meggrblog

Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


1 Comment

what’s up with WhatsApp

It has been five months since Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, yet it still doesn’t seem to have caught on in the US. Every American I know that uses it (myself included) says they use it almost exclusively for people they’ve met abroad, or foreign friends they’ve made here Stateside. So why does the rest of the world use WhatsApp, yet Americans don’t?

I remember the first time I heard about WhatsApp. “That’s a stupid name for an app,” I thought. It was 2011, and I had just moved to Spain to teach English. My 30€/month plan from Orange España included unlimited data (increíble, I know) and 50 texts/month. After you went over 50, SMS (texts) were 9 cents each, which I figured was reasonable since the data plan was so cheap.

But then my friend Lorena told me about WhatsApp. It sounded trendy and kinda dumb, but I downloaded it. She was my only contact. I didn’t really see the point at first, but I liked that it was saving me some SMS messages. Slowly I gained one contact at a time as I met more Spanish people that used the app. Soon I was telling my friends and family back in the States to download it. It could be used across any of the major mobile platforms  (Android, iOs, Windows, Blackberry,) free of charge, anywhere in the world. I could “text” my loved ones back home FO’ FREE. It was a dream come true.

I became completely dependent on this app during my years in Spain, using it with my friends, family, students and coworkers alike. Since returning to the States, it has been totally weird having to readjust to some people using the antiquated SMS. My American friends and family who used it with me while I was abroad continue to use it with me (most of them with me as their only contact,) and they too scratch their heads as to why it still hasn’t caught on in the US.

So why is WhatsApp better than SMS, you ask? Let me count the ways:

1. Media sharing: It’s very easy and quick to share photos and videos on Whatsapp. The upload progress is shown right on the media, and all the media shared with a specific person or group can be easily accessed and scrolled through within the conversation, like your own personal little photo/video album. Also, there is a “voice recording” feature right next to the text input, so if you’re driving and want to just say your message or want to sing them a song or whatever, you don’t have to “attach” the audio. Just click and hold the mic icon, record your message, release, and it is sent.

2. Conversation-having: WhatsApp is this neat hybrid of texting and instant-messaging. You can see if someone is online,typing, or when they were last online. This is useful for a number of reasons. If they’re online (which means they currently have that app open on their phone,) you know they’ll see your message right away. If they’re typing, you know to stop typing until you see what they’re about to say. If they were last online at 4am on a Sunday, you know they probably had a long night and they probably won’t be up for an early brunch date. You send an SMS to someone? You have no idea if/when they will read it.

3. Platform: The design is simple, it runs seamlessly, and there are no ads. NO ADS. Enough said.

4: GROUP TEXTING!!!: I’m yelling this because it is the most important. I have an HTC One, and it could be some sort of glitch in the specific software for the phone, but group SMS is awful. Clumsy. Inefficient. I can’t see what someone has said in the preview, and when I click on the notification it usually brings me to my own private convo with that person rather than the group convo. So I have to back out of that and select the group convo myself. When I send a message, there’s a delay. WhatsApp group conversations are beautifully designed and run very smoothly. You can name the group something funny or cute (my most beloved group is with 3 girl friends: “almas gemelas”) or name the convo based on the topic/purpose (“birthday party plans”) and then you’ll see it among your individual and group message threads under that name. You can click on a group member to see when they were last online to see if they’ve read your message within the group.

The other day I was discussing these benefits with an American friend who sparingly uses WhatsApp, and he totally agreed but said, “I feel like it’s just an extra effort to go into it and use it. It feels like I’m opening an  app and then my messages rather than my inbox and then my messages. Which in essence isn’t any different…”

Exactly. Americans seem to have this weird mindset about SMS, like it’s a special kind of messaging that we need to hold onto. But if you have a smartphone, why continue to use it? Unless you’re texting someone who doesn’t have one? (In which case, there’s a simple workaround I used while abroad so that I could text anyone back home, smartphone or not, for free from my phone.)

It takes a little while to get used to using WhatsApp, like anything else. Like my friend said, you have to get used to “opening an app” versus opening your messages, but that requires no extra steps. And once you’re in, I promise the experience will be much better.


