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Monday, April 29, 2013

Silver and Gold

From Salamanca I made my way to Madrid on Sunday afternoon (the 28th). I moved from a city of gold to a city of silver. I felt Salamanca as being gold, not only because it was my 'finishing line' but also because the city itself is an accummulation of architecture made up of golden bricks. The sun was shining, making the buildings even more striking. That particular place really made its mark, feeling like a tranquill open air museum, where the people only have oceans of time and next to no worries at all.

The first impressions of Madrid, were silver. Maybe because that was the colour of the sky and the buildings. The clouds had formed - which many will class as being gray. But considering this city as being gray, would take away much of the glow that would otherwise be experienced in this Spanish Capital. So, silver it has to be!

The train journey yesterday brought me back to reality. We travelled at 150km an hour, through the midlands of Spain. We moved across more than 200km in only 2 hours. This is of course normal. I know. But when you've been moving at a 'speed' of 5km per hour, for 3 full weeks, then to suddenly be moving hundreds of kms in the space of a few short hours, it's quite... different, amazing, odd, fast and EFFICIENT! I sat, staring out at the landscape racing passed the windows and realized it would take 7 days to walk - if a walker is moving at 'high speed'. Just goes to show how the perspective of time and distance can change, when a person is solely reliant on their feet to move them forward around this world.

Since finishing the walk on Friday, the temperatures have dropped. In Salamanca the skies were blue, but it was only 2 degrees at 8am on Saturday morning. Listening to the locals, it seemed to have come out of nowhere; only a few days previous it had been hitting 30! When I left Salamanca, I'd hoped Madrid would be a little warmer. But it's just a chilly and the silver clouds hanging above have opened themselves up, making me look at the locals and tourists with envy, seeing how they´re snuggled up in their wintercoats, hats and scarves.

Today, as I walk the unknown streets of Madrid, looking like a person who has just come from the wilderness, I'm wearing every stitch of clothing I've got (which I've been wearing everyday now for almost 4 full weeks) to keep myself warm. I'm feeling very much misplaced and in need of some pampering. Also aches and pains have started surfacing, from the walking. Obviously these are pains I had to suppress these past weeks. And when a person slows down, what needs to surface, will arise. My energy feels lower than it did, now that I've slowed down. But that's a normal effect - nothing some rest and refuelling won't cure.

Everything is happening as it should - as I cool down in Madrid. Everything is only adding to the experience.

As I walk, I'm browsing this life, this city, the locals and their ways. I'm taking in how the tourists stroll, snap pictures and try to figure their way around the maze of this city centre. I contemplate a life here in this silver city, as I've contemplated a life in the golden city of Salamanca, the authentic Sevilla and all the other 20 or 30 places I've roamed through, this past month.

I can only conclude, that it's not really possible to know if I'd be suited to any individual city, town or village here in Spain. Only by doing something, can we know if it suits. Therefore I can't yet know. All I DO know is that Spain is quite a special place. There's a spirit here, that's unique. There's the warm temperament and passion of the native people, together with the language. There's the relaxed attitude and the importance that's placed on social interactions, above everything else in life. These could be reasons for Spain to hold a special place. Or maybe it's simply because I've had my first REAL experience as a 'wanderer with a purpose'...

This is where I've roamed the roads step by step; where I've struggled but grown; where I've felt challenged but still was able to overcome. It's where I've appreciated the uncountable different landscapes I've come to cross paths with and watched the wildnerness change before my eyes with every km I moved.

For sure, this past month has awakened many things. For sure, it's opened my world. For sure, it will move me onwards. Right now, as I sit in an internet cafe in the centre of Madrid, I can't be sure exactly where it will lead. I can't know until I take the next step and distance myself a little.

The next stop will be Dublin. Tomorrow morning I fly back, or onwards should I say. With eyes wide open and a wish for new opportunities to present themselves, I know that the place I came from will have changed - even if it's just a little - by having had this experience of the Camino and of Spain.

Warmest greetings from the silver city.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

550 kms later

After a short day on Tuesday of 10kms, on Wednesday I was able to go a full stretch again. It turned out to be the most amazing day. I was free, full of life, open to my surroundings, appreciating every km and trusting that eventually the full 33 kms of that particular day would bring me to a bed. 

My feet brought me all the way, not only to a bed, but also to be reunited with many of the walkers I'd met weeks ago (some of which I didn't think I'd meet again). It was quite a special evening in the hostel; the most communal feeling I've had on the whole Camino. I'm not sure why. Maybe because the journey had been so 'up and down' up until that point and on that day I felt I was being welcomed back in to a family with open arms, especially by Irish Mary and her Spanish and Italian companions. How unexpected, but so precious for our paths to cross again. 

The next morning I decided to walk with them. They'd invited me before but I'd pulled back, wanting to go alone. At that stage however, it felt right to let myself be apart of a group. I realized, during the 28kms on Thursday, that walking together in a group, if the pace is right, is just as special as walking alone.

Thursday evening I suddenly saw the end of this part of the Camino, drawing closer; Salamanca was only a 24km-day away! 

