I’ve been home from my Portuguese Camino adventure for a long time, close to 4 months, but have been slow in my final wrap up post, which I can’t dismiss with claims of being too busy or uninspired. Honestly, re-entries from big trips like the Camino, have become the hardest part of the journey for me and although my life returned to a normal quite a while ago, until I put my final thoughts into words, it feels like a little piece of me is still there. And therein lies my excuse. I guess I wasn’t quite ready to add the final period and close that chapter.
This post trip, slow re-entry behavior isn’t new for me, although recently I’ve started taking notice of it as there definitely seems to be a pattern going on here, starting after my volunteer trip to Perú in 2009. I realize that this is my wrap up post to a Portuguese trip, not a Peruvian one, but I feel like I’ve got to lay some ground work as to the beginnings of this odd re-entry pattern of mine. So, here goes….
When I got home from my time in Perú, I fell into the strange habit of getting up in the middle of the night, wandering into my closet, putting on a heavy sweater, then crawling back into my bed. I was in a dream-like state when I’d do this so was always surprised the next morning to see that once again, I had added unnecessary layers. It wasn’t because I was cold, but rather, I wasn’t hot enough. It was very hot when I was in Perú, and those who know me well, know that I don’t love the heat. So, in my nocturnal wanderings, I was trying to recreate what I had felt in Perú, at least as far as my physical body was concerned. This was the beginning of a pattern that has repeated itself with every big trip I’ve taken since, in one form or another.
My time in Perú was spent volunteering at a center for the poor and or abused elderly in a suburb outside of Lima. Many of the women I friended were originally from the mountainous regions of Perú, a much different climate from the coastal region where they now lived. Regardless that they were in a climate that often rose into the high 90’s in the summer, they continued to wear the clothing they had worn in the mountain climate, still, several decades later. That, and a genuine fear of being cold for health and cultural reasons, had them dressing in multiple layers of sweaters and something I certainly had never seen before, 2 or even 3 long, wool skirts. It’s just what they did and it became what I did as well, post trip. This odd behavior continued off and on for a few weeks and when it finally stopped, so did my dreams of being back in Perú. I was relieved and sad at the same time.
There were many other trips after Perú that had this kind of effect on me, but none as much as my trip to Greece to volunteer in a Syrian refugee camp last summer. Upon my return home, for several nights, I’d dream that I was in the camps, only not as a volunteer, but rather as a refugee. The same people I volunteered with were in my dreams, but they didn’t seem to know who I was and as they’d all leave at the end of the day, I’d try to explain to anyone who would listen to me that I was one of THEM and not a refugee. Of course in typical dream frustration, I had a difficult time speaking and when I finally would find the words, they were never in the right language. My psyche was working overtime and felt the need to tie up some loose ends with me before filing the experience away. For weeks, I would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding and out of breath. The not being heard, or understood was very real. I was beginning to understanding a tiny bit of what the refugees were experiencing each and every day, by living out a small montage of it in my dreams. Those nights were difficult and long for me, but ended up being the punctuation point on my experience.
My past two times walking the Camino, brought me the same type of experience in my dreams after returning home, and this past fall after was no different. I would pace myself around parts of Portugal and Spain each and every night in my sleep, but never seemed to make any headway as I was either walking in circles or totally lost. I’d wake up exhausted. So although I had been home for a a few weeks, I had hardly closed the books on the trip, or at least in my dreams I hadn’t. It was a tiring re-entry. I think my psyche needs a vacation. Without me.
I’ve learned after my time on the Camino that it is a journey not only of the physical body, but of the heart and soul as well. The physical body takes the lead during the journey itself, and the heart and soul, though never far behind, are more of a 2nd act situation – continually making their presence known long after the boots are off and the packs are put away. It really is the journey that keeps on giving. That’s not to say that other travel experiences don’t stay with me and present themselves as a thought or a memory later on in time, but the Camino feels different for some reason. The miles logged will still present themselves when I’m finding myself in a struggle. They remind me of what I can do, whether on an emotional or physical level, and give me the confidence to trudge ahead. They became the metaphor to the bigger picture of my life, one step at a time.
I have to give credit to my physical body during that journey, who worked very hard and hung in there when my mental body was quietly chanting, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” It walked on boardwalks, dirt, cobblestones ( a lot of that), tile, sand, more cobblestones, highway shoulders, grass and rocks. It wore sink-washed clothes that underwent a ritual of being washed every few nights, which seemed to give me more peace of mind than actual clean clothes. It put on not yet dry underwear under not clean pants because it was raining outside and the laundry hanging out the window didn’t fare well in those conditions nor did it dry when hanging off the pack with safety pins. It went weeks without washing its hair, wore the same socks for longer than I care to admit, drank water from a camelback mouthpiece that I realized weeks in had been dragging the ground every time I set it down, wherever that may be, and then was promptly picked up and put in my mouth to hydrate. It ate potato chips for dinner, peeled breading off of fish to eat the insides only (I’m gluten sensitive…yeah, try that in bread loving’ Spain and Portugal!) and went to bed hungry. Thank you, body. Thank you for keeping me whole.
Once again, one of the lessons learned on the Camino was that I have far more fuel in the tank than I even begin to tap into. I learned that last year on the Camino, and the year before but continually forgot it until at the end of a very long day when I didn’t feel like I could even make it up to the check in counter at the hotel. A quick shower and a legs up the wall recovery and I honestly would feel 100% ready to go and as if the last 8 hours had not been spent walking with 20 plus pounds on my back. Recovery is quick and truly amazing and thankfully, it’s not only the physical body that can show such resilience but the emotional body as well. Well done body team. Thank you.
