Friday, December 4, 2009

Ready to talk about the Camino

And really? Thanks for waiting, I just had to wait until it felt right.

PRE-DAY: I checked in to my hotel in Madrid around noon on Oct 24, after getting ripped off by my cab driver (future tourists, beware!). Kelz had booked us in to the Hotel Europa on the Puerta del Sol, and there couldn't possibly be a more exciting, more convenient, more in the middle of everything base in a thousand years...and it freaked me out. The noise coming from the square outside our balcony was astounding, so many people going in so many directions with so many different goals.... it was truly beautiful to watch from my third floor balcony, the doors thrown open wide to capture every sound, every whiff of the street vendors selling flowers or watches on blankets, or newspapers...but it was very different for this small town girl to leave the safety of her balcony and wade in to this cosmopolitan crowd.

I had eight hours to kill until Kelly arrived, so I took the advice of the front desk agent and took off in the 25 degree Celcius (read: HOT) weather to see the big attractions near the hotel. That afternoon, I visited the Royal Theatre, the Royal Palace (they don't allow photos so I bought postcards), and a local cathedral. Inside the cathedral, I was shocked to see so many people taking photos..... you need to understand that in some regards, I am a VERY old fashioned person, and even as I myself raised my camera to my eye, I felt weird about it: it's a church, therefore you pray, you don't take pictures.

I felt very out of place with my old fashioned hang-ups and my modern beliefs, until I saw a small chapel off to the side inside the cathedral. It was separated from the main church by silent glass doors, engraved on which was the following message: "No tourists allowed. This room for praying ONLY."


I let myself in to this quiet, homely chapel as several other people let themselves out. Outside was all tourists and flashbulbs and noise. Inside was total silence, adoring a simple altar. It was a totally different church and even though I have many MANY issues with my Catholic faith, I was able to get to my knees easily, to pray very simply, "On this Camino, let me see Your lessons...On this Camino, let me see Your lessons..." I kept hoping that something more poetic would come to me, that I could say something "nicer", but no, that's what came and so I went with it.

(MAJOR ASIDE: I have told parts of this story to some of my friends, and spiritual questions have obviously arose from these conversations. So let me cut to the chase and say this: I call the forces that spoke to me over the next few weeks "God" and "angels"... you may call them "energy" or "the gods" or "the mother" or "chi".... Call it whatever you believe, ok? I just use the words that are easiest for me. We all mean the same thing. (Seriously, we DO.)

So I got on my knees and prayed that I would understand whatever my Camino brought me. And when I got up and left the room? The crazy part is that I felt BETTER, I felt more energized, I felt more excited to get started.

I made it back to my hotel by 6pm and then sat in to wait for Kelz. For whatever reason, I had it fixed in my head that she was only arriving at midnight,so when she arrived at 10pm? I was like a little kid. I get to actually lay hands on her so rarely that, when she walked in our door, it seemed like THIS would be the ultimate experience of the Camino, so thrilled was I to see her.

We grabbed at each other and squealed in tones only understood by dolphins, and both tried to talk at the same time, and it all made perfect, beautiful sense. And less than five minutes later, Kelz said, "Let's go out!"

I had been tired. I had been overwhelmed by the noise, by the sheer number of people. I wanted to sleep.

But, hello? We're going out? In Madrid?? I'll race you to the elevator.

We walked the busy streets for an hour, talking the entire time, taking weird pictures (WHY we thought pictures of Spanish garbage trucks were funny still eludes me, but I have about a dozen of them.) before settling down in a street bar...which happened to be the street bar of OUR hotel.


We took the subway from our hotel to the train station (thank GOD Kelz had checked out the subway system on-line, otherwise we might still be there), then spent three hours on the high speed train from Madrid to Leon, both of us occasionally commenting on the scenery along the way. It was a very comfortable time for me....we would both spend long periods of time not talking, but when we had something to say? We said it. And when we didn't? We didn't. Perfect.

We arrived in Leon around 2 pm and immediately picked up the Camino. I can't speak for Kelz, bu that kind of shocked me, how IMMEDIATE it was. I had been dreaming about this for almost a year, I had spent a lazy day in Madrid, I honestly didn't expect the whole vibe of "Welcome to Leon. Start WALKING, bitch!"

But I loved it. I loved stretching each pace just a little bit, the way my thighs were reacting to the exercise. As the kilometers went on, I loved tracking first the cement clam shells in the sidewalk to guide our path, and then the random spray painted yellow arrows. I loved re-adjusting the straps on my backpack so that the fit was better.

And as the kilometers went on, Kelz was quickly made aware of my darkest fear: walking in the dark. No, I'm not afraid of the dark in any way, but my terror was that there would be one, solitary arrow painted on a wall telling us which way to go,and we would MISS it.

