Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The End (Of The World (As We Know It))

3:45 PM, August 10, Near the City of Cee, On the Fisterra-Santiago Bus, Seat 27

Today, Day 32, was my final day in Spain. And where better to visit on your final day than the end of the earth?

Dan and I took a bus to Finis Terrae and walked 3 kilometers (I know, even when you take a bus, you still need to walk kilometers…a pilgrim’s journey never seems to end). We arrived at the lighthouse where we took pictures and looked out over the Atlantic. No point in the continent of Europe is farther West than this point.

We then found out from a worker in the lighthouse that although there were big painted signs on rocks that said “No Fires!” we could find a place where there is little vegetation among the rocks and light a few pieces of our clothing on fire. This is a tradition that goes back to the original pilgrimages to Finis Terrae; since pilgrims were just forgiven for all of their sins in Santiago, they then went to Finis Terrae to burn their clothing and jump into the Atlantic. When they came out of the water, their new life would begin, free of sin and on a holy path. Today, we symbolized this by burning pieces of our clothing (I burned my bad socks that were one of the more glaring causes of my blisters) and then washing our hands in the water. I threw the source of my pain in the fire and watched it burn, seeing the flames eliminate the past and clearing a way to the future.

Perhaps this is the end of the world as I know it, as I start my life anew, fresh and pure. And, indeed, this was the end of the world, as far as the Romans knew. And, true, this is the end of my time in Spain. However, it doesn’t end here. I luckily have one more day of flights (from Santiago to Madrid to Dallas to Chicago) to collect my final thoughts and have one last look at this past month on the Road. More to come soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Cathedral and The Catharsis

9:43 PM, August 9, Monte do Gozo, Municipal Albergue, Room 2809, Bed 1

I did it.

We reached Santiago today. I was tearing up during these last 5 kilometers into the city.

We took pictures in the square, reunited with old friends, and told jokes to make light of the serious emotions.

We went to the Pilgrim Office and stood in a long line to get our Compostela certificates. I cried a stream of tears for 10 minutes in line, realizing that I had done it.

I did it.

We went to store our bag at the bag storage. We saw more old friends and traded hugs and congratulations.

We went to the noon mass. I stood in the front center section to the left. I cried for the first half of the mass. It was beautiful and emotional. I was happy and satisfied, for the first time in a very, very long time.

I did it.

We went for lunch and said goodbye to some friends. We reunited in the square with more old friends. We went to check bus times for Fisterra tomorrow.

We returned to the cathedral. I took pictures. I offered my personal prayers. I cried. I prepared to give my confessional while waiting for it to open in English. I cried some more. I gave my confession and, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, was absolved of all of my sins from my entire life. I cried a lot during that part.

I did it.

I parted from the remaining friends. We said our final goodbyes. Dan and I walked the 5 kilometers back to Monte do Gozo. We saw another old friend. We shared dinner.

I came back to our room to write. I cried a little bit more. I’m happy and satisfied.

I did it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Saying

9:07 PM, Same Cafeteria

I have heard a popular saying about the Camino: The first third (to Burgos) is hard on your body; the second third (the Meseta, from Burgos to Leon) is hard on your mind; the final third (from Leon to Santiago) is hard on both.

I propose to revise this saying to reflect my own experiences: The first third is hard on your body; the second third is hard on your mind; and the final third is hard on your heart.

The first third is hard on your body. I don’t think I need to explain why to anyone who has been following what one reader referred to as my “blisterblog.” Frankentoe speaks for himself, and the pain that I felt in my feet was like none other. In fact, even at the time of this writing, my feet still look as though they lost a fight to a food processor. But by Burgos, they felt good enough for my feet to be able to carry me normally into the Meseta.

The second third is hard on your mind. With kilometers and kilometers of flat plains surrounding you for as far as your eyes can see, you have the blood-curdling realization that you are alone with your thoughts. Knowing that you have 4 hours with nothing to be a stimulus to your mind except your own wandering thoughts, you are forced to accept the way in which your mind wants to move you. You are forced to explore your thoughts, explore why you think the way you do, revisit important events from your past and explore why your response was what it was, but most importantly of all—to me at least—you are forced to think about who each of these characters in your life really is and how that relationship can and should change.

The final third, however, is hard on your heart. The final third is the merger between the past and the future; this is the bridge portion in which what I learned on the Camino gets transferred to how my life operates. I now know that I will need to have some tough conversations with some people in my life, some for the better, some for the worse. I know that I will need to say goodbye to the Camino, to the friends I have met, and to this wonderful struggle which has consumed the past month. This is tough, and my heart grows heavy with the responsibility.

