As many of you know, I recently completed the final official stage of The Camino de Santiago de Compostela; a journey of approximately 120km/74 miles from Sarria to Santiago which winds through the spectacularly picturesque countryside of Northern Spain. It was an exhilarating, life-affirming experience that I would recommend to anyone and everyone!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Camino de Santiago de Compostela: the story goes that it is the journey that St. James the Apostle completed by weaving his way through France, Spain and Portugal. It is also said that his remains are housed in the opulent Catedral de Santiago.
Walking The Camino is a pilgrimage for Catholics and Christians; a journey of mindfulness for Buddhists and spiritual sorts; and an endurance activity for athletes so basically all are welcome! The journey is broken down into 27 stages which are marked by the various towns and villages along the route. The “pilgrims” walk, run or bike from one town to the next and stay in different lodgings each night. It is all well-curated and there are loads of cafés and places to stop along the way. One can even catch a bus or taxi to the next town should one grow weary along his/her travels.
I had first heard about The Camino from a client of mine when I phoned her three years ago to tell her that I was leaving my company and that I was going to Thailand to meditate with monks. She told me that she was having similar thoughts about the journey of self-exploration. She said that her journey involved walking The Camino de Santiago de Compostela and now that her kids were pretty much grown she was planning to do it the following year.
She explained The Camino to me and said that above and beyond the notion of it being a religious pilgrimage, those who did The Camino did so with the understanding that whatever and whoever they encounter along the walk is as it was supposed to be. We agreed that the philosophy was very similar to the silent retreat that I was about to embark upon but moreover, exactly like real life. Her description of the walk piqued my interest and I mentally added it to my bucket list.
Fast forward three years and I had been spending time in the US with family when I received a call from a dear Irish friend I had met in Thailand a few years earlier. We meet up around the world from time to time but are frequently in touch via text and phone. She rang me at the end of August just to catch up and said that she felt it was time for her to do The Camino. I let her know that just a few days prior I was contemplating my next destination and, as has happened several times before, walking The Camino had entered my thoughts. We agreed to meet in three weeks’ time in Spain.
I started to book my ticket then and there but then was stopped. At the same time that I was booking my ticket, I noticed that my mother had become ill again which was my original reason for returning to the States. I phoned my Irish sister-friend and let her know that I felt that I needed to remain in the US for the time being.
I promptly took my mom to her doctor where she received treatment and made a full recovery within three days (it’s hard to keep a good woman down!) In fact, she was better and stronger than she had been in some time which prompted the doctor to decrease the number of regular meds she was taking, including ceasing all diabetes medications which she had been on for 20 years!
Around the same time of my mother’s snappy recovery, I also woke up to some interpersonal relationship issues which reminded me that I and only I was responsible for my inner peace and happiness and that I needed to make them a priority again since no one else ever has nor ever will be able to do that for me. I picked up the phone once again to let my friend know that I was indeed going to be joining her in Spain after all and booked my ticket for 10 days later.
We began our walk on Saturday, September 15th. The first day’s journey was 12 miles and the second day’s was 13.5 miles. Days three, four and five ranged between eight to ten miles per day. The last day was roughly 15 miles but only because I opted to add in a few extra miles. These are certainly not distances to sniff at but the terrain is fairly flat save for a few intense hills sprinkled in daily for good measure.
The walk is fairly easy for those in great shape and/or under the age of 30 with appropriate footwear. However for those of us over a certain age, it is definitely a bit more challenging. For those who have the flu and have not been very physically active for a number of years and who sustain a toe injury early on, as was the case of my friend and walking partner – the walk presents many challenges or, as I like to call them, “opportunities for personal growth.”