I´d been contemplating walking another 70kms, from Salamanca to Zamora, before flying to Ireland on Tuesday morning (the 30th). Because a part of me didn't want to stop moving. But I realized the largest part of myself, wanted to take a breather, to catch up on some rest, to step back from the experience and to cool down properly and process. I didn't want to be running off the Camino trail and on to a Ryan Air flight! Before starting the walk, I'd planned to stop walking in Salamanca, to visit the city properly for an extra day and then visit Madrid before flying back to Ireland. So, with great relief, on Thursday evening I decided that arriving in Salamanca on Friday would be the final leg of the journey, for the time being. I also chose to walk the last 24 kms from San Pedro de Rozabos to Salamanca, with the group. 

It´s quite fascinating how this particular group became like a family to me; Mary from Ireland, her Spanish friend Hugo (from Cadiz in the south of Spain), Mari and Jose (from Barcelona), the beautiful Russian Sasha and Angelo from Italy. The amount of language barriers there were, didn't stop me from becoming quite absorbed. Friday afternoon, after reaching Salamanca, we spent the day with the 7 of us, roaming the streets of beautiful Salamanca, taking in the city vibes and celebrating we'd made it so far. 

Yesterday I was still very much in the 'Camino' bubble. This morning, after saying goodbye to the group, it started to open up. Mary, Hugo, Sasha and Angelo have walked onwards and will continue to, until they reach Santiago (another 500kms north west). Mari and Jose went back to Barcelona this morning. As for me, I'm in Salamanca, taking some time to start stepping into whatever will come next.

There are hundreds of reflections, insights and feelings that have come to me throughout the previous 3 weeks, and the nearly 550kms I´ve walked - both alone and in union with other walkers. To sum it up for now... I think the biggest revelation is that LIFE itself is a CAMINO (camino meaning ROAD in Spanish). The biggest issues we stumble upon as we walk these routes, are the issues we're actually dealing with during our daily life. However, in our daily life, we're not always faced with them so 'sternly'. On the CAMINO, there's no escape. 

Throughout the passed week, I was feeling as if this walking was actually bringing me to be walking AWAY from myself. But the consciousness that these walks have almost forced me to place on my physical body, tells me what I'm dealing with most in my own life, but was unaware of. It's true that, not until we start challenging ourselves in ways that our daily lives don't challenge us, do we realize our shortcomings. I realize mine... I've given those shortcomings my attention and made them a priority on this Camino. I've learned the importance. I've felt the satisfaction that comes when the phyiscal body brings us further than we ever imagined. However, I've felt the fear, when it doesn't. I know my mind and my core are so powerful. And the house in which they hold their space, is just a relevant, sustained, strong and invincible yet vulnerable all at once. 

Crossing boundaries

My last update was from Casares - 9 days ago (the 18th). I left the city the following morning and the walking upped a few notches. Things started to unfold at lightening speed. I had stretches of more than 30kms and the rising heat, my insuficient Spanish and the absence of a guidebook, didn't make my journey any easier than it could've been. Moments of panic and fear, mainly brought on due to extreme fatigue, really challenged me. It's quite daunting what the mind can do, when it's pushed beyond its limits and exhausted.

The reason for the stretches to be so long has, most times, been due to having no other option along the way, in regards to hostels and facilities. Over the past weeks, I've spoken with many experienced walkers who have walked different routes in Spain. And everyone says the same: this particular Camino is a tough one, because there are limited hostels and facilities along the way. Apparently on other routes, after every 5 or 10 kms, there are places to sleep and eat. But that's not the case on this route, and it's therefore become known for it's level of endurance. As this is my first Camino, many walkers have been intrigued WHY I chose this route instead of the more popular, easier and better facilitated one. The answer to this question, was IN the question; other routes (especially the traditional route of Frances) are too populated and heaving with tourists. This particular one - Via de la Plata - is less popular. That's why I chose it; I'd be sure to have more space.. And if long distances between hostels is a price to pay for receiving more silence, then it's not too high.

So I'm not sorry AT ALL that I chose this particular route. Yes, I've been challenged but these challenges have taught me so much, and the people I've come to meet, whilst facing these challenges, have even been like teachers to me.

Last Sunday for example (when my legs were to take me 32km from Grimaldo to Carcaboso), I met a man from Valencia as I set out at 07.30am. Manuelle. He's one of the strongest and fastest walkers I've met, for someone who could be my grandfather. I was well-impressed, as he was with me. His pace fitted mine, hence the reason for us to walk together. Without him speaking English, I sourced some of my very basic conversational Spanish. It was all very simple, but that didn't matter. After walking 32km together, it was as if we'd been friends for ages.

What I learned from him - simply by observing HOW he'd approach his walking and be successful in maintaining his pace with as little frustration as possible after walking 2 full days with him over a stretch of 70kms - was the importance of storing energy and building physical strength from within. As well I could see how a certain level of experience and preparation means the mental ability expands and makes it more possible to walk certain stretches, without feeling the stress or pressure is going to break the physical self.

On the second day (Monday, the 20th) we walked together. It was the biggest day I was to have; 40km without a town or facility of any kind in between. I was feeling strong at the start. But after only 20kms, I started to fade away. I was clearly overdoing it, but I'd started that stretch, so I'd continue (it's crazy how hard it can be, to STOP when you've started something. If you're so obsorbed, it can take MORE effort to step away than to actually go on).

