Sunday, July 16, 2017

The invisible hand of God

....and the visible hand of an App.

Yes there is an App for that. There are numerous Camino Apps, some free and some cost a few dollars to download which tell you exactly how many miles between each town and what the terrain looks like. They also list the places to stay in the towns, what they cost and their phone numbers. Often you don't need reservations. The alberges are use to pilgrims dragging in without reservations looking like sweating death warmed over.

     Its been almost a week since I posted. A lot has happened. If you were wondering, no, I did not fall off a cliff. It would have been a reasonable conclusion from the silence. I learned so much along the way and as it is Sunday, a day of repose, I will pass along some travel tips for people planning Camino pilgrimages. I learned that there are on line groups of people chatting about the experience and do's/don'ts of long distance walking and plenty of books. What I am writing might be repetition for anyone plugged into those. Some of these tips might help anyone working in extreme heat outside all day. These tips all matter- the Camino is no walk in the park. It isn't a retreat. Its a mix of penance, pain as you push your body beyond what you thought possible, reflection, and getting to the core of your faith. There will be many times when you think "is this really necessary?" and "why again am I doing this?"
      I learned that if you intend to walk ten miles or more a day with a heavy backpack you need to have the right back pack that puts the weight on your hips not your shoulders. The wrong back pack can add weight you don't need and twist out your shoulders and feet in ways you couldn't imagine could hurt that way. You can actually do serious damage with the wrong pack. There are places that specialize in the right sort of back pack with straps that can actually tie it to your pelvis and across the straps on top. REI is a store in Atlanta and other parts and Eddie Bauer specializes in some hiking/camping gear. REI actually holds seminars and workshops on the Camino and what to expect and what you need. I have the wrong back pack that I will likely send to my sister if I can find a sports store to get a correct back pack-its great for going to the beach not for hiking through mountains and desert for a month or more.
     The sun in Spain is such that in some towns people don't work from about 2:00pm to 5:00pm with all shops closed for Siesta except for those serving food (restaurants, bars and some grocery stores.)  Then they party with everything open till at least 10pm except Sundays. A common complaint for people nursing blisters and sun burn is that they cannot get to a Farmacia in town when it is open on their walking schedules. Almost nothing but restauarants/bars are open on Sundays, with a possible exception in main tourist towns.  So its a good idea to bring with you a stock of basic first aid like antibacterial creme, 50 spf sun block, bandages, ibupophrin or advil, etc.  None of that is any cheaper in Spain than in the US. A first aid kit is key for the leader of the trip, especially if bringing teens.

     There were points where I was walking with such extreme heat exhaustion that I nearly collapsed with the weight of my back pack. I need a better one. Its critical to drink water all the time. The Austrians who are use to Alpine hiking that I have met are well equipped with a water pack that has a hose that reaches to the front of their pack so they can sip water all day if needed as walking without stopping. I have passed groups of singing french teenagers taking the mountains like it was a walk to school. Amazing. There are some super fit campers out here.

     A trick I learned from the Mexican forager (who has also been a mechanic in Atlanta) is that if you get a bandana wet and put it around your neck or wrap it around your forearm it will help circulate blood/oxygen. Also, it is pretty critical to carry a small umbrella (basic CVS umbrella) because if you hit extreme heat and cannot move it takes the sun off your heat and can lower the temperature about ten degrees around your face/neck.  I actually raised my umbrella to make it the last quarter mile into one town without which I simply would have collapsed.

     There are signs of heat stroke people should all become aware of.  Its a good idea to get a briefing by a nurse, doctor or other medical professional about heat stroke and other risks of injury before going and of course have your group sign medical liability waivers because medical risks are real. If you know what heat stroke looks like, you can help people about to really suffer before it gets too bad. One of the signs is sweating ice cold sweat. If you see someone like that they need water immediately and probably a spot of something to eat even if its just a cracker. I gave out chocolate cookies from a pack I got in Barcelona to people along the way who looked like they were going to collapse. People with european health cards can get treated for free and Americans or non europeans are charged out the nose for a visit to the Dr. One Australian recounted being charged about $100 for one doctor's visit and a prescription for something like ibupophrin (which you can get over the counter in Spain.) So if you can do basic first aid it saves a lot.

