Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 29, 2013

It starts when we are kids. Everything, and everyone, needs to have a label. Who's mom and who's dad? Who's grandma, grandpa, sister or brother? When we go to school it gets more complicated. Now your label defines who you are within an entire societal system. If you grow up living in the same area, the label you are given as a child in elementary school often defines who you are for the rest of your years in school. Then let's add in religion. Are you religious or not? Are you a Christian? If you're a Christian, are you Catholic or Protestant. If you're Protestant, what denomination? All of these labels seemingly serve to help the world makes sense, but in reality they limit our potential to grow and experience this human existence to that which is socially acceptable within the confines of our label.

By the time I was in high school, I had begun to rebel against the labels I had been given. I was smart, so I started skipping school. I was the good kid, so I started getting in trouble. I was a Christian, so I stopped going to church. It's only now, in retrospect, that I see what I was doing. I don't like to be labelled. It confines me rather than defines me. The world makes less sense to me when I am expected to live within a label. I don't understand why I can't pick and choose what I want out of this life from all of the possibilities that exist. I have redefined myself many times over my lifetime in order to escape the labels. Yet each time, in each new phase, the labels begin to creep in, unnoticed at first, until they've almost consumed me and convinced me of their imaginary importance.

It's happening again, here on the Camino. My new label is pilgrim, or peregrina. In each new town, most do not see my face. They don't know my name. The see the backpack, and the muddy shoes and the tired eyes and I become just another one of the multitude of pilgrims that will pass their way. Along with being a pilgrim, I have rules I'm supposed to follow. The tricky part is the rules are unwritten, and none of the pilgrims who have come before me can agree on what the rules really are anyway, so even if someone did try to write them down, there'd be so much disagreement over what was the right way to be a pilgrim and what was wrong way, that we'd all end up just as confused as we were without the rule book.

Let's face it. While we are all grateful for those yellow arrows that come in all forms, all shapes and all sizes, leading us to Santiago, there are no yellow arrows leading us to the right way to be a pilgrim. My way is different from anyone else's on this path. I don't want to be lumped in with everyone else as if we're all doing the same thing for the same reason. Let's get rid of the label and just be the individuals we are.

Hi. I am Callea. I'm walking the Camino de Santiago. I came to have a spiritual experience and to break through my limitations. To do something extraordinary. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Monday, May 27, 2013

May 27, 2013

Every time I think my "roommates" for the night can't get any more rude during quiet hours at the albergues, they do. This portion of the Camino is teaching me tolerance. Last night's lesson in tolerance resulted in about 3 hours of sleep, on and off. Ironically, I had a very productive day because of, or in spite of, their lack of consideration. I was up and walking before the sun was fully awake. The poppies along the road didn't even lift their sleepy heads to wish me Buenos Dias. The good news is, I'm a day ahead of where I thought I'd be today. I made it to León where I was planning to take a scheduled rest day, but since I got here a day early, I'm taking two.

While reading through the guide book with my feet propped up in bed, I found the following. I thought it was very interesting, considering my recent struggle with the decision to take the bus part of the way between Burgos and León. Here's what John Brierley, author of "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Santiago", has to say about pilgrims who take public transportation along the way.
"If the idea of taking public transport seems like heresy, it might be useful to ask yourself - why not? ... The ego and its obsessive behavioural patterns can be just as limiting as a laissez-faire attitude and indifference."
That is so true. So often, we set out to do something and our egos get so wrapped up in what we're doing, that we forget to listen to the whisper of the why from the soul. Did I set out on the Camino de Santiago to walk 800 km? No, I set out to have an incredible, life-changing experience. I risked allowing my ego to get in the way of that happening.

It's important to listen to our hearts and our souls when we're following our dreams. Our dreams don't come from the ego, they come from the heart and the soul. It matters not what the ego wants when it comes to our dreams, it matters only what makes the heart smile and the soul take flight.

And one more quote from "El Alquimista". It's in Spanish, but I'll translate it for you. Somehow, the Spanish version just seems more beautiful.
"Cuando alquien tomaba una decisión, en realidad estaba sumergiéndose en una corriente poderosa, que lleva a la persona a un lugar que nunca había soñado a la hora de decidir."
When someone makes a decision, in reality he is submerged in a powerful current, that takes the person to a place he had never dreamed of at the hour of deciding.
I am in that place right now. I can only imagine how much farther that powerful current will have taken me by the time I arrive in Santiago.

May 26, 2013

Last night, my friend Sandiee sent me a iMessage that she had received a message for me. Sandiee is not only a good friend, but a gifted psychic as well. Her messages for me have always been incredibly accurate and perceptive. This one was no different. Part of the message she sent me said, "Slow the pace. It will be clearly yours. It will be clearly marked." She also saw wooden objects, but she was unsure what they were.

For the past few days, I've been using new trekking poles. They'd been recommended to help me with the plantar fasciitis, and as the Camino always provides, my friend Debbie had left me hers when she finished her portion of the Camino and left for a wedding in France. The first day I tried to use them, in the way I'd been shown, it just didn't work for me. AT ALL. They made me feel like I was walking much faster than I was, as if I were in a mad race. And the constant tap tap tapping drove me crazy. I couldn't even think. Using them was destroying the peace, and the pace, of my Camino.

The second day, I tried again, allowing a more natural rhythm to just happen. Something that worked for ME. Along the way, a woman stopped me to tell me I was using them incorrectly. I thanked her and told her I was doing what worked for me, and we each continued on our way. I don't think that answered settled well with her, though.

Today as I walked with the poles, I noticed I had developed a non-traditional rhythm that just felt really good. It was more like the 3-beat gait of a slow, collected canter than the 4-beat gait of a fast, frenzied road trot. For some reason, I just knew that I was experiencing the power of 3, a very powerful number for many people for many reasons.

