travel, Uncategorized

Preparing for the Camino – Hiking Poles

After I recovered from hurting my back, I started using hiking poles regularly. I found several benefits to it: it is easier to get up hills, safer to come down hills (no more slipping on rocks and falling on my behind), and if necessary, I can either poke my dogs in the behind or fight off rabid raccoons. Now, granted, there aren’t that many rabid raccoons where I live, but you never know.

Lots of people tout the benefits of using hiking poles on the Camino de Santiago, and I fully plan on doing the same. (Homeland Security, however, prohibits them from  carry on luggage, so I will buy them in Spain.) Most advice on the Camino stresses that you must use the poles correctly for maximum benefit. How does one do that? Here are a couple of brief videos that explain that here:

If you’d like more detailed information than this, check out this link: Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method.

Advertisements
travel, Uncategorized, writing

Reasons for Walking the Camino de Santiago

Most people I have told about my intention to walk the Camino de Santiago have the same reaction.

First, there’s the silence. Stunned silence, followed by a piercing gaze, an: “Are you serious?” sort of look. Then, when they see that I am, indeed, not kidding, they take a moment, processing, and say something like, “I see. Why do you want to do this?”

I’m pretty good at dealing with the initial shocked reaction. I get it; it seems to have come out of the blue to most of my friends and family. They don’t know that I first learned about the Camino years ago, while studying history. They don’t know that I’ve been thinking about it since then, because to be honest, I haven’t said anything about it. It’s one of those desires that has lived in my heart in a cocooned state, because of its outrageous nature. Taking 6 weeks or more off daily life is rather outrageous, at least in my mind. Walking 500 miles is rather outrageous, too. I’m not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. But what I lack in physical prowess I make up for in enthusiasm.

Foolish enth11017665_1398165933827601_3386207604897014241_nusiasm, some might say.

I have taken an ice pick to the frozen and hard places of my heart these past few years. I am splitting it open and letting out all the airy dreams and insubstantial wishes. Some flutter away like moths. Others glow and pulse and speak to me in a voice I cannot deny.

Make me real. Do it now, or not at all.

So, yes, I can deal with the shock. It is something I have debated in my own mind, a familiar topic. But what I am not so good at comprehending and answering are questions about why I’m doing the Camino. I don’t respond with the gravity the question demands. Usually I blather on about how I love history and walking and how my spirit says to go. I’m a grandmother now and if I don’t go now when will I? It’s not like time is passing more slowly than it used to. Menopause has wreaked its havoc on my body and that has a way of bringing the reality of the passing years to the forefront of one’s mind.

And all of these reasons are true. I’m a writer and because of that, I have the advantage of calling any and every endeavor research. Who knows what might come of my trip? I am looking at projects now, sifting them and finding those that seem most worthy.

These explanations, especially the part about my spirit – the nudgings of the Holy Spirit – satisfies some. These are those who are used to doing things for faith that others might find strange or incomprehensible. They have learned, as I have, that following Spirit is something that is frequently frightening and strenuous, but that it is always good, no matter the outward appearance, no matter even the result, as counterintuitive as that sounds. That, indeed, God works in mysterious ways.

Others look at me with a blank sort of stare, and rephrase the question.

“What do you hope to gain from this?”

On my end, the blathering continues. Adventure, inner strength, peace, power, love … I have said all these things and more, and yes, of course I hope to gain them. But the true answer is that I just don’t know what will happen. What will come from this great effort, this long walk. That flippant old answer to the question, “Why do you climb Mount Everest?” applies. Because it’s there.

I am open. I am willing to see what there is to see. To whatever blessed fellow pilgrims I can walk with. To whatever centuries-old sights I can experience.

The heart and soul of what I hope to find, though? I don’t know. I am going because I have been called by something greater than me. I am going because I have answered the call. It is an age-old siren song, the call. Adventurers and pilgrims alike have heard it. And so have farmers and peasants and factory workers. Perhaps you have as well. Some listen. Some go, despite the obstacles of health, finances, and danger. I am one of these.

Why am I going?

