Category Archives: journeys

You Are What You Speak and Seek

abracadabra

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m a seeker, I won’t deny it.  I know that a lot of people may consider my path a little unconventional at best, but I don’t mind.  I’m not a zealot, I mostly keep my ideas to myself because, frankly, I don’t follow any one creed or religion and I try to respect the beliefs of others.  However, I believe that the creation stories of many religions are similar.  The lives of Krishna and Christ are virtually the same.  Instead of arguing the legitimacy of one religion or another, I search for the magic that manifests when I meditate, pray, chant and sing.  This is what brings me closer to the universe or the higher power that created us all.  And, when we are closer to our own divine spirit, magic really does happen.

Before my sobriety, I was a resounding atheist.  I had no use for organized religion, gods or saints.  I was miserable and self-serving and generally angry.  But then, something unmiraculous happened. One day, I just reached my limit.  My limit of numbness and bad company and self-loathing.  I realized that no one was going to save me, I would have to do it myself.

I still didn’t care much for organized religion, but I felt that there must be more to spirituality than the gathering place and I began to search on my own.  I read the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and everything in between.  What I found are many more similarities than differences and that all religious texts impart lessons on how to be closer to the sacred source of creation.

I think many people wring their hands and suffer because they don’t grasp that each one of us has the power to find that space between the earth and the divine.  The space that can be found when we are still in our mind, even when our bodies are in motion. 

When I moved to France, I didn’t speak French.  It took me a very long time to be able to communicate in my second language.  But, in the years that I was too timid to speak, I had time to reflect.  I turned all of my thoughts inward and found that through creating with my hands, I found peace.  I studied cooking, ceramics, painting, knitting, sewing and practically every art medium under the sun.  I started running, hiking and tried yoga.

Like many others before, I have became a believer that our thoughts and words manifest our actions, not vice versa.  There is a space that is as close as we can get to the divine when our minds are still and one positive thought can void a handful of negative thoughts.  When we are quiet and focus our thoughts on positivity, we can manifest positive things into our lives.  When we use our energy to create beauty, we will attract even more beauty.  When we choose to speak positively, we will unintentionally surround ourselves with others who speak positively.

Abracadabra.

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Treading Lightly: A Packing Guide for El Camino de Santiago

Camino Backpack“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

I’m a little neurotic.  When I decide to do something, I’m all in.  I started preparing almost a year before my actual Camino began.  I scoured over websites and guide books.  I went to sporting goods stores and tested sleeping bags and headlamps.  I read up on religious pilgrimages and hiking in general.

One thing I knew for sure: I needed a very light backpack and I didn’t want to carry more than ten percent of my body weight. Amongst all of my reading, there seemed to be a consensus that ten percent is the sweet spot to avoid pain and injury.  I later found this to be absolutely true.  The pilgrims that I encountered with giant, heavy packs had the worst blisters and were wearing knee braces by the time we arrived in Santo Domingo (around day eight or nine).

I set off to find the perfect backpack in October, nine months before I would actually be needing it.  I was a Girl Scout, “be prepared”.  I found a great backpack (it’s pictured above) at a store here in France that was actually designed for the Camino.  It is super light, approximately 500 grams (just over one pound) and has a ton of pockets, including one very large waterproof one on the outside and small zippered pouches on the padded waist straps.

Now, a short list of everything that I decided to put into my perfect backpack:

