Friday, August 2, 2013

Pre-arrival on the Camino

FYI: In order to navigate this blog, I had to post the dates in reverse order so they would appear in choronological order on the website (and on the mobile version). The Camino took me 34 days so there is a page for each day plus a pre-arrival page and a post-departure page. The actual dates are in the title of each post. When you're finished with each post, click on "Older Posts" at the bottom to go to Day 1 (or right hand arrow), then again "Older Posts" (or right hand arrow) to go to Day 2, etc... enjoy!

Hi my name is Erin and I'm from California. I first wanted to do "the Camino" as a teenager in Kansas City when I read Paulo Coelho's book The Pilgrimage. I remember writing it on my "positive futures matrix" and effectively making it a "bucket list" item in my early twenties. Years went by and I didn't really think of it too often until Shirley MacLaine's book The Camino came out and I listened to the book-on-tape and I loved it. Then years later the movie The Way with Martin Sheen came out and I thought, I better do this thing now before it gets too popular. It is a journey than can take 5 weeks so setting aside the time is a challenge, but as it turns out, now was the perfect time to do My Camino. I left my job in New York City, put my stuff in storage, and set out to live one of my lifelong dreams.

And like most dreams, when it finally came true, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

After a 10-hour car ride with my Mom, Ellen, to Chicago (where I wasn't feeling well and even got sick on the side of the road, hello?), I arrived at my cousin Andrea's to spend the night and take the plane to Paris the next day. They all went out but I didn't. I felt sick, hopefully it was just a 24-hour bug, but I couldn't help thinking it was definitely nerves too. Truth is, I was not very prepared. Sure this was a lifelong dream I was finally undertaking, but in terms of "backpacking across Europe" I was a novice at best. My cousins said I should get "wicking" material this and "quick dry" material that, and all I had were cotton tank tops, linen shirts, and jeans. My first pangs of panic, oh well, all I could do at this point was calm myself down and try to rest.

The next morning I felt better and after spending some time with my family, Ellen took me to the airport. At this point I just wanted to get going, the time had come to set off on my own. I resisted my normal tendencies to buy a guidebook and maps because I wanted this to be a different kind of experience for me. I wanted to release everything, and just carry the clothes on my back, and follow the yellow arrows, and live off the kindness of strangers. It was only on the plane that I finally wrote down my over-arching reasons for doing the Camino: for the adventure travel, for the physical challenge, and for the spiritual community with others and myself. I had a one-way ticket to Paris and had to figure the rest out from there!


The Camino is known as The Way of St. James (el camino de Sant Iago) and it was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times. Unlike the several other pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, the waymarking on the French Way (Camino Frances) is well marked with yellow arrows and is supported by a series of small towns with water fountains, places for pilgrims to sleep (alberges, hostels), and cheap pilgrim menus. In order to stay and eat at pilgrim prices (usually 5-10 Euro to sleep and 10 Euro for a two-course meal with bread and wine :) and to receive the compostela (certificate of completion of pilgrimage to Santiago) you need to provide proof that you have walked the route by way of a pilgrim passport (credencial), impressed with the rubber stamps (sellos) by the wardens (hospitaleros) in the alberges, hostels, hotels, cathedrals, churches, bars, restaurants, and town halls along the way. (The guidebook everyone had is John Brierley's book "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago.")

The route I took is the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago de Compostela. It is 790 kilometers (490 miles) and begins in France, crosses over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain, and then goes through the Basque region, the Rioja wine region, through the large Castilla y Leon region, and ends in the Galicia region at the famous city of Santiago de Compostela. It is an ancient trek divided into 34 stages at about 26 kilometers per day, each stage containing thousands of years of history and culture!

So on Monday, June 24 I left Chicago and it took 9 hours and 2 planes to get to Dublin then Paris, then a train to get to the Montparnasse station (in my old neighborhood of Paris :) to then board another 8-hour train to Bayonne in southern France. In the little research that I did do, I knew I had to get to Bayonne (or Biarritz) in France in order to take a train (or bus) to St. Jean Pied du Port to begin the Camino. By the time I arrived in Bayonne, I had been traveling for 19 hours. Here's a video of part of my train ride through Bordeaux on the way to Bayonne.

