Right of Way – A Pilgrim on the Camino – Episode 1

Well I’m officially a pilgrim. I’ve heard that your Camino journey, your pilgrimage starts from your front door. If that’s the case, the first leg of my pilgrimage took over 50 hours either travelling or transiting, finding planes, shuttles, trains, buses and albergues (hostels for pilgrims only). It was an epic start to my pilgrimage, flying from Coffs Harbour, to Sydney, to Singapore, to Paris, then by train to Bordeaux Saint Jean, then another train to Bayonne and a third train, which looked remarkably like a bus (go with the flow Michelle) to Saint Jean Pied de Port.

 

I made a friend on the bus (that was meant to be a train) and his name was (and still is) Jean-Marie and he was born in Mauritius and lives in Canada.  He’s my age and he’s on his gap year!  He and I headed to a bar for a kebab (him) and a red wine (me) while we waited in Bayonne for the train that looked like a bus. I went to the bar to order my wine.  I was tired, and hadn’t learnt any French.  Now I was regretting that decision.  It took the bartender, and four others trying to understand what I was saying (red wine, vino tinto)….until I remembered my new friend Jean-Marie’s first language was French.  Red wine = Vin Rouge.  Finally, with wine in hand, Jean-Marie and I learnt about each other and waited for the train (bus) to my home for three nights – Saint Jean Pied de Port, near the border with Spain.

I met another friend on an online worldwide Camino forum for women, and she happened to live where I live – small world.  She was arriving on the same night as me and so we met up for dinner in Saint Jean Pied de Port (at 9pm – I’ll have to get used to that).  It was nice to see a familiar face – or at least that’s how it felt even though I hadn’t laid eyes on her in person before.  We shared a vin rouge (my third French word after Bonjour and Merci) and chatted to some other pilgrims over dinner.  She was headed off the next morning.

Let me share more about this online forum because it’s important – it’s on Facebook (I know, not for everyone but it serves a purpose).  It’s called Camigas – A buddy system for women on the Camino, and is a combination of the words Camino and Amiga (friend) and was established in honor and memory of a woman by the name of Denise Pikka Theim.  Denise, from the United States, was walking the Camino solo (as I am), in 2015, fulfilling her dream of a lifetime.  Like I am.

Follow the arrows Follow the yellow arrows

Along the Camino pilgrims are guided by yellow arrows, that are painted and plastered everywhere and it is commonly touted that it’s hard to get lost because they help you find the way.  In August 2015, while walking the Camino, Denise was murdered.  She was bashed to death with a stick and both of her hands were cut off.   Spanish man, Miguel Angel Munoz deliberately altered the yellow arrows that mark the pilgrimage route to lure people towards his house which was located close to the route.  After a long investigation and pressure from the US Government, Munoz was eventually charged for Denise’s murder after admitting the crime and leading police to where he had buried her body.  Denise was 41 years old.  May she rest in peace.

The idea of the Camiga’s forum is for women pilgrims to share information, provide support for each other and in some cases, highlight areas and issues along the route that may pose some danger for (in particular) women.  I thank those who created and maintain this site. It is understood that at least one other pilgrim, who was from China, also followed Munoz’s arrow and was hit with a stick by a man fitting his description.  She didn’t report the incident and of course, there was no Camigas forum to post it to to warn others.  Since I have been a member of the Camigas I have seen women post warnings about certain areas where men have been seen masturbating when single women pilgrims walk by, where men have groped women pilgrims and grabbed their breasts as they walk by.  I have seen some women, with the support of the others on the forum, take action, take photos and report the incidents, and in one case I know of, leading to an arrest.  These incidents are overall, rare, but they are there.

It is a shame that as women we need to consider a whole range of extra issues and safety concerns when we walk alone, however, the reality is, we do.


Saint Jean Pied de Port
Saint Jean Pied de Port

So as I head out for the start of the actual walking part of my journey, I do so with the memory of Denise and with an understanding that the world is mostly wonderful, except when it’s not, and that my journey will be spontaneous and free, except when its not.  I will be fearless and brave, except when I’m not.  I will let the arrows lead me, except when I check the guide book.

