Lightening the Load

On my first Camino three years ago, my friend Rick and I would see people with small daypacks. These were the people who hired  a service to bring their packs to their destination instead of carrying them themselves. “This walk would be a piece of cake if I wasn’t carrying a pack!” Rick would say. “Yeah, I could walk so much further if I didn’t have my pack,” I added. A few days ago, I learned we were right. For the first time ever on the Camino, there was no belt cinched tight around my waist, no straps pulling on my shoulders. I carried a tiny bag on my back that held water, my jacket, and some snacks.

“You already did this trail once carrying your pack. You’ve got that story to tell your grandkids,” Lois told me.”You’ve got nothing to prove, kid. And me? I’m only doing this once and I’m here to enjoy it. We can enjoy it a lot more without carrying our packs.” Well, since she put it that way . . .

I studied myself that day–how I felt being on the other side of the carry-your-pack or not debate. I didn’t feel guilty–initially. I did, however, wonder how other people would react to us, but was surprised to see we got the same “Buen Camino” greetings we received the day before.

A few hours into our day, after crossing a busy mountain road, we got to a food truck. Plastic chairs held weary pilgrims, their packs and walking sticks strewn about the pavement. Lois and I stood looking at our food options as a large man dropped his equally large pack and settled himself into a chair beside me with a big sigh. We smiled at each other, and I patted his back, then started to massage his shoulders. A man sitting across from him said, in an Irish accent, “Over here next!” pointing to his own shoulders. We all exchanged answers to “Where are you from” and “where are you going today.” I let out that this was my third Camino. “You’ve done this twice already? From St. Jean?” “No–I’ve done this route once before, and did 10 days on the Portugese last year.” I very deliberately did not add, “carrying my pack the whole time.” These men had seen Lois and I arrive. Looking at Lois, one would easily forgive her for not carrying a pack. But me? What was my reason? Did I need one?

I’ve just finished my third day without my pack. And the guilt has come and gone and come and gone again. Yesterday, a German man caught up with us and one of the first things he said was, “I see you’re not carrying much.” I stumbled over an explanation.

Me and the German

He and I had a delightful discussion, and when he moved on I said to Lois, “I need to come up with some good responses to the question of why I’m not carrying my pack.”

We came up with:

  • In case I have to carry Lois.
  • My pack? You mean it’s not on my back? Hm.
  • The better question is why are you carrying yours?
  • I’m probably carrying about as much as the pilgrims of the middle ages carried.

“People can’t have a one-sided conversation,” Lois said. In other words, I didn’t have to say anything. That hadn’t occured to me.

“You know it’s not personal–he asked about your pack to make himself feel better.” Indeed, this idea of “it’s not personal” is one of the best things I’ve learned from Lois.

A few days ago, pilgrims gathered in the choir loft of the church at Zabaldika, some sitting on cushions on the floor, others on chairs. The Sister who ran the evening prayer service asked if anyone would like to share anything they’ve learned thus far on their journey. I hadn’t taken the time to consider either question until that point. But something simple came to me quickly. “On my first Camino I learned to stop judging other people. On this Camino, I’m learning to let go of my concern about other people judging me.”

 

 

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Unloading My Fears, Lightening My Pack

“Don’t let your fears load your pack,” Rick said to me on our third day on the Camino. He’d read this advice on a Camino Forum, but admitted he didn’t follow it close enough. As we walked along, he decided to heed this advice and let go of his bedbug spray. Years ago the hostels along the Camino had a problem with bedbugs, but I’d read it had since been remedied. I hoped that was true. So did Rick.

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A Test Run

I don’t know that I’ll ever shake that initial jolt of fear that shoots through me when I arrive alone in a foreign country.  I follow the crowd through the terminal to baggage claim.  Traveling only with carry-on luggage, this is where I abandon them.  I look around to find the bus or train I need to get to my destination.

Sometimes, I don’t even have a destination when I arrive.  During a visit to Rome a couple weeks ago, I headed to the bookstore in the train station first.  I was in this same station with my sister ten days earlier so I knew they had a section of English travel guides.  I flipped to the index in a few of them scanning for the word, “hostels.”  I opened my small green notebook and jotted down a few ideas for places to stay.  My next stop was an internet cafe to research my options a little more.  I wrote down the contact information and directions to my top three choices.  A phone call to my first choice disappointed me a little – they only had one night available and I wanted two.  My intuition told me to go anyway.  So I found the bus that would take me there.  I got off one stop too early.  With my few Italian words and the helpful people at that bus stop, I was able to find my way.

Scribbled directions to the Lodi Hostel in Rome

My intuition, as usual, was right.  My roommate and I had a nice chat when I arrived.  She and I decided to meet up later that evening for dinner.  Upon our return, I met a few more people traveling alone and was invited to dinner again.  I declined, but spent a lovely couple hours with that same crew the following morning.  Over breakfast in the garden at the hostel, we all worked out our plans for the day.  Thanks to a couple no-shows the previous night, a bed was available and I got my wish to stay there for two nights.  Cam and Gary decided to take their chances with the proposed train strike and head to the train station anyway with Florence as their destination.  Daniel and I took off for a stroll through the Villa Borghese gardens.

A few days later I reflected on all the ways in which my three weeks in Italy prepared me for my upcoming Camino:

  • I got reacquainted with all the emotions involved in waking up in the morning not knowing where I’ll lay my head down that night – something I’ll do nearly every morning on the Camino.
  • I was reminded of what it’s like to be alone in a country where English is not the native tongue.  The result?  Anytime I heard people speaking English, I found a way to get into their conversation.  It’s a great ice breaker.
  • I remembered why it is I love staying in hostels (meeting people!) and how imperative it is that I bring my ear plugs and eye mask (lest I get no sleep – snoring does not help me descent into dreamland, nor do early-risers keep me there).
  • I learned why it’s best, if I have the option, to stay on the top bunk.  (Every time the guy above me moved, the whole structure shook and I was woken up.  I lamented about this the next morning, and a new friend informed me this doesn’t happen if you’re on the top bunk.  Note to self.)
  • I got plenty of opportunities for walking with my pack.  Like the Camino will be, I walked both alone and with others – sometimes spending whole days with people who were strangers only a few hours earlier.
  • I got to test-run how best to write on the road.  I took legal-size printer paper – a stack of five pages – and folded it in half.  This gave me a little booklet of twenty pages.  I made seven of  these packets and filled them as I went.  The idea is to make them into a book now (something I learned at the Folk School, then perfected while at Glenda’s in February.)  I wrote my blog posts in these packets, too, and when I got to an internet cafe I pulled out my entry and typed it up.
  • I got to test-run traveling with my pack – which pockets are best for which items?
  • I recalled why it’s so good to pack everything in zip-loc bags: my pack may get wet in the rain, but nothing else will.    Have you ever looked into the top of a large backpack?  At first its appears to be a bottomless pit.  Not so when everything has its own see-through zip-loc bag – I could pull out those bags, toss them on the bed, find what I needed, and throw them all back in.

My pack – and some of its zip-loc enclosed contents.

  • Best of all?  I was reminded and encouraged that yes, I can still travel alone.  And that there are tons of people like me out there to meet along the way – all with their own fascinating stories.  (Note to God: If you’d like to send someone my way who would want to travel with me for the rest of my life, I’m open to that.  Thanks.)