Thursday, October 21, 2010

Coming Home

It's strange being home again. The transition from the Camino to my 'real life' back here in Vancouver was abrupt, despite the two long days of travel and the 24 hours of sleeplessness. One moment I was in Santiago de Compostela, having dinner with new friends it felt like I'd known a lifetime and the next, I was getting back in touch with friends of a lifetime who I hadn't talked to in months.

My legs and feet are prone to stiffening up and cramping, restless, it seems, to get back to the hours of walking they'd become accustomed to. My body wants to sleep at inconvenient hours and the noise and busyness of what I used to think of as my peaceful life can make me long for the hours of relative solitude and quiet on the trail. Even while I was still walking, the bigger cities began to feel uncomfortable, like a continuous loud noise you can't get used to and can't wait to escape.

I've gone inside myself and seem to be having some trouble coming back out and being social. Which is strange, because before I left I was very busy and very social. I think I'm still processing everything and it's probably not a bad thing if I keep processing it, growing and changing as a result of what I've done. People told me, before I went, that the Camino would change my life. And it has, in ways I'm very thankful for. Walking it gave me a perspective I couldn't have found staying here and continuing on the way I always have. It also gave me the luxury of time - time to consider who I am, what I want, and what I believe in. Too often these big questions are put aside, consciously or unconsciously, until we find some time (which never actually happens, it seems).

On the Camino I remembered how good I feel being out in nature, watching the sun come up and paint the sky amazing colors, walking amongst the trees, breathing the air, listening to the birds, and feeling the wind stroke my face and play with my hair. I learned to let go, let things happen, open myself to new possibilities and to rejoice in being in the moment, whatever that moment brought. I recovered my faith in the world, in God, and in other people. Most of all, I recovered my faith in myself. Once you walk the Camino, you believe you can do anything. You don't believe it'll always be easy, because walking 800 kilometers isn't easy. But you learn that if you just keep moving, doing your part and putting one foot after the other, eventually you get there. And the places you go, the things you see, and the people you meet are more than reward enough for your effort. Getting there in the end is a bonus. Life, like the Camino, is about the journey, not the destination. And what a wonderful trip I am on!

I am lucky to have amazing people to share my journey with and I'm happy that I'm healthy enough to have come the way I have so far. Tonight, some of those amazing people will celebrate with me the gifts we've all been given. They will fill the room with music and the joy of living and we will try, one more time, to help those whose journeys may be cut short by cancer. From 6 to 9 pm, we'll be at the Yale hotel downtown (1300 Granville St, Vancouver). Come down and join us!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

With a Little Help

When I started walking the Camino, I was thinking about myself. It all depended on me. Was I strong enough to walk with my pack and all my possessions on my back? Could I walk that far, for that long? Would my feet hold up under the strain? And what about my back? Could I find my way in another country and another language? More than once I thought I'd have to quit.

On the meseta, I thought it sounded like a good idea to walk on part of the old Camino - the Roman road. So much history, and I'd seen some portion of intact Roman road earlier on. The romance of it lured me. Turns out it was about 25 kilometers of walking with only one village en route, early on. And, instead of large flat stones leading off towards the horizon, it was dirt, with fist-sized round boulders unevenly distributed across its surface. My ankles and knees twisted constantly, barely keeping me walking upright. By the time I'd gone about 16 kilometers I was tired. By the time I went another 3 I was exhausted. I could barely walk and I was checking out the farmers' fields to see if I could put my sleeping bag down in them for the night. I really wasn't sure I could make it. It was hot and dry and I hadn't seen anyone else for quite a while. There weren't many others to begin with. Apparently most of the other pilgrims were smarter than I am and had taken the new route.

I sat by the side of the trail in the dirt (there was nowhere else) and cried. Then I pulled myself together and walked a bit further. My feet burned in my boots, chafing, despite the greasing I'd given them that morning. I stopped again and tried rubbing them with my anti-blister stick, planning how I'd book the next flight home. I was in intense pain and it was just too much.

A man came by and said something in a language I didn't recognize. Then he asked, in English, if I was alright. I lied and said I was. I should mention here that I am very bad at asking for help. And besides, he couldn't carry both our packs, so what point was there in telling the truth?

I am also apparently a very bad liar. Unconvinced, he stuck around, asking if I had enough sunscreen, then enough water. When he finally started walking again, I followed, though I couldn't keep up to his pace. He seemed to stop ahead frequently, to adjust his poles, his pack, or to take a picture. And he kept looking back to see if I was there. All the way to the next town and the alburgue, he watched over me from a distance. When I thanked him later, he said it was, "no problem".

Another time, only a few days from the finish, I hurried to the next big town where there was an ATM. I had about one day's worth of cash left and most of the small towns along the way don't have banks and don't take credit cards. Neither of my bank cards worked due, it later turned out, to some system-wide technical issues my bank was having. At the time though, it was the middle of the night back home and I had no idea why I couldn't get at my money. Alone and broke in Spain was not good. Panicked, I stood by the church, wondering what to do.

Some Spanish people I'd walked with a few times came by and invited me to join them. I told them I thought I'd have to stay and explained what had happened. I was afraid I'd have to stop walking the Camino, at least temporarily. My friends immediately insisted on lending me 50 euros, with more if I needed it. I walked with them and they bought me dinner, helped me contact my bank and send a message home from a town which consisted of only a bar and the alburgue. They got me a bed and breakfast and calmed my fears. All this after having only spent a few days walking with me and chatting. I was so touched at their trust and kindness and was very happy when I could repay them.

