Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The journey continues!


St Jean Pied du Port - September 2013

It is now just over two months since I arrived in Santiago for the second time. When I decided to walk the Camino for the first time I could never have thought that I would be back just over a year later, this time leading a group of pilgrims on a journey that would touch my heart in a truly special way.

I remember the contrasting thoughts that went through my head the first time I walked all the way from St Jean Pied du Port. When the blisters on my feet turned every step into a painful challenge, I couldn't imagine myself ever repeating the experience. Yet, the very next day when I walked through the most beautiful places you could imagine, I knew that, God willing, I would return.

Little did I know that the plan for my life included not just returning to the Camino on my own, but with a group of people, all filled with expectations and exhilaration. So it happened then, that on the 9th of September this year, I led a merry band of pilgrims across the Pyrenees for Sylvia Nilsen from 'Amawalkers' on a journey that would last us three weeks, taking us across the countryside of Spain and ending in Santiago de Compostela on the 29th of September.

Once again the journey was special beyond words. We encountered angels along the way, we made new friends and we included strangers at many a dinner table, thus experiencing the true meaning of compassion and friendship. We were able to laugh and cry with fellow pilgrims and most of all, we were able to celebrate life in a way that is not always possible when we are caught up in our busy routines back home. 

I continue to marvel at how God works in our lives. The many years of working as a tour guide in my own country equipped me in many ways to undertake this very special task. My solo walk of five weeks a year ago ensured that I was familiar with life as a pilgrim and as we walked from town to town I felt as if I had been there the day before. Finding actual stones on the ground that I had photographed the year before made me feel as if I truly belonged on those ancient paths, it was as if I had a built-in compass leading me along the way!

I will never forget the many special moments that I was privileged to spend with the members of this little group of pilgrims who came from all over the world. Walking into Santiago as a group, many of us in tears and hugging each one of them in the square in front of the majestic cathedral that marks the end of the journey for many people, was an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

When I started blogging about the Camino many months before, I said that from the moment I heard of this journey, I knew I was going to do it. Little did I know what an integral part of my life it would become. Back home I am now responsible for putting together the 'Amigos' magazine, the publication produced by the Confraternity of St James in South Africa three times a year. My involvement ensures that I remain in touch with what happens on the Camino, I stay updated with developments at the Pilgrims Office in Santiago and as a bonus my network of Camino friends continues to grow.

It is a pleasure to publish their stories and share their enthusiasm - the Camino connection is as strong back home as it is when we meet fellow pilgrims on the road in Spain! I am grateful for our Confraternity, being involved in this way means that I have the opportunity to interact with people who share my passion for the Camino and in turn I am able to pass on my knowledge to those who are planning to walk for the first time.

Here is a link to the official website: http://www.csjofsa.za.org/.

Next year in May I am planning to walk from Seville to Santiago de Compostela. I would like to continue to raise awareness for the MSA community and this walk will be dedicated to exactly that. My friend Sonja, who has suffered from this illness since 2010, remains a shining light to all who know her and I am truly grateful to God for the angels he has brought into her life through our Camino connections.

You can follow Sonja's journey on her own blog: www.msainsouthafricawithsonja.blogspot.com.

Whenever I spend time visiting a church or attend a service on the Camino I envisage walking with a small group of pilgrims who would be walking the Camino purely as a pilgrimage, dedicating their time to meditating on the word of God. My last two experiences on the Camino provided many of these moments and walking with members of the group this September confirmed to me that this is what the Camino is really about for me. 

So in conclusion then - I know that my next journey has to be a solo walk and so it will be. As for my dream of taking a group on a pilgrimage with a very specific focus - that of drawing nearer to God and meditating on his Word, who knows? What often starts off as a whisper in my ear has the tendency to increase in volume until the only thing that is left for me to do is to respond. 



Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Camino reflections - 35 days of pilgrimage.

 
From the very first time I heard of the existence of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, I was inextricably drawn to it. I started planning my trip to Spain within weeks after meeting with a friend who had walked the 800km from St Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. It has now been eight months since I arrived at the cathedral in Santiago, where for many, the pilgrimage ends.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of the experience. For 35 days I became a pilgrim. For the first time in my life I had given up all my luxuries and immersed myself in a journey that was not only spiritually focused, but physically challenging as well. Every morning I headed towards a new destination, not always knowing where I was going to put my head at the end of the day. I trusted the advice and accepted the kindness of complete strangers. I shared meals with fellow pilgrims, who, despite the fact that we had never met before this trip, felt like family to me. Our only immediate link was that we had all decided to step away from our ‘normal’ lives for a few weeks in exchange for life on the road.  Doctors, artists, drifters, atheists, nuns and priests, we all headed in the same direction day after day, each filled with our own expectations.
 
