Scared to buy the tickets

Last month I talked to my travel agent. She said, “Yep. Get in touch with me in January and we’ll start your tickets.”

I’m scared!

If I buy them, I’m really going. I’m committed. I *always* buy non-refundable tickets.

We’re already into Week 2 of January and all I need to do is send the email. And then…

I’m committing to buying them,
to getting all my gear,
saving up for all those nights in Spain,
walking 500 miles.

I think I just realized what’s missing: a plan.

There are so many moving parts to this trip and (even ol’ organized me) I haven’t created a folder for all the steps. A to-do list. Ha! I love it!

If I knew what my next steps were (literally and figuratively), the sense of unease would dissipate. Buying the tickets would be a step into think thin air, they would define the path just ahead of me.

Well, whew! I’m getting on my list right now.

And while I do that, I’m curious: what would YOU put on my to-do list?

Why I’m not taking a camera on the Camino

I have a cute little 5MP Kodak I bought about 6 years ago with a great wide-angle lens, but I’m not bringing it. This might not make sense, considering all that I might see over six weeks on foot.

Here’s my reasoning:

I don’t want to be a spectator
Something happens to me when I have a camera in my hand. It happens in my heart. I start judging everything through the filter of whether it looks good or not. Will it make a good photo. As I do this, I can feel my heart shut down. I’ve seen other people do this too — they’re missing the whole experience around them because they’re looking through that tiny hole. Or 1 inch screen. On this trip, I don’t want distance. I want to be vibrantly present as I walk. I want to feel the earth under me. The air on my face. The scent of plowed soil. The smiles on faces whose language I’ll never speak. All of it. I want to spend my evenings being present with those around me and connecting, rather than reviewing the day’s photos, head down, oblivious.

I don’t want to be a slave to the electrical outlet
From what I’ve read, every evening at the albergues there’s a line up at the few plugs available. Cameras, cell phones, MP3 players all hook in to the juice. I don’t want to worry about whether it’s been stolen and, knowing me, I’d be hovering around the wall plug waiting for a full battery sign instead of out experiencing life!

I don’t want to use more of this resource than necessary. The albergues are a frugal endeavor and I’d like to spare them the expense. I don’t need  a camera — or a cell phone for that matter. By claiming independence from electricity, I hope it will help me simplify my life at home.

I don’t want to carry it
And then there’s pack weight. At this writing, my goal is a pack under 20lbs (9kg) which may be terribly optimistic and still a little too heavy for me. Not taking my camera will decrease weight (batteries are heavy!) and spare me the cords, cards, and converter that keep the camera working.

I want a lighter load — both physically and energetically. I worry so much. I really do. My brain is good at it. Choosing not to carry a camera lightens my energetic load and helps me be present to my surroundings and my heart.

All that said
I might — just might — decide to carry a disposable camera with about 20 or so images. There may be a few things that are just too breathtaking to not capture. And this way, I can show my loved ones the highlights without subjecting them to a days-long slide show. Maybe.

A little history on the Camino de Santiago

So how and where did the Camino de Santiago de Compostella begin?

Most of what I’ve learned about the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James) is from friends, books and Wikipedia. I’ll make a list of the ones I’ve read and post them soon.

This route across Spain has existed for thousands of years. It is understood that the Celts who occupied this area made a pilgrimage to the open ocean — to what they believed to be the very end of the earth. The final town on the path is even called Finisterra (end of the earth). Some believe that this Celtic pilgrimage was connected to the sun, since it sets in the west. The scallop shell, the symbol of the Saint James pilgrim, is a reminder of both the ocean and the rays of the setting sun. Others link the path to the Milky Way since, on a dark night, you can see this swath of stars heading east-west, the same direction as the pilgrimage.

Regardless, all of this ritual was covered over when Christianity came to the Iberian Peninsula. Mostly. Rumor has it that the many churches along the route were built on ancient Celtic sacred sites. There were some Celtic beehive huts along the route (the town Triacastela gets its name from these).

I say “mostly covered over” because the modern pilgrimage route that began in the 1100s ended in Santiago, a 2-3 day walk from the ocean. The Catholic Church would like you to believe that Santiago is The End, but many people continue on after receiving their Compostela and enjoy the full journey.

The name, Camino de Santiago de Compostella, came from a mystical star appeared over a field, seen only by a single shepherd in the 900s. This place was named Campo Estella (field of the star) and is where the remains of Saint James (Sant Iago) supposedly landed after he was martyred in Jerusalem. He was (and still is) cherished by Christians because he was one of Jesus’ closest apostles and possibly his cousin. The idea that people in the Middle Ages could be close to Saint James’ remains, which were believed to have healing properties, was irresistible. People went.

