Fragments of Joy

Here is a blog post I found in my notes but somehow missed posting while I was in Spain last year.

I am sitting in my albergue, drinking tea, and eating cookies. There are maybe 30 other people here and I really don’t care if I talk to anybody. The weather has been rainy for the last two days and nothing says I’d rather be home in a nice warm bed than walking in a pouring rain for a few hours and not having an option to stop. There is nowhere to stop. Yesterday the albergue was another few km up the road and the rain just came down harder. I don’t remember feeling like this the last caminos. Or maybe it’s selective memory. There has been some spectacular views. Yesterday was hard, lots of climbing, but also a weird realization. I remember thinking at one point, wow, this is so nice, it’s just like hiking at home. And then the irony hit me. I flew through nine time zones so I could be happy walking somewhere that was like what I had left.

But I have had the luck to meet some interesting people. I was walking along the road this morning and said hello to an older woman walking the other direction. We stopped to chat about why I was walking by myself, and she indicated she lived closeby. I had some questions about the town and rather than try to explain she accompanied me into town. She kept a brisk pace and then said she wouldn’t go on a camino because she wasn’t as young as me. And how old do you think she was? Eighty four. Booting it along the road, talking to everybody.

I met a couple from South Africa who moved here some 30 years ago but still don’t feel as though they are fully integrated, although their daughter is. Another couple who met on the camino last year, although him living in London and her being from Australia makes things a little difficult. But if you asked me where I stayed last night I might not be able to tell you the name of the town. I could tell you about the albergue and who I shared it with, but nothing else. It’s all just blending together.

So what does this mean? Am I just tired, although I’ve only been walking ten days? Am I not paying attention to what’s around me? Or are there just bits and pieces, isolated moments of those things that lift me up? Like the bird feather I found today, an iridescent green along one edge. The shades of green and orange in the ferns. The mist rolling in over the edge of the hill I had spent the last hour climbing. These images, although I have seen similar ones, keep the joy in this camino. But for the most part, I would be happy doing this by myself, with no intrusions from other people. It feels like I am looking toward home.

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Should I or Shouldn’t I?

Should. That word brings up so many meanings for people. And for me. I have finally let go of anything attached to what I think people should or shouldn’t do along a camino. It only took four caminos to get to that point. A friend of mine, who has also done a lot of walking, said “You’re a fast learner” when I told him about these developments. I used to feel just a twinge of self righteousness when I talked to people I met here. As if I had all the answers. As if by having been here four times I knew something they didn’t. And because I had walked all of it, never sent my pack ahead, and other than when in Santiago, had always stayed in albergues. Because that’s how you should do it if you want the real camino experience. 

So picture me sitting on a bus one morning, riding into Ourense rather than walking five hours along the pavement, a good chunk of that time within the city limits. I just didn’t want to. My body and heart felt tired. So I got up early and along with Francisco, a Spanish man with a sore knee, caught the bus. We wandered around the city and deliberated catching a little tourist train that would take us on a route showing all the thermal pool sites. And then after exiting a building that showcased information about the pools, Francisco beckoned me over. There was a spa right in the middle of the city. Steam rising from the 38 degree water, a dozen or so senior residents soaking, free entry. But only one problem, I had no suit. As I stood there, trying to figure out how to persuade the attendent to let me in with shorts and a t-shirt, a young woman saw my dilemma and offered to loan me her other suit. Oh my yes. Within 5 minutes I was lying back in the water, waiting for my fingers and toes to turn into prunes. 

There’s something about water and I. I need to be near it, I need to immerse myself in it from time to time, I need to hear and see it. I can feel it in my heart, a longing for it when I walk alongside, be it the ocean, a lake, or a river. I’ve had the fortune three times this camino to find water to sink into. It’s as if I start to develop cracks in myself if I go too long without, and when I finally find water to submerge myself in, the water eases in and around the cracks, and I am whole again. I ground myself in water. 

It was a very restful day. There was a time I would have told myself that I should walk in, that I should keep walking after I had arrived by bus, that I should always sleep in albergues. But after that one day, I finally got it. My body said it was tired. My spirit said it was tired. And rather than convince myself otherwise, I listened. I am doing my camino. Sometimes I stay in a private room. Sometimes I walk 15 km. Sometimes I walk 35 km. Other people do their camino. I don’t care what they do. It’s in the realm of “I don’t give a f*ck.” And I really don’t. The highlights of my caminos are isolated moments of beauty and remembrances of people. 