 I checked into the first hotel I saw, the very cute "Hotel Cote Basque." As soon as I closed the door behind me and realized there I was, in my first room, I came down with a serious case of the giggles! It was so much fun to be back in Europe, and here I was, embarking on this once-in-a-lifetime journey. I'm here! I was so tired but so happy. I looked out of the window onto the square and had a nostalgic feeling of what it was like when I lived in Europe so many years ago.

It's not just the sights of a city or place, it's the smells and the sounds that stay with you. That unique smell at Charles de Gaulle airport really took me back, as did seeing the African sights and the hearing the Muslim sounds at the airport. I unpacked, crossed the street and ate a nice meal, and slept, thanks in part to my new earplugs which I recently acquired in Miami by chance. They completely blocked out the sounds of the village life in the square. I put on the white nightgown I reserved for hotel rooms only and enjoyed what I knew to be my last bit of luxury for awhile.

The next day I was jet lagged and ravenously hungry, a situation I've often been in before, and when one is hungry one would like to eat, but no. I had forgotten about the schedules of Europe. C'est incroyable! One cannot eat dinner anywhere until 7:30 at the earliest, 9:00pm is normal. You can get ice cream, cake, coffee, crepes, you can drink and smoke but you cannot get anything warm, not even a croque monsieur at a brasserie or cafe when you are outside of Paris. It's the same with La Poste, the post office is closed, uh let's see, all afternoon. Here I am walking around starving, reflecting on this, observing this France again, but now I'm here as a future pilgrim and I think it is not such a bad thing. Already the universe is making me work for it, and I like it. It imposes structure and discipline and a schedule. It makes me wonder that Americans have too many choices, everything all the time, anything anytime, and too much personal freedom to take care of themselves in a way that many Americans at least, left to their own devices, can't seem to handle. There's something nice about this old world consistency, predictability, adherence to time and space. There is a rhythm here and there is unity in the community.

I am already falling in love with Europe again. By The Way: I typed up my notes when I got back so if my stories don't make sense or my pictures are too small, it's because basically this blog is for me, so I can remember everything. It's my virtual photo album :-)

I have to say, my first impression of the French is that they are not as rude as they used to be, someone explained it to them or they got the memo or they just became more globalized, but they really were more friendly. Even on the SNCF train from Paris, they were "customer friendly" (quelle horreur), giving us water and treats and apologies because the train was running late. It's a new phenomenon. Ever since I arrived, yesterday, I've been speaking nothing but my tentative French. I'm a creature of habit and so I ended up going to the same restaurant both nights in Bayonne. The second night I spoke more confident French with Audry for hours! It was so much fun, my French-speaking Mother would've been proud. As I thought of her and her life in France and our lives together I realized that I've become this sympatico, fun to be with, multilingual, world traveler in part due to her. I've been to France more than 50 times since I was 16, thanks Mom!!

But there is definitely a fear, not for my safety, but for a feeling of the unknowing ahead of me. Normally I am not a fearful person but I remember feeling this same angst on my first plane trip to France when I was 16. My Mom and I were going on a tour and she was so sweet on the plane, she is actually the first one to teach me meditation that day "...picture a silver ball full of light circling your body, take deep breaths, and watch it slowly as it calms you down..." I had that same scary feeling about this trip after I went to the sports store, I was overwhelmed. I'm having that anxiety now too. It's a different feeling than when one gets overwhelmed "by life" in fact I don't like that quote anymore "do something each day that scares you", no. No one needs to be scared, challenged yes, but not scared... do something each day that challenges you in some way definitely, but not this or any kind of scary feeling. What I am beginning to realize however, is that I am having to make so many decisions outside of myself that I have little time to ponder my inner feelings. I have entered the realm of needing to act in order to get to the next step by the end of each day. "If a shark doesn't move, it can't breathe."