5 Comments

people are generally good

I’m currently working for an organization that places foreign students from around the world in US high schools. As their first representative in my region (and brought on board rather late in “placement season”) it has been both an adventure and a struggle to hurriedly find schools that still have open spots and families that are willing to host a student, and then to connect those two dots to a student still waiting to be placed.

passports

Last night, I was set up to do something called “dialer calls,” which I was almost certain would not work. I was told that a few thousand numbers in specific zip code would be called in a matter of two hours. The people called would hear an automated message that I have pre-recorded, and if they pressed “1″ to learn more about hosting a student, they’d automatically be connected with my cell phone to talk to me directly.

Who would actually answer a call like this? Especially in this day and age?

2,119 numbers were called last night with my automated message. Before the calls began, I estimated what I thought would be the results of these calls: about 1,000 would be unavailable (it would go to voicemail) another 1,000 or so would hang up on the automated message, and of the remaining 100, many would press 1 out of confusion, an equal amount out of anger, and two or three extra-kind-hearted folks would actually speak to me to inquire for more information (you know: “Midwest nice.”)

Boy, was I wrong. My phone rang off the hook for two hours straight with a majority of people who had genuine interest in hosting an international student during the upcoming school year. Other calls were beeping in on call waiting as I visited with prospective host families, and soon my voicemail box was full of messages. Everyone was so friendly and personable.

You could chalk this up to “Midwest nice,” but I have to say that I was expecting the also prevalent “Midwest closed-mindedness” to win out when hosting international students was the matter at hand. I am refreshed to have found out that was not the case.

Something I’ve been saying for awhile, ever since I started traveling a lot, is that there are some bad people everywhere, but people are generally good. I know that this isn’t an original thought, and that lots of people come to the same conclusion after doing some traveling, but I think that last night, I saw firsthand that this is definitely true of my home state: people ARE generally good. They’re even better than I thought, in fact.

But no matter where you go, there are a few bad apples. Of the 40-50 people I spoke with directly last night, only two were examples of this. Here are are the exchanges I had with them. All you can do is chuckle.

“Hi, this is Megan with ICES. How are you this evening?”

—”Well, I’m just trying to figure out what you’re phishing for.”

“Oh, nothing sir. I work for a non-pr–”

—”Can’t you people get a real job? Go to hell!!” *click*

___________________

“Hi, this is Megan with ICES. How are you this evening?”

—”Well I just saw that you called while I was on the other line and I am wondering if there is some kind of issue.”

“Nope, no issue, I’m just calling local families on behalf of the high school’s foreign exchange program to try to find potential host families for one of our international students. Is that something you would like more info on at all?”

—”NO. I am NOT interested in hosting an international student. I mean, who knows, they could be coming from one of those countries like El Salvador or Puerto Rico or whatever and I sure as hell don’t need that.”

“Ok, well I appreciate you taking the time to call m–”

—”Besides, I work at the social service office. If I wanted a damn foreign kid in my house I could just pick one up there.”

________________________

Well, then. :-/

 

Thanks for reading!

 


3 Comments

is the Spanish siesta under siege?

I recently read a New York Time’s article entitled, “Spain, Land of 10pm Dinners, Asks if it’s Time to Reset the Clock.” It outlines the ongoing debate about whether Spain should scrap its long-held tradition known as the siesta: a topic near and dear to my (former) Spanish expat heart. My immediate reaction to this question is a desperate “Nooooo!” as I long for the days I lived in Spain and enjoyed long lunches and “afternoons” that extended well into what we in the US consider evening, making days seem almost endless. But with Spain’s economy still suffering and unemployment at a whopping 26%, people are starting to question whether a move to a more 9-to-5-like schedule would be a good one.

The origin of the siesta

The word “siesta” comes from the Latin “sexta,” which referred to the sixth hour after sunrise, when the sun was at its highest peak. Historically, people in Spain and other hot European countries would take a break from their work at this hour, the hottest point of the day, and return re-energized to their work later in the afternoon. This tradition has persisted through the years, but this is slowly changing. In big Spanish cities, many businesses now stay open through siesta hours, and the idea that the siesta could be hurting Spain’s already broken economy is gaining strength.

