Buen Camino, the good way

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(Early morning view from O’Cebreiro, photo cred Josh Walker)

You might be asking yourself what’s the big deal about a hike?

If you don’t know much or anything about El Camino de Santiago, then I get it.  You would wonder why it’s a thing.  You could call it many things: a journey, an adventure, an experience, a pilgrimage, a walk. But you can’t know something simply by knowing what it’s called. You have to participate in it.

(Between O’Cebreiro and Tricastela- photo cred Josh Walker)

I knew the Camino was an ancient network of hiking paths, diverging throughout the northern part of Spain, until all converge at the shrine of St. James in Santiago. What I didn’t know was the contour of those paths, the character of the towns and villages we would pass through or the subtle beauty I would see. I didn’t know the culture or ethos of the participants, the physical challenge it would present, or the lessons I would take away.  These things must be obtained throughout the journey. You can’t read about them before hand and know what they’re about.

So really, I had no idea what to expect. I just knew I was going on a really long hike. And that some people do it for spiritual reasons.

My own objective was to simply enjoy being outdoors, and carve out solitude for me and God. In spending six months learning a language, dwelling in a city, moving and setting up house in a new town, I felt an urge for extended tranquility in wide-open spaces.

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The beauty of northern Spain alone (Galicia) should draw you to the Camino.  Over mountains, through forests, past tiny almost ghost-like villages, around meadows and pastures, through city streets, and across bridges, we trekked over every sort of landscape you would expect.  The beauty is in the modesty and simplicity of an older, more natural way of life. It also vaguely reminded me of the Appalachian region in the U.S., bringing me closer to familiarity and home.

The views were unassuming, yet stunning.  A quaint old village church, antique farm equipment resting alongside the road, meadows of wildflowers, wild hydrangeas burgeoning from cracks in stone. Sheep, horses, and goats resting in their pastures. Panoramas from grassy balds. Celtic ruins lying hidden on the mountain top. Some blend of rock, soil, grass, wood, stone or concrete always beneath my feet.

I savored beauty while I could. I’m storing up those views, breezes, and smells to remind me of the gifts God lavishes on us through His creation.

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(What appeared to be a nearly abandoned village, claiming only a handful of residents)

I wasn’t prepared for the physical challenge. I did virtually no training. I carried a large back-pack most days, and my feet and knees weren’t used to the uneven, rugged, sometimes rocky terrain.  I wasn’t prepared for the steep inclines and let’s face it, I can’t remember the last time I elected to be on my feet for more than 8 hours on any given day. But some of the reward comes through the challenge. In total, I walked about 115 km (100 km is needed to obtain the official pilgrim’s credential) or 70ish miles in 8 days. I had a few blisters, achy feet, and sore knees to prove it.

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The Spirit of the Camino is very much in those who participate. The general attitude is that even though we may not know each other, we know what each other is going through.  There is comradry and solidarity in this.  People believe in leaving the trails and establishments along the way in better shape than they were found. There’s a spirit of helpfulness, kindness, and patience. People are willing to stop and ask if you need help with your bag, a new bandage, or some fresh water.  Local Spaniards sit outside their local bar, their pastime to look out for lost hikers. People set up stands with free food and drink to take something if you need it. Though the nationalities and languages are vast, the spirit is the same.

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(View of a lake at Portomarin, and a lovely hiker from Greenland, first person I’ve ever met from Greenland)

As I think about what revelations or “ah-ha” moments to share, I’m coming up short. We went with the intention of simply trying to be light and share our faith when we had an opportunity.  I had a few exchanges with people, but the joy for me was not in sharing, but in taking part.  As a missionary living abroad, daily life is just a little bit harder than it would be in my home culture. Here, I am more in danger of being emptied, drained, or burnt out because it requires much change, adaptation, energy, and lingual capacity just to live here. It’s where I am supposed to be, and I have no regrets.   This journey for me wasn’t about receiving some spiritual revelation, or having some great testimony to share (though I wish that were the case).  This time was meant to refuel and refill me in such a way that I could come back to where God has planted me and continue on.

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(Directly above, on top of a mountain at an old Celtic ruins site)

Overall reflections.

The days were long, but the journey was short.

The joy is in the journey, not the destination. Reaching Santiago was actually anti-climactic. No banners, no crowds cheering, no welcome sign, just a bunch of tired, limping hikers wandering aimlessly, searching for a nondescript building offering the official stamp of completion.

The reward of a hard climb was usually tangible: a stunning view I could capture with my camera, a hilltop village where I could remove my pack and untie my shoes, or a cafe offering freshly squeezed orange juice and baked empanadas.

Some days I barreled through just to get to the next destination. I couldn’t be bothered to stop.  Other days I was more relaxed and allowed myself time to stop, take a break, and savor what was around me.

There was always an option to take a taxi to the next point, and a few times I took advantage of this.  There were also bag services, and for 3 euros you could send your pack ahead of you to your next destination.  These options felt a little like “cheats” for me, but I quickly got over this.  Forget mileage for mileage sake, I wanted to enjoy this experience (and avoid injury). If I was killing it each day, I could be robbing myself of joy found in a slower pace.

The quiet places. An empty cathedral, a rusty bench in a town plaza, a flat stone in the middle of a wood, a grassy embankment in the shade; there sometimes I prayed, there sometimes I sat in quiet, there sometimes I nursed and massaged my wounds. I touched the path with my feet, sometimes my whole body.  I am blessed by these quiet moments of unity with a centuries old road, where many others have gone before me.