Here, then, is the answer.

Lean in, listen closely, and I will tell you why, in a soft voice, a sacred half-whisper.

That is the question, is it not?

travel, Uncategorized, writing

Affording the Camino de Santiago – Airfare

Source
Source

My mother taught me many things that I am grateful for, but how to stretch a dollar is definitely one of the most useful. As such, I zoom for the clearance rack whenever I go clothes shopping, and make sure to research big purchases carefully. Plus, I just like to make my money work for me. Which is why I lurk about the frugal forum at Reddit regularly. The name of one airline kept surfacing: Norwegian Air. I didn’t have to browse around their site for long before I found out why.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Europe a few times in my life and if it’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it is not exactly inexpensive. Some countries are worse than others (Great Britain, I love you, but you are pricey) but as with anything you really want in life, where there’s a will, there’s a way, even if you’re cash strapped. Airfare tops the list for costs associated with Europe, including walking the Camino de Santiago. If you have more time than money, though, there are ways to squeeze a buck until it screams. And I sure love to hear that sound!

The major cost in airfare is in flying from the US across the Atlantic Ocean. Airfares in general are less expensive to Europe from the East Coast. But bargains can be had from the West Coast, too, as I’ll demonstrate. Europe, like the US, has bargain airlines that you can fly once you are in Europe. So don’t be too picky about your initial destination. Here’s what I booked:

  • Roundtrip airfare from LAX to Copenhagen for ~$400 on Norwegian Airlines (I also purchased travel insurance for $15 so the total is about $419). Norwegian Air has low costs, in general, to Norwegian destinations, namely, Oslo, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. I chose Copenhagen because I’ve heard great things about it and I haven’t been there before. I’ll spend a day or so sightseeing before I continue on.
  • One way trip from Copenhagen to Barcelona on Norwegian Airlines for $71. This gets me fairly close to Roncesvalles, which is where I’ll start my Camino. I will have to purchase a train fare from Barcelona to Roncesvalles, though. It’s around $70 as well. Once I’m there I’ll be ready to start my Camino, which ends in northwestern Spain, at Santiago de Compostela. Then, in order to get home, I booked:
  • One way trip from Santiago de Compostela to London Stansted on Ryan Air for $63.
  • One way trip from London Stansted to Copenhagen on EasyJet for $58.
  • From Copenhagen, I’ll board a flight home on my initial roundtrip ticket.

Simple, right? Well, sort of. I’ll admit, it can be time-consuming to figure all this out. However, it can also be an enjoyable challenge, which is how I viewed it. My flights were more complicated than most due to the nature of the Camino, which involves a 500 mile difference from northeastern Spain to northwestern Spain, but also because I looked outside the box and tried different route combinations for the best fare, especially with my one way trips to Copenhagen.

Is it worth it? My airfares total about $600. Most other people’s airfares from the West Coast run between $1200-$1400. So, yes, I think so.

However, lest I paint too rosy a picture, be aware of these cautions and helpful tips.

  • Be willing to devote some time to the search. It’s a heck of a lot faster – but potentially more expensive – to go through a travel agent or just open up Expedia and choose some flights. While you can get very lucky – especially with a travel agent – there’s no guarantee and if you devote some time to learning the costs associated with traveling you’ll also know a great deal when you see it.
  • Be flexible with your dates. If you haven’t yet chosen a time to do your Camino, be sure to check out sample fares by choosing the “low fare calendar” option on Norwegian Air and other airlines. The “shoulder season” is the time of the year when fewer people are flying, so you can get a better deal. I’m doing my Camino in April and May of this year, as much because of the low airfare as of the weather (I avoid the summer heat whenever possible.)
  • Be willing to purchase tickets in different routes/airlines.
  • Don’t wait. Special fares and sales are fleeting – grab them while you can!
  • Be aware of extra fees. Traveling on budget airlines isn’t always as cheap as it seems. For Norwegian Air, I decided not to pay the $42 fee for meals on my flights to and from Copenhagen. Since I’m backpacking I’m also not checking luggage, another extra fee. I’m also likely to get stuck in the middle seat because I’m not paying for reserved seats. Ryan Air is notorious for charging extra fees, and you would do well to learn the ins and outs of this airline before you fly it. See below for recommended links.
  • Out of the way airports. One way that budget airlines keep costs down is to fly to out of the way airports in major markets. Be sure to check the airports out carefully beforehand. My last two one way flights take me in and out of London Stansted, which is 48 km northeast of London and nowhere near the other airports that serve this destination.

