September 29, 2012

The Start of a New Adventure

Well Mia and I are at it again. Reunited for another adventure. Arrived in Madrid on September 15th. Will spend 7 weeks in Spain, and then it’s off to brazil till the end of January. Decided was necessary to discontinue our travel blog from last year. Been deemed inappropriate, particularly the entry on Electric Picnic Festival 2011. That and Mia is currently trying to erase herself from the internet world and thus refuses to partake — though she just reactivated Facebook (search: Mia Sal)

Right now am in the midst of the Camino. Official name: Camino de Santiago de Compostela, otherwise understood as a 7 or 800 some odd km pilgrimage across northern Spain. Here’s a map for all you visual learners:

Historically, it’s a religious pilgrimage made to the tomb of Saint James (span trans: Santiago) and dates back over 900 years. I, however, am a bad pilgrim because I don`t know who Saint James is or what he did that makes him so special, though I’m sure he’s very deserving of all this homage. I also completely lack any other sort of knowledge involving the history of the camino, though I’ve heard there’s a fellow pilgrim named Jim or James who apparently is quite the historian and thus have been meaning to give him a chat. Gave it a try, actually, but all I learned was that he’s from Connecticut and eats popcorn for breakfast and dinner. The latter was a visual referendum as he isn’t the friendliest of fellows. Go figure. Mia calls him Screech.

We first learned of the Camino last year via an Irish lad named Bryan who described it as an affordable way to trek across Spain, meet people from all over the world, and enjoy quality food and wine. In retrospect, that description sounds rather crude, especially in comparison to its sacred history. Yet, it’s true. Everyday you wake up and are on the trail no later than 8AM, then walk 25-30 kilometers through beautiful green countryside or through small Spanish villages or along red dirt trails that contrast so magnificently with the pastel pink morning sunrises. Other times you walk down the edge of a busy highway, passing derelict furniture stores and gas stations, and it’s raining and windy and not so picturesque but you just keep following the yellow arrows that show you the path. Along the way you see people and chit chat and say buen camino then carry on. The linear community that develops is quite unique. I’ve been asked if everyone walks as a group, leaving and arriving at the same time, or if each is on their own. It really isn’t that regulated. Sometimes Mia and I walk side by side in silence, other times we’re laughing about last year’s escapades or occasionally participating in David Bowie dance hour. Sometimes we walk 100 yards apart. Mia almost always in front and I almost always listening to music.

As we pass people, we often strike up a conversation. One day was spent with two Spanish boys who liked to pretend their walking sticks were lightsabers and they’d entertain themselves by having jedi fights along the trail. Mia didn’t have a stick but wanted to participate and thus called herself Yoda. Always such the ham. One afternoon we walked with a seemingly straight edge lawyer from New York who surprised us by playing some electro house music to motivate us during a 10km stretch. We clocked our fastest walking time that day, and also pissed off some French Canadians (added bonus) who just could not appreciate the explicit poetry of “Johnny, La Gente Esta Muy Loca”. The last couple of days we’ve been walking with two British guys named Mark and Andy whose dry humor has ensured that my laugh is as loud and embarrassing as always.

Everyday is different.

There are people, like Mairon the brazilian guitarist, who started on September 18th with us, and who we still see almost everyday. Marren, the enviously cool French girl, who seems to vanish for about a week at a time and then shows up in random towns along the way. We worried for a bit that she had quit, but heard from the Irish Canadian Coalition that she was walking with Mark the Dutchman who introduced us to Robert the young lawyer from New York through whom we first met the haughty Italian girl who recently broke things off with this older slimey Italian man (whom we’ve dubbed Berlusconi for obvious reasons) and who is now walking with Mairon, the Brazilian, instead, etc, etc. It’s an interesting network and perhaps one of my favorite components of the camino. That and the walking and the thinking and the wine.

Then around 2 or 3PM you arrive at an albergue (span trans: low-budget hostel) and chit chat some more and there are people of every age, language, and socioeconomic status and you learn their life stories — or you spend 20 minutes trying to translate the term “taste buds” from English to German, having a good laugh in the process. If we arrive early enough, we’ll usually go find a bar and enjoy a brew or two. Mia likes to go to the pubs that are positioned near the entrance of the city so she can watch people as they come in. Puts on her shades and refers to herself as gatekeeper. It’s her new favorite game.

By 9:45 everyone is in bed, and lights out at 10. Occasionally you’ll sleep in a room with 100 other people, bunk beds compressed next to one another. Other times, you’ll sleep in a room of only 10 others, or perhaps just on a mattress on the floor, or even in someone’s house.


The 100 person sleepover.

So going back to the beginning…

Bryan, the Irishman who inspired our trek, was correct in his rudimentary explanation of the camino because that really is the lifestyle. Walk, make friends, eat and drink. However, why you do it or what you hope to gain from walking the camino varies immensely amongst pilgrims. In DC, one of the first questions you ask someone is “what do you do?” or “where do you work?”. On camino, you ask people why they’re here. Many say theyre here to “find themselves.” They heard of the camino through a friend of a friend, or after reading the Paulo Coelho book The Pilgrimage or watching that wretched Emilio Estevez film. Others do it for sport or as a serious religious journey.