But my 'Camino angels' are not so unusual here. Everyone on this pilgrimage helps each other, relative strangers from dozens of countries who are unlikely to ever see each other again once the walk is over. I've watched people bathe and bandage someone's badly blistered feet, bind a stranger's sore knee using their own tensor bandage, share their food, provide a shoulder to cry on, loan out their phone, and give each other clothes.

The Camino reminds me that we all depend on one another and that you don't have to go through difficulties alone. A good lesson, I think, as I walked to raise funds for cancer patients who are at a time in their lives when they can definitely use a friend.

If you can, please donate to my Camino Against Cancer @

Note: I finished my walk and arrived in Santiago de Compostela today!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Long, Hard Road

Walking the Camino has been more of a challenge for me than I anticipated. I knew, behind my cheerful enthusiasm which seemed to spring up beyond all reason as soon as I heard about the Way of St James, that walking every day for over a month would be difficult. 800K, give or take, is not a weekend stroll. But I never expected the other challenges I´ve faced.

Like being sick before I even began, with a cough that still sometimes troubles me 20 days later. (I have had it checked out, don´t worry). That cold cost me 2 days in St Jean Pied-de-Port before I even began and 2 more days in Pamplona.

Or like being feasted on by bedbugs in my sleep - not once, but twice - in St Jean and in Grañon. My sleeping bag was sprayed against them after the first time but the second time they pòinted out to me that I sleep with my arms outside the bag. The bites are red spots that, at least on my sensitive skin, swell up and out and itch annoyingly, so you look as bad as you feel. So I take an antihistimine, slather myself in cortisone foam, and keep walking, usually covering my spotty arms with a long-sleeved shirt. And I try desperately not to scratch. For days afterward, as you lie in your bed, you imagine you feel them again, biting you as you sleep.

The thing I worried most about before I came was blisters. Every morning before I put my socks on, I slather my feet with petroleum jelly and, so far, I have only peeling, callused feet - no blisters! I know that doesn´t sound like cause for celebration but, when you see the other pilgrims walking around with huge, disgusting bandages on their heels or the bottoms of their feet, when some of them are stuffing sanitary pads into their shoes for cushioning and absorption, you feel very lucky. And calluses, while not good in tiny, pretty shoes, are protection for your feet from the constant pounding of the camino.

The unrelenting weight of walking for 6-8 hours, carrying all your worldly goods on your back, takes its toll on your body. The bottoms of your feet begin to feel as though someone has been beating them with a stick. The tendons in your ankles stiffen up, shorten, and then seize up altogether. The ones in the backs of your knees twange unexpectantly, liked plucked strings on a guitar. Once in a while, although luckily not often for me, the muscles in your back begin to grumble about your pack not being adjusted properly.

So, you massage your ibuprofen gel into your legs and feet at the end of each day, stretching your feet and toes gently. You remember the exercises you learned and never did to stretch your hips, legs, and ankles, and now you do them. You think of your body as an ally in the fight to get to your goal and you begin to treat it more kindly, with more respect.

And when your mind begins to doubt you can do this, whispering its misgivings and then getting louder and louder, when it tells you it´s okay to quit, you are kind to it too. You give yourself little breaks and treats and you think about how far you´ve come. You look around yourself at the legions of walking wounded, carrying on, encouraging you to do the same, and you are in awe. Awe of what people, including you, can accomplish when you set your mind to it.

Then, early one morning, you´re walking out after a good rest and food and sleep. You are part of a procession, with people stretched out along the path in the semi-darkness behind you and in front of you. It´s quiet except for the birds celebrating the brightening sky. You stop and look behind you and you are momentarily unable to carry on. The sun is rising, painting the white clouds a brilliant pink in the blue, blue sky. And you know that this day, this journey, is a gift. And you are grateful.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Simple Life

Walking the Camino simplifies life. You get up early, pack up your few possessions, eat something, throw your pack on your back and head out. You walk, following the yellow arrows until you need to rest or eat and at last you stop somewhere for the night. You shower, wash your clothes, rest, eat, socialize if you have the energy, then sleep. And the next day you do it all again. This routine frees you for other things. At first you think about the scenery you're passing and the people you're meeting from all over the world. You try to remember how to order something besides tortilla at the bar for lunch, although you love it. And you try,really hard sometimes, not to think about how heavy your pack is or how much your feet hurt or how many kilometers still to go before that town you read about in the guide book.

Then it happens. You begin to ask yourself the questions. Why did you think this was a good idea is usually one of the first ones. And it occurs to you that maybe you won't be able to go all the way as you'd planned. What if that pain in your knee doesn't go away or gets worse? Whatever made you think you could walk across an entire country in the first place? When did you actually lose your mind?

Once you accept the fact that you're crazy (but no moreso than the others you're walking with), you can begin to relax. And then you start to think about more important things, like why you react to situations the way you do. Memories you hadn't thought about in years float up to the surface of your consciousness and you are by turns euphoric and on the verge of despair. Then you know the Camino has begun its work on you.