The next day I felt great. It was one of the few times in my life that body, heart, feelings, and mind were working together, helping each other. In harmony. And if that’s the only thing that I bring home from this camino, I will be completely satisfied. 





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Alone Again

Day one of walking is complete. 15 km more or less. I left the albergue yesterday and it felt like it was time. I had felt pretty detached from everything for the day or two before. I had gone out with Mar, the owner, and had fun visiting some favourite places. Irish Dave and the kids came along. I realized that even though I thought I had no expecations before my arrival at the beginning of August, I had wanted to recapture some of the community of last year. There were times when it seemed I was there, but the ease of leaving seemed to indicate otherwise. A wise friend of mine once said to me “The pain is in the expectations, and not in the truth. Most of the pilgrims came with similar issues to resolve, troubled relationships, inner searching, transitions of some sort. They seemed to look to the hospitaleros for guidance but I know from my own travels over the last few years that what is sought can only come from within. 

The camino I am walking is called the Via de la Plata and starts in Seville. I am starting about 300 from Santiago as I only have about three weeks and no desire to put in 30+ km days. It is stinking hot. The path went alongside a lake and my naked body was in the water faster than you can say 36 degrees. I got to the albergue by 1:00 and being the first one in managed to score a double bed. My laundry dried in about 5 minutes. 
I also discovered that even though I thought I was more in tune with myself and being honest about what I wanted, that this still needs some work. I met another pilgrim at the bus station yesterday and after some chit chat, he asked if he could walk with me. Instead of declining, as I really like the solitude of walking on my own, I reverted to being nice at the expense of what I wanted. Sure, no problem. And my camino lessons continue. Instead of convincing myself why my decision makes sense, I need to follow my gut feeling, that first inclination to say no. No. No thanks. No, I like walking on my own. No, I prefer my aloneness right now. No. 

I also discovered that my joy of being in Spain is in large part from this walking. But I can get that anywhere. Next year will be spent exploring walks in BC. The Sunshine Coast Trail. The Juan de Fuca Trail. Day trips. Camping trips on my own. I don’t need to be in Spain to find that joy in the quiet. I have it already. Everywhere.



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Family or Job?

I have been here more than a week already, and sometimes it feels like no time at all and others it feels like so much more. I came with no expectations, remembering how the transition last year took some time. And I am struck again how my time at the albergue parallels my time on the Camino.

The people I meet fall into two general groups. Those who in very short order feel like family and those who I am happy to be with and talk to but feel no sense of loss when we part ways. And so it is here. Previous years it has felt very much like home and there is an easy way of being. I was skyping with some loved ones last night, trying to describe what I felt, and as they know my heart so well they were able to articulate my sentiments. “It’s the difference between a job and a family.” Yes. 

Three days later. Pilgrims began arriving at 11:00 and by 1:30 we were almost full. I was by myself and it was a crazy afternoon of massages and getting coffee and checking people in and finding out what happens when the wrong soap is put in the dishwasher. Foam. Lots of foam. More on this in another post. And I finally started to feel at home, like part of the albergue was mine. I had been trying too hard to fit in, and not just letting myself be who I am. When I start to walk, I don’t need to follow an itinerary. I know where I’m starting, and I know where I’m finishing. I will meet people who already feel like friends and those who don’t. And I am always me. 

“I know now where I’m going cause I’ve found just where I’m from.

Getting easier with every task,

Its not the first time and it wont be the last.””

– Current Swell “Young and Able”

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My Favourite Day

“- What day is it?
– It’s today, – squeaked Piglet.
– My favorite day, – said Pooh.”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I’m enjoying the simple luxury of lying in bed in my hostel, a five minute walk from the pebbly beach in Brighton, England. Trip number four to Spain is underway. Following more than an hour delay in the flight taking off, nine hours in the air, almost an hour in the bus, compounded with an eight hour time difference, I collapsed into bed and slept away the jetlag.

I have no expectations for this year’s trip. Each day already feels like that moment when you get to the top of the first incline on a roller coaster. Your stomach tightens with the anticipation of the drop and the acceleration into that first curve. And it never gets old. I can see the sun shining outside my window, the gulls are talking, but my room is empty and quiet. So many possibilities for the day. And for each day after.