Despite all of her ailments, my walking partner endured and marched on with a bubbly smile and bright eyes throughout the entire journey. Her mind and spirit soldiered on and carried her physical body which throbbed with illness, aches and injuries. As I mentioned previously, the walk contained several steep inclines and declines. Due to the severity of the inclines and my friend’s illness, she sweated profusely for the first few days to the point that she made two to three daily wardrobe changes along the way because her clothes were soaked-through. I was in full support of her throughout although we were both dismayed at my lack of perspiration given that before we began the journey I informed her that I was a “profuse sweater” and would break out in a sweat at the mere thought of physical activity.
She gallantly completed the journey in the prescribed amount of time which included a dramatic finish/spark of inspiration to forge ahead although she had thought she was going to have to break up the last stage into two days due to her toe injury. Her inspired finish was a beauty to behold and I am honored to have completed the journey with her and to have borne witness to her perseverance, strength, courage and literal triumph of will! In fact, The Camino was so transformative for her that she’ll be holding walking retreats beginning next Spring for others!
With The Camino completed and a few days of walking and sightseeing in Porto and Lisbon behind me, I made my way to Madeira Island, Portugal. My body was now accustomed to walking a minimum of eight miles a day so I decided to check out what Condé Naste calls “1 of the 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in the World.” There is a cable car in the center of town that delivers tourists to and fro the top of the hill which is the home of the aforementioned Monte Palace Garden.
According to Google Maps the cable car office was in the historic center of Funchal, the capital city of Madeira, which was approximately two miles away from my hotel and the garden was about the same distance from the cable car office. I calculated that I would be able to walk about five miles that day if I walked to the center of town; strolled the garden; took the cable car down the hill; and walked back to my hotel.
Ordinarily, like most people, I would have chosen to take the cable car up the mountain and walk back down however I had sustained a knee injury during The Camino which made walking downhill both painful and put me at risk of further injury. I was unwilling to endure pain and further injury so walking two miles downhill was not an option for me as I had been discovering strolling Madeira’s San Francisco-like hills.
Going uphill with the knee injury was a cinch though and my Madeira experience was giving me the opportunity to revisit a lesson that perhaps I had not fully embraced previously. Lesson #1: The Zen of the Hill. The Zen of the Hill is how cyclists often refer to the act of focusing on the present moment rather than dreading the climb up ahead. I had embraced this lesson back in my training days and was reminded of it by my walking partner during The Camino through her father’s sage advice: “don’t look at the hill up ahead.”
I set out on my garden trek at about 9AM and headed into the old town. There was a lot to see and take in along my walk – beautiful cobblestone streets, cool architecture, beautiful flowers and trees, etc. I eventually took a wrong turn because I am easily distracted and found myself on a busy little side street lined with shops and cafés. I consulted with Google Maps and quickly assessed that I was only a few blocks away from the cable car office/start of my hike so I stopped at one of the cafés for a bite to eat. I encountered a beautiful kindred spirit during my brunch and we chatted for a couple of hours about all things spiritual, social, political and dogs.
By the time I left the café, it was high noon and although my connection and conversation with the lovely Israeli-American gent gave purpose enough to my day, I decided to push on and accomplish what I had set out to do: climb that hill and see “1 of the 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in the World!”
I arrived at the cable car ticket booth in hopes of obtaining a local map or at the very least a local expert’s walking directions but instead was met with a confused: “A walking map? No, we don’t have one of those.” I asked the dismayed cashier if she had ever walked to the garden before and she guffawed and said “No! You know it’s straight uphill, right?”
I was undaunted by Miss Cable Car’s lack of assistance. In retrospect, she probably actually spurred me on as my 16 year-old rebellious-self thrives on a challenge. My contrary 16 year-old-self thought “What does she know? She’s never actually done the walk herself. It may be very pleasant.” Plus, I now had international data roaming capabilities which meant unlimited access to Google Maps as long as there was adequate cell service in the area and my phone battery not die. Additionally, I had the cable car line passing overhead which I could follow to my destination so how hard could it really be?