The way is hallowed not because of the countless pilgrims and saints who have consecrated its path.  It is hallowed because it is earth, created by God, as its trekkers are made by Him and in His image. It is hallowed because through the journey, you find just a little more of what you’re made of.  And if you have eyes to see and ears to hear you may just discover this likeness.

While you’re on about wandering and seeking, you may stumble upon the Way Himself.

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(People pay homage to the cross in their own way, leaving items behind)

OUR ITINERARY & SOME FACTS (in case you’re interested in such things)

  • June 20- Madrid to Piedrafita by bus; Piedrafita to O’Cebreiro on foot: 3,6 km or 2,2 miles; time it took- 2+ hours
  • June 21- O’Cebreiro to Tricastela: 21 km or 13.5 miles; time it took- 8+ hrs
  • June 22- Tricastela to Sarria: between 21-24 km or 13.5-15 miles (*I took a taxi because I didn’t sleep at all the night before, and was feeling a bit under the weather with, ahem, female issues*)
  • June 23- Sarria to Portomarin: 23 km or 14+ miles; time it took- 9ish hours
  • June 24- Portomarin to Palas de Rei: 22-23 km or 13.5-14 miles; time it took for me- 5ish hours (* I stopped at 13 km/or 8 miles, and taxied the remainder because I was in some serious pain from the day before)
  • June 25- Palas de Rei: Rest Day
  • June 26- Palas de Rei to Arzua: 29 km or 18 miles; time it took for me 5.5-6 hours (*I stopped at 16 km/10 miles and taxied the remainder*)
  • June 27- Arzua to Amenal: 23 km or 14 miles; time it took- 8ish hours
  • June 28- Amenal to Santiago: 16.5 km or 10 miles; time it took- 9ish hours
  • June 29- Rest Day in Santiago: 2 km or so, 1.2 miles in and around the city
  • June 30- Left Santiago, flew to Madrid, Madrid to home

Total km walked: 115    Total miles walked: 72   Total days on the trail: 8   Total hours on the trail: 50ish    Total injuries: 0 

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(Sunset at O’Cebreiro, a mountain top village, and my favorite spot on all the hike)

From culture-shock to culture-sick

If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have told you a doctor, or zookeeper, or a princess.

But definitely not a missionary. Or an NGO worker. Or even a kind of blend between the two.

Which is ironic, because that’s exactly where I find myself today.

After years of pursuing other, more ‘normal’ interests, I finally began responding to the nagging sense that I was built for something else. It’s not by accident that I’m writing to you from one of the poorest countries in the world.

Christians are missionaries, wherever they find themselves, but after sensing it was God’s best for me, I chose to pursue a job in the mission field. So I packed my bags, grabbed a dose of idealism, an ego of saintliness, a spirit of adventure, and set off, knowing that my new home, my new life, was going to be just awesome.

But two years in, I’m past the initial ‘culture shock’ and have entered into what I’m going to call ‘culture sick.’

Culture sick is the period of time after culture shock, where you find yourself stuck, wondering how to continually frame the ongoing challenges and pain of culture adjustment.

One missionary’s blog said that her year two was the hardest.  I’m sure opinions range wide, but reading those words recently brought immense comfort as I try to articulate the present struggle I find myself in.

I have no desire to be over-dramatic. It’s not like I’m living out of a tent in a refugee camp, am fearful for persecution, or am being unnecessarily over worked or anything. No, the challenges here are far more subtle. But real and hard, all the same.

Homesick. Obvious? Maybe. But it’s more than simply missing my favorite coffee joint, shopping spot or daily texts about nothing from my best friend. It’s about trying to build a life outside my passport country, where neither here nor there really feels like ‘home.’ A Sara Groves song expresses this well…

“The future looks so hard and I want to go back. But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I’ve learned…”

Communication. Though technically we share the same mother tongue in this country, listening to native ‘English’ has led to more than one episode of miscommunication, and subsequent frustration.

Boredom. Apart from the occasional trip to a restaurant or grocery store, there’s not much to do and few places to go. That’s the third world. At the risk of sounding whiny, I do believe a place is what you make it, but it helps when the place you live at least gives you options.

Community. For those of us who live overseas, community is our lifeline.  I like to think of community as the thick fabric we wrap ourselves in to buffer against the harsh, abrasive elements. It warms and it protects.  But after a while, it starts to suffocate us. Inevitably we’ll want to shed that fabric and be free, but can’t, because once we do, we’re fighting for survival on our own.

Transition. The nature of our work requires that we adapt, frequently. While it’s good form and healthy to be flexible when circumstances fluctuate, as workers in the field, we need constants.  This is especially important at home. Whether it’s the physical surroundings, or the people who make up a home, constancy and consistency in the midst of chaos is vitally important for well-being and sustainment in the field long term.

Not a comprehensive list, but they’re five things I’m dealing with now.  The real trouble is, I want to be here. And I don’t. All at the same time.

The consensus from the field is that year seven, eight, nine, and so on are pretty much the same as year two: HARD. It doesn’t necessarily get easier. I don’t want easy, I just want grace. Grace to get through, and Grace to say thank you for the culture He sends me to.

The pain of culture sick is hard, but it’s important to remember that it’s better to soften my heart toward it than to harden myself to it. Pain shapes us. And keeps us leaning on our ever loving God, while all the time longing for our real home.

“If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy,
I can only conclude that I was not made for here
If the flesh that I fight is at best only light and momentary,
then of course I’ll feel nude when to where I’m destined I’m compared…

For we, we are not long here
Our time is but a breath, so we better breathe it
And I, I was made to live, I was made to love, I was made to know you
Hope is coming for me
Hope, He’s coming”