Monday, June 27, 2011

This is a Life Cycle

No doubt the same could be said of many journeys - in fact I'm sure it has been, but it has occured to me, as I approach the end, that walking the Camino de Santiago has been much like a full life cycle for me.

I started in St Jean Pied de Port, wandreing out into the morning mists, fresh as a baby with my shiny new gear and all the enthusiasm and naivety of a small child. Back at the start we all seemed to be abuzz with surplus energy and an ability to overlook the scrapes and grazes we were getting along the way. I made new friends at every turn, got excited about every new corner and every view and I soaked it all up like a sponge.

Somewhere further on I gained just enough knowledge of what I was doing to have an adolescent air of superior knowledge. I could have told even those on their fifth Camino a thing or two about how to do it right. We all became 'experts' on blister and injury cures and the best distances to do or the best places to try and stay. No theory was the same, because we were all painfully unique ina rather predictable way... I wasn't interested in the advice of others and was thoroughly emersed in 'My Own Journey', which required long periods of silence and solitude.

At about the halfway point we hit the Meseta, or 'adulthood' as I like to call it. Frankly it was hard work. A lot of effort with well-hidden rewards. It sometimes seemed like I was walking for the sake of walking and I worried that I was missing something, but I wasn't sure what. I could see the scenery had some beautiful elements, but beauty was not the overwhelming quality of that period. It brought me to tears, made me sweat and exhausted me. But it also provided a time of great solidarity with other walkers - it was hard on all of us, and there was good friendship and a lot of laughter to be had as a result.

At the end of the Meseta, in León, I had what I consider to have been akin to a mid-life crisis. I wanted a hotel. I wanted a comfortable bed. I wanted a bathroom all to myself. I suddenly wanted to buy everything I saw - beautiful jewellery, clothes, anything I couldn't carry on the Camino. I wanted to be able to stay out past 10pm (the curfew of most Albergues) and I didn't want to be so immediately identifiable as a Pilgrim (honestly, you can spot us a mile off). I wanted to be effortlessly cool and Spanish for a day... and then for another day... and then another... Until it became clear that I was drifting from the Camino...

So I got back on it. And slowly began to move towards old age, or 'The Final Stretch'. After the mid-life crisis I struggled to get my full physical energy back. The aches and pains that had been a vague bother slowly began to increase their presence. My body began to move slower. Sitting down is easy... standing up again requires a full refresher on how each limb functions. I can't stay awake beyond 9.30pm. My friends of the earlier days have either reached the end ahead of me, or are a few days behind, so I spend most days and evenings on my own. At this stage it's harder to make friends, because we're all aware of how close the end is now. At the 100km mark it stopped being about walking and started to be about reaching Santiago. My body and mind feel like they can only hold out as long as the road does and each day is a major struggle to the end...

But it's not a sad space to be in. I look back at the most amazing six weeks (it will be 42 days when I reach Santiago) in which I have met people I am proud to call friends, I have seen places and sights that I couldn't have imagined, I have opened my heart and my mind, I have pushed myself to achieve things I would have thought impossible and I've learned a lot about myself, about others, about my world and about what is important.

In two days time I will have walked 800kms over 37 days (plus five rest days). But that's not the end. After five very welcome rest days in Santiago I'll carry on walking a further 90kms, with my mum for company, to a place called Finisterre, which literally translates as 'The End of the Earth'. Maybe that's like the after life... I'll let you know what it's like on the other side.

Massive love to you all, lovely people.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dear Olivia Newton John

Dear Olivia,

I am almost certain that most people (except for Alicia Doreian) thought you were, frankly, a little mad when you dressed up in your head band, leotard and leg warmers and bounced around telling us all to get physical. However, I am writing to let you know that, while you may not be able to hear it (what with being busy and probably meditating on a rock in California or something), I can most definitely hear my body talk. So much so, in fact, that I have not only started listening, but occassionally I also talk back.

Let me explain...