I hope my experience with booking low-cost flights has inspired you to try the same. Be sure to spend time checking out the below links and other advice before you dive in, though.

Recommended Reading

travel, Uncategorized, writing

These Shoes Are Made for Walking

Recently, I wrote a blog post in which I went on about my arduous quest to find a pair of shoes to wear on the Camino de Santiago. I had high hopes and an empty wallet after buying a pair of Vasque hiking shoes from REI. Would the 8th pair do the trick? Alas, they rubbed my heel raw and they have been summarily rejected.

However, I have triumphed at last! Nine is the magic number! These Teva Kimtah Waterproof Mesh Hiking Shoes are the winners. And they are less than $60 on Amazon – a much nicer price than the Vasque’s. Thankfully, REI’s return policy is unparalleled so I will be able to recoup my money. The Teva Kimtah’s won because they are wider than the other shoes I tried and have just enough arch support. Still, they do require a little adjustment to be perfect. One of my feet is smaller than the other, like many people’s, so in addition to high quality socks I put a heel insert in that I bought at CVS. I tried another heel insert but it was too flimsy and small and curled up the first time I used it. The ones at CVS are bigger and more sturdy. I also need a piece of moleskin over my heel for the perfect amount of snugness.

Today I did a 7 mile hike in them and my feet feel great – no problems. Woo hoo!

I realize that this shoe quest (surely the most unglamorous of all quests, yes?) could have been cut shorter if I had been less concerned with proper fit and other amenities like waterproofing. However, I worried that blisters and general discomfort would make my Camino experience miserable so I was willing to take the time to prevent that from happening, at least as much as is possible beforehand. It was so time-consuming and difficult because I never really paid much attention to my feet before – as long as they didn’t hurt and got me where I wanted to go I just ignored them. In order to do what I could to avoid future problems that wasn’t good enough this time, though. So I had to really pay attention to examining my feet after hikes and becoming aware of the fit and feel of the shoes while I walked.

It’s amazing what focused, concentrated attention can do, in this and other endeavors. I took a course in mindfulness training a few years back, and it has really changed my life. There’s so much that we do in everyday life that we don’t think about, that we do by rote. Mindfulness helps us to become aware of our actions and to pay attention in a focused, yet objective manner. It is so simple, but so profound. This video goes over the first mindfulness exercise I performed. It really demonstrates how something as tiny and seemingly insignificant as eating a raisin can be infused with meaning and richness. We can learn to embrace that richness in many aspects of our lives, making them fuller and more sacred.

travel, Uncategorized

Gear Preparation for the Camino: The Fun That Never Ends

When I was a little girl, my favorite bedtime story was “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” in which an elderly shoemaker woke up every morning to discover that magical elves had spent the entire night crafting beautiful, stylish, and well-made shoes for him to sell the next day. How cool would that be? I studied the pictures in the book so much that I can still remember how the red-cheeked shoemaker and the brightly colored elf shoes looked.

Little did I know how much magic actually goes into shoes until I began preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across northern Spain. In my last post I went on about the travails I faced with buying shoes two sizes too big for me, as recommended by numerous Camino walkers.

My feet hurt like the dickens, which I attributed to the incorrect size. It appears I must retract that assertion, though, because the highly recommended Saloman shoes in the correct size also hurt my feet. Back they went to REI.

This was the 7th time I tried out shoes and then had to return them. Yes, you read that right.

The 7th time.

Trying out shoes has been a full time job over the last few weeks, or so it seems. I tried the Saloman’s (in two sizes), two pair of Asics, two pair of Keen Whispers, and one pair of Saucony Grid Ridges. These are just the ones I actually bought and returned, not the ones I rejected in the stores themselves.

