were, and then put it on a shelf, not to look at it again. But I don't want to do that. I don't want to preemptively come up with a list of lessons I've learned and leave it at that. I want to leave this "book" open so that it can still speak to me weeks, months, and years afterwards.

Nevertheless, I think it's okay to come up with a list of "things to take home," while recognizing that this isn't exhaustive:

-Find pockets of stillness, solitude, and silence (thanks to the Maasai and the Camino)
-Take my's all about the journey not the destination (Camino)
-Don't forget to have some frivolous fun every now and then (Berlin, Camino, Ireland)
-Don't get caught up in the "should"s and "have to"s...only do something because I want to do it (Berlin)
-Never get too comfortable...find something new and unknown to experience. It brings me closer to God (Kenya, Doha, Berlin, Camino)
-Exercise (Paris, Camino)
-Dance (Berlin)
-Love myself (Berlin, Camino)

And there's much, much more that I will take (and have taken) with me. I'm excited to see how my travels will shape me and my personal journey. Thank you for sharing this with me.

If you want an adventure of your own, please come visit me in Seattle! I'm going to be here for a VERY long time. (If I stay on my current academic path, I will finish school in four-and-a-half years.)

I hope you've enjoyed reading my travel blog. Thank you for sharing this with me.

Quality Mother-Son Time

Two weeks after I returned to the States, my mom and I drove all the way from Atlanta to Seattle. Essentially, it was a repeat of my first road trip from Hotlanta to Tacoma in 2005. Bally Boo and I basically drove straight west and then straight north. We made the following stops:

-Little Rock...Ice cream with my aunt and uncle.

-Santa Fe...Adobe ALL OVER THE PLACE. It's city law that the buildings have to look traditionally Southwestern. Even the Shell stations and McDonald's look like little pueblos.

-Petrified National Forest (AZ)...Really cool dinosaur-age trees that had become rocks over time thanks to the silica from volcanic eruptions. Those were some scared trees.

-Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)...It's breathtaking, especially at sunset.

-Red Rocks State Park (AZ)...It's what I imagine the Australian Outback to look like. Really beautiful.

-Las Vegas!...We stayed at Paris Las Vegas (with fake storefronts and cobble-stoned streets inside), saw Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio, won thirty dollars at Blackjack, lost ten dollars at slots, and went to a strip show (and by "strip show," I mean we drove up and down the Las Vegas Strip at night). I've now been to two of the most sinful places in the world--Las Vegas and Amsterdam's Red Light District--with my teetotaling, Southern Baptist mother. I have a feeling that I didn't quite get the WHOLE experience in Vegas or Amsterdam. Oh well. We still had fun.

-Death Valley National Park (CA)...HOT. Got up to 103 degrees.

-Yosemite National Park (CA)...Stunning. Half Dome is one of the most amazing mountains in the world. It got down to the 50s...a 50-degree drop from our morning in Death Valley. Crazy. It's my favorite national park.

-San Francisco...Wonderful. My mom's co-worker's brother gave us a fantastic tour of the city, and we had dinner with Amanda, my friend from the Krista Foundation. Fantastic.

-Crater Lake National Park (OR)...Really, really beautiful. It was the bluest water I had ever seen. (Supposedly, it's the cleanest water in the U.S.) It was my mom's favorite national park.

We had a lot of good food, but the best may have been at In-N-Out in California and Burgerville in Oregon.

In Search of Leprechauns

Wow. It's been over a month since I've returned to the states, and I've yet to update (and complete) my travel blog. My apologies.

I spent the last week of my adventures in Ireland with my nephew Ben. It was amazing and so incredibly fun. I knew it was going to be a good week as soon as I stepped off the bus from the airport. With a map in my hand, I was trying--unsuccessfully--to find my hostel when an Irish guy (Declan) came up to me and asked, "Do you know where we are?" I replied, "No idea," to which Declan said, "I didn't think you did. Let's go to this pub over here and look at your map together. I'll buy you a pint." AWESOME! Declan was the man. He bought me some Guinness (so much better in Ireland), and he gave me some suggestions for my week in the country.