I walked for awhile, just enjoying the feeling of rhythm and power it gave to my walk. Soon it was time to stop for breakfast. To "slow the pace". I sat down on a bench under a tree and pondered the fact that I was eating breakfast somewhere in the middle of Spain! How amazing is that! I offered my gratitude for this life-changing experience and for the many signs and messages I had received. As I stood up to leave, I noticed the tree trunk next to me, "the wooden object". In the bark was a perfectly formed 3. It was "clearly marked". I may not be doing it right, but I'm doing it my way. And that is "clearly mine".

Thanks for the confirmation in advance, Sandiee!


May 25, 2013

While I was in Burgos, with access to a telephone, I called ahead and reserved beds in each of the towns I'd be stopping in for the next week. As more and more people converge on the main route, the race for the beds is heating up. Nowhere is it more evident than on the Meseta where the towns are farther apart and the beds are more limited.

In fact, just a couple of days ago, in Terradillos de Templarios, I watch as dozens of pilgrims were turned away and sent on to Sahagún, 12 km ahead. The next day, after looking more closely at my guidebook, I decided to change my route in order to even out the kilometers per day. I would instead take the alternate route, ironically called the Camino Real, since the original Camino had been re-routed  years ago. On the Camino Real, the towns were closer together, but had fewer options for beds, at least according to the book. I was ok with that, even without bed reservations, since I assumed the majority of people would take the recommended route, rather than the one I'd chosen.

I sent my backpack ahead with a transport service to give my aching feet a break, and headed off down the alternate route. I stopped along the way to eat breakfast and as I ate, I read a little more about the two different routes. It turned out the one I was taking was, in fact, the most popular route. This new info made me very nervous. There was no way I could win a race for a bed, even if my feet were completely healthy. My backpack had been sent ahead, so there was no changing my mind. I had to take a deep breath and forge ahead. I agreed that I'd trust God and the Universe completely. I would be taken care of. There was no other way.

When I stopped in another town for lunch, I considered sending a Facebook message to a Camino friend, asking her to call ahead for me and reserve a bed. I began writing the message, then I erased it. I had agreed to place my trust in something larger than myself. Sending that Facebook message would not be trust. It would be me trying to take back control.

When I arrived at my intended destination, I found a beautiful albergue with hot showers, warm blankets and a gracious hospitalera. And plenty of beds. I had been taken care of. There is no other way.

What was I worried about anyway...

Friday, May 24, 2013

May 24, 2013

I made it to the halfway point today. I took a little time to think back over the first half of this journey. That day in St. Jean when I took my first step, seems so distant, like another lifetime. In a way I guess it was. Since then, I have had many ups and downs, struggles and successes, smiles and tears, and I'm still walking. Still moving onward. Still giving it my all.

As I walked along today, a woman from Bulgaria slowed down to talk with me for awhile. She asked me if I was going all the way to Santiago, and I said yes, then asked her the same. She said, "I hope to!" I said, "Don't hope, just do it." I'm so good at giving advice to others, not so great at giving it to myself. Or maybe, it's more that I'm not very good at taking it from myself.

Alex recently told me that he believed there were few people in the world as brave as I was. Looking around at the hundreds of people walking with me, I disagreed. There are a lot of people walking the Camino. What makes me any braver than they are? That's when I realized that very few of them are walking it alone. Although many arrived alone, they have all hooked up with other people and are now walking together. Those who do walk alone, fill their time with their iPods, keeping their minds busy, possibly so as to not have to think about the unthinkable. I am facing it head on, with no buffer to save me. Ok. Maybe I am pretty brave after all. Brave enough to face myself all by myself. That takes guts.

May 23, 2013

Today I left Burgos behind and headed off down the road again. I've looked at the distance I can realistically complete, so I took my last bus to that point. Now I'll finally be able to enjoy this journey without feeling so much pressure. The last little residue of guilt was gone when I boarded a bus full of pilgrims all doing the same thing.

I listened to a guy in his mid-20's talk about his injury, very similar to mine. He mentioned that he goes on long distance hikes in the mountains of California almost every weekend. Another guy was a marathon runner. He said the toll this is taking on his body was more than he'd ever experienced in all his years of running. I didn't feel so bad after that, considering I only got off the couch a year ago. If its tough for those guys, then I'm doing ok.

Now that I have let go of the guilt of not fulfilling my unrealistic expectations, the clouds have lifted and the sun is shining, both in my spirit and on the trail. Right now I'm sitting on the front lawn of an albergue, with a beer and a smile on my face. People are playing frisbee and chatting and soaking up the sun. I think this is my favorite afternoon so far.

I find it fascinating how the Camino is a mirror of my life, both current and past, reflecting the experiences I've had and helping me to learn the lessons I may have missed along the way, and to heal that which is still wounded.

Last night, I had dinner with my friends from Portugal, Alex and Ana once again. Ana mentioned that the Camino was a love/hate kind of relationship. I told her I didn't think I'd found the love part yet. At least not until I arrived in Burgos. She then reminded me of all the personal breakthroughs I've had. "There's your love," she said. And she is so right.

This IS a once in a lifetime experience. I will never be the same, once I am done. Not because I wasn't already good enough, but because I can be so much more.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

May 21, 2013

When I decided to take this trip, I knew that I would be learning many new things. I'd be getting to know myself in ways I've never done before. I was excited to experience these things and to share stories along the way with new friends. I have been lucky to have met many amazing people so far. Some who will remain lifelong friends, in spite of living on different continents.

What I didn't expect, and maybe I should have, was the degree of competition on the trail. The race for the beds which leads people to leave one bed before the rising of the sun, sprinting on to the next one with no time to stop and smell the roses, or even to take a picture or two. The competition to see who can walk the farthest or the fastest which leads to the same conversation each night at dinner, over and over again. "How far did you make it today? When and where did you start your Camino? When do you plan to finish?"