However, I am prepared, for I have become stronger in body, mind, and heart on the Camino.

The "Mi Casi es Su Casi"

9:06 PM, August 8, Monte do Gozo Cafeteria (with Gwendal and Gottfried)

For the last 200 km, some humor-filled jokester has been adding graffiti to the Camino. Above the yellow arrows every so often, this humorist has written “CASI.”

While Gottfried thought that it was just someone writing her name, I think it was much more than that. Casi, in Spanish, means “Almost.” And now, sitting only 5 km from Santiago, no word could describe it better.

Excitement fills the air and people are almost there, almost at the clincher of their journey. The Road is almost over, my walk is almost complete, my Camino friends and family are almost gone. Almost, almost, almost.

“Almost,” like the Bowling for Soup song of the same name implies, could be a bad thing, too. Almost doing good enough, almost reaching your goal, almost arriving at the end—all of these would be rather horrible, if they were the end of the story. And, believe me there have been plenty of almost moments in my life. Some almost moments have been followed by moments of climax where the end is reached; others, however, have been sad stories of a ship that never sailed. As today is one of the former, perhaps I can work toward making my life full of the former type of almost and lacking in the latter.

But today is not the end of this Camino story. Today is Almost because Tomorrow is The End. So, allow me to enjoy my final hours of Almost. When I write tomorrow, it will be with Compostela in hand!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Day in the Life

6:33 PM, August 7, Arzua, Via Lactea Albergue, Room 4, Bed 4

(It’s about time I give you the pilgrim’s experience, finally sharing what a true day for me is like. Get ready and don’t forget to pack anything!)

You hear the person in the bed next to you jump down, but you don’t want to open your eyes just yet. You hear them grab bags and start packing. You make a silent prayer that they will respect the silence of the room and the fact that you’re still “asleep.” Your prayer fails, and you hear as they spend an agonizingly long time getting some damned plastic grocery bag into their backpack. You open your eyes.

Your iTouch reads 11:10 pm, which clearly means it’s 5:10 am and about time to start your day. You lay in bed for another few minutes before climbing out and beginning to gather your own stuff. Since you’re a respectful pilgrim, you grab all of your bag’s fillers Rachel-Ray style and carefully balance it all as you carry it into the dimly lit hallway of the albergue. You pack your stuff, get on your shorts and shirt for the day, fill your pockets with your iTouch, wallet, camera, and pilgrim’s credential, and then find a good place to sit. Once seated, you rub spf 50 all over your body, paying special attention to the back of your neck so that the others don’t have a “real” excuse to call you a redneck (true story). You deodorize, obviously, and brush your teeth.

And then you deal with your feet. First, you put Betadine on a ton of band-aids of varying sizes and apply those band-aids to all of the open blisters. You then wrap athletic tape around the last two digits of each foot, around the balls of each foot, around the big toes on each foot, around the heel, and under the heel. You then carefully slide on your socks, being careful not to damage the excellent tape job you just did. Your shoes come next--slowly of course, as you wouldn’t want to hurt your feet by jamming them in. You put on your backpack and you’re ready to go!

As you set out in the darkness of the morning, your first job is to locate your first yellow arrow, pointing you in the direction of the newest leg of the Road. As odds would have it, you will pass a church (since the Camino chooses to pass every single rundown church in Northern Spain) and there will be a potable water fountain outside. You stop at that fountain to fill up your Camelback, and you move on. Within minutes, you are outside of the small pueblo that you stayed in for the night, and you are out into the wild world of rural Spain.

You walk for 5-10 km.

You come across another pueblito, some tiny city with a name almost as unmemorable as the last. It’s breakfast time and you find a small bar. Perhaps you order a bocadillo de queso, or if you want something sweet you could order a pan de chocolate. Perhaps you order a cafĂ© con leche, or if you want something sweet you could order a cacao. But don’t forget! You’re in Europe, so the coffee is small in quantity and has no refills at all. Ever. You ask the bartender if she has a stamp, and she does; you pull out your credential and add another splotch of purple ink to your proof-of-journey card.

You walk for 10-15 km.

You’ve passed quite a few more pueblitos at this point, but you’ve been holding out on your next break for the big city, and here it is. With a farmacia, 4 bars, a hotel, and two albergues, this city of 900 citizens is a massive city, at least as far as the daily Road is concerned. This time you have a bit more of an appetite so you order a tortilla de queso and a Coca-Cola. Don’t get too excited, my Mexican food fan: a tortilla de queso is a scrambled egg and cheese sandwich on French bread. Go figure. The Coca-Cola is cool and refreshing, perhaps because it is a blistering 32 degrees outside, or perhaps because it’s made with real sugar. (Hear that Coke? Stop using high-fructose corn syrup!)