At one stage, with 10km more to go, I started to feel physically ill and felt I was screaming from within, as I pounded on the pavement for the 4th or 5th hour. The fact that I didn't know what terrain we were about to walk on, what circumstances I still needed to go through, if my legs would carry me or if the heat would melt me... were uncertainties that accumulated and I let those worries zap my energy, until I had no choice and simply HAD to STOP.

On the side of a motorway, I felt my body was going to fall apart. But I wasn't alone. I had my walking companion. And in such situations, words aren't needed. We don't need to express what's going on inside - there's simply a level of understanding. And the smallest gestures then are enough to feel as if the heavens have opened up and GOD has sent the saving grace. There Manuelle stood, with a piece of fruit and half a bun... (my own food supply had run out). Well, I nearly cried inside... realizing that all my body and mind needed was MORE food (so much in fact, that my backpack didn't have enough space for a big enough supply to see me through the 40kms). Some fruit and a bun later, I was smiling again. Exhausted, but sure I'd eventually make it... Slowly but surely, my legs brought me to my bed for night....

The mental ability that's needed in order to stretch yourself out over such a distance, is quite daunting. It's impossible to know what the circumstances will be before heading off on the road. But how we deal with certain circumstances that arise, totally depends on our own selves, our level of energy and our peace of mind when taking on whatever our situations present us with. This is why I was so inspired by Manuelle; he's got this constant state of calm control, in all situations, and knows he'll get to his destination. He's totally IN the journey, moving through the motions and not wasting his energy on certain mental drawbacks.

That day was the toughest by far. My fatigue blinded me to the ability I have to overcome challenges. And it was the accumulation of kms, since leaving Casares, that exhausted me. I was hitting 130kms in the space of 4 days. My mental capacity to deal with such pressure, nearly broke me. But I was able to understand it. It brought home many many revelations. As well, the importance of food and rest, hit me, on every level. Wow... such simply things we otherwise take for granted.

The following day Manuelle had to go back to Valencia. So, we said goodbye, promising to keep in touch. I was delighted to have met him, but also delighted to be out on my own again.

That day, there was the possbility of doing only a 10km stretch. And it meant I was able to slow down the train I felt the Camino to have become. It gave me a chance to rest, to sit, to write, and to eat MORE. I was simply listening to my body, doing what it was telling me to do. And the day before, as I stood on the roadside, my body felt as if it was going to fall apart. It was terrifying almost; a feeling that pushed me to go further beyond my boundaries where food is concerned. I felt the only thing, besides rest, that would keep me together, was mountains of food. It didn't even matter what or when it was. So the ill-varied food that's available here, was suddenly my glue. And how grateful I've become for the simplest of sustenance to keep me satisfied, energized and sustained along the way.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Moving mountains

4 days after taking a bus from Villafranca de los Barros to Torremejia (which was on Sunday) and I find myself in the library of Caceres, the capital of the state of Extremadura.

In only such a short space of time, the Camino Way seems to have opened up. I feel I´m lightening my load and the walking is becoming a breeze.

Monday I had the most liberating feeling; it was when I realized I was able to WALK, even with my blisters, from Torremejia to Merida. It was 17km, and god, I felt on top of the world as I arrived in Merida, simply because my feet and blisters weren´t aching. Fantastic!! The amount of energy I had, even AFTER the walk, blew me away. I never knew it could be so draining if we´re trying to break through certain pain barriers alongside putting the body through some endurance so as to keep putting one step in front of the other, for hours on end (which is how I experienced the 3 or 4 days before Sunday). From Monday onwards, however, something switched and EASE was found!

Tuesday was a massive leap forward. I went from Merida to Alcuescar; 37km. I´ve never walked this kind of distance before in my whole life, not in one day. What made it more of a challenge was the heat. It was hitting high 20s that afternoon. But it wasn´t too much. It was actually amazing; the heat-haze, the dusty red roads and the farming smells reminded me of my time in the Australian desert. Quite a freaky coincidence that I met the lady from Australia, who I´d walked with on the very first day, just as I arrived at the roadside hostel (which also we very ozzie). 

Wednesday was another big day, 27 km, from Alcuescar to Valdesalor. The temperature was just as high, but that didn´t take away the pleasure. Arriving at the hostel, after 5 hours of pacing, I was welcomed with open arms, by the Irish lady Mary, and her Spanish ´gang´of walkers. It´s so relieving to find familiar faces... and they always pop-up at the perfect times.

The warmer days, that seem to have come out of nowhere, make an early start all the more important. I can´t say though that I´m the first walker to be out on the road. Some walkers are out by 06.30. I thought, before starting this Camino, that I´d be one of them. But most mornings I leave at around 7.30, some times even 8... I guess I need my time in the morning before I´m fully awake to appreciate what I´m doing :)

Today (Thursday) was the easiest day by far. I chose to only go 11 km from Valdesalor to Caceres. I did such a short distance so I could give myself some space from the groups I´ve been meeting along the way. Don´t get me wrong, I LOVE the people I´ve been spending time with. But sometimes I feel myself getting a little lost in the social scene and unable to find time to reflect (even if I DO walk by myself most days).