  • An all season sleeping bag (I bought nylon adjustable straps to affix it to the bottom of my backpack.)
  • A sheet or small blanket (I actually used an extra-large scarf/sarong as my cover at night.)
  • An LED headlamp (great for starting off before daybreak and for nighttime reading in albergues.)
  • A rain poncho that will cover a body and a backpack.
  • Two microfiber towels (they dry quickly, roll into neat little bundles and can really suck the moisture out of wet hair.)
  • A Swiss Army knife (So many little gadgets and you never know when you might need it.)
  • Zip lock plastic bags (For documents and toiletries)
  • A neck wallet (These things are the best.  After a day of hiking, I would throw down my backpack and take my essentials (cash, ID, credit card, camera and phone), shove them into this little guy and head out to get something to eat or to visit cathedrals.  And, worn across the torso, it looks like a cute little purse.  Aww. )
  • A guide book (I recommend the Michelin Guide.  It is thin and light and tells what each stopping point along the way has to offer as far as food, albergues, pharmacies, etc.  It is bare bones though.  No historical information, but fits nicely in the outside pocket of the aforementioned backpack.)
  • Flip Flops (absolutely necessary for the showers and after a long day of hiking.)
  • Water bottle (I used a Brita bottle with a built in filter that lasts up to ten gallons.  There are some areas in the middle of the Camino that do not have chlorinated water.)
  • Two changes of hiking clothes (I brought two pairs of nylon running shorts, two tank tops, two pairs of underwear, two bras and two pairs of socks.  I ended up borrowing a pair of leggings in Galicia because I did not account for cold weather in July.  I was hit so hard by an ice storm near O Cebreiro that if I hadn’t had those leggings, I would have frozen.  Thanks Anna!)
  • Lounge clothes (For me, it was nice to have something other than hiking clothes to put on at the end of the day and for sleeping.  I brought a pair of yoga pants, a long-sleeved henley and a pair of cotton shorts.  I bought a sundress along the way because I was totally sick of my limited wardrobe after a week.)
  • Toiletries (small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, contact solution, toothpaste and soap.  There are pharmacies in every medium to large city along the way, so there are plenty of opportunitites to refill or find something that you may have forgotten.  I learned quickly that a bottle of 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner can also be used to wash clothes.  Three birds, one stone.)

Now, for the things that aren’t completely essential, but are certainly helpful:

  • A solar charger for my cell phone. icharge-eco-iphoneThese little guys clip onto the outside of your backpack and soak up sunshine all day.  Then, if you have an emergency battery charging situation, (“Hey, I listened to my playlists all day while walking and now, this albergue has no electric plug available.”) you can just use your handy solar charger.  Easy Peasy.
  • Ear plugs (these are almost an essential.  I bunked with so many snorers that sounded like they were sawing wood across the room.)
  • Melatonin (Praise the Lord or the Universe or Whoever for this sleep aid.  Especially if you are a light sleeper and/or are suffering jet lag.)
  • A paperback book (Yeah, you should probably be talking to people.  But sometimes, it’s nice to have something to do in the late afternoon or early evening to relax.  After you finish it, leave it at the albergue for someone else to enjoy.)
  • A collapsible hiking stick (Hiking sticks or poles aren’t completely necessary, but they sure make climbing a lot easier.  The collapsible ones fit snugly under the elastic cord of the backpack above.  I love my back pack.)
  • A velcro cell phone holder (This seems completely superficial and was a total last minute splurge, but it actually served a couple of important purposes.  Firstly, it secured my phone to the shoulder strap of my backpack, making it easily accessible for photos and music.  Secondly, the velcro secured nicely to the frame of nearly every bunk bed that I slept in the albergues, so I could set my alarm and it would be within arm’s reach in the early mornings.  Brilliant.)

So, the total weight of my Camino backpack when stuffed to near capacity?  Seven kilos.  A little more than ten percent of my weight, but not too bad.  Please keep in mind, though, that this is definitely a summer list.  Late autumn would certainly require more clothing and therefore more weight.

Did I leave anything out?  Please fell free to leave a comment about what you would add or subtract.  Everyday Camino is also on Facebook if you would like to leave a comment there or just “like” the page.

My Body, My Machine

Pizza in Sarria“The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” ― Ann Wigmore

So, I’m crazy about food.  I think about it constantly.  What will I eat?  What will I make for my son?  Is it time to eat again?  I learned to bake from my grandmother and mother and I learned how to really cook in France.  I’m concerned about chemicals on my fruit and veggies, I worry about carbohydrates and I obsess over calories.   One of my biggest concerns before leaving for the Camino was that I wouldn’t find any food.  I actually made no-bake granola bars for the first two or three days of the hike and anyone who met me along the way knows that I always had a small grocery bag of food stashed away.  Starving is one of my biggest and silliest fears.  I start to panic at the first sign of hunger because I become grumpy and tired and generally act like a toddler who needs to be fed.

My food issues are not completely unfounded, though.  I come from a household that was always “trying to lose five pounds” but never left a plate uncleaned.  I have gone through strange and maddening food cycles in my life.  As an adolescent and teenager, I was a vegetarian who played softball and couldn’t go to sleep without exercising first.  I became so thin and anemic that I would get dizzy everytime I stood up.

As a late teen and early adult, I was employed in the fashion industry and became even more obsessed with calorie intake, but less so with exercise.  Fashion models don’t have big muscles.  Cigarettes and cocaine helped curb my appetite and I maintained my thin frame, but burned out quickly.

