What Walking the Camino de Santiago Taught Me About Life

‘El Camino no regala nada.’

I was trailing Iván, using his walking stick as a third leg as we trudged up a muddy incline somewhere between Santa Marina and Ballotas. I had joked around that my first and second breakfasts had not prepared me for the day’s long haul up and down ravines through western Asturias. But he was right – nothing on the trail came for free (except for the blisters – those were definitely free).

When Hayley and I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago two years ago, my mental preparation had begun and, even though my body never got the prep, I looked forward to two weeks where I had nothing to do but wake up, pull on my hiking boots and walk.

The Camino was, in many ways, a fourteen-day break from myself, from the pressures of daily life, from makeup and straightening irons. I cleared my head. I focused on eating and on sleeping and little more. Books and films paint a rosy picture of how the Camino has healing powers, about how one reaches the top of Maslow’s pyramid (totally made that up, but it’s not that far off), about how people’s lives change simple by trekking. Maybe they do, but mine certainly hasn’t changed in any profound way.

Don’t get me wrong – the Camino is still in the front of my recollection and I loved the experience I had (even the blisters – chicks dig scars, right?). Walking 326 kilometers along the coastline of Northern Spain may not have given my life a huge kick in the pants, but I wasn’t looking for it to, either. I didn’t go with a big question to wait and see if the road or God or another pilgrim answered it for me, nor did I set off hoping to find myself.

What I did take from the experience, though, was a better understanding about myself and my capabilities, a new dedication to seeking more from within myself, and the discovery that I have been me for far longer than I knew.

The Camino, as it turns out, it a great teacher.

What the Camino taught me about inspiration

“I don’t know,” said Antonio as he slid his insoles back into his boots. “For some reason, 3.000km just seemed like a good goal.” As we sat in the twilight of the municipal albergue in Vilalba, my jaw dropped. Hayley and I had done 200km or so, nothing compared to the number of footsteps Antonio had taken from Lourdes, France on his second Camino.

I was constantly inspired by the people with whom I shared the trail. Each person has their own story, their own reasons for walking to Santiago. The cook at the parador in Vilalba had walked to Santiago in 19 hours and was planning on walking the medieval city walls in Lugo 79 times for the victim of the Santiago train crash. Or the mother and her teenage daughter from Germany who were trying to learn how to get along. Or Pilgrim Peter, who was looking to find himself again after several jobs and not a clue what to do when he got back home (he never made it to Santiago due to a blood clot in his leg, and my heart broke for him).

I was inspired to come by a Spanish teacher, and just needed the impulse to actually go and do it. I needed to feel inspired. Once we set out, I was fascinated by the untouched landscapes, by the people we met, by the simplicity of pilgrim life. So inspired, in fact, that I can’t wait to do a second Camino.

What the Camino taught me about positivity

“I could complain, but it’s really no use.”

My friend Hayley says she’s a born complainer, but we realized its futility once we were walking on the second day near Soto de Luiña. This would be the day I’d get two blisters on my left foot and we’d arrive to Santa Marina with cramped muscles, but it was only the beginning.

Injuries, getting lost and arriving to find that there was no more room at the inn temporarily dampened our spirits. The thing is, there were always other pilgrims who had more ailments, or personal demons, or didn’t get along with their companions. Guido got shin splints from pulling a cart along the looooong stretch of the N-634, the Coastal highway that hugs the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea. Iván’s back was so sore, he couldn’t carry his bag, let alone walk the 26 kilometers from Ribadeo to Lourenzá uphill. Hayley had sun rash on her right arm.

Everyone suffers on the Camino.

But everyone also pushes on within their abilities. My biggest ailments were my bad knees and shins after years of gymnastics wreaked havoc on an otherwise healthy body. I could have complained that there were snorers in the albergues, that some pilgrim meals were not worth the 10€ they charged, or that townspeople seemed to think everything was only a little further one (three kilometers after 25 of them is NOT ‘only a little further along’). But it didn’t make sense to sweat the trivial parts of the experience.