I set off through the hilly, winding streets of Funchal’s old town. After about 15 minutes, I arrived in a more residential area with fewer houses, more foliage, less cobblestone – in fact, there were no sidewalks at all and slightly wider but steeper streets. As I rounded a bend, I encountered a stone staircase cut into the side of a hill. Several of the stairs had melded into one another, presumably from years of wear and weather, so they were not actually stairs anymore but more like a ramp. Weeds and moss had begun to reclaim their territory growing in between the stones. I ascended the tattered stairway to heaven expecting a bit of flat terrain at the top whereby I could catch my breath. Instead I was met with a narrow recently-paved hill of a street lined sporadically on both sides with white, terracotta roofed houses and their respective gardens. This will prove to be the first of many nearly identical roads to the top.
About 35 minutes into my hike I gave Miss Cable Car her due telepathically – she was right – it was “straight uphill” as she had informed me. But according to Google Maps, who for the record failed to mention the straight uphill bit, I only had a mile to go which meant I was already halfway there. To turn back then would have been a.) A waste of all the time I had already spent climbing and b.) To admit defeat to Miss Cable Car (I know she’s a perfect stranger so WTF difference would it have made? Apparently plenty to my 16 year-old self…)
I soldiered on in the midday heat. The hills were unceasing and never-ending. I would turn a bend and expect at least a few meters of flat ground on which I could resume a normal breathing pattern but no such luck – just more hill. The sun bore down and random dogs barked at the intruder passing by (me) from behind their fences. Their audible disdain and curiosity-mixed barks echoed off of the walls of the valley below making them seem like packs of dogs rather than one or two every now and then.
At some point in the climb, like a godsend, Google instructed me to turn left. I looked at the map on my phone and it said that the new route is similar to the original. I also noted that my phone battery was at 20%. Left looked inviting to me because it was flat so I turned left and walked along a narrow levada (an irrigation canal very common in Madeira which also serve as hiking trails).
There were houses built into the side of the steep hill but no fence to keep one from tumbling down. My relief at not having to walk uphill prevented me from experiencing the newfound vertigo I now seem to suffer when walking across bridges and higher elevations. I plodded on past more barking dogs, mountainside grazing goats for what felt like forever but was probably only about 10-15 minutes. The path and levada ended at a waterfall dead-end. I peered beyond the waterfall to see if the road continued but it did not. WTF Google???
I retraced my steps, pissed at Google for adding time onto my journey but grateful that at least the path was flat. I briefly considered going up some of the stairs that led to the hillside homes in hopes that the steps would lead me onto a flat main street of some sort but decided against it in the end. I don’t know what Portuguese mountain-folk are like but if they’re anything like American mountain-folk they would be none too pleased to see me emerge from their back steps onto their front porch with my afro a-fro’in’ and my coffee skin a-glistenin’…
I walked back out to the street and took a glance down the hill from which I had come 20 minutes prior. It was actually more like a cliff because the road disappeared and gave one an aerial view of the valley below. Lesson #2 or #1.A.: Don’t look back from where one whence came.
Eventually I realized that I was actually very much in the Zen of the Hill because I was only focusing on my breath. (I’m not sure when it happened exactly; probably at the point when my 16 year-old-self got the fuck out of there because it was too intense for her. By the way, this is par for the course. She has been leading me into shit my whole life and then my grown self has to clean up her mess, apologize and/or follow through but that’s another post altogether…) Anyway, my steps had fallen into rhythm with my breath and while I wouldn’t exactly call it fun, it was definitely a very Zen and enjoyable activity.
I forgot about the heat from the sun and when the dogs barked, I smiled and said hello. I apologized to the only other creatures I saw and heard on most of hike – lizards that scurried in the underbrush and on the walls – for disturbing their mountain tranquility.