In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat.  I was convinced that I had done the damage to myself, although my cardiologist reassured me it was most likely hereditary.  Despite the arrhythmia and a prescribed daily dose of beta blockers, it took me a few more years to finally drop cocaine from my diet regime.  The last, er, straw, was a near overdose and chest pains so debilitating that I ended up in the emergency room more than once.  How did I finally kick coke?  I sold everything that I owned and moved to France.  Not the most conventional route, but I’m not the most conventional gal.

I have said privately and now publicly that France saved my life.  It is the ideal place for learning to appreciate the food that I  put into my system.  French culture demands quality and purity and a general appreciation for conscious eating.  Meals are eaten at a table, with friends and family at very specific times with a small snack in the afternoon.  Coming from a society that eats in the car and relies on a grab bag of diets, French traditions are breath of fresh, baguette-scented air.

One of the most popular questions on Camino forums is “Did you lose weight while hiking for a month?”  Even (or especially) my mother was sure that I would return from Spain malnourished and gaunt.  Here’s the truth: I gained a whopping 3 kilos (6.6 pounds).

What???

First, i have to explain the Northern Spanish diet.  It consists of ham, ham and more ham.  I joked once that I saw every farm animal while hiking, except pigs because they are already in the butcher shop.

I'll have some ham with a side of ham, please.
I’ll have some ham with a side of ham, please.
I'll pass on the pig's head, thanks.
I’ll pass on the pig’s head, thanks.

Then, there are tortillas.  The equivalent of a French omelette, but stuffed with potatoes.  They are chockful of yummy carbs, especially when served on a fresh baguette.

Mmmm...get in my belly.
Mmmm… get in my belly.

In small villages, grocery stores are scarce and in the Meseta (the flat, dry land in the middle of the Camino) the only thing growing out of the ground is wheat.  So, I stocked up on bananas, avocados, almonds and juice boxes whenever possible, like a crazed squirrel.

So, that’s how I gained those three kilos, right?  Um, sorry, nope.

When you hike 25 to 30 kilometers (15 to 19 miles) per day, you could pretty much eat a chocolate cake and still maintain your weight.  The weight that I gained was not fat, but muscle.  Think heavier but with loose clothes.  What’s a number on a scale anyway?  Muscle is heavy and dense and takes up less space than fat.  Our bodies really are like machines.  Energy in, energy out.  Any excess and it is stored for later in the form of fat.  When we exert ourselves, our bodies need to be fed to keep going.  And, if not fed enough, we go into famine mode and our bodies hold onto fat that we would normally burn for energy.

The lesson that I took away from munching on the Camino is to not fret about calories so much.  I will think of my body as a finely tuned machine that needs energy to function.  Energy in, energy out.  Like a mantra.  Those three kilos a few years ago would have sent me into a dieting frenzy.  I also realize now, that one day of overeating is not life-ending.  If I don’t burn it today, maybe I will burn it tomorrow.  The conscious effort to eat well and treat my body with respect is what matters most.

And, now, a fun video about calories! I didn’t think it was possible.  Check out what 200 calories looks like in different food forms.  Spoiler: the Big Mac is super tiny.  Dommage!

Be Like Water (or an ant)

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
― Bruce Lee
Yoga studio in Estella, Spain
Yoga studio in Estella, Spain
I have been reading a lot about happiness lately.  “How to be Happy”, “The Root of Happiness”, “Get Happy Now!” (Geez, alright, stop yelling at me!) articles have been popping up in my Facebook feed daily.  It’s probably my fault.  When you are an aspiring (but sometimes lazy) Yogi who follows more pages on meditation, philosophy and esoterica than you have friends, it is bound to happen at some point.  I’m a sucker for positive affirmation memes.  And, what’s not to love about Word Porn?
Perfect for those of us with chronic Wanderlust.
Perfect for those of us with chronic Wanderlust.

I came across an article this morning in The New York Times called “A Formula for Happiness” which states that social scientists think up to 48% of our happiness is determined by genetics, while another 40% is related to one time events such as a new job.  So, what’s the last 12%?  Our last little bit of happiness is determined by the four basic values of faith, family, community and work.  Work?  What?  

Yes, apparently work is something that makes  people happy.  But, here’s the kicker, it must be work that is rewarding.  It has to be that something that gets you excited in the morning.  Because, once we have our needs met, more money is not what makes us happy.  It is about having a reason to get out of bed and be productive.  It is about having a community of friends and coworkers and being held accountable in that community.