You are grateful for the wind that blows up suddenly to cool your face as you reach the top of a long, steep hill; for the butterfly that flutters in front of you in the path to distract you just when you think you've reached your limit; for the warm wet sweetness of blackberries or grapes plucked from the side of the path. Most of all, you're grateful for the kindness of strangers - both other pilgrims and the locals who go out of their way to help you or wish you 'Buen Camino!'.

The Camino turns your thoughts outward to the world you walk through, keeping you in the moment. And it turns them inward too, forcing you to see yourself and reflect on who you are. The Camino simplifies things, and at the same time, makes them more complicated than you would have imagined. And you revel in the experience, pain, beauty, and wonder that is revealed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Camino Interruptus

Hello from Pamplona! Yesterday I took the bus here with some other tired or injured pilgrims. I'd intended to walk but after dinner on day 2 in Zubrizi, I started feeling quite sick, headachy and dizzy and went to bed early. I think the strain of 2 days' walking, being sick, and not sleeping well amongst the snorers and fidgeters took its toll. So, I gave myself a break, bussed here, and found my way to the clinic. I gave my medical information and my passport and waited for the nurse to call me. She did a quick consultation, told me my temperature was normal and sent me back to the waiting room for my turn to be called into one of the consulting rooms with a doctor All this with her speaking Spanish and me speaking badly mangled Spanish mixed with a lot of English.

I waited a few more minutes and then got called and made my way to consultation room 8. A nice young female doctor greeted me as the assistant dropped my paperwork on her desk, saying "Canada", and left. I tried to explain to her what was wrong but could tell she wasn't sure about what I was saying (and as a doctor, you probably don't want to make assumptions or misunderstand). She told me to wait and went out into the hall. I heard her say "Ingles" a couple times. Finally she came back in with another woman who spoke some English and listened to my chest, looked in my ears and down my throat. I came away with 3 prescriptions, duly explained to me, and a note for the alburgue (pilgrim hostel) that I was to rest 2 days. Without the note, you can only stay 1 night in each hostel. I now have a liquid to drink 3x a day, 3 antibiotic tablets to take once a day, and a nose spray to use whenever required. So much for making my pack lighter! But the medicine is making me feel better, so I'm not complaining.

This morning I said goodbye to my fellow pilgrims as they set out. I may or may not see them again as we all continue along our own caminos but I have faith that things are unfolding as they are meant to. I am extremely thankful to have met the people I have so far and am sure I will meet others who have a role to fill in my journey, or I in theirs. It's raining for the first time since I've come to Spain and I am content to rest inside, write, and take only a mental journey for the next couple of days.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Camino, Day 2

Day 1 on the Camino started deceptively easily. I and another pilgrim left our hostel about 7:30 in the morning, setting out along with the parade of other pilgrims. We were taking the "easier" lower route and wandered by farmers' fields, watching the sun slowly dissolve the mist. It was pastoral and, except for a couple of aggressive farm dogs, very peaceful. We found a coffee shop in a small village, had breakfast and a hot chocolate. All good, and we were making surprisingly good time.

Then we got into the forest just before noon. And we started climbing. But we wandered alongside a beautiful river, stopped for a rest and some food, and talked about what a great route we had. Then we kept hiking, uphill, for hours and hours. My cold starting acting up and I started coughing and kept coughing and kept climbing. If not for the entertaining conversation of my fellow pilgrim, Graham, I think I may have given up. We saw a sign. 4.8K to Roncesvalles. The home stretch! We walked for about a half hour again and came to the road where there was a water fountain with the pilgrim scallop shell. We made stilted small talk with the Spanish family we´d met and asked them how far to Roncesvalles - 6K they said, then, using sign language, let us know it would a lot of climbing. We said, no, it couldn´t be, the sign back there said 4.8. No, they assured us, it was another hour. I sat there beside the fountain, wondering how I´d do it. The heat, climbing, and coughing had made me feel sick to my stomach. Maybe the family could see that. "Do you want a ride?", they asked. I guiltily did. It didn´t take much to convince me. So Graham and I climbed into the van and got dropped off at the pilgrim office. I could barely walk. We went for a beer and waited the couple hours for the pilgrim office to open after the siesta and then stood in line for our beds.

When we got settled in our 180 person co-ed alburgue, (including an hour wait for the two showers in the women's washroom, we headed out for the pilgrim menu at one of the two restaurants in town. Cream of vegetable soup, bread, a fried trout with french fries, wine, water, and a plain yogurt for dessert. Then, back to the alburgue to set up and socialize and wait for lights out and the doors getting locked at 10. More up close and personal than you might want to be with 179 other sweaty pilgrims, but everyone was tired and cheerful.

We woke this morning to classical, churchy music, played at low volume, at 6 a.m. Everyone had to be out by 8. A mad rush getting dressed, brushing teeth, pulling on our packs and heading out. We were out at 7, just as it was starting to get light. Today was a beautiful day walking out over rolling hills, mostly through the forests. We gained a lot of elevation and ended up limping into Zubiri in the afternoon. My feet, ankles, and knees were tired and sore, though not dangerously so. The front of my hips are red and sore, from my pack being cinched tight against them, but at least my shoulders are happy because they´re not carrying the weight. About 5K from the finish today, I was ready to be finished and I can´t imagine doing it all again tomorrow - heading for Pamplona. But I felt the same yesterday and the shared excitement of all the other pilgrims will have me heading out with a smile on my face after a couple good meals and a good sleep. The public alburgue is full today so some of the other pilgrims and I are staying in a new, private one down the street. It´s 6 euros more than the one last night but there are only 9 beds in our room, 2 currently occupied, 2 showers and power outlets to plug in our camera batteries, plus free internet, so I can update all of you. Life is good, the Camino is beautiful and full of great people, all walking for their own reasons. And tomorrow is another day!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tomorrow It Begins!

