Sunday, April 19, 2009

Buen camino!

Hello from the camino! On April 6th, I started walking from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and now I am 340 km to the west in Boadilla del Camino, Spain. That's over 200 miles! I don't know if I've ever been this physically exhausted day after day, but I've also never been this mentally and emotionally relaxed either. It's pretty wonderful.

My average day in a nutshell...
7:00-8:00 am - Wake up, pack my backpack, and get out of the albergue (hostel) before I get kicked out.
8:00-8:30 am - Breakfast either at a bar or outside somewhere
8:30 am - Start walking! I usually walk somewhere between 20 and 30 km (12 and 18 miles) each day. I'll stop every hour or so for a water break, snack break, or lunch.
3:30-5:30 pm - I arrive at the albergue at some point in the afternoon. (The albergues are specifically for the pilgrims, and they cost 3 to 7 euros. Cheap! But we sleep in bunk beds with somewhere between 4 and 100 other pilgrims in a single room. Ear plugs are essential...)
5:30-7:00 pm - Shower, unpack, journal, unwind...
7:00-10:00 pm - Drink wine, eat dinner (usually a three-course "pilgrim's menu"), hang out
10:00 pm - Get ready for bed SILENTLY in the dark while everyone else in the hostel is trying to fall asleep

Spain has been absolutely beautiful. The Pyrenees were stunning. Every time I walked through a bend in the camino, I'd catch a glimpse of a snow-capped mountain and literally curse aloud because it was so amazing. For the past week or so, I've been walking through vineyards, olive groves, and lots and lots of beautiful green rolling hills.

I had been planning to walk all the way to Santiago de Compostella (774 km total), but I've decided not to finish the pilgrimage for several reasons. First, I was getting really anxious trying to figure out how far I had to walk every day so that I could get to Santiago within 30 days. By not going to Santiago, I can go at my own place, I can better take care of my body, and I can focus more on the journey rather than the destination. So I'm only going to walk for three weeks (I have one week left). I'll go as far as I can, and then at some point in the future, I'll finish the pilgrimage in Santiago and walk even farther to Finesterre (the "end of the world" on the coast). And instead of walking the camino for another week, I'm going to return to Berlin for another 7 days. I had such a wonderful time there earlier this month, and I'd really like to spend more time there.

More on the camino to come. (It's taken me so long to blog about it because the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is go online, and when I do use the internet, I always have a bunch of "business-y" things to do.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Stop this train...

Before I started the camino, I spent the weekend with my friends Joy and Beranger in Voiron, France. I had worked and/or lived with them while I was in L'Arche, so I thought it would be nice to visit their home in the French Alps. It was super relaxing. And for once, I was with people that understood L'Arche and that I could imitate core members with. People usually look at me strange when I lick them, say that I'm "nervy," or call them a "fat cow."

One of the days we drove through the Alps for a bit and visited the monastery in Chartreuse, where the documentary Into Great Silence was filmed. We weren't allowed to go in the monastery. Those Carthusians really cherish their silence. I don't know if I could do that... It was hard enough for me not to bust out into "The Sound of Music" while frolicking around the green hills surrounding the cloister. Chartreuse is famous for its liqueur, which itself is famous for its brilliant green-yellow color. I haven't tried it yet, but it's pretty beautiful.

The best part of the weekend was the food. Lots of wine, and lots and lots of delicious cheese. Scrumptious, stinky fromage. For the last night, we had homemade cheese fondue, and that was amazing. I could never be lactose-intolerant or vegan. Sorry, PETA.

I left the day before I was to start my pilgrimage, and like a fool, I got on the wrong train. I didn't miss the train, I just got on the wrong one. I didn't bother to read the destination on the side of the train. I boarded a train, and while I was waiting to stow my suitcase, the train started moving. 15 minutes early. I freaked out a bit to say the least. Thank GOD that the train was heading to a town outside Paris and that this town has a metro line that runs straight to my host mother's apartment. I could have ended up in Nice! Or Normandy! But I still ended up in Paris, and I arrived in time for my train to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to start the Camino de Santiago... (to be continued)

Friday, April 3, 2009

I also heart graffiti.

I had a strange transformation regarding graffiti in Berlin. It's all over the place there, and at first I hated it. I thought it made the city look trashy. But over the course of the week, I kinda fell in love with it. I think I took over 250 pictures of graffiti on the sides of buildings and especially on the Berlin Wall. There's a small section (1.3 km) of the Berlin wall still standing called the East Side Gallery, and it's absolutely covered in graffiti. And it's not just tags (though there are plenty of those) but rather large murals and really beautiful designs. I had planned to walk by the East Side Gallery and then go to one of the museums, but I didn't have to do that. The Wall was my art for the day. It was interactive art. Artists painted the large murals, and then other people would come and add to it, tag their name, whatever. It was a cooperative, messy effort, and it was beautiful.

When I returned to Paris after Berlin, I went to an exhibit at the Grand Palais on "Le Tag," which was all about graffiti and street art. What the curator did was give 150 street artists two canvases, one for the artist's tag and the other for an image of love. It was a really cool concept. As the exhibit explained, graffiti isn't always meant to vandalize, ruin, or destroy property. The colors, asymmetry, and messiness of graffiti break up the monotony, the right angles, and the tidiness of city life. It can be a public display of one's politics and one's self. I still don't know how I feel about spraypainting someone else's personal property, but I can definitely appreciate the art behind it.

I heart Berlin.

I didn't think I would. I have to admit that I wasn't exactly looking forward to being in Berlin. I was just excited to see Melanie, a good friend from high school. I had watched a German movie on my flight from Doha about some kids in Berlin, and it made the city look cold and empty. And it didn't help that when I arrived, it was freezing and overcast.