I will listen to my intuition, that feeling that tells me without any doubt whether I’m on the right track.  I will be brave, even when I am full of fear.  I will walk on, even when I can’t walk another step. I will walk to embrace the journey and all it brings, and I will walk with awareness and strength.

So for now, I’m off to fulfil a life long dream.  I’m a pilgrim with nothing to do but walk. Oh and drink some vin rouge or vino tinto with new friends from all over the world.

‘Let your life be your message’ Mahatma Gandhi

Lessons I learned climbing mountains

Welcome to Life Support our guest blogger Peter McFadyen, who in this post shares some of the lessons he learned climbing mountains.  What mountain are you climbing?  

Let your life be your message.

Michelle

One of the joys of my life is mountain climbing.  I came into the sport late and, in truth, just to spend some time with my wife and get a chance to visit Africa and maybe see a cheetah or two!  At that stage I was more interested in the safari than the summit!  We climbed two mountains that trip.  Mt Meru came first as an acclimatisation climb.  At 4,562m it was a truly challenging introduction to mountain climbing!  From the top we could see our ultimate challenge – Mt Kilimanjaro!  At 5,895m it’s the highest peak in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.  Our attitude towards this sort of adventure is that if you are going to do something then it may as well be a challenge.  It was an amazing adventure in an amazing part of the world spent with an amazing group of people, some of whom we are still close friends with.

I came away from that most amazing of experiences swearing that I would never step foot on another mountain again in my life!

Over the next three months, I noticed that the problems in my life all seemed much more manageable.  I had grown a lot more confident in my ability to handle just about anything that came my way.  I had also become a lot more comfortable in being uncomfortable and this allowed me to be more open to opportunity and challenge.  These three changes to my nature provided a powerful springboard to my journey of personal development and making the most of my life.  About that time a great mate of ours said he was training a new group of climbers to take on Kilimanjaro to do some fundraising and asked me if I’d help them train.  Once I started training again I realised how much I loved the training and being around people who shared my passion and I began to wonder if I had perhaps been a bit hasty in my decision never to climb again.

 

Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa
At the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa – the highest freestanding mountain in the world

This great mate of ours tells people that “Whenever you climb you leave something of yourself on the mountain and you take something away” – and I believe he’s right.  I now climb with him and we’ve since moved on to more technical climbing.  This requires a greater level of training and a lot more focus and in return it rewards you with even greater insight into who you are and allows you to be comfortable with that person.  Of course, this is the benefit in taking on any challenge that pushes us and there are “mountains” around us all the time in our everyday lives just waiting to be climbed.

On a recent climbing expedition I ended up with a failed attempt for the summit of Mt Aspiring in New Zealand.  Despite it being a “failed attempt I did get in a few other summits, I had a great time and learnt a lot of new skills that would come in handy in later climbs.  While I was writing down my experiences each night I ended up building a random list under the heading of “Things learned while climbing.”

On my return home I found that lot of those lessons could be applied to help me in my everyday life and I’d like to share them with you.

·     Preparation and application are key to success.  Wishes don’t climb mountains!

·     Never panic.  Stay centred and move with determination and with a clear path in mind.

·     Each step must be taken in order to reach the summit.

·     Do few things quickly but when speed is needed, do these things well.

·     If at first you don’t succeed be open to a better path – it’s there to be found.

·     Don’t dwell in difficult areas.  Move through them to a place of rest and a clear view.

·     More can be learned through hard earned failure than through easy achievement.

·     We are capable of great things if we go into them willingly, with a smile and a clear purpose.  The greatest limit is in not attempting the challenge.

·     The emotion you feel on achieving your goal may not be the one you expected but it is the right one for you if you allow it to be.  Take thetime to enjoy it and learn from it.

·     Many things must combine for you to summit. No-one summits or fails to summit by themselves – to claim that is to carry an unbearable load.

·     Look forward to see your goal, look back to see what you have already achieved, focus on each step to ensure the next step is on the best path.

·     Your chances of success rely just as much on your partners as they do on yourself – what are you doing to help them to be ready to summit?

·     Take on challenges not to achieve but to believe in the best of yourself and make it true.

 

Climbing in snow
Reminders every day of what I learned climbing and how it helps my life

I have these lessons printed up on my wall and refer to them whenever I feel I’m losing my way or when I feel a goal I have is unattainable.   Mountains are all around us in our everyday lives and every time we set out to “summit” we grow in our abilities and our self-knowledge.