Tomorrow morning, early, I will leave the pretty little walled town of St. Jean Pied de Port, France and begin walking, slowly, towards Santiago de Compostella, Spain. As some of you know, I`m about to start a pigrimage, walking 800K across Spain. It should take me a little over a month. I hope to see Spain on a different, more personal level, as well as to learn a bit more about myself and my relation to the rest of the world in the process.

Another major thing I hope to accomplish is to raise funds for InspireHealth, an innovative cancer care centre that, as well as working with conventional cancer treatments, encourages and empowers its clients to explore alternative complementary treatments. The people they work with hwve encouraging results. They also work in prevention and in accumulating the best research worldwide.

This is a personal issue for me because I lost my father to cancer a few years ago and because I know many others who had or are battling the disease.

Through asking everyone to sponsor my walk by supporting InspireHealth, I hope to be able to make a difference, however small, for those people who will fqce the challenges cancer brings, either for themselves or those they love. Please help if you can and donate online to

To find out more about InspireHealth, go to

To find out more about the Camino de Santiago route, see

And, to follow my journey, stay tuned to my blog here! You can subscribe using the link at the bottom left side of the page. The adventure is about to begin!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Waiting to Walk

After leaving Morocco, I spent several days in Barcelona, a wonderful, crazy place full of music, great food, and art of all kinds. Then I made my less than direct route to Pamplona and stayed there, waiting for the bus to Roncesvalles. I`d come down with the cold most of my tourmates had and thought perhaps I would skip starting across the French border, from St Jean Pied de Port. But I`d always imagined doing that tough first day and I felt let down with taking the "easy" way. As I waited in Pamplona, I met another solo woman traveler, an Italian Dr, as it turns out. We had a beer together, then rode the bus to Roncesvalles. She was going on to St Jean by taxi (the only choice from the Spanish side). And I decided to go with her. Either way, I needed a couple days R&R before I could take on the camino. So, the 2 of us, and 5 young men, shared the 27K taxi ride. It became so beautiful in the foothills of the Pyrennes, but all the while, I was thinking of the distance and wondering if I was crazy. Not just for doing this hard first day but just for thinking of walking 800K period. What had I been thinking!?

I think it`s good I have these few days resting here to calm down from the traveling I`ve been doing and to focus again on the reason for this part of my journey. It occured to me, way back in Morocco, riding down the highway in the tour bus, that somehow maybe I was still trying to save my dad, though he`s been gone a while now. But I think now I`m doing it to take back my power from the disease that took him, to live life to the fullest despite the fact that we don`t know when we`re going or how long we have. And to help others have that power too.

Just as my new friend, Daniella, prompted me to come all the way to St Jean, so this cold is giving me the time I need to prepare for the journey that is to come. They say, on the Camino, that what you need will be provided. I think perhaps it`s already started for me, though I won`t start walking for another day or so.

Thank you to all my wonderful friends and family who are there for me from so far away. I miss you all. And thank you to the people who have already donated to my cause to help find better ways to prevent and cure cancer in partnership with InspireHealth. If you want to help, or even to know more about InspireHealth, go to and select Camino Against Cancer.

And stay tuned for updates when I finally get to start walking! Thank you!


Friday, August 27, 2010

Impressions of Morocco

(Written in my journal 8/25/2010 and typed on my itouch so my apologies for typos)

Morocco is a country of heat and color and noise. The markets are full of rich scents - olives, fruits, spices, perfumes, and, on some days fish. Drums, strings, and human voices blend and rise up into the heat- thick air.the moisture spreads upon your skin, catching the delicate breeze to cool you and you close your eyes and breathe, shutting out for a moment the chaos and the throngs of people in the medina. You are here, in the north of Africa, and it is a world unlike any you've visited before.

Moroccan food, the tajines and couscous, with their fragrant spices, and the fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the welcoming sweet mint tea, tease your mouth, coaxing it awake and filling it with flavor.

The buildings and the people are clothed in color. Blues, whites, greens,browns, oranges, reds, and golds are everywhere against the backdrop of red mud or whitewashed buildings. Ceramics, tiles, glass, and beautiful fabrics contrast with the silvers and golds of the metal making up the doors, lanterns,and trim on the teapots and bowls. Beautiful inlaid and polished woods lend their own richness.

It is a beautiful place full of friendly people. But sometimes, after a week or so of the traveler's sickness and feeling tired and bloated in the heat, you just want to lie in your (hopefully) air-conditioned hotel room where the toilet (and hopefully toilet paper) is nearby until the condition passes.

Unfortunately you can't. Not if you really want to see the country and experience it's richness. So you take your over-the-counter antibiotics and get your butt out the door, into the heat, the noise, the world. And you are glad you did because, just around the next corner, some wonderful surprise waits for you.