Then, I decided to go to an REI in another city entirely. Maybe I would get better help there.

Cue the music of the heavenly host for the (imaginary) soundtrack of this post.

For, lo, the Angel of the Lord was found in a tall, hairy shoe salesman named Ben.

When I explained to Ben what I was doing he recommended hiking shoes as opposed to trail runners because they would provide my feet with support over the long distances. They were heavier, but since I planned on carrying 15 lbs or less in my backpack, I could handle a little heavier shoe. He compared the soles of the trail runners, which are twistable, with the Vibram soles of the hikers, which are not. He also recommended that I get them at least a 1/2 size bigger than my normal size.

“People who walk the Pacific Coast Trail come in here all the time,” he explained. “After about a week on the trail their shoe size goes up one whole size, and doesn’t go down for the whole trip. It’s caused by all the walking and the extra weight of their backpacks.”

He seemed to know what he was talking about, unlike the other salesmen I’d met on my ill-fated quest so far.

So I tried on Vasque Breeze 2.0 Low GTX and grew cautiously optimistic. They felt good, and they were waterproof due to a Gore-Tex lining. Built in waterproof linings are better than spray on waterproofing, he explained, because the spray-on coating keeps the shoes from being breathable.

He was also a fount of information about walking sandals, since I wanted to be able to wear them on the trail if necessary.

“You definitely don’t want the Keen Whispers,” he said. “Too lightweight. Same goes for Tevas. You want Chaco’s, for their rubber soles, or possibly Ecco or Newport H2s. I did a two week hiking trip in just my Chaco’s recently and they worked great.”

Glory Hallelujah!

Sandals would have to wait for another time, though. I gathered up the Vasque’s and though I’ve never in my life paid $150 for a pair of shoes, I did this time. The expense would almost be worth it for nothing else then to have this interminable shoe quest over.

This morning I took them on a 45 minute walk and tomorrow I’m going on a hike of a couple of miles. So far so good.

I guess the 8th time is the charm.

travel, Uncategorized

What Not To Do While Preparing for the Camino

I never said I was the brightest bulb in the package.

I’m not stupid, I know this.  I’ve managed some education and some fairly mentally taxing work and accomplishments in my day, but this has mostly been due to bullheaded persistence and hard work. And while I’ve been around a few people in my life that made me feel rather brainy, I’ve also been around a few brilliant people that made me feel as if I have all the mental wherewithal of a turnip.

Despite this rather self-deprecating attitude, I am pretty confident in some of my abilities, one of which is research. I’m able to wield my Google Fu with enough skill that if I spend the necessary time cruising around various forums, webpages, and Facebook pages, I can get the answers I want. After the heady rush of booking my airline tickets to Spain the reality of the monumental enterprise I had set for myself came rushing to the surface like champagne bubbles of panic. Or maybe I should say, the bends of panic. Because walking hundreds of miles along the Camino de Santiago does seem like it could be lethal, even if in fact the chances of croaking are pretty small for a moderately healthy if not exactly young and spry person such as myself.

So, anyhow, I set to researching various sites that provide advice and information on the Camino, the most valuable of which so far has been the American Pilgrims on the Camino, which has a helpful website, local chapters, and an active and encouraging Facebook page. I’ll undoubtedly join the organization at some point, especially since one can take a special hospitalero training that allows you and, if you wish, your non-walking spouse to volunteer as an albergue (hostel/dorm for pilgrims) host in Spain.

I spent several evenings combing through the various posts getting an idea of how I should prepare for this trip. The two most important items seem to be backpacks and shoes.

Former Camino walkers strongly recommend that you spend freely to obtain quality gear. After all, you don’t want to find yourself in rural Spain with faulty equipment and no way to buy replacement gear. The Camino does pass through some moderately big cities, but it also passes through many, many humble villages where you would be lucky to find a bite to eat much less high-end specialty backpacks and the latest laser-rigged, titanium-steel-threaded trail runners. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration about the trail runners.