I love the moment after meeting someone when I realize there is a touching at some level between us. That this is someone I can feel at ease with, and connected to always. I was reminded of this yesterday on the long flight, in a roundabout manner. I ended up seated between two Spanish friends. We chatted about this and that, they knew of the Camino, and we talked about how people connect. About how this happens easily for some and not so much for others. But as the flight wore on, and we all tried to catch a bit of sleep, I noticed that we all tried to maintain our very small personal spaces within the boundaries of our seats. It would have been much easier and more comfortable to overlap, to be ok with a touch here and there, to let heads rest on shoulders or outstretched legs on outstretched legs. But we refrained. And I thought, hmmmm, we do that also with our selves. Keep our selves from touching other selves for fear of what? Not being welcomed? Inserting something of who we are into someone else? Being politely turned away?

I don’t want to go through life like that. Basing my action on what I believe someone else’s action will be. I am reminded of a piece from a book I have read several times, called “Illusions:Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”

“Like attracts like. Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright. Automatically, as we shine who we are, asking ourselves every minute is this what I really want to do, doing it only when we answer yes, automatically that turns away those who have nothing to learn from who we are,and attracts those who do, and from whom we have to learn, as well.”
― Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

I am blessed to have people in my life like this. I carry them with me always. I love them, I miss them, I feel them in my heart. Some were met over the years and some more recently. And more will be met, or not. But that roller coaster is available every day, and I can feel the moment approaching of hopping in the first car and heading for the incline. Woohoo, what a ride!

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What’s in a Number Anyway?

The last few days walking have been challenging. There were a lot of ups and downs, physically and emotionally. The climbing is not an issue for my knee but what goes up must come down and the resulting pain on the descents has me, as my walking companion termed it, turning inwards. I felt yesterday that I had been hit by a truck and then dragged a few hundred metres. So my thoughts did not wander into philosophical regions but instead entrenched themselves into other areas which at first glance may not seem so important but have great meaning here. 

Bathroom ratings

The first year I walked we came up with a star rating for the bathrooms we encountered. Little did I realize we weren’t original in this regard. I met a woman from Ottawa the other day (and it was so comforting to hear someone jokingly ask where was the next Timmies) who came out of a bathroom stating it was a 4 star. Apparently it was missing paper to dry your hands. I give one star for each of the following:

Toilet paper. This is not a given. I always forget to carry my own and I always wait until I’m desperate, meaning that I don’t check before I sit down. 

Light. Some bathrooms have a timer on the switch. This is great except most timers only run about 20 seconds and then leave you in total darkness. I don’t know anybody who can get their pants undone and down, pee, wipe, and stand up again in 20 seconds. And if you’re desperate to pee you’re not likely to take note of where the switch was located. Not to mention that it can take tired legs the full time allotment to lower the tired ass to the toilet seat. 

Soap. Enough said. 

Means of drying hands. This is fairly low on my list , I can use my shorts or just air dry, but it’s nice to have an option. 

Toilet seat. Also nice to have. Sitting on a rim just feels icky. I did give a bathroom four stars the other day. It had everything but a toilet, just a hole in the floor. This is the only time I have encountered that. 

Things people talk about

We were sitting in Grandas de Salime drinking cidra. This is a regional drink that is poured and drunk in a certain way. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=m6CCLB7dOJU After 4 bottles had been consumed we were posed the question “Do you know what the seven deadly sins are?” Apparently this was one of the topics discussed the previous day coming down the long mountain descent. We got to six and had to look up the seventh. We then progressed to reindeer, dwarves, Brady Bunch kids, and the Partridge Family. My walking partner made me promise I would never do that while we were walking, no matter how bad it got. 

Bathtubs

I don’t know if Spanish people are short or just don’t see the point of bathtubs. I have scored a bathtub twice while here. The first didn’t have an adequate supply of hot water. The second had lots but I couldn’t submerge any of my legs except my upper thighs and my feet. Why are bathtubs in different countries different? Tubs in England are really long and deep but super narrow. 

See? Not philosophical at all. This is where my mind wanders when my knee is throbbing at every step. 