The nap myth

In any discussion of the siesta, I feel the need to dispel this myth, as a service to my Spanish friends and “family.” Contrary to popular belief (and contrary even to what this current NYT article says), the afternoon “siesta” does NOT typically include an all-out nap.  I was asked by many of my students if we foreigners actually believe that they nap during siesta. When I told them that yes, most people do believe that, they were practically offended. They strongly reject the notion that the Spanish are lazy people who sleep the afternoon away. It’s not uncommon to see people taking a quick snooze on a hillside or park bench over the extended lunch hour, but almost no one is going home and crawling under the covers. The long break is to allow time to join with other family members and/or friends, have a nice, big meal (there, lunch is the biggest meal of the day) and have a little time to go for a walk or just relax after eating.

“Longer” work days

One point in favor of doing away with the siesta schedule is that it would give families more time together in the evenings. A standard Spanish work timetable is one of two options:

1. La “jornada continua/intensiva” (8:30ish-3:30ish, no lunch break) The people I knew with this schedule were teachers and a few dentists and specialist doctors. They do take a short mid-morning coffee break for a quick snack, but basically these people don’t sit down to a full meal until what we in the US would consider “late afternoon.” This is the less common of the two schedules, but the preferred one for most people. There is a slight pay cut, in most cases, for those who have this schedule, as they are working only  35 hrs/week.

2. La “jornada completa” (8:30ish-2ish, break for “siesta,” 4ish-7ish) The exact hours vary by business/profession, but the moral of the story is that most employed Spanish people don’t return home for the day until around 8pm, and most businesses (except for restaurants/cafes) have both mañana (morning) and tarde (afternoon/evening) hours, but are totally closed for business from 2pm until 4pm or 5pm.

Living on Spanish time

The Spanish timetable really is a striking feature of their culture, unlike any other in the world. A Spanish banker interviewed in the aforementioned article puts it this way: “It is the Spanish identity, to eat in another time, to sleep in another time.” This feature of Spanish identity and culture is something I was absolutely enchanted by living there as an expat. Obviously the midday break was fabulous, and another feature I really enjoyed about their shifted timetable is that they consider it to be “afternoon” until about 9pm. This makes each day seem so much longer, especially in summer. There is no hurry to get home and be in for the night. On the contrary: you’re encouraged to squeeze out every last drop of every day that you possibly can. That is a beautiful thing. On weekends and in summer, this almost endless day slides easily into an extended night, with late dinners that can stretch on past the bewitching hour.

 

Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun

Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun

 

Long lunches: excessive or essential?

Brazil recently released new food-based dietary guidelines, and 3 of the 10 guidelines (#s 4, 5 and 8) talk about the importance of taking your time eating, being with others and being present (i.e. not eating while working, driving, etc.) The siesta allows for this. This stands in stark contrast to the US, where most people race through their lunch break with just 30-minutes allotted, and many just eat at their desks or on the run while still working. All you have to do is compare the overall health of the population in countries where long, drawn-out family meals are the norms and compare it with that of countries where efficiency and convenience rules in all arenas (including dining) and you can see that this need for speed is really detrimental to the population. I would be sad to see Spain pushed over to that side.

The “night owl” culture

A common exercise with lower-level EFL students is to have them tell you their daily routine (I usually get up at ____, then I ____. After that I ___. I go to bed at about ____., etc.) so I became quite familiar with the “norm” of a daily routine for a typical Spaniard. My students were of a variety of professions, from engineers to dentists to teachers, and they almost all reported their “bedtime” as 11:00 or later on work nights. I also lived with two young Spanish professionals–a lawyer and a med student in residency, so I can confirm these norms first-hand. As the NYT article points out, the “prime time” hours for TV are 10pm-1am, and 12 million Spaniards are still watching TV at 1am. Families with young kids do tend to eat dinner earlier, around 8, and put the kids to bed by 9. But on weekends, it’s not unusual to see entire families (young kids and all) out to dinner past 10pm, and keeping kids up that late on weekends is certainly not looked down on like it is in the US.

So I guess my answer is this: they sleep about the same amount that we do, but seem to be much more resilient in flip-flopping their sleep schedule from week to weekend. During the week, they do go to bed later on average than Americans do, and maybe get up slightly later than the average American worker. On weekends, they stay up and out MUCH later than most Americans do, as the bar nightlife doesn’t even really get going until about midnight, and goes strong until as late (early?) as 6am. Those who go out do then, of course, sleep much later than the average American does on the weekend.

