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!