Note: I've left Morocco and made my way back to Barcelona, getting ready to start my approximately month-long pilgrimmage across northern Spain. Stay tuned for
(hopefully) more frequent updates and, if you can, please help me raise funds to help fight cancer by donating at (choose Camino against Cancer). I'm on my way to being well before I start walking and will try to keep you all updated on my progress. Stay tuned, and be well!


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Morocco Update

A couple nights ago we had some local musicians and dancers come to the hotel. After singing a couple songs; they dressed us up in traditional robes and we danced with them. Not traditionally, I'm sure, but very fun!

Last night we had a real adventure - drove out into the Sahara and our van got stuck in a drift at the side of the road. We got out and pushed and got it free then got in and drove quickly to our nearby hotel and were stuck inside it in a sudden sandstorm! There was strong wind, blowing plastic chairs around, and the air was thick with blowing red sand. It was incredibly hot in the car so we made a run for it into the hotel. Then it rained, hard, while the wind kept blowing. You never expect rain in the Sahara, do you? It didn't last long and we eventually got onto camels and rode an hour or so to go to the desert camp (strange but a bit like riding a horse and I kind of liked Wakuna - my camel). We raced up a sand dune from the camp on foot, in time to catch the last of the sunset. Then we came back down to drumming and drum lessons and chicken tangine dinner served under the stars. It was lovely! There were a lot of cats around, mostly kittens and they entertained us by climbing up the tents walled with carpets, wrestling each other, and catching beetles, etc. They also climbed, purring into our laps if we let them.

We finally crawled into our tents, sleeping on matresses on the sand and covering ourselves with the blankets we used to sit on the camels with. At 5 a.m. Mohammed, our wonderful guide, woke us to climb the dune again and take pictures of the spectacular sunrise. Then we rode our camels back to the hotel for a breakfast of different local breads, jam, cheese, olives, orange juice, and milky coffee or mint tea. That's pretty much breakfast anywhere you go in Morocco and it's pretty good.

Now we're staying at a hotel in Todra Gorge for a couple days with a pool and one computer so I'll have to share. Tomorrow we do a 4 hour hike in the morning where we'll get to meet a nomad family living in the caves nearby. Very cool!

Morocco is hot, the people are lovely and friendly, resourceful and creative. There are lovely handicrafts here, as well as some cool natural resources - dates, fruits, fossils. Having a wonderful adventure, more to come!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Beginning of a Journey

I find myself in Tangier, Morocco, in an internet cafe. (If this post has a bunch of typos, please ignore them because the keyboards are different here and typing is very automatic so I'm making lots of corrections.) I'm having to go slow and carefully, laboring over each word. It's like trying to speak another language - and why not? In the last week I've worked my way through English, Spanish, French, and even a couple words of Arabic, believe it or not. So why not a new keyboard language too?

For those of you following my journey, I've been to Madrid, Seville, and Algeciras in Spain and from here in Tangier, Morocco, I'll be moving on to Casablanca - here's looking at you, kid!

All along the way, I've been working at life in general, unable to take things for granted, and living in the moment. And it strikes me that that isn't such a bad thing. Perhaps that's why I love traveling. It makes me see what's around me and really appreciate everything, from the breeze blowing against my cheeks, to the beauty of a stranger's smile, to the voice of a loved one half a world away, to even the delicious cool slide of water down my parched throat. Life is more intense and beautiful than normal, despite the small 'adventures`I've been having all along the way. Life is a wonderful gift.

In every place I've visited, people have reached out to me, helping me, making me feel like part of their family, telling me the stories of their lives, even sometimes their hopes and dreams. I feel connected with everyone around me and I try to be worthy of the blessings I am so aware of having. Today, I was walking along and found a 50 MAD note (worth about 5 euros). There was no one around who might have lost it so I walked a half a block on and found a thin old man in some dirty robes sitting on the sidewalk. He wasn't begging, but I gave him the money anyway and he gave me a beautiful smile as he thanked me. That small amount of money will make a much bigger difference in his life than in mine, I know.

On that note, I want to offer my own smile and gratitude to those of you who have already started pledging my upcoming Camino by donating to InspireHealth. I haven't even begun my trek and already have a good start. Thank you all very much! To see an updated total, go to

I'll have to sign off for now but will try to post some pictures next time (This computer won't let me). Until then, take care of yourselves and each other and also take some time to savour your blessings! Until next time, happy travels!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Camino Against Cancer

A couple of posts ago, I talked about my father and how I was about to undertake a huge physical challenge in his memory. I also talked about doing the right thing. For me, at this point in my life, 'the right thing' is to try to help people who are battling the disease that took Dad - cancer. I'm attaching a piece that will go out in the InspireHealth newsletter to announce my latest project. I leave in a few days to begin my epic journey. Follow its progress here if you like. And, if you can, please help me help others by following the links in the story below.

Happy travels!

From the first time I heard about the Camino de Santiago in Spain, I just knew I had to walk it. The funny thing was, when I told people what I was going to do, those who knew me didn’t seem surprised. In fact, I think I was more surprised than they were. As I started reading about the Camino and planning my trip, I realized once again how very lucky I am to be healthy enough to consider doing the pilgrimage. But, as I contemplated spending so much of my savings to go and walk across a country I knew nothing about, I began second-guessing myself. Was I being foolish? Maybe I should wait and do the Camino later.

