The Third Time I Walked Into Spain

When I woke up in Portugal for the last time as a hiker, the aroma of brewing coffee wafted in from the common room. Someone out there is my true hero, I thought. The rest of the albergue was starting to roll out of bed and the familiar sound of backpacks being packed and teeth being brushed commenced.

My body hurt. I may have slept better, but things were really starting to ache. Your body waits for a weekend on the Camino, but it doesn’t come. My old ailments–a sore ankle, plantar fasciitis, a funky swollen knee, and hip that doesn’t feel screwed on the right way–began to complain.

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Frida Kahlo and the Land of Deep Blue

I have a tattoo on my left arm of a poppy and the word, ultreïa. This word was first seen in a 12th-century guide about how to walk the Camino, and it is believed to mean, “Go further!”

The poppy, however, has a double meaning. To start, there are poppies all over the Camino Frances in the spring, fields and fields of them. But the flower itself also holds the meaning of death, rebirth, and recovery through tragedy. I’ve walked each of my Camino’s in memory of someone dear to me–the first for my theatre professor and the second for my grandmother.

This Camino was for Michael. Michael was the musical director of my summer camp growing up. I was not a very skilled musical theatre kid–though heaven knows I tried–so Michael and I didn’t even work together back then. He was for the super-Broadwyy-bound kids, but we all looked up to him from afar.

When I was in my late 20s, I spotted a familiar face playing the piano at a reading of a new musical in NYC. He was introduced as Michael Larsen. Very long story short, I timidly walked up to him to say hello and to explain that I was one of his campers many years ago. “Be my student!” he said immediately. We became great friends.

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The Story of Ponte de Lima

I’m having a hard day today. I can’t seem to bring myself to write like I usually do, but I’m determined to stick with this project either way. The 5th day of hiking–from Fernanda’s house to the city of Ponte de Lima–was beautiful. We saw sheep, we walked through stunning landscapes, and we met a small dog that looked like Toto who shepherded us from one side of town to the other.

It was another short walking day in comparison to the Camino Frances, and we mainly walked it together. My knee started to ache and I hadn’t slept well in days, but my spirits were still high. I hoped it would stay that way.

Since I’m in a weird headspace today, I’m going to tell you the story of Ponte de Lima, Portugal’s oldest village and my stopping point on day 5. I’ll start by saying that I fell so deeply in love with the town’s beauty that I plan to retire there. You’ll find me someday sitting by the river eating a pastry.

The city sits on the River Lima, a river with quite a story. There is a legend that in 139 B.C., a Roman army was preparing to cross the river on horseback, but refused. To them, it resembled the River Lethe–or, the “River of Oblivion”–one of the rivers of the underworld. The army believed that crossing or drinking the water would erase their memory.

When the army’s leader ordered them to cross, they refused, fearing their minds would be wiped clean. To comfort them, the commander rode across the river on his own and called their names one by one to prove he still had his memory.

The bridge that connects the two sides has an archway with stones placed there in the 1st century. So for a brief moment, you get to cross over a 2000-year old bridge. And if you’re wondering, no, your brain cannot comprehend it in the moment.

On the edge of the river today, sits a series of statues–the soldiers on one side and the commander on the other, calling out their names. I read somewhere that you’re supposed to shout your friends’ names as you cross.

We arrived early in the afternoon and checked into a hostel off the beaten path a bit outside of town. We had a beautiful outdoor dinner together and wandered through the dark town before the end of the night.

I didn’t sleep well. My knee was starting to swell. I’ve had knee problems since my hike in 2017 and I started to panic that this was the sign my luck was running out.

I realize this isn’t much of a blog post, and it’s very out of character for me. But I’ve been proud that I’ve stuck to my vow to write about each day as it happened one year ago today, and in a way, I still did.

I miss being in a world filled with old myths and magical legends. There are so many festivals in places like that.

Tomorrow I have a bigger story–crossing La Bruja–the steepest mountain on the north side of the Camino Portugues. I’ll tell you about someone special too, a man named Michael who I walked this Camino in memory of.

Until then.

The Road to Fernanda’s

Wanted to say a quick hello to all the sweet new (and not-so-new) followers of my blog. It’s meant so much to see your views, messages, likes, and follows. I haven’t been able to write for myself since March, so I deeply appreciate all of it.

October 5, 2019

Once you get past the many months of Camino preparations, you have to face the decision you made. The fourth day of walking–I’ve often found–is the moment you realize that it’s time to simply walk. No more airplanes, organizing, saving money. Just walking.

You wake up each morning, stretch damp socks over your tired, swollen feet, and walk back onto the road, hoping to spot the first arrow.

Why? And why does everyone else around you do the same? On the fourth day, I start to truly question why on earth I keep coming back. Maybe none of us fit in with the rhythms of the rest of the world. Maybe something has always felt off to all of us, but here, things feel right.

Some people plan a Camino all their lives, others make a rash decision a few weeks before. One of my Camino friends never even planned to walk it in the first place. She was several months into her travels around the world, learned about the Camino while in Portugal, and just decided to start.

This doesn’t happen with the Appalachian Trail, does it? You just pick up and go because you see the trail, do you? Something bigger, that I will never put my finger on, is afoot here.

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Trapped in an Elevator in the City of Roosters

I’m feeling pretty drained today, my friends, so I’m gonna keep this a short chapter in my Camino story. But, here we go.

Day 3: October 4, 2019

During my first and second Caminos, the third day of hiking was rough on both my body and mind. VERY rough. On both occasions, I injured a muscle in my ankle (yes, the same ankle) and hit my limit of insomnia. In 2017, I could barely straighten my left foot or put pressure on it during the day. I still walked, but you better believe I yelled the whole way.