As I walked and breathed in my rhythm and in tune with all around me, I sensed something up above so I dared to look up the hill. I looked up to see an elderly lady strolling down the hill. She was not using a cane, walker or walking sticks like I had been wishing for just a few minutes prior but instead she was carrying her two plastic shopping bags with what I presumed was her grocery shopping. I laughed to myself because while that hike was the most challenging thing I had done in a really long time, this avó (Portuguese grandmother) probably climbed up and down that hill several times a day for her whole life.
Our paths crossed just as Google was advising me to turn left again. Although I was dubious of Google Map’s instructions both for sending me to a dead-end and for her awful gringo mispronunciation of Portuguese street names, the left called to me because it appeared to be flat.
Avó asked me in Portuguese where I was going. I informed her that I was going to “1 of the 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in the World!” I didn’t really say that – I actually said “jardim,” the Portuguese word for “garden” through labored breaths. She informed me that going left was wrong and motioned for me to continue straight up the hill from whence she had just come. I asked her if I could also get there by going left, the desire/desperation to walk on flat land for at least a few moments growing stronger in me with each breath. She said that I could but that it would be “mas lejos” – much further.
For a split second my cynical 16 year-old-self wondered if she was putting me on and just wanted to see the stupid tourist suffer but I quickly overcame that thought and unlike Miss Cable Car’s counsel, this time I took the advice of the local because, I thought, “what did she have to gain from lying to me?”
I forged on up the hill, sandwiched between direct sunlight and the heat rising out of the cooking macadam, per Avó’s instructions. My mind’s eye caught and appreciated the beauty of the bountiful and colorful bougainvillea and stunning flora but to my optic eyes they were, at times, merely a blurred background for each one of my steps and each one of my breaths.
As I looked down at the ground and my feet I saw my thighs clearly because I was climbing the hill basically bent over. Not sure how I got into that position but the aim was to dig my heels into the ground and count on my hamstrings and glutes (backs of my thighs and butt) to carry me up the hill. They seemed to be doing their jobs because my legs were surprisingly not tired at all.
As my eyes focused in on my thighs instead of the ground below me, I saw the layer of cellulite which now covered the front (and probably back) of my thighs. I was disgusted for a moment. How could that damn cellulite persist with all of this climbing? Where did it come from? Damn you middle-age! But then I realized that it was perhaps because of that cellulite that my legs were not tired at all. I know that cellulite is simply adipose tissue aka fat close to the epidermis of the skin. I also know that fat is stored energy. This awareness yielded Lesson #3: Gratitude.
I was grateful to my cellulite for providing me with the energy to climb that mountain. I was also grateful for the many meals that I have had all around the world in the past few years which contributed to it being there: fresh, whole fried fish in Thailand; soup and dumplings in Vietnam; fried delicacies in Malaysia; charcuterie in Spain; tacos and ceviche in Mexico, etc. I was overwhelmed by gratitude in that moment for all of it, including for the little lumps where once taut skin and muscle had existed.
A short while later I became aware of other parts of my body; actually, all other parts of my body because I realized that I was pouring sweat as if a sweat faucet had been turned on and water was just running freely out of every pore in my body. I note that this is exactly what my friend had experienced during The Camino while I had remained dry. At that moment, the next lesson revealed itself to me. Lesson #4: One man’s mountain is another man’s molehill.
While the hills of The Camino presented me with little challenge, my friend struggled and sweat just as I was now doing. I understood that the intensity and slope of the hill was and is irrelevant – it is our experience of the hill that we are on that is important and that experience, like most other things in life, is completely subjective.
I happened to know and understand that my walking partner on The Camino was battling all sorts of physical challenges so compassion came easily however in everyday life, who knows what challenges a person is facing internally when they are hiking a hill of their life? Who knows how much preparation went into getting them there or how much energy they had expended just prior to it? And if we can never know another’s journey then how can any of us tell another how they should react to their personal hell of a hill? If we look at it logically, we understand that distance distorts our perception of scale: if we are viewing each other’s mountains from a distance – which we all are – then it is easy to see how we can perceive each other’s mountains as molehills so it is important to remember our ever-distant perspective.