An uncertain fate

It’s hard to say whether the siesta will continue to be phased out as it already seems to be in the larger Spanish cities. I can’t even begin to hypothesize on potential solutions to fix Spain’s broken economy, but I’d like to think that getting rid of something so ingrained in Spanish culture isn’t the way to do it. It is these cultural differences that allow us to learn from each other, see things in new ways and reconsider our own way of doing things. Would the world really be a better place if everyone adapted to the model of the 9-5 grind? I think not.

¡Viva la siesta!


5 Comments

The Camino de Santiago: a candid practical guide

I recently wrote a post about my experience hiking a portion of the Camino de Santiago (“The Way of St. James”), but I wanted to write another post with some practical advice for those of you who might be considering doing it yourself. The amount of preparation recommended varies a lot: I’ve talked to people who have started preparing for the Camino a year or more in advance. I, on the other hand, maybe considered the idea of doing Camino for about that long, but did almost no practical planning of any kind until a few days before I left. It helped (a LOT!) that I had already been living in Spain for a few years when I set out. This made the logisitics of getting to my starting point very easy, and I already knew the language and culture rather intimately.

I suppose there’s probably a happy medium to be found: over-planning could take the magic out of it–it’s meant to be an adventure, and the best adventures don’t have carefully pre-meditated itineraries. But no planning could wind you up in a bad situation that could have easily been avoided. I am by no means a Camino expert, but I had a very positive, relatively incident-free experience on the Camino, so I thought I’d share with you some tid bits that might help you on The Way:

Things to know ahead of time

1. A few key words and phrases. English isn’t nearly as widely-spoken in Spain as it is in the other Western European countries, much to the suprise of many (American) tourists. That said, I was shocked by how much English there actually was on signs and menus in the tiny pueblos along the Camino. It seemed to be more prevalent than what you’ll find even in some of the larger Spanish cities: a sign of the Camino “boom” of these last few years. Still, a few English words on signs does not mean the locals are going to understand you when you rattle off a lunch order in English or ask them where you can buy some Band-Aids. You should learn some basic phrases and niceties to use along The Way.

And even if you’ve got a couple years of Spanish-speaking under your belt as I did, there’s still some Camino-specific vocabulary to know:

peregrino = pilgrim, i.e. you and everyone else on their way to Santiago

albergue = the special “pilgrim shelters”/hostels especially for pilgrims of the Camino

linterna = bunk bed (most commonly what you’ll be sleeping on in an albergue)

aldea = small town/village (I lived in Spain for almost 3 years and didn’t come across this word until my very last week there! I always used “pueblo,” but aldea is commonly used to describe the villages in the very rural parts of Spain)

etapa = one stage/phase of the Camino, typically a 15-35km stretch

2. The route and recommended etapas

You may already know that there is more than one route for the Camino de Santiago. The most common route, the Camino Francés, starts just over the border into France and goes down through north-central Spain and westward to Santiago. Another route I’d like to try someday is the Camino del Norte (a.k.a. the Northern Route or the Coastal Route) which goes all along the rugged northern coast of Spain, through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias before dipping back inland to Santiago. This route is known for being beautiful, but wetter and more physically challenging due to the constant climbs and descents in the terrain. You can even begin the Camino in southern Portugal and walk north all the way up to Santiago. Obviously, the less traditional routes will have a lot less accommodations for pilgrims, but if you’re really looking to rough it then you can start wherever you’d like and just camp all the way.

As far as the recommended etapas for each day, there are lots of route guidebooks for the Camino that will break down each stage and give info about each town. The particular one I used was given to me as a gift and is in Spanish, but I can’t actually even find it online (I know, hard to believe!) so you’ll just have to check out some Amazon reviews and find one that looks good for you.

3. Your options for accomodations: Again, this will depend largely on the route you take. On the heavily-traveled Camino Francés, you’ll have the most options for albergues, and the numbers will increase as you get closer to Santiago. Most towns have a albergue municipal, or public albergue for about 6€/night or a free will donation (called donativos.) I personally recommend checking out the many private albergues along the way, which offer beds for 10-12€/night and are much more comfortable than the public ones. You’ll probably only have 6 or 7 other people sleeping in the same room as you, versus 30-40 in a public albergue. They usually give you a blanket too :-) There seem to be new private albergues popping up everywhere as the number of peregrinos continues to increase, so check out the competiton. If you’re not too exhausted when you arrive to your stop, you can take some time to shop around a bit and pick the albergue with the better showers or more-equipped kitchen or cool Irish guys playing guitar on the patio.