For the past four or five days I have been walking a section of the Camino de Santiago called La Meseta (the tablelands). The theory sounded kind of tranquil and serene - long walks on straight paths through rustic country Spain. The reality was physically and emotionally somewhat trying (I'm being polite... I think you were always more the fluffy pink version than the slutty version in Grease and i don't want to offend your delicate sensibilities).

The reality of the Meseta was a narrow gravel path alongside busy secondary roads in a roughly straight line for approximately 100kms... With villages cropping up perhaps every 8kms, but sometimes only every 15-18kms. And may I just point out that the vast majority of the villages we passed through were more closely related to abandonned movie sets than lively country communities. Fascinating, but completely ghostly.

So where one had previously pumped out 20kms without too much effort, the Meseta made every kilometre feel like 3kms and I found myself arriving at destinations utterly wiped out.

Livvy, I'm sure you can appreciate that these have been tough times. I won't bore you with the contents of my brain during this period... they ranged from dark and dismal to slightly delirious and hysterical... If you have read Shirley Maclaine's account of her Camino (which I haven't, but I've heard plenty) I'd hazard a guess that this is the stage during which she believes she regressed to a past life hanging out in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (seriously).

What I'm coming to is the point at which my mind and body finally had to truly work together... I have to tell you I never imagined that the breakthrough in communication would happen on a long flat road. I think I'd pictured something a little more dramatic, like hanging from a cliff by only my little finger and somehow finding the superhuman strength to haul myself back to safety... Instead it occured approximately 3kms outside Bercianos el Real Camino, a little (semi-abandonned) village between Sahagún and León.

Just outside Sahagún I had found Patrizia (a German woman who speaks no English... My German consists only of the rather useless sentence "take the first street on the left") standing at a junction. Yellow arrows pointed both straight ahead and to the left. Some people, obviously in an attempt to clarify the directions, had added extra arrows and the words Francés and Romano to the two directions. Above these was a signpost to a village straight ahead that, according to some maps, sits on the Francés track... which the arrows said was left. This is likely to be making as much sense to you, ONJ, as it did to us...

Using hand signals and both forging on in our own languages and hoping the other understood Patrizia and I eventually made a decision and went with the Francés route to the left.

It could not have been a less inspiring 7kms if it tried. Olivia, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that walking alongside a road with passing cars actually seems to drain energy much faster than walking through fields and hills. Crazy energy shit, but true. Add unattended road works to the picture - lots of dirt, rubble and signs - and we're officially struggling. Patrizia walks faster than me (or just didn't want to have the awkward language situation for 7kms) so we ended up in this sort of solidarity by distance.

About 3kms from Bercianos I started to hear my body and it wasn't happy. In fact (you'll enjoy this mum and dad... and you'll know the sound too) it sounded a lot like my child-self whinging on walks when i was little... Sheer exhaustion had become a whingy child. So I stopped walking and stood for a minute... And then we had a chat, my body and me. This is what was said:

Me - OK, everyone (my body is a community, just FYI), you see that village over there? That's where we need to get to.
Body - REALLY!!???
Me - Yep. So listen... Here's what I'm thinking: If we hit a rest stop before here and there (by which I mean anywhere that looks like we can create a spot to sit without ants and car dust), I will sit down for half an hour, we'll eat and rest (shoes off) and get our energy back before doing the final push. If there isn't a rest stop, is everyone OK to push through if I promise that as soon as we get there I will lie down with my feet up and eat food for the first 30mins of being there?
Body - Ummm... OK. We can do that.
Me - Thank you everyone!

And on we went... And about 200m on we found a huge rest area with benches and a very jaded-looking Patrizia with her head in her hands. So me and my body, we rested. We ate food. We exchanged swear words in different languages with Patrizia to try and communicate our shared exhaustion (turns out I knew a little more German) and we took of our boots and aired our feet.

We made it to Bercianos, my body and I. We made it in one peice, whole. And it was worth every step to arrive in an Albergue run by two brothers who cooked Paella for all the guests, sang songs at dinner and made us all breakfast as they smiled and laughed... Sometimes it works out perfectly!

So, Livvy, the point is, that I got physical and I can hear my body talk. And i didn't even need the leg warmers.

Loads of love

p.s. Just for you Leash: