Thursday, June 21, 2007

The pilgrimage continues...

I realize that, following Paul's last post, many who have been following the blog will no longer be doing so. Regardless, before I forget some of the more poignant thoughts I've been having over the past week or so, I wanted to get them down in some form. Again, I imagine this post will amount to nothing more substantial than a jumble or random thoughts. For those still reading, thanks for sticking with us. For those that are not, although you'll never read this, we can't tell you how much you helped us in our task of reaching Santiago. Again, thank you to everyone following our blog very much. We can never thank you enough for the enrichment of experience and encouragement you provided for us throughout this past month.

Paul and I now find ourselves in Paris, four or five days removed from the conclusion of our journey in Spain, sore and still experiencing some residual exhaustion as our bodies adjust to not walking 15 or 18 miles for 6 or 8 hours every single day. Holland was beautiful, but we (along with a friend made on the Camino who traveled with us to Holland and France as well) were amazed to find how much of a shock the ¨normal world¨ was after almost 35 days straight of nothing but walking, eating and drinking, then sleeping. Life, for a time, although it was physically demanding, was really quite simple; we woke up, walked, ate when we were tired, drank when we were thirsty, and then walked some more until we reached a destination we felt to be an adequate terminus for that particular day. Now, we're back to hotel reservations, expensive and exotic Parisian meals, moving around cities with flocks of tourists ... we, too have reverted from the dirty-yet-quietly-respected individuals in ¨pilgrim mode¨ while in Spain, now donning comfortable running shoes instead of mountain boots, blue jeans instead of zip-off 2-in-1 shorts as we wander aimlessly through bustling city streets.

It feels as if the Camino, finally, may have been overwhelmingly fulfilling, stiflingly rich, causing our return to the ¨outside¨ (particularly in the form of the booming world metropolises we've been visiting) a kind of trauma that is not easy to describe. After nearly a month straight of sharing hours and days of poured-out hearts and comfortable silences, doing nothing but getting to know ourselves, our fellow pilgrims, and Spain, there is a sense of ¨emptiness¨ that one receives upon returning to the realities of a life filled with jobs, cars, school, etc. It becomes difficult, at times, to imagine a return to a world that is not so simple, not so straightforward. Both Paul and I agree, resoundingly, that the experience has been a life-changing one. I can see why many, many pilgrims find themselves ¨addicted¨ to the Camino after their first walk. Right now, I think we're both too tired to think about another trip across Spain any time soon. Strangely, however, we both find ourselves periodically waking up in the morning, surpirsed and vaguely disappointed that we don't have a pilgrimage to a church in northwestern Spain to look forward to.

But I think, now, that therein lies the rub; you go to Spain and walk a Camino looking for an improved, enriched life thereafter, but then you actually finish and you're just looking for more Caminos, looking to avoid the life you were trying to enrich in the first place. I've been doing a lot of thinking about the ¨scallop shell¨ symbol carried by many pilgrims across Spain. There is as many interpretations of the scallop shell symbol, on the Camino, as there is of the ¨three stages¨ that the Camino can be broken into. In ancient times, the scallop shell did have some actual utility beyond its power as a symbol; oftentimes, pilgrims would walk the Camino than nothing more than a walking stick, a gourd for water, and a shell as an all-purpose instrument for cutting, scooping, and serving the food that they received along the way--food sometimes purchased and sometimes acquired through begging.

For me, however, the scallop shell has a different significance. On the blue-and-yellow tiles that periodically mark the Camino as you pass through towns along the way, the yellow shell if displayed ¨upside down;¨ that is, the bottom of the shell is on the top of the tile, and the yellow spokes of the shell radiate downwards like sunbeams. Ultimately, this manifestation of the shell appeared more like a sun than a shell--but what did the sun have to do with a pilgrimage? After having now thought things over a bit, I've come to reimagine the trajectory of the ¨sunbeams¨ of the scallop shell. As opposed to a clam shell, which contains circumcentric circles piled one on top of the other (created, presumably, as the clam gets bigger and bigger), the lines on a scallop shell intersect at one pivot point, at the point on the shell where the two halves connect. As opposed to any ordinary clam shell, all of the lines--all of the ¨paths¨--on the scallop shell share the same endpoint, despite the fact that each spoke of the shell is coming from a completely different direction. In other words, if you conceive of the yellow and blue tiles as a shell rather than the sun, you begin to receive a powerful impression of the nature of the Camino in its entirety. Every pilgrim has a different starting point, every pilgrim (even if they're walking next to you from France all the way to Santiago) is walking a very different Camino. All paths, however, be them starting in Portugal, Barcelona, Switzerland or Paris, all of them join and end in Santiago, at the doors of the cathedral.