When asked, I usually mention good ol Bryan and how we did 10 days of it last year, had a jolly time, and then decided to do the whole thing this year. But this time really does feel more substantive.

I met a guy who met a guy who is a seasoned pilgrim and says there are 4 stages to the camino:

1. Physical
2. Mental
3. Emotional
4. Spiritual

Sounds a bit too much of a quantitative anecdote to me, though so far it rings true.

Physically, it’s quite hard.

The first few days are especially rough as every muscle aches, every joint seems to creak, and blisters are in full abundance. Granted, my form of “training” was giving mile long walking tours of the National Mall and Arlington Cemetery so maybe pain should have been expected. However, I wasn’t alone. Everyone is hobbling around, exchanging tricks for fighting tendinitis or easing muscle pain. Strangers are massaging each other’s sweaty backs, telling tales of popping a particularly bulbous water blister whilst sittin around the dinner table. The physical part is tough and I personally just about crawled my way to Pamplona on the third day because my feet were so wrecked, but it’s also magnificent because it acts as the great equalizer. Everyone is broken and tired and hungry and dirty and that’s that. No real pretensions and certainly no avoiding it no matter your age or nationality or reason for doing the camino in the first place.

The mental struggle came about a week and a half in.

Woke up with bed bug bites on my wrists, elbows, and ankles. Apparently I’m quite allergic to the little bastards because my entire face swelled up a well. Gave myself quite the fright when I went to brush my teeth and saw Quasimodo staring back. Really didnt feel like walking that day, but we were staying in a “town” with a population of perhaps 14 and thus my only opportunity to visit a pharmacy required a 27km trek. And, as luck would have it, this trek had to be made in the rain and wind and at a balmy 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Put on all the warm clothes I have and trudged outside. With my hood on, I have to seriously crane my neck out and turn it a full 180 degrees to be able to see anything. As it was foggy and raining, i was forced to do this often.

That act, in combination with my sour expression, made me look something more akin to Gollum than anything else.

Mia naturally has hobbit feet so it quickly became apparent that she be Frodo tho she prefers the title “Master Frodo.” Sincerely questioned why I was doing the camino that day.

Still waiting for the emotional and spiritual revelations.

Bit nervous about those. The ensemada that I ate this morning filled with homemade whip cream and dusted with powdered sugar nearly brought me to tears, but I don’t think that counts.

October 3, 2012

Today we felt really good. Put on a little Bon Iver and found a nice meditative rhythm. People keep saying that when you reach Santiago, you become a new person; your old self dies and a new self is reborn. I was a believer after day 4 or 5 because the pain in my feet had subsided and I could fully indulge in a quiet meditation I’ve only been able to discover through walking or yoga. However, now that we’re on day 16 or 18 or whatever, I’m not so sure I believe in this rebirthing business. 8 hours a day is a lot of time for self reflection and now I feel like I’ve overanalyzed the shit out of my life and am back to square one. Well, maybe not square one, but if i were to finish camino tomorrow, I’d be as confused about myself as ever. But are we ever in the know? Ahhhh. Too. Much. Thinking.

Anyway, around 3 decided we should seek out a place to sleep. Walked to one town and asked about a bed. No luck. Walked 5k and asked again. Completo. Recommenced walking only to discover that the first of two albergues in the next town was also full. Finally, arrived at an Italian themed albergue down the road from the first. Initially we congratulated ourselves on the find because it seemed obvious that fate had brought us to little Italy. Unfortunately we tooted our horns a bit prematurely as we soon realized that the final spot had been taken by none other than the Legend himself — a very small and adorable Frenchman with bugged eyes and the sweetest of smiles who will talk your ear off in the only language he speaks: French. And who will continue to chat you up an ask you questions no matter how many times you tell him you don’t speak French, or better, no matter how obviously incapable you are of even communicating that. C´est la vie.

Well, we must’ve looked like two sad sacks as he gave the final bed away to the Legend because the owner quickly told us to put our bags down and wait. He took his time showing the Legend to his room and then chatting with newly arrived guests who had prereserved a room. Mia entertained herself during the wait by making funny faces at the small child seated next to the reception desk. It was showing off its hand clapping abilities which drew lots of coos from the crowd. I was less impressed.

Finally the owner returned and confirmed that there were no beds available, but said that we could sleep in his house, located directly above the albergue. Our own private bedroom with a proper bed, our own semi-private bathroom with hot water. Couldve kissed him. Suddenly the baby’s tricks seemed spectacular.

Slept very well that night sans snorers and 6AM early risers. Master frodo claims that I was doing a bit of snoring myself, but I find this hard to believe.

Word on the camino is that all the albergues in the town that we hoped to walk to today are already full as apparently many pilgrims have been waking up early to call and reserve a bed. There is also talk of people taking cabs or buses to get to their destinations quicker in order to beat the rush. Camino politics at their ugliest. We refuse to partake, thoughguess we can’t always rely on a kind Italian man to take us into his home. Thought about investing in a tent but considering my shoulder muscles have already doubled in size, I’m a bit frightened at the thought of what an additional 3 kilos would do.