A Finisterre finale

Arriving at the end and making a new friend

For all my elation at arriving in Finisterre, I woke up exhausted and grouchy. The echoing marble hallway outside my room amplified the conversations and activities of every guest entering into the wee hours of morning. At six, chipper early birds woke me, and I jumped out of bed, irritated and scowling.

Here’s what I know, though. If sleep deprivation makes me more reactive, it also makes me more open, more sensitive, and more attuned to the world around me. Not getting enough sleep breaks me down in an ultimately good way.

I still have no idea how walking backwards is going to work. I’m nervous about it. But I’m not going anywhere today. I’m staying in Finisterre to visit the old haunts.

Here’s my list:

  1. Get wine and snacks for sunset
  2. Visit the pilgrim office to get my stamp
  3. Send an email home to say I arrived safely
  4. Find a new compass
  5. Walk around the isthmus and visit the beach
  6. Watch the sun set and have a cup of wine

*   *   *

Yes, I’ve come all this way and somehow forgotten my compass. It was just a tiny plastic one with a dial floating in alcohol, but it reassured me that I could get back on track if I got lost. Well, it wasn’t in my pack this morning. I can’t believe I forgot it.

As I walk through the village, I notice a Chinese market. Other pilgrims have told me these eclectic stores are worth a visit.

The tightly-packed shop is full of randomly-organized imports like children’s pajamas, women’s swimsuits, oversize pool towels, pots and pans, assorted packaged food, cheap earrings, gardening supplies, mops, and toys. Squeezing my way to the back, I spy a display with hanging air fresheners, oven thermometers, and—lo and behold—a compass! I pick it up for closer inspection, and discover that instead of north-south-east-west, its directional points are Chinese characters. Dozens of them. What the..? There’s no way I can use this. Even if the arrow technically points north, this would not help me in a freaked-out moment of disorientation.

Carrying it to the lady at the counter, I ask hopefully, “Tienes otros?

She shakes her head.

Returning the gadget to its hook, I exit the tienda compass-less—with no direction—which is coincidentally how I felt at the end of my last Camino. Despite my disappointment and anxiety, I feel a gentle resignation—or is it trust?—that this is how it’s supposed to be. I’ll find my way. Just a different way. Whatever I need will be provided.

*   *   *

The right people just show up. They always do.

After eating my first filling slice of Spanish tortilla and savoring a café Americano, and after receiving a stamp in my credencial at the pilgrim office, the right people just show up.

I get a warm embrace and kiss on both cheeks from the woman running my pensión (for giving her a bar of chocolate from Oregon), and she lets me use her computer to email a message to Mary.

I see the two American girls I met on the bus ride yesterday, and they give me a friendly hello.

I run into the restaurant owner where I ate this morning. When I mention I want to buy wine, he tells me to avoid the supermarket.

Quieres un vino barato or caro?” he asks, rubbing his fingers together in midair, making the universal symbol for money.

El medio,” I reply with a grin.

Vale. Ven conmigo,” he instructs and waves me uphill. I follow him back to his now-closed-for-siesta restaurant and buy a nice bottle from his stock. Thoughtfully, he hands me a few plastic cups and even pops the cork, since I have no opener. Yes, he’s probably charged me twice what locals pay, and I really don’t care. The Camino provides.

Despite feeling a little ridiculous walking around with a open bottle of wine sticking out of my pack, I am now prepared to toast the sunset and share wine with whoever shows up.

Finally, I meet Ruby.

*   *   *

The sand couldn’t be whiter. I squint myself teary descending toward the watercolor surf of aqua, turquoise, and cobalt. The sun overhead is warm, but counterbalanced by a cool breeze from the ocean. The last time I was here, Meg was with me. When we walked the beach that time, I struggled to breathe as pneumonia set in and struggled to prevent my emotions from overflowing. Here I sang the song I had been planning for two years, reduced to tears by confusion and fear.

Let me dive into the water, leave behind all that I’ve worked for—except what I remember and believe.

And when I stand at the farthest shore, I will have all I need.

And now I’m singing it again as tears roll down my face. I knew this moment would come, but I’m still surprised by the intensity. Long-withheld sobs escape my will to contain them. Meg. Thank you for showing me how to live. I had all I needed inside of me all along. 

I know have to let her go. She was so important to me then, but I have to let her go. It’s not healthy to make someone into an idol. I’m not ready yet, but realizing the time is nearing fills me with sadness and a kind of relief.