I would imagine that a Christian interpretation of this imagery would state that, like with the Camino(s), all paths and all peoples find their end, eventually, with the Creator of those paths and those peoples. For me, though, I personally find the image reassuring. I went to Spain looking for answers to some big questions; some were answered, others were created, and others disappeared. I was concerned, before the pilgrimage, with what seemed like an overwhelming number of choices facing me right now, so many paths to choose from seemed to equate with so many mistakes to be made. One thing that I have realized for certain is that walking--most of the time--is better than standing still. The path chosen frequently does not matter; what matters is that you use what you have, take the chance, make a choice, and walk the walk, accepting the consequences as they arrive. After all, it now feels, we all are going to end up somewhere we belong. The trick, again, is to keep walking.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The True Spirit Of The Camino

Hello Blogger Readers!!!
This is going to be my first and last entry of our series of blogs. Our long and strenuous journey has come to an end. HOORAY! Yes, that is correct. We are currently at the beautiful Spanish city Santiago De Compostela. It is very difficult for me to describe to all of you the certain emotions we are feeling right now. A lot of things had occured to me, while entering the city limits of Santiago yesterday. Thoughts pertaining the meaning or the significance of our so-called ¨journey¨ or ¨camino¨ (as we refer to it) suddenly became clear. I finally understood what it is to be a part of this tradition of pilgrims, and that is what I would like to share with you here.

I began this trip in St. Jean with no expectations. In some ways that was great way to begin an adventure, but also in many ways that was a big mistake. As you all know, I was plagued by blisters, groin muscle problems, etc. etc. the list continues. So, you can imagine how frustrating it must of been to wake up every morning at 5:30am by inconsiderate pilgrims flashing their flashlights in your face, shuffling their plastic bags around, while other deep sleeping pilgrims erupt their cacophonic flatulence and tractor-like snores in our faces. Even after all of that, I still needed to wake up and walk 25-30 kilometers a day. I am not sure if many of you know me but I am a man who enjoys long hours of deep sleep and the more comfortable or should I say lazy ways of life. To cut to the chase, I complained alot. Day after day I would ask myself, ¨What the heck am I doing here?¨ To be honest with you if it wasn´t for Kevin and the great people we had met on this camino I don´t think I would of made it. A wise Irish man once said to me, ¨The Camino, is simply a metaphor for life...¨ We are born in St. Jean and we die in Santiago. We all tackle the camino in our own pace similiar to real life. You meet new people all the time. Some you never see again, and some you keep close, who eventually become family and true brothers for life. (im getting close to the point I promise) Like life, the camino is at times difficult for some, and at the same time extremely easy and enjoyable for others. But it is truely the little things about our day that makes the more difficult days seem almost beautiful. The little things really consist of nothing significant in our day to day life. For example, a cold lemon soda, seeing a familiar face after waling three hours alone, having dinner with the same group of friends every night, Kevin making silly fart noises while we are trying to sleep in a silent room full of pilgrims. What I finally came to realize is that, these little, minute moments that I seem to take for granted in the real world; I have suddenly come to hold so dear on the Camino. Every pilgrim in some time or the other will ask you, ¨Have you felt the Spirit of the Camino?¨ I would always laugh and shrug my shoulders and give them this indifferent smile, which obviously meant NO. And not until yesterday I felt the true Spirit of the Camino, while looking at that magnificent church in the arms of my friends. The true Spirit is what you make of it. The Camino is not about getting from St. Jean to Santiago. It is about the journey itself and the lessons of life we have randomly stumbled upon. If we were still a hundred kilometers from Santiago, and knowing what I know now, my camino would be over.