It seems to most historians to be a convenient coincidence that at this time, the Church sought to eradicate the Moors from Spain. As people traveled on foot to the far west of Spain, bandits arrived, and then knights rode in on white horses to protect these holy pilgrims. Eventually, hospitals were built to serve the sick travelers and whole fraternities of knights dedicated their lives to the service of their safe passage and protecting their goods (creating the world’s first banks!). Additionally, the Church awarded a plenary indulgence to Santiago pilgrims — straight to heaven, no purgatory needed — so this motivated more pilgrims to travel. These combined efforts, in addition to shameful bloodshed, regained Spain for the Church.

In the 1980’s, the paths of the Camino de Santiago were poorly marked and only a few hundred people completed it each year. Around that time, it was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and the Pope visited nearby. This visibility in addition to books by authors like Paul Coelho and Shirley McLaine and a movie by Martin Sheen have given it much visibility.

Today, the numbers are close to 200,000 per year. This includes the much larger percentage of pilgrims who walk only the last 100km to receive their Compostella. Many fewer people attempt the whole 500 miles in one go. Of course, there is an environmental impact of so many people on a narrow slice of terrain. However, in some cases, the mere existence of remote villages along the Camino is due primarily to the pilgrims and their euro.

Hilarious Camino idea from Dad

Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s feeling fearful about this trip. Even though I’m almost 40 years old, in a phone conversation my dad alluded to feeling scared for me.

“Are you still going on that walk?”

I love that man.

When pressed about what he was afraid of, he hesitated and then said, “Jen? You can’t imagine what comes into a father’s mind when he imagines his daughter by herself in a foreign country.”

I tried telling him about how dozens, even hundreds of people are walking it at the same time and they can form a kind of community. How the Spanish also take care of their pilgrims and value their contributions to the economy.

That didn’t sway my dad.

This is where the fun starts. After discussing his fears with a good friend, she suggested that I ask my dad to come with me. I started laughing hysterically. My dad, whose idea of camping is the Hilton. My dad who is 6’4″ and whose feet would hang off the bunk bed. My dad who’d much rather drive the cart around the golf course, even though it’s great exercise to walk.

Ohhhhh, no. Not my Dad on the Camino. The very idea is hilarious!

So when we got on the topic again a few weeks later, I told him I had a great idea that would help quell his fears: Why don’t you come with me?

He started to laugh. Then he paused.

“How long is the walk again?”

It’s about 500 miles, give or take.

“Are there hotels along the Camino?”

Yes. Actually, the path goes through several metropolitan areas which will have at least locally-owned hotels — if not chains.

“Okay, then. I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll go with you. We’ll rent an El Camino, drive the route, and stay in hotels along the way. We’ll be finished in 3-4 days tops.”

I love that man!

Fears about doing the Camino

Someone once told me that worry is creativity pointed in the wrong direction.

What a relief to know that there’s an up-side to this paralyzing behavior! “I’m not an anxious hypochondriac, I’m just creative!”

Everything a person could worry about on a trip like this, I’ve worried about it. My worries march right up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Level 1: Physiological

  • Shelter: Where will I stay? How do I decide which hostel is right for me? Will there be bedbugs? Is it affordable?
  • Sleep: Will I able to fall asleep and stay asleep? Will there be snorers? Will I have any space to myself? Will I be able to get up and down from the top bunk?
  • Water: How much water should I carry? Where do I refill while I’m walking?
  • Food: What will I eat? Will it be all meat? Will the food give me indigestion? Will the restaurants be open so I can have a dinner before the hostel locks up? Will I have to eat squid? Will I be able to find nuts and chocolate? Should I bring a bunch of snacks with me? Will I get so hungry I can’t think straight?
  • Excretion: Will I be able to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in the dark in the hostel without waking everyone up? Will there be places to use the bathroom while I’m walking? Do towns welcome pilgrims in using their facilities? Will I have to go poo near the trail? What will I do if someone comes along while my pants are down? Should I carry a plastic shovel for burying waste?

Level 2: Safety

  • Body: Is my body ready for this much walking? What will I do if I get injured? What will I do if I get lost? What if I encounter vicious dogs? What will I do if I get bitten by bedbugs? Will the pharmacies have the medicines I’m used to if I need them? Will my clothes keep me warm? Will I get hypothermic if my clothes get wet?
  • Resources: Can I afford this? What if my stuff gets stolen? What will I do if my money is stolen?
  • Family: How will I get in touch with my family in an emergency? How will they get in touch with me?
  • Morality: What if there are not-nice people?