The next day, I met up with Ben at the airport, and we toured Dublin for a bit, which included the Guinness Factory. Dublin was definitely fun, but Ben and I were really excited to see the rest of the country, so we rented a car for five days, which was a blast. Ben is too young to drive in Ireland, so I did all the driving, which was fine. It was my first time driving on the lefthand side of the road, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. I got used to it pretty quickly, except for two things: First, I'm so used to lining myself up with the lefthand side of the lane, so there were several close calls when our side mirrors nearly scraped against walls, cars, cows, etc. The other tricky bit was remembering that the gear shift is on the left, not the right. It's second nature for me to put the car in park using my right hand. There were many times that I would find myself reaching for something with my right hand but not remembering what I wanted to do, and if I didn't remember, then I wouldn't put the car in park. Oops. Luckily, there were no car issues, except for one flat tire, which I'll come back to later...

Basically, our week consisted of driving around Ireland, exploring, and playing like 7-year-old boys. Whenever Ben and I saw an abandoned castle or church, we would stop and check it out. The best was Blarney Castle, which not only has the Blarney Stone, but also lots of caves and even a giant tire swing.

We also searched for leprechauns... I went to the Blarney Castle five years ago, and while I was there, I found a cave and walked inside, while repeating, "Leprechaun! Leprechaun!" As soon as I get deep enough in the cave and could only see pitch black in front of me, a deep voice from within the cave said, "Who goes there?!" Needless to say, I freaked out a bit and quickly ran back into the light. We didn't find any leprechauns in Blarney, but we think a leprechaun lived in one of the abandoned castles we visited. After we had played around for a bit in the castle, we got back in the car and drove back on the road, but before we knew it, we had a flat tire. Our theory is that a xenophobic leprechaun slashed our tires while we were climbing up the turrets. Luckily, Ben's a pro, and it didn't take us long to put the spare on and then buy a new tire.

Ben and I ended up driving to Cork, Killarney, Dingle, Galway, and then back to Dublin. We spent quite a bit of time on the Ring of Kerry (on the Kerry Peninsula) and the Dingle Peninsula. It was so incredibly green, with stunning hills, mountains, cliffs, and beaches. Every night, we'd find a pub and have a pint or two. The Guinness was delicious, the countryside was beautiful, and the people were wonderful. We're definitely going back.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Germans are angry...

After the camino, I spent another day in Paris (packing, doing laundry, and eating an entire wheel of camembert and a whole loaf of bread by myself) and then I returned to Berlin for a week. It was, in a word, wunderbar. I wanted to go back for another week to spend more time with Melanie and have some silly, frivolous fun again. I also was able to see my friends Holly and Jacqui from the camino several times during the week. It's strange how close we became after walking together and how I just happened to be returning to Berlin. I saw the two of them, I think, a total of 4 times during the week, which was really wonderful. (And I'm totally jealous because they're going back to finish the camino this summer. I hate them. But it won't be as much fun without me. Sucks for them.)

But I think the main thing I wanted to do was create some routines and practices around prayer and self-care that I can take with me to Seattle. One of the big themes of my travels has been balance. Finding a balance between taking care of others (ICROSS, nursing school) and taking care of myself (exercise, prayer). A balance between my school/work life, my social life, and my personal life. I was only in Berlin for a week, so I wasn't able to figure all that out there, but I think I made some first steps, which I'm pleased with. I think regular prayer and walks (without a destination) will be important for me in Seattle. And in life in general.

The most exciting and scary thing that happened during my week in Berlin was May Day. The 1st of May is a public holiday, during which everyone drinks a lot, dances a lot, and protests a lot. And there's an annual tradition of police riots. This year, several groups marched together during a large, peaceful protest. There were anti-fascists, socialists, anti-sexists, etc. Every political movement you could imagine. And then at the end of the march, as is custom, people started rioting. And it's all targeted towards the police, which I guess is better than the people in the crowd targeting each other. The police are in full riot gear and were waiting all day for something to happen, and finally it did.