Minutes pass as I allow the waves to soak my legs, washing over me, cleansing, healing. Everything I need is already inside of me.

Sitting in the soft, hot sand, I lose track of time. I still can’t believe I’m back. Sifting through the glittering grains, I see myriad tiny shells that have washed up with each wave. I hear heavy breathing and look up to see two huge dogs racing toward me, barking and snarling. I leap from the ground and yell at them NO! Their owners, a distance off, call to them. One runs back, but the other holds his ground, hackles up and growling. NO!! I yell again. NO!! The owners whistle, and the dog leaves, glaring back at me as he goes.

My legs feel like rubber. I sit down on the sand again, shaking. Jesus! I usually like dogs and get along with them. Why did I seem so threatening to that one? Minutes pass before I feel settled again.

My only plan now is to watch the sunset, but I’m really hoping for emotional closure before I start walking tomorrow. There are hours before I head over to the lighthouse.

As I look absently at the beach, I notice a tiny orange scallop no bigger than my thumbnail. Then a second one. Symbols of baptism and rebirth. I gather up some sand and put them in a plastic baggie for safekeeping. I’m going to carry these home with me as evidence, just like ancient pilgrims once did, that I walked to the end of the earth and survived the return journey.

As I scoop up sand, a woman wanders along the shoreline and then comes up the beach in my direction. I’m not feeling chatty, but she looks at me with a beautiful smile and says hello in English.

“I saw you sitting there looking for shells, and decided to come talk to you. Shell collectors are my favorite people.”

I smile. “Hi. I’m Jen from Oregon.”

“I’m Ruby from all over. Mind if I sit?”

Instead of the superficial conversation I feared, we dive into topics that really matter to the heart and soul. She is just finishing seven weeks of walking and has had a truly profound experience. Ruby is actually from three different countries—a true citizen of the world—and is healing old wounds in this walk. She shares that she met someone special on the Camino, but it is over now and is wondering what it all means.

“I can relate,” I tell her.

“Oh?”

“I met someone special too.” And take my time telling her the story of my three-years-ago Camino, about meeting Meg and the profound awakening that followed. “My life fell apart afterwards. It was a slow and painful journey, but eventually I learned how to open my heart and live that joy.” As I recount this tale, she remarks how my story parallels her own journey’s insights. She really understands.

“The Camino changed your life,” she says.

I sigh with relief. “It really did. I’m not sure why you showed up, Ruby. But I really needed to share this story, and feel so grateful for your listening.”

Smiling, she says, “I’m so glad I walked up to you. I just had a feeling.”

Instead of parting ways, Ruby proposes we go back into town, get some dinner, and then go to the lighthouse for the sunset. “I also really want to pick up some prosecco to celebrate,” she adds.

I’m torn. On one hand, I really wanted to do this alone—or at least I thought I did. And I tell her so.

“Spend a minute reflecting,” she says encouragingly. “You’ll know what you need.”

In a flash, the realization hits me: I don’t want to be alone. All my life, I’m keeping myself just out of reach of everyone who loves me. Isn’t this what I learned from Meg? If I want connection, I need to live it.

“Let’s do it,” I say. She grins.

On our way up the beach, the dogs leave us alone.

*   *   *

We eat, and laugh, and walk up to the highest peak to look down on the lighthouse. We descend to watch the sunset as we talk about all we’ve learned. We share my wine and her prosecco with the people around us. Hearts from all over the world are here tonight in the fading light to celebrate the end.

And in the silence of the fading day, I realize that’s all it was. That day three years ago was just a day with Meg at the end of a very, very long walk. It was not unique because sunset-watching happens here daily. It wasn’t Meg, or the place, or something ephemeral and out of my control—what was different was me. I chose to let my self-protective shield fall away for the first time in my life. I allowed my receptive, joyful, radiant heart to blossom open in the presence of another person. It was never outside of me. It was always within me. 

Yet we all make choices to dim our light. The threat of alienating my loved ones with my newfound joy and aliveness seemed too risky at the time. With titanic effort, I masked my authentic self for months—with predictable consequences on my marriage, my livelihood, and my sanity. It seemed like a safe trade-off then, but time has made me wiser.

Ruby and I laugh together, enjoy the ocean sounds and stars, and say goodnight to the pilgrims around us. Under a waning moon, we walk back arm in arm to our respective abodes for sleep. I repeat to her how grateful I am, and we agree that we’ve been Camino angels for each other today.

