Archive for November 2011
Before embarking on the walk, several fears gripped my heart: Was I physically up to it? Would I encounter challenges beyond my endurance? What would I discover about myself? What would happen if my 85 year old mom got ill while I was walking? How would I find out? How would I get back in case of an emergency? Was I emotionally and mentally ready for being alone? For walking alone? To be gone from home and on the Camino for almost two months? It helped that there was a crew of family and friends to cover for me and make sure that things were taken care of at home, but still the fears were there.
As it has been in almost any endeavor in my life, I harbored fears of not being good enough, of not succeeding, of failing. I cannot attribute these fears to my childhood because as the oldest child of adoring parents and blessed with grandparents and aunts and uncles who loved me and showed me their love, I actually developed a pretty healthy self-esteem. I was indeed blessed with a happy childhood; consequently I developed self-confidence and self-assurance. No. I believe these fears of not being good enough came from some other place, perhaps it was because I was raised along the U.S. Mexico border in a working class family, with our lack of resources and substandard services; perhaps it comes from being a woman of color in the U.S. and receiving subliminal messages of one’s worth. I am reminded of Lorna Dee Cervantes’s line from her “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked How I an Intelligent Well-read Person Could Believe in a War between Races,” that spoke of a “nagging preoccupation with the feeling of not being good enough.” In school these fears surfaced repeatedly. but I always managed to make the honor roll, to shine. After all, my mother had sent me off to first grade with these words: “aprende todo lo que te enseñen,” and indeed I learned everything they taught me, and then some. Pero aun asi, I have had feelings of insecurity, of not measuring up. The imposter syndrome I’ve heard it called in academia. No se. I truly don’t know what brings them on, these fears. I just know the feelings are there. So, as I am wont to do, I acknowledged them and then left them behind as I got ready for the Camino.
In my usual fashion, I plunged ahead, confident that I would succeed, or at least that I would give it a try. What is the worst that can happen? I asked myself. I don’t finish. I suffer an injury. I am embarrassed by my failure. I contemplated all the various scenarios, and in the end came to the conclusion that I just had to do it. So I did.
“¡Qué valientes,” people would often exclaim when we spoke to locals along the way. My friend and I joked that what they really meant was, “¡Qué locas!” It may have been that they thought we were courageous because we were walking the pilgrimage in winter, when it is the most challenging. But, it is more likely that they thought this because we dared to undertake the grueling walk at our age AND in winter. In any case, they seemed amazed and in no small measure jealous! I found comfort in their amazement and in their words, for it proved that I might have reason to be afraid, but it also proved that I defied the odds, and as we walked and enjoyed the beauty of the rugged terrain in winter, we imagined what it was like in spring or in summer, rejoicing in our experience, every step of the way.
In hindsight, the fears proved to be unfounded. I survived. I was in better shape physically, emotionally and mentally after walking the Camino. Most of all, my self-confidence got a boost; I felt as if I could do anything! The cold weather no longer scares me; after all, I walked in the snow in the Pyrenees! Upon my return, my mother greeted me with open arms, proud of me and my accomplishment healthier than I had seen her in a while. I had never felt more centered nor had I ever felt more in tune with the universe as I did while walking. I know that if something had happened, it too would have been for my highest good, that the minor contretemps, obstacles, and challenges, all proved to be providential in the end, as I will relate in later posts. Guilt is punishment for the past and fear is punishment for the future, goes a popular platitude. I am not sure that I buy it entirely, but for now I know that the fears I had before making the walk helped me prepare. Guilt? Well, that’s a different story.