Tuesday night June 25 and Wednesday night June 26 were spent in Bayonne; my first order of business before setting off to St. Jean Pied du Port on Thursday June 27 is to leave behind the suitcase. My Mom had an old suitcase that my pre-packed, green backpack and sleeping bag fit into perfectly so I used it and checked it to Paris and took it by train here to the hotel. Now I asked the delightful older man behind the desk if by chance he wanted it or knew where I could leave it. He took it and was very happy about it :) (abandoned item 1) I then headed out to the bus station with my backpack on really for the first time. There was a group of pilgrims, you could see them, waiting like me. Bags go under bus, occupants on top. We rode through beautiful countryside for over an hour to get to St. Jean Pied du Port. I collected my pack and again, checked into the first hotel I saw, "Hotel Continental" (which later I learned is the hotel in the first scene of The Way where Tom walks out and goes one way and all of the pilgrims walk by him going the other way). It was the perfect place to launch from.

In the afternoon, I went to the Pilgrim Office and checked in and received my passport, my scallop shell, and two pieces of paper - one listing the towns and distances and accommodations and another showing the 34 stages and elevations of mountains or hills.

Like I said before, one of my intentions on this trip is to simply follow the yellow arrows, and receive what people are going to give me as part of the journey, so if the Pilgrim Office gives me these two papers, then that's all I need.

The Pilgrim Office personnel are comprised of a lovely group of volunteers who have done the Camino in the past. They were a varied bunch of folk, as were the pilgrims checking in. My host was from Sweden and he explained that the first day (tomorrow) is the hardest (you can see it in stage 1 on the image) and he strongly advised me to cut it into two days. I agreed (good call Erin). I decided on the spot that if anyone had advice for me, I would take it. He also told me to get walking sticks and that by the time I got to Santiago, I would be thanking him. Everyone was smiling. I signed my documents and left to explore the medieval town. I went to the pilgrim sports store where I got my walking sticks and found a very small, lightweight sleeping bag that, the lady said, would suffice for my summer pilgrimage. I also got some fruit, pastry, saucisson, and wine at the grocery store and then went back to my room and took stock. I promptly took my 5-lb flannel, bulky sleeping bag (what was I thinking!) down to La Poste and mailed it back (abandoned item 2).

My room was great that night... double bed, bathtub, balcony, all was packed and prepared for the big day tomorrow!

"A journey of a thousand miles (or 500 miles) begins with a single step." 
- Lao Tzu

FYI: In order to navigate this blog, I had to post the dates in reverse order so they would appear in choronological order on the website (and on the mobile version). The Camino took me 34 days so there is a page for each day plus a pre-arrival page and a post-departure page. The actual dates are in the title of each post. When you're finished with each post, click on "Older Posts" at the bottom to go to Day 1 (or right hand arrow), then again "Older Posts" (or right hand arrow) to go to Day 2, etc...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Day 1 - slept in Orisson - June 28

Woke up at 6am, left hotel by 7am. The older male receptionist was the same guy from last night and he was so kind. I had tea with bread and oranges and he wished me my first official "Buen Camino!" I was off.

The Camino takes you through the main town of St. Jean Pied du Port and over the river as you immediately head uphill. Straight uphill. For kilometers. I went 7.5 to be exact. The first day (or two days if you divide it up) are the most strenuous (you can see on one of the pieces of paper the Pilgrim Office gave me). It goes from an elevation of 200 meters to 1400 meters! I didn't really realize that, all I knew was that I was ready.
The route was a strenuous uphill walk but with stunning views in all directions. It was mainly on the paved road at first but then veered off onto a trail through steeply wooded countryside that gave way to open hill and moorland dotted with beech trees. I only saw a few other pilgrims, 3-4 others walking alone like me, another group chatting away. I had my first real feeling of how fantastic it is to be out here alone, but still see others along The Way.