The shoe room with a view at the public albergue in O'Cebreiro

The shoe room with a view at the public albergue in O’Cebreiro

How long to go

This is obviously dependent upon how much time you can afford to take. But even if you’re on an extended sabbatical and have all the time in the world, you should still consider two things:

1. Cost. The Camino is probably one of the cheapest adventures you’ll find on the face of the Earth, but it still costs money to eat and stay places. My budget on the Camino was pretty frugal: 15€/day for food and 15€/day for lodging and miscellaneous expenses (bandaids and athletic tape, mostly.) I was able to stick to this budget fairly easily. But even 30€/day gets to be a lot if you plan to do the entire journey, which takes most people at least 30 days. And I would imagine that keeping at it for that long, you would incur a few more incidental expenses than I did on my week-long hike.

2. Your level of physical fitness. This may seem like a no-brainer, but seriously take it from me: this journey is not for the faint of heart. I was a little cocky going into it, thinking it would be a piece of cake for me. I’ve worked as a fitness instructor for a number of years, run several half-marathons (including one, my PR, just a few months before doing the Camino) and am just overall pretty active, and I will tell you that I grossly underestimated the physical challenge that is the Camino. The only thing that saved my ass (quite literally, perhaps) was that I had spent the two years prior living in a big Spanish city with my main mode of transport being my own two feet; in my everyday work commute and errand-running, I put on an average of 3-5 miles walking. I’d say that this high mileage walking, more than any gym time or running, was my best preparation for the Camino. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some training hiking with a big pack on too, if that’s not something you’ve done in the past. The longest I had ever hiked with a pack on prior to the Camino was probably 6 or 7 HOURS…so it’s a small miracle that jumping straight into doing that much or more for 6 DAYS straight didn’t cause more problems for me.

What to bring

Perhaps it’s more useful to tell you what NOT to bring, as there are some items to omit that might surprise you.

You need NOT bring:

1. A map or a GPS device of any kind, especially on the Camino Francés route. The route is very, very well-marked with yellow arrows or shell symbols, and there is usually someone to follow or at least a local or passerby to ask in order to ensure you’re on The Way.

One of the many St. James statues, indicating where you're going and whence you came

One of the many St. James statues, indicating where you’re going and whence you came

2. A sleeping bag, especially in summer. They’re cumbersome and unnecessary. All albergues provide, at the bare minimum, a disposable fitted cover for the mattress and pillow. The nicer ones provide blankets. One of the nights, I used my microfiber towel to cover my legs and my jacket on top.

3. A lot of food. It’s good to be prepared, but food weighs a lot and it’s really not all that crucial to have food reserves, as may be the case in other long hiking trips. Because the Camino is such a traveled road, there are plenty of people making a business out of it and ready to provide you with just about anything you’d expect to find in a restaurant, grocery store or convenience store. That said, I found that curiously the last 10 or 15k of the journey was very replenishment-sparse, so if you decide to combine the final two etapas as I did (for a final day total of 40k), you’ll want to make sure you have reserves on that last day.

No, it's not a mirage!

No, it’s not a mirage!

You should, however, bring:

1. An iPod or other listening device. Sure, nature sounds are peaceful and your walking partners’ stories are fascinating, but sometimes your feet are bleeding and you don’t care about either and you just want to blast some angsty rap music to remind yourself of how badass you are.

2. The aforementioned microfiber towel. This has been my token travel towel for all my trips in the past year. They’re great if you swim regularly too: very quick-drying!

3. A journal. Even if you’re not much of a writer, I think you’ll find that you really want to jot down some of the thoughts and feelings you’re having. Even just documenting how each day goes is fun to look back on and useful when giving tips to future Camino-goers.

What to wear

You’ve heard a hundred times in a hundred scenarios to “dress in layers,” and this can’t be stressed enough for the Camino. Remember, you’re covering a lot of elevation, even if you only do the last part. I went in August, in the dog days of an especially hot summer, but I still needed a range of clothing. I started each day with pants, a tank top, long sleeved shirt, jacket and scarf. Even all of that wasn’t quite warm enough one mornings in chilly O’Cebreiro, a town atop a mountain on Galicia’s eastern border. But by 11am every day, I was stripped down to shorts and a tank top. And drenched in sweat by midday. So a clothing packing list should look something this (all items quick dry/moisture-wicking material): 1-2 prs pants, 1-2 prs shorts, 1-2 short sleeve or tank tops, 1 long sleeve top, jacket, scarf, hat, socks, underwear, shoes.