The right people always show up.

I feel whole. I feel grateful for everything. To the very core of my being, I know this joy is mine to carry with me on the path ahead, just like the scallop shells in my pocket.

Post-Camino culture shock

Is it me?

Being back home after the Camino is strange. Everything seems different when held in the light of comparison. It’s not just culture shock, it feels like priorities shock.

For example, after greeting shopkeepers across Spain with an “Hola, buenas dias.” (Every single time. This is just how it’s done.), I walk into a store in my town and am ignored. Not even eye contact. My greeting is not returned. I feel invisible.

Or, last week, when I walked for five miles around my neighborhood, exactly one person said something friendly to me in response to my hello. At least a half dozen others went out of their way to avoid meeting me or making eye contact.

Or how this week, on my way to work, a woman tailgaited me for two miles and honked when I finally made my turn. I felt so threatened by the closeness of her car to my bumper that my hands shook for fifteen minutes afterward. I actually cried in despair. Why do I matter so little? Why such a hurry? Why so angry?

The distinction between there (the Camino) and here (my town) is jarring.

In praise of the Camino life

Obviously, not everyone has been changed by my pilgrimage. It would be unreasonable and borderline insane to expect that. My glow isn’t necessarily contagious (though wouldn’t it be cool if it were?). Right now, my heart is just open and trusting and vulnerable.

If you’ve walked it, you know that the Camino isn’t utopia—there are spiritual sleepwalkers and selfish people everywhere—but it does give you an experience of how truly kind humanity can be. For weeks, I was surrounded by people caring about each other, having conversations about deep and meaningful topics, and sharing a common goal. We all tried to take good care of ourselves and looked out for each other.

In the Real World vs. Camino matchup, there’s a clear winner. It’s hard not to feel a bit despairing when comparing the two. As a remedy, I’m only going to places that are friendly. I’m driving less. I’m reaching out to loved ones near and far. These are ways to care for my tender, open pilgrim heart.

The devil you know

The other issue I’m facing post-Camino is the person I was before I left. In the weeks that elapsed before I flew to Europe, I had a mighty list of To Dos going. Honestly? I actually had two lists of To Dos—one for Camino-related tasks, and one for everyday life and work responsibilities. I had no less than 44 items on the regular To Do list and 57 on the Camino list. Dear reader, this level of focused output isn’t sane or sustainable.

At the time I thought, This is perfectly normal. Look how efficient and organized I am. I can definitely get all of this done before I go. I’ve got to. This must be done before I go. This is the voice of my Inner Tyrant. And she scares me.

For contrast, my Camino self got up around 6:30am and just walked. Later in the morning (usually after a good cup of coffee), I’d figure out where I wanted to stay for the night. No stress. My gut usually told me where I needed to be—or a pilgrim gave me a great recommendation. Day after day, I took things one moment at a time, one step at a time. I trusted there would be enough—food, beds, meaningful connection—and there always was. There was no reason to hurry or plan beyond the next few hours. I was free to enjoy the moment, the people, the place, the sensations of the moment—and I did. Over and over again. For Type-A me, this extended experience of non-attachment and not controlling was a revelation. I experienced firsthand how to live in the moment and feel deep peace with “not knowing.”

Unlike after my first Camino, this groundedness feels deep and enduring. But how do I know for sure that Manic Me won’t pop up again and take over at some point?

May the real self please stand up?

Maybe a lot of pilgrims experience this push-pull after walking. How do you integrate into life while honoring the slower, more grounded, more trusting way of being? I want to be more mindful and intentional with my time. I want to be less tech-obsessed without alienating my loved ones. I want to be productive without writing scary To Do lists.

One step at a time, I’m finding a way forward that isn’t exactly graceful, but it’s honest and true to my Camino’s gifts. Starting with body and home care, I’m developing regular rituals for maintenance and nourishment. Since last week, I’ve started adjusting my work schedule to create sanity and healthier boundaries. My next focus will be on meaningful connection with loved ones and setting aside writing time. It’s coming.

A note on writing: In case you didn’t know, I’m working on a memoir about the personal transformation that took place in my life after my first Camino. If you want to be kept posted about that project, here’s a link to sign up for news and info.

In any case, shifting back into “life mode” after my second Camino has been so much easier and less stressful than the first time. No comparison. I’m enjoying the process so much more.