To end this blog entry I would like to quote the Tarot card that each person had to pick while entering one of the Albergues. This was mine. And it really stuck by me:

¨If you only see the things life denies you, you will never see what it gives you¨

Thank You for all the prayers and thoughts. I apologize for making this so long.

much love,

Paul William Lam

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

2 days away...

We´ve arrived at the large town of Melide, about 50 kms from Santiago. After a short day tomorrow, we´ll hike around 40 kms on our last day of hiking in Spain, concluding our journey at the cathedral doors. It´s difficult to imagine how we´ve gotten this far. When we started back in the middle of May, almost 800 kms, 30 days, and a country away from Santiago de Compostela, our destination seemed inaccessible, the road too long. After weeks and weeks of hiking through some of the most enchanting and some of the most unappetizing parts of northern Spain, it seems impossible that we´ve now come so close to finishing what has indeed seemed like a very long journey. It´s taken a great deal of exertion, resolve, friends, and luck to get us as far as we´ve now gotten. Our next post, which will be written by Paul, will hopefully get across at least a fraction of the excitement we´re both now feeling.

Galicia continues to impress the both of us with its Celtic beauty and fantastic people. As is mentioned in a previous post, towns here seem a bit smaller, as the population is generally a bit more dispersed. Old ladies walk down the Camino selling passing pilgrims small crepes covered in suger for a quick burst of energy. Spanish passer-bys are a quick to wish us all a ¨buon camino.¨ When you leave places here in Galicia, bartenders and hospitaeros, instead of saying ¨adios,¨ they say something that sounds like ¨stalogo¨--a contraction of the better-known ¨hasta luego,¨ or ¨see you soon.¨ Of course, we will probably never see any of these folks ever again. The convention is a special one, though, as it seems to promote and display a kind of familial vibe that permeates so much of Spanish culture, and Galician culture in particular.

Our hiking in the past several days has taken us into foothills that are becoming incresing less large as we approach Santiago and the sea. We´ve been walking through forests, wheat fields ready for harvesting, pasture, and yes, still some highways unfortunately. In Portomarin, after our longest day yet (43 kms), we decided to splurge a bit and stay at a ¨pension¨ instead of the town albergue (cheap Spanish pilgrim hostel). We felt that we deserved it after what might of been the most beautiful and difficult days in Spain. One of the troublesome but understandable aspects of the albergues is the fact that they have a relatively-early curfew, after which they lock the doors and shut people out. Unencumbered by hospitaleros locking doors in our faces, we got out in Portomarin and were able to finally immerse ourselves in the myriad aspects of Spanish culture that only begin to happen after 9 or 10 o´clock in the evening. It was great to finally get out with friends and experience Spain a bit more like a tourist and a bit less like a pilgrim.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

First days in Galicia

We´ve entered Galicia, the fourth and final province we´re going to be passing through in our trip to Santiago. Yesterday was a long, tough day that ended with us summitting and collapsing on top of our third mountain range in a month. Last night, we literally slept in a cloud, 1600 meters above sea level. The view was amazing, but sleep didn´t come very easily. Despite the fact that we´re now deep into northwestern Spain, the temperature drops into the single digits Celsius at night and in the early morning when we´re getting up to begin our walks.

I´m sitting now in front of a computer in one of the very few hostels along the Camino that offers free internet to pilgrims, so the line behind me is quite long, prompting tbis brief entry. Behind me, speakers are blaring music dominated by a Galician instrument known as a ¨gaeta,¨ which essentially sounds exactly like a bagpipe. To me, in fact, Galician music (now played widely in both albergues and in restaurants) sounds identical to Irish music. Like many of the westernmost points of continental Europe, Galicia is dominated by Celtic culture. As opposed to the larger towns that we would pass on the first three-fourths of our journey surrounded by miles and miles of wide-open, unpopulated agricultural fields, Galicia actually looks amazingly similar to Ireland. Houses and families are now dispersed outwards from concentrated towns into small estates that are adjacent to small plots of lands divided by bright green hedgerows, just like the ones one might see in County Cork or County Claire.