What the Camino taught me about vanity

I didn’t even bring a pair of tweezers with me on the Camino (thank goodness there was a pair of them in my Swiss army knife – saved!). Makeup, moisturizer and other beauty products, minus my sunscreen and a comb, never made the cut when packing my backpack. Every day we’d wake up, slather on some sun protection, put our hair in pony tails and arrive a few hours later, sweaty and dirty, to the next pilgrim inn.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I forgot all about how I looked, if I had any zits or I had forgotten to suck my gut in. I wouldn’t consider myself high maintenance by any stretch of imagination, but I’ve noticed that I’ve become even less so in the six weeks since the Camino. I did treat myself to a pedicure because my feet actually hurt with the blisters, and I think the girl who had to buff off the old, dead cells was disgusted by the state of my tootsies.

I came to love my fresh faced look, and found my skin even seemed to improve. I felt more, well, me.

What the Camino taught me about my body

Speaking of vanity, I think I came to know more about my body while walking. When you’re in the middle of a forest or skirting around some hidden beach, there’s nothing between the ground and the sky but you and your body. By not worrying about makeup or clothes, I could concentrate on getting to know my body and its grievances. I listened when it needed water or a snack, and I allowed it to have a nap for as long as it needed. As a matter of fact, my body felt more rested at the end of the Camino!

Every morning, my body took priority over anything else – I would wrap my blisters, spread vaseline on my feet, gingerly put on my socks and hiking boots. I’d then spend 10 minutes stretching every single muscle, just as I did when I was a gymnast. I could soon feel every rock under my feet, I knew just where my back would be sore according to how I’d re-packed my bag that morning. While on the trail, I could calculate just how much fuel it would need during the day, and I rewarded its hard work with half a litre of vino nearly every afternoon at lunch (que Dios bendiga pilgrim meals!!).

When I didn’t cooperate, my body made sure I knew it – I had knee problems thanks to an old injury and tendonitis that had me ready to flag down us a bus when we were in Mondoñedo. Knowing that the rest of the day would be an uphill climb to Gondán, I freaked myself out, thinking it would be impossible to push on. But Hayley and I had promised that we’d be purist pilgrims and walk every last kilometer into Santiago. That night, we had to decide between sleeping on the floor of the sports center, or shelling out 19€ per person for a hotel room. Duh.

I also realized just how strong I got during the two week trip. After four days, we could log five kilometers in an hour and we could walk longer and farther after a week. My calves and glutes were working on overdrive. When we got to Santiago, I had half a heart to cancel my plane ticket and arrive to Fisterra. Even after returning to Seville, I began walking more often to the center (about four kilometers) or even Triana.

What the Camino taught me about grieving

I wasn’t only carrying a 15 pound bag on my back during the Camino – I was carrying my friend Kelsey in my heart. Kelsey fought cancer for seven years before she passed away in late 2011 at 21. The Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos allows pilgrims to walking in memory of someone who has died or is physically unable to make the trip, something called ‘Vicario Por.’

Whenever by body hurt, I thought of Kelsey. As I curled up in bed one drizzly night in Miraz, I buried my head under the thick wool blanket and cried soft tears until I fell asleep. And when we arrived to Monte do Gozo, the final climb before entering the Santiago city limits, I cried for her and for her memory, big sloppy (and most likely, very, very ugly) tears while Hayley told me to cool it before she lost it, too.

I expected to grieve for Kelsey on the trip, and it felt right to remember her in this way. In some strange way, everyone on the Camino is grieving or remembering or getting over something or someone, evident by the piles of rocks left atop way markers and the need to go to Fisterra and burn one’s clothing. I left small orange and purple ribbons – the color of sarcoma and leukemia awareness, and also her favorite colors – in important places during the last few days, as well as a photo of Kelsey and a small scallop shell in St. James’s tomb when we went to pay our respects.

I left behind a part of me that will always remember, but I did the grieving I needed to in order to move on. Kelsey said she always wanted to go to Spain. She didn’t get there physically, but she’s been all over the North by now.

What the Camino taught me about myself

I didn’t expect a grand epiphany when we ascended Monto do Gozo and finally saw the end in site – in fact, I was quite sad to know that the journey was all but over, and a day later I’d be sleeping in my own bed in Seville. There was no moment of clarity or understanding or forgiveness or whatever it is that pilgrims are supposed to feel when they complete the Camino.

In fact, I was the victim of a surprise attack from a pilgrim we’d run into two or three times who hugged me before I could hug the one who’d stuck with me through the whole thing. Maldito Tomás.