As Melanie said, it was a strange, kinda beautiful, kinda stupid ballet. I saw the riots around midnight (well into their sixth hour). It was completely dark except for some light from the streetlamps and from the fires people had started in the middle of the street. Everyone was crowded on the sidewalks because all the (dangerous) action was happening in the street. Most people there (including Melanie and I) were merely spectators. But there were some brave, angry souls that would throw beer bottles at the police and then run back into the crowd. The police would then approach the crowd and try to remove the "troublemaker." Three cops would restrain him/her and take them to a police van while about 7 or 8 other cops would surround them in a circle. The police always moved in groups of at least 10. It was an interminable exchange of someone throwing a bottle at the police or starting a fire and then a pack of police officers rushing into the crowd to arrest someone or put out a fire.

It was "beautiful"--Melanie found it more beautiful than I did--in that people who felt powerless were able to gain some sort of power by acting out against the police, who for them represented the State. But it was also really stupid because so many of the beer bottles thrown towards the police ended up hitting people on the other side of the street. And the power that the bottle-throwers and fire-starters gained, what use was it? What did the rioting change? Absolutely nothing. The riots are so common on May Day that they've simply become a tradition. They've lost their significance. It's business as usual the next day.

It was pretty scary because I was right in the middle of it at times, but it was also exciting, too. (I'm sorry, Mom, for breaking my promise. Melanie kept me safe though...) I'm glad I saw it, even though I didn't really see the point of it all.

Life is like a camino...

So I've described all the practical and superficial aspects of the camino. Now let's go a little deeper...

It might be best to start with the question "why did I go on the camino in the first place?" For three reasons. First, to grow closer to God, which I definitely did. I often felt like I was walking with Jesus, and there were even times that I felt like my Dad was with me. I believe that God and our loved ones are always with us, but it was so much easier to see that while I was walking. I had no distractions, no responsibilities. All I had to do was walk and be present, and then it wasn't too difficult to recognize God's presence in the wind, the birds, the mountains, or even my fellow pilgrims. It was wonderful.

My second reason to go was to have some time to reflect on my life, my time in L'Arche, my time in Kenya, etc. Sometimes I "structured" my thoughts around a topic, but most of the time, I just thought about whatever came to mind. It also gave me a chance to prepare myself for the next stage of my life: nursing school in Seattle. I thought a lot about what I want that to look like--yet without too many expectations--and how I can be in school full-time in a healthy, sustaining, and life-giving way. I've decided that I'm going to walk one of the caminos to Santiago every time I have a big transition (starting school, ending school, changing jobs, marriage?, retirement, etc.).

My third reason was to simply go on a pilgrimage. I was really attracted to the idea of it. In a way, a pilgrimage is an outward expression of the internal journey we all experience during our lives. Sometimes the way is wonderful. Sometimes it's monotonous. Sometimes we're surrounded by fellow "pilgrims." Sometimes we are lonely. Sometimes we feel great. Sometimes we feel like we want to die. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how life is like a camino--to risk sounding like Forrest Gump--and how lessons I learned about the camino are really life lessons:

-Take care of your body.
-Drink lots of water (and some wine).
-Slow down.

And most importantly...

-It's all about the journey, not the destination.

As Diego, one of the Spaniards I met, said, the camino is in your heart, and it's absolutely true.

But this sounds like I was having these deep, profound thoughts all the time, which is not true. A huge chunk of my time was spent thinking about movies and TV shows (Lost!), and an even bigger chunk was spent singing songs to myself. Usually, I'd sing in my head or hum, but if I was alone and didn't see anyone ahead or behind me, I'd belt them out. (I got "caught" one time by some pilgrims that were resting under a tree.) I'm not ashamed to say that most of the songs I sang were showtunes, particularly the entire musical of Rent. One day, I sang the entire thing, except for some of the answering machine messages and "Without You" (booooooring and impossible to memorize). Though I mixed up some verses, I'm pretty sure I got it all. I think it was a good thing to sing because there are a lot of wonderful themes and ideas in the show for me to be more mindful of, particularly "no day but today." (And how to make a "neighbor's yappy dog disappear.")