The gift of hours spent just walking, and the possibility that it presented for introspection, enabled me to contemplate the deeper issues in my life. I was able to concentrate, undisturbed, on what I regard as the essence of my existence – my relationship with God. In nurturing and developing this all important part of my being, I have since discovered that every other part of my life in turn, is nurtured, grown and strengthened.
 
The freedom to spend quality time with the Lord, without the normal day to day distractions, is one of the main reasons why the idea of a pilgrimage remains so special to me.
 
People often ask me whether walking the Camino was a life changing experience for me. On reflection I have to say that it didn’t change my life dramatically but it confirmed in no uncertain terms the importance of having a meaningful relationship with God. Dedication, commitment and perseverance are all requirements for establishing such a relationship. It has to be a way of life and whilst walking in Spain I was constantly reminded of the importance of these attributes. If you're aiming for a destination that is 800km away and you have to reach it by foot, you are going to require quite a bit of dedication, commitment and perseverance!
 
I’ve also realized that I can never stop pursuing the knowledge and wisdom required to truly understand what the Lord’s plan for my life is.

Something happens on the Camino that can only be described as a ‘coming alive of sorts’. It transcends the normal day to day existence that we all lead. Personally, I felt an incredible peace fall within me. I can’t describe it in any other way. I felt as if a light was switched on somewhere inside of me. I met people who I can only describe as being akin to angels and I have come to realize that all the guidance we need to navigate this world is indeed to be found in God’s word. I found clear, simple and very personal messages on the pages of my little travel bible on a daily basis!

Along the way I encountered a myriad heart shaped objects and if you have read earlier posts on this blog you will know that the heart shape has become somewhat of a symbol to me. The words of Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26 have had a profound impact on me and as heart shaped stones, flowers, cloud formations and carvings continued to catch my attention on a daily basis, I knew these were affirmations that I would understand. Verses that I had read in the months leading up to the walk became real to me as I had conversations with people along the way. Proverbs 3:5, Philippians 4:7, 1 Peter 3:15, Psalm 37:4, Psalm 51:10 all had a recurring theme and I couldn’t help but conclude that my little heart stones were indeed symbolic of the promises I kept discovering in my little bible.
 
After I had been walking for a while I somehow felt a very real need to dedicate certain days to people in my life. I would spend time praying for them and as some people had given me prayer requests, I was able to be very specific about this. I have loved sharing the experiences that I had on those days. Seeing someone react to things that speak to them via the photographs that I took on the day that I walked for them, confirms to me that God truly is at work in all our lives!

I quickly learned to accept things as they happened to me. Even the unexpected or the unpleasant did nothing to make me change my mind about walking all the way. Despite all my research beforehand I still had severe blisters on my feet for 31 of the 35 days that I spent on the road. Initially I was intensely aware of it, every step of the way! As the one set of blisters healed, another would form somewhere else on my feet. I had taken a pair of Crocs with me; the purpose of this was to have something to wear in the evenings. Crocs were perfect as it would not add a great weight to my backpack. Taking these shoes with me turned out to be such a blessing, as I was able to wear it on the days that I couldn’t get my feet into my walking shoes.

I soon learnt that even blessings often bring lessons of their own, as the Crocs eventually gave me new sets of blisters! I realized that even blisters carried very specific lessons. I have people in my life who deal with chronic pain, day in and day out. Yet I never hear them complain, in fact they are probably the most positive people that I know. My heart constantly went out to my mother, who has lived with rheumatoid arthritis for years and my friend Sonja, who is fighting a daily battle with a dreaded disease called MSA. In fact, my pilgrimage was dedicated to raising awareness of this illness, for which a cure is yet to be found.
Despite constant physical pain, these people in my life stand out head above water as loving, caring children of God who get on with life, despite their ailing bodies. They encourage others, they support, care for and love with a love that can never be questioned or faulted! I realized that God wanted me to acknowledge and learn from these amazing women. Once I understood this, I walked through the pain with a renewed strength and gratitude. It’s almost as if physical pain simply became a part of me – a reminder not only of suffering, but of so much more!

In conclusion – I am eternally grateful that I was given the opportunity to exchange my everyday life for that of a pilgrim, albeit for a short while.  I am thankful that I was granted the grace to understand the special language that God uses to communicate with those who choose to listen. I am thankful for the message in Hebrews 13 that reminded me not to forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so I might encounter angels on the way.

