Monday, December 31, 2012

I Miss My Wubbie

Over the course of my life I've sat waiting in many airport gates for flights to many states and countries, but this time my arms and hands hang free and that makes me feel awkward. I hadn't realized that carry on luggage is like a purposeful wubbie. It follows behind me, it prevents creepy people from sitting next to me, and it helps to maintain a comfortable distance between me and those who have no personal space.  

Being an attractive single lady traveling alone I'm usually open to a little, or a lot, of flirting with my male counterparts. But I'm having trouble feeling amorous, or for that matter even the least bit feminine. Instead I adopt an I'm-about-some-serious-shit attitude to shield myself when a man looks around, or through me to get a better look at someone else. 

I'm usually dressed to impress when I travel. But fashion weighs too much, so I wear one of the two sets of clothing I'll walk in. I chose men's hiking clothing because they are more practical, which also means they are more comfortable. I did try ladies trekking clothes, but the manufacturers sacrificed practicality for style. The minutes tick by slowly while I'm on display in men's khaki shirt, men's army green utility pants, and men's hightop hiking boots, with a black fanny-pack and canvas organizer around my waist. I look at a waiting passenger, she turns away avoiding eye contact, then whispers something to the man sitting next to her. I can imagine her saying, "She looks as if she's going to redeem a gender-reassignment-surgery and safari special. 

Feeling like a mis-understood traveler, I get up to buy a four dollar cup of designer coffee to show my membership in the club. I return to the gate, locate an electrical outlet on a pillar in a far corner to charge my phone. I lay on the floor with my legs up on a chair, practicing a version of a position my yoga teacher gave me to reduce the swelling in my feet and legs after a long day of walking. I didn't need it now, but I just didn't know what to do with myself.

I'm relieved by the announcement that they would soon begin the boarding process. Now I have something to do--I can get in line. I scan the waiting passengers looking for a member of my tribe. I would know them because they would be dressed like me--but there's no one. I fidget with my clothing, my waist pack, and I remove the guidebook and thumb through it while I wait. Then I come to realize that my boarding group has already been called and they were boarding the next group. I fumbled for my boarding pass and moved through the hovering passengers. I was happy to be moving, it soothed my excitement. 

I found my seat under the watchful eyes of previously seated passengers. My seat-mate, a neatly dressed businessman, looked puzzled probably because I carried nothing on. He managed to give me a half smile. I got belted in and began to make small talk in hopes to ease his mind. I find that people are made comfortable by information. He nods as he connects the dots. Then as the plane revs to take off, he begins to tell me the what, where and whys of his travel. My mind drifts and when it returns he's still talking about something important to him. I'm usually more attentive to people that I share such close quarters with for several hours, but this time I'm distracted, since my own whys remain unanswered. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How I Became a Pilgrim

I've been asked countless times, 'how did you prepare?'

After making the choice to walk 500 miles, I started walking, that's a no brainer.  I bought supplies; some from recommendations and others out of common sense. I watched videos from 'expert' trekkers, I read blogs and posts on popular online groups by those who have walked, some or all of the Camino and those who haven't--all equally opinionated. 

During the Summer I walked 18 kilometers with members of the So Cal chapter of Americans on the Camino. In hindsight the experience was close to a hot day on the Camino, only if you take away the modern roads and crosswalks, add a guide or two, chilled bottled water stations, and a Mexican restaurant at the end. I arrived at the restaurant with blister-free, but sore feet. I didn't have a better idea of what the Camino was like, but the margaritas where good and I made some new friends.

I bought more gear all of which I tested out on a local mountain that pales in size or difficulty to those I'd climb in France or Spain. I had knowledge of this fact, but knowledge isn't the same as personal experience. After breaking in the third pair of boots wearing a full backpack, I was as ready--as I thought--I could be.

Speaking the language of the country you'll visit for more than a month will certainly make the visit easier. "Do you speak Spanish?" I was asked by some, and those who knew I didn't, wanted to know if I was going to learn.  I wasn't--to prepare for a such a unique adventure while maintaining three professional services, volunteer work and learning Spanish might just push me over the edge. Instead, I'll make the excursion that much more interesting.  After all, it's in my nature to take the steepest hill.

