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.

Check out my fire 'stache

I feel I should describe my physical appearance on the camino. We'll start from the top and work our way down...

-The hair- No styling gel (too heavy), just kinda brushed with my hands
-The face- After 21 days of being outdoors for 7 or 8 hours, very red and very, very freckly.
-The lips- Luscious...not. Very, very wind-chapped.
-The facial hair- I didn't bring a razor or cream because I didn't want the extra weight and I didn't want to have to shave. So I let it grow on the camino, and I'm still letting it grow. It's been 4 weeks now, and that's the longest I've ever gone without of course. It's, um, interesting. My facial hair doesn't grow in very thick, and I don't get much on my cheeks or on the sides. What I do have is a red moustache and soul patch--must be the Irish in me--and a black neard (or neck beard). As an act of solidarity, my brother Allen grew his beard out for me while I was on the camino. Very sweet. He even gave a sermon at his church looking very scraggly. "Who's that homeless guy preaching today?"
-Back of the neck- See "the face."
-Shoulders- Little sore at the end of the day, but not bad.
-Armpits- Apparently, I never sweat in the States because I've never noticed how smelly my pits can get. And of course, to keep the weight of my backpack down (and to prevent armpit cancer), I didn't bring deoderant with me. Next time, it might be worth the risk of cancer...
-Lower arms- See "the face." Opposite of upper arms, which are pasty and luminescent.
-Stomach- Yay for no more dysentery!
-Hips- Some redness from my backpack's hip belt. Some pain during the first few days, but not much afterwards.
-The "surgery area"- I think the second surgery worked! No problems at all!
-Thighs/hamstrings- Never hurt except at the end of the last day, which was my longest: 34 km (20 mi).
-Calves- I think they got a little bigger! Nevertheless, they're still quite chicken-like.
-Ankles- Good. Some weird swelling and pain on my right ankle during the first 3 days due to pressure from my boot, but heel inserts fixed that problem.
-Feet- Sore arches and sore "balls of the feet" at the end of the day, but more importantly...ONLY ONE BLISTER! It was pretty enormous, but it wasn't in a pretty insignificant place (between the third and fourth toes), and it didn't hurt at all once I applied a Second Skin bandage.

I was very, very lucky to have so few injuries and pain. I think I had some really great boots (Vasque) and a wonderful backpack (Gregory), which brings us to the clothing and accessories...

-Hat- Duke baseball cap and then later my Tilley hat (like a Fedora), which was perfect because it was lightweight, breathable, waterproof, and wide-brimmed.
-Outfit from an REI catalogue- Wicking t-shirt, wicking longsleeve shirt, fleece coat, rain jacket, the pants that can zip off to become shorts, waterproof pants shell thing, smartwool socks, wicking underwear, and the boots.
-The bling- Watch, beaded Maasai bracelet, my beaded Obama cuff I got in Kenya, and a Santiago cross necklace I bought in Pamplona.
-The stick- My Maasai oositeti given to me in Kenya so that I could "walk like a man."

Yes, I looked like I had walked right out of an REI catalogue, but so did everyone else. I kinda felt like I was back in the Northwest.

The Camino: An Overview

I addressed some of the practical aspects of the camino in the last post, but I'll go into them a little deeper here...

The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) became a pilgrimage in medieval Europe after St. James' remains were discovered in Santiago, Spain. To visit the saint's tomb, people would start walking from their doorstep all the way to Santiago (northwest Spain, only about 50 miles from the coast). For Catholics, the three most biggest pilgrimages were (and still are?) to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago. Over time, specific paths developed, some starting all the way from Italy and Switzerland, with the most popular being the Camino Frances, which starts at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, a small town in the Pyrenees, just 10 or 15 km from the Spanish border. It's 774 km from SJPdP to Santiago, and it takes most people 4-6 weeks to complete, depending on their speed, their health, the weather, etc. I walked from SJPdP to Astorga for a total of 510 km (about 300 miles) in 3 weeks. When I come back one day to finish the pilgrimage, I'll have 263 km (~150 miles) left to walk to Santiago.

Most people do the camino during the summer when it's warm (aka boiling hot). I'm glad I chose to do it in the spring because the camino and albergues weren't too crowded and were never full, which is a problem in the summer. But at the same time, there were still a lot of people on the camino. It was never too hot, which was nice. (Some like it hot...but I like it comfortably warm.) However, it was usually cold in the morning and evening, and the weather was a bit unpredicatable (rain and hail!).

The camino is made up of dirt paths, paved paths, and rocky paths. it's marked with many, many yellow arrows and lots of markers with the image of the scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. (Supposedly, St. James' body was shipped to the Iberian Peninsula, and when it arrived it was covered in scallop shells. The shell is also an apt illustration of the many paths leading to Santiago, like the shell's ridges meeting at the tip.) Eventually, you become an expert a fnding the markers. Sometimes, it's a tile on a building or a shell on the sidewalk, but most of the time it's a yellow arrow painted on the sidewalk, a wall, or the back of a streetsign.

As I said before, you usually walk 20-30 km a day (12-18 mi) on the camino, but that depends on the weather, the terrain, and how you're feeling. One of the difficult things about walking those distances is that you carry everything witih you: clothes, toiletries, food, water, sleeping bag, everything. Generally, you have a set of clothes to wear on the camino and set to wear in the evenings at the albergue and bars/restaurants. (It's a bit of an adjustment at first, but you quickly get used to seeing yourself and everyone else in the same clothes everyday.) So most people are carrying 20-25 lb. on their backs all day. I think mine was about 24 lb... You really have to be vigilant about only carrying the essentials. Little things add up.

Along the camino, you basically walk from one village/town/city to the next, which can be anywhere from 1 to 20 km apart. Almost all the villages have at least a bar to get a drink and a sandwich, and about 2/3 of the villages (and all the bigger towns and cities) have at least one pilgrim's hostel (albergue). The albergues cost between 3 and 9 euros (what?!) and consist of rooms with 2-100 sets of bunk beds, some toilets, some showers, a sink or two to wash clothes, maybe a kichen, maybe a computer with internet, maybe a phone, and maybe laundry machines. When you arrive at the albergue, you get a stampy in your credencial (pilgrim's passport), you pay, you shower, you wash your walking clothes, and you just rest and hang out. For dinner, you can cook or you can go to a bar/restaurant for the pilgrim's menu, a 7-12 euro 3-course dinner with wine and bread. The albergues aren't the greatest, but they're super heap, and you get used to the snoring over time. (Thank God for earplugs.) And you're so tired by the end of the day that you're content to have a bed and a hot (or not) shower...