Discussions about backpacks are fairly low-key and mainly centered around the size thereof. Since you’ll likely be staying in the albergues along the route, there’s no need to carry cooking gear and tents. Traveling light is key here, and for that you don’t need a huge pack. Many people recommend one with a capacity of around 30-40 liters. Packs should be fitted for your body type — and you be aware that they are different for men and women. Osprey seems like a well-respected, although hardly cheap, brand. I ended up purchasing a dark pink Osprey Kyte that’s 36 liters of utter and complete gorgeousness. I love it from the top of its satiny pink head to the bottom of its sturdy gray buckles. We’ll be getting lots of rooms together soon, wink wink.

Shoes, however, are another matter entirely. First there’s the debate between boots or trail runners. In a less spiritually-minded bunch the passionate debate this fosters fists would fly and noses would be bloodied over. Having done a fair amount of 3-5 mile hikes in my local area, I favor the trail runners because they have good traction and are light and comfortable, unlike my experience with boots, which make my feet feel like they are duct-taped to bricks.

Now, boots have their place in hiking, definitely, but the Camino is more of a dirt path than bramble-choked wilderness, so I’m not seeing the need for them here. Cute-as-a-button Lindsey Cowie whose Camino YouTube videos are quite helpful also recommends walking sandals. Most people seem to bring one good pair of shoes and one pair of flip flops for the shower, but Lindsey gave me the idea of bringing the gorgeous Keen Women’s Whisper Sandals as a second pair so that’s what I’m planning on. That way if my main trail runners wear out, get struck by lightning, or are pilfered by Gypsies, I’ll still be able to walk.

Numerous people counseled to “Get your shoes 1/2 to 1 size bigger than your regular shoe size.” The idea behind this advice is that your feet will swell with hour after hour of pounding the metaphorical pavement. Huh. Well, that seemed to make sense.

I hied myself on down to REI where a fresh-faced young salesman measured my feet and pronounced me a size 7.5. Obligingly, he trotted back and forth from the storeroom to me as I tried on several pairs of shoes. April is supposed to be fairly rainy so I chose waterproof Saloman something-or-another trail runner’s in size 8.5.

Back at home, I jammed 15 pounds of split peas and rice, extra clothes, and a blanket into the backpack to simulate my load, laced up my shoes, and took off on a demanding hike. The load weighed me down, definitely, but by the end of the hike I was a happy, if somewhat sweaty woman.

I can do this! I thought jubilantly.

The next day I took another hike. Except that now I noticed that my feet hurt. I probably just wasn’t used to the load and the shoes and hiking day after day. My tootsies would feel better soon.

Wrong.

I fretted and moaned to my husband after coercing him into rubbing my aching tendons. They felt a bit better in the morning. Again I repeated a training hike of around 3 miles. And again there was pain in the evening and night.

After a few more days of this, I began to fear that it would be a way of life for the next few months. And I hadn’t even set one foot on the Camino yet!

I must confess, there was some sniffling and weeping when this realization set in. Here I thought I could do the Camino. God knows what unrelenting agony I would find there instead. Because there was no way I was backing out now. I tried to make things better by lightening the load in my backpack. It didn’t help.

I was doomed! DOOMED!

“Nah, you’ll be fine,” commented my husband Dave. “It must be your shoes.”

“But the Internet said I should get them one or two sizes bigger than normal!”

He looked at me, trying to school his facial features sympathetically. The man hasn’t been married almost three decades without learning a thing or two about how to talk to me without later being savaged for being snide. “The Internet is wrong.”

Say what?

“But these people have been on the Camino. They must know something I don’t.”

“Well, did your feet hurt like this before, on all your other hikes?”

“Um … no,” I admitted, realization slowly dawning.

“Then they’re wrong.”

Oh.

Well, that did kind of make sense.

So, off I went to return my shoes and get them in the proper size for my feet. You do recall what I said in the first sentence of this post, don’t you?

My nice, comfy feet salute you.

Until my next blog post about the Camino, farewell.