Level 3: Love/belonging

  • Friendship: Will I feel lonely? Will I have anyone to talk to? Will the people I meet speak the same languages I do? Will they tolerate my remedial French and Spanish? What if no one I meet likes me? What if I don’t like the people I meet? What if someone I don’t like insists on walking with me?
  • Family: Will I get homesick? How will I keep in touch with them?

Level 4: Esteem

  • Self-esteem: What if I worry myself to death and have a miserable time? What if my self-criticism takes over?
  • Respect: What if I don’t like or trust anyone I meet? What if someone is disrespectful of me?
  • Achievement: Can I really do this? What happens if I get over there and chicken out? What if I get hurt and have to give up in the middle?

Level 5: Self-actualization

  • Spontaneity: What if I get all driven and don’t enjoy the journey? How can I minimize how controlled I am by my more basic fears? How can I halt my pattern of doing what others want?
  • Problem-solving: What if I get so freaked out that I can’t figure things out?

This is unfortunately not a conclusive list of my fears, but it’s close. And here’s the kicker: I’m doing this walk anyway. I’m not paralyzed by the fear because it’s a companion I’m used to traveling with anyway.

I should note that I have a lot of solutions to the list above, so there’s no need to reassure me in your comments. Fear comes up. And then it passes. I’m okay with that.

Still, if I could get a little less creative with my worst case scenarios, I’d be a happy camper!

Calling: Why I’m doing the Camino

It wasn’t my aunt Elaine’s Camino six years ago that inspired me. It wasn’t my friend Carol’s Camino the year before that. I honestly thought these two smart, fun ladies were just a little bit whacked.

500 miles? For fun? Maybe for the intrepid outdoor enthusiast, but not me. I like a good cozy hotel room as much as the next girl.

Yet the last few years, I’ve been called to do a whole lot of introspection. I started doing retreats 10 years ago, but in 2010, I started taking whole weekends, even a whole week away in the mountains to reflect on my life every few months. I loved the solitude and the inner spaciousness I discovered in myself while retreating in a beautiful and sacred place. I craved more — to the point where I daydreamed about selling all my worldly possessions and joining an intentional community or hermitage somewhere.

One day in 2010, at a mountain cabin on the Mackenzie River, I wandered into the retreat center’s tiny library. Have you every perused a bookshelf with your eyes unfocused and lightly scanned, waiting for a book to jump out to you? That’s what I was doing that day when a tiny white book called out, “Pick me!”

So I did what any open-hearted, trusting soul would do. I picked up the book. And it was about the Camino de Santiago.

I wasn’t ever planning to go on this trip of 500 miles. Spain has never called to me. But I read that little white book from cover to cover and an impression was made on my heart. In disbelief, I asked the Divine, “Am I supposed to do this?” I could already feel the answer within me. Yes.

I’m blessed to know two amazing women who’ve done this trip in their 50s and 60s. When I casually asked them if they’d recommend it, the intensity of their voices, the light in their eyes, and their willingness to discuss every intricate detail of my preparation was astounding. Spirit was speaking through them. I was listening.

Without prompting, my aunt lent me an armload of books written by people who’d already done the journey and wrote to tell about it. My friend Carol offered to lend me any gear I might need. We met for a walk in her town and I asked her dozens of tedious questions about how much it cost and where to stay and what to eat.

Ever since I picked up that little white book, the Divine has been sending me messages that this is my next retreat. A big one. When big fears or doubts came up, someone would unexpectedly lend me a new book. One of my dear clients brought a book back from Ireland only distributed in that country — that she’d coincidentally heard about on the news. Several people lent me copies of books about the trip that had been out of print. And when she learned that I was really going to “do” the Camino, my aunt gave me a scallop shell (the symbol of the Santiago pilgrim) for Christmas — and seeing it gave me chills. Unfailingly, these little gifts from the Universe arrived at times of uncertainty and doubt. They buoyed me.

Something about these coincidences seem not at all coincidental to me. And I’m trusting that.

I feel called to walk the Camino de Santiago. I feel this experience calling to me. Although my brain can’t define exactly what a calling is, my heart knows. My spirit knows. I believe all the practice retreats I’ve done over the last two years — each one of increasing duration and spiritual depth — have been training for this next intense, most rewarding retreat of all.