Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On walking alone

One of the biggest sacrifices you can make is to adjust your rhythm and habits to accommodate someone else’s. And one of the most profound luxuries in life is to move through the world at exactly your own pace.

Of course society would crumble if we didn’t adapt ourselves left and right—to the needs of family, lovers, and friends; to the flow of traffic; to a work schedule.

But every now and then you’ve got to let yourself move to nothing more or less than your internal beat--the particular rhythm of your own heart and mind--if only to remember that it does indeed exist, under all the shifts and syncopations life imposes.

I walked the Camino de Santiago alone, and I’m very glad I did.

I thought I’d be one of few, but I wasn’t. I’d estimate that twenty to thirty percent of pilgrims were walking alone, most because they wanted it that way, a few because companions had pulled out at the last minute. And even most of those in the latter category had come to see the change in plans as a blessing in disguise.

But first, a disclaimer: I like to travel alone. I also like to travel with others. But for something as personal as a pilgrimage, going it alone seems the best way to ensure that the trip doesn’t slip into tourist mode or that you miss half of what there is to see and feel along the way.

I saw many pairs on the Camino, walking along deep in conversation about things back home (a spouse, a child, a job). Sure it’s great to talk with old friends, but you can do that at a cafĂ© near your house. Why travel so far, lugging all you need on your back, walking a route that people have walked for over 1000 years, just to talk to a friend you can talk to back home?

Don’t waste the walk on idle talk. Keep quiet, look around, and see what it feels like to move through the world alone. Which is (not to be morbid) fundamentally the way we all walk through this world.

Many people confuse being alone with being lonely. But I felt more lonely among crowds of chattering friends of friends in Rome than I ever felt walking solo on the camino. Walking, you’ll have a community of like-minded pilgrims with whom to strike up a conversation. If you want company, you’ll have it. And if you don’t, your desire to keep to yourself will be respected. This is a pilgrimage, not a high school reunion.

If you’re concerned about safety, don’t worry. I started the walk wearing one of those around-the-neck pouches that hold all your cash and documents. Two or three days in, the pouch felt hot and bulky and the left shoulder strap of my pack had dug the cord of the pouch into my shoulder, rubbing it raw. I moved the pouch to the map pocket of my pack and never looked back, literally or figuratively.

I wasn’t completely trusting. In cities I wore the neck pouch. And when staying in a hostal, I would take that pouch with me when I left my pack in the communal bunkhouse. But other than those minor precautions I really didn’t worry about security—for my possessions or for my person. My fellow pilgrims were never anything but decent and helpful.

If you’re thinking of walking alone but are wavering, I offer hearty encouragement for you to go for it. Walk it alone, at your own pace, and you’ll really feel and see the camino.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Compostelana

When you get to Santiago you go to the Pilgrims Office, where you stand in line to present your stamped credencial and apply for the certificate of a completed pilgrimage, called the compostelana. At the pilgrimage museum in Santiago, I saw a copy of a compostelana from the 1800s, and it looked pretty much like the one I received (see above).

The certificate is in Latin; any readers of Latin want to translate? (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Credencial, or Pilgrim's Passport

When you start walking you get a multi-paged cardboard booklet called a credencial. As you stay at pilgrim hostals and visit churches, you get stamps showing where you've been. To get into most albergues or hostals you have to show the credencial. Some hospitaleros (people that run the hostals) really study the credencial to make sure you're a pilgrim and not a tourist; others hardly glance at it and just stamp it.

Above are the first few pages of my credencial.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rome asserts its shape and speed

I hope to write more about the camino soon, but Rome has taken me up in a whirlwind of heat and grime and beauty and good food and wine. It's all about crossing to the other side of the street for a little patch of shade, standing in line to see ruins and museums, and wandering into churches and staying because a coolness emanates up from the marble or mosaic floors. We recover in bars and cafes and osterias.

I feel more tired here than I did on the camino, and there's less time and space to think. I would do it differently next time--not rush from the Camino to another blockbuster experience.

I have a lot of notes for more camino-related entries but I don't know if any of them will address the big questions: Did I walk far enough? What did I get out of it? I do know that once the plane wisked me from Santiago to Rome the focus did scatter.

Maybe once I'm home the walk will take shape in retrospect and I can try to describe that shape. I hope I haven't left hanging those who shared the camino with me. I just need some time to regroup and think what I want to say about the experience. Maybe what I already wrote about--the day-to-day reality of walking--is what I'll end up having to say about it. I don't want to force a neat ending.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rome is easy

Santiago, Rome, and Jerusalem -- the three big Christian pilgrimage sites. I won't get to the Middle East this time but the other two are on my Camino.

Flew into Rome last night. It's hot and sunny and Gianna and I have an apartment for a week in Trastevere, at the end of a dead-end street, right up against the botanical gardens. There's a lovely terrace where we eat fresh peaches and try out different cheeses. Then we wash our dishes in the bathroom sink.

This is my first time (as an adult) in Rome, and I'm so glad to be here with a quasi-native. Gianna knows the city and the language and can I just traipse after her, taking it all in.