Fear was another emotion I'd have to overcome--my own and that of others. My own fears of going abroad never had a chance to foster while jumping back and forth over the great pond with my mother, since I was a small child. My fears associated with traveling alone to exotic foreign lands have all but disappeared since my 2009 trip to Southeast Asia. After six months, I returned in one piece--whole, both physically and mentally.

However, this time it was the potentially contagious fears of others that I had to watch out for. Some masked their fear within cliches like, 'better you than me' and others were more blatant, like one of my sister's friends, who said, 'If you truly love your sister, you wouldn't do this.' She claimed my sister was unable to voice her own fears for me. She drilled me about what I'd do if, in the middle of nowhere, I fell and broke my leg. She was right, I hadn't thought about that. The truth is, that kind of thing just doesn't happened to me. So was I being selfish?

For some, the film The Way, generated fear that they might not have felt before watching a story of a father who walks the Camino in honor of his son who is killed the first day of his pilgrimage. Okay, so that's legitimate fear, but it's also like focusing on the crucifixion and completely missing the beauty and results of the resurrection. 

Today, I'm glad that no one described the difficulties of the Camino or the hardships I would face. If they had, I most likely would have responded, 'Well, that's why it's called a pilgrimage and not a vacation." I'm bored with vacations and being a tourist. I'm ready to be a pilgrim, someone who earns her experiences and where the souvenirs climb into my soul and remain there for a lifetime. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Lesson from the End of the World

'What time is it in Spain?' I ask myself. On the surface jet-lag explains why I'm awake in the wee hours of this West Coast morning--but that's not it.

I stopped following the yellow way markers of the Camino several days ago, the last in Finisterre, long ago thought to be the end of the known world. I arrived in Santiago de Compostela one month after leaving St. Jean Pied de Port, France. Each day was filled with the physical introduction to one of four very different terrains of Northern Spain, coupled with the equally different regional weather as well as the languages and personalities of pilgrims from almost half of the 195 countries on our planet, all mixed in a colorful bowl of cuisine, dialects, mores and customs of the Spanish people responding to the day-to-day crisis of their ancient country with an uncertain future.

I'm reminded of standing on the huge rocks at the edge of the water in Muxia. The sun shines brightly while the cold wind blows intently. I watch the waves crash into the shore in unpredictable ways. I focused my camera lens on the last place the surf crashed forcing solid white clouds of spraying water high in the sky as if they were trying to blend with the sky. I sat down on a three-story rock that the ocean placed there thousands of years ago, wondering if nature knew I would be there at that moment and placed my sturdy platform there for me. Arrogant, my ego said loudly, but I caught myself before I made myself wrong, smiled and allowed my imagination to flow.

I became aware and patient and accepted the movement of ocean, remembering that many elements are at play deep below the surface of my view, all of which are causing the direction, height and action of the waves. I knew to resist would be in vain. I forgot about the picture I hoped to capture and began to observe the ocean as if it were someone I'd knew or had come in contact with on this adventure, who behaved in equally unpredictable ways. I thought about how often in life I have resisted the actions and behavior of others. I took that moment to ponder the unseen currents that are at play in each of us. The wind slowed as I bowed my head to pray.

God grant me the compassion to consider the current that others have flowing under the surface, completely out of my view. Give me patience to consider the wounds of others that affects their behavior. Grant me also the ability to see and know that all people have the flowing current of your grace, and allow me to use the grace within me to resist mindless reactions should another person crash into me. Amen

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Walk, Just Walk

Just walk, that's all I've got to do. No planning, no meetings, no emails to send or calls to answer, no bedroom to tidy, no dishes to do--nothing to do but walk. I'm unable to imagine that no matter how hard I try, and trust me I have tried.

Today, I had things to do and things I wanted to do. I did the things that needed to be done and made time for a few things I've wanted to do. Do I want to walk, do I want to do nothing but walk? Yes, I want to know the experience of just being and walking. As I walk I will take time to reevaluate my purpose, my heart's desire, and reconfirm my commitment to follow my True North.

