Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do You Know the Way to San-tiago?: El Camino y Madrid

For those who don't know, UCC has a unique academic calendar that allows for a month-long Easter/study/travel recess during April before May exams kick off. Because some of my exams took place in March, I took off for the month and explored Southern Europe. I started my April break off at 4 a.m. on 02 April, running around, exhausted, packing last-minute stuff in my North Face. I was going to be gone for three and a half weeks in two different countries doing a variety of things that required assorted items. That's a terribly vague way of stating that I had to shove a mish-mash of gym clothes, skirts, dresses, sneakers, sandals, toiletries, etc. into my backpack. The North Face should make me their new dayback line model to show the maximum size the Recon can get without ripping.

The first leg of the trip was to Spain, where we (my API friend Kaitlin and I) were hiking part of the Camino de Santiago with the UCC Chaplaincy. We spent time in Southern Spain before our hike began. We flew from Cork to Malaga and then took a bus to Granada, which ended up being one of my favorite places in Spain. We were only there overnight, but we stayed in a really funky hostel where we drank homemade sangria in hammocks; I got to eat churros con chocolate with my friend Keelia from SMC, who has been studying in Granada (check out her blog here); I saw the Alhambra palace (shortlisted wonder of the world, and for good reason -- the architecture is amazing and the views are incredible); and I wandered through the vendor-and-shop-lined streets that smelled like pot and incense (I felt like I was back in Burlington). It's a hip place.

From Granada, we went back to Malaga to catch a plane to Valladolid (which houses the smallest airport I've ever been in -- smaller than Cedar Rapids) and then took a bus to Leon. Leon was my favorite Spanish city. The cathedral there, Santa Maria de Leon, contains almost 1,800 square meters of stained glass. Amazing. In Leon we also got really yummy egg and tomato crepes for dinner, and retired in a lovely hostel near the basilica that was all our own.

The next day we had to prepare for the pilgrimage. We took a bus to Sarria, our starting point, which is 112 km from Santiago de Compostela. I don't remember there being much in Sarria but I think this was the place with the terrace deck. The sky was really clear the night we were there, and it made for a good start to our camino. Between 5 and 6 a.m. each day our alarms went off so we could start walking, typically, by 6:30 and 7. We walked between 18 km and 32 km per day, which is (for all you non-metric Americans) about 11-18 mi. The terrain varied each day and the weather affected our speed sometimes. I can't remember details anymore, but luckily I kept a journal every day. Here are a few excerpts:

"06 April - Portomarin: Tonight we're settled into a hostel - an albergue - in Portomarin, a town 23 km west of Sarria. We walked all 23! And we still have a little under 100 km to go!...OK so we woke up [at 5:45] and hit the road, hiking over rocks, through fields, over streams, past cows, all that jazz. We got 14 km and stopped at this awesome restaurant to get farm-fresh eggs - they were so good!...We arrived in Portomarin, signified by a bridge over a rio, around 1:00 p.m., so we walked for a good amount of the day...the showers don't have curtains here so I had to use my bathing suit. And I saw some woman's butt. Sweet. Tomorrow I'm hoping I get a more legit shower, though I honestly feel relatively clean and really relaxed. Well, the lights just went out and Eric was falling asleep on my shoulder a minute ago so I guess it's time for bed! Up at 6:15 tomorrow -- sleeping in, wahoo!"

"07 April - Palas de Rei: I'm sitting in my bunk here in Palas de Rei feeling very sick. I'm not sure what it could be - something I ate or drank, maybe, or heat exhaustion, but I'm cramped up and feeling quite nauseous..." For the record, it was definitely heat exhaustion because I drank loads of water and went to bed early, and I woke up feeling much better. "...I'm doing something independent for the purpose of endurance and personal growth in my relationship with God, the guy in my life that's been taking a back seat recently...The reading Fr. Joe [our head chaplain] gave today mentioned leaving things behind to start a new life as Christ's followers. It was the Mark reading about the call of the apostles. There's a line in there about brushing the dust off one's feet as one leaves a place he's not welcomed into, and I like that metaphor...there was this guy who gave us a hard time for waking up so early and then again for not taking our bags with us [since they were driven from stop to stop with Fr. Joe]. And then he told this lady about us at one of the hostels and she told us to go somewhere else. So we did and now we're in a great hostel with hot showers and comfy beds...We passed the time sharing stories about our pasts and telling each other about what we do at school. It's a good way to get to know people and get a good long walk [26 km] in."

