Euphemisms in Camino guidebooks 

  Scattered throughout Camino guidebooks you will see the authors extol the virtue of natural paths versus the hard cold cement and asphalt interspersed along the Camino wherever it crosses cities. 

You should know that all these various phrases: gently downhill, tranquil walk, wonderful, scenic, delightful, dirt, wide country tracks, and earthen (all usually combined with some form of nature) are all really euphemisms for the same thing:

Uneven dirt tracks filled with varying layers of rocks, gravel, and pebbles — all of which prevent you from placing your feet evenly on the ground, thus increasing the strain on your knees, ankles, and toes. 

But don’t get me started on the toes. More on that later. 

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Preparing for the Camino

imagesThe first I had ever heard of the Camino de Santiago in Spain was in an article published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler, written by actor Andrew McCarthy about his experiences with conquering his own fears and vulnerabilities through travel. I thought, I’d like to test myself on that same road one of these days, but it wasn’t high on my priority list so I pushed it aside in favor of other, more remote, destinations like Antarctica. But – as I wrote a couple weeks ago – my friend Xina (journeytaker) recently invited me to accompany her.

While I admit I was a bit surprised that she’d decided to undertake such a journey – even if she had to do it alone –  I realized I shouldn’t be, nor should I be surprised that she came up with a destination already in the back of my mind. Xina is no shy, passive, creature. She takes risks, whether it’s convincing her husband, Dave, and daughter, Brandy, to go on some outrageous month-long canoeing expedition or walking up to a complete stranger (me) in a room full of other strangers and – after eyeing my name tag – says “Hi! I’m in the same writer’s workshop you are!” And only a couple years after that, as we sat eating breakfast in a SoCal Denny’s one day, she asked where I wanted my next vacation to be. I said Antarctica. I remember two things: the way her eyes and face lit up as she exclaimed “Me too!” and the look of abject horror on Dave’s face. He was clearly thinking “Oh god, someone who’s insane as my wife.” Brandy, who was maybe 10 at the time, said, “But Mommy, I don’t want you to go, it’s too dangerous.” So I reassured her with, “Don’t worry, when the killer penguins attack, I’ll throw myself in front of your mother so she can come home safe to you.” We didn’t get to test that promise. Xina wasn’t able to go on my Antarctica excursion, and I managed to narrowly escape those hordes of killer penguins…just barely….

So now with less than a month to go it’s time for us two crazy women to prepare. Xina lives in Southern California and has been out there hiking and walking, testing her shoes and her pack. Me, I live in Northern California, land of the never-ending drought and the onslaught of allergy season which strikes earlier and earlier every year. My attempts to get out doors have been met with misery and despair. red and watery and burning eyes, runny nose, and a sluggish river of gunk draining down the back of my throat. (Don’t worry if you should find me lifeless, looking as if I’ve been asphyxiated – it wasn’t murder, only phlegm.) I must retreat indoors to a treadmill where I’ll have to satisfy myself with adjusting the incline. (Sigh.) It’s no substitute for real hiking, but if I am to survive long enough to reach Spain, it must be done. I’m hoping that past experiences, where removing myself from my normal environment alleviates symptoms, are true in Spain. If not, do they have better antihistamines over there?

And when I get back I’m hoping to catch up with reading the last six months’ issues of Nat Geo Traveler stacked neatly (too neatly) on the end table…I’m sure I could find some other tantalizing destination to ferment in the far corners of my mind until some friend or relative says, “pssst…hey…wanna go here?”

Oh, and Brandy, that promise still goes: when the killer penguins attack us in Spain, I’ll throw myself in front of your mom.

Reasons for Walking the Camino de Santiago

Only reason necessary: because it’s there!

Most people I have told about my intention to walk the Camino de Santiago have the same reaction.

First, there’s the silence. Stunned silence, followed by a piercing gaze, an: “Are you serious?” sort of look. Then, when they see that I am, indeed, not kidding, they take a moment, processing, and say something like, “I see. Why do you want to do this?”