Before embarking on my journey I read many accounts written by others who walked The Way before me. Some of them had that one undeniable life changing encounter with the Lord along the way, some had a few smaller incidents that really stood out for them and some were disillusioned, as they never felt the grand epiphany of sorts that they expected when they started out. I even read about someone who started out as a Christian and ended up being an atheist by the time he reached Santiago! Personally I was not quite sure what to expect, other than that I wanted to cultivate a very real relationship with the Lord. I knew that having a teachable spirit was essential if I wanted the Lord to work in me and through me. I did not doubt for one minute that He would guide me, what surprised me was how very specific and how undeniable His teachings were.

The yellow arrows that I followed on the road to Santiago led me to my final destination in Spain. The inner directions I received were so much more profound and should guide me for a lifetime!  Life as a pilgrim has also shaped my testimony and for that I will be ever thankful. What a blessing and what an honour to be able to have the Lord speak to me in a language clearer than my earthly mother tongue!

The following scripture has taken on a new meaning for me after my camino and I know I will continue to call on these words for the rest of my life!
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

* A condensed version of this article appears in the latest printed edition of the Amigos magazine, the publication produced by the Confraternity of St James of South Africa.
 

 

 



Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why I love coffee shops...

On the Camino words aren't always necessary but a kind ear,
a place at a table and a cup of coffee will always be available -
I guarantee that!

It's been nine months since I arrived in Santiago. If I told you that not a day goes by that I do not think about my Camino experience, I would be a big fat liar. To call it a hostile takeover of my life would not be fair, as it has in fact been a gradual, peaceful but total invasion of my life.
 
I've had a light switched on inside of me that drives me in a new way. I don't always understand it, but I recognise it and it just feels very right. It fits.
 
I somehow absorb things with a different mindset and my focus has shifted to being much more aware of those around me and of how my actions impact on them. Hence the title of this piece - 'Why I love coffee shops.'
 
Coffee shops are places where you have the incredible privilege of sitting opposite someone, have them look you in the eye and actually talk to you. You can hear their voice, you experience their emotions and you can truly build and nurture friendships. You can laugh together, you can cry together, you can share good news and you can say goodbye with a hug. You can reach out and be heard. Your friendship can make a difference in a way that no written note can ever hope to do.
 
That is why I love coffee shops.
 
On the Camino I met a wonderful young man who would often take his place at a table in a coffee shop. He'd order something to drink and as pilgrims arrived, he would casually invite them to join him, often offering them something to drink. I was fascinated by his behaviour because without fail, he was surrounded by people, young and old, all eventually chatting to each other as if they'd known each other forever!
 
I noticed how even the most introverted young people ended up at his table. I knew instinctively that this young man had discovered the true spirit of the Camino. He had found the most precious gift that anyone could offer to another human being and that many religions consider to be one of the greatest virtues.
 
He had found the meaning of the word compassion.
 
My encyclopedia says the English noun compassion comes from Latin and means 'to suffer together with'. It goes on to say that compassion is the understanding or empathy for the suffering of others and the active desire to alleviate another's suffering.
 
Isn't that a key element of true and meaningful friendship? We all have things in our lives that cause us hurt and unhappiness at times but how often do we think about the fact that those around us may experience exactly the same, or worse? In fact, have you ever thought that your own actions might be causing a friend to hurt - that phone call that you've meant to make forever but are too 'busy' to make or that message that you receive but somehow just always leave on the 'to get back to' list and never actually answer?

I am guilty of this!
 
Seeing that young man living compassion as I witnessed him chatting to people along the Way for many weeks, made me feel so incredibly humble. It made me realise how important it is to shift the focus from myself and really listen to others. How important it is to identify and be aware of the needs of my friends.
 
How important it it is to pick up that telephone and let my voice be heard. To hear a voice on the other side respond. How important it is to get together across a table and share a cup of coffee. How important it is to care.
 
Our lives have been taken over by social media and I use many of these options every day. But today I am reminding you as I am myself, that writing a whatsapp message, sending an e-mail or a facebook note can never take the place of a coffee shop date! Never.
 
The Camino has a lovely way of teaching one important lessons. I sometimes needed to hear something more than once to actually get it. Lessons regarding the importance of compassion and living life as a compassionate human being came to me in many forms. In my next post I will tell you about a powerful sermon that lasted about an hour and kept me captivated, even though I understood exactly one word!
 
Make that call today and have a cup of coffee with a friend. Put the same amount of sugar in your cup as you've always done, but this time, add a huge measure of compassion!
 