You walk for 8-10 km.

You’ve finally made it to your stopping place for the day! You find a local albergue, most likely by asking your friends which one is rated the best in their guidebooks, since you weren’t smart enough to plan ahead and bring a guidebook in your own language. (“This one has three shells! Quick, head left!”) You choose your albergue, and enter at about midday. The hospitalero takes your money, takes your name, and stamps your credential and then leads you through to the room. Boots go there, walking sticks in this bin, showers on your left, bathrooms on the right, this is your bed. Lights out at 22:00, and silence please to respect the other pilgrims. Leave by 8 but please don’t leave before 6 so that everyone can get a good night’s sleep. (You’re still yet to rest at an albergue where everyone listened to that last part. You’ll just blame it on an apparent language gap.)

You slowly peel off your socks, and peel off the tape. It’s painful to you. Very, very painful. You pop any new blisters (there’s always at least one), grab your soap and towel and clothes, and head to the showers to try to it while the hot water lasts. After your shower, you return to your room and grab your dirty clothes. (As Jason Mraz might say, What time is it? It’s LAUNDRY TIME!)
You walk to the back garden area of the albergue with your clothes and detergent soap, and find a sink with a washboard attachment and know that its time to start scrubbing. You clean your clothes in the sink, wring them out, and then find a sunny spot on the clothesline, hoping they are dry by nightfall.

You then grab your wallet, ready to head to the local panaderia or sweet shop to pick up an afternoon snack. But, alas, as always, it seems as though the annoying siesta has already began and you can get nothing because nothing is open in the entire pueblo. Ah, the siesta.

As such, you climb into bed and nap.

When you wake up, it’s a little before dinnertime. You’re starving, but, really, it’s too late to take advantage of the fact that siesta is over and grab some cookies--you’d spoil your dinner! So you read, write, blog, emaily your mom and tell her you’re fine--the usual.

Finally, it’s 19:00 and dinnertime. You and your friends head out of the albergue together to find the nearest bar that has a menu peregrino. You find one, and an un-personable waiter takes his sweet time coming over to your table to take your orders. When he does arrive, he stands there with his pen just staring until you start ordering. For your 10 Euro prix fixe pilgrim’s menu, you order the vegetable soup as your starter, and the filete de ternera (translated “steak,” but this translation is as good as calling a bag of bush trimmings a tree) as your main course. Ice cream is a good choice for the postre, and the waiter is going to bring a bottle of wine and a bottle of water for the table, along with bread. When you ask for salt to flavor the bland, oily food, the waiter brings the usual tray that has two shakers of salt, an olive oil bottle, and an identical bottle of lemon juice and vinegar mix.

After dinner, you get back to your albergue and realize it’s already nearly 21:00. Perhaps you head to a bar with the German-Austrian group who always want another beer or three before bed. Perhaps you sit and talk with a fellow English speaker in the gardens. Perhaps you relax alone, writing or reading in your bed. At any case, as 22:00 nears, you climb into bed and get comfortable. You put in your headphones to hear a little iTouch music before you fall asleep, and you slowly close your eyes.

But you forgot to take in your laundry from the clothesline! So you quickly hop out of bed, put on your sandals, and flip-flop-flip down the hallway to the garden to grab your clothes. You return, throw them haphazardly on your backpack, and return to your music.

A nice slow song comes on, and you feel as though you are in limbo where your body is stopping its daily churn to relax for the sleep that is crawling over you. You pull out your headphones, roll over, and prepare for sleep.

And that’s when the guy in the bed next to you (the same one who is going to wake you up with his grocery bag tomorrow morning--you’ve already seen the bag!) sounds like he’s choking on air in a gigantic snore. Amazingly, he is one of the masses who has mastered the art of snoring on both the inhale and exhale. You sit there thinking, I am never going to get to sleep, for about 20 minutes while listening to him saw an entire forest down.

At some point, your eyes close and you are transported to a world of Camino dreams. Your dreams will often take characters from your “real life” and put them on the Camino with you so that you can have meaningful conversations and interactions.

But before long, you hear the person in the bed next to you jump down…

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Supernatural

6:31 PM, August 6, Palas del Rey, Municipal Albergue, Bed 64

Beyond the creepy graveyards and obviously haunted ancient churches that line the Camino, there are some supernatural beings that also can cause quite a scare. While my sister has spent the last few days collecting “photographic evidence” of ghosts in the Chicagoland area, I have been busy scaring up some stories of my own.