I'm reminded of the first morning in the home of my host family in India without anything that I had to do. It was as if I stepped off of a moving sidewalk and into quick-dry concrete. I stepped off the human-doingness of my society, yet the gravity of the constant motion I'd been accustomed was still compelling me to do, do, do. My equilibrium was uncomfortably askew and the only way I knew to regain my balance was to start doing as soon as possible. I unpacked some of my things, showered and purposely swung the door open to my private room. The cook and housekeeper, Busanti, was on the other side as if she had been waiting for me to emerge. She must have had strict instructions from my hosts to fulfill me every whim. “Chai?” she asked. Yes, I replied. Before I could tell her to point me to the kitchen to help myself, she was gone. I went to my bags and retrieved the notes I'd made on what I wanted to see and do while in India. That's the first time I missed the opportunity to just be. I would be lying if I said I escaped the culturally-ingrained impulse to constantly be doing shortly after that.

This journey will serve as another opportunity to just be, and I'll spend some cherished hours walking from one yellow way-marker to the next, taking inventory of what hurts and offenses I still carry deep within. I'll examine those persistent thoughts that have become stubborn beliefs, deconstruct and shake them lose from the synapse they're adhered to. And in other times I'll simply enjoy the ride my feet take me on.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Camino Credentials

I was still in diapers when I was issued my first passport. I've always had a passport so the experience has been uneventful compared to someone going through the mug-shot and application process while anticipating their first trip out of the country. After going back and forth to England assisting my mother as she laid her own mother to rest, I let my passport expire. It laid in a drawer for several years with other important papers that I'd brush over every so often when having a sort-out. During that time my travels were limited to within our borders which I didn't mind, after all I was one of those lucky kids who globe-trotted right up to my graduation from an American High School in West Germany.

Years ago I promised my mother, after seeing the British movie, Shirley Valentine, that she too would go to Greece and drink wine on a shore, just like Shirley. More than ten years later I would renew my passport so that I could travel with my mother to Rome where we'd board a Mediterranean cruise that would make a couple of stops in Greece. It was more a relief that the task was completed, than excitement when my new passport arrive in the mail. A year later I would part with my passport to apply for a 12-month visa to India. It returned safely with a large label stuck to a back page which allowed me entry to one of the most exotic places I'd only dreamt of visiting.

If I got excited about anything to do with a passport it was collecting stamps from the places I visited. They're like tattoos--indelible marks saying, 'I've been there.' The Camino Passport is one of the details that stuck with me after seeing the movie, The Way. I can still hear the chunky metal gears rotating as the stamp flips over to leave a permanent mark that he was, she was--I had been there. More than several movies have inspired me to go places, see and do things I might not have had done or seen. But this movie about a 500-mile pilgrimage, I knew even before the end of the film, that I would soon strap by gear to my back and do the Camino.

I spent days researching the details of the Camino, but one aspect I had to know first is when and how do I get the Camino passport or the Credencial del Peregrino, roughly translated the 'credential of the pilgrim.' I don't remember who or how I learned that I didn't have to wait until arriving at the Camino office in St. Jean Pied de Port to get my credentials. I went to the American Pilgrims on the Camino website and filled out my request. I now felt that excitement, the anticipation, the urgency to hold my passport in my hands which would seal my fate as a pilgrim. I had not seen the passport completely just glimpses of it in the movie. A few of the authors who wrote about the Camino after completing it, like Shirley MacLaine, use their passports as the artwork for the inside cover of their books.

Today, I removed the folded bundle of mail from the box and stood in the kitchen leafing through it for legitimate mail versus junk mail. I flipped to a white business-size envelope addressed to me in a flowing, yet precise handwriting. The return address stamp and the thickness of the envelope gave way to the contents. My heart skipped, I took a deep breath and reverently placed the envelope on the table and washed and dried my hands throughly, even though they didn't look or feel soiled. I gently tore open the envelope, removed the letter folded around the passport and set it down without reading it. My US passport is a leathery cardboard paper with blue sheets stapled on the fold. This one is made of sturdy antique white parchment with accordion folds. It has seven blank panels for Fermas y Sellos (Signatures and Seals). The image on the front is an earth-tone dot matrix image of the Puente la Reina (Bridge of the Queen). This bridge is in the first town I come to after crossing the Pyrenees. I open it and my name is written in the same lovely cursive hand and the line next to 'on foot' is checked. I smiled and inspected each page carefully, returning to the second page where The Pilgrims Prayer of the 12th Century is printed over a watermarked image of Saint James.