This actually brings up the following: contrary to what most people say, I feel the Camino a more social way of living than it´s ´labelled´ as being. This is something I´ve been reflecting on, during the many many hours of walking along the sometimes dusty, sometimes rocky, sometimes hilly walkways. I´ve been contemplating how every person who walks a Camino will experience it in a different way (this of course goes for every experience a person has in life; the perception of what comes to pass is often determined by the experiences that are already in the past).

An individual experience is shaped according to what life-experiences a walker has had BEFORE they start pacing themselves along these ancient roman roads.

Before starting this Camino, I´d read so much about how solitary an experience it is and how calming it can be. I´ve heard of how people have come to learn things about themselves that they never dared dreaming. I´ve heard of people having found themselves, in the wilderness of the Spanish countryside. I can understand how it can be experienced as such - if a person usually lives a life that´s fast, full and never with a moment of peace in order to reflect or to stand still and contemplate their direction in life, their flaws, their strengths, their dreams, their accomplishments... I can totally understand how the surrounding environment will bring those living a fast-paced life, more into themselves again.

However, for me, on a more personal note, I can´t (yet) say that this is the case. I don´t feel this experience is a solitary thing at all. Even if I do most of the walking alone, I feel more surrounded by people and more open to life, than I´ve felt for quite some months. So far, the Camino hasn´t brought HUGE revelations to the surface. Life-altering questions haven´t been answered. Instead walking this stretch of nearly 300kms up to this point, has brought me to grow in understanding for how isolated my life was. I never could really see how much time I spent by myself. It´s only by NOW choosing to share more of my time (in the evenings with other walkers) that I´m seeing how little I shared my time before.

The Camino has opened me up to the world instead of bringing me deeper into myself. It´s taught me how much I can learn, by being in the company of other people. By having a constant flux of different individuals, with different perceptions, flowing though my days, I´ve learned (and still AM learning) so much about myself. This walk has also brought me to take help from other more experienced individuals, to be honest and accepting of my vulnerabilities and to not feel weakened simply because I´ve got flaws. I´ve learned to say ´yes´ to help that´s being offered and NOT to feel as if I´m a burden on others. I´m learning to feel worthy of other peoples time, just as they are worthy of mine. The Camino has helped me to feel how special it is to share my experiences, especially with people who were total strangers up until only 2 weeks ago.

Needless to say, this walk has got me moving in the physical sense, but on top of that, I´m able put a contemplative life into practise, instead of only putting the theory down on paper. It´s brought me to open my eyes to the world around me and the people within it, instead of having my eyes closed, sitting in silence, moving mountains within.

The Camino has pushed for me to start moving THROUGH the physical mountains outside of myself... as I become stronger on a physical level and more fluid on a mental level.  It´s pushed me to awaken energy inside and release blockages at the same time. It´s willed for me to love my body even more; for the way it´s healing, for how it´s responding. So far, it´s brought me to feel hustle and bustle, on every level, yet this has challenged me to find peace within the ´chaos´ I sometimes feel it the Camino and ´walkers lifestyle´ to be.

I know I´m only 300kms into the journey, and getting past the physical drawbacks has been only so recent. So my perception and experience will still alter, flow and change, little by little, step by step. But by taking what I´ve so far come to see, into account, the perception can only be heading in a direction that will always be taking me forward. And for now, this is my personal take on the Camino.

I consider myself one of the luckiest people alive and so privileged to have come so far.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Lessons of the Way

To describe how this whole journey has been unfolding, in one simple phrase, would be to say it's all about letting-go. 

I'm  not only referring to material things that occupy so much of our lives,but so much other 'stuff' we're attached to as well, the 'need' to be doing certain things that simply can't be done on a journey like this. It's quite a step forward to find peace of mind when we take that distance from certain stuff. 

For me, vanity comes into play. I have to and GET OVER the fact that I´m wearing glasses (after having lost my contact lenses on the 5th day). As well, I have to GET OVER eating certain foods, which isn't great for the digestion, yet easier available. For this reason I consciously have been chosing to eat things that I usually would steer clear of. Daily meditating isn't possible, whilst living in hostel dorms. So I've been learning to accept that this is how it is for now. I had this vision of meditating in the nature, during the walks. However that was something of an idyllic magical dream, that hasn't been able to materialize... mainly because my feet have been too sore along the walks and stopping along the way for more than 10 minutes is torture, the pain accelarates and it takes me another 3 or 4 kms to get through the pain barrier once again and to sink into the rhythm of the walk. So, that too I've been letting-go. 

The physical exhaution, every afternoon, means I take a siesta for at least an hour, sometimes 2. I'm grateful I can do this, and again, letting myself sleep in the afternoon, was a huge step to take. The first few times, I was frustrated that I rest and figured I could be doing so much other things with my time; exploring the village, writing on my blog or in my journal or reading. But I've let it all go. Even if my mind has been wanting me to DO, WALK and WORRY more in the hope that MORE would happen on this walk as a result, I've been letting my main priority become one of embracing this experience, regardless of what other ´things´ would normally be considered vital in this life. 

Putting the theory of 'letting-go' into practise, is huge. But that's what it's all about for now. Especially without meditating and silent reflection, it's even more of a challenge. Because without it, my mind has been trying to run away with itself, or trying to run away with me, and get me to the end. Yet I, on a physical level haven't hardly been able to keep pace. On a deeper level, I don´t even want to keep pace with my mind, because then I'll be missing what's happening around me. 