All of these questions leave me feeling a little empty. Not because I'll never even be close to winning any competitions based on these criteria, but because my answers to these questions come from a completely different place.

How far did I make it today? Well today, I didn't make it very far at all in terms of kilometers. But I did soar to the heavens with my visit to the Burgos Cathedral. I also learned some very valuable lessons about myself. I learned that I am not somehow less worthy of making it to Santiago, simply because I want to slow down and enjoy myself along the way. I learned that my way of living, putting the enjoyment of the beauty of life ahead of the rat race is ok. For me. Not for everyone. I learned to like that about myself. So how far did I make it today? I made it a very long way.

Where did I start my Camino? I think I'd get some strange looks if I said, truthfully, "I'm not sure yet." What do you mean you're not sure? Did you forget already? No. I'm not sure, because my Camino began long before I arrived here in Europe. Every time I think I've figured out the beginning of this journey, I remember something further back in time that was also instrumental in leading me here. My entire life seems to have led me down a path that put me right here, right now. So where did I start my Camino? I have no idea, but it doesn't really matter. I'm here now.

When do I plan to finish? I don't. I plan to bring the life lessons I am learning here in Spain everywhere I go. I never plan to finish my Camino. Santiago is not the end for me. It is just the beginning of a new chapter. So when do I plan to finish my Camino? Does it mean I "win" the competition if I say I plan to walk it for the rest of my life?

I talked to my "Camino coach", Alex, today. He reminded me about the most important thing I am doing here. I am following my Personal Story. Just like the shepherd did in 'The Alchemist'. It's MY Personal Story. No one else's. I can't do it wrong. The only way I can do it is exactly perfectly the right way for me.

As the shepherd in the book says, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to be an adventurer. I choose adventurer.

Monday, May 20, 2013

May 20, 2013

Last night I met a friend for wine and tapas in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  I had just walked through another tough day. I planned to go to bed early and rest my weary feet. It seems that another bonus of this trip is a developing case of plantar fasciitis in both heels. I knew I was coming to walk the Camino and to do some hard work. I thought I came into this whole experience completely prepared, with my eyes wide open. There's no way I could've been prepared for what I would experience. When I say this is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, I'm not exaggerating.

As Nancy and I talked, I told her that I knew it'd be hard, but I'd honestly expected to get some joy out of the experience too. When does the joy begin? I know some of you will say the same thing I've been telling myself. That I am I charge of choosing joy or misery. But let me just tell you, that choice is sometimes very difficult to make when adversity abounds day and night.  Sometimes you need a little help in choosing joy. A reminder. A stirring in the soul to reassure you that there is beauty in the world. And if that's what you really want to see, that's what you will see.

I finally decided last night that I do want to see the beauty and to experience the joy that life has to offer. I have had enough of the ups and downs and the hard work. At least for now. I need a break. It's completely in my power to take that time out. To rest and rejuvenate. To enjoy my life experiences.

Since the Camino ALWAYS provides exactly what I need when I need it, last night I asked, "When does the joy begin?"

Today, I received my answer.


At that moment of now, I walked through the gates of the city of Burgos and found my joy in the form of the most beautiful architecture I have seen since I arrived in Spain. There is something about art and architecture that moves me deep within. It happened in Italy so often that I had to keep reminding myself to be amazed. It happened again today. I have chosen joy and it was right here waiting for me to arrive.

In practical terms, what this means is that I have been so focused on doing this Camino thing the right way so as not to disappoint others, that I've forgotten to do it in the right way so as not to disappoint myself. I am here to do some hard work physically, mentally and spiritually. But I am not the type of person to work hard day after day after day. I work so I can live, not the other way around.

From here on, my Camino will be different. I will be walking fewer kilometers than I originally intended. Some who walk the Camino do only the last 100 km or 60 miles required to receive a Compostela. I have already walked twice that much, and I will walk more than twice that much again, and along with that, continue to do the hard work I came here to do. This is not an admission of defeat, it is a choice for my happiness. My reassessment will result in fewer kilometers walked, but more joy received. By the time I've finished, I will have completed about 570 km, or about 350 miles. To me, that is a worthy exchange.

And to those of you that pray, or send healing energy, please send lots of both for my heels.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

May 19, 2013

Today began as the worst of the mornings for the weather. Freezing cold, drizzly, muddy, windy. Pretty much you get the picture. I found myself slogging through deep, heavy, sticky mud, making my shoes feel about 5 lbs heavier each. It was tough to feel inspired. Yesterday I was ready to quit. Today I was walking on. Doing my best. Hoping for a miracle.

I stopped for lunch in a cafe about halfway to my destination. I was planning on a 17 km day, so I still had quite a distance to go as I left the cafe and continued on my way. Although the guidebook showed a flat afternoon ahead, I quickly saw that, once again, there were unexpected hills on the horizon. I wondered how I was going to make it this time. I was spent. Done. With 8 km to go. I lifted my eyes to heaven and said, out loud, "I can't make it over this hill alone. Someone is going to have to help me."

My steps got slower and slower, my stops more and more frequent. The hills were winning and to make it worse, I had no idea how many more there would be on the other side of this big one I was climbing. As I made my way, step by plodding step, I felt rather than heard someone next to me on my left. I looked over and saw, to my surprise, a dog. But not just any dog. My dog. It was Bandit, in his most active youth. He was dirty from being out playing in the mud, his favorite way to be. He looked up at me and tipped his head in the way that only Bandit could do and then he ran ahead.