     I developed really nasty second degree sun burns on my upper chest and back and have to stay out of the sun totally for a few days now. I'll spare you all the hideous photos. I powered through until they were so badly blistering they were yellowing and bleeding in spots. Now I am chilling for a few days in a beautiful town. That brings me to the need to have the right clothing. Cotton does not protect from UV sunlight and white or lighter colors can cause the sun to reflect on your skin burning worse. The best clothing for walking is the microfibre polywear that is made by sports people like Adidas and Nike in darker colors. Cotton T shirts from Target are useless. Blisters on the feet are also extremely common. It is advised to wear longer socks (not golf peds) that go above any shoes you are wearing. Some people swear you need hiking boots and others prefer well ventilated good running shoes. My sneakers are holding up so far. One Irish guy swears that the best socks to wear are nylon half socks because they breath and dry easily when you are sweating so blisters don't form. There are Chinese import shops along the path that sell them for about 2 euros for a pack of 3.

     That is all for the basic body care information for now. The real meat of the Camino is the serendipitous experiences and encounters you have along the way and the interior heart work you do or that God does on you. Everyone is usually so encouraging "Buen Camino" (have a good Camino walk) is something everyone says when they pass each other. Everyone wishing everyone well and happy trails is a welcome change from life in law in DC.
     I have been impressed with how real certain Saints' help is from heaven, in an almost miraculous way. Of course that's why they are Saints-they make miracles from heaven. For example, in the pilgrim town where I am now there is a pilgrim church of Saint James (SanTiago) and a massive portrait of the Spanish Saint who was a lawyer named Jose Maria Escriva hanging in the Cathedral. He apparently found his vocation praying in that church when he practiced law in the city and enrolled in the city's Seminary. His presence is felt here. As the founder of Opus Dei, he is invoked by the Opus Dei Seminarians assisting in the Cathedral. I had a mini Opus Dei involved miracle just as I hit the town.  Thank you Jose Marie Escriva. One pilgrim remarked to me "he wants to be your friend."

   There are places to stay along the route in guest houses attached to cathedrals. I find that this is the best way to get the Camino experience because you pray with the other pilgrims and eat communally often in a meal together. There is an association of people who have completed the Camino called the Hospitaliers of the Camino who serve volunteering for weeks at a time at the cathedral guest houses. The guest houses charge nothing but ask for donations. In the Santiago de Real guest house in Logono there is a priest who takes special care of pilgrims who invites them to dinner, helps serve the dinner, then invites them into the church to pray evening prayers together in multiple languages. Its really beautiful. There is even a pilgrim song he taught the group.

   Accommodations in the cathedral guest houses are basic bunk beds with overflow sleeping on mats on the floor which are too thin to call mattresses. The people really serious about making as much good time as possible hit the road before its daylight because they don't want to walk in the sun- so they maneuver around bunk beds putting on their head lights like miners packing their back packs in the dark to hit the trails. They don't eat breakfast until they hit the next town.

   Bunk beds are also the experience in Alberges. Its like camp. This means you meet a lot of people and actually sleep in the same room. The upside is you meet wonderful people, pray together, and learn from each other. The downside is you hear loud snoring, people waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and if there is a foul spirited person it infects the whole room. You might not get the best rest that way- some have complained of being up all night because they couldn't go to sleep with all the snoring. Some people choose the private room route for a lot more money (imagine hotel bills of even 40 euros a night for a solid month). I was fortunate to get a private room for 25 euros to get a good night sleep with wifi and laundry service which is necessary to organize life once in a while. I will do that only a few times.

     The Camino makes one grateful for every small little thing. You take nothing about life for granted. You are constantly heartily thanking God for things like a public water fountain, a patch of grass, a shady pine tree or a bench. A friendly welcoming face in a cathedral guest house is a spot of heaven on earth. God bless all those hospitalier volunteers who for an evening manage to create an ambiance of Christian family around a communal table with blessed food.

     I am praying for an open sports store to get a new back pack to hit the road again soon. Please pray I find one. I'm not trying to come back crippled.
A wise pilgrim told me "its not a race" so I can rest for few days out of the sun while my burns heal.  You get no martyr points for being reckless or damaging yourself.  More happy Camino madness later.....

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