And I've been happy to see that the main point of focus during this Camino is geared towards keeping myself physically in tact. Even if it's been a challenge like I never dared imagining. But I´m listening to what my body is telling me and using THAT as my guidance as I go along my way.

One step at a time

I found my biggest weakness on the 6th day, as I was willing to set out and walk 22 kilometers from Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos on badly bistered feet. My weakness was my strongminded self, that wanted to push me all the way and zone-out to the pain, as I left the hostel at 8am that morning. I soon had to let-go, as I sat on a bench only 50m from my starting point, in agony. I realized how much I was punishing myself, for no reason at all. So, close to tears, I limped along the main road of Monesterio. I found a cafe, sat myself down and put my mind to doing some long overdue journalling. I then booked myself into a single room in a hotel and slept for most of the day, trying to distance myself a little from the force I felt the Camino was bringing to the surface. Everything eased as I lay in bed, as I let myself ache, throb and contemplate why on earth I'd put myself through such torture yet accept that this is what I'm experiecing for now.

It was such a breakthrough, to take that massive step back. I found, yet again, my biggest weakness was the strength of my mind, that pushes me beyond my pain barrier in order to get things done. I know how affective it can be, to ACCEPT pain. I know that in the acceptance of pain we go beyond. This was the 'theory' I was applying, throughout those first 5 days. But then I saw how I was overstepping the line, coming out of balance and unnecessarily torturing myself. It started dawning; pain is there to tell us something. It arises to tell us we're overcompensating parts of ourselves; we're bringing ourselves out of balance for reasons that are unneccessary. Physical ailments show up so we can take action for the BETTER and bring ourselves back into balance once again. I know now that the condition of my blistered feet were telling me loud and clear: my mind was pushing me further than my feet were able to handle. Such an important lesson. It made me change my approach once I started walking again on day 7, from Monesterio to Feunte de Cantos.

Day 7, 8 and 9 were all equally tough, even whilst taking more of a gentle approach towards the kilometers my wary feet were letting me travel. Regardless of taking it one step at a time, staying in the moment and just being grateful for being able to walk at all, the challenge hasn't simply vanished. Each day, the first 2 hours of walking are so smooth. The pain isn't there and I can actually SEE and BE with where I am. I absorb Spain, I cherish what I'm doing. The pain starts the creep in though, whilst I intentionally repeat soothing mantras, sing songs and use a connection with nature as a source to keep myself in the moment.

On day 8, I was in tears, after 25 kms and finally bringing myself to the small city of Zafra. That's when I wondered whether or not to continue. But I met a wonderful lady from Ireland, Mary, that day in the hostel. Instantly it was like a part of home was telling me to look after myself. She wasn't advising me to give up, but to simply be realistic and kind to myself. Another helping hand came, when a German walker (fluent in Spanish) offered to help me to find new boots. Because I realized my blisters wouldn't soothe if I were to continue walking in the boots I thought were perfect. The relief I felt was huge, when I sunk my swollen feet into a new pair, in the sports shop. My feet were in heaven. I never realized how important it is to have a light connection with the earth during the hours of walking. Nor did I fully understand how the extreme circumstances we wish to endure can be experienced so lightheartedly with we provide ourselves with the correct material support. On day 9, as I continued the walk from Zafra to Villafranca de los Barros, I became aware of the importance; I had a smile on my face, my heart was open and I wished for lightness to enter as I set out to walk again. 

I'm now 10 days into the Camino Via de la Plata. I 'should' be walking today from Villafrance de los Barros to Torremejia. However, even though I've new boots that feel like magic, yesterday evening, as I took a good look at my feet, I knew that all of my blisters, which had accumulated since the start of the walk, needed to heal. My feet were in an awful state. So I let a lovely American lady by the name of Alex, who was also here in the hostel and who I've also done some walking with over the past 3 days, treat my blisters.

For days I was scared to do anything with them, I didn't know how and so I just left  them, until yesterday. As I took off all the plasters, compeed and bandages, we counted 10 blisters, some with the potential of becoming infected. As well the nail on my little toe was threatening to fall off. Well, for those who know me quite well, they'll also know how faint-hearted I am when it comes to anything like this. As I burst the blisters one by one letting the water ooze out; as the American lady cut my old damaged skin so as to pour disinfectant into the open wound, I thought I was going to either faint or be sick. It took some deep breathing to get through, but how grateful I was when we were all done. My feet had been properly treated...!!!!! YAY!!!!!!!!!!! The next question then arose, 'Niamh, will you walk tomorrow?' Intially I was adament to, but I woke up this morning and the answer was 'No'. I knew I´d be doing myself unnecessary damage by walking today; I´d be risking not being able to walk anymore.

So, in 2 hours time I'm taking the bus to Torremejia, with 2 other lovely girls (Sasha from Siberia and Lea from Canada) who are also unable to walk. My time here on the Camino isn't unlimited, so I have to keep moving every day, even if it IS bus, taxi or hitch-hiking. Because I do want to get to Salamanca by the 28th of April.

It's actually lovely to give myself some breathing space and to catch up on writing. Not minding so much that I'm missing only this one day of being out on the trail is a huge step forward - even if I'm not physically going to be taking these kms today.