The Witches: Galicia is a province that was at one point settled by Celtic peoples; as such, some of the folklore has carried over into the modern day. By tradition, almost all of the bars in Galicia will have at least one witch perched next to the liquor or suspended from the ceiling. Some bars have witches everywhere you look, and it has become exciting to point them out and pick out the ugliest.

The Demons: If Dante had ever walked the Camino, he would have realized that there are really only three levels of Hell, each lined with its own type of demon. The uppermost level is the cyclists who have biked the Camino since St. Jean. While they mean well, it’s annoying to have to step out of the way whenever they ding their stupid bells at you and to watch them coast downhill like it’s nothing. Not fair. The second level of Hell belongs to a worse type of demon: the tourist. Since Sarria, the last town that you can start from and still receive your Compostela, thousands of tourist pilgrims have joined the Camino and started walking. With their reservations, their complaints, their lack of camaraderie, and their overall mentality of “The Camino is for ME,” it’s easy to despise them for thinking their 100 km is just as good as your 800 km. The final and deepest level of Hell, containing the worst demons, is owned by the obvious group: the tourist cyclists. No explanation needed. (Gottfried, an Austrian friend, would be remiss if I didn’t mention the deep pit in the center of Hell where we throw the tourists who walk on the Camino blasting music, talking on walkie-talkies, or—get this—trading stocks on a cell phone.)

The Ogre: Today, while waiting in a line for the albergue to open, a kind Slovakian woman moved her bag and her friend’s up when the line moved forward. A big mean Spanish man in a pink shirt then lost his mind. The (tourist) ogre yelled at her in Spanish; when she clearly didn’t understand, he turns to the others sitting around and called her a “fucking backward Polack” (translation). He then tried yelling at her in English, which was also unsuccessful, and apparently painfully so. Tears welled up in this poor woman’s eyes, and we felt terrible. I had even tried to explain why she moved the two bags (her friend was right around the corner) but he quickly cast me off. She was scared to pass the ogre and stand in front of him in line when the albergue opened and stood off to the side in tears until her friend came and walked with her in front of him. Gottfried, Daniel, the Italians, and I even had a plan: should the guy have yelled again, I was going to stand up to him since I spoke Spanish, get punched in the face and get knocked out (I can admit that I’m probably a one-punch kind of guy), and then Gottfried was going to rush to my aid with pepper spray and the others were going to beat up this ogre, once and for all. Maybe tomorrow.

The Giants: While sitting and eating dinner two nights ago, we hear a snare drum roll and horns start to blare and we turn to see two giant humans made out of wood and plastic and paint turn the corner. These two giants then danced with each other to the music, and we learned that these are the Gigantes de Barcelona. They then continued their parade through Sarria. The next morning, after walking an hour in the darkness, we rounded a corner to see the giants walking the Camino with the herd of orange-shirted supporters. After they took a break, we were then being chased by the giant people and the orange herd. We’ve come to learn they are tourist pilgrims who are walking the Camino for a publicity stunt for their group, placing them squarely in the second-and-a-half level down in Hell. I’ve now formally decided I don’t like giants or orange herds (but I guess herds of oranges would be fine…).

The Ghost: Today, I told Dan a story about a ghost from my past. It was painful to tell the story, but it was good to revisit it, as I had done in my mind often while crossing the Meseta. This ghost has haunted me for quite some time, and after talking with Dan I came to accept that I still have a lot of thinking to do before I’m able to exorcise the ghost’s presence. Ironically enough, when I checked my mail today in Palas del Rey, I found an email from the ghost, sent during the same period of time when I was telling Dan the story. Spooked and jarred in a way, I found myself in tears not too long ago while sitting in bed. Perhaps it is good to be haunted, for is a ghost not a perfect reminder not to make the same mistakes again?

The Frankenstein Monster: My left pinky toe is now a veritable Frankenstein monster. With scars and cuts and scrapes and skin peeling away and nail falling off, it looks like it could have only been created in a lab and then surgically pieced together onto my foot. However, my Frankentoe—or Frank, as I like to call him—can add humor to any situation. “How’s Frankentoe?” a friend will ask. I easily respond, “He’s attached to my foot, obviously. That’s how Frank’s in tow.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Massive Update!

Wow! 4 new blog posts and 1 new fiction story! How do I do it? (I do it by arriving at the albergues really quickly, then realizing there is no internet within 12 km of my stopping place, then deciding I'll write on my computer despite the lack of internet.)

Here's a massive update, from Sarria in Galicia. 112 km to go!