In his older years, Bandit had hip problems that never curbed his desire to play fetch, but did prevent him from running like the wind after the stick or the ball as he'd done in his youth. I used to love to watch him run. I compared the smoothness of it to the grass waving in the wind. I often wonder if he's up in heaven, playing fetch with God, running as tirelessly and effortlessly as grass in the wind.

Oh how that dog loved to play fetch. Any object would do. A ball. a frisbee. A pine cone. A stick, no matter how big or how small. And he never got tired. We used to have to make him go lay down and take a break.

As he ran ahead, he darted into a field of waving grass, and there he chased after a bird he knew he would never catch, with wild abandon. Running like the wind, as smooth as the ripples of the grass. He came back out onto the road with a stick in his mouth, laying it down in front of some people walking ahead of me, patiently crouched, hoping they'd take the bait. He kept trying, but no one seemed to pay attention. Just passing him by, as if he weren't there. Couldn't they see him? He finally gave up and ran to the top of the hill, turned and looked at me one last time and disappeared down the other side.

As I got to the top of the hill, I searched desperately to see where he'd gone. He was nowhere to be found. The other pilgrims on the trail completely unaffected by his appearance among us. Not finding him there, disappointed, I looked ahead to see the city. My destination. I had made it after all. With a little help from an old friend.

May 18, 2013

Today started out rainy and bleak, but despite that, I vowed to make it a better day. I put on my rain gear and left the albergue. The first order of business was to climb another big hill, but according to the guidebook, after that, the rest of the day was mostly flat. I was looking forward to some easier terrain, although the guidebook has been known in the past to understate some of the ups and downs. My rain jacket is designed to keep the rain out, but that means it also keeps body heat in, making it very warm, very quickly.

Today as I started up the hill, the raincoat immediately made me too hot. The heat and the confining clothes made me claustrophobic, compounded by the fact that the strap around my waist that I'd just tightened yesterday because of weight loss, was now riding up around my stomach, because of the added bulk of the rain jacket, making it harder to breathe. I was only about halfway up the 1 km long hill when the claustrophobia and the heat combined to bring on a panic attack. I couldn't breathe and I started to cry, those huge racking sobs you get as a kid leaving you gasping for air. The perfect storm.

It all became too much. I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to for help, nothing to do but stand on the side of that hill and find a way to pull myself together. After that, all that was left to do was to start walking again. About 6 km later, I stopped in a cafe for breakfast. Having access to internet, I decided on a whim to email the pensión I had planned to stay at about 8 km farther down the road and make sure they had room. I never assumed the answer would be no. But that's exactly what they said. No room at the inn, or in this case, the pensión. I checked with the other two places in the same town. Both said they were full for the night.

Knowing I couldn't make it to the town after that one, I was stuck in this town, having completed only 6 km for the day. What made it worse was the fact that this was the one town I swore I'd avoid at all costs, because the albergue is infamous for its bedbugs. Now I was about to find out if the rumors were true. Remember those issues of mine that are being brought to the surface. Um. Yeah. BIG issue here. The good news is that, all the rumors must have caused the albergue to take some extra measures, and all was fine.

Feeling very lonely and unhappy, I began to wonder if this was really something I was supposed to do after all. Maybe I'd misread the signals. Maybe I should just go home. Maybe my lesson in all this is not how to exceed my own expectations, but instead to learn how to fail. Miserably. In the spirit of the day, my friends Alex and Ana, who have been my angels here in Spain, tried to call me to offer some support. The connection was just good enough to hear Ana's voice, but not good enough to have a conversation. I sat in that cafe and cried like a baby in front of at least 30 people I didn't know. I was broken.

May 17, 2013

Up and down, my mood seems to change as often as the elevation. For the first half of today, I was locked in a battle for personal comfort. I'm cold. I'm hot. It's raining. It's not raining. My shoes are too tight. My shoes are too loose. And now the damn shoe just came untied. Fixing each of these issues requires the removal of my backpack, which of course, means putting it back on again too. Just one of those days.

The hills are not getting any easier. My body does not seem to be adjusting to the walk. My backpack feels like it's been filled with stones. When does the fun begin again? On the positive side, I did figure out the backpack situation. I've lost so much weight that the straps around my hips weren't tight anymore, so the frame of the backpack was unable to do its job. Hopefully that adjustment will help. There are some serious hills ahead.

They say, if you let it, the Camino brings up many difficult issues. Not to make things more difficult, although that is certainly a symptom of it. But instead to heal these issues. I came into this with my eyes wide open, knowing my buttons would be pushed, just not necessarily expecting the degree to which it would happen. Walking alone, with no escape from it all, just heightens the experience. This is working every muscle I have - physically, mentally and spiritually. I keep wondering, why did the Camino choose me? What's to come from all this hard work?

May 16, 2013

The rest day in Logroño helped mind, body and spirit. As I left the city, the Camino was overflowing with locals, mostly the rich, track suit-wearing, housewife type. They were all walking and talking as fast as they could.. There were hundreds of them. All walking the same direction I was. I have no idea where they were all going. It was very difficult to maintain my own pace and sense of peace. I found myself getting very stressed, so I took a deep breath and let it all go.

I finally walked free of the crowd and had a chance to catch my breath before starting up another big hill. Remember those stories your grandpa always told you about walking five miles to school, in the snow, uphill both ways? Yeah, well he obviously went to school in Spain. But I guess the ups and downs on the Camino, as in life, are finally over when death comes around. On the Camino, the portion known as the Meseta is often compared to how most people perceive death. A long, vast nothingness.

I'm thinking if death can get me out of all these hills, that might be something I'm looking forward to. Today instead of struggling against the hill, I found myself reciting a new mantra that seemed to help. "I am fast enough. I am healthy. I am strong." Somehow the hill didn't seem so big.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

May 15, 2013

Halfway through my first month. Today I got a little homesick. Just feeling very displaced and a little lonely. In the manner of the Camino, which always provides, I found my friends Alex and Ana were here in the same city. Just what I needed. Although I only met them a few days ago, seeing them was like coming home.