Shoes are another subject that could probably have it’s own post altogether. Athletic footwear has become a hotly debated issue since the dawn of the minimalist shoe movement. Full disclosure: I’m a total minimalist running convert, and that actually ended up significantly affecting my experience on the Camino, in both good and bad ways. I brought two pairs of shoes on the Camino: my heavy-ish duty Salomon hiking shoes and my New Balance Minimus running shoes. I planned to use the hiking shoes, which have a hard sole and toe cap, for the especially rocky parts of the route (which turned out to be, um, pretty much all of it) and use my minimalist shoes for the smoother parts as they’re MUCH lighter, but offer no “protection” from said rocky paths. The problem was that I really hadn’t hiked more than a half-day in the hiking shoes, and never in scalding heat or on such rugged terrain. I destroyed my feet with them in the first couple of days: really bad blisters and the start of inflamed heels–a condition that has stopped many a Camino-goer in their tracks. I had spent over a year getting used to using minimalist shoes, which teach you to step differently, and then went back and “blinded” my feet with a big clunky pair of hiking shoes. Bad life decision. After wearing the hiking shoes for just a few hours of the first two days, I abandoned them for the rest of the trip and pranced painfully along in my Minimuses. The good part was that training in minimalist shoes had already taught me to step more carefully and with better posture, so it probably saved me from other potential problems. But since I had already wrecked my feet with the hiking shoes, I was in a lot of pain, especially for the first few miles each day. And there were a lot of bandaids, needles and an entire roll of athletic tape involved.

Wearing my beloved NB Minimus shoes on rock in the middle of a stream

Wearing my beloved NB Minimus shoes on a rock in the middle of a stream

It should also be noted that we amazingly encountered almost no rain whatsoever on the entire trip. This is an absolute anomaly for northern Spain, and heavy rains making muddy paths may call for more heavy-duty hiking boots. In conclusion, footwear has to be “to each his own,” but I would urge you to use only hiking shoes you’re very used to and perhaps bring an extra lightweight pair. And flip flops for the showers/airing your feet out at the end of the day.

What to expect

Expect to find your limits, both physical and mental. Expect that they won’t be what you expected. I assumed my biggest physical limit would be my back, as I have a slipped disk from an old sports injury that gives me trouble when I overdo things. Instead, my back felt strong and was basically pain-free, but I never expected to be fighting back tears from the pain in my feet for the first mile or so every morning. You might actually find that your limits are much greater than you had thought–that you can go further and endure more pain than you previously realized. There might be mental struggles too, with so much time left alone to your own thoughts, but I think this is one of the main reasons why people do this sort of thing. To wrestle with hard questions.

Expect to meet a lot of amazing people from across the globe. Expect them to offer you things, like some of their wine or some Compeed. Offer things back. Listen to their story and tell them yours.

Expect to see Spain in arguably the coolest way possible. Being conscious of (literally) every step of the journey is a fantastic way to gain an appreciation for a place. You’ll be completely alone in the middle of the Spanish countryside at times and bumping elbows with locals in tiny villages at other times. It’s incredible.

You never know who your walking companions might be

You never know who your walking companions might be

¡Buen Camino!


6 Comments

the Camino experience

A month ago yesterday, I arrived on foot in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, after hiking the last 200km of the Camino de Santiago. The experience was, hands down, the most incredible of my life to date. Even a month later I’m finding it really difficult to put it into words. Part of that could be that I went immediately from the Camino to the whirlwhind of moving back to the US, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think I’ll be processing the experience for months, or maybe even years to come.

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Camino and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’re curious about it or even considering taking the plunge yourself, and you’re hungry for advice, insight, inspiration. Or maybe you’re a fellow former peregrino (pilgrim) and you know just exactly how I’m feeling. Even though everyone has an entirely different experience on the Camino that is very uniquely their own, there is something that connects every peregrino del Camino.

No matter which category you fall into, I hope I can share a little Camino magic with you today.