So, while Bruce Lee told us to, “Be like water”, I propose that we also be like an ant.  Huh?  Stick with me for a second while I relate this to my time in Spain.

While walking the Camino, I noticed that I was passing through different insect territories.  First, in the Pyrenees, there are these horrid little flying beetles that won’t leave you alone if you stop for more than ten seconds.  I learned one lesson from them: keep moving.  Then came large groups of snails around Viana.  Lesson learned?  Tread lightly. 

Finally, the ants.  Wow.  So many lessons learned from the those little guys.  They are up before daybreak each day, making their way across the path in a straight line, working together to take care of business.  What happens if something blocks their path (like a hiking boot or an awesome Merrell)?  They simply go around it.  No problem, man.

The ants are made of that 12% happiness that all of us have control over.  They have a community that holds them responsible. They have what I can only presume is an undying love for rewarding and hard work.  Do they have faith?  Eh, who knows?  But, something is getting them out of their anthill every morning.  They certainly have a sense of self-preservation and an endurance that could run circles around any Camino pilgrim.

So, “Be like water.”  Go with the flow.  But also, be like the ant.  Find the work that gets you excited, find the community that holds you accountable and lastly, have faith that if you do, you will find some happiness.

*The awesome “Ant Trails” doodle above is by Von Holdt http://vonholdt.wordpress.com/

You Can Go Your Own Way…

Father John from Uganda
Father John from Uganda

“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
― Rumi, Essential Rumi

Father John is a priest from Uganda, who currently lives in Sydney, Australia.  We met on the road, somewhere around Pamplona, and we continued to run each other periodically through the entire Camino.  He was one of the most inspiring people that I met on the way.  He sometimes walked up to 40 kilometers per day in order to have Sunday as his day of rest.

Everytime that I saw Father John, it became like a tiny miracle for me.  Normally, on the Camino, if you jump ahead a day or lag behind a little, you miss all the people that you have come to know as famliar.  So, I was certain that each time would be the last.  But, he would pop up again in the craziest places and the real shock came to me when I arrived in Santiago and he was participating in the mass at the cathedral.  He performed mass at nearly every stopping point along the way, so it was only natural that he should perform mass at the end of the road.

The lesson that I took from observing Father John, although I am sure there is more than one, is that the Camino is a personal journey.  The vision that I had many times while trudging along in the heat was that of the crossroads.  Four points intersect and four people arrive at the same time.  They each took a different way, but no one way is really better, just different.  And, isn’t that life?  We are all just trudging along, trying to make it from Point A to Point B in one piece.  Everyone will eventually make it to the end, but we all get there differently.  Each Camino is a personal choice that only you can make and only you can decide how it will be done.  Like Rumi says above, “Unfold your own myth.”

You can ride a bike if you want:

BicycleOr drive to the end:

You can make friends with a donkey, but he will eat your breakfast:

Get your own coffee, Donkey.
Get your own coffee, Donkey.

Heck, you can even ride the Camino backwards on a unicycle with someone recording you while listening to Right Said Fred:

I'm too sexy for the Camino
I’m too sexy for the Camino

As “The Dude” would say, “It’s like, your Camino, man.”

An Open Love Letter to Merrell

My Dearest Merrell,

I love you.  I’m not just saying that.  You are one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  People thought I was crazy.  They thought that it wouldn’t last.  They gave me the side eye everytime that I talked about you.  “Are you serious?” they would ask,  “You did it barefoot?”

But, I stood by you and you fit me like a glove.  Not only did you make it through almost a year of training for El Camino de Santiago, but by the time we were ready to go, you were like an old friend.  And, then! Then, you stayed with me the entire 800 kilometers.  When other people were casting their boots aside in frustration, we just slipped right past them with ease.

Ask me if I had a blister? I had one.  ONE.  And, that was my fault, not yours.  We got caught in that rain storm on the descent into Santo Domingo. Remember? That was a rough patch. Lightning and everything.  I should have put on a pair of socks before the rain, but I was so comfortable going barefoot.  You make it so easy.

I look worried, but you weren't...
I look worried, but you weren’t…

Our relationship was built to last.  When you got rained on, I stuffed you with newpapers.  Heck, I even threw you in a dryer once.  You are a champ.

Think of all the places we have seen!  The bulls running in Pamplona, that was pretty great, right?

