Friday, May 28, 2010


The last couple days have been really interesting. It's easy to forget that cultivated landscapes are unnatural when that is all you see everyday. There is so much history here, and as a result many of the forests have been harvested to build, cook, etc. The past week of walking has predominantly been through fields. When we climb a hill of farmland, and then end up in a forest it seems surreal like some kind of fantasy land. Many of the pine forests are planted in rows and create strange illusions. There is also a weird variety of oak trees with soft, fuzzy leaves, and its bark is covered with greenish-blue lichen. Wild flowers cover the ground, giant slugs slide along the trail, and the plants create a general tone of color of muted pastels. We usually end up talking about our favorite fantasy-land movies we watched as kids like The Never Ending Story, Willow, and Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. There is something artificial about the 'natural' landscapes. It doesn´t look like a giant garden, nothing resemebles a human touch other than the pine trees in rows. And Its the oak forests that really seem magical, and especially this morning with all the fog and drizzle. When we climbed high enough up the mountain it really felt like we were in some made up world.

The trail has its ugly parts too. When we approach a town or a city we usually end up going through the back alleys of the industrial zone. When its a small farming village this amounts to views into open barns, piles of farm equipment rusting away, and crumbling stone buildings. Today, as we walked into Burgos we past huge factories billowing steam out of stacks, metal recycling yards, and a sketchy section of crumbling houses covered in graffiti with some shady spainards darting in and out.

We're staying in a newly renovated hostel that sleeps over 100 between 4 floors. The bunks are very private in little ailses of four with walls separating each quadrant. There is no kitchen, which we´ve become used to cooking our own meals, but at 4 euros per night its a steal. One block away is the St. Inglesia Cathedral, which is by far the most elaborate church I´ve seen so far. The structure is enormous taking up several city blocks. It is covered with decorative stone motifs, and from afar it looks like some poisonous sea creature it has so many ornate spires sticking out of it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Past the 100 mile mark

I´m in Belorado, Spain after 10 days of walking. My knee is a lot a better and I´ve learned to take it a little slower. The entire group of students seems to have equalized in pace. After the first week of walking (100 miles), I think everyone´s body has sort of broken down to some extent, and now we´re just maintaining a common functional speed.

We´ve been leaving earlier and ealier. In large part it´s the older folks who start rustling to get a head start on the day. Sometimes at 4am the crumpling and zzzzrrrr of zippers begins. It´s the craziest ruckus. It sounds like a frenzy and if you´re still in bed you feel forgotten in the face of danger. There is something very refugee-like about this trip. Each day we´re on the move with only the bare essentials on our back. The big hostels are either government or church-operated, and it seems very official when you show your ´pilgrim passport´and your real passport to check in. The large sea of beds is military like in configuration, and the schedule is obeyed by all. It´s not a like a typical european hostel where drunk kids can roll in at 3am. These door lock at 10p, which is early enough to conflict with the timeline of spanish culture. The ciesta is from 2-5p, and many restaurants don´t open until 8:30p, making it a little tight to make it back to the hostel. Ellen and I have been disappointed with the strange meals we get in the off-time of 6-7p. We´re going to start cooking at the hostels, which typically have decent kitchens. Most pilgrims make their own meals and the kitchens can get really crazy, but everyone is friendly and it works.

The community of pilgrims is really solid. Faces are becoming familiar as most people stay on the same schedule. There are many different hostels (aka: albergues) to stay at along the way, but we seem to keep the same company from town to town. Right now the wave is peaking. We´ve waited in long lines the last few days to get checked in, and two days ago a couple students didn´t get beds and checked into a hotel instead although they opened a nearby gymnasium for overflow, but they already paid for the hotel. Many hostels do this when they reach capacity. Last night we were in Santo Domingo at a very nice hostel that slept 134, but took in 198.

In the evenings the common areas become festive with everyone eating, playing cards, talking, writing, and tending to their feet. An older italian man with white hair noticed me icing my knee, and through the translation of another pilgrim I learned that he wanted to "heal" me. I think he was a reikh-practicioner. I ended up sitting on one of the many couches with him, my legs in his lap, and he just held my knee in his hands while he and his two friends carried on in italian. His hands were super warm, and I just sat back not understanding anything. Ocassionly the italian woman would ask me a question in English and translate it back to the two guys. This went on for almost and hour. Encounters like these remind me a lot of burning man, where the healers come out and seek patients. The evenings aren´t as crazy as burning man, but there is a similar vibe of community and openness, and it only works if you participate. So I was completely down with the italian man holding my legs for an hour.

We walked 15 miles today, which seemed pretty easy. It was cooler today and clouds blocked the sun from time to time. The landscape is starting to flatten out, making the walk easier on the joints. We leave before the sun rises, and within an hour we pass this wild old man from Brazil. He is 82 years-old with a big white beard. When Ellen and I walk past him we say the typical camino line: "hola, buen camino´!" and he sort of stops walking and stiffly turns to us and growls "ooos treeooos" with a big a smile. This guy is super fired up, and just chugs along each day. I have no idea what he barks at us, but I love hearing it each morning.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

5 days in

On the walk from Pomplona to Puente la Reina my knee started killing me. The downhills really jar the joints. I thought I might have to take a bus the next morning but I started a campaign of ibuprofen and made it the next day without too much trouble.

Today we walked 13 miles to Los Arcos and I think my knee is the mend. Hopefully its just a soreness that needs some time (although there aren´t any breaks in the schedule) and not something more structural. I´ve been able to ice it at the last two hostels, both of which have refrigerators.