I’m pretty good at dealing with the initial shocked reaction. I get it; it seems to have come out of the blue to most of my friends and family. They don’t know that I first learned about the Camino years ago, while studying history. They don’t know that I’ve been thinking about it since then, because to be honest, I haven’t said anything about it. It’s one of those desires that has lived in my heart in a cocooned state, because of its outrageous nature. Taking…

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Gearing up for the Camino…

SpainBlog2With a month and a half to go before departure to Spain and el Camino de Santiago, it’s time to prepare. Fortunately I’ve done enough traveling to a variety of places that I already have a selection of gear to choose from. I don’t think I’ll be needing that snorkeling mask or flippers…but that broad-brimmed hat, Thorlos, and Merrell hiking shoes…that’s a good start for hitting a 500-mile long trail. And thank goodness I’ve already got the shoes. Poor Xina has been trying out shoe after shoe before finding the right ones that survive her test hikes…or rather, I should say that allow her feet to survive the test hikes. My Merrell’s have been to Iceland – tromping across ancient lava flows and cobblestone streets; to Zanzibar – trekking through spice markets and not-ancient-enough slave markets; and numerous places in between. Not to mention all those countless airports we’ve been through together. They’re worn-in and will serve me well on the Camino.

But I definitely needed a better backpack, so off to REI I went. They have an excellent selection and employees trained to fit you with the right one. I’d recommend the guy to you, but it was his last day on the job – he’s moving home to Argentina to take care of his mom. So now I’m equipped with an Osprey Cirrus, small enough for my frame that will also accommodate what I’ll need. (It’s recommended to not pack more than 10% of your body weight for such a long-distance hike, but fortunately along the “French Way” [the most well-known route] there are plenty of albergues [hostels] where pilgrims can sleep and eat, so we won’t need to plan for a full backpacking expedition.) I still have a number of items to pick up, but I have time and…best of all…REI member annual dividends will be coming in March, so I can apply those funds toward the rest of my purchases. Timing is everything.

Another future peregrina (female pilgrim) was also being outfitted with her backpack at the same time, but she will be starting her hike a week later than us back at St Jean Pied de Port, the traditional start of the Camino, whereas we’re starting at Roncesvalles, so it’s doubtful that we’ll run into her. But maybe. One never knows. There will be other people. That’s part of the Camino’s appeal. You can be alone when you want (or need) to be, and with others when you desire companionship. Friendships are made – sometimes fleeting, sometimes lasting. In that way it will be much like my other travels. I look forward to the faces, the smiles, the stories, and the motivations…for every pilgrim’s reasons are different and unique.

Never been to Spain…

…but in a couple of months, I will!

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It’s not the trip I had envisioned for myself this year, but sometimes fate intervenes. I was looking through my options for an African safari but the variety of itineraries and available dates did not meet my needs, especially because I am specifically interested in including Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia where the local herd of elephants are known to hang around and even walk through the lobby…but primarily in November when the nearby mango trees bear fruit. Apparently they’re very fond of those mangoes. Of course, one can never guarantee a particular experience when wildlife is involved, but I’d like to maximize my chances of witnessing these magnificent, intelligent and emotional creatures quietly filing through the lobby. I’d also like to combine the safari with a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but I’m not quite in shape for a hike up 19,000+ feet of mountainous terrain. I’m in good shape, yes, but I still need to prepare more for such a feat, and so I’m putting those plans off until next year.

With plans up in the air, and me casting about for a particular destination on my extremely long list of must-see places to jump up and shout “pick me” I was surprised when a good friend, and fellow writer, Xina Marie Uhl, announced that she was going to do Camino de Santiago, an ancient 500-mile pilgrimage route across Northern Spain favored by both religious adherents and hiking enthusiasts. When she asked if I would like to accompany her, I said yes without hesitation. (There were the twin caveats of securing time off from work and arranging pet sitting, but as they say, “where this is a will, there is a way.”)

Xina is doing it for reasons of faith and I admire her for her belief that “the spirit has called” her to do this pilgrimage at this particular time. Although not religious myself, I support my friends who are and enjoy attending their children’s baptisms or confirmations. So I’ve told Xina I’ll be her emotional support, butt-kicker (when needed) and plucky comic relief.