We talked about some things I'm not ready to share yet, until the time comes. Their support and friendship means the world to me. I am truly lucky to count them among my friends.

After dinner, I walked over to the cathedral. It was still open, so I went in for a look around. I didn't take any pictures, partly because it just didn't feel right, but mostly because there is no way I could have done it justice. Construction began in the 15th century but wasn't completed until the 17th century. The transformation from the gothic to the renaissance was incredible. Symbolizing the move from the dark to the light. Very powerful in my own journey. As I stopped and admired the artwork and the altars, I came to the Altar de Milagres, the Altar of Miracles. I paused for a moment, then donated a euro and said a prayer. A miracle is what it will take. As I left the cathedral, a man in the plaza was playing, "What A Wonderful World" on the saxophone.

Yes, it sure is.

FYI - for those of you reading my blog, but not friends on Facebook, I'm going to open a photo sharing account so you can see my pictures along The Way. Next time I have internet service and enough time, I'll get that done and share the link.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

May 14, 2013

Currently everything feels like a struggle. I struggle to speak and understand Spanish. I struggle to find my way. I struggle to walk uphill. I struggle to walk downhill. I struggle to walk a straight line. Even my water bottle, which is attached to the same place on my backpack as it's been since the beginning has suddenly decided to start swinging and hitting me in the elbow. I struggle to enjoy this experience, when all I can think about is, "Oh no. Not another hill..." I know it's all part of the learning experience, so I'm going to just live through the struggle and keep moving onward.  Well, not tomorrow. Tomorrow I'm staying put for a rest day in Logroño.

Monday, May 13, 2013

May 13, 2013

Maybe it was the excess of wine last night. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe my body is getting weaker instead of stronger. Whatever it was, today was so much harder than my days in the Pyrenees. The uphill climbs were brutal, the downhills rocky and strenuous. They weren't long, but they were steep, with very few places to stop and rest. I didn't make it as far as I planned today. I arrived in a small village on the side of a hill, stopped in a bar for a Coca-Cola and a break from the heat, and suddenly decided not to go any farther. I walked about 15 km, or 10 miles, my daily goal, but I'd hoped to make up some ground from the days when I was sick. It's just not going to happen.

As I sat here in the bar, getting ready to blog, I met a guy from Idaho. He walked from St. Jean to Zubiri in one day. 50 kilometers!  Today was a short day for him. Only 40 km. I have to remember everyone has their own pace and their own physical capabilities, and so I shouldn't try to compare myself to him. But then I remember the guy I saw earlier today who had something wrong with his leg. It wouldn't bend at the knee. I don't know if it was a physical deformity or an injury, but he seemed to have some other things going on physically and mentally as well. On one of the steepest downhill sections, he turned around and walked down backwards. Now that is determination. I have nothing to complain about. What a reminder.

That's it for today. I'm tired. Dinner in an hour, then straight to bed.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

May 12, 2013

I climbed the Alto de Perdón today, in English it means the Hill of Forgiveness. Let me tell you, Forgiveness is not an easy hill to climb. First of all, it's much easier to keep stopping to turn around and look back at where you've been, remembering and re-telling the story that got you to this point in the first place. And just when you think you've almost conquered the beast, you find yourself heading back down, in the wrong direction, with an even steeper hill to climb ahead.

This morning, I stopped and had breakfast with where I've been. The Pyrenees rose in the distance as I remembered the struggle and the pain, the laughter and the tears, the friends I left behind and the friends I hope to one day see again. As I finished breakfast, I knew that, although I hadn't yet conquered Forgiveness, I was close. And once I took those first few steps down the other side, there would be no looking back. No stopping to see the things that had come before. Forgiveness would be in the way.

With tears running down my face, I started packing up. Two local men came around the bend with their dog.

"Buenos Dias..."

"Buenos Dias, from where do you come?"

"From Colorado. From America."

"Oh! A long way then."

"Yes. A very long way."

May 11, 2013

First thing I did this morning was get lost. I was walking along, thinking I knew where I was going, ignoring the complete lack of Camino waymarkers. I walked past a yellow arrow on a lamppost, pointing down instead of up, with a curvy line for a tail. I thought, "Hmmm, that was strange" and kept walking. Suddenly I stopped a few blocks later as it occurred to me that the upside down arrow meant I was going the wrong way. By then I was totally confused and an hour behind schedule, so I found a bus stop I had used the night before. I knew the bus would take me to city center where I could pick up the Camino a little farther down the line. I paid my €1.30 and boarded the bus. Less than two blocks later, I saw a waymarker and several pilgrims. As I got off the bus, I know that bus driver thought I was crazy.  Oh well.

As I walked through the ancient city center, I passed a bakery in a non-descript old building. The pastries in the window stopped me in my tracks. Even though I was behind schedule, I went in and ordered a petit chocolate. Most likely the best thing I've had since I've been here. It was similar to a cream puff, with light, fluffy chocolate filling in the center. One step from heaven. If not actually all the way there.

As I continued through the winding city streets, I smiled at everyone I met. Some smiled back, some gave a greeting, and some ignored me as if I were invisible. But one older man, in his 70's, glared back at me, then flicked his cigarette at my feet. I won't pretend to understand his motivation. Maybe he doesn't care for the pilgrims on the Camino. Maybe he doesn't like Americans, and I looked too much like an American carrying a Coca-Cola at 9 am. Maybe that's his idea of a friendly greeting. Who knows? I wished him well in my head and went on my way.