I will briefly give some background and offer some resources for anyone interested in walking the Camino. I am intrigued by the legends of how it is that the city of Santiago in Spain’s northern province of Galicia, came to house the remains of St. James, the Apostle, or how the site became the third most visited Christian pilgrimage site, only after Rome and the Holy Land. According to legend shortly after the crucifixion, the apostles dispersed; James came to the area in what is now Northern Spain to Christianize the population. When he returned to Rome, he was martyred and his remains were then put on a raft that arrived on the coast at Muxía. Queen Lupa, refused to grant his burial three times until a miracle happened. His burial, however, remained forgotten for centuries, until the year 813 when a shepherd saw a bright light over the plains and discovered the burial of the apostle and two of his followers. In no time, the bishop of the area, Teodomiro, declared that the remains were those of the apostle Sant Iago, notified King Alfonso II in Oviedo, and set about building a chapel at the site. In time, they built the Cathedral and the many miraculous events attributed to Santiago Apostol soon made the remains, housed in the Cathedral, one of the most popular pilgrim destinations during the Middle Ages, attracting pilgrims from all over Europe and Santiago (St. James in English, St. Jaques in French, Giacomo in Italian). The map below shows the various paths. The RED route in Spain marks the Camino Francés that I followed from St. Jean Pied a Port to Santiago.
However, what became the Christian pilgrimage route was merely following an ancient “path of the stars” that mirrored the celestial Milky Way on earth to the end of the earth to end at Finisterre. For centuries before the Cathedral was built travelers had followed the path to Finisterre from all over Europe. During the Roman Empire, it was a trade route and many of the roads pilgrims travel upon and the bridges they cross are from the time of the Romans. Today, there are a number of paths that lead to Santiago from various points in Europe and Spain, as indicated in the map. The Camino Francés, is one of the oldest and the most traveled. I felt privileged and honored to have walked the ancient route.
When I was a graduate student in Nebraska, I met the Chair of the Spanish Department at the time, Professor David Gitlitz and his wife Dr. Linda Davidson. It was from them that I first learned about Santiago de Compostela and the Camino. In the late 70s and early 80s when Linda began leading groups of students on the pilgrimage, it was a much more primitive and rustic proposition. About 10 years ago, they published a wonderful book, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. The Camino– the path itself–has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason. It retains many of the ancient meanings; it is indeed a treasure for all humankind.
There are many informative web sites that offer information about the Camino; I found http://www.caminodesantiago.me.uk/ to be a good introduction for anyone wanting to make the trip. Wikipedia’s entry “Way of St. James” will also serve as an introduction to anyone interested in the legends and history of the Camino. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James
For pilgrims and others who want to be more involved–say by volunteering to be an hospitalero or hospitalera-The Friends of the Camino web site for the US will be helpful. http://www.americanpilgrims.com/
When is the best time of the year, or of your life, to make the 500 mile walk? Opinions vary. Many believe one should do it as a youth; others hold that it is best to do it later in life, when it has more meaning. But who’s to tell whether it has more or less meaning according to one’s age? I met people walking the Camino of all ages, from a 70 something German woman who was an hospitalera in Astorga to a seventeen year old Korean young man. It seemed to me that everyone had a good reason for walking and everyone seemed to be doing it exactly at the right time in his or her life. I know that I made it at the right time in my life, as I contemplate entering the tercera edad, the third age. Or, in my way of counting my life passages, the eighth stage—my life has been divided into segments of 8 years–I turned 64 while walking the Camino.
The Camino calls you when you are ready. I had made several attempts–the most recent had been during the previous Año Jacobeo (the year when the feast of Santiago falls on a Sunday, as it did in 2010), but Elvia had sprained her ankle in Madrid before we even got to France. So we took a train to Santiago instead, and we spent 3 weeks attending the daily Misa del Peregrino at the Cathedral, and harboring dreams of walking someday. I had imagined I would make it in 2010. Alas, due to my teaching duties and many commitments, I was unable to make it, but I did begin walking in December 2010. I am inclined to agree with the woman in Santiago who told me, it should count as if we had walked it during the Año Jacobeo because we walked in the winter.