We spent more time on this Camino being lost, but not in an “oh no, we’re lost….now what?” but rather in a “well I don’t think this is the right way, but that restaurant ahead looks like it has a nice view” kind of way. That’s not to say we didn’t have our frustrations. Day two was the most challenging of all of our Camino walks combined, much of it on a busy two-lane road with blind curves and a very narrow shoulder that was hemmed in by a knee high stone wall. That, thankfully, did not last long. We stopped at the first cafe we could find, tried to communicate about the route and what was ahead with the only customers there, who unfortunately all spoke Portuguese. Lucky for us, the one late to the table just happened to be French. Susan was able to get us sorted out in French, while in this small, Portuguese-speaking town because my Spanish wasn’t making any headway. Team work and some luck, just when we needed it. 10 minutes later we were in a cab on our way to our hotel. Thoughts of “are we cheating?” kept coming to mind, but as far as milage goes, we had already put in a full day of walking milage-wise, mostly in circles, mostly by 11:00 am. So no. There was no cheating involved that day.
When it’s your sisters you’re traveling with, you can be totally honest, whether that means fessing up to exhaustion rather than muscling through it and punctuating it with complaints of a pack that is too heavy. There’s no needing to compete to be the strongest, the most energetic or even the cleanest for that matter, because I was with my sisters and I could speak with pure honesty.
“My feet hurt, I’m exhausted, my pack is too heavy and oh, there’s something green in between your teeth.”
After 3 weeks of walking together, averaging around 8 hours a day, that open honesty was truly was a gift. “Oh and by the way that hunk of whatever it is in-between your teeth? It has been there all day.” Freeing. Easy. Sister-speak.
We rediscovered the odd phenomena of physical body time officially not starting until the sun comes up, which meant that if you walked 2 hours pre-dawn using the light of your headlamp to light the way, it was almost as if those 5 or 6 miles you covered were given to you without any physical effort. The body only seemed to start tuning into the miles once the sun was up and it could clearly see what was going on. I know. Crazy. It absolutely made no sense at all but it was a sure thing that Susan and I discovered last year during our longest days on the Camino. I also found this phenomena to translate into the road trip arena when my daughter, grandson and I made a road trip from Ft. Collins to Santa Fe. We left 2 hours pre-dawn and honestly, the tiredness, the hunger, the boredom, the are we almost there?, were magically postponed by at least two hours. Again, whether walking or driving, the efforts don’t seem to start tallying up until the sun comes up. Besides, there’s that wonderful perk of seeing a sunrise, something that every single time I see, I question why I don’t see it more often because seriously, it happens every, single day and is quite the gift.
The scenery was spectacular, the people warm and friendly and the time spent creating memories with both sisters, priceless. We each logged difficult days, fortunately none of them at the same time, giving us ample opportunity to rally around the weakest as needed. There can be two days of the exact same physical skill, but one day will beat you up and the other feels like a walk in the park. I’ve no explanation for that short of your mental state when the day begins.
There was plenty of time for pity parties and we each took our turn when we needed it. Mine was about mid-way through our journey on a long, hot day, a few miles outside of our destination town. I was tired, annoyed that we were still walking, and wanting my pack and boots OFF. Of course once you’ve hit that mind set, it’s very hard to claw your way out. Susan recognized the behavior and stopped and waited for me in front of a small store. As I caught up to her, she handed me a package of Lays potato chips. She knows. Sisters know.
Robin’s day came in a pharmacy trying to find a cure for a pretty bad sun rash she had started developing on the back of her legs. Robin tried to explain to the pharmacist what was going on and rather than struggle with descriptions and fight a language barrier, the pharmacist came around the counter to have a look. When Robin pulled her pant leg up, the pharmacist literally reeled back, took a breath to compose herself then went about the task of finding the proper ointment for the job. It’s possible that Susan and I re-enacted that reeling back motion a few more times than it was necessary. You catch the laughs when you can. They become vitally important. Susan had a toe issue about half way in that presented itself on one of our longest days. Given that we were on rural, remote path in the woods, there was literally nothing that could be done short of continuing to walk while offering up any words of encouragement we could scrounge together, including re-inactments of the pharmacist reeling at the sight of Robin’s leg. We were only as strong as our weakest link on any given day so it was always an all hands on deck in an attempt to scoop up the one who needed anything extra that we had.
Those many memories collected became woven into the tapestry that is my life; a tapestry whose pattern is not always predictable, or neat or tidy, or even always pleasing to the eye, but collectively these rows of tattered and wonderfully rich experiences are nothing but beautiful to me. I spent a lot of hours on the Camino, in my head, envisioning myself sitting in a large room with piles of different colors of yarn, weaving each and every travel experience into a tapestry, row by row. It’s a picture I think of often and with great comfort, knowing that each thread of a memory is woven into a greater fabric and not forgotten. As much as the feet were moving during our journey, the mind certainly did its share of wandering as well and long after my return home, I find myself recalling those imagined places such as the large room with the tapestry yarns, just as much as I recall the real ones.
Although I’m putting a period to this latest Camino experience, that’s not to say that I won’t still have a random moment when I’m taken back to a time and place so specific that for a moment it feels like I’m actually there. Back to a trail or a road or along the narrow shoulder of a busy highway, with two sisters walking ahead of me, and once again my heart will feel full and content. Until the next time…