God, You called your servant Abraham from Ur in Chaldea, watching over him in all his wanderings, and guided the Hebrew people as they crossed the desert. Guard these your children who, for love of your Name, make a pilgrimage to Compostela. Be their companion on the way, their guide at the crossroads, their strength in weariness, their defense in dangers, their shelter on the path, their shade in the heat, their light in darkness, their comfort in discouragement, and the firmness of their intentions; that through your guidance, they may arrive safely at the end of their journey and, enriched with grace and virtue, may return to their homes filled with salutary and lasting joy.

I wept knowing this passport is my invitation to travel down the long Spanish roads, as well as the even longer roads within. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Achilles H.E.A.L.

I watched my feet heal as if in time-lapse photography, brought on by realizing that I had created my own experience of pain and suffering. We humans are so skilled at at creating that which we rehearse in our minds. We imagine conversations and experiences which we hope never to have, all in crisp detail. I thought I was past this particular lesson, after realizing that what I've reaped over the years, was first sewn in my mind. I said a heartfelt 'sorry' to myself, understanding that the newness of this Camino-experience had distracted me, and got ready to train. Today I will imagine healthy, strong, durable feet that would support my journey as they have for decades.

I am grateful, and even more relieved for the breakthrough as I applied the body glide generously, foregoing the tape, and slid the condom-socks over my toes and clumsily fit my five toes into the four compartments. Interesting that in life—and these shoes, the smallest must share space with its bigger sibling. Yet, I decided that's a bit more philosophical than I care to be for the moment and felt sure that I'd met my breakthrough quota for the week. I slipped my daypack on and headed in the opposite direction because the mountain was closed to prepared for the fireworks display to celebrate our country's independence.

I'll walk at a slower pace on level-ground and go past my nephew's house and knowing that the kids would be awake by now and might get a kick out of waving at me as I go by. I took out my cell phone and with sticks attached to my wrists attempted to text the mother of this orderly clan. It walked and texted, which is something I don't recommend. I got tied up in the sticks and stumbled, escaping a face drive on to the sidewalk. I was aware that I wanted to impress them as I trekked by. I finally hit send and looked up. I was disoriented, I stopped looked around but none of the houses looked familiar. Then it dawned on me that I had walked up the wrong street while texting. I giggled, wondering if I was the morning comic relief for someone peering out their window over their morning coffee. What story will they tell around the barbecue later today? "An Alps outcast went by my house today stumbling over her own walking poles as she frantically text. It was hilarious! I'll let you know if she comes by again and you can see for yourself."

I found the right wood-street and straighten my posture as I approached, but there were no signs of activity from a house occupied by a very hip thirty-something couple with a toddler and his gangly six year old sister. I was deflated by my own disappointment, which past after imaging them at an equally hip breakfast spot serving up an egg fusion delicacy.

I trekked on heading for my sister and brother-in-law house not but a mile or so from here. I conjured up a visual of my sister asking me to wait while she laces her walking shoes and takes a turn with me around the neighborhood. I smiled and increased my steps as if they would move me closer to my fantasy. My left heal sounded off with some discomfort. I reached the front of the house, it was quiet until their dogs detected me and sounded the alarm that someone was about to penetrate the invisible parameter. If they weren't up before, they are now. I walked up the path to the front door hoping the dogs would sense it was me and stop their incessant barking--no such luck. I saw a shadow of someone moving about in the kitchen. I drew closer and saw the window was open and my brother-in-law was feeding my nephew's toddler some breakfast. Over barking dogs I loudly said, "Hi there, I stopped by to say good morning. Where's my sister?" With some irritation he said that my nephew and his wife picked her up to join them for a workout at the athletic club. "Oh, okay." I said. I waved at the perplexed boy who could quite make out that it was me. I gave a distant "Have a great day." I rushed down the rock path to the street knowing that I was aiding in disturbing the early morning peace of the neighborhood.

I hadn't walked more than three or four miles and I was already on the way back to the house. I was sad which gave way to realizing that I have and have had unrealistic dream of a member of my family taking part in this or any of my adventures. I was taken back to other equally unrealistic day-dreams of standing on the platform in New Delhi as a train entered the station carrying my sister and mother. The smiles on their tired but astonished faces. I walked back to the house with the energy of renewed awareness, knowing that by the time I reached the house I would have worked through the radical acceptance that no one in my biological family had more than a mild interested in my journey.