After climbing straight uphill for hours, and taking two rest breaks, I finally turned a corner and there in the immediate distance was the Alberge Orisson. I walked inside and, still speaking French, told the man behind the counter that I had a reservation (the Pilgrim Office said it was necessary at this particular place so they made it for me). He was delighted that I had a reservation, took my passport and signed me in. He was cute and he was flirting with me. I was smiling but by the time I arrived, my entire body was wet with sweat, and it was cool outside, and so once I stopped moving, I was freezing. All I could do is ask if "my room" was ready and he ushered me to a table in the common area and said "momentarily." He brought me some white sangria and I sat there silently shivering.

I could see the other pilgrims gathering outside on this beautiful deck overlooking the Pyrenees mountains, it was breathtaking. I could hear them talking, mainly foreign languages but I did detect English both of the Irish ilk and the American twang. There was another language that sounded so foreign, it turns out that a cross between Dutch and French sounds like Danish. I liked it but it was totally new to my ears. As I sat back and took in the scene, the Frenchie came over and introduced himself as Jean-Jaques, the proprietor. He said he was delighted to see me and hoped we could talk more later on, wink wink. I smiled and he said "my bed" was ready and gave me a token for the shower. Merci!

I walked upstairs and into my first "dormitory" - the name they give to a small room that has more than 2 beds but less than 12, usually a series of bunk beds. There are rules in these places, for example, no backpacks on the bed. That night there were 6 of us in that room: a mother and her son, some guy, and two girls from Denmark. There were two other dorms on that floor and then another set of 2 dorms in "the shed" beneath the deck. I gratefully took a bottom bunk and unpacked my clothes, towel and bath bag and took my token and headed to the shower. It was decent enough -private and it locked- but the token only gave you 5 minutes of semi-warm water. It had to be enough. Once I changed, I admired the amazing view I had and then headed outside to meet and greet the others.

This first group of people became my extended family on the Camino. We all felt that way. What are the chances that you end up walking with these people, what if I had not taken an extra day in Bayonne, I would be with an entirely new set of souls. But here we were, destined to begin this journey together. Those of us who had drinks and chatted outside stayed out until the communal dinner was served. Others had gone to their beds for a rest, one South African man (who was traveling with his darling son) came outside in his towel after a shower and I thought "is this how it's gonna be? Yes, this is how it's gonna be." Some of us went to the back to enjoy the afternoon sun, a group of ladies were reading, one woman was napping, a man was hanging his laundry, and I stretched on my yoga mat.

Dinner started at 7:30 and we were all sitting family style at a long table. We ate mixed salad and a garlic soup, then a main paella type of dish with seafood, then yogurt or ice cream for dessert, and all the bread you can eat and wine you can drink. It was fun talking to these strangers. No one really asked any serious questions, like why are you doing the Camino or what do you do for a living, it was more about the moment and learning where everyone is from and just enjoying each other's company. Sometimes the simplest conversations can be deep. That's the thing about meeting people from other parts of the world. It gives you an entirely new perspective.

One of the best parts about Alberge Orisson is the fact that they had us all stand up and say "Hi, I'm Erin, I'm from California, I'm walking to Santiago, and I'm traveling alone." Basically that was all that was needed to be known at this point. You could say it in whatever language you wanted, and many people did not speak English. Many people were not doing the entire trek, and most people were traveling alone. This is when I met Dee from Ireland, Anton from Ireland, Esther from Holland, Jenn & Phyllis from Connecticut, Robin from North Carolina, Julian from Canada, Yana and her boyfriend from Germany, Ann from Australia, Theresa from New Zealand, Anigrette and Vega from Finland, the South African man and his son, and a group of 6 from Indiana who were only going as far as Burgos, among others :)

Talk about a fun dinner! Even though Jean-Jacques was eyeing me, I made a break for it and went to my bed. As a single girl I knew I would probably have a little love affair along the Camino but I wasn't ready yet. So in went my earplugs for the first time and I slept in my new sleeping "liner." The beds were made with clean sheets and a pillow but you needed your own sleeping bag and my turned out to be just fine.

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can; begin it. Boldness has genius power and magic in it." 
- Goethe