"08 April - Arzua: Today we walked - I think - over 30 km, which is INSANE! I woke up feeling a lot better and I think I'm totally better, though I did find a rash on my was so hot today!...we knew we were in for a hot day but we weren't as prepared for the ridiculous ups and downs of the hills. My feet are killing me, and my knees are starting to hurt consistently too. The walk was a lot prettier today...we had a lot of wooded paths along the way, which was especially nice since the trees provided good shade. The hills were brutal, though, and the heat made it almost unbearable. We stopped for lunch 15 km in in Melide and then multiple times after that for water and then popsicles. Lime pops have never tasted so good."

"09 April - Arca: ...It was so nice to only have 19 km to walk today! We stopped 11 km in at Casa Verde, where I got a croissant and a shell necklace for 3 Euro [the shell is a symbol of the pilgrim]...In a few minutes we have prayer, Mass, and then dinner. I went to Spanish Mass last night before Fr. Joe took us out to dinner. The priests had us come forward and gave us a pilgrim blessing. Maybe that was what made the day much better today. Despite a small blister on my left foot and aching feet, I'm feeling OK...Santiago cake is almond cake - so good - with powdered sugar. I want to make it when I get home. I think my mom would like it...I'm praying for a really restful sleep tonight, cool temps, and bright blue skies. Onto Santiago in the morn! Only 18 km to go!"

"10 April -Santiago!: We are here in Santiago de Compostela, 112 km, a few blisters, 5 days, and a bunch of new friends later...the Mass was in Spanish, obviously, like it was last night, so I couldn't understand it but Fr. Joe celebrated it which was really cool. He said a special prayer for us UCC pilgrims and specifically the "American friends" the Chaplaincy brought with them. I received communion from him too, so that was neat. The cathedral was pretty -- not as cool as Leon, but still nice. We saw St. James' tomb [which apparently wasn't a big deal to me when I was writing, but now that I'm rereading I think it's pretty sweet!] and kissed the statue [of James] that apparently pilgrims are supposed to kiss - kinda like the Blarney Stone, I was great to be with everyone (and Sun [my SMC friend]) one last time [at dinner]. I'm honestly sad to see this adventure go. It's totally not something I'd normally sign up for, and I'm so glad I did this. 112 k is really far in my book, and given the fact that I'm totally out of shape, it's quite the accomplishment. Plus, I didn't know these people when I got here, and now I've made some nice new friends...these experiences are exactly what study abroad is all about! Buen camino!"

If the Camino sounds interesting to you (and it should because IT IS!), check out the new movie (well, it's new in Ireland, which means it might be a few months old in the States) The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. I'm going to go see it with Camino friends on Saturday, and I've heard it's really good. It'll be fun to see certain places on film and be able to say, 'Hey, I've been there; I've done that.'

After the Camino, Kaitlin (API) and I left Santiago with Sunny (SMC) for Madrid. This is the part of the trip I don't like to talk about. Long story short, I got pick-pocketed within a few hours of arriving and virtually all of my important stuff was stolen. All I have to say is be careful in Madrid. I let my guard down. But I have to say I was really impressed with my level-headed response to the situation. I didn't freak out. We spent almost our entire trip in the police station, the Embassy, on the phone with banks, parents, etc. The only touristy things we did were seeing nice art at the Prado, where we met up with another SMC friend, Alex, and walking around a little near Mercado de San Miguel and the palace. (See Alex's blogSun's blog right there.). Oh, and I finally had some Starbucks chai. Thank the good Lord. In short, I don't like Madrid, BUT, there were a few positives that made me not totally hate Madrid. For one, we stayed with my childhood neighbor, Kristen, who has been teaching in Madrid. It was so nice to see a face from home! She, with Kaitlin and Sunny, helped me piece together a post-pick-pocket plan. We also got to hang out with Sunny's host mom, Charo, who made us an amazing dinner of Spanish omelets and sangria. It was delicious food and wonderful company. Now I know why Sunny has had such a great experience abroad.

My own general conclusion: I don't love Spain, but it's a nice country, and if I were made to go back, I'd find ways to enjoy it. If someone handed me a ticket, I'd go. But when I come back to Europe someday, it won't be on my list of destinations. Lo siento, EspaƱa.

And then it was time to bid Spain more tight, stressful Ryan Air flight from Madrid and we were in Italia!

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