So…what IS the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino is a famous pilgrimage of Christian origin that has been around since Medieval times. Legend has it that the remains of St. James were brought from Jerusalem to what is now Santiago de Compostela. For over 1200 years now, people have been making this journey on foot to pay homage to the Saint.  The pilgrimage was recently re-popularized by this 2010 film, which rather accurately portrays the fact that nowadays, the tens of thousands of people who set out to do the Camino each year have widely varying reasons for doing so: some religious and some not at all.

There are several routes one can take to reach Santiago. Traditionally, pilgrims set out for Santiago from their own homes, wherever they might be. There are still some people that do that today, but typically people choose a place to begin along one of several routes, based upon the amount of time they’re able to dedicate to the journey. The most famous route begins on the French-Spanish border in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France and heads down through Pamplona, across north central Spain and up into the mountainous terrain of Galicia in the northwest of Spain for the last 200km stretch. From beginning to end, this route takes most pilgrims about a month. Pressed for time, my friend and I did only the last 200km which are, as many have said, “the most difficult, but the most beautiful.”

Who does the Camino de Santiago?

Anyone. Everyone. According to my guidebook, two-thirds are Spanish people, and among the third that are foreigners, the Germans and French dominate. But I met people from everywhere: Australia, South Africa, Japan, the US, Brazil… Most are in the 25-35-year-old range, but the next biggest group is probably the 50-80-year-olds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Why do people do the Camino de Santiago?

As I said before, modern-day pilgrims’ reasons are quite varied. Some are religious, some are looking for an answer to some question they have in their life, some are doing it in honor or memory of a loved one, others are alt-tourists looking for a more adventurous way to spend their holiday. I personally wanted to do a portion of the Camino as a sort of capstone on my experience of living in Spain for over two years. It was a time for reflection and clarification. You can’t go into the Camino knowing exactly what you’ll get out of it, but I can just about guarantee the one thing you won’t feel at the end is regret for having done it.

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: "In our room at an albergue: "Don't run, pilgrim. It doesn't matter how far you go, but rather who you are, how you feel and who you're with."

In our room at an albergue in Palas de Rei: “Don’t run, pilgrim. It doesn’t matter how far you go, but rather how you are, how you feel and who you’re with.”

What does the Camino de Santiago look like?

If you don’t already know, Spain is a land of incredibly varied landscapes. The main route take you from the rocky Pyrenees into the lush green Basque Country, my beloved former home. There’s a flat, dry stretch through the high plains of north-central Spain and the final third of the journey is once again very mountainous, and quite green.

Sometimes you’re walking on the shoulder of a highway, other times you’re walking along a shady, forested path. You’ll pass through big cities, small towns and tiny villages. You’ll see lots of farm animals and have to dodge a lot of manure.

There’s a video at the end of this post that might give you a better idea of what the Camino looks like.

What does the Camino de Santiago sound like?

Mornings are peaceful. Birds chirping. The crunching of your feet on the rugged paths. The other pilgrims you pass along the way wishing you a “buen camino.” You’ll probably be lost in thought, or maybe having an enlightening conversation with your Camino companion(s) or a random peregrino you’ve just met.

Afternoons are more challenging. You might be noticing the sound of your breath more and thinking you sound tired. Maybe you turn on your iPod to block that out for awhile.

Evenings are joyful and then peaceful once again. You’ll talk and laugh with the other pilgrims over dinner and vino, then face-plant into your pillow at the albergue.

What does the Camino de Santiago smell like?

Manure, mostly. Sometimes flowers.

What does the Camino de Santiago taste like?

Espresso and fresh fruit in the morning. More espresso and Spanish tortilla in later morning. Tuna empanadas or salami bocadillos for lunch. Cold beer pick-me-ups. Three home-cooked courses for dinner, washed down with fantastic Rioja wine.

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

before bedtime ritual: journaling and wine

What does the Camino de Santiago feel like?

The Camino feels like an analogy to life. There are peaks and valleys, easy stretches and treacherous ones. There are times when you feel like you can’t go on and a friend picks you up, and times when you’re the one offering a shoulder to lean on. There are times to be serious and times to laugh and realize life can’t be taken too seriously.

The Camino feels like freedom. Freedom from the modern-day construction of what life is “supposed” to be. A blast to the past, a much simpler time. No responsibilities except putting one foot in front of the other, all day, every day.