What mountain are you climbing right now?  What gifts can they give you?  What are you learning?

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi

Keeping dreams alive one dream at a time – my dream to walk the Camino

I’ve had to work hard at keeping my dreams alive. Haven’t we all? 

One of those dreams I’ve had for like, ever.  It was something I’ve wanted to do since my early 20’s but I never knew it was a real thing until many years later.

I was in my late teens when I first came across author Paulo Coelho. I was given a copy of his book “The Pilgrimage” and I devoured it – loving the sense of wonder and adventure of the spiritual journey he took the reader on while he himself walked his own spiritual journey.  Coelho is also the author of the best seller and ancient fable, The Alchemist, my all time favourite book in the entire world – I know, that’s a big call.

As I wandered through the pages of The Pilgrimage, where Coelho took me on a journey through Spain, I thought that putting on a backpack and walking day after day sounded like an amazing dream.  I had no idea at the time of reading that the walk he did was a real walk and that the book was autobiographical.  I’d paid that little attention at the time.

I held this dream for over a decade – dreaming of this imaginary walk and wishing there was a way I could do something like this.  I didn’t even own a backpack and hiking wasn’t in my repertoire of pursuits.

 

Follow the arrows
Follow the yellow arrows

Life happened for the next decade or more and I recall over time hearing about this walk in Spain and it was with amazement one day I put the two together.

I realised the walk Paulo Coelho did in his book “The Pilgrimage” was in fact the Camino de Santiago and it was a real thing!  In fact, the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

The most popular route is the Camino Frances which stretches 780 km (nearly 500 miles) from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago.

I am going to do this walk.  I am going to put on my backpack and make my dream come true, and I am going to start this next week.

 

Backpack
It’s real and I’m packed

Have you ever held a dream in your heart for so long that when it finally looks like it’s coming to fruition, it’s almost surreal?  That’s where I am at the moment and it caused me to have a think about how I made this dream come true and how I fulfilled an (almost) life long goal.  Because you can imagine, taking off with your backpack for a couple of months to live in hostels and walk everyday takes some planning, some sacrifices and some deep commitment.

  1. Keep the dream alive – read everything you can about it. 

When I understood that the dream I had was a real thing, a real walk, I devoured every piece of information I could on it.  I read guidebooks – my first guidebook was delivered over a decade before I actually booked flights (needless to say I needed to upgrade to the latest version), I watched ‘The Way‘ movie once or twice.  Ok I’ve watched it over a dozen times now.  While I was never in much of a position to put the dream in to reality for all those years, I never lost sight of it.  I even started to learn to speak Spanish over 10 years ago – just in case I ever pulled this off!  It was always there, waiting for me to find the right time, the right place and to have the courage to take the plunge.

 

Dream Catcher - keeping dreams alive
How will you keep your dreams alive?

2. Know that there is a time and place

Up until a few months ago when I booked my flights, I knew I had no hope of doing this trip.  I had a life that prevented me taking the steps to get on over there for two months.  I chose those other things (like family and career) over this dream – all the while keeping it alive (see point 1) because I knew, deep in my soul, that this journey was meant for me and that when the time came, I would be ready.  That’s not to say there were times when I felt I would never turn the dream in to a plan and then subsequently in to a reality – there were.  But each year I would reaffirm my desire and wait until the time came that I could really start planning.

3. Hand it over to the Universe  – but also take action

In saying there is always a time and a place, and espousing my patience around this dream fulfilment, I did have to be proactive.  Keeping myself open to signs, I was also making plans that allowed for the dream to become a reality. Some of these more practical things were: saving up annual leave and long service leave balances; getting my family in on my excitement even if I had no idea when it might all happen; remaining healthy and well so that my body could handle the 800km walk; opening a savings account to quarantine funds especially for this goal.

4. Stop reading everything you can about it

Whatever your dream is, it is your dream and no-one else’s.  I know this contradicts point 1 above where I said to read everything you can about it, but one thing I realised as the dream became a plan and as the time to departure drew closer, was that I was at great risk of heading out on this journey with the expectations and desires and experiences of everyone else except me!  My advice would be to research enough so that you feel confident that you know what you need to know to get by, and leave the rest of the adventure up to the adventure fairies.

