Monday, May 27, 2013

El Camino de Santiago

(If I'm not The Worst Blogger in the world, I might as well be. I've had this drafted for unfortunately a month now months, and I'm determined to get it all down and posted. So, without further delay, this is my story of the Camino.)

Through AFS I got the opportunity to do the Camino de Santiago (or "Way of Saint James" I think is the English version).  Essentially what I understand is that the body of Saint James the Apostle was brought to Santiago de Compostela and lost then found again and it's been one of the most important Christian pilgrimage routes for centuries in Europe, with paths leading from all over the continent in all directions for miles and miles miles.  Nowadays all kinds of people undertake the pilgrimage for many many different reasons and do it walking, on bicycle, or on horse. (please Wikipedia/research more historic details if you're interested!).

       For 5 days I walked along an ancient path with some of the best people from around the world, sleeping in hostels and enduring rain and mud and horse poop, following the yellow arrows to reach to the Cathedral of Santiago.  
      I did a 111 km stretch of the Camino on foot, starting in Sarria, Galicia, with a group of about 40 other AFS exchange students also in Spain this year and a few volunteers and some host family members. 5 days, 111 kilometers. I don't even really know how to describe it. It  was filled with incredibly fun and beautiful and painful moments, from spending time with my AFSers who I love dearly and meeting more awesome people on the way, to being exhausted and soaking and lost, to finally reaching the cathedral, and everything in between that made it so indescribably challenging and amazing. I'm really not capable of explaining it properly at all, but I do feel like I learned a whole lot on that journey.

      To start out, on Friday, March 22, we had a half day of school because it was the beginning of Semana Santa (basically Spanish spring break).  After school let out at 11, I picked up a sleeping bag from a friend, strapped it onto my tartan backpack (borrowed from the host fam who got in in Scotland and NOT designed for much outdoorsy activities but stocked nonetheless with everything I thought I'd need and be able to carry), put on the heavy hiking boots borrowed from my host mom, and went to Vigo to catch a train with the other Galician kids going on the Camino. We made friends with some people sitting by us on the train because who doesn't love exchange students? then we met up with some AFS volunteers and went to the hostel in Sarria to stay the night before setting of the next day.
     Reuniting with some of the other students who had been living all over Spain and most of whom we hadn't seen in 7 months was a fantastic. We were psyched to be together again and catching up on our exchange years and hearing new accents we'd picked up and about the journey we were about to embark on.  Some of us started a game of soccer in the streets (how Spanish of us) and chatted about what we expected and hoped for on this trip. Mostly we were planning on having a good time on the trail.

The next day we woke up bright and early (7, I think) and totally ready to get going! A few kids were even so dedicated they did some ab exercises and stretches on their bunks before we got going. It was a beautiful and sunny day to start the hike. At first we moved in a massive clump through Sarria but pretty quickly the group thinned out as some blazed ahead and others took our time. A whole lot of us weren't exactly athletes. I must admit I was already tired after about 5k (when we still had 16 more to go- on the FIRST day). But it wasn't too hot nor too cold and there was no rush, and I spent the day trekking along with Ryan and Paige for the most part.
      Finally we made it to the day's stop around 3 pm I think. It was a beautiful sight arriving in little Portomarin for the evening.This town is actually almost entirely new because it was flooded when they damned the lake- but they salvaged the old church and moved it stone by stone to higher ground and rebuilt everything else. We stayed in a hostel, everyone in pretty much one big room with bunk beds and other pilgrims who stopped there for the night as well. Most of us AFS students went and explored the village a little, some crazy ones jumped in the lake, and met more people doing the Camino from all over the world. It was really interesting talking to the other pilgrims about their reasons for this and where they were from and everything. Everyone we met, either pilgrims or locals, was nice (the funniest was being asked on a "date" to evening Mass with a group of Irish boys on the Camino for a school trip). I don't actually remember any part on the Camino meeting someone less than friendly the entire trip.

paige, erinn, and our dog friends
if you're an exchange student hiking, when you spot an old cage thing the obvious thing to do is take a picture in it
23 km from Sarria where we began!