And

If you have thoughts or insights on how you shifted back into life after significant travel or other life-changing experiences (or tips for dealing with aggressive tailgaters), I’d love to hear about them! We’re in this together, pilgrims.

Risks and sticks — Safety on the Camino de Santiago

“I’m worried about you going back there,” Steve tells me.

“You are?” This is news to me. “I’ve already been there once, you know.”

“It just doesn’t seem safe for a woman alone,” he explains. Steve is twenty-ish years my senior and former military, so I respect his opinion. His words of concern echo my dad’s worries three years ago, when I was planning my first Camino.

“You know, Steve, I have two walking sticks with pointy tips. I’ve thought of at least eight ways to kill someone with those suckers.”

He cracks a smile, “What if there’s more than eight of them?” I burst out laughing.

Steve’s fears about my solo journey aren’t completely unfounded. Last April, when an American pilgrim Denise Thiem disappeared en route, her frantic family turned to social media to try to locate her. Sadly, this fall we learned she was murdered by a local man–now in jail. However, her disappearance sparked unprecedented sharing online about other accounts of harassment, particularly of penis-exposing and groping by older men.

Then, a few months after Denise disappeared, a local Spanish woman was almost abducted by two men in a car while she was out for a walk outside Astorga. This really spooked me. My response was to spend hours online reading about organized crime, the organ trade, and sex trafficking in Europe. It turns out that eastern Europe is where the really scary stuff happens whereas Spain’s organized crime focuses primarily on trafficking tobacco. In other words, it’s just like everywhere else.

For all the creepy details that have emerged from these events, it’s important to view the information about crimes in perspective: over a hundred thousand pilgrims walk the Camino each year without being killed or accosted. In my opinion, it comes down to odds–and the odds of completing this pilgrimage without incident are very favorable.

That said, travelers would do well to prepare for worst-case scenarios in the unlikely event they do occur. For example if you’re traveling internationally, it’s a good idea to learn how to get in touch with your country’s consulate for aid (not the embassy) and know the region’s emergency response number. For pilgrims, it’s important to take precautions en route; don’t let yourself get too tired, hungry, or distracted, making you less able to respond to danger. I spent time online after the near-abduction report came out learning how to prevent an abduction or escape from one. Necessary? Probably not. Good to know? Definitely.

Not to go all Girl Scout on you, but being prepared is a great way to not get hurt or injured. Be prepared, and you’ll be able to deal with the unexpected.

In terms of odds, the real peril comes from the terrain itself since the chances of falling, injury, or breaking a bone are good. The path is sometimes nothing more than a long, downhill swath of loose cobbles. Be alert. Don’t walk while eating, reading, texting, or anything that takes your eyes off the terrain. Historically, one of the biggest killers of pilgrims is of getting struck by oncoming traffic.

As a naturally high-strung person, I am inclined to hear a comment like Steve’s and join him in the fear. As if I don’t already have my own worries! The truth remains that not going on this journey doesn’t make me safer. I could just as easily be accosted or killed by an intruder in my own home, blinds drawn and doors locked. But what kind of life would that be? I can’t wait in fear of an unlikely worst-case scenario. I want to live, to challenge myself and grow!

So I’ve made peace with this fact: it’s not unsafe to be a solo peregrina, but it’s unsafe to travel unprepared. That’s a big difference. I’ve got a good brain and some pointy hiking sticks–and I know how to use them both.

Ultreia!

 

Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!

Day 39 – Sleepless in Santiago

If the Camino is replete with unexpected angels who help you, guide you, inspire you, then Meg was an archangel.

This is a long post. I hope you’ll hang in there with me.

On the day after I arrived in Santiago, everyone was leaving to see Finisterra by bus except me. After a leisurely breakfast of coffee and toast with the guys in the albergue‘s modern kitchen, they vanished for the bus station to return later. After 38 days of walking, I had earned a day of rest, but had no plans.

Continue reading “Day 39 – Sleepless in Santiago”

Day 38: Arrival – Monte de Gozo to Santiago de Compostella

On May 26, 2013 I walked into Santiago to complete a journey more than two years in the making.

The cool, clear morning air around us crackled with the anticipation of our final departure. As Scott and I waited for the café to open, I listened to birds singing in the treetops and frogs chanting in nearby ponds. I watched the sun slowly rise over the distant hills, casting long shadows and making the grass glisten.

Continue reading “Day 38: Arrival – Monte de Gozo to Santiago de Compostella”