As it turns out, after 20 kilometers we reached our very first refugio looong after dark (Thank GOD -- or whoever-- that the last few kilometers of the path were along a well travelled and well lit road). The refugio was somewhat desterted, we had no official Greeter, only three other pilgrims who told us to make ourselves comfortable, surely the innkeeper would be back soon...

Kelz immediately made friends with the three strangers. I don't have her confidence or moxie or whatever it is, so I hung back. They offered us the rest of the pasta they had cooked; Kelz was able to say, "Great, thanks!", while I hung back in shy-person agony, just hoping they would stop being so nice to me. (Yeah, I have "acceptance" issues.)

DAY TWO (Oct 26): (in future, to be referred to as The Bad Day) I can not even begin to explain how excited I was to begin our first Full Day of the excited that I was up by 3:30 am. (a combination of jet lag and displaced Christmas-morning excitement.) Kelz and I hit the trail out of Mazarife at 7:30 am (we were out the door and our room-mates weren't even UP yet...I can't speak for Kelz but I KNOW I felt superior to them.)

So off we marched, on the trail Astorga, 31 kilometres away. We had walked 2o kms the day before, only starting at 2:frigging:pm, so I figured that today? by 1pm? We'd be sitting in a bar with our feet up.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha omigod KILL ME ha ha.

Worst flipping day of my LIFE. Now to be fair, and to put it in context, at the end of the day, we spoke to several people who had started the Camino much further away than we had, people who were already used to the physical demands the Camino places on pilgrims. And even they? THEY said, "Holy shit today was crazy hard."

Yeah, sounds like a good idea for the First Full Day of Walking.

Kelz and I did our own thing, taking our time, stopping at least every 90 minutes for 5 minutes (at my insistance), and then finally arriving in Hospital de Orbigo around 11:30 am. We traversed a PAINFUL cobblestoned bridge (ouch! ouch!) before arriving in the town square. Kelz and I had all the supplies we needed with us, so no need to hit shops. Instead we sat in the town square in the hot sun, peeled off our boots and socks and placed our bare feet on the cold cobble stones. After a few minutes, Kelz donned her flip-flops, but I opted to stay "naked" for our entire stop. We pulled a make shift lunch out of our bags (Kelz in particular being generous with her sharing, having learned from her time in Scotland: "Here, Irma, EAT CHOCOLATE, I know you don't particularly like it but you need to." She was right.)

While we were relaxing in the sun and shade, two things happened: First, the civic team of garbage collectors walked by. "Buen Camino, pelegrinas!" the younger woman cried.

I remember thinking, "FINALLY someone has wished us "Buen Camino"!! Her obvious support for what we were attempting made everything else that followed that day easier, it reminded me that we were not trail blaizers, we were only doing what hundreds of thousands have done before us. It only occurred to me, weeks later, that it FELT like I had been walking forever but in all honesty I had been walking less than 24 hours.

Also during our lunch-with-feet-up-under-the-olive-tree, a strange man approached us. Strange because he was balancing himself and his backpack on top of a uni-cycle. I don't think we ever asked his name, but he was from Sweden, he was curious where he could wash his laundry in that town (something we couldn't help him with) and he was insistent that he would not take the secondary path offered in the guides, because it wasn't as traditional as the first. (The idea of a dude on a UNICYCLE insisting on the Traditional Path tickled me beyond belief.)

After our lunch break, Kelz and I took off again. And things started to go very, very wrong.

I need to step back and give some backstory, if it's not clear on this blog: I got ready for this trip. I HIKED. I packed my packpack and walked with it. And then? With the fully loaded backpack? I walked and walked and WALKED. And then I walked some more. And plus I walked.

After about 15 kms, I started to complain. Not loudly or insistently, but I did start to say things like, "Huh. This is funny, at home I felt fine but now my ankle kind of bugs me. Funny, right?"

At 20 kms I said,"Hon, I need to stop for five minutes."

At 25 kms, I said, "OMIGOD I can't keep walking, are these people CRAZY??"

At 30 kms, I was in full on tears-are-a-fountain mode. I was in so much pain I didn't think I would make it to the albergue.

I now need to step back, to use the Distance I have carved from this experience: In the future, I can now tell you that Kelz developped incredibly painful blisters on her heels that day, blisters that plagued her the rest of the way. But she never complained ONCE.

Me, on the other hand? I complained PLENTY about the pain in my ankle. Wah wah wah, get over yourself, I was really THAT bad. Also projecting in to the future, I can now tell you that it wasn't the distance I covered that day that did me in (Wait and see what I did next if you don't believe me!!), it was the type of terrain.

Stupid, loose rocks. I HATE YOU.

But towards the end of the day? When neither one of us could see straight, except through a veil of pain? Weird INSPIRATIONAL grafitti started showing up.

To be continued....

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