Because of its rich history and association with the pagan legacy of the Celts, Galicians are also extremely superstitious. In ancient times, Galicia was literally thought to be (to Europeans) the end of the world. Consequently, tons of pagan rituals--before the Christian ones came around--involved journeying to the ocean just west of where the cathedral of Santiago now stands. Many shops along the route now are dedicated to Gothic and witchy wares, and many folks have tokens and charms adorning their gardens and houses to scare away any spirits that might mean them harm. Let´s hope that we continue to have the luck such Galicians have in avoiding misfortune, despite the fact that we´re not about to start carrying any garlic around with us...

Friday, June 08, 2007

Of cyclists and silence...

Today we walked over 30 kms to from the base of the Montes de Leon (the second mountain rnage that we´ve crossed) to the largish town of Villafranca del Bierzo, located at the base of the third and final mountain range that we´ll be crossing on the Camino. Tomorrow, we´re planning on walking around 30 kms more, with the latter third of our walk taking us up to the summit of the mountains facing me as I´m typing right now. The ascent won´t be as long as our first attempt over the Pyrenees, but it will be as drastic in terms of steepness. We saw today that we´re officially within 200 kms of the cathedral of Santiago, but both the province of Galicia and the city of Santiago still seem quite far away.

I guess this entry is going to be a bit of a random conglomeration of observations Paul and I have amassed as we´ve been traveling along; literary coherence, at this point, has become difficult, so bear with us.

Among the certain types of dichotomies that exist on the Camino, one of the most extreme might be between formal, walking ¨peregrinos¨ (Spanish word for ¨pilgrims¨) and the bicyclists who are also attempting to reach Santiago. ¨Animosity¨ isn´t the correct word, but there would seem to be a noticeable, somewhat heated distinction between those walking and those biking to Santiago. Many parts of the trail border and actually move onto the shoulder of major highways. This leads one into situations where, at times, being clipped by cars or trucks is a very real threat. At all times, however, both on and off the highway (and particularly after we passed through a major alternate starting point for Camino-goers in the city of Leon) there is the threat of being run over by cyclists with varying levels of concern for the people walking in front of them. In albergues at night, one can´t help but notice that, oftentimes, it is bicyclists that are demonstrating the least respect for the pilgrims around them. My theory is that, because cyclists spend (approximately) a third of the time on the Camino that walking ¨peregrinos¨ spend on the trail, most of them don´t have the chance to absorb the culture of mutual appreciation and shared misery that seems to permeate the interactions of pilgrims that are moving across Spain a bit more slowly. Whateve the reason might be, I´m getting tired of almost being run over by guys in tights screaming down the trail on mountain bikes, then being sneered at because I wasn´t aware (after having walking 15 or 20 miles in Spanish sun) of exactly what´s happening behind me on the trail. Alright, enough negative energy and venting for one entry.

One of the most interesting parts of the way folks interact on the latter parts of the Camino is the comfort level people seem to gradually gain with being quiet around one another for protracted periods of time while walking for hours close to one another, sometimes side by side. Oftentimes in everyday life, silence between people becomes rude, even forbidden; part of being a member of polite society involves being able to generate conversation out of thin air. When you´re walking with each other for 6 or 8 hours at a time, however, it is inevitable that you run out of things to talk about. Few people I´ve found like walking completely alone for prolonged periods of time, so people develop the ability to deal with saying nothing to one another while still maintaining physical proximity. Át first, silence was awkward; now, it´s normal, even required at different points throughout the day. It´s interesting that some of the closest moments you share with friends that you´re walking with are filled with words that are never spoken. At times it can be quite intense, really. Either way, I´ve come to enjoy this particular Camino convention.

I´m sitting right now on a bench iu an albergue that´s adjacent to an ancient church. I´m surrounded by people from St. Paul (MN), Hong Kong, Cork (Ireland), Quebec, Maine, Spain, Finland, Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, Korea, Portugal, France, England, Germany, Denmark ... there´s so many more. After summitting our last set of mountains tomorrow, I´ll hopefully have some more thoughts to add. Paul will be posting soon as well, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The city of chocolate

Because of the massive line behind me today, this post is going to be quite short. From here on out, Paul and I plan on taking the ¨quantity¨ as well as (hopefully) ¨quality¨ approach with our posts--we have approximately 12 days left in our journey and I just realized that I´ve posted less than 10 entries! By the way, thanks very much to everyone who´s been checking in on this blog. Your comments keep us going and the knowledge that your reading and thinking of us helps us get through what are becoming some very long days in northwestern Spain.