I knew I would enjoy the Camino, despite the warning of ampollas, of cancerous peregrinos, of the threat of getting bedbugs for the third time. I just had no idea how much I would love the experience of sharing the road with strangers and of hearing the ground move under my feet. In fact, my feet became the center of my universe for 14 days.

I learned a lot from doing the Camino de Santiago, but mostly about me and my capabilities. I’m strong physically and mentally. I’m headstrong and can push myself.

As my friend Alvaro from Bilbao put it, “Every step you took towards Santiago was a step towards your own destiny, to a story that you have for yourself that no one else will ever have. It’s all yours.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my articles on what to pack, how to read the waymarkers across Asturias and Galicia and about the beaches and quaint towns we saw along the way. 

Seville Snapshots: First Day on the #CaminoFTK

When I wrote this draft on Wednesday afternoon, I was excited to be within five days of hiking the Camino de Santiago, something I’ve been planning do do for the majority of my adult life. As I scheduled the post, got a knock on my door, telling me that a train had derailed just outside of nearby Santiago de Compostela. My thoughts went immediately to the teachers who I’d put on a Madrid-bound train and their well-being, as we had very little information and messages were not immediately returned.

Panic crept into my stomach. That, or nerves, or just that vomit feeling when you know that something is awry.

I opened up my computer and dialed the number for ADIF, Spain’s train operators, and we were told that there were no delays on the overnight train to Chamartiín, which passes through the stretch of tracks between Coruña and Santiago. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then turned on the TV.

The images were horrifying, enough to prick my eyes with tears. 

Teacher and students in front of the Catedral de Santiago. Adore these kids.

I’ve attended the Apostol festivities in Santiago de Compostela, celebrating Spain’s patron saint and praying that I’d one day arrive to the ancient Praza do Obradoiro after walking across the country to arrive. Just five days before embarking, the city was marred with a tragedy beyond words, and one that has claimed 80 lives to date.

The calls began rolling in, as my friends and family connected ‘Santiago’ with this pilgrimmage that I’m walking today. While I assured everyone that I was safe in my dorm room at camp, earnestly watching the TV, I thought about the new dimension that this trek might have. By the time we arrive to Santiago on August 11th, the debris will no doubt be cleared, but the emotional scars will still be deep. I’m not a religious person, but perhaps the reflection I’ll do on the hike will make me a more spiritul person. Or maybe I’ll meet someone affected by the tragedy. After all, they say miracles occur on the Way. What I am positive will happen is that the generosity and the humility of the Galician people will manifest itself in a myriad of ways, and that the Camino will change me.

—–

It’s finally here: my master’s is finished, camp has been closed down, and between the stress and the long nights and the teenage STINK, it’s all lead up to the day when Hayley and I get to start the Camino de Santiago. It’s finally here and I could jump out of my skin with excitement.

Depending on where in the world you are, I’ve likely woken up in my four-star hotel (the last real pillow for two weeks), pulled on layer of wicking-laden clothes, and  started the walk in total darkness. Maybe we’ll encounter a rain storm or maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll strip off our boots and wade in the chilly Cantabrian Sea and get some relief for sore feet and already-forming blisters. Maybe we’ll have met other cancer survivors or their loved ones.

But this is our Camino and we’re finally making the journey.

Being in Coruña, less than 100km from Santiago, for four weeks was a reminder and an internal countdown to the 200miles in front of us. The world is literally at our feet, and as my boots and custom Podoactiva insoles hit the pavement while I broke them in around the Crystal City, the yellow-and-blue route markers on the Camino Inglés accompanied me proving that while all roads lead to Rome, a few lead to Santiago, as well. It’s just following the end of that long middle ridge to the end of the road.

As other pilgrims pass in Coruña, I mutter a ‘Buen Camino’ under my breath, not quite sure if I fit the role yet. Surely a 13-pound pack, sore knees and a farmer’s tan will do the trick by the time we reach Soto de Luiña sometime today. Our first stage is a killer 40 kilometers, but it will be a good introduction into what this is all about: Walking. Break for food (and coffee for me). Walking more. Break to ponder and check out the coast. A few more kilometers. Break to tend to feet. Break for lunch. Big glass of red wine. Laughter. Remembering. Looking ahead. And more walking until we arrived to the Plaza de Obradoiro on August 11th.