 

Long walk
The long walk after the long dream

5. Take a moment to realise you are actually doing this

That moment I clicked the purchase button on my flights to Paris was surreal.  I sat staring at my laptop screen for a while before I gave myself permission to actually celebrate.  A friend said to me “that’s it, the first step toward fulfilling you dream has been made – your flights are booked”.  No, I replied.  The first step was many decades ago, when I promised myself that this dream was for me and I would not, could not, let it go by the wayside because the time and the place wasn’t right.  I was on my way now and I could congratulate myself on getting this far.  The excitement level just went up a notch!

And I’m off.

So while I have less than a fortnight to go before I board my flight, I realise now how important it was for me to keep this dream alive and work toward it’s reality.  It has been a long time coming.  My backpack is ready.  My body is not quite as ready as I’d like.  My soul is champing at the bit.  My mind and spirit is open.  I am at peace with whatever this journey ends up looking like and I am so blessed to have had the foresight to keep the dream alive.

So, as they say, adios amigos and buen camino.

I hope you find a way to keep your dreams alive.

PS:  I love this poem by Spanish author Antonio Machado – it came into my life only 5 years ago.  Here it is in English as well as the original Spanish.

Wayfarer, there is no path (English)

Wayfarer, the only way

Is your footprints and no other.

Wayfarer, there is no way.

Make your way by going farther.

By going farther, make your way

Till looking back at where you’ve wandered,

You look back on that path you may

Not set foot on from now onward.

Wayfarer, there is no way;

Only wake-trails on the waters.

 

Caminante no hay Camino (Spanish)

Caminante, son tus huellas

el camino y nada más;

Caminante, no hay camino,

se hace camino al andar.

Al andar se hace el camino,

y al volver la vista atrás

se ve la senda que nunca

se ha de volver a pisar.

Caminante no hay camino

sino estelas en la mar.

 

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi

I’ll always remember how it started – even if I don’t know how it will end

It was the first mountain I climbed – Mt Kinabalu in Borneo. 

“What on earth made you want to get into that kind of thing?”

You’d think I’d confessed to being involved in some illicit deal or less than socially acceptable pastime.  But the question was posed to me at an event recently where I was asked what I enjoyed doing in my spare time.  When I answered with mountain climbing, trekking and rock climbing, that was the response.

It’s not an unusual response, the words might differ as might the context, but they have a common thread.

Why would you put yourself through something like that?”

What, you carry your own bag?

Are you crazy?

I don’t understand you.

Where do you shower?

This gave me cause to think back to where it started.  Where I went from a pack a day smoker to wanting to climb a mountain.  To being drawn to do this without any knowing why, without any prior experience hiking or climbing mountains.

I remember it well.  With the family I was spending a week in Borneo before a week in Singapore.  When the trip was planned, I stumbled across some information on a mountain in Borneo that you could trek to the top of and it only took two days.  I was really drawn to do this – and to this day I don’t have a concrete reason why – I just was.

My family weren’t really interested, preferring the 5 Star resort (and one can’t blame them – this was me the mountain was calling, not them).  In the end my son who was 13 at the time, agreed to keep me company.

We all have our mountains to climb, real or figuratively.

It would seem mine for that year was to cement my life as a non-smoker, and to climb the highest peak in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo (13,428ft or 4095.2m).  Or to cement my life as a non-smoker BY climbing the highest peak in South East Asia.  Up until this point, the highest thing I had climbed was the water tower in Longreach, an outback Queensland town that I was living in for a few years.  You probably haven’t seen it, it’s not very high. Not compared to a mountain.

The time for thinking about climbing a mountain was over.  After a few days of resort living, eating well, laying by the pool and generally relaxing, my son and I were off!  We hired a guide and elected to carry our own packs.  It was hard work from the outset.  Monsoonal rain commenced about five minutes in and didn’t let up for six hours.  The steepness was extreme and my legs were screaming after only a short distance.  We had 6km to climb to get us to Raban Lata Resthouse which sits at about 11,000ft, (3350m) where we would sleep for a few hours before heading up to the summit.