Later on, after I'd left the city, I stopped to make some adjustments. I was on a walking path near a busy road. A car pulled in and, although there was plenty of space to park, he wanted to park where I was standing, so I moved out of his way. A man got out and started up the trail. There were many locals walking the Camino path this morning, so I didn't find it too strange. As I finished my adjustments and continued I on, I saw him ahead. He kept turning around to look at me. Soon I saw him stopped in the middle of the path, talking to another local. As I tried to pass, he refused to move so I could go around.

I kept walking, soon coming up on several other pilgrims who had stopped to eat. I did the same, finding a place close by, but just around the corner so I could have some time to myself. I saw the man come up the path and turn the corner at the crossroad and take a different path. I was somewhat relieved. After about 15 minutes, I finished my breakfast and was packing up to leave, when I saw him come back up the path he had taken. My pack was on the ground next to me. Suddenly he walked right up to me, brushed past me and reached as if he was about to take my pack. I was quicker than him, and swept it up in my arms and he continued on up the trail.

Soon another pilgrim came by and introduced himself to me. His name was Christopher from Calgary. He thanked my for standing where I was because as he'd looked back at me, he noticed the beautiful view. He wouldn't have noticed it otherwise, so he stopped to chat. As he started to walk on, he asked if there was anything he could do for me. Something told me to tell him about the man ahead and ask him to keep an eye out. He instead offered to walk with me for quite awhile. I never saw the man again, which is weird, because he should've had to return to his car, but I am thankful for Christopher, who came along just when I needed him.

Come to think of it, isn't St. Christopher the patron saint of travelers? All I'm saying is, there are no coincidences.

Quick note: I'm doing much better and starting to gain some distance. I'm behind schedule after my rocky start, but not letting it worry me.

May 10, 2013

For myFacebook friends, you've already read this. I just wanted to add it here, so it's preserved for posterity:

My Spanish is not good enough for me to be 100% sure, but I am 99% sure I just almost got arrested at the post office tonight. The cute little man took my credit card for payment for my package home, then scanned my passport as ID. The screen started flashing something about something being suspended. He looked at me, his eyes got big and he started talking very loudly, but not to me. Two other postal employees came over and I heard him say the words "passport is suspended" and "call the police". One of the other two said, "No, no, no..." Then showed him something on the screen and re-started the transaction, all the while holding back laughter. It turns out that the credit card authorization service was temporarily suspended. The good news: I didn't get arrested. The bad news: I had to go find a cash machine and pay the almost $80 postage fee (!) in cash. I'm currently not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Friday, May 10, 2013

May 9, 2013

Today was an easy day into the outskirts of Pamplona. I'm staying at a very nice hotel in Villava which offers a great rate to pilgrims on the Camino. I am ready to relax and take it easy, hoping to get my strength back. I had a croissant for breakfast, and nothing for lunch. My pants are beginning to fall off no matter how tightly I tie them. I do need to get my appetite back because my body desperately needs fuel for energy.

After a long afternoon nap, I got dressed in my non-pilgrim clothes and went into the city center of Pamplona to meet Alex and Anna for dinner. They are an amazing couple from Portugal, who I met at Orrison, while drinking wine on the patio. They are such positive people, and have traveled the world already at a young age. I have to admit, I'm a little jealous. Dinner was beautiful, with delicious food (yes, I ate a lot!) and inspiring conversation. They made me cry when Anna told me that they had talked about it, and of all the people they thought deserved to make it to Santiago, it was me. It still brings tears to my eyes to type this. It meant so much. They said, they just felt I wanted it the most. I found that interesting, since I have been questioning whether or not I wanted it anymore. It was just what I needed to hear, and a reminder that, yes indeed, I do want it. My short time with them  re-energized my desire. For that I'll be eternally grateful.

After dinner, not knowing if our paths would cross again on this journey, we hugged and said "See you later" and that was that. The letting go and the receiving and the letting go again are very quick here on the Camino. I'll have to get used to that. But one thing never changes. I am always moving onward. ¡Ultreya!

May 8, 2013

I started out today thinking I felt better, but about halfway to Zubiri, I found I was wrong. I had sent my backpack ahead again, with all my rain gear in it, and of course it started to rain.  Not a heavy downpour, just a steady drizzle, enough to make everything a mess. I must have looked terrible, because every time I stopped for a break, someone would pause and ask if I was ok. ¿Está bien? Si, gracias. Ça va? Ça va. You ok? Yes, I'm fine.  I could answer in three languages. Not bad.

After a bit of an uphill climb, there was a pretty steep drop into Zubiri. It was paved in smooth rocks and full of mud, so the footing was treacherous.  There was no place to lodge  my walking stick for extra traction, so it became a little like rock skating down the hill. Not only dangerous, but extremely tiring on the leg muscles.

Almost to the bottom, I saw Lee and Maureen, the Australian ladies I'd met the first day. They asked me how I was feeling and I burst into tears. Maureen asked if I believed in the power of prayer and I said yes, so they said a little prayer for my health to return. We may have different beliefs in that area, but all positive intentions result in the same thing.

We walked together the rest of the way down the hill. Just as we arrived at the foot of the hill, at the sign announcing our arrival in Zubiri, my feet went out from under me and I landed on my butt in the mud. I was so done, I didn't even have the strength to stand up on my own. Lee helped me to my feet and we trudged on into town. We found a bar where we could warm up and have something to eat, then they continued down the road. I stopped at the albergue in town and asked if they had a bed for the night. They had three left, and one of them was a bottom bunk.  Such a relief, since I couldn't have climbed up to the top. Once again, proving I would be taken care of along the way.

I had plenty of time to rest, connection to wifi, a hot meal and a shower. That's really all I need to be happy. And honestly, the wifi was a bonus, I can be happy without that if I have to. But seriously. This has to get better, right? Tomorrow, Pamplona...