Even if I had wanted to walk in the October or in May, the months everyone agrees are the best, I had little choice. The decision to make the trek during the winter months did not come easy, but once I decided, there was no turning back. My friend and traveling companion had walked the Camino during the winter break from teaching and recommended that we do it at that time. According to her and many others, there are benefits that outweigh the drawbacks. But, being friolenta, or as some say, friolera, I was not sure it was the best for me–why, I wear a heavy coat if the weather dips to 60 degrees! I attribute my intolerance to cold to my being raised in South Texas where it rarely gets really cold. When I was living in Santa Barbara, I realized that I did not want to live where I could not wear sandals year round.
I’ve lived in various places where I have had to contend with cold climates–Nebraska and Washington, DC–and visited numerous places where I, unprepared for the cold, had to make impromptu purchases. One summer, I went to an Amnesty International Conference in San Francisco and had to dash into a thrift store and buy a coat! Mark Twain said that the coldest winter he ever spent was summer in San Francisco, at least that was the apocryphal story people told me as I shivered and with chattering teeth, sought refuge and warmth indoors. On another occasion, I showed up in New York at an MLA committee meeting wearing sandals; I had to buy heavy wool socks to wear with my Birckenstocks! One January, at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, I realized I couldn’t walk in the snow with my regular loafers. I had to buy boots–WalMart had the best deal for what I deemed would be disposable snow boots! One October I left San Antonio to attend the American Folklore Society meeting in Alaska WITHOUT a coat! Luckily, there is a Land’s End store in the airport in Minneappolis–I bought a grey and blue parka that has served me well. In Lincoln, Nebraska, during my graduate studies, I was never warm enough, never did get used to the cold, although everyone assured me that one does. Somehow I weathered the blizzards and chilly summer evenings.
But I knew walking the Camino would be different. I had never spent more than a few minutes out in the cold; even when I walked to class in Lincoln, I didn’t walk longer than 30 minutes; during the Camino, I would be walking 6 to 10 hours a day, often in the snow and rain. Or so my friend warned me. There would be snow in the Pyrenees, freezing winds as we crossed the Meseta, and rain and sleet as we walked through Galicia. Was I ready? During my daily walks in San Antonio’s crisp fall mornings, I would imagine what it would be to like, but frankly I was not successful at imagining the cold; I was not really prepared for the reality of bitter cold winds, sleet, and snow of the early days of our walk.
Today’s post is about the preparativos, what I did to prepare for the Camino. Although I had wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago since 1979, everything–or almost everything–I did last year in preparation for the Camino seemed to be done as an aside while I kept busy with the daily tasks of life and work in San Antonio. Aside from my daily 45-minute walks around my neighborhood, I had not done much else to prepare physically. And even that, a mere 45 minutes a day, I feared was not really preparing for the grueling physical demands that the Camino promised. So, I walked the 1/2 Marathon in early November. I didn’t really think I could finish it, but I did and with pretty good time, too, considering I was fast-walking and only jogging sporadically.
By November a year ago, I had made some arreglos for the trip. In October, I had booked my flight to Madrid; thanks to my Frequent Flyer Miles earned over almost 2 years, the flight which normally costs over $1000, cost me under $50! By November 26, heartened by my 1/2 marathon experience, I was also wearing the backpack and my new hiking boots for my daily walks. The boots. The backpack. Both proved to be trusted and dear. Both were investments that required that I devote time and energy. The former I got in New Mexico the latter in Austin.
My traveling companion, an old friend from my hometown of Laredo, Texas, had walked the Camino four years earlier. When she heard of my plans to walk in the spring, she convinced me that it might be a better idea to do it in winter. Whether that was a good idea or not I will discuss in a future post. She had e-mailed me a list of items I should begin gathering, but due to the fall semester rush I had not given the list much thought. So, in early October, while on a trip to New Mexico to attend the investiture of my friend Rusty Barceló as President of Northern New Mexico College, I took almost 3 hours at an REI store in Santa Fe to buy THE perfect pair of boots. The staff at the store were terrific–aside from making me walk, run, skip, and even pretend to climb a hill wearing the various boots I was trying on, they actually MEASURED my feet and I found out I had been buying the wrong shoe size all along! Along with the boots, I also bought some of the items on Becky’s list: 2 pairs of sock liners and wool socks, two turtleneck tops, 2 lined hiking pants, 2 pairs of black silk underwear–normally called long johns–a ski mask, and a microfiber towel. While all these were indispensable, the Keen boots proved to be my best friends on the Camino!