Pamplona

Wow, what a ride! And, then, when we finally made it Santiago? Well, that was sheer joy.  We skipped, we danced, we almost collapsed.

I must confess, in a moment of weakness, I traded you in for a skimpy little pair of flip flops for a few days, but they meant nothing to me.  When we made it back to France, we continued our training in Biarritz.  Running by the beach is so romantic. It was then that I realized that you weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Merrell, my love, we were meant to be together.  Maybe soon we will have another go at Santiago. What do you say? Another 800 kilometers?

I love you. Muah!!
I love you. Muah!!

All of my love,

Gillian Grant (aka caminogigi)

http://www.merrell.com/US/en-US/Search/Search.mvc.aspx?SearchText=barefoot

 

 

Surviving the Pyrenees

shadow

“The sky is not my limit…I am.”
― T.F. Hodge, From Within I Rise: Spiritual Triumph Over Death and Conscious Encounters with “The Divine Presence”

After a suprisingly restful night at the albergue in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, I was finally ready to start the Camino.  Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I set off at daybreak on what I discovered from my Michelin guide was going to be a grueling ascent to the Spanish border and then a steep descent into Roncesvalles, the resting point of the first stage of my adventure.

Best guide book ever.
Best guide book ever.

In the Beginning

The trek over the French Pyrenees is approximately 25 kilometers and although there are days on the Camino that exceed this distance, physically, this day is especially punishing and can take up to eight hours to complete.

Because I chose to hike in July, after about 10 a.m., I realized that I had a previously underated adversary- the rising sun.  Duh.  It is a bit of a blur, but at one point, before reaching the top of the mountain, I found myself pressed against what I can only describe as a ditch with about ten other people trying to find just a smidgen of shade.

Vulture in the Pyrennes
Yeah, that’s a vulture waiting for someone to drop.

Several times throughout the day, I found myself asking, “What the hell am I doing here?”  I think I actually hallucinated at one point.  But then, I finally arrived at the top of the mountain and I realized what made all the suffering worthwhile.

At first, I saw a flock of sheep. Then, goats. Then, a huge family of horses.  They were everywhere! And, I was the only person for what felt like miles. I took a sweaty selfie and admired the view.

Hey, y'all! I'm on a mountain!
Hey, y’all! I’m on a mountain!

At this point, I also noticed a landmark.  “La Vierge Du Chemin” or “The Virgin of the Way”. She stands on the mountain and is the first of many, many Virgin Mary statues on the Camino.  But, she is especially significant as she seems to be watching over everyone that makes it to the top of the mountain.

"La Vierge du Chemin"
“La Vierge du Chemin”

I tried to keep my distance from the horse family. They were beautiful and busy grazing.  There were babies and mamas and pregnant mamas and the last thing that I wanted to do was to disturb their routine.  But, as I wound around the top of the mountain, the family started running in my direction.  Running.  I froze, then got out my camera and captured a few images as the horses got closer and closer.  Magic.

This is as close as I thought I would get...
This is as close as I thought I would get…
Closer...
Closer…
Ummm, what's happening?
Ummm, what’s happening?
Whoa, Nelly!
Whoa, Nelly!  Are you coming with me?

At the very limit of the French border, I came across a family, the first people I had seen in hours, who had driven to the spot to have a picnic. They were sitting near a cross statue that is another stopping point where pilgrims leave prayers and take photos.

Cross

The rest of the day, was pretty much downhill. Literally, not figuratively. While I met many people later who complained about the descent into Roncesvalles because of its wear and tear on the knees, I found it refreshing after climbing upwards all day.  Most of the climb down is through a Birch forest and notably cooler.  I finally felt in a zone after struggling for hours in the heat.  Then, miraculously, I found myself at my destination.

Roncesvalles is a little village with a pretty big history full of stories and relics dating back to the defeat of Charlemagne and death of the French commander Roland by the Basque in the Middle Ages.  The Basque pride is real and over the following days, I saw a lot of graffiti demanding freedom for the Basque people.

basque

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/548545.stm

 

 

The municipal albergue in Roncesvalles is huge, sleeping around 150 pilgrims per night.  Although pretty crowded, I found the amenities surprising: a private locker, electrical outlets, wifi and a young priest bearing wine in Solo cups.  What??  Completely unexpected, but after what reminded me of being in labor for eight hours, I wasn’t going to ask too many questions.

Small chapel in Roncesvalles
Small chapel in Roncesvalles