Thursday, May 9, 2013

May 7, 2013

How bad do I want this? I am still very sick to my stomach. I can barely eat, so no fuel to energize my body, and I'm obviously allergic to something in the air, so I can't breathe properly either. Feeling this bad makes me want to just lay in bed, not walk kilometer after kilometer after kilometer.  I will say that I'm shocked and heartened by the number of people who care and go out of their way to look out for me and to ask about me along the way. Their kindness keeps me going.

At times today, I thought, "If every day is going to be this hard, I honestly don't know if I want to continue." But then I'd find another dose of willpower and onward I would go.  I found strength I didn't know I had. To be honest, I still haven't felt the pride of accomplishment because I'm still too sick and too tired. But I'm hoping I'll look back at these past few days at my greatest leaps forward. I didn't go anywhere fast, but I always moved onward, never going back and never giving up. ¡Ultreya!

Unfortunately, my slow pace leaves me little time for rest, but today I arrived mid-afternoon in Viskarret and slept for almost 6 hours. My host had to wake me up for dinner. I felt a little bad about that, but she was very kind and didn't seem to mind.  After dinner, I went back to bed and slept another 8 hours.

I'm looking forward to Pamplona in a couple of days, where I'll get a rest day and will hopefully meet up with some new friends I've met on the way.

My Spanish is coming in handy in many situations and I've met quite a few native speakers who help me practice. Shockingly, I haven't taken a vow of silence after all, and I even initiate conversations in Spanish. I guess if I can cross the Pyrenees on foot, I can speak a second language.

May 6, 2013

Today tested my will to do this.  I started the day really sick to my stomach.  I don't know if it's a stomach bug or nerves or something else.  Regardless, it was much more difficult than yesterday. More than twice the distance and a crazy climb over the top followed by a knee-jarring descent into Roncesvalles. But I made it. Along the way, so many lessons for which I am extremely grateful. I'm too tired to write them in any real order, so here are a few things that I experienced in snapshot form.

From the moment, I stepped out onto the path, it was a steady uphill climb.  It was painful.  My legs still hurt from yesterday, my lungs felt as if they'd never again fully receive oxygen.  As I stopped for what felt like the 1000th time, a thought came to my head, divinely inspired.  A message from above.  "Don't fight it, just feel it." I am supposed to feel this struggle.  If it weren't for the pain, I wouldn't feel the accomplishment as I pushed through it.

As I neared the top, I was still very sick to my stomach.  I was doing my best to keep it in, because I didn't want to lose the water I'd been drinking.  I came around a corner, to find myself face to face with a wild Spaninsh horse.  After my struggle a few years ago with my unexplainable fear of horses, I knew that it was another message.  Let go of the fear.  Everything would be fine. I sat down on a rock and spent some time with the herd that seemingly appeared out of nowhere.  It was magical.

When I finally reached the bottom of the hill after two excruciating and challenging days, I just wanted one more rest stop.  I meant to sit down on a flat rock sticking up out of the ground, but I missed. As I caught myself, my hand landed in a patch of stinging nettles. I had never heard of stinging nettles before, so I wasn't sure if I'd touched something poisonous. I immediately began to pour what little water I had left on my hand, praying it wouldn't begin to swell. Luckily, when I reached Roncesvalles, someone was able to tell me what had happened and to reassure me that the pain would subside in a day or two. I'm glad to say it only took a day, not two.  It was like the pain of 100 bee stings, in case you're wondering.

Finally, to end the day in the most unforgettable way possible, I went to retrieve my backpack which I had sent ahead by courier.  I looked through the pile.  It wasn't there.  Everything came down on me at once.  The fear, the illness, the exhaustion. I sat down in a chair in something of a catatonic state. That's when a woman I had met on the mountain, Nancy, noticed me sitting there,  she asked if I had found my backpack.  I told her no and began to sob uncontrollably.  She immediately took control of the situation, making phone calls and asking the questions that needed to be asked. Meanwhile one of her friends, Yasmin, bought me a glass of wine to calm me down.  In the end, it turned out, that I had been looking in the wrong place and that my backpack had been there all along. Once it was all solved, Nancy then carried my backpack to the albergue up the hill, checked me in, delivered my backpack to my bunk and returned with the details of where I would be sleeping.  It was an act of kindness that touched my very soul. I can't say enough how much it meant. But I can tell you where to find her if you ever decide that you want help beginning your Camino experience rather than struggling through it as I did.  She helps you with how to get to the start, what to buy, how to use your equipment, then walks with you for the most difficult leg from St. Jean to Pamplona. Her website is at Walk Your Way. Check it out! She's a class act!

Finally, after dinner we attended the Pilgrims' Mass. An incredible experience as the priests sang in Latin, their voices echoing throughout the medieval stone cathedral. Then they blessed us all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It really brought home the history of what I had undertaken.

Oh yeah. And remember when I told you all I was walking almost 500 miles, or 790 kilometers from St. Jean to Santiago? I lied. The 790 km mark doesn't start until I leave Roncesvalles. So add the distance from that "little" climb across the Pyrenees to my total as an extra bonus.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

May 5, 2013

This morning, I am both terrified and excited, all at once.  The day has arrived, and I am on "the way".

That was one of the hardest things I've ever done.  A gain of about 2500 feet in elevation in only 5 miles. That is steep! Just when I'd think it was about to level off, I'd turn a corner only to find another, even steeper, hill.  At one point I almost panicked as I wondered if I really had what it takes, and what would I do if I didn't. How would I get off the mountain? Then I remembered the day I had the breakdown in Spanish class. I asked Alex how I was ever supposed to make it over the Pyrenees. His answer, "One step at a time." It wasn't pretty.  I wasn't fast, but I made it to the alburgue. I wish I could say that tomorrow was going to be easier, but I have another 1800 feet to climb and a pretty brutal downhill after that. I guess I'll just take it one step at a time.