I had essentially written off Berlin, but on the third day, the city said to me, "Wait a minute! Ein minuten bitter!" That day, Melanie and I went to Marx-Engels Platz in former East Berlin for a demonstration and then she took me for a nice bike tour of the city, recalling interesting bits of information from her days as a tour guide. And then that night, Melanie and I and some friends of hers went to an underground (literally...four stories underground) techno dance party. We got there at 1 am and left at 9 am. It was so European, so Germany, and so much fun. It was incredibly liberating because as a white American, I'm so conditioned to thinking that I'm not a good dancer because "white people just can't dance." I'm usually super self-conscious when I'm dancing in the States, but I wasn't in Germany. And that's not because I suddenly acquired techno dancing superpowers, but rather because I realized that the Germans around me weren't any better than I was. So I let it all go. It was wonderful. I was so present, at ease, and crazy that a few people came up to me to ask for drugs. No, there's no ecstasy at work here. Just a catharsis after being repressed in the States for 25 years.

Berlin is a fascinating city because it doesn't have a unifying identity. It doesn't have the romance or charm of Paris or London or Amsterdam. Berlin has been so many things over the's been ruled by Prussians, Nazis, capitalists, and communists. Because Berlin doesn't have a single identity, Berliners are able to play an active role in reviving the city, whether that's through politics, philosophy, the arts, etc. That's why Berlin is home to so many leftist, radical groups because there really isn't a status quo to fight against.

I also loved Berlin because I love saying things with a super thick German accent. I don't know a lick of the language, but I can imitate it pretty well. Muck, muck, muck, muck, muck.

Paris makes my butt hurt.

I've spent a few days in Paris, visiting some old haunts from my study abroad days. I was given the best FREAKING (there it is again) host family for my semester in Paris. I lived with Noelle and her son Alexis in the 16th arrondissement (across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower), and they are the best French family anyone can ask for. Noelle cooks wonderful food, offers to do my laundry, and most importantly, lets me stay with her whenever I come to Paris. (She has also given me a key and has said that I can leave my stuff with her while I'm traveling around Europe and doing my pilgrimage. So I think I will end up traveling in and out of Paris five times during this trip.) And Alexis is a man with a developmental disability that is super welcoming ("Bill!! Ca va?") and always does the dishes. He was one of the main reasons why I decided to join L'Arche. Though I must admit that I was disappointed that the core members didn't do the dishes. (Just kidding. Sorta.)

With "my" apartment in the 16th as my base, I've walked all over the city with my stomach as the guide. I think I've met all the food requirements for a trip to Paris: lots of pastries, a nutella-banana crepe from the green crepe stand across from the Jardin du Luxembourg (the same guy is still there), a falafel from L'As du Falafel in the Marais, a croque-monsieur, and ice cream from Ile St-Louis. Is there anything I'm missing?

A recent development in Paris is the introduction of Velibs, city-owned bikes available all over Paris for only 1 euro a day. AMAZING! The seats are super uncomfortable and cause some severe butt pain the next day, but Velibs are perfect for seeing Paris at night. Yeah, it's a little dangerous riding a bike in the dark without a helmet, but how else can you see the Eiffel Tower, the Opera, Notre Dame, and Hotel de Ville illuminated?

An 18-hour Qatar Solo

The cheapest flight from Nairobi to Paris was on Qatar Airways, the world's only 5-star airline supposedly. Well, they ain't lying. That was the nicest flight I've had in coach ever. I got the warm towels, the free candy, the free booze (wine and g&t!), and the best airplane food ever! I don't know what I ate, but it was spicy, middle eastern, and delicious.

But the best part was my 18-hour layover in Doha, Qatar (pronounced either "kuh-tar" or "kuh-ter"...I prefer the former). Qatar is a teeny country next to Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. It's oil-rich, so it's one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but aside from the hotels, everything is pretty cheap in Doha. I FREAKING LOVED DOHA. Yes, I said it. FREAKING. It was a really beautiful city, and it was super, super safe. I got in around 8 pm, and I was walking around by myself until about 1 am, and I was totally fine. I left my hotel room and just started walking, and I found these really cool outdoor cafes/hookah bars and some other beautiful buildings.

My favorite things about Doha:
1. The Arabic written language: It's one of the most beautiful things in the world. I want to learn Arabic now...not really to speak it, but to write it. I went to the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art, and they had some stunning pieces of Arabic calligraphy.
2. The food. Though it's so spicy that it makes my nose run and messes up my digestive system a bit (ha, what's new), it is sooooo good.
3. The many clothing shops selling t-shirts with goofy English on them. I bought one. It makes no sense.
4. Hookahs! I've never tried one before, so I thought what the hey and gave it a whirl. Whoa. It was awesome. I never smoke anything, so it didn't take long for me to get a little tobacco buzz. I smoked the hookah on the outdoor patio of a Moroccan restaurant. I was sitting on a bench covered in pillows, flanked by eight men in traditional garb (long white robes called thawbs with red & white scarves, or shemaghs, on their heads).
5. The people of Qatar are called "Qatari." The next time I travel to Asia, I hope to visit the nations of Qintendo, Qlaystation, and Qega Genesis.

Though I don't quite jive with everything that traditional Qatari/Muslim culture embraces (many women in veils over their hair and niqabs over their face), I was really impressed by the role that Islam played in everyone's daily life. It wasn't just something they practiced once a week. They lived it. I'm not Muslim myself, but I admired that. I'd love to be called to pray five times a day.