So, for now, I'll sign off. The next days will unfold as they will. I'm taking it one day at a time and giving my physical self the priortiy. Anything else, I need to let-go of for now.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The rhythm of a pilgrim

 5 Days of walking and I find myself in Monesterio; a town just over the border of the state of Extremadura. Since leaving Seville I've walked over 110 km, seen some amazing parts of Spain and met some of the nicest and most caring people.

The days seem to have started flowing into one. A certain rhythm has started to take over. There's this drive that keeps us all moving and constantly wanting to get to the next place. And then, there's this other drive, that wishes to keep us in the moment, savouring each landscape, each stage and each day. And as this happens, everything else that was something of a worry or concern, up until a week ago, becomes irrelevent

In doing this pilgrimage, and therefore being a part of something of a community, I've had moments of feeling as if I'm on a tour. It's the strangest thing. But I've realized it's because every walker that started out on the 5th of April from Seville, is walking the same stages each day. So everyone ends up in the same village and often the same hostel, every evening. I've been reminded of my tour guiding days, quite a few times. I've even contemplated WHO is the GUIDE on this particular tour? Who has organized this Camino? Who is the person that marked the way, with these yellow arrows guiding us all safely to a hostel every evening, where we can wash, eat and sleep before setting off again out into the Spanish landscape the next morning? Who made this possible? Well, this post isn't about the history of the Camino. Instead, I'll say that all of us walkers or pilgrims, are the creator of our own tour. We may be following the same yellow arrows and staying in similar hostels. But, we as individuals, are making our walk ourselves. It's our own experience, serving an individual purpose.

Even still... I couldn't help but talk about this feeling of being on a 'tour' with one of the other ladies this week. And most will feel the same way. It's not a bad thing though. Especially if you're walking alone - which I am (most of the time). With familiar faces coming together in the evening, after a long walk in solitude, it brings those hours of pacing alone back into balance. It's also brilliant to practise European languages, to get tips, to support others and to exchange experiences - be they good or not so good.

I can't really say I've had moments that weren't so good. Well, a part from the blisters on my feet. That's actually quite an issue right now. I don't think I've ever seen my feet in such a condition before. I've around 10 blisters at the moment, and they're not really healing yet, because my boots get wet (if I'm passing through a stream) and the blisters moisten.... Ouch... (but I won't go into further detail... it's not too rosey). Other than that, today I had a small slip walking through water. Nothing major though - just more handwashing ;) and I lost my lenses (now I'll be wearing my glasses until I'm back in Ireland. I´m not really ecstatic about that, but it's just a matter of getting used to them again).

These few tiny things aren't important at all. Not when I take the massive triumphs I've had, into account. The 3rd day (07-04, from Castilblanco to Almaden), was a highlight for me. For most, it was a dreaded stage, due to it being 30kms. But I was actually on top of the world. Even if the first stretch of 18km was along a hilly, strenuous, monotonous main road. The setting was beautiful though, the sun was shining and I was able to unload the layers of clothes!!!! FINALLY!!!!! As each kilmeter passed, I got more into a zone and loved every step. After the 18kms along the main road, the next 12 passed through a national park and... WOW... I've never felt so alone in the world, but so blessed, grateful, alive alive and oh so alive... as I walked through the hills. It didn't matter that my feet felt as if they were being stabbed with knives. Because my voice was singing, my arms stretched open to the world and the kms made me feel I'd found the centre of the world. Every blister that was swelling, became irrevelent. Such a sight, cured everything. Amazing!

On that same stretch, I met lots of people who I could've walked with. But I wanted to stay in a free state... So I greeted them all, wishing them ´Buen Camino' and I continued walking, in my happy seclusion, taking conscious space.

I've since realized that it really does make a difference whether or not you're walking with someone or going it alone. On the 4th day for example, the stage that took me from from Almaden to Real de la Jara (15km), I walked with a Spanish couple and a Frenchman. That was totally different. It felt more strenuous because I was talking, concentrating on speaking German, trying to follow their Spanish, wanting to take in the beautiful surrounding and also trying to keep the same pace. It was quite hectic to be honest, but I was actually delighted to have done that. Not only did it bring me to open up more, but it also kept my mind distracted from what was happening inside my boots. Yay!

Today, the 5th day, which took me from Real de la Jara to Monesterio, was 22kms. I wanted to do this stretch by myself. And I did. It's probably been the toughest day so far. But that's okay. I know it's impossible not to go through a stages of being challenged. Circumstances, terrain, wheather and energy levels are constantly changing, all adding to the overall experience of everyday. And just before coming online today, I had a chat with a wonderful lady from Holland, who brought me to realize that such a journey is an accumulation of stages and kms. There's no real stepping away from it - even if you do take a day to rest. So I know I'm trying to come into a balance so I can sustain my energy levels, share my company, soak in this experience and trust that by simply going with the flowing rhythm, everything will always be clear - especially whilst wearing these specs!!!!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sevilla to Guillena

Oh the joys of just GOING, BEING and walking onwards...

Am I now an 'official' pilgrim... just because I have a pilgrim passport in my pocket and a backpack on my back weighing ONLY 8 kilos that contains everything I need so as to keep me physically healthy, happy and jumping for joy, for at least the next... however long I want..? 