Through all of the hardship, I am remembering to be grateful for the amazing experiences I am having. This morning as I climbed through the Pyrenees, the sound of cowbells rising through the mist was something I'll never forget.  What a beautiful experience.

So far, my favorite part has been listening to some of the stories from the other pilgrims, so I'll share them now and then. I met a couple of nice Australian ladies, Maureen and Lea.  Maureen is carrying 15 stones for the prayers of 15 different people. The most important being her husband, an Australian cowboy, who was thrown from a horse and now has a severe brain injury. His prayer is for his brain to become "untangled". Sending extra energy to him and hoping for a Camino miracle, with tears in my eyes as I write this.

May 4, 2013

The train ride from Madrid to Pamplona was gorgeous. I had planned to read, but why bury my nose in a book when I can watch the Spanish countryside go by.  I took some time to reflect on what was to come, but I knew I really had no idea. Better just to wait and see, one step at a time.

When I arrived in Pamplona, I discovered that my Spanish was good enough to begin a conversation with the cab driver who was taking me to the bus station to catch a bus to Roncesvalles.  He asked if I was walking the Camino and if I was starting in Roncesvalles. I told him no, that I planned to take a taxi from Roncesvalles. He told me that there were no taxis in Roncesvalles. If I wanted to go to St. Jean, I needed to take a taxi from Pamplona. He only spoke Spanish, so I was able to ask him the cost for him to take me to Roncesvalles (a lot!) and to coordinate directions to my alburgue using my map once we arrived in town.  If I hadn't been able to speak the language, I'd have been stranded in Roncesvalles.

Riding in the taxi from Pamplona to St. Jean, I caught my first glimpse of peregrinos (pilgrims) and the waymarkers that I'd begin following the next day. Seeing it all live and in person added a touch of surrealism to it all, which seems backwards. Shouldn't it have become more real?

The pilgrims' dinner at the alburgue was inspirational. I found myself holding back tears as I listened to the stories of why everyone was making the walk. So similar and yet so different. Afterwards, I received my first stamp in my credential. Such a milestone! Tomorrow, it's on!

Funny fact, by the way, if you have seen the movie, 'The Way'. According to the Dutch people staying at the alburgue with me, they prefer our guidebook, not the Dutch guidebook, as Joost repeatedly tells Tom throughout the movie..

Friday, May 3, 2013

May 3, 2013

It's my 2nd day in Madrid. Much better than yesterday, but then again, yesterday I was exhausted from traveling and no sleep. I also found a nicer part of the city today. It's still not Florence, though. Sorry, Madrid... I rode the Metro for the first time, of course singing the Berlin song the whole time. If you don't get that reference, google it. I also visited the Prado Museum. Amazing works of art!

Now I'm sitting at a patio cafe with a sandwich and a beer. The weather couldn't be more perfect. Mid-70's and a few fluffy white clouds floating through the sky. Please, please let it stay that way for the next few days.

I really hope my Spanish gets better. I'm having a hard time understanding what people are saying.  Somehow it's all been fine, though. I haven't gotten lost, I'm not going hungry - yet - and there's even a Pepsi waiting for me in the mini bar in my room. What more do I need?

It's ironic that, although my Spanish sucks, as I write this, I'm thinking it in Spanish and having to translate to English. How weird is that? In my head I'm fluent. But I suppose if I can imagine it, I can do it. One thing I've noticed, if I don't understand you the first time you say something, it doesn't help to just say the same thing louder. That just makes me nervous. And to all the people who asked me before I left why I was learning Spanish because "everyone in Spain speaks English", that is SO not true. Even here in the touristy part of Madrid.

Tomorrow morning, I leave for St. Jean Pied-du-Port. Vacation time is almost over. It's about to get real.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

May 2, 2013

This one will be short and sweet. Partly because I'm so tired and partly because the hotel only lets you access wifi from one device, so I'm posting from my phone. Gotta fix that tomorrow.

So far I gotta say I'm not impressed with Madrid. I'm trying not to compare it to my favorite city in the whole world, but the comparisons to Florence are everywhere. Unfortunately they're not in Madrid's favor. Even the trees have graffiti on them. The Royal Palace looks forgotten and unloved now that the royal family doesn't live there.

But I know I'm tired and tomorrow is another day, so I'm not making any final decisions yet. I will say that at this point, I feel about Madrid the way I felt about Venice. I'm glad I got to visit, just to say I've been there, but I wouldn't need to return.

All in all, today has been a good day, though. They're just gonna get better from here. Good night!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May 1, 2013

New beginnings! I don't have a lot of time to write, but I couldn't let this day go by without posting something. In about 30 minutes, I'm headed to the airport to officially begin my grand adventure. To be honest, I'm not sure how to describe what I'm feeling. I'm excited, nervous and a little teary-eyed. I've felt the support from so many of you over the past year, but yesterday and today have been amazing. So many of you wishing me a Buen Camino in a hundred different ways. Thank you for that!

 I'm beginning my journey with another example of the Universe's sense of humor. We are having one of those heavy, wet spring snowstorms. When I woke up this morning, I started worrying. What if my plane is delayed? What if I miss my connection in Dallas? What if I get bumped and have to sit in a middle seat all the way to Madrid? What if, what if, what if? Then I realized that worrying wasn't going to change the weather. Everything will be just fine. Whatever happens, happens. The snow can't last forever. I will be taken care of.

And with that, I have to go. I am off on the adventure of a lifetime and I'm taking you all with me in spirit. My next post on this blog will be from Madrid! Can you believe it?

Hasta luego!