I started my walk in Spain with one friend at my side. I arrived in Santiago having met people who have added immeasurable value to my life. A new family of friends with whom I will stay connected to for a very long time. We found and shared that one very great gift that a pilgrimage blesses you with. We discovered how to be compassionate human beings. 
 
 


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Packing for the Camino

Before embarking on my big walk in Spain I researched just about every possible aspect of the journey. Equipment, accommodation, food, first aid requirements, simcards, essential Spanish words and phrases - you name it, I read up about it. Now, almost five months after my arrival in Santiago, I can tell you that even though the basic requirements are the same for everyone, you will have to tailormake your packing list to your very own needs!
 
Let's face it - this guy and his owner obviously had very different packing requirements than I did!
 
 
I encountered this lucky pooch on the square in front of the cathedral in Santiago. I'll admit that I stopped for a rest  in a wheelbarrow en route as well but I wasn't lucky enough to have someone offer to push it for me!
 
 
So, back to the packing. My 35l backpack was definitely big enough. My problem was that I stuffed too many things in there! All the sites I visited suggested that one's pack should weigh about 10% of your body weight. For me that amounted to about 6kg. In reality, I arrived in Spain with a bag that weighed about 12kg.
 
What can I say? I'm a woman. I don't know how to pack. I'll admit it. If there's a twelve step plan for recovering over-packers, I probably need to sign up! The turning point for me came when my blistered feet simply could not deal with all that weight on my back anymore.
 
At some point I had to take stock. I packed everything out on my bed one evening and decided to take out what I really could live without. That's how it came about that I had a little green parcel waiting for me in my hotel room in Santiago when I arrived there on the 11th of July. A gift weighing almost 3kg, sent by myself, with love, to myself. And if I have to be really honest, I probably could have added more to the little box that I sealed with such a heavy heart in the tiny post office in Navarette!
 
 
 
I didn't need a second pair of sandals, nor did I need extra cream, suntan lotion or a make-up bag filled with little bits and pieces that I never touched at all! I certainly could do without extra notebooks, pens and my beloved little travel pillow! And even though the heart shaped stone that I picked up along the way was very dear to me, I had to take the chance that it would arrive safely in Santiago, as that extra weight was wearing me down!
 
So this is what my bag eventually looked like - weighing 9kg. Less than what I started with but I have vowed that the most my bag will ever weigh again is 7kg. If I can manage with less than that - even better!
 
 
It can't be stressed enough that your backpack should weigh as little as possible. You have to keep in mind that you are literally carrying it for 800km. You will be walking in a country that has pharmacies and grocery stores. Trust me  - any items that you might have forgotten at home WILL be available in one of the shops! And even if you can't find it, the general sense of caring that prevails on the Camino that you hear people talking about, really exists. I had people hand me creams, plasters, books, telephones (when mine wouldn't connect), food, water - you name it! Nothing ever had price tags on and these things were always offered with kindness and with no expectations of receiving anything in return.
 
 
The picture above illustrates how you can use any available space to store things in - an upside down croc makes a good spot to put something in that you would like to reach easily - no need to open zippers and spend valuable time searching for it in the backpack!
 
 
One of the best packing tips I can share with you if you are planning to walk for the first time is to pack everything in seperate sealable plastic bags. This way everything stays organised and dry, should your pack get wet. I was caught in unexpected downpours many a time and had to scramble to cover the backpack. The last thing you want to deal with is wet clothing.  In Galicia it was wet for days on end and getting just the normal washing to dry was a challenge. Remember that you won't have much of a relief backup wardrobe in that precious bag!
 
What you see above is the contents of my backpack spread out on my bed during one of my repacking sessions! Luckily these become less frequent as the days go by as you soon get to learn where everything is. Develop a system very quickly and STICK to it! That way you don't have to unpack the entire bag everytime you are looking for something.
 
I have to confess that in the beginning I suspected someone of helping himself to the contents of my pack. I was really angry and could not believe that someone walking the Camino could take something from a fellow pilgrim. I still hang my head in shame when I think of the day - probably about two weeks after the item went missing - when I discovered it again. Packed safely, by myself, in the little side pocket on the inside of my pack.
 
As these things happened to me I took time to digest and soon realised that I was being taught valuable lessons! Lessons about life, about trusting people, about not always casting first impressions in stone, about honesty, about humility - this list is probably longer than any packing list could be!
 
 
The little pack above was an example of a gift given to me on the Camino. By the time I got to Granon my feet were really hurting and carrying my heavy pack was definitely not helping. This lightweight daypack was inexpensive but folded up in a little square and the pilgrim who so generously gave it to me had two other packs. Having this light bag meant that I
could send my heavier pack to the next destination with a courier company and for at least one day I could walk with what I needed for that day only. This basically meant lunch, water, first aid goodies and a lightweight rain jacket. It made life on the road so much easier when my feet were really blistered - I made use of this company for four of the 35 days that I walked.
 