The Camino feels like unfettered emotion. The usual day-to-day emotional hindrances are gone, and you’re left to really feel your feelings. You might get really sad about the heart-breaking things of the world and then look up at the landscape around you and cry tears of joy at the beauty of it all.

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

In the mountains of gorgeous Galicia

I leave you with a video I compiled of my footage of the journey. Here you’ll get a sense of the sights and sounds of the Camino. Your sensory imagination will have to fill in the rest.


Leave a comment

aerial views

I’ve flown in and out of Bilbao more than a dozen times, but today the view from the plane window was unlike any I’ve seen before. As we took off at 6:45 this morning, the city was still lit up like night, but the sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, dimly lighting the coastline and mountains.

After all this time I’m able to easily identify each part of the city from the plane window based on the bends in the River Nervión. Now on the brink of sunrise, the bends can be seen as outlined by the evenly spaced lamps along the promenade, and I think of the hundreds of miles I’ve run there.

running around river bends in central Bilbao

running around river bends in central Bilbao

I see the blinking lights from the Iberdrola Tower, Bilbao’s lone skyscraper, and I think of the way it’s shiny exterior seems to reflect the sky in a different way every time I see it.

I identify the surrounding beach towns (Algorta, Sopelana, Gorliz…) based on their various unique curvatures of the coastline, and I think of the surf lessons, never-ending beach days with friends and the countless times I’ve sat and watched the sun sink into the water from one of the many perfect perches along the coast.

a fall sunset in Sopelana

an autumn sunset in Sopelana

I see the lights from the Puente Colgante transporter bridge, and I think of my days as a student here when I lived just down the street from the historical bridge, back when even just Getxo felt like a big place to me. I think of how fortunate I was this year to have had the chance to return to this neighborhood for my work.

Puente Colgante

Puente Colgante

I see the mountains that tuck Bilbao into its seaside nest, and I think of the many hiking excursions and the excitement I feel after hiking up a mountain to get a new perspective on the surrounding landscape.

taking a breather after climbing Vizcaya's steepest peak: Monte Anboto

taking a breather after climbing Vizcaya’s steepest peak: Monte Anboto

No matter how much I fly, it never ceases to amaze me how small the whole thing looks from the plane. This tiny-looking little world that once felt so big to me has become the perfect-sized place I’ve been so fortunate to call home for the better part of the last three years.

I didn’t board the plane feeling ready to leave this place today. But I don’t know if I could ever feel that way. A place that becomes so deeply a part of you is a place you will never be able to say goodbye to forever. So although I don’t know when or in what context, I’ll be back, Bilbao.

Hasta la vista.


4 Comments

El Camino de Santiago

Tomorrow morning I am getting on a bus to a little village in the northwestern part of Spain called Villafranca del Bierzo. It is there that a dear friend of mine and I will begin a 200km (125 miles for my fellow Guiris) to Santiago de Compostela: the last stage of a famous pilgrimage known as The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James.) I’ve been throwing the idea around in my head for over a year now, and finally I decided I have to do it. I’ve heard so many great things about it from friends of mine who have done it. There was also a movie recently made about it that has made the pilgrimage much more famous. I highly recommend it; it’s called “The Way“, and it tells a story of one man who completed the Camino in it’s entirety in honor of his son. We’re only going for a week, but the original routes begin in France and can take more than a month to complete on foot.

I finally arrived at the decision to embark on this journey as a nice capstone to the two hugely impacting years of life I have spent in this wonderful country that now really feels like my home. Hiking for miles and miles day in and day out gives you lots of time to think, reflect, evaluate, reminisce and consider what lies ahead. I can’t think of a better way to make the transition from my life in my adopted home back to my life in my native home. I’ll be Stateside in just 11 days.

One thing that becoming an increasingly seasoned traveler has taught me (only took a few years :-p) is how to pack light (yes, ladies, it CAN be done.) I’ll be carrying nothing but this 18-liter pack:

pack

This week is going to be challenging, sweaty, feet-blistering and exhausting. But more importantly, it’s going to be an incomparable adventure: a chance to meet people from all over the world and all walks of life while hiking through beautiful landscapes. A chance to get away from the normal hustle bustle and life to stop and think. A chance to see what you’re really made of.

To all my fellow peregrinos out there: ¡BUEN CAMINO!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 526 other followers