So it was a really, really wonderful three weeks. I felt so at peace, I saw beautiful parts of Spain, I loved the simple rhythm of the day, and I met so many wonderful people. It was by far the best part of my travels, and I invite ANYONE to finish the last 200 km with me. I'll see you in Astorga in 2012.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"No longer strangers..."

"...But pilgrims together."

There's a song that people in L'Arche sing that starts with those lyrics. And it's absolutely true. It's amazing how close I grew to my fellow pilgrims even when we didn't speak the same language, didn't know each other's name, and only said "hola" and "buen camino" in passing. But there's still a deep connection there because we've walked the same journey, we have the same pains, and we're tired. So let's go drink some wine, eat some food, and (if possible) talk about it! (The two biggest topics of conversation among pilgrims: the weather and your feet.)

I was told that I'd meet some great people, and I expected to, but I didn't think the other pilgrims would be so wonderful! During the first two weeks, I would sometimes walk with and always have dinner with the same three people: Holly (an American living in Berlin), Jacqui (an Australian living in Berlin), and Hans. Hans is a 65-year-old Swiss man with unrivaled energy and enthusiasm. He's loud, fun, and fearless. Most of the time, we'd walk alone, but we'd always meet up for dinner (with wine of course). It was such an odd grouping, but it was wonderful.

Sadly, after two weeks, Holly and Jacqui went back to Berlin, and Hans walked farther or shorter than me one day, and I never saw him again. I was sad to lose my two musketeers and our D'Artagnan, but then I met a really lovely British couple (Joan and Chris), who became my new dinner companions. I think I ate alone for a grand total of 3 nights, and that was great, too. During my last few days, I met a few Americans that were my age, and we ate and hung out together. (BTW, out of the 100s of people I met or came across, I met only 7 Americans. I've met a total of 15 during all of my travels since February. Only 15! Of course, I love Americans, but it's nice to get a break, you know?)

And then there were other people that I met and saw everyday. I learned the names of some, but not all. Here's a brief list...

-Ulrika- the German version of Nancy Archer (a former L'Arche assistant). A little intense, but very friendly.
-Johannes- A German guy that walked the camino to figure some things out...after walking halfway, he figured everything out and left immediately to take care of it!
-Sonja- A German living in Ireland, running a pottery workshop for people with disabilities, including some core members from L'Arche Kilkenny! She had some gnarly blisters.
-Sebastien- Friendly Belgian guy. He walked really fast.
-Diego & Pedro- Two Spanish guys that Holly, Jacqui, and I spent quite a bit of time with. They definitely knew how to have a good time...
-The Spaniards- A group of older men that also knew how to have a good time. Maybe too good of a time. The most infamous was Eduardo, who was very, very a bad way. He looked like Pat Toohey (another L'Arche person) without a goatee.
-Low Blood Sugar Lady- She didn't eat enough the first day, and she felt too faint to climb the Pyrenees, so she got a lift from a nice French man. She didn't speak English, so I never got her name. So for the rest of the camino, Holly, Jacqui, and I called her L.B.S.L. instead. The camino is definitely not a race, but we didn't like it when L.B.S.L. passed us.
-Dreads guy with the dog- French guy that camped out with his dog every night. He could have been a model.
-Rainbow umbrella lady- French lady that I thought was stupid for carrying a giant umbrella with her. And then it hailed and rained buckets, and I definitely broke the ninth commandment. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house...or giant rainbow umbrella.
-Beautiful blond German girl that lived in "the bubble"- All of the male pilgrims were fawning over her. Watch the 30 Rock episode called "The Bubble" to see what I mean.

It was just really nice that no matter how far I walked, no matter who I started the day with, I always had some companions on the journey, figuratively and literally. I never felt lonely. I really felt taken care of. Just as in life, no one is alone, truly.