Why am I doing it? For the challenge, to prove to myself that I am as strong as I believe I am. (And, yes, as training for Mount Kilimanjaro.) And you might say I’m doing it for my spirit. As you know, I’ve been dealing with migraines, and while I’m doing much better, I still don’t feel back to my old self. I miss myself. I miss my creativity, the ability to turn scraps of paper with scribbled ideas on them into short stories in a matter of days. Seeking to re-awaken my brain by going to graduate school is helping, but it’s not enough. My spirit needs more. It needs the open road, my own two feet, a small camera, a notebook. It needs freedom.

Trusting Yourself

I’ve been asked on several occasions if I’m scared to travel alone. And the answer has always been no.

Sometimes I ask myself why.

After all, it can be a big, scary world out there, full of violence and greed.

I think it comes down to trust. Not trusting others necessarily, and certainly not blindly trusting, of course.  Clearly there are people out there who don’t deserve your trust and never will.

I’m talking about trusting yourself, your own instincts. Trusting that you’ll recognize when you need to alter your plans whether it’s something as simple as walking down a different street or politely excusing yourself from an invitation which makes you feel uncomfortable, or something more drastic like seeking help from your embassy.

waterfall

Such self-confidence may come naturally to some people, but for others it can take years to cultivate. People like me, who as a child were timid and socially awkward. In such cases, one must put on a pretense of bravery and step out into the world. Small steps, like traveling to foreign locales where you’ll be meeting up with friends or relatives, is a good start. Finding a reliable tour company which treats solo travelers as well as they do others is another. In the latter instance, there are always other solo travelers within the group to pal around with. Many of these will be fleeting friends, like-minded individuals in the moment, whom you’ll never see again. A few, however, you’ll form a closer bond with and become lasting friends.  Some, you will discover are just like you: taking their fear and shoving it deep inside because they refuse to allow it to keep them from following their dreams, from exploring the far corners of this beautiful planet.

I recently encountered a woman I had not seen in several years. We’d never been friends, but had known each other for some time before she moved elsewhere. She’s a few years older than myself, and she had always seemed to be much more confident and socially adept than me. While that may still be true in many settings, I found it quite surprising when she admitted she found it too scary to travel alone.

The conversation made me reflect upon the differences between us, and I couldn’t really find many. The only conclusion that I could come to was that I had finally grown into myself. I’m not saying that she hasn’t – in whatever ways matter to her. But I, in the last ten-fifteen years, have truly grown into my self-confidence and self-trust, especially when it comes to my desire to travel.

Which is why I felt no fear back in July while I stood at the edge of a 400-foot cliff in Bandelier National Monument taking photographs of a waterfall across Frijoles Canyon. I had hiked the 1.5 miles up to this vantage point, alone, on a trail that was technically closed. I had found places to jump across the creek where a flash flood just days earlier had wiped out the three footbridges. (Not an easy task for someone with short little legs like mine.) I had climbed over debris left behind by the flood and kept a watch out for wildlife.

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Admittedly, New Mexico is not so far away as the exotic locales that are my usual destinations. But when deep inside a canyon, with nary another soul in sight and not even the hint of a cell phone signal, it can feel further away than standing on the Antarctic Peninsula where a cruise ship awaits just offshore.

Anything could have happened to me: I could have fallen off the trail and died, or been seriously injured. I could even have been attacked by a mountain lion. Who knows when I would have been found? Being a closed trail, getting later in the afternoon, no one else was coming that way. Yes, the park rangers knew I was out there and knew my estimated return time, but when minutes may count: blood loss, shock, etc., I could have found myself in serious trouble.

But I knew I wouldn’t. I trusted my feet, trusted my balance, trusted my agility, and I trusted my reflexes. I was ready to grab whatever rocks or sticks needed to fight off a big angry feline. Heck, if other people can fight off a mountain lion by hitting it with their camera, so can I.

That’s what trust is. And learning to trust yourself so implicitly is perhaps, for some, as far as traveling to the ends of the earth.