What definition can be given to a pilgrim anyway? Most consider it be to those who walk for religious purposes. But I heard something quite striking, these past days... 'a pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose'. Thats it...!!! Hearing this, I felt so recognized! The individual pilgrim / wanderer / walker determines their own purpose. And my own individual purpose is also defined... For now, Im a wanderer with the purpose of finding strengths on different levels, by means of doing something Ive never done before. Simple... No need to analyze ;)  

This morning, I put my backpack on my back, at 08.30 and left the hostel. I moved away from the centre of Seville, after spending 2 days roaming, exploring, eating tortillas (spanish omelettes) and meeting people from some random walks of life. Amongst others there was an Egyptian guy who has left Egypt for the first time in his life and is amazed by the Western culture;  a heartbroken Turkish girl who is travelling for the first time by herself and in desperate need of company and let me not forget to mention the most handsome Spaniard Ive ever met, who couldnt understand why others can be so inspired by Spain (this was probably the reason for him to be so fascinated by my enthusiasm).

These were lovely people who made my stay in the hostel quite homing. And outside the hostel I had a few random meetings. The most significant one was yesterday morning (Thursday). I was one of the hundreds of cafes in the city centre having breakfast. A girl sat down behind me. When I was about to leave she randomly asked me if I was doing the Camino. I was shocked that she guessed what I was in Spain for! 'The shoes are a giveaway!!!' Of course... Ive got 'walker' written all over me at the moment!

There were definitely forces at work that brought us together. Because she herself had only just arrived in Seville, from Germany, and was starting the first leg of the journey today too. We ended up spending the day together and it was such a blessing... It really got me on track. Any doubts I had about whether or not to do it, subsided. It raised my excitement and I suddenly felt less alone... Because at times, since first arriving in the city, I wondered if I was the only one who was walking the Via de la Plata! However, in a city - with thousands of tourists - it would be almost impossible to find pilgrims and to connect... Let me stress the word ALMOST, because my meeting with this lovely German lady proved that nothing is impossible!

We were going to start walking together. However she had decided to get a bus from the centre of Seville to a town just north of the city, so as not to have to walk through a massively muddy area (which was a result of the unexpected rain thats been falling on this area of Spain for the past weeks). But I decided against the idea of hopping on a bus, just to save myself a muddy venture. And this morning, as I left the city, I was of course met with a stretch of slush that was quite daunting... I wasnt alone however in getting through the slog. Because, just as I left the city, I met 2 other ladies from Austria, who I walked the first 10 kms with. We helped each other and - even though small parts of myself wanted to be alone - I was so grateful not to be doing that muddy stretch without their help.

After 10 kms we met another lady, from Australia. And before I knew where I was, Id left the Austrian women behind, as my pace as speeded up, and was totally engrossed in spending some kms with this lady from downunder. Our pace was quite similar too.

As we walked and chatted about some quite cool stuff, we were greeted by other walkers, everyone wishing each other well, yet individually sticking to their own pace.

Because of the massive rainfall, some of the rivers had burst their banks, so we were told by roadworkers to walk along the national highway. And we did - getting drenched along the way, as the huge thick black clouds up above opened themselves up. That was actually quite a highlight for me... I felt so ALIVE being one person amongst the strangling walkers, dotted along the highway and being blown to pieces. It was liberating not to have the urge to run for shelter or to HATE what the conditions were bringing us... But to simply say... this will pass... In those moments all you can do is continue walking, and keeping focused... (doing anything else would only drain energy). In that acceptance it didnt matter that the water started seeping into my boots and the poncho didnt withstand the pounching raindrops.

Its true what they say: after rain, the sun always appears... And it did come out...!!!! When the sign for Guillena appeared, showing only 4 more kms to todays destination, the sky was blue again and I was WARM!!!!!!!!! At that same time, Id 'lost' the Australian lady as I was trotting along in my own happy zone and thats was also when I found myself alone for the first time. Wow... I felt so free... as I munched on an energy bar, smiled to the sun, said hello to the cactus and orange trees and waved to all the cars racing by that honked at me as if to say 'Happy Camino!'.

At that stage, yes my feet were aching, my socks were soaked with both sweat and rain... but my body wasnt exhausted. That was probably due to seeing the town of Guillena way off in the distance, but coming closer and closer, with each step.

I made my way through this beautiful typical Spanish village... the white houses were like a postcard and it was so peaceful; Siesta of course!!! It was only 5 hours after I said goodbye to the owner of the hostel in Seville. Great timing!!! I soon found the Albergue - the hostel especially for pilgrims.

As I walked in, I felt I entered a community of wandering souls... all doing this for different reasons, all with different levels of fitness and all with different stories and experiences to share. I realized within minutes though that I wouldnt have the privilege of hearing their stories, as there arent any English speakers.(My German has been coming in handy, even if its not up to scratch.)

For the first time tonight Ill be sharing a dorm room with 9 men - all above the age of 55 or 60. What an interesting scenario. Tomorrow morning everyone will set off again, heading for the same destination, yet at their own pace and with their own individual reason for walking. As will I.

So... reporting from the local library in Guillena, after the first 24kms, Im going to be seeking some dinner, some compeed (for my blistered feet) and Ill follow that by some lovely sleep (with earplugs... because I can only imagine the music that 9 sleeping/snoring men can make!). I wonder what the next legs will bring! It will only be amazing, seeing as my legs will always carry me onwards. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sevillian Times

First impressions of Seville...