By this time I was walking with a limp. I couldn't remember when my left heel began to hurt. My internal shaman was saying something about my achilles heel. I listened intently, while my spirit-self cautioned me about my unrealistic desires and facts of life that I hadn't accepted—these are my achilles heel. I took a deep breathe and said, “Okay...alright, it's done.” I picked an upbeat playlist, cranked up the volume and shook off the limp, and declared I will find my family, my Camino Family.

Wonder Woman Walking Sticks

I woke knowing that I wouldn't train my boots, instead I wear the Skeletoes cross-trainers I bought weeks before on the recommendation of my yoga teacher, Christie, who won't wear anything else. She told me about the evening she would wear them to dinner at an upscale Paris restaurant, after adding some bling to them. She and her Skeletoes caused quite a stir among the women seated around her. They asked her questions about the strange foot wear and admiring her for wearing them. I imagine a new trend was set that evening and we'll be seeing them on a catwalk in the future.

I applied the Body Glide generously after bandaging both my feet. I even applied it to the duct tape—after all it served as a second skin. Next the socks; and after learning that wicking means moisture-drawing, which helps to reduce the chance of blisters, I decided wicking socks were now the only socks for me. However putting toed socks on is an adventure in itself, especially when my feet are coated with the glide. Surely men are better with these than women, because it's like putting five little, yet connected, cloth condoms on my toes. Next the shoes, which aren't a shoe I can just slip on and off I go--not yet anyway. I wished I looked for a how-to YouTube video on these puppies. One must line the foot up perfectly so the five tiny blind penises can penetrate the appropriate compartments. I'm rarely successful the first try. When they don't go in right I can almost hear my toes arguing as they push and shove each other for space. If my pinky toe could speak, I'm sure it would prefer to go to market. But once they're on, my feet are at home in the strange looking hot pink and black toed-shoes.

I leave Green Beauty home and load up my daypack with a full bladder, phone, keys, and of course my pink nano for my listening pleasure. Gloves, sticks--not necessary but I'm partial to them and they serve as a deterrent to stray and off-lease dogs that might come too close. Many of the dogs on the mountain were unsure about these sticks at first, so I'd let them sniff them until one dog took hold of it as if I was offering up a chew toy. I used one as a back-scratcher on Tara, an eight plus pound Presa Canario, in that special spot near her tail that sends most dogs to happy-land.

One warm evening I was walking along Brockton and passed a family enjoying the big porch wrapped around their bungalow. I approached the house without knowing the family included three Chihuahuas, but the moment I crossed the invisible property-line they flew off the porch, touching down for traction and running towards me at full speed. I stopped and placed my sticks about a foot in front of me. All three dogs came seem to bounce off an invisible force field which protected me from the canine ankle-biters, which whimpered back to the porch while the family continued laughing long after I was out of view. Me, I smiled like the victor and thanked my trusty staves for protecting me in this mock trial.

I made it up and down the mountain in record time even with my usual stops to speak to my fellow mountaineers--today we discussed the strange Florida-like weather that we wish would return as fast as it arrived. Other than an occasional tenderness of the wound on my heel. Relieved to be out of the humidity, I cut myself out of the bandages and took a long look at the triage in the center of the table. I began to laugh the kind of laugh that come after realizing you're the butt of a really good practical joke, because in that moment I saw that I created the opportunity for pain and suffering. I studied blisters and the pain and suffering that accompany them. I talked about pain and suffering, I wrote about it in this blog, I thought about it, and expected it to be a natural part of this journey. I laughed while I lovingly gave birth to the breakthrough coming forth as I dismantling the triage. I set an intention that my experience will be that of strong, durable, healthy and resilient feet. I had a talk with the girls--again, referring to my feet for they deserve a term of endearment. After all my boobs are simply coming along for the ride and will only play a supporting role in this particular adventure. Yet maybe...I'll write a scene for them to play a lead role in another adventure, similar to the one they played in the blackness of a late night bus going from New Delhi to Chandigarh, when I sat next to my travel companion, a twenty-nine years old Sheik, in a deep blue turban.