Then I thought of my Dad. I remembered all the wonderful plans he and my mom had for what they would do ‘one day’, when the time was right. Only they never got to do those things. Cancer took my father from us before ‘one day’ ever came. And when he went, he took with him my belief that there would always be time for what I wanted to do later. I needed to walk the Camino now. I would do it for myself and for my father, for all the things he would never get to do, for all the unlived dreams that linger here like ghosts since he died.

Thinking about Dad made me think, too, about the others who have cancer and may never get to live their dreams. So gradually I realized I wanted to do something more. I thought I could ask people to sponsor my walk and give all the money to an organization that helps people with cancer. That would be a fitting legacy for Dad.

When I looked around at the wonderful groups here that work with cancer patients, one stood out in my mind. One stood out as giving people something more than information and support through their medical procedures. InspireHealth gave people hope. And hope is one thing my father desperately needed during his battle with the disease. InspireHealth gives patients back some control over their lives and the people who go there get encouraging results. Preliminary InspireHealth research shows that integrated care leads to better health outcomes, with some patients surviving up to three times longer. Through initiatives such as their LIFE program, InspireHealth is taking the lead in innovative healthcare service delivery. They are becoming a model for optimal cancer care, both in Canada and elsewhere. For these reasons and others, I chose InspireHealth. Now I hope you will choose to sponsor them through my walk. Together, maybe we can help others live long enough to do the things they dream.

Christine Grimard

Christine Grimard is a BC writer who earns her living doing technical and business writing while also working on fiction and creative nonfiction projects. She loves travel and the outdoors, which both provide plenty of adventure and inspiration for her writing. She likes to challenge herself physically, which has led her to go dog-sledding in Greenland, enter snowshoe and trail-running races, and take up snowboarding and mountain biking even after the resiliency of youth has passed.

The latest challenge she's given herself is to walk the ancient Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route in northern Spain. Beginning in September 2010, she will start her journey from the country's border with France and walk, approximately 800 kilometers west, to finish in Santiago about mid-October. Along the way, she will contemplate life and pay tribute to her father, whom she lost to cancer several years ago.

As a legacy for him, Christine is asking you to sponsor her walk by supporting InspireHealth - Vancouver, BC's innovative integrated cancer care treatment centre. She wants to raise a minimum of $1,600, roughly $2 per kilometer. By pledging your support to InspireHealth for Christine's walk, you can help ensure people with cancer have a chance to live their own adventures; and perhaps you will even help find a way to prevent the disease in the first place.

To Donate (Tax receipts issued for all donations of $25 or more)
Online: Go to Select 'Camino Against Cancer' or write it in the box under 'Other'.
By Mail: Mail your donation to InspireHealth directly at Suite 200 – 1330 West 8th Avenue, Vancouver, BC V6H 4A6. Make sure to say it's for 'Camino Against Cancer' and include your full name and contact information for a receipt.

To find out more about Christine and the journey she's about to take, check out her blog at

To find out more about the great work InspireHealth is doing, see their website,

Monday, July 12, 2010

The First Test

It occurred to me the other day, as I began to go through the process of renewing my passport that this was the first test of my fitness as a traveler. I wasn't going anywhere unless I got this done - and fast, since my departure date wasn't getting any further away.

There are a lot of rules, written and unwritten, when you travel and there are a lot of rules in the renewal process too. The form was long, even the simplified form, with lots of information I had to read and facts I had to figure out before I could fill it in. Facts like how long had I known my references. One of them has been a friend since elementary school. I did the math and realized it makes me feel ancient admitting I've known anyone for 40 years. "Okay," I told myself, "get over it."

When I'd finally looked up my reference's addresses, found a couple of old postal codes for places I'd lived in and long forgotten, filled out my employment history, and figured out how to present the fact that I had a mailing address but no real home address (does the storage locker facility where all your stuff lives count?), I was ready to take the form into the office.

I got to the building, circled the block for parking, spent 5 minutes with an uncooperative parking ticket dispenser, and hurried into the building. A helpful commissionaire directed me down the hall to an office. A short line of relatively cheerful-looking people waited ahead of me. And the line was moving - great! But my excitement was premature. When my turn came, the man behind the counter asked me a couple questions, looked at my forms briefly before stuffing them into a plastic bag and handing them back to me with a number. Then the same helpful commissionaire sent me upstairs, to the real line.

Undaunted, I took a seat in the waiting area and watched the numbers change on the little electronic board. I was surrounded by other would-be travelers and realized how many different cultures were represented by the people around me, even here in my home country. I smiled, feeling the excitement build and imagining myself waiting in a different environment. Perhaps a train station in far-off Morocco! As time wore on though, I'd given up imagining and was reading the signs and absently studying the people around me. I'd foolishly forgotten to bring a book to read, but here was an opportunity to practice the art of brief conversations with total strangers which is so much a part of travel.

I gave it my best shot. I learned where others were going, what various countries should be on my 'do not miss' list, and shared my excitement about my own plans. Surprisingly, I only waited about an hour before my turn came this time. The woman behind the counter here was very friendly and helpful and gave me a pick-up date with plenty of time before my already-booked flight to Spain.