An interesting aside: Elvia had been a member of REI since her student days in Arizona and they still had her in the books over 30 years later! I got my own membership and earned “points” with my purchases. Rusty who has done her share of camping and rugged traveling, including a bike ride from Seattle down to San Francisco, offered her sleeping bag for my use during the Camino! Not only did it save me a bunch of money, the mummy style down filled beauty had a proven record. So, with all my REI purchases, our luggage and the sleeping bag, my green Prius, Tejanita (yes, I have always named my cars, and other inanimate objects around me) was packed to the gills. But, before getting on the highway, Elsa, Elvia and I walked to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch. I know I was glowing. It may have been the altitude, but I felt light-headed. Giddy! My heart sang with joy–it was all becoming a reality!
The backpack? I got back in Texas. Yes, at an REI store. I happened to be in Austin so I made a special trip to one of the two REI stores there. Again, the staff impressed me and after trying on at least 5 backpacks of various styles and sizes (they are measured by weight!) and carrying around 25-pounds to “test” it. I was disappointed that the one that finally fit perfectly and felt RIGHT was not the color I had envisioned, purple. Instead, I got a sky blue Salomon that weighed 25 pounds when fully packed. I loved it!
Now, what about any spiritual preparation? Did I meditate on the upcoming trip? Of course. Did I perform any rituals? Not really. But, I did have dreams about the Camino. I had a knowing that I was doing the right thing. As my reflections unfold, I will also write about the various points of growth and how my preparations, limited as they were, helped me succeed in my goal.
Welcome to this space and to my reflections, my immersion memoir, as it were, of my Camino experience. The Camino has been there for centuries, but I made it mine by walking it. I often felt as if I’d walked along the paths before, perhaps in ancient time, in another era. Many of the experiences I will share have no rational explanation; I have stopped trying to understand them, stopped trying to “figure it out” with my usual analytical tools. Along the way, I hope to share a bit of the history that I learned along The Way, to offer a glimpse of what the experience was like, focus somewhat on lessons I gleaned from conversations, from dreams, from just walking in contemplation, and of course to introduce the many folks I met, hospitaler@s–those gracious hosts who welcome pilgrims from all over the world–townspeople who are used to seeing the pilgrims pass through their towns, and the pilgrims themselves, los peregrin@s, fellow travelers who shared so much with me and my walking companion.
One of my aims is to be honest, brutally honest. To tell it like it was for me, while also telling it like it is now, a year after I went on a spiritual journey that affirmed many of my beliefs but also disturbed the quotidian calm of my life in San Antonio, Texas. While telling my truth about the pilgrimage, I expect to discern the lessons and the messages–mostly those that came to me through the many miracles, large and small, that I witnessed along the way. During the walking, I reminded myself often that there are no coincidences, that there are no accidents. All the while picking up phrases from fellow pilgrims and others that soon established me as an “insider” in the world of the camino. Phrases like, “El camino te da lo que necesites y el camino te quita lo que no” (The path provides what you need and it takes away what you don’t) helped when I lost things, or when I found things, objects and abstract concepts, that illuminated my understanding of the pilgrimage itself.
Tonight, in this my first blog post, I invite you to join me from here on in, on this journey that began a year ago. It did not begin on November 25, but I chose to begin tonight as a tribute to my parents, Florentino and Virginia who were married on November 25, 1945 in Nuevo Laredo, Tamps. Mexico. I will be learning how to blog from now until December 9, when I begin the reflection on my travel to Spain.
I will be connecting through Facebook and may link this blog to my web site as well. Buenas Noches/Good Night!