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)

Shattered Dreams? A snapshot of education in Liberia

I took myself out to lunch last weekend, which ended up being interrupted by the Ethiopian businessman who sat down beside me. The entire restaurant empty, and this guy sits right next of me.  Terrific. I was in no mood for small lunch talk with a complete stranger, but I didn’t see any way around it unless I wanted to be overtly rude. So there I was.

Stuck.

We were getting through the niceties when I said that I was a teacher. Immediately, this guy segued right into the educational state of Liberia, as if he were an expert, even though this was his first trip to the country. Am I the only one who finds that obnoxious? I’ve lived in this country for over a year, visited Liberian schools, and participated in training conferences for local teachers. And I can’t speak with any real authority on the subject. Who is this guy?

Admittedly, I just tried to tune him out and focus on my chicken artichoke salad, but I couldn’t help but hearing that as an adult man, he had recently asked his mother what the happiest moment in her life had been.

She said it was when she sent him abroad to a boarding school.

Now I would venture to say this is not the happiest moment for most parents. Whether it’s sending your kids off to summer camp, away to college, or to an international boarding school, most parents dread that initial separation. But this mother found her greatest joy in it.

It seems to me that this shows the great degree to which people virtually everywhere, champion education.

That is, everywhere except maybe Liberia.

In a post-war society, bringing ministries like finance, health, and education back up to par is going to take time. That’s reality. But it seems to be taking particularly long in Liberia. You could make the argument that it’s only been a decade since the civil war ended, but given the past and present state of things, the current generation of students simply cannot afford to wait. One article I read recently was pretty shocking. This year, for the first time in history, EVERY single Liberian student failed their college entrance exam. We’re talking thousands of students failing simultaneously. We’re talking thousands of dreams, shattered.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23843578

A follow-up article explained that President Sirleaf put pressure on the University to accept at least some of the incoming freshman class, given that standards were recently raised, and that this shift was responsible for the students’ poor performance. For the sake of continuing higher education, the University agreed to scale back standards in this instance, and admit around 1,800 students.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23856310

I’m not sure what the appropriate response should be to a failure of this magnitude, but reverting back and allowing students to “get by” doesn’t seem to bode well in favor of progression.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a teachers’ training hosted by missionaries with Serving in Mission (SIM). With little to no professional development offered to teachers in this country, this training provides enrichment through courses in Classroom Management, Ethics, Methodologies, and a variety of subjects-oriented classes like Phonics, Creative Writing, Solving Story Problems, and my personal favorite, Child Psychology-which I taught.

When I asked my audience (approximately 100) to raise their hand if they had ever taken a Psychology course, only two hands went up.  Needless to say, I was not going to give a comprehensive understanding of the field of Psychology, but my goal was to provide an introduction to child development, which would allow them adopt  practical strategies and adapt teaching styles to meet learners in various cognitive stages.  Most of the teachers there didn’t even know children have different cognitive stages. My eager audience informed me that they wanted more Psychology taught at next year’s training, so I can only hope they must’ve learned something.

In addition to Psychology, I also taught sessions in Basic Phonics, Math, Writing, and Language. While it was in a sense refreshing to plan how I would present word problems, creative writing, and adjectives vs. adverbs, considering I’ve never taught those before, I think I most enjoyed teaching Basic Phonics.

Here I was, a white woman, with two higher education degrees (and a host of debt between them both), standing in front of 50 Liberians strong, many of them my seniors in age and experience. Yet, I was the revered pundit because I could correctly and confidently pronounce my “r” and “a.” We practiced for an hour each day speaking and identifying the individual sounds of the letters with the help of flashcards.

It was really humbling.

What was interesting was that trainees were allowed to pick which Phonics session they attended.  Over half of them chose my Basics class on their own, because either they didn’t know the alphabet phonetically, or they didn’t have confidence in teaching it.  Can you imagine, arriving well into adulthood, teaching as your profession, standing in front of a classroom of children on a daily basis, and not knowing Phonics? What I appreciated about my classes was they were so hungry to learn.   Even if it meant admitting that as teachers, they didn’t have a vague clue when it came to the most basic elements of the English language.

Although I was their/am a  “teacher,” the people from this training, along with the whole Liberia experience in general, continue to teach me.

They teach me that you can’t take education for granted. They teach me that you need trained teachers AND resources/curriculum that meet standards. They teach me that without a government to ensure and enforce standards, fight for fair wages, and help poor families pay for school fees, students will continue to fail. They teach me that you can’t assume systems are working when clearly they aren’t. They teach me that if you snub education, what you get are dreams shattered.

I’ve set foot in some of the poorest Liberian classrooms, and I can tell you it’s not the dirt floor or the lack of electricity, or the thatched roof which leaks water into puddles on the floor during rainy season that jolts me most; it’s the lone, cracked blackboard facing the students exhibiting misspelled words, incorrect math, or worst of all, nothing at all.

It’s not a pretty picture. But I’m reminded to rejoice in the small victories.  Like those 100+ teachers who traveled far distances to be with us during training, and left with a little more than they came with.

In them, I sense a sparkle of hope. I can only pray they sense it too.