Portomarin, a sight for sore legs

Sunday: The day the rain arrived. I have experienced very few things more unpleasant than getting my feet soaked through hiking boots within an hour of walking in pretty steady rain, and knowing you aren't even close to halfway done for the day. I didn't think I was ever going to be fully dry after that. In the morning those of us without decent ponchos grabbed trash bags to cover up and ziplocks for our feet in hopes the socks wouldn't get soaked quite as fast (to little success).  

these weren't taken Sunday, it doesn't look rainy enough.

Monday: The day we did 30 whole kilometers. Which is a lot. The day started like the previous ones, a slow wake up around dawn, breakfast of toast, and a quick muscle warm up before starting to walk. While walking we passed the time talking and some of us singing, going through pretty much every song we could think of and knew enough words to. I was definitely dragging my feet at this point, tired and sore from the previous days and facing the longest day ahead. It was still pretty rainy and unpleasant weather, although while walking it wasn't cold. That evening after finally arriving at the hostel a couple friends and I grabbed a bunk in front of a radiator, stripped off the wettest clothes, and didn't move for hours. We were too tired to do absolutely anything except make ourselves laugh like crazy, and beg the brave athletic ones who could still walk and make a supermarket trip to bring us back cookies and chips (which they did, those kind souls. Some of the best tasting snacks I've had in my entire life). Later after dinner we were supposed to join the group to discuss the day but some of us snuck (sneaked?) away to go straight to sleep (which we got in trouble for but were far too tired to care). That was the first day I no longer managed to shower while on my feet- instead I sat on the floor because I was just too sore (and I was not the only one!)
being as glamorous as possible under the circumstances.

From "the lads". because Glenn never leaves Ireland without a flag in his pocket (that's a direct quote).
          Tuesday was by far my most difficult day. It was only about 21 km, a nice break compared to the day before, so it shouldn't have been so bad... but I accidentally got separated from the group. On the trail everyone goes at their own pace, and we tended to split into various groups of faster or slower speeds, and somehow I fell in between, alone in the middle for a while. I kept expecting to either catch up with those in front of me (they couldn't be that far ahead) or fall back with those behind (they couldn't be so far either!) or to reach the cafeteria place we'd all agreed to find for a lunch stop (we were around the halfway mark, it had to be close as well). But as I kept on going I ran into no one. And I kept going... and going... totally alone. I knew I was still on the path from the trusty yellow arrows, I just didn't know where anyone else was.
          Finally, about 4 km after the halfway mark and a good long time without seeing AFSers, I got out my cell phone and called a volunteer. Turned out that everyone was in the lunch spot and I, somehow, had walked right past. I knew I didn't have enough energy to backtrack kilometers to meet up with them again, and it would also be a waste of time to just sit still and wait for them to catch up to me... so I decided to just push through to the end. I was doing alright, just mechanically moving my feet and getting on by myself. I ended up entertaining myself by singing the entire Lion King soundtrack to myself because what else can you do for so many hours? Eventually you want a break with just your own thoughts for company, even if the peace and time to reflect isn't bad. But then around km 19 I spotted a small memorial placed by someone doing the Camino in honor of a family member who had died, and it brought a tear to my eye... and then I couldn't stop. All my exhaustion and stress and every little thing set me off and it was just a relief to let it out. So I ended up walking the last 3 km crying and completely alone. In this town our hostel was not directly on the trail, and you had to leave the path to search for it way at the edge of town, and I was so afraid I had missed it. But I found it and of course this set of a fresh flood of tears of extreme relief.  I had done it.  I was lonely and exhausted and a mess but I had finished that stretch, and now there was just one more day to go.

The Way will not give you what you're looking for, but what you need- don't view the path as the goal but a school to get to know yourself.

This was from the first day (100 km from Santiago).  These would appear every half kilometer (more or less- some seemed to be missing) and in varying degrees of graffiti-d. Some of the graffiti on these mile markers was really neat.  My personal favorites included some from a "Kris Mullington" who "has never molested a cheeseburger" and various other funny things that made me laugh as I followed his signs for several kilometers. Some were truly beautiful though; on the last day, I saw "Jill, I just wanted to say before we get there, ever step has been better with you. I love you." which actually brought a tear to my eye. (possibly it was just a pretty emotional week, but in the moment it was a really special thing even if it doesn't seem very poetic as I write it here, it really felt like I understood what the person who loved Jill was trying to say).