Ironically the phrase “don’t make mountains out of molehills” cost me a friendship 15 years ago. I was going through my divorce and I was very angry with my ex regarding a situation with the kids and a good friend of mine at the time uttered the phrase to me. She viewed me as petty and I viewed her as insensitive so our paths diverged. I eventually forgave her for her words although we never did rekindle our friendship.
Lesson #4 on the hill that day allowed me to have compassion for her because I understood that she did not have a full grasp of what I had been experiencing in that moment. She was not in my hiking boots at the time and my mountain appeared to her to be a molehill from her distant perspective. I was also probably not great about sharing the full depths of the emotional pain that I was experiencing on my mountain.
The joy of the lessons and the lightness of walking in gratitude for those lessons carried me up the rest of the way! I passed a simple, hillside church whose rooftop cross I had seen ages before when I was talking to the Portuguese avó. It was much further away than it had originally looked (yet another example of distance tainting perspective) and although it was an austere building, it was well-maintained. I continued on past the church and loads of other houses and dogs and eventually I saw another human being. She was hanging out her wash in her yard on the mountain as if it was just another day and for her it was just another day but for me it was already pretty special and memorable.
I got to the top of the hill and before heading into the garden I went into the café next to where the cable car riders disembark. I ordered a large, cold water and the cashier sized up my sweatiness and asked me if I had walked. I said I had and that I did not realize it would be so steep and that I would definitely be taking the cable car back down and we laughed together.
My phone battery had thankfully made it the entire way but was now at 5%. It occurred to me that if my phone died I would not be able to take any photos once I entered “1 of the 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in the World” so I sat down at a table near an outlet and put my phone to charge.
I took a moment to take in all that had occurred in just a few short hours. I made a new friend, climbed a mountain and received some insights. I smiled inwardly. My 16 year-old-self showed back up to bask in the glory. “I told you we could do it! Eff Miss Cable Car! You’re not doing so bad for 48!” I let her be and gave her gratitude which is mostly what she desires while I looked at the cable cars coming in through the clouds and at the valley below from where I had climbed.
After a few minutes, I stood up to leave and just as I did so I saw a familiar face. This was actually only the second time I had ever seen the face but the first time I had seen it, she looked familiar to me too. I landed in Madeira the day before and when I stood up on the plane to disembark I had seen the same woman. She smiled at me and I smiled and we waved at each other like old friends. She had a head of thick, curly hair, theoretically like mine, but hers was much better coiffed. When we saw each other in the café it was like seeing long lost friends. She ran over and gave me a hug and we introduced ourselves to each other.
She was traveling with her parents and two sisters who came over to see who the long-time acquaintance was that she had run into high up on this mountain in Madeira, Portugal. We explained that we didn’t actually know each other but that we had seen each other on the plane the day before. I stood and chatted for about 45 minutes with my new-old friend from LA and her family from Curaçao. They were warm and I felt like we had all known each other forever and her dad made me promise that I would visit them in Curaçao.
During our conversation I asked them if they were going into the garden or if they had just come out? One of the sisters said to me “the garden closed at 2:00.” I looked at my phone and it was close to 3:00. All I could do was laugh! I explained that I had climbed the hill specifically to see the garden and unzipped my hoodie to reveal my soaking wet tank top. I said that it just proves that in life it’s never about the destination but about the journey, content in having connected with this light-filled family and satisfied that meeting them was the reason for my trek that day. One of the sisters of my new-old friend said “she sounds just like you!” to my friend. My friend said “I believe that the journey is the destination” and we chuckled and spoke a while longer and exchanged contact info.
They left to go to the church they had come to see and I went to pay the cashier for my water and informed her that the garden was closed. She said that one garden was closed but that other remained open until 6:00 so again, having learned my lesson from Miss Cable Car, I followed the advice of the local. I found the entrance to the garden and it was indeed “1 of the 13 Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens in the World.”