Hugging

I used to think I could anticipate a person’s hugging prowess based on their appearance but I have been proven wrong enough times that I now just hug with open arms and heart. I have received some spectacular hugs in my time here. Arms wrapped around each other, breathing in synchrony, time stands still. I met a woman in the albergue who was walking the Camino in the reverse direction, offering free hugs to all she met. The instant I heard her say that, I came leaping out from the kitchen, and if people had been in my way they would have been pushed aside in my eagerness to get a hug. Really, there’s not much better. I know a young woman at the yoga studio where I practice, and the first thing we do when we see each other is hug. Standing on the stairs and laughing while you hug is even more fun. Hug for joy when you see someone you like, hug with sadness when you must say goodbye, hug with all you can in your heart and soul. 

 I am just a few days from Santiago, then to Muxia and Finisterra before returning once more to Santiago. My heart is again pulling me in two directions. Go home. Come back. Don’t leave. I need a hug.  

  

    
    
   

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Wrong Way? Right Way?

I have noticed that yellow arrows, the standard waymarking of previous caminos, are not so prevalent and obvious on this Camino. Google Maps wants to put me on the highway in some sort of death defying camino of its own. Arrows might be quite small, perched on some building corner. 

   
   
But until yesterday I had yet to encounter a red arrow. Let me backtrack a little. 

I left the albergue only two days ago. It seems forever. It wasn’t any easier this year. The most important people to me were as before, not the pilgrims I met but those associated with the albergue. I’m sure people would be surprised to know what was discussed between me and the 21 year old young man from England, one of my fellow hospitaleros. I don’t think I laughed so much in a long time. Two musicians stopped by for a time, and the music was calming, mesmorizing, and took me to a place that needed some time to return from.  And then I left, with Mar’s voice in my ear and hugs from everybody.  The bus took me to my starting point in Oviedo. I found my way to the cathedral and then headed out, expecting to cover the 12 km in about 3 hours. And I probably would have if it weren’t for that (insert swear words) red arrow. I had come to a point where the road continued down to the left and a less major trail branched to the right. There was the signpost with a conch shell symbol. There was an arrow pointing the way. A red arrow. I dithered, uncertain. What did this mean? Had someone neglected to paint it yellow? Was red the colour for this route? I had done no research whatsoever. Or maybe it meant red arrow DON’T go this way. Like red means stop. So I continued along the road, saw no more yellow arrows, and thought it best to ask. Asking directions in English can be a bit of a crapshoot, but imagine asking in Spanish. I managed to understand that I should have followed the (insert swear words) red arrow. Seeing the look on my face, the son and his mom said I could get to the town I needed if I just followed along their road and turned right at the intersection. But the good stuff always happens when you don’t expect it, when you don’t plan it, and when you most need it. There ensued a 15 minute discussion about working in Canada and a gift of six pears. Thus ends wrong turn # 1. 

I eventually found the albergue after chatting with a man out for a walk along the highway, asking a cyclist to give me a ride up the hill, and meeting a fellow walker at the bar before going to the albergue.   

I did the same thing on day two. Not precisely the same, but I did manage to take a few wrong turns. Wrong turns on the Camino are usually noticed in one of several ways. You haven’t seen an arrow for more than 15 minutes. You come to an intersection and nothing indicates which way you should go. Random dogs come out and bark at you because they aren’t used to seeing strange people with backpacks walk by. I ended up walking with a woman who lives here as she was walking to town and back. And I got to thinking, because walking for 25 km will do that to you. Some thoughts were more philosophical. Do we really make mistakes? Or do we fail to notice the chances these mistakes present to us? Are we so fixated on one course of action that we can’t accept that other courses will do just as nicely? I have 4 more pears and met 4 people I otherwise wouldn’t have. There were other less philosophical thoughts as well. My ass hurts. Maybe I should have peed when I was at the last bar. Wow, I really love the colour of that house. Where’s the next (insert swear words) arrow?

I think instead of  regarding missed turns and arrows as mistakes, I will just carry onwards, knowing I’ll get there eventually, wherever there happens to be today. I have a video of a fellow I met at the albergue, singing a song so that I can practice it with the chords. He makes a few mistakes along the way but instead of starting over, he continues, laughing at himself, until he gets to the end. I hope I can laugh at my mistakes. I know there’s gonna be lots. 

   
    
    
 

   
 (apologies for the crappy sound, I think my finger was over the microphone)

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