Wednesday: the last day! only a mere 19 or so km to make it. The goal was to get there in time for the 12:00 mass so we all got up at 5:45AM (although being the slow large group of teens we were, we actually left around 7). Today I was definitely not planning on going off on my own again, I was determined to find someone else around my pace to stick tight to. So I set out with Meg, and we were soon joined by Jonah, but we weren't seeing anyone else from our group, and also no yellow arrows.       
               We must have gone at least a kilometer and a half, on the highway, without any signs for the Camino. Megg and I were sure we'd lost the trail so we called a volunteer, who told we should have taken a different turn leaving earlier and we'd have to turn around. This was disappointing, to say the least, since we were already tired and this meant we'd be losing about an hour, and we hadn't even really started. Jonah, however, was convinced we'd followed the right arrow the first time and would eventually get back on track anyway. Meg and I decided to backtrack and start over, and it was a little unnerving to leave him behind and watching him limp away down some sketchy path that we were sure would get him lost. But we trusted that he had his phone and wouldn't get into any actual trouble and decided for ourselves to better go back to where we felt certain of ourselves. (Actually, Meg thought we were going to give up and walk back only to where the volunteer with the emergency car would come pick us up, but I thought we were going all the way back on the trail. By the time we realized we had a miscommunication, we were back in the woods following the yellow arrows and decided to just push through and make it to the end).
             At this point we knew we were coming in last, but it wasn't a race. We just kept trekking. At least it wasn't raining, although the clouds looked like they'd open at any moment.  12 km away, the mile markers vanished, leaving us without any sense of how much further we had to go. We were unable to push ourselves past a snails pace and the volunteers caught up with us, where they informed us Jonah had, in fact, found the trail and had arrived an hour ago at the Cathedral with the rest of the group. That made us regret not believing him but we were quite glad he was safe. Eventually we left the volunteers behind and starting picking up a bit more speed. We ran into a couple of our Irish friends (technically one Irish and one German on exchange in Ireland) who walked much faster but it helped motivate us and make up some time.
       Finally, we reached the top of a hill and we could see the city! That got us excited but we soon realized that although Santiago was in sight we still had "an hour left" at normal person speed, which would be at least two more at our rate. Eventually we were actually walking IN the city, heading for the cathedral. It was odd to be back in "civilization", an actual city and not a tiny town just passing through. In any other place we would have looked strange, with our turtle backpacks and messy appearances, but in Santiago pilgrims are just daily part of the city. At one point our group called to check on us and we told them we were in Santiago, just a bit longer, we were almost there! but they just said they were taking the group photo than. That didn't make us very happy but we focused on just getting there. We lost track of the yellow arrows shortly into the city, which left it up to me, being somewhat familiar with Santiago, to get us to the main part of the city and the Cathedral. Somehow I didn't get us too lost and we, around 2 in the afternoon and several hours too late for the midday mass, arrived at the Cathedral. I insisted that Meg not turn and look at it until I took her to the very center of the plaza, so she could appreciate it all at once. Of course right then it started to rain, so after our celebration and hugs we ducked under an awning to wait for someone to come get us. It was pretty emotional, we were all so happy to have arrived!

People had stuck crosses from sticks in a fence about 5 kilometers from Santiago

Entering the city at last!

this is actually the only photo I got of me after getting to the cathedral. I did bring my camera but didn't take it out of my bag (at the time just getting it out seeming exhausting and everyone else was clicking away constantly so I didn't worry about it) and these pictures are all taken by my friends. There were many many more moments documented and this blog post really doesn't do the adventure justice, but it's the best I can do.

I am so very proud of all of my fellow AFSers and pilgrims, and myself. It was an unforgettable experience. I think I would do it all over again, and maybe I will someday.  In many ways it was a short intense version of what us exchange students are going through this whole year- independence, what is really important to carry with you, the Cup Song, endurance, friendship, how to keep sandwiches and sleeping bags dry, and self confidence.  Blisters heal (I'm still grateful my boots were solid and I didn't have any, because some of the others were truly bad) and clothes dry and we return to showering standing up but at least for me a part of me will always be a Peregrina. The rain let up right after we finished, of course. In the two months since then (I don't know how it's been that long!!!) I've been to a few other cities in Spain that are stops in the Camino from other routes (Salamanca, for example, coming from the South) and every time I spot a yellow arrow or a conch shell on the street I just feel a little reminder that I'm following my own path.

Buen Camino!