Follow along with the hashtag #CaminoFTK on Twitter and instagram (@hayleycomments, @caserexpat and @sunshineandsiestas), and definitely click to read all of my Santiago-related posts. I’ve loved reading all of your well wishes, and sincerely thank those of you who have felt motivated to donate to a cause that’s very important to me, the University of Iowa Dance Marathon.

Seville Snapshots: Santa Catalina Church

When my friend Nancy came to visit nearly five years ago, she had two goals in mind: to not eat anything with a head on it, and to see as many Catholic temples as she could.

Since I had to work, I let Nancy loose with little more than a map, marked with circles around all of the places I thought interesting and worth a visit. She, instead, gravitated towards the churches. Her walk down Calle Imágen took her all the way to Santa Catalina de Alejanría, a mudejar style church right next to the bus depot and steps away from the Duquesa de Alba’s house.

The church has been closed to the public since 2004, upon which is was deemed in ruins. Despite the local government proclaiming its worth, no public money was put towards its restoration, even though immediate action was called for eight years ago. Locals have called for the intervention of the Cultural commission in the city to finance the project, but it may be that St. Catherine’s is closed forever.

You can sign a petition for the call to action by sending an email to elrinconcitocofrade@yahoo.es (Asunto: “Por Santa Catalina”) and leaving your full name.

If you’d like to contribute your photos from Spain and Seville, please send me an email at sunshineandsiestas @ gmail.com with your name, short description of the photo, and any bio or links directing you back to your own blog, Facebook page or twitter. There’s plenty more pictures of the gorgeous Seville on Sunshine and Siesta’s new Facebook page!

Seville Snapshots: Paseo de Espolón, Burgos

 Nostalgia is a funny thing for anyone who’s resided abroad. Just one whiff of cous cous sends you back to the souks of Marrakesh, the notes of a strained tango to Buenos Aires. A crush of happy memories and the angst of longing for that moment. At the same time, thinking of your favorite place can be an end-all cure for homesickness of a place that may have just been your home for a brief wink of time.

This picture is of the Paseo de Espolón, a tree-lined path that winds along the bank of the Rio Arlanzón in Burgos, Spain.  Despite frigid winters and blistering summers, Burgaleses can be found strolling the Espolón year round.  This photo was taken in the dead of winter and, if you look closely, you can see how the knotted branches have grown together over time.  When I’m feeling homesick for Spain I just look at this picture and am taken back to a cold winter day, outside of my favorite cafe in a little town in Northern Spain.

Kayla is an avid traveler with a love for photography, adventure and all things Spanish.  She has spent time living in Spain, Costa Rica and Argentina and currently resides in Chicago, IL.  You can see more of her photos at http://kaylachristensen.weebly.com

Love taking shots? Been to Seville or Spain? I’m looking for travelers with a good eye to capture beautiful Spain and contribute to my weekly Snapshots section. Send your photos to sunshineandsiestas @ gmail.com with your name and a short description of the photo and look to be featured on Monday.

Seville Snapshots: Focusing on the Future

Alright, alright. I know these are supposed to be pictures of Spain and Seville. I’m on my way there, so cool down!

But today is Labor Day, and I’m in America, enjoying what I love about it: beer, brats and fireworks. I didn’t choose to leave the day after Labor Day; rather, I chose to give myself time to enjoy the Hawkeye football game and a Cubs game with friends and have Monday to recover.

Oops.

Ellis Island, NYC Harbor. August 2012.

But having these five weeks at home has allowed me to put my life under a microscope and examine where I want to go, both next year and long-term. I traveled to three new states. I lost a loved one and found a new canine friend, reconnected with old ones I hadn’t seen in years. Ate without calorie counting (oops) and finally have an answer to the, “How long will you be in Spain?” question.

“Will figure that out this year.”

I’m still unsure as to whether or not Spain is where my future is, even after five years. My feet seem to be firmly planted on both sides of the charca, the proverbial ”double life.” How can one be so staunchly sevillana while in the Hispalense, yet a beer-chugging, Chicago sport-loving chick while Stateside? Regardless of where I end up, I want my life to be about the same things it always has: having fun, making friends and doing stuff that scare me as often as possible. I think my last five years in Spain have encapsulated that quite nicely, ¿verdad?

How has travel or life abroad made you examine things? Any advice to share?

The Hardest Goodbye

Morgan almost never became our family dog. Nancy had her heart set on a black and brown furball that kept running into the sides of the cardboard box the half a dozen shih tzu puppies had been placed in. It was a dark evening outside of Rockford, Illinois, and my sister and I had finally convinced my parents to do the unthinkable: buy us a dog.