There are many courier companies en route and the one that I used, Jacotrans, did a great job. The cost was either 6 or 7euros per time, depending on the route.
 
As you will know by now from my previous posts, I did not do much cooking for myself. Those who preferred preparing their own meals however, often complained that they battled to find all the utensils that they needed in the albergues. My friend Eddie insists that these two pieces of gold that he is holding up in the picture below were essential and as he is one of the best cooks I know, I'll put that on my list if I ever choose to cook for myself in future whilst on the Camino.
 
 
As for the basic packing list for the camino - if you google those key words you will find pages full of suggestions on as many sites, so I won't list every single item here.
 
The following are things that I will never travel without again and they will be packed before anything else when I set of on my next Camino adventure in 2013.
 
- A s-shaped iron hook. This can be bought at one of the many stores stocking Camino goodies in St Jean or you'd probably find it at most hardware stores. This works great in the showers where there are no hooks - I used mine all the time. I always had a little (sealable) bag with my valuables, a toiletry bag and my towel with me when I went to shower so the s-hook came in handy, even if there was a hook, I could always use another!
 
- A pair of crocs. If you are unfortunate enough to get blisters, these are invaluable. I walked more than 30km in them one day, they were real lifesavers when I could not get my feet in my
walking shoes.
 
- Friars Balsem. Inexpensive and available at pharmacies - the BEST medicine for treating blisters. It stings like anything when you apply it but it dries up the blisters quicker than anything I know.
 
- A pen with ink that won't run if your notebook gets wet. This happened to me and some of my notes are somewhat smudged now.
 
- A lightweight headlamp with good quality, long lasting batteries. Essential for going to the bathroom in the dark and reading at night.
 
- Safety pins. Take a few different sizes, I found a whole host of uses for them and was able to hand them out as people needed it to repair things, secure bandages etc. 
 
- A needle and thread. To repair things but also to thread through blisters. ESSENTIAL!
 
- A lighter. To burn the needle in case you have to use it on blisters.
 
- A watch. It helps to have something to tell the time by, especially if you're walking long stretches in the countryside.
 
- A good water bottle - look for something that can keep fluids cold for as long as possible - when walking on the meseta where distances are long and shade scarce, such a bottle is worth gold.
 
- At least 6 pairs of socks. 3 Thinner inners and three outers. As wonderful as 1000 mile socks are, they take long to dry, so I won't take them again.
 
- A Spanish simcard. Try and get this before you start walking as it took me about a week before I actually found an open Vodafone shop. Shops open late and often close for lunch, so I had to wait until my walking schedule coincided with that of an open shop! Not all villages have Vodafone shops, so that made it a challenge. I had a Samsung Galaxy and as it was still under guarantee, I was told by the supplier that in order for the guarantee to remain valid, I was not allowed to put a simcard of any company other than Vodafone in the device. Also, make sure that your phone is able to connect to wifi as there are many cafes and bars offering free 'wee-fee' along the route - even in the smallest villages! I really appreciated that as it meant that I could connect with my family - for free! I highly suggest that you load Skype on your phone and link up with your friends or family who are following your journey at home. When I was finally able to get that sorted on my phone it was one of the highlights of my trip - not only speaking to them, but actually being able to see them as well was such a treat! A site such as www.voibuster.com allows you to make free calls from a pc - I spoke to my family in South Africa for ages at a little cafe one day - the owner very kindly made the offer and I gladly accepted!
 
- Small locks. I just always felt it was a safe and sensible option to lock my backpack when I had to leave it in an albergue, guest house or hotel.
 
- A lightweight sleeping bag is essential as far as I'm concerned. I loved being able to sleep in my own bag, whether they had blankets or not. In hotels or guest houses I would use the sheets etc. provided, but in albergues I preferred my own sleeping bag by far!
 
- A good quality, lightweight rain jacket with hood is a must have! I loved the one I bought at home and I know it will travel with me for many years. Make sure that it is windproof - that really helped me in a storm that we were caught in whilst crossing the Pyrenees. There is a difference between 'wind resistant' and 'windproof'!
 
These are some of the main things that come to mind right now, as I think of more items I will certainly mention them in future posts. 
 
In summary, looking at this next photograph, I have to wonder if I'm not meant to walk my next Camino with a donkey as companion. Not only will I be able to hitch a ride if my feet play up, I will be able to pack for all occassions...