My Heart is Still in Porto

Marcie–the South Carolinan sitting to my right–held my hand during the entire, hair-raising, hour-and-fifteen-minute descent into Newark airport. She saw me panicking during our last bout of turbulence that sent even the flight attendants rushing to their jump seats, and gripped my hand without even looking up from her book. As life would have it, she’d also walked a part of the Camino the year prior. A pilgrim by my side until the final moments of my trip.

Three loud and generally uncomfortable Portuguese people in the 70s in the row ahead of us spent the flight annoyed by everything and everyone. I can’t blame them; I’ve always been more of a “feet on the ground” person myself. Flying is a necessary evil of travel for me. During the descent, however, they audibly prayed to each saint, one by one. My Portuguese may have been confined to “obrigada,” “você fala ingles?” and, “Um cerveja, por favor,” but the rhythmic chanting of the litany of the saints was pretty recognizable.

“I think the rest of us are praying to St. Seagram’s,” Marcie’s husband dad-joked as the plane slanted uncomfortably for the umpteenth time.

If I had taken heed of the United Airline’s warning to change my flight, I’d still be sitting in peaceful bliss in my comically oversized hotel room back in Porto waiting out the storm. Porto is shockingly inexpensive; though you wouldn’t know it from its breathtaking beauty around each stone corner. I ended up accidentally booking a palatial apartment for my final night of the trip. It overlooked one of the main hubs for restaurants and bars, terrace and all for less than $100. I say accidentally because it felt silly that just little ol’ me needed that much space, especially after confining my personal sleeping bubble to a bunk bed for 12 evenings.

I ignored United’s weather warning and concluded that if the storm was really that bad, they would cancel. So here we were, trying to dip below the cloud level again and again with Newark still not visible below our shaking plane.

When we finally landed, everyone on the plane clapped, the man behind us lost his lunch and the row ahead of us thanked their favorite saints. The pilot–I kid you not–let out an audible and frustrated sigh after welcoming us to Newark.

Our terrible flight seemed like the only appropriate mark of re-entry after what was otherwise a seamless adventure (a phrase that bothers me for some reason, but I’m unsure how else to describe it). It had been 16 days since I shook nervously in the Departures area of EWR, wishing I could just leap back into my bed in New York and carry on with my regular life.

Something in me last winter decided that I needed to complete a third Camino — this time only 150 miles (still significant but far less than the two before), from Porto to Santiago de Compostela.

Nearly two weeks later, comfy and cozy in our apartment and listening to the familiar traffic of 79th street, I have yet to process anything from those 12 days of hiking. I’ve had a few friends and family members ask when I would start blogging again. Honestly? A large part of me is still sitting in that hotel room in Porto, wrapped up in a blanket staring blankly at the white-curtained french windows of my balcony.

I’ve always had trouble transitioning back to real life after the Camino–the lack of direction, a smaller community, a lost routine, the separation from nature. I’m supposed to tweeze my eyebrows again, squeeze my swollen feet into heels again, buy groceries that fit inside a refrigerator–not just the outside pockets of my backpack (I once inhaled half a baguette in 10 minutes so it would fit into the top pouch of my pack). I’m supposed to reintegrate into a competitive world where everyone seems to have an assigned identity. As a Camino hiker, no one knows what you’re truly about until you walk by their side for a few days.

Traveling alone has made this transition even stranger. I remember a quote from Doll’s House: Part 2, a show on Broadway several years back, freezing me in my seat as I listened:

“And even though I was living by myself, for everything I did, every decision I made, from what I ate to when I went to bed–
I could hear a voice in the back of my head that either sounded like you or my father or the pastor or any number of other people I knew–I’d always in my head somehow manage to check with that person, to see what he thought, even though that person wasn’t a person but my thinking of that person.

And so, as long as that continued, I decided that I’d live in silence, not speaking and avoiding the speaking of others–
and I’d live like that until I couldn’t remember what other people sounded like–
until I no longer heard a voice in my head other than my voice or what I was certain to be my voice.”

(I got this quote from a loose google search, hopefully it was accurate)

The irony of walking this Camino by myself is that I was alone for very little of the trip. From the moment Barbara from Germany pranced into my room and took the bed next to mine in the Varão monastery, I’d hoped she’d be by my side for the rest of the walk. We picked up new family members as we walked north; we’d sometimes zoom ahead or fall behind, but we were always within a day’s walk of one another.

We were all linked somehow–perhaps we were meant to be the moment we all picked our outgoing flight months earlier. We shared bandages, sunscreen, money, stories, advice. In two weeks, we’d end our family’s time together with a night of drinking in a Santiago bar that looked like something right out of the West Village in the 90s–a basement of worn, dark wood, nonsensical artwork and photographs of famous musicians and a place to make noise without concern for the neighbors.

So though I was never alone, I was just me. I wasn’t a wife, a daughter, an actress, a temp or friend-of-a-friend. Just Ginny from NYC who walked a lot of Caminos for some reason. I don’t remember the last time I’d met someone under those circumstances. We supported each other but we also let each other be. My decisions and my time was mine and no one else’s.

I typically come home spewing Camino stories at anyone who will listen. I’m not quite there yet. I’m hanging onto being Ginny who walks through the Spanish forests listening to Hadestown, stopping for long cups of coffee and staying the night wherever she damn well pleases.

I’ve started a new tactic for writing my Camino book–you know, the one I’ve been picking away at for 10 years. If you see me sitting at a coffee shop with a stack of color-coded notecards, please come say hi. I’m a little lost in a stack of memories I don’t know how to make sense of quite yet. And though I’m not sure how to sum up this last trip quite yet, perhaps it will all come cascading out at all once.

I’ll get there though, I always seem to. And if I don’t, I’ll just go back. Until then, I’ll be moving slowly around the city, looking for yellow arrows and cherishing long cups of coffee.

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