Unfortunately, she also stamped 'canceled' all over my current passport (which had 6 months still till expiry) and cut the corner off it so that it couldn't be used. I understand the reason for this, of course. You can't have 2 passports at once. But now I had none and I hadn't accounted for the fact that I had a wedding to go to in California in the meantime. Hmmm, try to cross the border without a passport? I don't think so....

A couple of panicked phone calls to the passport office a few days later, with the first person telling me I was just out of luck, and the second one giving me a faint glimmer of hope that I might expedite my passport by paying the extra fee, I was back at the office. I headed into the downstairs line to get a number.

"No, they won't do it," the woman behind the counter told me flatly, looking annoyed. She didn't seem amenable to pleading, but I had to at least try. If I could just talk to someone upstairs. She refused me again, but luckily the woman beside her interrupted a conversation with her own client long enough to tell her to send me upstairs. I thanked them both profusely and hurried upstairs with my number to wait again.

The woman behind the upstairs counter asked me a few questions. I threw myself on her mercy, speaking calmly and politely, explaining the situation. She listened and then left me standing while she went to find out if there was something they could do. I occupied myself with breathing slowly and calmly, focusing on things flowing smoothly. It would be alright, I thought over and over again. And it was. I had to write a statement, pay an extra fee and wait for them to call my references and then me. But scarcely an hour later they confirmed I could pick up my new passport the next morning.

So, more lessons learned that will be handy in my travels. When something goes wrong, be calm and reasonable, even under stress. Ask for assistance. Don't accept the first 'no' - the answer might not change but at least explore the options and talk to someone else if the first person you ask can't or won't help you. Most of all, stay positive and believe things will work out.

Tomorrow morning I pick up my new passport (thank you, Passport Canada!) and head across the border. Tomorrow California and, soon after that, the World!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections on a life

Often lately, I find myself thinking about my Dad. It's been a few years now since we lost him. I still miss him. And I wonder if there wasn't something more that should have happened, some way we could have saved him. I remember vividly the telephone call I got at work that day. My mom and dad both on the line together, something that never happened. And something else new.

"Are you sitting down?", my mother asked. I remember the way my breath stopped in my chest, waiting. For what? For them to tell me it was all a joke and that everything was okay, the same as it was just seconds ago when I was thinking that my deadline for writing my pages was the most important thing in the world?

Instead, they told me that my Dad had been diagnosed with colon cancer and that it didn't look good. My Dad, sounding tearful, told me to look after my mother if something happened to him. I promised without knowing what it meant, without even thinking, still not believing anything could really happen. Not to my Dad, the man who could fix anything, the ever-present rock at the center of my universe who'd made me feel so safe I could do anything, go anywhere. He'd always been there if I needed him, not expecting anything in return except for me to do 'the right thing'.

It seems to me that over the next year I held my breath a lot, waiting. My father went through surgery and a horrific time in hospital - all his belongings were stolen and he had a terrible reaction to one of the drugs they gave him - only to find out the cancer had spread to his liver. He came home and prepared to die. For a while I was angry - with the hospital for what had happened to Dad there, with the doctors for not knowing beforehand that the cancer had spread and for not being able to do something, anything. I was even angry at my father, for having the disease at all. I was a child again, scared, my world out of control.

I am blessed because my Dad and I had the time and perspective to talk about things, to say the things we needed to say and to know how much we loved each other. But it was terrible to watch him give up hope, stop fighting, and let the cancer take him. In the end, he died at home, well-loved, and cared for by my amazing mother, helped by me, my sister, a wonderful cousin who'd lost her own father to the disease, and by a loving contingent of respite workers. He was only bed-ridden for a few days at the end, although he seemed to have shrunk to nothing in the meantime.

I've had other experiences with cancer - friends and family who've succumbed to it or, in a few miraculous cases, beaten it or lived with it well into old age. It is a specter that shadows my life because of heredity, our frenzied lifestyle, and the nature of our bodies. It is the monster in the closet or under the bed, waiting to pounce on any one of us when our guard is down. But people do survive, thrive, and become cancer-free. We are constantly learning - how to spot it, treat it, live with it, even how to prevent it. There is hope. And I believe that's where the difference lies between survival and surrender. Hope.

I wanted my father to do what I had seen him do before when things weren't fair in the world. Rise up and say no, this isn't right and I'm not having it. But in the end, he just couldn't. So I'm going to try to do it for him. Shortly, I will be starting a physical and spiritual journey of my own, traveling to Spain to do a pilgrimage. It'll be the biggest physical challenge I've ever given myself and I'm sure I'm going to love it and hate it and learn an incredible amount. But I'm also going to try to honor my father's memory and the memory of everyone who has left this world too soon because of cancer, as well as pay tribute to the people who are still here fighting. Of course I can't do it alone - I need lots of help. Stay tuned. I'll fill you in on the details soon.

Dad, I'm still trying to do the right thing. Because that's what you taught me. I love you.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Nature reclaiming her own

Today a departure from my usual nonfiction reflections - bit of a fantasy based on a place I went, adjacent to Burns Bog....