The major city of Leon has came and gone. We enjoyed our day there so much that we were thinking of staying a bit longer. We determined, however, that the last time we stopped for a day in Burgos it killed all of the momentum that we had been building up in the first third or so of the trip. Especially going into a mentally-arduous section of the country like the relatively-uninteresting ¨meseta¨ plateau, the time off was in actuality probably more detrimental mentally than it was helpful physically. So, we made haste through the second major city on the Camino, beginning the third and final leg of our journey. We´ve now gone approximately 500 kms, and have less than 300 now to go until we reach the cathedral of Santiago.

We´ve now heard of a couple of different interpretations of what the three legs of the journey signify. One pilgrim mentioned that the first leg (St. Jean-Burgos) represents a ¨physical¨ challenge, the second leg represents a ¨mental¨ one, and the third leg represents a final, ¨spiritual¨ journey. Others have labeled the legs in accordance with the Christian progression through ¨life, death, and rebirth.¨ I´m not sure yet whether or not I agree with these formulations. Both of us still have our fair share of physical ailments, I didn´t find the meseta particularly torturous mentally, and I feel that the entire experience has represented something of a spiritual examination or meditation. Either way, both Paul and I are looking forward to exploring the current city we´re staying in. Known primarily for its architecture and even more so for its chocolate, exploring Astorga with new friends should be exciting. The terrain has finally moved away from the highway and into green hills covered in wildflowers and sunlight, and it´s finally starting to feel like we´re in the Spain that we were dreaming about this past year. We´ve heard that the upcoming province--Galicia--is the most beautiful section of our journey, so when we eventually do get some pics up, we hope that they´ll be quite impressive.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Meseta days...

For the past several days we´ve been traversing the vast, supposedly-featureless ¨meseta¨ section of the trail that tortures the minds and bodies of many pilgrims on the Camino. The trail generally follows perfectly straight, two-lane roads across land resembling the Great Plains--there is nothing but green and brown on either side of you for as far as the eye can see. Much of the trail is actually situated on these long, flat two-lane roads, which might seem comforting. As was mentioned in a previous post, however, it is oftentimes hard, flat ground that often proves to be more troublesome than inclines or declines in elevation. For dozens of kilometers at a time, some say, there´s nothing to look at but wheat, dirt, and the behinds of the pilgrims strung out in a long line in front of you. As one friend mentioned, the tendency is to turn into something resembling a ¨zombie¨ as you move endlessly across the undifferentiated countryside.

I find the meseta pretty stunning, actually. It looks something like what I´ve seen of the plains outside of Grand Forks, North Dakota, but far less depressing. There are literally thousands of birds flying overhead and chirruping in the grass alongside the roadway and the trail. Next to the irrigation ditches bordering the roads, hundreds and hundreds of frogs can be heard. Everyone else thinks I´m crazy, but I keep saying that the persistent breeze and the smell of dew burning off as the morning warms up makes me feel constantly as if we´re near the ocean. Perhaps this is the effect of having a blue sky above oneself that is so vast that it must resemble the sea-like ¨big skies¨ of Montana back in the U.S. Wildflowers abound beside the irrigation ditches running throughout the surrounding farmland. Among others, the most striking are these purple spiny thistles, bright red poppies, yellow daisies, blue cornflowers, and there are many others. At points, the profusion of colors appears to have been arranged by something other than the sun, wind and rain. Far from being ¨featureless,¨ when you look hard enough, the meseta can be just as impressive as the Pyrenees or the forests in La Rioja. You just have to be willing to take a moment, relax, look around, realize where you are, and appreciate the little stuff that, when put together by your mind, makes for a pretty impressive and inspiring combination in its totality.

Tomorrow we have a short day leading up to Leon, the second major city on the route and the end of the second of the three ¨legs¨ of the Camino. It will mark the completion of approximately 500 of the 800 kms that comprise the pilgrimage. We´re looking forward to celebrating the acheivement a bit. Look at the interactive map on pocf.org, it´s pretty hard to believe we´ve come so far. It does seem like we´ve been in Spain for quite a while, but it´s amazing to think that we are now half-way to Santiago. It goes to show what you can be capable of when you keep your head down and just keep moving.