So, on this trip, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The shoe, somehow, did not drop. I wouldn’t say I slept soundly, however. The metal bunk beds were the old-school public hostel type, much more like the Camino I knew in 2009. They clanged when you shifted in the slightest direction and the rubber mattresses squeaked against your sleeping bag.

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And Then The World Looked Beautiful Again

There is little room for cynicism on the Camino. As someone who has struggled with depression since I was a teenager, cynicism is one of the easiest–and yet most damaging–habits I can fall into or spend too much time around. The ideas of “this will never get better, ” “Things will probably be terrible today,” or, “the world is full of more bad than good,” permeate our world, and for very understandable reasons.

In many cases, difficult ideas are meant to empower, to shine light on a problem, or to point out how something has to change. But cynicism? That is a closed door. There is nowhere else to go when we deem something unredeemable. Leaving for the Camino is an escape from this thinking, even if it still tries to control me when the old dark familiar clouds come rolling in.

Second Hiking Day, October 3, 2019

I woke up to the early morning light in the monastery. I had fantastic energy–something very rare for me. I struggle through fatigue on most days, so when I wake up feeling good, the world is brighter and more vibrant than it is 90% of the time.

One of the women from dinner was making piles and piles of toast for whoever needed it, barely looking up from her toaster, just laying it out on the table in mountains of carbohydrates. I thanked her and took two pieces as I sat down to put my pack together.

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Back on the Road

This post is part of a series. Check out the first post if you’re starting from the top!

I slept a total of four hours that night–which is about three hours more than the nights before my first two Caminos. So, I considered it a win. I’d wrestled in and out of consciousness most of the night, knowing that the less I slept, the harder the next day would be. Still, from about 2am-5am, I was out, and that was enough to cut the insomnia dizzies to a minimum.

Preparing for the Camino is shockingly lonely when you’re not headed out the door with other pilgrims. I was happy this would be the last time I’d be by myself.

I ate my last apple, packed the final bit of bread in the top of my backpack and, and pocketed the remainder of the chocolate bar. After obsessively checking that I had passport-phone-money-pilgrim credential packed, I said a strange goodbye to my little room and locked it behind me.

The kind front desk man waited up for me–I gave him a heads up that I would be leaving early. “Would you like a taxi?” he asked. I stared at him for a brief moment, realizing he didn’t even know I was a pilgrim. I wanted to say, “And give up already?!” But he wouldn’t have gotten it. I was yet to be on the Camino. “Não, obrigada,” I thanked him. That was the final temptation to ditch this whole plan, I suppose.

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The Day Before

This is a series about my Camino Portugues last year at this time! You can check out the first three posts here, here, and here🙂

I’ve never liked being a traditional tourist. I know that makes me sound like I think I’m above it all, but I genuinely dislike the process of “seeing the sights” and walking around like a herd of disruptive goats in a tour group. I may learn less, but I am much happier picking a cafe, sitting with a massive cup of coffee, and watching the world go by.

However, I had less than 24 hours left in Porto before I was set to begin my 150-mile hike north and my anxiety was off the charts. So I woke up on October 1st with a game plan:

  • I needed food for the hike
  • I needed clean clothing
  • I needed to see the gold church
  • I needed to see the river
  • I needed to eat a Francesinha

The clothing was taken care of with some secret sink washing (despite the giant sign on the wall aimed at hikers warning us not to do this.) The food would have to come from somewhere in the city. Breakfast on the Camino was always tricky, especially since you tend to hit the road around 6am before things were open.

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Post-Nap Porto and the Beer Pilgrimage

This is part of a series on my trip last year. You can read the first and second posts here.

Part 2: September 30, 2019

It is dark in my room when I wake up. The curtains are closed but I can’t see what time it is outside. Is it Tuesday? Or has only a half hour passed? My earplugs, still saturated from my post-shower hair, have expanded in my ears, and for a solid 15 seconds, and I cannot get them out. I am in darkness, I cannot hear, and I have no idea where I am. I paw desperately at the squishy earplugs. I am off to a great start.

I finally dislodge them and sit up, a new woman. I slept! It is 6pm, a perfectly rational and safe time to still go outside without knowing where I’m going. My anxiety about getting lost in the city in the dark is still too strong, so I decide to trace my pre-memorized route from my hotel to the Camino itself. I pocket my whistle, just in case (of what? I’m not so sure.)

The Camino, no matter the route, is famously marked with painted yellow arrows. In some areas, the road includes blue-and-yellow scallop shells–the symbol of the ancient hike. Finding a yellow arrow sends comfort down your spine. It is a reminder that you didn’t goof up, that you’re still headed in the right direction. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve zoned out on the trail, only to come back to reality 20 minutes later, terrified that I missed a turn. Arrows are great.

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Saudade and the Day I Fell in Love With Porto

This post is part of a series. Day one of my trip lives here!

September 30, 2019: Part 1

When our plane finally coasted into Monday’s sunrise, my shoulder mate rose from his sweet slumber and thanked me in Spanish for not waking him up. I helped him and his wife order breakfast from the flight attendant that only spoke English and Portuguese–which was only possible because we were using all the basic phrases on learns one Duolingo in the first three months. “He wants coffee without sugar please.” “Do you have a bottle of water?” High five, persistent little green bird.

With a jolt of caffeine in my system, there was now a better chance I would get to my hotel in one piece. I desperately hoped they’d let me check in early. I was becoming a bit cross-eyed and it was supposed to be a particularly hot day. If they didn’t, I had four sweaty hours ahead of me until I could lay my head on a pillow, and my body could not fathom that many hours in the standing position with my pack.

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