The pavement looked as frail as paper, crumpled darkly around the base of the thick tree trunks. A decade or more of nature's litter, mostly leaves and twigs, had composted itself into soil, covering what had been the parking lot of the huge plastics facility. Only where others had walked, men and less 'civilized' creatures, did the pavement show through, forming a path through the guerrilla forest. She had the feeling that if she stood too long in one place here, nature would reclaim her as well, pushing tree trunks up through the thin tissues of her body, wrapping her transitory flesh and bones in vines, so that morning glories would cascade out of her mouth, white and beautiful, if she opened it to speak. Only the birds were permitted to make noise here, their music loud and raucous, asserting nature's triumph over man. Tufts of grass thrust their roots down into the openings in the pavement around her feet, pushing them wider, like cracks spreading across an ice flow, threatening to split open and toss her down into the abyss below.

Although it unsettled her, Elspeth reveled in the place. It was nature's relentless patience at work, the earth's iron fist clothed in soft moss and fragrant blossoms. Ferns grew everywhere, their delicate foliage belying the fibrous tenacity of their roots.

The first puncture hurt a little, the new woody shoot, coming up through the bottom of her left foot. It felt like a pin prick, but rooted her to the ground. She gave in briefly to the urge to run but found she couldn't lift her foot. Then, another instant of pain as her right foot was fixed to the ground. She stood and felt a warmth curling through her, full of new, vibrant life. It flowed up inside her legs and curled between her hips for a moment, pulsing. Then, it burst forth, through her belly, her chest and finally her arms, which were suddenly stretched up, reaching toward the sun, her fingers waving gently in the wind. Her face lifted towards the warmth of the sun and she smiled, just as a bird landed on her right hand. She whispered to it in an ancient language she had just remembered and it raised its head and sang with a beauty she had never heard before. Somehow she knew she was were she belonged now and that nature had taken her back, brought her home. This was where she would stay.

Friday, March 12, 2010

An Olympic Experience

About 3 years ago, I volunteered for the 2010 Winter Olympics. I spent the 2008 and 2009 winter seasons marshaling cross-country ski events in the Callaghan Valley, near Whistler. And each year, I realized anew the staggering amount of work I'd actually committed to for free. Not that I was the only one. There were others who committed as much or more time, effort, and loss of income as I did and, luckily for me, many of them were on my team in nordic skiing. And it seemed worth it to be part of the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the 2010 Winter Games.

As the games drew nearer though, there seemed to be 2 well-defined groups working to make them happen. Those who were being paid and those who weren't. It wasn't just in my sport, and it wasn't just the 'important' people being paid. Sometimes there were paid people standing next to, and doing the same job as, volunteers. The paid people were told not to talk about being paid because the person next to them might not be. And, as I started talking to other people 'working' at the Olympics, it became obvious that some, though certainly not all, of the paid people resented the volunteers. I heard comments like, "Well I, for one, like being paid for my work." or "Must be nice to be independently wealthy so you can afford to volunteer." It seemed that some of the employees thought the volunteers devalued their work by doing their own for free. Now, let me just say right now that I am, by no stretch of the most vivid imagination, independently wealthy, nor are the other volunteers I've worked with. Let me also say that, yes, I enjoy receiving something in exchange for my time and effort.

So, all this made me wonder - was I a 'sucker' for volunteering? Was I being taken advantage of because I was too naive or unenterprising to find a way to be paid for my small part in making the games happen? I wondered this as I packed up my belongings, hoped my plants would survive my absence, said a fond farewell to my family, friends, and coworkers. I wondered this as I stumbled through getting my accommodation sorted out (what a huge task for the organizers!). I wondered this as I stood out on course those first few training days when there were only a few athletes and even fewer marshals. I wondered this as I endured days of porta-potties,lukewarm coffee, and endless sandwiches (though they tried to provide variety). I wondered this as I stood one day in my assigned spot on the course for 4 long hours as the pouring rain slowly soaked through my jacket and left me damp and chilled. And I really wondered it when an athlete from a country that will remain nameless, tore a verbal strip off me using foul language because I told him he couldn't ski the race trails because they were being groomed, even though he'd had all day to ski them earlier. Is it worth it, I thought? Is this the experience I signed up for? The short answer is no.

The longer answer is yes, but it's more complicated than that.

I met people - coaches, athletes, officials, support people, spectators - who came from all over the world for this. Yes, there was competition - lots of it and it was serious. But it wasn't about us fighting each other. There was a sense of camaraderie too, of all of us coming together to celebrate the striving for excellence, the potential we, as human beings, are capable of. It was about talking to people and helping each other, and learning about one another, whether you came from the same country or not.

There were cultural and social events in the cities nearest the venues, the world watched, in person or from in front of their televisions, and I was happy to see my fellow Canadians being unabashedly proud of their country, as well as the countries their families had come here from. The world seemed a bit smaller somehow, a little friendlier.

It astounded me how I could get off the bus at the venue and be greeted by the same smiling face each morning and that that face was still there, still smiling, at the end of the day, even though that person had stood outside in the parking lot in the weather all day. On my own team, there were always people willing to stay later, give each other a break, say something nice, do something extra. We had fun together. It humbled me to work with such dedicated, upbeat people. Athletes, coaches, and other workers (volunteer or paid) made a point of connecting, of saying thanks, of giving each other small tokens of appreciation or of helping out where they could even if it wasn't their 'job'. When there were injuries, or a death, it hit everyone. We were a global community, celebrating our triumphs and sharing the sorrows. It wasn't just about sport anymore. It was about being human and about all of us being in it together.

Was it worth it? I have to say yes. Now the Paralympics are about to begin. And I am ready to be inspired anew.