 

One foot after the other

We were soaked through despite our Gore-Tex jackets, and we were sweating profusely from the exertion.  Our packs seemed heavy.  The air became thin and we were cold.  There were times where it was all a mental game.  The pain in my legs was constant.  I was oxygen deprived and struggling with my breath.  Everything was slippery and it was still pouring down, and given the cloud cover, we could see nothing more than about 20 metres all around us.  The steepness seemed never ending.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

It was a hard slog and a serious physical and mental challenge for me.  The final 500m to the Resthouse were on all fours it was so steep, and the air was very thin.  We were wet and cold, and tired of course, but with a renewed energy knowing we were almost at the Resthouse, and a hot shower as promised in the brochure!

 

A sight for sore eyes – Laban Rata Resthouse

There was a flat piece of land in front of the Resthouse and for the first time that day, the clouds briefly cleared and we could see something other than thick, white mist.  It was breathtaking.  We were so high the clouds were all below us.

The sun was setting on the horizon and for the briefest of moments, we got to see some lower mountains and the most beautiful colours of the sunset through the clouds.  Then it was gone.  We were at about 11,000 feet or 3350m.

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

We headed up the final rise to the Resthouse but there was no hot shower – there were signs around saying that the generator had broken and there was only enough power for lights and cooking!  The sign had been there for some months by the look of it.  I was really cold, and I had a hacking dry cough that I couldn’t stop.  Twenty cigarettes a day for twenty years will do that to you.

After an arctic shower we ate despite not having much appetite, and went to bed.  We rose at one in the morning, and started to get ready for the climb to the summit (Low’s Peak).  We knew it was a further 2.7km up and that we were above the treeline so it was granite and not much else except the ropes to keep us on track.  Off we went with our headlamps on, rugged up against the below zero temps.

It was 2.45am and it was cold and dark and the air was so thin I felt like I was going to suffocate.  My first experience of altitude! A combination of the altitude, steepness, dark and cold, and exhaustion from the previous day made this extremely challenging.  I couldn’t see where I was going except for the circle of light put out by my headlamp, and I had no idea, relatively, where I was.  I had thought of not going on, only once, of seeing the sunrise from just where we were, instead I continued putting one foot in front of the other.  It took everything I had.  It was so hard to breathe and my legs and lungs were screaming.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

Finally we made the summit. It was cold with a really strong, bitter wind.  It was dark but the sun was staring to make its mark on the day and giving a little pre-dawn light.

Over three hours after leaving the Resthouse, we sat on the cold rock at the summit, and waited.    

The sky turned a magnificent yellow and orange as the sun rose up above the horizon through the clouds.  The darkness lifted and I felt like we’re on top of the world!  The sun rose a little more and provided an awe inspiring view.

 

Worth the climb

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

We were cold, sore and exhausted, and elated to have made it.  I felt like I could do anything.  The sun came out in all its glory, darkness was gone and I could see where we had climbed up.  I wondered if we’d actually get back down!  We were at 13,500ft or 4095.2m and it was below zero.

What on earth am I doing here?  Why am I doing this to myself?  What was I thinking?

The trip down was hard on the joints and we arrived back at the Resthouse two hours later.  From here we continued on for the base where we had started the morning before.  All up today we would climb, or down-climb, for over 11 hours.

 

Heading down…down…down

More monsoonal rain.  Soaked, sore, tired and elated, we arrived at base. Elated.

This is what I’m doing?  I’m living.  This is why…this is why I’m here. 

It had started – this climb up a mountain in Borneo had started something.

One mountain called.  One wild experience called to me. 

Now I can hardly hear myself think with all the other mountains and wild experiences calling me every day.  Some days they are loud and relentless, other days it’s just a whisper, a nagging feeling.  But every day I can feel their call.

That calling, well it’s taken me to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp, to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa (the highest freestanding mountain in the world), across the Kokoda Track (5 times), to the summit of Mt Meru in Africa and numerous other adventures that are now part of me – they exist inside of me.

I don’t know where it will end – but I remember where it started.  And it was here, where it started, that, for the very first time, I really learnt that when I think I can’t go on anymore, I can.

I’m forever grateful to my son who at 13 took on this challenge like a champion, and honoured (or is that humoured) his Mum by coming on this journey with me.  It’s something we will share forever.

What’s whispering to you?  What’s calling to you? What’s your mountain? 

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi