El Camino – Part II

Since I last posted I have made many wonderful memories, as well as a few not so great ones. Let’s get the negative out of the way first.

Last year I decided against buying hiking shoes and wore a pair of super light Nike sneakers. Although I dealt with severe blisters for a couple of days at the beginning of my hike, they calloused over quickly and I was totally fine. Blisters are kind of inevitable on a hike like this so I didn’t think much of it and decided to wear the same shoes this year. I experienced the same blister situation, only this time, they were worse and additional foot pain and tendinitis followed. Other pilgrims along the way consistently asked if my feet were ok, pointing to my shoes with wide eyes. My stubbornness got the best of me for a while and I would shrug and say, “of course, I’m fine!” But eventually I admitted to myself and my fellow hikers that my choice of footwear was stupid.

Anyways, the unexpected upside to my shoes was that I met some wonderful friends, in part, thanks to them. One night a little over a week into my journey, I was staying in a communal gite eating my microwaveable pasta and reading about chakras when a couple of pilgrims offered me one of their beers. We got to chatting and they asked me about my “tiny shoes” and within a few minutes we were all giggling and joking about my ridiculous shoe choice and just like that they became my Camino besties.

Eric is the elder of the two, maybe in his sixties. He and I met on my worst night of the hike. I think it was day six and my feet were at an all time level of ‘ouch’ and it was raining and there was no grocery store or wifi and I was just feeling lonely and in a total funk. We were roommates and after eating my leftover bread and salami for an early dinner I decided to be antisocial and retire to my bed to start an audiobook. The next morning Eric sympathetically gave me a piece of cheese from his breakfast and from then on each time we’d pass on the trail we’d smile at each other.

Since that first fateful night, I have learned that Eric is a retired cinematographer and practices Tibetan Buddhism. He has a wonderful outlook on life, introduced me to mantras to chant while I hiked, and taught me the French word for leek, which is probably the most pointless word for me to possibly know because I barely know what a leek is in English but now I know how to say leek in French and you can bet I will never forget it. He also gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received when he called me “strong nana.” I was like what did you call me? What the heck does that mean? But basically, after he explained it, I gathered that it’s kind of like the French equivalent of saying you are one tough chick. And that, my friends, meant the world to me.

The second guy is Laurent, a 32 year old Parisian missile engineer. Way to make me feel like an underachiever right off the bat, amirite? Laurent speaks really good English so it was pretty easy to communicate. He taught me many words and phrases along the way, my favorite of which is the French expression for American coffee. It is “jus de chaussettes” and translates literally to “sock juice.” Fair. I taught him what a booty call is. Safe to say we learned a lot from one another. I was thrilled when Laurent decided to extend his hike a few days longer than planned and we had some great conversations and made wonderful memories on our days spent trudging through the French countryside. I’m also happy that he lives in Paris because I get to see him again when I visit later this month! (The picture below shows from left to right: Laurent, me, Eric, and Marc, who I became close with towards the end of my hike.)

Another thing I noticed this time around on the Camino was how much time gets distorted when you exist in this strange little nomadic community. It’s like summer camp, when you know people for a week or maybe two and yet when you leave at the end of your session you feel like you’re saying goodbye to your lifelong best friends. A week feels like a year. When I think back I realize that I only traveled with these two for about 5 days and yet they defined my entire Camino experience.

I met many other cool people on my hike too (Marc from Quebec who told me he didn’t want to keep in touch with anyone on the Camino and then proceeded to give me his email address in case I ever wanted to visit Canada, four Austrian grandmothers who hiked like they were in their twenties, a sweet woman named Colette who gave me a ride when I accidentally walked 7 kilometers in the wrong direction, a retired German history professor called Gerhart who lives in a 12th century house, an old man named Edouard who called me his Camino girlfriend, etc.) but I wanted to highlight these two because they made such an impact on me. Part of what I was looking for on my hike was genuine human to human connection and that’s exactly what I got. No cell phones or laptops or screens to hide behind, no crazy jobs or errands to rush to and from…just people, walking day after day, in search of something different. For some people the Camino is a religious experience, for others it’s simply a way to stay in shape, for Eric it was a way to connect with nature, for Laurent it was a break from city life and a full time job, for me it was a lesson in independence and self sufficiency, but I think for all of us it was a way to connect with one another and to feel something genuine.

While I knew I wanted to make connections with other people, I also was very aware of my desire to do this hike on my own and find my own happiness. After Eric and Laurent left I was back to being on my own most of the time and I had a renewed sense of optimism after experiencing some loneliness at the beginning of my journey. This was my opportunity to take time to consider what makes me the happiest in life. 2017 was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I felt a lot of different emotions really intensely and experienced a lot of sadness. But I also discovered a lot of happiness and learned a whole lot about making myself happy versus relying on others. I realize that there is no precise recipe for happiness. You get to decide what makes you smile, even if someone else might not get it. There were a couple of times when I’d be hiking along and gazing out over these unreal landscapes and simultaneously listening to Yo Gotti (thanks Annie) or raggaeton (my eternal guilty pleasure.) I would pause and worry that I was doing something wrong…I mean, neither Latin club music, nor misogynistic rap really conjure up visions of rolling hills and wispy clouds and big brown Aubrac cows, do they? But then I’d stop and remember that I felt genuinely joyful in these moments and that that’s all that mattered. So I’d turn up the volume, smile to myself, and sometimes even dance a little (after careful inspection of my surroundings to make sure no one could see me.)

But then again, if someone had seen me, I’d probably just have smiled their way and mentally wished them the same immense happiness I was feeling in that moment.

Ok. How many times can I say happy/happiness in one paragraph. Cheers to finding happiness. More to come. P.S. please excuse all the selfies, you gotta do what you gotta do when traveling solo.

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