Nancy’s heart melted when we presented the puppy who would become a fifth member of our family: a floppy runt we would call Morgan.

Nearly 17 years later, my mom is sitting on the bed, staring off into space. I popped my head into her bedroom and ask if she’s ok. “Yeah…” she replies, voice wavering. “I’m just going to miss the sound of her little paws on the linoleum.”

Three hours later, we carried Morgan’s old lady body on her death march towards the car. Our first family dog was going to the Puppy Heaven in the sky, where she could run with all of her doggie buddies on a Cheerio-filled stomach.

Grow thick anodyne flowers

The anticipation of Christmas has always gotten to my sister, Margaret, and me. We discovered all of Nancy’s hiding places for our American Girl Doll gear before the ages of 10 and 7, respectively, and it didn’t take us long to find the correlation between Santa’s handwriting and our own mother’s. When something was out of stock, we got a Sunday Saver clipping of it in a box, making Christmas a week-long event.

There was no baby puppy waiting under Nancy’s prized Christmas Tree when the clock struck 7a.m. and Don’s bacon was already frying. Morgan would not be delivered until she’d been six weeks with her mother, making her arrival date December 28th, 1995.

Morgie Baby wasn’t the typical dog who chewed on your shoes and ran to greet you at the door: nothing was more important to her than her walks and her naps. She was so small, she could jump up on my dad’s hip while she was still a puppy and stake her claim. We had lots of ups and downs – failing puppy kindergarten, forgetting where to go to the toilet – and my mother even threatened to give her away when we would “forget” to walk her.

—–

“Morgie, I never wanted to give you away, don’t listen to your sister.” My mom’s head was right next to Morgan’s. The vet had just given her the medicine that would put her half to sleep, giving us some time to say goodbye. We’d spent the morning talking about Morgan memories as if we were pulling the machine’s plug on a loved one.

Not a week before, my mom had called me while at camp to tell me that she and my dad had made the decision to let her go. At nearly 17, she was blind, deaf and really confused, spending the entire day next to her food bowl so she wouldn’t get stepped on. My mom gingerly picked her up so I could learn how to properly hold her and pet her, and they’d long given up taking her for walks, instead just cleaning up after her messes in the house.

—–

Morgan always sensed I was leaving when she bumped into my luggage, strategically placed as close to the front door as possible. The pre-flight routine was always the same: “Ok, Morgie, gimme a kiss!” Morgan would sniff my cheek and then readjust on her ratty pillow, something that came with us from Rockford and had a place on the couch where the midmorning sun would reach her. It’s like she knew, and I always had the fear of never seeing her again creep into my heart. Even coaxing from family members never yielded so much as a single puppy kiss.

It’s alright; I’ve always been her least favorite.

—–

As the vet came in to administer the shot that would stop her little puppy heart, I cried. Saying goodbye to Morgan was something I’d become accustomed to during the five years I’d leave on a flight. In a way, I felt like this would put to rest my feelings of anxiety about going away for so long, even as I watch my family get older. Stoic has never been my thing, so we all were teary as the vet let us have ten minutes with her before collecting her little body.

“Morgan, now you’re up running with Teddy and your cousin Scooter and Quinceman in Doggy Heaven,” my mom cooed as she stroked her paws, something Morgan hated. It got me thinking about my own slice of Heaven and what might be on the other side. Red velvet cupcakes, for sure, and my dad’s potato salad.

—–

A week later, we’re still getting used to not having Morgan around. I would normally walk in right away and open the living room door to let her out; there’s no one using the backyard toilet anymore. My mom finally tossed out her ratty pillow that we brought with us from our house in Rockford, not being able to look at it anymore. Her food bowls are packed up and stowed away in the back of a closet.

We went to my grandparent’s house after we put her down. My cousins’ dog, Scooter, had to be put down earlier in the year, too, and my grandma told us that Aunt Doreen was still torn up about it.

“Well, we’re going to get another dog,” my mom affirmed, “Probably another shih tzu.” Having taught English for the last five years, I knew that using “going to” in the future was much more probable than using “will.”

I congratulated her on that usage and added, “She could never be as great as Morgan, but we’ll love her all the same.” Plus, we’ve got a whole lot of cans of wet dog food to go through.

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