The landscape has been mostly rolling foothills of wheat fields, vinyards, and olive groves bounded by taller mountains (pennsylvania size mountains...not rockies) The weather has been excellent -blue skies and lots of sun with temperatures in the 80´s. Sometimes it gets a little hot on the trail, but with a breeze it feels great. We leave early enough in the morning to get a few hours of walking in before the heat comes. This morning we rolled out earlier than normal, 5a, to get a head start on the sun, which has made most of us cherry red (especially my white legs when I switched to shorts).

In Los Arcos, a town of 1300, they had their own running of the bulls this evening. Narrow city streets were walled off with heavy wooden fences, wedged into place between buildings with large wooden shims. Three bulls ran up and down the streets chasing about fifteen or twenty spanish men. They would go back and forth, and it never really seemed to be too dangerous despite the runners desperation in clinging to the wooden fence when the bulls past them. The animals just seems scared and confused, which is how I would feel too, and did at the sound of what seemed like large bombs going off in the street. To scare the bulls and make them switch direction they light a huge fire cracker that sounds like an M-100.

Back at the hostel now, getting ready for lights the lock down at 10p. We´ll probably get up at 5a again to make time on a 19 mile day tomorrow.

Every spanish teen has a mullet. Some of them have dreadlock-mullets, which is the worst idea ever.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

to Pomplona

Today was a fifteen mile walk with moderate elevation changes. It really isn´t too bad. We´re leaving each town in the morning by 7a, and usually stopping at the next town for breakfast and sometimes a break for lunch. This puts us into our destination town by early afternoon. The routine is to check into the hostel, get a bed, take a shower, and wash your socks or underwear. Exploring each town at the end of the day is great, although you feel a little crippled and stiff.

I´m in Pomplona, a city of 200,000, where the running of the bulls begins. This ritual is coming up, in a few weeks I think, but we´ll be far along the trail by then. Our hostel is in an older church that has been modernized. There are bunk beds along the ailes of the nave (if I remember the terminology correctly from architecture school), bathrooms on the two levels and a nice laundry room with washing machines and dryers. I still washed my stuff by hand because its faster.

The pilgrim hostel environment is way better than the typical euro-hostel. It isn´t overrun by spoiled college kids looking for authentic european experiences in homogeneous global cities. Its nice to have a common bond of walking really far everyday.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Walk Begins

We started the 500 mile walk in St. Jean pied de port (south of france), which gives you a certain amount of street-cred amongst the other pilgrims. This first leg is considered very difficult. It is an 18 mile walk with an elevation change of 3000 feet. This route took us through steep hills covered in lush grass with cows, horses, and sheep sprinkled throughout. The landscape changes considerably from lower elevations to the upper summit (and the weather too) We went from warm, sunny farmland, to cold and windy mountains, to dense forests of sycamore-like trees (still need to identify them)

We stayed in a small town with nothing more than a large church and a hostel, with a couple restaurants. The pilgrim´s hostel was in a large stone building with stone butress-vaults and wood roof. Inside there was about 90 bunk beds, and by 10p when the door locks and the lights shut off the place was full. They make you take your muddy boots off at the door and wear sandels inside. In the basement were bathrooms and showers. Despite the primitive sound of this place, it was actually quite modernized. And they run it like a tight ship. The lights came on right at 6a the next morning.

I´ve never slept in one room with so many people. I felt like I was in a pond of bullfrogs with all the strange and sometimes violent snoring that went on. I couldn´t sleep at first and was pissed off at how seemingly content the snoring people were. Maybe I wanted to participate too, like another frog adding to chorus.

The morning was crisp and cool. Fog hung onto the mountains until the sun started burning through. We ate breakfast in a small town a mile and half away from the pilgrim´s hostel, and continued walking. The trail already seems too crowded with pilgrims compared to our first day, which most people skip. The demographic is largely older people, either french or spanish. I´ve yet to meet another american.

Friday, May 14, 2010

more paris

Ellen and I have walked all over the city, mainly on an errand to get her an 'ice breaker' base layer (ie: fancy long underwear), which is what I'm rocking right now, and is quite necessary for the temperatures here.

Our hotel is very small but clean and fairly new. We're in a pretty good spot in the city, centrally located. We checked out the eiffel tower today, which was more impressive to walk underneath than see from afar. One of the most memorable sights was the group of nigerians selling the same souvenirs of miniature metal eiffel towers. I've got a great picture of them taking a break from their work.

Today was a little rainy, but decent enough to be out all day. We're now meeting up with the students at their hostel for a little venture to Parc de la Villete.

Although I'm in a famous and historically important city, one of my favorite things to look at are the cool little diesel cars everywhere. The new fiat 500 is so awesome (and of course it comes in diesel) Also saw a new VW scirocco.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Greeting from Paris

Arrived in Paris yesterday morning. It's pretty chilly here. I'm wearing every layer I brought with me. My bag weighs 20lbs without water or food, and I'll be able to lose a couple more pounds when I finish the books I'm reading.

I spent the day walking around Paris. It seemed like no matter where I went there was something interesting to see. Some of my high school French classes are vaguely coming back to me.

I stayed with a friend from the architecture program who is also doing a study abroad here. His group is stationed in Paris so they all subletted apartments. His apartment is in a predominantly African neighborhood in a 6th floor walkup. I ate this crazy dinner of couscous, chicken, and minestrone-like soup -very satisfying after a full day outside in the mid-40's.

Ellen just got in this morning and met her at the hostel where all the students are staying. I'm working off my iPhone with free wifi from the hostel. I never did get around to jailbreaking it before I left, so I'm not able to make phone calls or text message.

Ellen is planning some long walking tours around the city so we can continue with our training and see the sights of Paris at the same time.