After having the smoothest of flights with the clearest of skies, I walked out of the airport and literally straight into a cloud of smoke. It hit me out of nowhere... oops... there weren´t any fires though... Instead just a group of maybe 50 youngsters, waiting for the bus and getting their nicotine fix after a long flight.

Then, the same bunch, also introduced me to the Sevillian way of speaking. Wow... Everyone speaks at a pace that makes me wonder if they´re actually Spanish at all! Initially I couldn´t recognize anything. The phrases I´d been studying in my ´oh so dependable´ little phrase book should´ve eventually come to my rescue...

Just goes to show, that only by hearing a lanuage and actually TRYING to conversate, can you find out what level you´re at. And well, as it stands, on my first day in Spain, my level is hovering around - not zero (on a scale of 1 to 10) - but maybe around 1.5!

I´m chuffed with that actually. I can already notice the progress I´ve made, since first arriving not even 24 hours ago! Because, even with my ´1.5´ I´ve been able to make myself understood a few times... Which is a fine thing, because the level of English isn´t high at all. And I´m not disheartened (not as I remember to have been, when I first landed in China; the shock of their non-existent comprehension of the English language took me quite a while to come to terms with!). In this situation however I´m actually LOVING that the majority doesn´t understand English. It gives me even more of an incentive to practise and to get over any self-confidence issues I may have, regarding my level of Spanish. I have understand, once again, that only by making mistakes, can I learn and communicate with this world around me.

After the bus journing to the city, I soon realized this is an easy city to get lost in. I guess that´s what happens, without little ´planning´and placing all of my trust in the world around me, to help me reach my destination. I´m delighted I took that approach, because I now know there´s no better way to get acquainted with a city. The amount of people I approached and tried to converse with, really gave me an insight into their mentality; they´re the kindest bunch you´ll find, even if they don´t speak English. They´ll happily ´speed´talk´at you in Spanish, pointing temperamentally in at least 3 different directions, just so as not to have to tell you that they don´t really know where the street is. But what can a visitor say, if they don´t speak the language... nothing much... only ´Gracias´... before walking back in the direction they just came from, only to SLOWLY loose any sense of intuition that may have been helping a person along.

I made it though. Just as I was about to check-in to another hostel, my initial hostel fell out of the sky!!! Yay! The night was saved and no smiles were lost. Not even when I looked at the map today and saw that the route I´d walked last night had taken me in several circles. The whole entire time I was only a stones-throw away from my actual hostel.... A quiet little giggle to myself :D

Next observation... Spain has rain too! Yes... A person should never convince themselves that a certain destination will have ONLY a certain climate. Because as ´predictable´as the weather is, it´s actually the most unpredictable thing. It´s lucky that I hadn´t convinced myself that I´d have a ´perfect´ blue sky and comfortable temperture. So this morning, as I was exploring Seville on foot, taking in the atmosphere, feeling the traveller awakening from within, I let my feet get drenched. Initially, I didn´t let that little discomfort hold me back, at least not for the first 3 hours of exploring. Only then did my feet start crying out for some dry heat.

That´s when I remembered what I´m actually here for! Wow... tomorrow - Thursday - I´m planning to do the Camino! My feet need all the support, warmth, softness and ease they deserve, if they´re going to take me a few ´steps´ beyond this wonderful city!

With so much happening, I honestly don´t feel I´m in the ´hiking´mode at all... This morning I sat in a coffeshop and all I wanted to do was sit and listen to people speaking Spanish. I was totally content, happy, inspired and in my zone. It was as if I´d found my reason for coming. Simply being in Seville was ENOUGH inspiration for now. I look at the world around me, and there´s learning EVERYWHERE.

I know I´ve always looked at the world through eyes eager to learn. That learning is always on a hidden level. Here however, it´s a level that´s visible to the eye. It´s a physical, tangilble level of learning. No matter where I look, I´m decoding. I´m speaking new words in my mind, I´m searching my memory for the meaning behind a language that I´ve loved for years. I´m in awe of the Spanish speakers... This is a totally different than the feeling I had, when I was first in China. Back then, I had to zone-out to the language. I had to become immune to it, because I wasn´t willing to go ´all the way´ and devote most of my time to learning that particular language. Here however, it´s different. It´s accessible and effortless, yet inspiring, fun and challenging at the same time.

I had dreams last night about their words... I found how AMAZING it would be, for such beautiful words to be part of a person´s daily vocab... just like magic. Actually, describing it like this, I guess this is learning that is ALSO taking place on a deeper, hidden level. If something is inspiring; the level is then always touching hidden feelings. A passion for something, and the inspiration that comes along, is always only experienced behind the facade of how we project ourselves out into the world.

Maybe this is just my first buzz... These are afterall my first impressions. I guess I feel I´ve opened up alot in these past 24 hours, simply by stepping out of my comfort-zone. Learning experiences, on every level, in all areas, are occurring. We progress as much as we allow and wish ourselves to, simply by being in these situations. So... I´ll explore Seville just that little bit more, I´ll start the walk before the weekend and I can trust that learning will always be happening - in all areas, on all levels. How grateful :)